“That’s the last thing you think of at times like that,” I accused her later, “but it’s always the first thing that occurs to me.” She couldn’t argue with my assessment. She hasn’t equated free time with foreplay since the last time we were trying to conceive. But for me, what sweeter revenge against this world and its injuries could you imagine than lounging in bed with the one you love? Everything in my life seems better after sex: New York doesn’t smell so bad, and the GOP isn’t really the Nazi Party after all. I think most men are like me in this regard. Given the choice between fucking and just about anything else, they’ll go for the former.
Does that make us stupider than women? It certainly makes us simpler. My brother once sent me an e-mail with the subject line “The difference.” Within the body of the message was an image of two boxes shaped like stereo tuners. The one labeled women was covered with knobs and buttons, as complex as the cockpit of an airplane. The MEN box had but a single switch, labeled ON and OFF. My wife is still trying to find my off switch.
Weekend evenings would seem to be a lock for some marital recreation, wouldn’t you think? Barring illness, exhaustion, or dinner guests who just won’t leave, there is little that comes between us—except, perhaps, a novel. The narrator of the Arabian Nights, you may recall, had to keep telling tales to her husband or he would kill her. In our variation of this Scheherazade routine, my wife seems to believe that she needs to keep reading tales of her own or I will ravish her.
I recall a real date we had last year: a movie, a babysitter, the prospect of an early bed. I shaved and brushed my teeth, practically humming “I’m in the Mood for Love” as I came down the hall. My wife was about halfway through one of Alan Furst’s sublime novels of espionage—a shared passion of ours of a different sort—and begged a moment more: “Just let me get to the end of this chapter.”
When she got up to use the bathroom, however, I stole a look at her book and discovered, to my considerable dismay, that the chapter had another 75 pages to go.
Wives used to put out for their husbands because they had to, the thinking goes. It was part of paying the rent.
Upon her return, I pointed this out to her and she assured me she didn’t mean the end of the whole chapter—there would surely, she promised, be a natural break in the narrative . . . sometime. Then she picked up the book and resumed her reading.
Rather than sit there and sigh like Al Gore, I took the dog out for a late constitutional, cleaned up in the kitchen a bit, read some of the paper, and finally came back to our bedroom to get my cigarettes. She was still deep in the intrigues of the French Resistance and seemed surprised to see me.
“I don’t know why you’re avoiding me by hiding behind that book,” I told her. “I’m not even sure you know. But when you do decide that you want me, I trust you’ll remember how to let me know.” She put down the book, mole-eyed. “Don’t be that way.”
But the game was up. One of the first rules of this sex tango is that you don’t speak its name. The second is: no complaints. You can make logical, unassailable observations, try to be good-humored and gracious, but once you express any hint of disappointment or frustration, you’re dead.
The next day was Mother’s Day. After I brought my wife coffee in bed (something I do every single morning, for the record), she apologized. “This week has been such a burnout,” she said. “Sometimes I just need to disappear inside my little snail shell.” It’s true: She is far more independent than I am, and this difference is probably one of the things that keep our marriage together.
So after a long, slightly bumpy Sunday—marked by some petty bickering and an absence of shaving on my part—we make love, and it’s sweet and salty as escargot served with butter and garlic. It’s getting past the shell that’s the tricky part.
There have been many explanations offered for the man-woman disconnect on this matter. Biology gets a lot of grief, with the simplest explanation being that women have less need for sex once the husband-children thing is locked in, while men ride their heat-seeking missiles off into oblivion, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove. (There is no OFF switch.) Society, too, gets its lumps, as feminists find most men’s expectations of sex and marriage based in patriarchy and an obsolete sense of entitlement. Wives used to put out for their husbands because they had to, this line of thinking goes. It was part of paying the rent, part of what women gave in exchange for food and lodging, to say nothing of the college fund for the children.
But as that sort of traditional marriage grows scarce, at least in many Western countries, the old answers don’t work. For men such as myself—outearned by their wives, with their very work identities cast into doubt—the mantle of breadwinner, and the assumed benefits thereof, simply no longer apply.