Married, Not Dead
I am standing in the dressing room of Forever 21 enjoying myself. Even though the absurdity of shopping at Forever 21 for an outfit to wear to the Kleinman bar mitzvah is not lost on me. Nor is the ridiculous fact that I am psyched about going to the bar mitzvah. Who gets excited about a bar mitzvah? A woman with three little kids, that's who. I will leave my house. There will be liquor. I will talk to grown-ups. I can't help it. I have three children. I don't get out much. "Mrs. Shelley?" I turn around to see my 17-year-old babysitter towering over me, all five foot eight of her lithe frame. We are wearing identical dresses. Black, knit, clingy, thigh-skimming numbers. It looks fabulous on her, while I look like my great-grandmother when she arrived from the old country.
"Uh, hi, Alli. So nice to see you. How are things?" I notice her dress has a white skull strewn across the chest. I look down at my own chest, and I am mortified. How did I miss the skull?
"Everything's good. Fantastic dress, right?"
"Yes," I say, "fantastic." What is a 42-year-old woman doing shopping at the same store as her teenage babysitter?
"So we'll see you on Saturday night?"
"Yes, definitely. Do you think you'll be home by 11ish? I'm going out afterward."
"I can't imagine we'll be home much past 10." I haven't been out past 11 in 10 years. When did I get so old?
"The dress looks great on you. You should get it." It's sweet the way Alli gropes for something complimentary to say about what is obviously a huge fashion disaster. What lovely manners. I hope I can instill that kind of compassion in my own children if and when they run into a middle-aged neighbor dressed wildly inappropriately at a store for girls half her age. I make a mental note to give Alli a pay bump on Saturday night.
"Thanks, Alli. But I think it's more your speed. You should get it. I can't wear it nearly as well as you." I no longer feel the buoyancy I felt this morning when I left my office to meet Essie Carmichael for lunch and shopping, and I am desperate to get this dress off my body. "Well, enjoy your shopping, and we'll see you Saturday night."
I retreat to my dressing room and stare at my reflection in the mirror and ask myself, for the third time today, if I finally look my age. This is not a question a woman my age likes asking herself, especially at a store called Forever 21.
I leave the dressing room and search for Essie Carmichael. She's still not here. I pick through the piles of merchandise. Turns out everything has skulls on it. I can't help thinking that maybe I should go back on the Zoloft when I see Carmichael approaching. She is 45 minutes late. Typical. What is not typical is that her usually stressed-out stride is relaxed. In fact, she's got a shit-eating grin on her face. Did she sneak in a yoga class? Get a facial? Something looks different. Maybe she changed her meds. She rushes over and gives me a hug.
"I just had sex with E.L.," she blurts out. I am speechless. She is my best friend. And she had sex. With her husband. I feel like I've been stabbed in the back. I am tempted to throw one of us off the nearby balcony.
"Morning sex?" I manage. It comes out more hostile than I plan, though Carmichael barely notices. Why should she? She just had morning sex.
"Oh my God, yes! Morning sex. Like a high school senior. It is too incredible. I had sex with my husband and I liked it." I stare at her, incredulous. I haven't had sex, morning or otherwise, in three months. Neither had she. I trusted her. I know it's a free country and people have sex in it. Apparently even my best friend. But still. How dare she?
"We're back, Nora. We're back. I can't believe it. Don't be mad."
"I'm not mad," I lie. "I'm happy for you."
"You and J.P. will have sex soon. Don't be so hard on yourself." I want to scream in her face, "I don't need your pity. You giant, awful bitch." But I don't. I can't. I'm like a deer caught in the headlights. I vow to find new friends. Better friends. Ones that don't have sex with their husbands. And then, sensing I can no longer be in a store called Forever 21, Carmichael takes me by the arm and leads me toward the exit. "C'mon, let's go to City Bakery. I'll buy you a cold hot chocolate."
We cross 14th Street and I'm still mad, but if sex really happened, I sort of need to hear about it.
"OK, Carmichael," I say. "Where? When? How? Why?"
"Well, it'd been months, you know. I was so off my game I couldn't even deal with it. Do you know what it's like when you're off your game?"
I nod maniacally because of course I know.
"I invented 'off your game,' for God's sake. Please. Are you crazy?"
"All right, so you know. Every night is like a standoff. I read in bed until I'm sure he's sleeping. He stays in his office surfing the Net until he's sure I'm sleeping. And then if we accidentally touch each other, we panic. The tension just builds and builds because you know you're going to have to do it soon, and you're afraid to. Afraid it's going to suck. Afraid you won't remember how. Well, today," Carmichael continues, "I dropped Chloe off at school, and for some reason that I will never understand, I came home and was horny. I took off my pants and I was weighing whether it was worth remaking the bed and taking care of business myself when I remembered that I actually had a husband working from home this week. I could take care of business with him. So I took off the rest of my clothes, except my new Cosabella underwear, and I went into his office and stood there until he noticed me."
"How long did that take?"
"He was researching printers online, so a while. Then when he did see me, he stared at me, totally confused. I think he thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I mean, I was standing in his office in my underpants. And, well, I'm not a complete stranger to hysterical behavior. But I just walked over to his chair and straddled him. I looked him right in the eyes and I took his right hand and put it between my ass and my Cosabellas, and I put his left hand on my boob and I pressed against him. He got a hard-on immediately. Which really impressed both of us. I mean, honestly, the last time we wanted it at the same time was like eight years ago. Anyway, we tried to do it right there in the Aeron chair, but it was much too complicated with the armrests. And I was frightened I was going to hurt my neck, and he was nervous my ass was going to delete something from his desktop, so we went to the bedroom and did it on the bed. And it didn't even cross my mind that I'd have to remake the bed. I was totally in the moment. It was nice. Really nice. I liked it! I want to do it again. Plus, you know what else?"
I look at her in total disbelief. "There's more?" I say.
We pass the Limited and I can't help but notice I'm too old for everything in there too. I'm totally spiraling. Why can't I just embrace aging? Live in the moment, as Carmichael has apparently learned to do as of this morning.
Carmichael leans toward me and whispers in my ear, "Doing it without a child in the house is really hot." This is when I burst into tears.
"Carmichael," I say, "I have three kids. And one of them is usually in my bed." She puts her arm around me and leads me into City Bakery. I am assaulted by the smell of carbs, and I ask myself, for the second time today, why I gave up wheat. I watch Carmi chael load up her plate with macaroni and cheese.
"I have three kids, Essie. Count 'em, three kids. And the third one was hardly an aphrodisiac. You have one," I point out, "who's in school all day. You work from home and your husband is freelance. My husband works a lot. In an office. Far from home." I fill my plate with tempeh and greens. "We don't have the raw ingredients for morning sex. Besides, I am too damn tired to get it on."
"Shelley, you've got to be in it to win it. You have to play the game. You just have to climb back on that horse. I mean, my God. I don't have a nanny or a cleaning woman. I barely have time to brush my teeth. But I'm getting back in the game. If I can do it, you can do it."
We sit down. The reality of my lame sex life slaps me in the face. I'm depressed. Carmichael smiles stupidly at me, shoveling macaroni and cheese into her mouth. "I'm famished," she says.
"Well, bully for you."
"Listen, " she says. "Have the nanny take Owen for a walk, and tell J.P. to go in late for work, and then you pounce. While the other two are at school."
"What about the housekeeper?" I ask. "What do I do with her while I'm trying to do something with J.P.? Anyway, I never even see J.P. He's working 24-7. I have a better chance of having sex with the housekeeper."
"Set your alarm clock. Do it when he gets home. I know you're tired, but you can't keep doing it with that showerhead. You need to start doing it with J.P."
"But the showerhead is handheld. It's so fast. It's so convenient. Not to mention the only incentive I have to bathe."
"Shelley, I love that showerhead too. It was the best Christmas present you ever gave me, by the way. But you can't rely on it for intimacy. It just isn't healthy. Do you really want to be one of those women who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary but haven't had sex with their husband in 30 years? Sex begets sex. And cum all over the body is an excellent incentive for bathing, incidentally."
Carmichael might as well have poked me with a cattle prod. What she says is true. I have been in a monogamous relationship with my showerhead. It is not right. It is not a marriage.
This is when I hear myself say, a little too loudly, "I need it, Carmichael." People stare at me, but I can't stop myself. I've totally lost control. "You know what? You're right. I am going home and fucking J.P. tonight. Even if he is working late. Even if I am comatose when he gets home. Even if I don't remember how, and even if there are three kids in my bed."
There is spontaneous applause and a smattering of cheers from my fellow City Bakery diners. The cashier buys me a cookie. Carmichael takes me to 14th Street for some racy underpants. I am full of hope. I will ride that horse, even if it kills me. We ride home to Brooklyn on the F train, bound for glory.
Hey, wait. This isn't all about us. I mean, Carmichael and I have our issues, our secrets, our fantasies. Carmichael may want to fuck her butcher and I may want to seduce Tim who runs Tumbling Time, but you have your secrets too. Don't be shy. C'mon, we know all about you. We keep our ears open on the playground, at pickup and drop-off, at Music Together, at soccer, at Starbucks. There's nothing to be ashamed of. It's high time people understand we're married, not dead.
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