The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom (Morrow, 2004)
The Lock Box
by Sean Elder
My wife and I were lying in bed after making love one morning—okay, I know that must sound very sophisticated and child-free but this was an exceptional morning; our daughter had spent the night at a friend’s house and my teenage son was not yet out of bed. Anyway, there we were, as close to contentment as I could hope to get on this earth, when I made a bush-league error. I asked her what she was thinking about.
“The trim size of the magazine,” she replied, “which we may have to reduce.”
I should explain that for the last year my wife has been the editor-in-chief of a new women’s magazine, and as anyone who has worked on such a launch can tell you, the work never really stops. Or at least you never stop thinking about it. Even during those moments when work talk was once banished.
I’d like to report that I ignored her and lit two Gauloises, but she doesn’t smoke, and if memory serves I simply fell into step and began discussing the fate of oversized magazines in this competitive newsstand environment. It’s nice to share an interest—or in this case, a profession—with your mate. But there is a time and place for everything, no?
What’s depressing is that it doesn’t seem very long ago that I held my wife’s bedroom attention for just a little longer. In our early days, like most couples, we tangoed ‘til we were sore (to borrow a line from Tom Waits). But lately I have come to feel that, like Billy Idol, I’m mostly dancing with myself.
Not that I expected marriage, and the sex therein, to be a cakewalk. But like a lot of men I’ve always put sex high on the list of domestic prerequisites, somewhere between food and basic cable. I did not think it was something that would have to be constantly negotiated and appraised, and I admit I was sort of caught with my pants down (read: up) when the trajectory of our sex life spiraled from nightly to weekly to “What’s wrong with you?” Is this common to marriage, I wondered? How could I tell? Most of my male friends are married and no doubt have similar tales to tell, but despite what some women may fear, grown men don’t spend much time talking about sex (especially if they’re not getting much). When you’re young and not getting any you talk about it all the time, but as an adult it’s not quite the same thing. In fact, it’s the opposite thing.
Now, despite Dr. Phil’s assertion that “sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic,” that’s not what I’m talking about. A sexless marriage story would quickly devolve into a divorce story, and my wife and I have both invested too much love and energy into our marital vehicle to sit here and watch the wheels come off. No, my wife likes sex as much as I do. She really does. She may not like it as frequently as I do. Or as urgently. Or with as many possible variations…
But here’s the thing: For many long, pulsating, undulating years there seemed to be no reason to talk about sex. Like the car in The Phantom Tollbooth, it went without saying. Then one day the car was stalling, the timing was off. I remember clearly the first time we came back from a night out and she didn’t want to sleep with me—I was stunned. Was it something I did? No, she assured me. Nor did she plead tiredness, drunkenness or any of the physical complaints that traditionally stop the show. “No, I’m just not in the mood,” she said. Does any phrase strike greater fear in the hearts of married men?
But that’s what happens. In so many couples, especially those with two careers and children, sex just falls off the list, like some dance craze from our youth that everyone’s forgotten. And men who opt for divorce and trade their old wives in for a younger, more pneumatic model appear in public as graceless as Grandpa doing the Funky Chicken—and, soon enough, they find themselves back in the same boat anyway when the pneumatic version, too, starts yawning at eight o’clock and proclaiming she’s not in the mood.
Our situation may be complicated by the nature of our jobs. I work at home, and, as such, our house and its needs constitute half of my work. I’ve been a freelance writer and editor for the eleven years we’ve been married, a sometimes lucrative period of self-employment broken up by occasional staff jobs, while my wife has gone from one magazine to another, ascending the editorial masthead as she’s moved. As her work has become more demanding as well as more remunerative, the tasks of cooking, cleaning and keeping track of the children have fallen to me. Nothing wrong with that: I like to cook, and after my parents divorced I became accustomed to doing household chores. But it does put us in a rather different frame of mind at day’s end. When she leaves work she’s fleeing minions demanding her time: editors, art directors, publicists and publishers, they all want something and they want it now. The last thing she wants to deal with when she gets home is somebody else’s needs. And though I have been gnawed by my own ducks (a son who’s lost his keys again, an editor who wants a new lead, a daughter who wants help with her homework), I, unlike her, am pretty much starved for adult conversation by the time she gets home.
Nothing in my wife’s feminist life has prepared her for the Freaky-Friday feeling of suddenly finding herself cast in the role of fifties dad. “The whiplash effect can be kind of intense,” she tells me. And I can’t blame her for not wanting to come home some nights—though of course I do.
One night my son wanders into the kitchen, guitar slung around his neck, to inquire when dinner might be ready. “As soon as Peggy deigns to make an appearance,” I tell him. Then the phone rings, and it’s my wife herself, who claims she’s now leaving for real— she just got caught up in a meeting and then there was an e-mail she had to answer.
“Did you ever hear of the phone?” I snap before hanging up on her.
Yes, it’s come to this.
Helen Gurley Brown, no stranger to sexy cover-lines, once suggested that a wife greet her husband at the door wearing a negligee and carrying a martini. While my wife likes a stiff drink now and then, I don’t think the sight of me in see-through pajamas would do much for her libido. No, what she wants after ten hours of meetings and display copy is more along the lines of fettuccine Alfredo, or a chicken roasted in olive oil and lemon, and this I duly provide for her. (Young women bitterly joke that the perfect girl for most men would be one who turned into pizza after sex. On work nights my wife would skip the sex and take the pizza—provided it was baked in a brick oven and topped with goat cheese and roasted peppers.)
After dinner comes the nightly ritual of putting our daughter to bed (something we share, or break up into shifts, with me doing the reading and Mom acting as the closer). Then maybe a little evening news and the promise of sleep, sweeter it seems—for her at least—than any sexual fantasy. (“Sleep is the new sex,” Margaret Carlson proclaimed in a recent essay in Time magazine that considered the working wife’s desire for rest and respite from day-job drudgery, clinging children, and that ogre of the modern marriage, the pawing, prying husband.)
But hope springs again on the weekends. Of course, there’s the usual forest of responsibilities to coordinate: play-dates, music classes and an endless procession of birthday parties for the kids, various tasks related to our home and animals, and even more work (for both of us) that must be done by Monday. That’s precisely why stealing moments of pleasure seem all the more imperative to me. Finding ourselves unexpectedly without children or chores one afternoon—someone had called to see if our daughter could stay at her house longer, my son was at a matinee—I raised the subject, and also an eyebrow. My wife looked at me as if I was speaking Urdu.
“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 email with a subject line that said “The difference.” Within the body of the message was an image of two identical boxes, roughly the shape of a stereo tuner. 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 a way to turn me off.)
Weekend evenings would seem to be a lock for some marital recreation, wouldn’t you think? Barring illness, exhaustion, or dinner guests that 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.
A few Saturdays ago we had a real date: a movie, a babysitter (okay, my son, but he didn’t let anything happen to his sister while we were out), 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.”
What could I say? It’s hard to start a romantic encounter with someone by denying her what she wants.
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 seventy-five pages to go.
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 and be good-humored and gracious, but once you express any hint of disappointment or frustration, you’re dead. No eclairs for you, pal. (Is this what Al meant by “The Lock Box?”)
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 keeps our marriage together. Once, long before marriage, we separated, with me the one wielding the cleaver. “I’m like a dog, you’re like a cat,” I told her then, by way of explaining our different (and in my mind, incompatible) personalities. “But dogs and cats can get along!” she told me then, and over the years she has proven right. When we finally got a cat last year, at my daughter’s insistence and against my wishes, I rapidly adapted to the cat’s temperament by treating her just the way I treat my wife: Letting her go off on her own, not forcing my attentions on her, waiting for her to come to me. It’s a working strategy for cat and woman alike, though in my wife’s case I get a little lonely from waiting.
So after a long, slightly bumpy Mother’s Day—marked by some petty bickering and an absence of shaving on my part—we make love and it’s sweet and salty as escargots served in 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 about 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—out-earned by their wives, with their very work identities cast into doubt—the mantle of bread-winner, and the assumed benefits thereof, simply no longer apply.
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 childcare, 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 the scraps of former glory—that guitar pick Joe Strummer threw into the crowd, the ticket stubs to that playoff game you attended 20 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 beyond 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?
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 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 this time. With a smile, she 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.
Sean Elder has written about men, marriage, divorce and raising children for a number of publications including California, Parenting(where he was also an editor), Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, and theNew York Times Magazine. He was the film and music editor at Ellemagazine in the early ’90s and has continued to write about show business for a host of magazines including Entertainment Weekly,Harper’s Bazaar, Premiere and Vogue. He covered the web for theNew Yorker where he wrote the “Only Connect” column for several years. More recently he wrote a media column for Salon, where he is still a regular contributor, as well as a contributing editor at Details. His essay “On Ecstasy” appeared in Chronicle Books’ psychedelic reader White Rabbit (1995) and working with designer Roger Black he wrote Web Sites That Work (Adobe Press, 1997). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two children.