An Untethered Woman: Sex, Solitude, and Female Friendship
Nineteen years ago I spent an evening with a person who had been madly in love with me — his words — when I was 23. We’ll call him V. When we met for dinner, it had been seven years since we’d last seen each other, and it felt as though a lifetime had passed. He was newly married. I had recently moved back to New York after several years in New Orleans. When I was in my early 20s, all I had done was push him away, but now, seven years later, I was devastated.
The next day I wrote him a long, sobbing letter telling him that I finally got it, that I finally understood why people got married and risked annoyance by inviting another person into their lives: because they liked each other and it was fun.
Why couldn’t you have waited for me? I wasn’t ready when I was 23!
I was ready when I met my ex-husband at 32. He flirted with me in the hallway of the building where we both worked, we ran into each other at a restaurant, he sent flowers to my table, we had the sexiest date of my life, and he never really left my apartment after that. A year later we were married, and for the most part, we were happy. We never got tired of telling our origin story, laughing and interrupting each other to argue over details.
Just as the courtship had been quick, so was the break. A year after he said he wanted to separate, we were divorced. But we still liked each other, and no one had behaved badly, so we managed to stay friendly as we separated our money and filed the paperwork.
Not too long ago my ex and I had lunch with my parents when they were in town. Sitting next to him that day, I was surprised that I didn’t feel any pangs. I was grateful to have had 14 years with him, but I wasn’t jealous of his new wife or his new life. There was zero attraction, which seemed bizarre for someone who had been the focus of my love and fantasies for so many years.
I did, however, feel pangs when I had dinner with V — the man who had been in love with me when I was 23 — a few weeks ago. We hadn’t seen each other in 19 years, not since the evening that inspired my sobbing letter.
As soon as I walked toward the table and he stood up, we didn’t try to hide how happy we were to see each other. After we hugged, I held his face for a moment to look at him. I’d stalked him online as well as I could (he doesn’t leave much of a trace), and I’d heard from a friend that he looked good, but I don’t think I was prepared. His hair is silver now but still thick, and he was wearing the kinds of clothes that I couldn’t identify but recognized as expensive in their subtlety. “The prosperous businessman look suits you well,” I said. But what I thought over the next few hours was, Couldn’t you at least be a little fat? Or a little less happy with your work and your life?
As he took care of the check ($418, and he waved me away as I shrieked and offered to pay the tip and wondered what the hell bottle of wine he’d chosen), I watched his hands, remembering how I used to fetishize them. I thought, Maybe this is what it means to be in love — fetishizing non-sexual parts of another person’s body. I remembered how I used to fetishize a spot that I always wanted to kiss on my ex-husband’s neck.
After dinner, V and I took a walk and he drew me to him and put his arm around me. We rehashed our origin story: The first time I saw him, thinking he was gorgeous as he smoked on his porch, sleeves rolled up to the elbow. Our first afternoon, arguing about politics over several beers. How he’d never met a girl with so many opinions. And what was the deal with our chemistry, why were we so hot for each other? Walking arm-in-arm with him, I felt the same longing I did 19 years before when I was 30, only I wasn’t heartbroken the next day.
As I ran the evening through my mind, I wondered if I had been inoculated by my marriage in the intervening years. Thanks to my ex-husband, I’ve known what it’s like to be deeply in love and in lust and adored right back.
A week after dinner with V, my friend Anne and I were sitting at a gastropub in Hollywood, devouring poutine and drinking wine. She moved her finger from me to her to indicate female friendship, and said, “They don’t have this,” supporting my statement that most straight men I know want home and hearth in a way that I don’t (case in point — my ex-husband was engaged five weeks after our divorce was final). Anne continued, “So the only way they can get this is by living with a woman.”
Which would seem to be the case with the man I’m seeing now, a man who has home and hearth and not with me. We’ll leave it at that and call him T. A few friends have said they’re worried that by staying involved with him, by focusing on that which I’ll never have, I’m blocking other suitors.
In the trope of rom-coms everywhere, I’m not opening myself to love.
They’re not wrong. While there are plenty of men who offer the shiver of sexual tension, when it comes to fucking, I’m good, mostly because I’m lazy and T knows exactly what to do with me and is, in fact, as available as I want him to be. So no, I’m not interested in sleeping with other men. And these friends worry that I’m selling myself short by being with a man who will never give me what I want.
But what if T is giving me exactly what I want? Which is: sex that continues to be exciting, the kind that leaves me sated and happy for days? And all that mysterious power combined with the kind of easy friendship I usually have only with friends I’ve known for years? I’ve talked on the phone with him for two hours and 45 minutes, a record for me. And no, we don’t talk about our origin story, because it’s not that interesting. We talk about work, movies, books, politics, our aging parents.
When I wake up to an email from him asking if I’m free in a few weeks to meet him in a city mid-way between us, I happily check flights and book a ticket with my miles before I’ve meditated or had coffee. Neither of us feels a need to pretend we don’t want to see each other, but nor are we hungry enough to upend the rest of our lives in order to be together. All of which makes for an affair that is torrid in bed and sensible when we’re dressed. Which, at 49, feels close to perfect.
Some might think T has the better end of the deal, that he’s the one who gets to have it both ways. But I would disagree. I think I’m the greedy one — the one who gets to have great sex plus the beautiful solitude of my own apartment. I’m the one who answers to no one yet feels surrounded by love and companionship on all sides. I don’t want a man at home whose very existence will make me feel guilty for not being there or for wishing him gone when I want the place to myself.
I’ve had the kinds of affairs that consumed my every moment — not least with my ex-husband — and they were glorious fun. And I imagine I’d like to have one again before I die. But it would take a lot for me to give up the peace and autonomy I’ve achieved in the two years since my divorce.
When I saw V 19 years ago, when I was 30, it was hard for either of us to let go. After dinner, we kept moving from bar to bar, holding and touching each other as much as we could within the confines of his being a non-cheating married man. When he finally put me into a taxi after the fourth bar of the evening, he said, “Don’t you think it’s kind of tragic?”
Of course I did. Which was why I cried the whole next day and wrote him a seven-page letter.
But I no longer see it as tragic. A loss, definitely, although I can’t imagine myself being happy tethered to him. And when I follow the what-if train of thought, I think, What if I had been ready at 23? Would I want to give up everything I’ve known in the last 26 years — my careers, my marriage, my many lives in many places, the friends I’ve come to love? And the answer is, of course not. I can’t imagine whatever I might have had with V being as rich as what I have had. Perhaps the pangs come not from wishing for something in the present or future but simply from a sense that the two of us never finished what we started.
In any case, I’m not longing for something I’ve never known, as I was at 30. I don’t want to rule out a truly, madly, deeply kind of love. But neither am I willing to give up everything I get to have as an untethered woman: spending an evening flirting with a man who was once in love with me, going to see a movie alone in the afternoon, meeting friends all over the city to indulge my food cravings and drink wine and laugh, or spending whole days curled up on my sofa with a book or something I’m writing, having my apartment and my brain all to myself.
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