University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik meditates on men she has loved and the value of sexual chemistry.
Though most of us grew up thinking we’d find true love and mate for life, many didn’t make it very far. Some picked the wrong person in the first place. Some had relationship ADD. Others were cheated on, widowed, or hounded out the door. Some joined cults, some drank, some gambled, some changed beyond recognition upon becoming parents.
Still, I know a fair number of people who are floating like swans toward their 30th anniversaries. One of these, an old college friend, came from Texas last month to check on my health situation (much better now, thank you). When I met Miss E—, I was straight outta Jersey, a 1970s Snooki on her way to whatever trouble was available in the Ivy League. Miss E— was a private school girl from Dallas, on her way to a life of spirituality and service. She was in both my Hinduism and Russian history classes, and we were fascinated by each other, having previously encountered such specimens only in books.
By the late 1980s, both Miss E— and I were raising families in Austin. She had married a guy I didn’t click with very well. I imagined their relationship involved a lot of praying and volunteering at the soup kitchen. One day when our kids were small, she was recounting some mildly annoying thing he had done and I burst out, “How do you put up with him?”
Miss E— was quiet for a moment and then she said, looking down, “It’s the man-woman thing.”
“Well, you know. It just sort of heals things.” At this point her freckles themselves were blushing.
This comment has been on my mind for about 30 years now. At the time I could only imagine what she was talking about, as I had never been in a serious relationship where sex was the salve. After spending my teens and early 20s on a series of fatal attractions, I married a cool, funny and beautiful figure skater from Philly. Initially the fact that he was not heterosexual was part of his appeal, making our love even more amazing.
But actually, he was not much of a bisexual, either. His idea of a cute girl was Jamie Lee Curtis.
How could our sex life heal us when it was our biggest problem? (Our second biggest problem was that while I was a bubbling geyser of self-analytic conversation, my husband was inarticulate when it came to his feelings. Verbal attempts to solve our conflicts consisted of my stating my point of view, then my stating his point of view, then my offering the rebuttals for each side, while he rolled a joint, Windexed the French doors, and read the paper.)
He died young of AIDS and I have spent the rest of my life missing him, since every single thing that appeared in the world between 1983 and 1994 — our sons, Whole Foods Market, British synthpop, hair extensions — reminds me of him, his jokes and attitudes and way of talking. A New Orleans speedball for breakfast: chicory coffee, beer back. I wish he were here to watch “American Idol” with us and make up names for all the contestants, as he did for Tina Tuna, Edie Murphy, and our friends Noonie Bell and the Van Oddballs, known to others as Shelley and the Van Osdols.
There were many advantages of having a gay husband. He was fantastically neat and clean, and trained me in his orderly ways. He could cook, bartend, devise and execute wall treatments, garden, iron, arrange flowers, set a perfect table, and professionally cut and color my hair. He did the lion’s share of childcare, he bought my clothes, he cleaned our pool.
Nonetheless, with 10 years of sexual frustration behind me, I married a straight guy the second time out. Predictably my hot philosophy professor was not as much help with the domestic burden, though he did great work in the yard and was a world-class entertainer of children. In truth, he was most noted for his contributions in the bedroom, which kept him on the gravy train for years after all other means of communication and mutual assistance had fallen apart, after every emotional problem either of us had brought into the relationship had been leash-trained into an exquisitely synchronized pathology.
Alas, the man-woman thing didn’t work for me the way it did for Miss E- and her husband. It was glue, all right, but crazy glue. In my first marriage, it was an obsession that could never be perfectly resolved; in my second, it was a false utopia, a crack high, the five minutes of bliss that command your absolute loyalty, no matter what disaster unreels in the rest of your life.
When my late first husband’s mother heard my second marriage was on the rocks, her diagnosis was instant. “What did you expect? You only married him for the sex!” she commented caustically. This woman has never liked me and I would have said she never really knew me, but perhaps I was wrong.
Like most people, I’ve done a large percentage of everything I’ve done in life for the sex — or for the idea of the sex, for the idea of how it would fix everything important and make the rest disappear, bringing me into mystic wholeness. It would be drugs, religion, love, destiny, and a perfect sour cherry pie rolled into one.
Well, I may have been a little oversold. Sex can soften the edges of a conflict about taking out the garbage; it can soothe ruffled feathers and restore spirits. It cannot cure personality disorders, mine or anyone else’s.
When Miss E— came to visit me a few weeks ago, I asked her if she remembered this 25-year-old conversation of ours. She didn’t, but she smiled and said it rang true. Their version of the man-woman thing is probably a little different than it used to be, I imagine.
If I get another chance, perhaps mine will be too.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.