On the last evening of 1993, I painted on a Happy New Year smile and watched a sea of dyads celebrate good times (come on!). The next day a friend invited me to a workshop an hour outside the city. Conference halls involving serenity quests and conscious contact weren't my usual stomping grounds, but I'd recently been dumped and couldn't bear another day of wandering the East Village solo. So I camouflaged my desperation in the acceptable attire for educated misanthropes (faded Levis and a frayed tee) and displayed my misery like an accessory. But I was 26 and an optimist. It was a new day -- a new year, even. The Stamford Hilton was waiting. Rejuvenation and spiritual enlightenment (i.e., men) might be found a mile off the Major Deegan. What I'm trying to explain is this: I ditched my Converse low-tops and wore black velvet heels.
Minutes after I met a man I'll call "Mitchell," I escaped to the women's room needing a moment to steady myself. He was more Richard Dreyfuss than Richard Gere, but our attraction was immediate and thorough. There was a problem, though -- I was a newcomer to adulthood and he was a real, live grown-up man. We had an in-your-face age difference (17 years, I'd come to learn), and I didn't want any part of the daddy-issues/gold-digger innuendo. Even if I wasn't overtly looking for "the one" (my immediate aspirations were far less pure), I sensed any involvement with "Mitchell" would be tricky. But I wasn't one to grapple with the inevitable. And so we began.
At first, I searched strangers' expressions to gauge the appropriateness of Mitchell's and my relationship, often finding real or imagined disdain. Once, as we romantically tried on matching silver bracelets in a boutique on East 10th Street, the saleswoman asked if we were a couple. We answered in unison, but Mitchell's yes was entitled bordering on indignant and mine was barely audible and said while averting my eyes.
For me, the persistent backstory to our beginning was my hyper-focus on trying to figure out how we appeared to the world. He'd take me to expensive restaurants and I'd feign confidence and scan the dining room to see if I was the youngest person there. (Excluding long-legged hostesses, I usually was.) But in time, the perception of our relationship became much less compelling than our actual relationship.
There was a baby, and then another. We built a home and grew a business. Towers were targeted and toppled. We had twins. His mother died. In short, time passed while we were busy living. Funny thing about living, though -- I aged. He did, too, but he was always older. And besides, a woman in her 40s is practically 60 anyway. Our age difference diminished.
But this is not a Hollywood movie and our union has not always been smooth sailing. Ironically, if Mitchell had been the all-powerful parental figure and I the gold-digging trophy wife, we might have had an easier time of it. But we are evenly matched, including attributes that make loving the other challenging. Quick-tempered, opinionated, and controlling -- we've had some spectacular fights. Yet however volatile -- or infantile -- we've been, we have always found our way back to each other. Perhaps for high-maintenance types like us, love is not nourished by ongoing ease or generosity of spirit, but rather a willingness to learn a new language -- one that includes sentences like: I see your point. I hear you. I was wrong. I'm sorry.
One benefit of this tumult is that life with Mitchell has never been dull. Our long-term monogamous marriage has never felt monotonous. And that's been true in our bedroom as much at our chaotic dinner table. In fact, counter to perceived wisdom, as the years have progressed, tending to each other's bodies has improved over time. And I don't mean the satisfaction that comes with familiarity, like throwing on your softest sweats after a long day -- I'm talking about ... well ... it's private. But if I were absolutely forced to describe it, I suppose words like pounding, targeted, and culminating could be called upon. (However, quantity, not quality, has ebbed and flowed. But that problem falls under the category of easily solved.)
Life went on and we felt lucky. Except for the times we felt miserable or murderous. Basically we made a marriage. And not just any marriage -- ours.
And then he had a heart attack.
I will not chronicle every medical move, but this wasn't one of those stent-solved or bypassable situations. After a week in the hospital, Mitchell was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart) exacerbated (or possibly caused) by hypertension. He needed to adhere to a heart-healthy diet and adopt an exercise regimen that didn't raise his heart rate. In addition, he was prescribed medication that exhausted him and turned the most benign shaving nick into a bulbous symbol of mortality. The new normal was terrifying, and three of our typical modes for relieving stress -- food, fury and fornicating -- now seemed like reckless endangerment.
And there was this: Fifty years earlier, my grandfather died of a heart attack while making love to my grandmother, a fact my mother hadn't remembered sharing with me. I'd always found this family anecdote particularly disturbing, but now I was traumatized by it. I didn't just fear losing my husband -- widowhood, our four beautiful children growing up without him -- I was petrified of being enmeshed one instant and then utterly alone to untangle. On my list of anxieties regarding our age difference, watching him die of heart failure while inside of me had never been on my radar. Ah youth.
At Mitchell's first follow-up appointment, the cardiologist offered his medical opinion regarding sex: We were good to go as long as we didn't hang from the chandeliers. I appreciated his humor but felt only slightly reassured. A month later another cardiologist used more cautious language. Sex was fine as long as we didn't get too hot and heavy, which I translated as: Going forward, tepid sex until death do us part.
I escaped to the restroom and wept.
While I understood my sorrow, I was also ashamed. Women are supposed to prioritize relationships over relations and here I was devastated by the idea that our sex life was forever changed. I didn't want us to be tentative; I wanted us to be us. Anything else was a loss.
I blew my nose and splashed cold water on my face. I needed to get back to my man. I knew Mitchell had noticed my reaction to the hot and heavy remark, and I felt desperate to shield him from my fears. Communication is considered essential to intimate relationships, but in this case, less communication seemed like the more generous response. In the long run I knew our relationship was solid enough to contain the reactions we were both experiencing. In the short term, however, sharing my grief bordered on sadistic. He'd want to fix my problem. Not being able to do so would emasculate him -- the very thing I least wanted.
At first, I used my fear to my advantage. I'd always appreciated the Lysistrata tale, so I deflected his advances and said that until he proved he was serious about improving his diet and adopting an exercise program, I was cutting him off.
He did not like this plan. I can't be your most strenuous activity, I'd argued one night. Too late, he'd replied.
For a while my Lysistrata plan had his attention. A waiter would place a bread basket in front of him, and I could practically see him doing the calculation: Let's see, sourdough peasant bread is roughly xx calories whereas I really miss my wife. But as time went on, my plan was insufficient. I was still terrified regardless of whether he went for a walk or declined the popcorn. And sadly, more often than not, he was too exhausted to exercise, and "Mission Impossible" without popcorn was an impossible mission.
I berated myself. Another wife would be doing it better. I should've mastered the juicer, poached more fish, packed him high-protein, low-carb lunches. And while I could rationalize all the reasons I hadn't done those things, I suppose the simplest explanation was that in order to be the kind of person who did I'd have had to turn myself into a whole different kind of person, which is probably what my husband meant when he said, it's just a little bit of popcorn.
And who am I to judge? What's one person's hot and heavy is another person's hanging from the chandeliers. Life is short. There are all sorts of ways to be generous. What I'm trying to explain is this: I've never been one to grapple with the inevitable.
And so we began.
Rebecca Land Soodak's debut novel, "Henny on the Couch," is available now.
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