A modern marriage is held together by a thousand tiny threads, of course, and there is no crude quid pro quo of the meat-for-sex variety that sustained early societies. But if my wife doesn’t depend on me for her financial solvency (and a good thing, too), she does depend on me for myriad other things—cooking and child care, yes, but also for humor and companionship, for moral support and critical insight, for reality checks and trivial information. Farther down the list, almost falling off the page, is sexual gratification. I think women know it’s something we’re much keener on than they are, and occasionally they try to indulge us without being completely condescending.
“It’s a very romantic complaint,” my wife says, reading an early draft of this essay. (You try writing about your sex life without letting your spouse vet the piece.) And she’s right: I am yearning for something that seems long gone but is still within reach, not just sex but love in all its lost intensity, immediacy, and impulsiveness. Women roll their eyes as men are forever clinging to scraps of former glory—that guitar pick Joe Strummer threw into the crowd, the ticket stubs to that playoff game twenty years ago. And like all romantics, we believe that by hanging on to the vestiges of fulfillment past, we might just bring it back to life. To give up on this, to me, feels like a kind of death.
If you took all the mostly useless literature out there concerning men and women and sex, you could probably boil it all down to one complaint. “I don’t see why it has to be such a big deal,” we yell to each other across a chasm. Men meaning, “What’s the big deal? Let’s go to bed”; women meaning, “What’s the big deal? Can’t you give it a rest?” A fair question, but the answer seems to be no. Because, let’s face it, if men weren’t always hungry for it, nothing would ever happen. There would be no sex, and our species would perish.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic. But married sex outside of procreation might well become a thing of the past. If women associate sex with new life and new relationships, men tend to associate it with life itself. I remember making love to my wife a few days after learning of my mother’s death. We were headed west for the funeral, staying in a friend’s cabin in the Rockies, and the sensation was as intense and urgent as any baby’s wail. Each passionate kiss refuted death, every caress said to the earth, You ain’t got me yet. I know my wife loves me; she shows it in a hundred ways. But without my resilient desire, I sometimes wonder what our marriage would be. A book club?
“It’s a very romantic complaint,” my wife says, reading an early draft of this essay. (You try writing about your sex life without letting your spouse vet the piece.)
Another evening at home. My wife is getting ready for an event her magazine is hosting the next day, printing out a speech she’ll be giving, worrying about the dry cleaning that hasn’t arrived. She has a million things on her mind, and I am not one of them. She pauses in mid-flight to kiss me.
“And think of how much more relaxed you’ll feel after I fuck you against the wall in the hallway,” I say, grabbing her and holding on.
On instinct, she tries to pull away, unprying my fingers from her arm—she doesn’t have time for this. But then she returns with a surprise of her own. She kisses me again, more voluptuously, and says, “That does bring back a happy memory.”
And there it was. For a minute I made her remember—for an instant she wanted me. And that was enough—or at least enough to tide me over until I try again to get inside.