A few years back, my new friend from a writing class, I'll call her Nancy, invited me out for a drink in the West Village. Before too long, in front of a curious bartender badly pretending not to pay attention, she let on about her passionate pastime, her inclination to stray in plain sight of her husband at "lifestyle" parties of the type most of my married Park Slope friends only joke about with a fair bit of longing or at least curiosity catching in their voices.
Strangely, her writing had not made mention of such intriguing material, which I questioned her about immediately.
"It's hard to write about without sounding cheesy," Nancy said. Plus, much as she wasn't ashamed to talk about it with me, she offered up nervously, with big scared eyes that, "I never want my son to know we do this."
I understood, of course, that her young son was too young, that her proclivities were maybe more confusing than necessary to share right now. But why, I wondered, why if you don't think there's anything wrong with it wouldn't you someday try to explain it to him?
She shrugged and shook her head. "It's all well and good that we're open, and he can see me writing in general about sex, but..."
In truth, she couldn't explain to me precisely why not. She had a hard enough time explaining to herself and to her second husband (who went along with her, although somewhat more reluctantly) why she had such a strong compulsion to meet and potentially mate with men other than the one to whom she had committed. Sexuality can be so confusing.
There was the fact that her father had also been partial to affairs, so maybe it was a learned behavior, or even genetic, she suggested.
Or, she acknowledged, she felt insecure sometimes, so maybe it was a confidence game, a need to be validated anew by new eyes fairly often. Maybe I couldn't even begin to know, and without such knowledge, I certainly couldn't judge.
Of course, as I say all the time to people "shocked" by the headlines of one "scandalous" affair after another, the greatest minds in the world have all explored the subject of whether the human animal is instinctually meant for monogamy, and no one seems to have figured it out. Likely, no one will.
The Rules of monogamy were set up somewhere along the way, by someone, like all Rules, to somehow differentiate Society from Savagery. Our higher brain function offers us the power to override instinct, at least with our actions if not our thoughts. But I agreed with French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, whose words have stood the test of time, true now as when he wrote them in the 16th century: "Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think," he said.
And of marriage, he opined, "it is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out."
It is easy to see, by this logic, why people inside would enjoy playing at getting out. And why not? Who, exactly, does it hurt? Like with any relationship style one endeavors, swinging stands to hurt no one and everyone involved, there's never any way to tell at the beginning.
In the meantime, though, in reality, though they might not bring it up in mixed company, many among us are trying to have their cake and eat it, too.
For her part, Nancy decided to go a different route than secret infidelity after her first marriage broke up in part as a result of it, and after she realized she didn't like lying.
She decided to come clean to her husband about her interest in meeting other men, and the two joined One Leg Up NYC, visiting both the "Take-Out" parties in public spaces, where you meet people and set up dates with them for another place and/or time, and the "Eat-In" shindigs in private homes, where "live action" can take place.
It seemed worth it, she said, to pay the exorbitant membership fee of $500 plus a year for the high-class entertainment and rose petals on the floor at the parties, an ambiance that helped turn a challenging search into a fun scene.
Eat-in parties even pre-screened guests, asking for pictures and bios that "explain why you'd be a welcome addition," Nancy said, slightly sheepish but realistic about wanting to be picky about the pool of potential partners.
Even though they let their membership slip for a while, Nancy and her husband were back to using One Leg Up when last we spoke, having recently attended a fun flapper party.
"Do you always meet someone?" I asked, curious, imagining that connections with other people are hard to guarantee, even despite high membership fees.
She shook her head, no.
And, sometimes, she offered, "my husband will meet someone and I won't, or vice versa." She laughed recalling times when her husband stood by as she took up with someone else.
"'She's really enjoying that,' he'll say, like the guy doesn't know that, and I want to say, 'What I'm not enjoying is your commentary!'" she recalled.
But, she quickly acknowledged her good fortune to find someone that puts up with her penchant for something not all spouses might endure.
"My husband means well, and if he's doing his own thing, then I don't have to worry about it," she said.
I see Nancy occasionally and I always enjoy our honest exchanges, neither of us at all sure if how we live is the "right" way or not, both of us eager to explore the idea that there is clearly more than one path and that all of them present a slew of challenges.
Nancy tries hard not to judge, herself or others, but it is not easy to skirt The Rules. She still can't figure how to explain her choices to her son. I am hopeful that maybe, someday, she can, that maybe someday it might be more acceptable to explore the realities of one's instincts and abide by them.
This story first appeared in Steph Thompson's monthly Aging Disgracefully column in The Park Slope Patch.