In December, my husband stopped screwing me. Actually, he stopped initiating sex, so I stopped being aggressive to see how long it would take him to grab me. Six weeks with no action had me worried. For the last year, I’d been acing sobriety, but was I flunking marriage?
“Let me get this straight,” said my best friend Claire. “You got this rich, brilliant hunk who’ll jump your bones whenever you snap your fingers. But you don’t want to snap your fingers?” Along with a recent breakup, Claire had quit cigarettes for two months, gained 12 pounds, then started smoking again. She obviously wasn’t the right person to commiserate with about my husband’s lost passion for me.
I called my colleague Jasmine, an N.Y.U. professor blissfully married to Glen, a lawyer. He’s a hunk, too, and a great father to their daughters. Jasmine admitted that Glen wasn’t sexually aggressive, either. “His work takes so much out of him. His boss is a maniac; his family is draining. When he gets home, he doesn’t want to risk rejection,” she said.
“You don’t mind initiating all the time?” I asked her. “I give him a break,” Jasmine said, “let different things count as aggressive. If he says, ‘You look beautiful,’ and holds my hand, I take it from there … with compassion.”
For a second, I felt sorry for modern men; surely mixed messages from multiple waves of the women’s movement had paralyzed them. My husband, Aaron, a TV comedy writer, was exhausted, working three jobs while helping me with my addiction therapy. He went along with my shrink Dr. Winters’ kooky mandates: holding me for an hour while we watched TV without talking, throwing out all junk food in the house. Dr. Winters had scrawled the latest edict on the back of one of his business cards: “sex for medicinal purposes.” I waited to show it to Aaron over the weekend, like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
On Friday night, we had a fight when Aaron did the laundry, but forgot to do my laundry. Then, afraid that his clothes would shrink in the dryer, he hung them up in the bathroom, so that our Manhattan high-rise apartment looked like Fiddler on the Roof ‘s Anatevka. Aaron had been coming home at midnight every night; he wasn’t sleeping well. When I found a toothbrush and polka-dot boxer shorts in his briefcase, I worried he was having an affair. Then I worried that he wasn’t even thinking about having an affair. I’d been so preoccupied with stemming my self-destructive obsessions, I now realized that he wasn’t being a jerk -he was being insaner than I was.
I insisted that he call Dr. Winters for himself. To my surprise, he didn’t argue. I suspected Aaron was jealous of my fascinating weekly tête-à-têtes with the good doctor. At least I hoped he was.
“I’m seeing him at 8:45 Thursday morning,” Aaron told me.
“My appointment is 8:45 Thursday night,” I said, “We’ll be bookends. There’s a screenplay in it, like Rashomon .”
“Let’s fuck with his head,” Aaron said. “Make up bizarre conflicting stories to see if he’s really listening.”
I wasn’t thrilled to share my shrink, though I’d originally stolen him from Aaron, who’d stolen him from his ex-fiancée. Dr. Winters had become my substitute father; I felt sibling rivalry. Yet I had to trust him. He’d made Aaron, the commitment-phobe, propose after one couples session. I also credited Dr. Winters with getting me off my fierce 27-year addiction to nicotine, as well as helping me nix alcohol and gum, without gaining weight. I’d recently quit all bread products. Adding sex to the taboo list was depravation overload. And giving myself orgasms didn’t count-it was like eating hard-boiled eggs when I wanted French toast made from challah. I figured if Dr. Winters had gotten me married and on the wagon, chances were he could get me laid.
“Stop criticizing Aaron,” was how Dr. Winters began our Thursday night session. “Aaron criticizes me ,” I said. “He says mean things all the time. If I take out his garbage, I’m a neat freak. When I didn’t let him order garlic naan at Café Spice, he said, ‘You’re a controlling cunt.’ When my agent helped me sell my sex-drugs-and-marriage memoir, he said, ‘Thank God my father isn’t alive to read it.'”
“What did you say?” Dr. Winters asked. “I said, ‘Go chew on yourself,'” I answered. “Stop fighting with Aaron,” he ordered. “Why do I have to be more sensitive than he is?” I asked. “Because criticism doesn’t bother you, but it bothers him,” came the answer. “What a double standard!” I said, crossing my arms.
“You eat anything you want in front of Aaron because it doesn’t affect his diet. But if he eats one roll, you shove 20 pieces of bread in your mouth. So he’s not allowed to eat bread in front of you. Remember?”
“He knew I was a castrating ball-buster when he married me,” I argued. “That’s what he wanted -a woman who could do hard jokes. He’d dated actresses and idiots who wanted to cook and have babies. He didn’t want a Kewpie doll.
“I can’t smoke, drink, chew gum or eat bread,” I went on, “and now I’m supposed to be a barefoot wifey whose job it is to make him feel big? Why don’t you give me a lobotomy?” I screamed. “Some men love brilliant, argumentative women who voice their opinions when they feel like it,” I went on, wanting to punch Dr. Winters. “Who?” he asked. “I never met one.” “Come on,” I said. “There are strong men who want somebody real. My ex, Brad, loved to fight. We’d argue and wrestle and have hot sex afterwards.” “Brad?” Dr. Winters countered. “He’s the one who married the 24-year-old graduate student?”
I knew I’d regret letting my shrink read my memoir in manuscript form. Yet Dr. Winters was right-not because he was a sexist pig trying to keep me sweet, quiet and non-threatening (which he clearly was), but because making my husband feel big would get me more love, which was what I needed to replace the bread with. “No men like tough, argumentative women?” I asked in a quiet voice. “Not to live with,” Dr. Winters said.
Walking home, I felt exhausted from my war of words with Winters. Aaron opened the door. It was 9:45; he was home earlier than usual. He wrapped his arms around me and said, “Hi, beautiful.” “You feel good,” I whispered as he rubbed my shoulders. “Want to fool around?” he asked, grabbing my breasts and kissing me hard on the lips like he used to. I pushed him down and crawled on top.
Later, naked on the living-room floor, I asked, “How did it go with Winters?” “He wrote down an adage on the back of his business card,” Aaron said. I was heartbroken; I’d imagined that Dr. Winters’ mini-messages were just for me. “It’s easier to be with an addict who’s using than an addict in recovery,” Aaron recited. The blinds were wide open and people across the street could see us, but I was too blissed out to care. “Sorry I’ve been a bitch,” I said. “Sorry I’ve been elsewhere,” he said and kissed my forehead. “How was your appointment? What did you talk about?” “Nothing important, sweetie,” I said, realizing it was the first time I hadn’t craved a cigarette after sex. Now I wanted a bagel.
Susan Shapiro’s memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart (Delacorte Press) will be published next year.