I want to believe I am a woman who can deal with having a lover -- a man I go to bed with who is neither boyfriend nor husband. Sex that is occasional, not quite casual. (Can sex ever be casual? If it's casual, is it really sex?) Lovemaking with no promises of love, just the opportunity to practice that most difficult of yogic challenges: Be in the moment. Do not try to connect this experience to anything before or beyond now.
Here is my chance. Single, just past 50 and mother of -- objectively speaking -- the world's best 7-year-old, I am more or less resigned to the conclusion of my child-bearing years; my only ambition for lovemaking now is to enjoy. A few times a year, travel brings me into the vicinity of an old friend -- let's call him Q, as in question mark -- and over the standard catch-up dinners or visits in coffee shops, we still enjoy the same palpable attraction between us that, as far as I can tell, has been there for years. It's a physical draw that once, long ago, we put to the test. When that isolated episode didn't lead to romance, there was some chaos around our friendship but after a span of silence we found our way back to our occasional phone calls and coffee-shop sessions, relieved, I believe, that in the interim we'd both married other people. Eventually, I got divorced. As a single mother, I adopted my son. Q had a child, then another. When we talked, it was all babies and business. And then, sadly, we were commiserating as Q went through divorce.
Inevitably, in every form this friendship has taken, I've always felt those vestiges of attraction, but no one was more surprised than I was two years ago when a see-ya peck on the cheek turned into a movie-spotlight kiss in a rental-car parking lot, and so it began again. But our meetings are so infrequent I could almost pretend they weren't happening, the same way I pretend that the dessert I eat off of my son's plate doesn't count as calorie intake. In the past few months, though, Q and I have become more deliberate, making plans in advance of our visits for the children to be elsewhere for the night.
On the phone, planning a rendezvous, Q is funny and chatty, and he asks me more than once, "So what else is going on with you?" I like that. He once told me he loved my voice, and I believe our friendship is important to him, and probably he was trying to be honorable when he made it clear from the start that our lovemaking would be "completely present tense."
Wanting to match his honesty, I confessed, "I've never really slept with anyone I wasn't having a relationship with."
"Me, neither," he said.
Full disclosure. Privately, though, I rolled my eyes at the present-tense thing. I had a hunch he might be bluffing. Maybe he really wanted us to get involved but was afraid to say so. Part of me hoped that was the case; part of me wasn't sure what I wanted. I decided to take Q's proposal at face value. If nothing else, non-relationship sex sounded efficient. As a single parent with a full-time job, I'm all about efficiency. Nonbinding, affectionate lovemaking with a dear old friend at intervals that are rejuvenating but not taxing. Then, afterward, without skipping a beat, I'd be free. Free to step back into the real business of my life -- get to the next meeting, teach the next class, drive up into the carpool line. Perfect.
"It's not 3-D," is how Q described it. "I feel both a physical attraction and a personal connection to you, but we're 1,500 miles apart."
One of the benefits of having met in our mid-20s is that, while being able to enjoy the wisdom and mature calm (some of it SSRI-induced) of who we are now, when we look at each other we still see a glimmer of the physical advantages we had way back then. To say nothing of our improved social skills. So it's hardly even awkward when, after dinner, we end up at his house or mine.
As it turns out, this lovemaking is like a fairy tale -- not so much in its prettiness but in the way it presents an idyll that has one grave caveat: You can have this one night (and perhaps another a few months from now), but only if you don't try to make this into something it is not.
And here is where I am in danger of venturing into the dark woods that the fairy tale has warned me against entering. I can't disagree with Q about the miles. They are there, and they're real. And yet. Call me crazy but isn't sex, by its very nature, 3-D? Touch, taste, scent? Motion? Emotion?
I've rarely slept with anyone and not begun to feel a deep fondness for him, for his skin, clothes, voice, his coffee mug. I would even venture to say that pretty much every time I slept with a man I believed myself to be, at least for that night and the day or two afterward, in love (which caused me no small discomfort on the one or two occasions when I didn't particularly like the man). Isn't that basically how desire works? Self-perpetuating, inconclusive, always leaving you wanting more. And so, to accommodate the libido's demand for "Again!," various social structures have evolved: dating, cohabitation. Even affairs, with their subterfuges and pretexts, have a loose format -- one sneak-away opportunity leading to the next. At a certain point in life, the procreation imperative gives lovemaking a goal; marriage makes it a contractual right and duty. But when childbirth is not a goal or is no longer possible, when marriage is not desired, when a romance is not practical, what then? With Q, I've stumbled upon a category that's new for me -- occasional lover, which, as a concept, is neat and tidy, offering an exalted interlude without making any demands in the aftermath. Indeed, in the case of Q and me, without offering any aftermath at all. And yet what do you do when this amorphous lovemaking leaves you wanting more because that is what lovemaking does, it leaves you wanting more?
I never would have imagined how literal Q would be in his interpretation of the present tense. Afterward, a breezy kiss, maybe a hug, and that's it.
In the utter silence that followed our most recent farewell, I turned to my journal (an adolescent-style indulgence I allow myself infrequently). "What a mistake," I wrote, "to think that occasional lover would be efficient!" Lover. An imprecise phrase -- Q and I are in cahoots, we're not in love -- but it got me thinking.
I was supposed to live with my parents until I got married, at which point I would mate for life. I was a female growing up in a southern Italian family, and that plan might have worked, if my entry into adolescence had not coincided with the events of the late 1960s. But there it was, just beyond our neat lawn and my father's pampered rosebushes: the golden light left over from the Summer of Love and the message that sex required nothing more than that it be free and beautiful, without prohibition. This mind-set, combined as it was with pleas for peace and an end to war, was, for many of us coming of age at that time, wildly attractive, and it was, in fact, one of the first ways I knew myself to be different from my parents and almost everyone else in our extended family that stretches from the U.S. to Canada and Italy.
Currently, I am one of only four unmarried adults in the family. Only two of us are divorced. At family gatherings, I look at the various couplings and I wonder at the lives of those who've lived closer to the original template than I have. My generation of relatives found their mates when they were young, had terrific weddings, bought houses, had children; they take trips, sometimes have arguments, but just as often share jokes. And they've managed to maintain it all within the net of their marriages. I admire it.
But I've never understood how it works. Since I was young, even stronger than my wish for the pretty wedding has been my curiosity to follow every opportunity for romantic adventure. Eventually, I came to understand that a large part of my curiosity was avoidance, fear. Though my family's marriage traditions are grand, the two marriages I saw up close while I was growing up -- my parents' and my maternal grandparents' -- were not in any way easy. Four good people with the best intentions who could not find their way past early misunderstandings and their own overwhelming personal needs. Loving them as I do, I couldn't not identify with them, so, while I could imagine happy married life for others, for myself I pretty much expected something painful and drawn out. Unless, of course, I remained single.
Which is what I did. Until my late 30s, when I finally felt brave enough to try. Still, for safety, I went out of my way to make my marriage as unconventional as possible. My intended taught at a university that was in a different time zone than the university where I taught. The time between proposal and wedding was five days; I was afraid that if I waited any longer I'd lose my nerve. My grandmother, an accomplished seamstress, was famous in our family for the exquisite lace wedding dresses she created; I got married in an off-the-rack 1940s flower-print shirtwaist that I picked up at a vintage store for 14 bucks. For our marriage weekend, instead of going on a honeymoon, my husband and I rented a stack of old videos. Seven months later, we did take a trip to Italy. By then, though, I'd had two miscarriages. For the wedding, I'd done all I could to strip the ceremony of the trappings, hoping to arrive at an authentic core. Afterward, it seemed that fate was stripping our union of any foundation, any solace, until all we were left with was grief that turned to rage that resulted in the kind of disillusionment I'd seen cemented into my parents' and grandparents' marriages.
I did what I know how to do. I clawed my way out of the marriage net as single-mindedly as I'd avoided the net when I was young, when I offered myself up for a free-dive into the uncharted territory of romantic adventure.
And I can't say I regret any of my romances. Though there are certain sadnesses I could have lived without, I don't even want to think about what I would have missed if I hadn't followed my curiosity. Just one example -- I wouldn't have known the carpenter with the buttery skin and the rumpled clothes, a young man who, when I knew him, was living amid the construction debris of a brownstone renovation in Brooklyn, rolling out his futon in whichever room wasn't being worked on. He was heart-stoppingly handsome, with sawdust in his eyebrows. The day after our first night together, he returned to my apartment for our second night and brought a bottle of bourbon with him, and I thought giddily (was any other girl ever this young, this stupid?), He's staying!
At least I know I'm not alone in my serial monogamy. Many of my generation eventually found their life mates and went on from there, but there are others of us who made moving from one partner to the next a viable way of life. And now here we are, tempered a bit by age and facing the fact that inherent in serial monogamy is the serial breakup. How often can the heart recover? In other words, what did we think we were doing? I don't know whether to be proud of how strenuously I've worked to have love in my life, or abashed about how consistently a longtime relationship has eluded me. After Q's recent blunt adieu, with my afterglow wilting on the pages of my journal, I felt as dejected as I had after any big breakup: "This friendship is turning into something like unrequited love," except that my hand accidentally wrote "unrequired" rather than "unrequited."
A few decades of therapy make it impossible for me to cross out that sort of mistake without pondering it first, and I soon realized that my mis-write had brought me to the threshold of an important question: At the stage of life where I am now, what do I really require from romance? Indeed, do I require it at all? If the primary purpose of romance is to lead you to a life mate, and a secondary purpose is to set the stage for family life, perhaps I've outlived my need for romance. Maybe I can just go solo from here. I'll admit that, during the years, there's been some give-and-take in my standards for companions, but if I ever married again, the man would become my son's father, and the requirements for that position are strenuous, non-negotiable. So perhaps now, as a woman who is a mother who is uncompromisingly protective of her son, I am acquiring the superhero X-ray vision that sees past the enticements of romance, straight through to the nuisance -- the nonsense.
In the empty aftermath of Q's visits, I am forced to admit to myself that I really do wish our time together could yield something more substantial. When I step back and consider what Q and I have concocted, I can't see the sense in our equation: friendship + sex = no romance. Hidden in there is some unaccounted-for variable, and I'm not convinced, as Q is, that x = 1,500 miles. I'm more interested in the terrain of the distance between us. Is there an absence of deep feeling but we continue to get together in spite of that? If so, why? Are we too lazy, too unimaginative, to find real partners? Or is there too much feeling between us and, in fear of it, we stay hunkered down in our two far-flung outposts? The questions could go on but I don't have time, so once again I bring myself to the closed-door conclusion that he's just not that into me. And, as after all our visits, the miles will eventually settle in and I'll stop wondering about how -- and why -- decade after decade, Q and I, in one way or another, keep finding each other and then letting go.
Perhaps my now-here, now-gone love story with Q is offering up a microcosm, a snow globe of flurry within which I can examine my lifelong patterns. I strenuously resist the idea that I've let Q into my life simply as a chance to cave, give in to the belief that there will be no rest-of-my-life love. Now, in midlife, when passion is no longer an excuse, as it was in youth, but rather a mandate because time is simply running out, I suspect that Q is helping me realize that occasional lover is not enough, and that not-enough love is not only unrequired, it's also unacceptable.
Anna Monardo's most recent novel is "Falling in Love With Natassia." She teaches in the Writer's Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.