An antique institution

When my first marriage ended, I thought I'd figured one thing out: Don't ever get married. Not if you enjoy sex. And then I met Janet.


Benjamin Cheever
October 14, 2003 11:09PM (UTC)

I've been married for 21 years now, and so the moment Salon approached me about an essay on sex and marriage, I rushed downstairs from my office and told my wife. She was making the bed. "I guess you know how to act," I said, "if you want to come out well in this."

"I hope you're not going to do that weary old take-my-wife routine," she said.

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"It's traditional," I said, "to do that weary old take-my-wife routine. If a man alone in the wilderness says something, and there's no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?"

"It's also traditional," she said, "for the wife to not like it."

Twenty-one years is a long time. You'd think I might have something wise to say. Wisdom and sex, though -- they don't often go together.

God to Adam: I've got good news and I've got bad news.

Adam: The good news first, then.

God: I'm going to give you a brain and also a penis. The brain is capable of great intellectual feats. With the brain you can overcome many obstacles, plan a useful, joyful life. The penis, on the other hand, can provide the most extraordinary physical pleasure.

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Adam: So what's the bad news?

God: You only get enough blood to use one of them at a time.

Advice I can't give you, but history I can. Everyone Janet and I knew assumed that our history would be a short one -- nasty, brutish and short. After we first got together, we made a pact: Tell no one. We were afraid that the news might unsettle our other and more important connections. The carrying on carried on, the word leaked out, and our friends were impatient with us. When I told my brother we'd picked up a puppy together, he was not sanguine about the dog's prospects.

"She rolls over on her back, and you see the cutest pink belly," I said.

"I know all about those cute bellies," he said. "The puppy will outlive the relationship. Our mother will get custody."

Janet and I hadn't even liked each other at first. She worked with my sister at Newsweek and had come out to my parents' house for Christmas dinner. We were seated side by side. I didn't say a word to her. She didn't say a word to me. My father was at the head of the table and wearing his red vest. When he was funny, Janet would let out a little laugh. Not a big laugh, mind you, but a little laugh. Clearly audible if you were sitting right beside her, which I happened to be.

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I told my father that I'd used my bonus money to buy a Smith Corona electric typewriter. "The ribbons come in cartridges. If you want to write in blue, you use the blue cartridge. If you want to write in red, you use the red cartridge. If you want to make a mistake, you use the mistake cartridge."

This got a laugh, but not from Janet.

"I hope it will make me a better writer," I said, and laughed. Nobody else laughed.

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Janet broke the silence. "I have a Smith Corona," she said.

"And?" I said.

"And," she said, "you have to change the ribbon a lot."

I was married to somebody else at the time and Janet had a boyfriend. In any case, no sparks flew.

When my first union broke up, I moved into a room off my parents' kitchen. My father was lonely then and glad to have me around. "I love the sound of your foot on the stair," he used to say. He felt compelled, though, to give me a fatherly grilling. He called me into his bedroom for a conference. His bedroom was my sister's old bedroom.

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When he asked me what had been wrong with my marriage, I told him first that she hadn't liked him. This might have been enough to inflame his sense of outrage, but I went on and told him that my first wife and I rarely had sex. "We'll go a year at a time," I said. "She never wants to."

"Well, that's ridiculous," my father told me. "Of course you had to leave her." This was said in my sister's old bedroom. We were in my sister's old bedroom because that's where my father slept. He claimed to have been ejected from the master bedroom. Had he been? Who knows? Sexual roles are endlessly complicated, aren't they? What actually goes on in a bedroom often has nothing to do with what is supposed to go on. My father was a wonderful/horrible father. He seems also to have been a wonderful/horrible husband. Sometimes he'd shower my mother with gifts. Other times with insults. I remember him sitting at the dining room table singing:

I love my wife
I love my baby
I love my biscuits dipped in gravy
Oh, pretty little black-eyed Susie.

He was always falling in love. My mother tells me now that he never went on a plane trip without thinking that he might meet the person who would change his life.

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My first wife and I traveled with him to Bulgaria. She was beautiful and highly flirtatious. The other men on the trip made cracks about how I should be burning calories with her, instead of taking the long runs with which I started every day. They thought -- and who can blame them? -- that I should be bedding my wife. But I was ahead of my time. I knew even then that there was such a thing as rape within the marriage. This was one crime of which I remained innocent. In the meantime my father was bedding the translator.

When my first marriage ended, I thought I'd figured one thing out: Don't ever get married. Not if you enjoy sex.

Plus I loved being single. Why? Suddenly I was intensely popular with women. Single heterosexual men in my generation had been a glut on the market when I got married in the late '60s. By 1979, we were a rare and desirable commodity. Strange women were sweet to me. They thought me talented, misunderstood. The very horniness that had rendered me despicable in high school was somehow precious now. It seemed that while I'd been in the nunnery of my marriage a tectonic change had taken place in the way women felt about sex. Now, suddenly, they wanted it too.

I had come to maturity in a world in which every woman had something and every man wanted it. The plan was to fool them into giving it up. And we -- the men -- were rotten planners. Horny single men of my generation were more apt to get a mortgage than a blow job.

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My difficulties with women had started at about the age of 11. Every time I saw a female, I'd wonder. Then I'd imagine. This wasn't just with eligible girls, either. The mademoiselle who taught French in the sixth grade was not a beauty. Nor was she at all pleasant. She used to throw open the windows in midwinter in an attempt to thicken our inferior American blood. She said that I spoke French like a sick cow. On the other hand, she had this dress with embroidered stars, and in the center of every star there was a pinhole. I wasn't sure, but it seemed that these pinholes went all the way through to the mademoiselle. I could see light in there at her abdomen, which meant skin, I thought. Her little French belly? Through the holes down below her waist, I saw a darkening as I did up around her breasts. The artillery of the night? I was smitten.

I didn't even need a whole woman to fall in love. A hairpin found on a dirt path might send me into a reverie. A female voice was more than enough. I'd doze in French lab and wonder how beautiful and willing the girl in the dialogues might be. "Bonjour, Jeanne. J'ai une lettre pour vous."

The language barrier was appropriate to my fantasies. When it came to speaking with females, there was always a language barrier. Take the receptionists who used to adorn the front offices of the places I worked.

I'd come in the front door. The girl would look up. "Hello, Ben." This translated as "Hello, Ben."

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"Hello, Sheila," I'd say, which translated as, "God, but you're wonderfully constructed. Can I be your slave? Can you really bear that husband who comes to pick you up? I heard you like tennis. I don't know how to play tennis. I'll learn."

If a female colleague actually came into my office, I'd have trouble breathing. I wasn't a groper, nor did I blurt out endearments to women I hardly knew, but that was only because I kept a stopper in my head, a big cork that took up most of the space and left me talking and walking like somebody in an undersea diving suit. Some of the women thought I was shy. Others considered me mildly retarded.

After decades of almost sexless singledom and a decade of sexless marriage, I'd come out into a world where women were patting me on the shoulder, asking me if I wanted to play tennis.

Me: "Do you play?"

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Woman: "No, but I'd like to learn."

I don't know what had happened to women in the 10 years of my first marriage, but I was all for it.

It could have been Madison Avenue. C.S. Lewis speculated: "It's natural enough in our species, as in others, that the young birds should show off their plumage -- in the mating season. But the trouble in the modern world is that there's a tendency to rush all the birds on to that age as soon as possible and keep them there as late as possible, thus losing all the real value of the other parts of life in a senseless, pitiful attempt to prolong what, after all, is neither its wisest, its happiest, or most innocent period. I suspect merely commercial motives are behind it all: for it is at the showing-off age that birds of both sexes have least sales-resistance!'

So maybe it was the rise of high commercialism that had wrought this change. In which case, hurrah for capitalism.

Not that I was promiscuous. Never had the stomach for that. I've always been in love with somebody, or else considering being in love with somebody, who may or may not know about it. Plus, I'm very picky.

W. Somerset Maugham expresses my feelings perfectly. This is from "The Summing Up": "The keenest pleasure to which the body is susceptible is that of sexual congress. I have known men who gave up their whole lives to this; they are grown old now, but I have noticed, not without surprise, that they look upon them as well spent. It has been my misfortune that a native fastidiousness has prevented me from indulging as much in this particular delight as I might have. I have exercised moderation because I was hard to please. When from time to time I have seen the person with whom the great lovers satisfied their desires I have been more astonished by the robustness of their appetites than envious of their successes. It is obvious that you need not often go hungry if you are willing to dine off mutton hash and turnip tops."

I could never go for the turnip tops. But also, I never engaged in sexual congress that didn't fundamentally alter my character. If she thought Laura Nyro a great vocalist, then so did I. If she put hard-boiled eggs in her tuna salad, then so did I. I remember taking a shower after a workout in college and realizing that I hadn't brought underpants to the gym. Underpants are silly, I thought, pulling on my jeans. The jeans were new, and I missed my underpants. Then I remembered that I liked underpants. The person who didn't like underpants was the person I was sleeping with. And therefore I had left my underpants in the dorm. Love is a confusion of identities.

I once fell in love with a girl who was a musician. All her friends were musicians. I chased her for weeks and hummed along tunelessly whenever they sang or jammed together. Finally, I got her into bed. We cuddled and then went to sleep. If I'd been able to play the piano, it would have come out differently.

So I had to be very careful. Didn't want to sleep with a charming fascist, a fetching follower of James Jones.

Still, I was hugely enjoying my newfound singleness. Maybe I was horny again, but it's more appropriate to be horny and single than it is to be horny and married. I felt like ... well, I felt like the 17-year-old girls I'd dated when I was 17. I never had a thought that didn't furrow some pretty brow. The girls all liked me. Even my first wife liked me now, and plotted to win me back. How long could this go on? I wondered. Forever. That's what I thought. All I had to do was hang on to my celibacy. This didn't seem impossible. I'd been celibate for a decade while married. How hard could it be to keep up the streak while single?

Then I met Janet. Or rather, I met her again.

And what happened? Hard to explain. Blood all drained from my head. I saw her a couple of times, then wrote her a letter. I didn't know her address, and so wrote to her at work. The letter took a week to get there. I'd given up. Or I told myself I'd given up. Which is probably nonsense. Control is often an illusion.

In any case, the letter arrived. She phoned. "We should talk about this." We met for a drink at the Warwick Hotel. Went back to her apartment. We got in the door and kissed. She took off her boots. "Secretly, I'm a very small person," she told me. The next morning, she got up and made me coffee. She walked into the kitchen of her apartment completely naked and ground the coffee beans. While she worked the crank, she kicked her leg up behind her, as if she were preparing to score a field goal.

I was watching and I was thinking, She's not really all that beautiful. This needn't be the end of life as I know it.

I told her I hadn't been able to find her address. "That's easy," she said. "I'm at 100 Riverside Drive. And here's how you remember the ZIP code. It's 10024. You used to feel like you were 100. Now you feel as if you're 24." She had two phone numbers in the apartment. One was for the office. The other was for friends. She gave me the office number. She wasn't a snob. She was heavily defended.

So was I, of course. And a lot of good that did either of us.

I was running marathons regularly in those days. She started running marathons. She was seeing lots of movies. I saw a lot of movies. I kept waiting for the blood to move back into my brain, so that we could split up. Never happened. Sometimes I'd drive into the city to see her, making up the speech as I drove. "This is no good. We both know that this is no good. Let's just talk, and then I'll go home." She'd meet me at the door. We never spoke.

I began to leave clothes in the apartment. She'd come out to my parents' house. When I went to work, she'd have breakfast with my father. Together we bought a puppy. So then I came up with another plan. The most desperate plan. I'd marry her, and we'd stay together for umpteen years, and I'd stop loving her. We'd have sex again and again, until the novelty had gone out of it. The blood would go back to my brain. We'd still be married, but I would no longer be enslaved. Instead something deeply mysterious has happened. I care more for her now than I did 21 years ago. More than I cared 10 years ago. Nothing I've read indicated to me that this was possible. I think she must have a soul, because I love some part of her that can't be seen or touched.

Of course we share a life. We share a history now. I can see her now. I can picture her on our honeymoon. I see her everywhere. In the furnishings of our house. I see her face in the faces of my beloved boys.

A friend told me recently that you're only as happy as your saddest child. It's true and also works with marriage. I can be sad when she's happy. That's my business. I can't be really happy, though, when she's sad. Love is a confusion of identities.

So the couple that wasn't supposed to last a month together has produced two gigantic boys, one 14, the other 17. The kids both know how much we love to laugh. Turns out Janet is deeply funny. She has all sorts of sterling qualities I hadn't noticed when she was grinding coffee. She is, for instance, terribly loyal. Smart. Sometimes, immediately after sex, the blood will go back to my brain, and then I ask her for advice. Which she gives me, cheerfully enough.

I hate to bear good news. It's frightfully unfashionable to come out in favor of antique institutions, but I like this marriage. I love this woman. Someday maybe my head will clear.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

We want to make you a part of this series. Salon wants to know: What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: All submitted writing becomes the property of Salon. We reserve the right to edit submissions, and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to marriage@salon.com.)


Benjamin Cheever

Benjamin Cheever is working on a book about the job market, due to be published next fall. His last novel is "Famous After Death."

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