Suddenly, my friends are talking about their sex lives.
It starts with James, a good friend since college. He's taken the bus into Manhattan from New Jersey; I'm helping him shop for an anniversary gift for his wife.
We stop for tea at a Starbucks on Fifth Avenue. Out of the blue, he tells me that he and his wife rarely have sex—and when they do, it isn't good. "Not since Billy was born."
I take a gulp of my very hot tea.
He goes on, "Raising three kids, one with special needs, full-time jobs, too much stress …"
I try to wrap my mind around the fact that James—rock 'n' roll gorgeous back in the day when he fronted an anarchist punk band in San Francisco and wrote songs about all the kinky sex he was having with groupies—hasn't had good sex in two decades. Although he and his wife (one of those groupies) have lived in a quiet suburb for years, and she's now a nurse and he's a lawyer, I'd always figured that behind closed doors they still "fetishized" each other.
"Sex-and-couples therapy?" I suggest, putting down my tea.
"We're thinking about it." He glances at his watch. "Whoops, my bus." He gives me a hug and is gone.
I gather my things, feeling a bit in awe of his bravery in revealing something so personal, especially since we haven't spoken about sex in a very long time. I'm also relieved he didn't ask me to reciprocate with details about my own sex life.
In my youth, things were different: My friends and I spoke openly and often about our sexual adventures. In our 20s, nothing was more fun than sitting around gossiping about which of our partners were experienced, passionate and generous in bed, and which were tentative, demanding or kind of crazy. We commiserated over how we'd lost our virginity and what we sought in an ideal partner.
But with marriage came the sense that talking about my sex life—whether good, bad or indifferent (all of which have been true at various times)—would be a betrayal of my husband and our relationship. What we do behind closed doors is private. My friends seem to feel the same way. Instead of sex, we now discuss careers, children, health, real estate, friendships, politics, aging parents, exercise and therapy. I'm sure plenty of middle-aged folk never stopped discussing their sex lives; some probably post daily about it on Facebook. But my friends and I chose the path of discretion.
A few weeks after the shopping excursion with Mike, my pianist friend Deirdre and I are setting up our mats in yoga class, both of us wearing leggings and T-shirts. "I'm writing poetry for the first time in my life," she tells me softly, so no one else can hear. "I just wrote a poem about how screwed up my marriage is, how Jerry ignores and belittles me, and how I'm only now, at 53, learning to stand up to him."
I nod, adjusting my mat. For years, I've been urging her to be assertive or leave the marriage.
"But it's also about how in bed we're as insatiable for each other as the day we met." She looks at me intensely. "Are you surprised?"
I'm so surprised that I have trouble focusing on my happy baby pose, as I marvel once again at a friend's sudden openness about sex.
At the end of class, relaxing into Shavasana, it occurs to me that as my friends and I come to terms with cellulite, bad backs, high blood pressure, dreams not achieved, and ultimately our own mortality, we may be experiencing once more the keen desire to be known as sexual beings. But perhaps I'm not as ready as they are to be "known." In fact, I'm grateful that Deirdre, who has to race to her therapy appointment, doesn't stick around to ask about my sex life.
A few months later, Karin, one of my closest BFFs, is diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Her prognosis is not good. She's 57 and single since her late 20s. Thick as thieves for 25 years, she and I have never once discussed sex.
"I'm so lonely. It's been ages since I've had a lover," she says. Her mouth is a tense line. "I'll never again be touched by someone who desires my body."
"You're loved in so many other ways." I hug her. "You're a beloved friend, sister and aunt." She hugs me back. I know that she isn't going to ask me to share stories of my sex life; she is suffering too much.
Over the next few months, other friends "come out" to me: Inez, a teaching colleague, is newly married to husband number two. "We're like horny teenagers. We have sex all the time."
A single friend whose previous partner cheated for years freezes up at the thought of trusting someone new in bed.
A gay friend reveals that he and his partner have "sweet, comfortable sex," which he finds even more fulfilling than the "fiery, abandoned sex" of his youth.
It's with a brand-new friend—someone I've met only weeks before at a neighborhood street fair—that I find my own courage. Discussing sex with Chloe is the last thing on my mind when we sit down together at a table in the dimly lit corner of a hotel bar. All I really know about her is that she's a divorced accountant with two grown kids.
"My sister and I have a lousy relationship," she sighs as the waiter brings our drinks. "She's very cruel to me."
I sip my amaretto. "I also had a troubled relationship with my sister. She suffered a long time. She died young. I was so traumatized, I couldn't have sex for a year." Embarrassed, I feel my face flush. Perhaps I'm speaking so freely because she's never met my husband and barely knows me.
"After my divorce, I couldn't even think about sex for five years," Chloe says.
She and I are now off and running. She describes the two men she's dating. One likes Viagra and one prefers to snuggle.
I confide in her that with my husband's arrival into my life, I knew that I'd found my ideal partner in (and out of) bed. But that these days, parenting a teen while also teaching can leave me feeling pretty dampened, ardor-wise.
Feeling inspired by our conversation, I lift my glass; she does the same.
"Here's to sex … to doing it or not, to talking about it or not," I say.
And, as we clink our glasses, I think about how the very nature and meaning of sex have evolved for many of us over time. Sharing this new kind of intimacy helps me realize how our experiences over the years—whether health issues, emotional ups and downs, finances, parenting, or bad and good partners—are entwined with who we've become in the bedroom, for better, for worse, and forever.