Sometimes When We Touch

I needed more than my husband's platonic touch, but that would've risked the affection we did share—which I absolutely cherished

"Do you exercise regularly?" my new doctor asked me.

"I do." He was about my age, warm and easygoing. This felt as much like the tentative beginnings of a friendship as a medical history.

"Any recreational drugs?"

"Not since college."

"What do you do for birth control?"

If I sighed, he didn't notice. "We sleep with a one-and-a-half-year-old between us."

The doctor laughed, unaware that I'd just sullied our budding friendship with what was at best a half-truth. But he was my physician, not my therapist. I wasn't about to confide in him something I hadn't told my closest girlfriends.

My son did share our bed, but even if he didn't, I had no need for birth control.

My husband wasn't interested in me sexually.

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Richard first told me he loved me within weeks of our dating. When he fantasized aloud about his future, I was always in it. And in those first promising months together, our sex life was good. He wasn't expert, but he was zealous.

Three months into our relationship, I got pregnant and chose to have an abortion. It wasn't a difficult decision, but afterward, I felt heartbroken. Richard acted impatient whenever I expressed my grief yet he stuck by me, holding me close every night and never pressing me for sex. At the time, that seemed like a kindness.

When I felt healed enough, I made the first overture. He put me off.

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"I'm really tired. Let's just rent a movie."

We did start having sex again, but infrequently and always at my suggestion. When he said yes, it felt as if he were relenting. More and more, he simply put me off. Stung by constant rejection, I stopped asking.

Through all this, he remained very affectionate; squeezing me tightly as we lay spooned together in bed.

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"I love you," he'd whisper before drifting off to sleep. I told myself this was more than many women get to have and willed myself to be grateful.

When Richard proposed, I took a breath and brought up our problem. "l don't want a platonic marriage," I said.

He seemed surprised by my concern. "It won't be," he promised.

We had sex once during our honeymoon, perfunctory "this is what we're supposed to do" sex. As my husband, Richard continued to be a great cuddler. But, at best, we made love an average of twice a year.

When I broached the subject, he shrugged it off.

"We're busy people. Work wears us out. I'm sure it's no different for other couples."

If I pressed, he made me feel like I was obsessed.

"Is this all you think about?"

So I tried not to think about it, focusing on work, friends and the better aspects of our marriage.

Over time, I came to believe that a physical relationship wasn't something I deserved. Maybe I'd done irreparable damage to our relationship after the abortion. Maybe I simply wasn't attractive enough.

When we decided to have a child, I was truly excited at the idea of becoming a mother. I also hoped our attempts to conceive might rekindle our love life.

When we were successful on our first try, I felt both thrilled and thwarted. Mission accomplished, we were once again done with sex.

As a new mother, sex was far from my mind. Our baby had two modes—screaming and nursing. For the year he lived in my arms, the last thing I sought was another person attached to me.

Still, when friends alluded to making love with their partners, I got a lump in my throat. When one found herself accidentally expecting again, I felt jealous, not out of desire for another child but for that kind of spontaneous sex life.

One evening, we attended an auction benefiting our son's preschool. A mom I knew mostly from the playground had on a backless black dress, and I grew mesmerized by the rose tattoo on her shoulder. Her husband came up behind her and, grazing it with his fingers, whispered in her ear. When he turned, I caught his expression: pride, possessiveness, the glazed pleased look of a lover. I glanced at Richard who was eating quickly, his attention fixed on his plate.

Later that year, our marriage ended. I felt startled and sad, but I also had a growing sense of hopefulness.

"You seem very alive these days," a friend said.

We were chatting in her living room. When she excused herself to answer the phone, I scanned the bookcase where she had an impressive collection of self-help books. I came upon the title "Celibate Wives" and froze. Hands shaking, I leafed through its pages.

I'm not the only one, I thought, amazed.

Not long after, I found myself tentatively kissing a very nice man. I felt as nervous as a virginal teenager. This is really happening, I told myself incredulously.

After we'd moved to my bed, he gazed down at me.

"Look at you. Just look at you," he marveled, erasing years of agonizing insecurity.

My lover and I began to see each other on Fridays when my son stayed at Richard's. One such evening, my ex called to ask if he could drop our son off at bedtime instead of having him spend the night. I told him I needed the apartment to myself.

"Why?" he asked. "After you go out to dinner, you'll just be home, right?"

"Yes, but I'd like some privacy."

"What for?"

Was he being dense on purpose? "I don't want him to see something he shouldn't."

There was silence at the other end of the phone. Richard had a new live-in girlfriend.

"You have six days when you don't have to worry about a four-year-old walking in on you."

"Well," he answered brusquely. "We both work hard all week and then we're exhausted."

The comment washed away the last of my doubts. There never had been anything wrong with me.

That was 16 years ago. I'm now married to a man with whom I have rich conversations, as well as loving, plentiful sex. From that contented place, I can look back on my first marriage and feel generous toward both of us. Maybe Richard simply wasn't brave enough at the time for the rawness and vulnerability lovemaking can elicit, just as I wasn't brave enough to insist that I needed more than platonic touch. It would have meant risking the affection we did share and I cherished that. In his own way, he was very loving. Judging by his relationship with our now 20-year-old son, he still is.

As for my current husband, earlier today, he called from his office, which is actually on the top floor of our house, to discuss the weekend. There's a restaurant we've been meaning to try, a movie we'd like to see.

"I also really want to be inside you," he said, though he was quick to amend, "Of course, I'm not saying that's the main event."

Our ritual response is a playful "Disclaimer noted." But sometimes, having lived for years without that kind of attention, I respond a bit greedily.

"Tell me again," I said.