My good friend P adores his wife but gets serial crushes on other women.
P swears that these crushes are harmless, platonic. An oversexed academic of 50, P's never cheated on his wife and sees nothing wrong in these dalliances with acolytes, students and random girls besotted by his biceps and intellect.
D, his wife, assures him he is deluding himself. "You're leading them on," she says again and again. "You're crazy," he tells her and that is that. D's weary of the whole charade. What's more, P has the gall to bring his crushes home for dinner, expecting D to cook for them. When she balks, he calls her pathologically jealous, shaming his wife into compliance, which causes D to rage within. One of these days, D tells herself as she watches P fawn over this or that girlfriend, I'm leaving this house and not coming back.
There's no protocol for married crushes, no etiquette for romantic dalliances outside the limits of conjugal duty. For his part, P, a former playboy, views himself as a virtual saint in the role as a faithful husband. He has never laid hands on another (save for a heated hug or two) in the 26 years he has been with D. What's more, he makes love to her three times a week, which is hardly a marital pattern to sneeze at. As payment for his sturdy libido, P defends the right to hang out with whatever pretty lass he chooses. "It doesn't matter where you get your appetite as long as you come home to eat," D's father taught him as a boy, and P believes this, gluttonously.
Another friend has the opposite problem. Every year or so, T, a girlfriend of mine, gets a painful crush on a man not her husband and plays the romance to the hilt. Like P, she's never been unfaithful. Unlike him, she feels no attraction whatsoever to her long-suffering spouse, R. After 18 years of marriage, T treats her husband more like a king-sized snuggly than she does a man with actual needs.
T and R are an inseparable couple, the best of friends, profoundly merged and void of sexual chemistry. When sex accidentally happens, T is accommodating, R is shamefaced, and both are, invariably, drunk. The sexual vacuum within T's marriage is filled by unshaven men wearing tool belts and therapists who tell her she's right. T behaves like Maria Callas during her fandangos — obsessive, insecure, self-hating — all dressed up erotically with nowhere to go.
She chain-smokes and waits by the phone. She yearns and pines and eats too much. She doubles her hours in therapy and returns, grudgingly, to the gym. Throughout her dramas, T clings to R with disinterest and gratitude while her husband puts up with her "passionate" nature.
"There's something wrong with me," T tells me.
"I know there is."
"I want him so much!"
"What, exactly, do you want?"
T looks at me like, Don't be a moron. "So it's sex?" I ask. "That's the bottom line?"
"It's passion. It's feeling alive. And wanted!"
"Your husband wants you."
"Oh, please." She waves this aside like a bad smell.
"A lot of women would kill for what you've got."
"Oh, really?" She looks at me. "Thank for the shame."
"It's not shame," I say, but that's a lie. The truth is that I feel sorry for R. T's husband is a bona fide catch — intelligent, well built, employed, self-reliant; a quadruple threat on the dating scene. My single girlfriends (of whom there are too many) would snap R up in a New York minute. T, who has always been the beloved (not the lover) in the marriage, cannot see her constant husband this way. Nonetheless, R worships the ground T walks on and wouldn't think of leaving her.
Every marriage is its own country. We cannot judge as foreigners. We all know that marriage does not stop desire for people we're not married to; it simply draws a line between the impulse and the act itself. You're married, not dead or neutered or blind; you're a sexual person in the world; your buttons are pushed every day, sometimes pounded. But a wise spouse knows better than to neuter, erotically, the person whose mojo they need to be strong. So most married folks look the other way, allowing room for a bit of flirtation and keeping our zingers (and hands) to ourselves.
Until the crushes get out of hand. For D, the breaking point came at Christmas, when P invited his latest ingénue to dine with the family, claiming she had nowhere else to go. D objected vehemently in a tone that said It's her or me but P ignored his wife's distress. The crush showed up for Christmas dinner and D, disgusted, observed her husband performing for his little friend. Watching him coo and smile and wink, D realized that P could never be trusted. His vanity was his fatal flaw. All it would take is one of those pretty young things to pull a Lewinsky and P would have his fly down before you could say "secret service."
The morning after Christmas, D packed a bag and went to stay with a college friend in the Keys. P didn't even try to stop her. D just couldn't do it anymore. She was tired of feeling angry with him, sick of worrying, watching, waiting. D wanted to be free at last of P's constant need to be adored, to not be terrorized by his crushes. She'd rather live alone, D realized, than be with a man who craved stimulation not coming from her.
On the beach in Key West, D sighed with relief. She could finally relax and re-enter her body instead of feeling grafted to his. D ordered a vodka martini and did yogic stretches on her blanket, not failing to notice the handsome man playing nearby with a ball-kicking toddler. She looked at his hand — no wedding ring. The man caught her looking and smiled, then returned the boy to a couple in deck chairs.
He stared at D and cracked a beer, causing her to blush. Then he turned toward D's towel, eyes fixed on the prize, and made his way slowly in her direction. D saw that her hands were actually trembling. Her stomach felt like a butterfly net. If he wanted to talk to her, what would she say? So this is what it's like, D thought. This is how it feels to be free.