Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lay Down Your Arms and Surrender to Me

I am a reforming scorekeeper in the midst of changing a lifelong habit.

By that I mean, I notice who last took out the garbage, did the dishes, fed the dog and the birds (no-one), shoveled the driveway and the steps leading to the front door. I know whose house we had Thanksgiving dinner at and Christmas Eve and whether these were complete dinners and several hours, or just pop-ins and about an hour--which makes a significant difference in how the balance sheet reads. (I thought that when my parents moved from South Africa to a house around the corner about twelve years into our marriage that it was entirely proper for me to announce that because we had spent the past decade of holidays at Kevin's family, that we would now be spending the next decade with mine. The smile on his mother's face when I told her did not quite reach her eyes.) When the balance sheet of our marriage starts to tilt out of my favor, equilibrium is easily restored with a pair of Franco Sarto shoes, preferably T-strap or Mary Jane-style with 3-inch heels.

I have applied that same rationale to our sex life, doling out favors and encounters with the frugality of a New England spinster, determined to make it through the winter with most of her dried apples intact. I have a few ideas where that approach to sex (and scorekeeping) came from. Probably a mixture of things, including being the fifth child of seven who crept downstairs in the middle of the night to eat one more bite of the smoked pork chop that was my favorite and that I knew would be gone when I got downstairs in the morning; a conservative, religious upbringing in which we abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage and therefore any kind of knowledgeable discussion of sex prior to marriage; hundreds of lessons on the worth of moral virtue and the benefits of coming home dead on a shield rather than losing said virtue; and a complete lack of frank conversation about sex after marriage outside of the marriage relationship (probably a mixture of cultural and familial norms).

As a result of this upbringing, I have had notions that married sex between Kevin and I was something he earned, something that I gave in to. Even after marriage, the delectable ramparts of my body were to be scaled, preferably with scaling ladders and hooks a la a Spanish walled town in a Richard Sharpe novel, while I, sometimes halfheartedly and sometimes viciously, poured hot oil in his general vicinity. (There have been nights (mostly afternoons, and always on vacation) when, wonders of wonders, the town gate, as it were, was serendipitously left wide open and Kevin waltzed right in. But a good girl doesn't confess to those; it must have been a night watchman's error.)

After reading about another couple's year-long, sex every day, experiment, Kevin's employee's wife gave her husband 365 days of "loving" for his birthday. We'll call him Mick, and confess that he was over the moon for the first weeks. Imagine, about ten years into your Life Cereal and 1% milk with the occasional French toast and strawberries with whipped cream for breakfast marriage, that your wife declares open season. No working it, no keeping your hands in the appropriate regions until the appropriate time, no risk of the inadvertent squeeze of the belly fat that changes what seemed a promising moment into her sucking in her tummy and moaning, "Oh, I can't stand this body. I don't know why you even find me attractive. You just want to make love to me because I'm all you have. You wouldn't choose me if you had a real choice." No turning of the body away from the hand (whose owner has just come home from work and has barely made eye contact let alone asked her about her day) that is working its way around the side of her for a little grab of what, in the local university's locker room about twenty years ago, was referred to as "gahoop." None of that. Just the sure thing, every day.

Mick kept Kevin apprised of the developments. I lived the life of the sexually rich and proliferate via proxy. Some revelations were surprising. Like, how, when he returned home at two in the morning after flying in from Des Moines and Tiff was up and waiting for him, the idea of making love made him groan--with fatigue. How, it's better to be showered and clean shaven. Some not so surprising. That the level of conversation they now routinely engaged in was significantly more intimate than those which had filled their weeks for years. Dreams, goals, desires, fears, not just children, or bills, or duties, or repairs. Is it any wonder that, during the sure thing, Tiff came on board with one of Mick's business ideas and they are building, together, a home-based business?

One observation Mick made changed the way I live. He said to Kevin, "Kev, do you know how things change when the answer is always yes? When there is no doubt about whether you will be making love, then there is no second guessing about motives. No wondering about why I put my hand on her head and stroke her hair. No shrugging my hand off her shoulder as we sit next to each other on the couch, because that's the first time I've touched her all day and she thinks that the only reason I'm doing it is because I want sex. When the answer is yes, I am free to love her and to show my love for her. And, she is free to accept it. To know that I'm touching her because I want to touch her. Because, at that moment, touching her makes me happy."

I have thought about that for months now: the answer is yes.

What if, with regards to your husband or wife or partner, the answer was always yes. What if your natural orientation and instinctive response to them was "yes." That when they came to you with a question or a dream or a hope or a need to make love, you answered yes. That when he reached for you in bed, in the middle of his dream state, you didn't lie very still and pretend to be asleep, or push his arm or pelvis away from you with a snort and put the pillow between you. What if, when he reached for you, you rolled into him, you laid yourself along him, from ankle bone to knees to pelvis- stomach-chest, your feet and hands entwined. What if? What if, when that hand reaches for you in the kitchen, you turn to it, and place your breast in its path, and push your hips against his, and grin at him, as you make spaghetti sauce. What if? What if, when he came to you with his dream, you listened and believed, and sat with open heart, not counting hypothetical, future losses as if they had already occurred. What if there was no score to keep, no balance sheet, no ledger of late home-from-works and sex only last Monday? That when you saw him or her, your whole body said, "Yes."

Tina Fey, in an interview, described her experience working improv comedy in Chicago. She said that the success of improv is "about saying yes" to the person across from you. "With improv, the focus is clear: You're supposed to be listening to the other person so you know how to respond. Improv involves a lot of agreement. It's all about saying yes to the person you're across from, because if you don't say yes, the sketch is over."

Admittedly, yes is a vulnerable place to be. There is no currency on the yes exchange: no sex for trade, no shoes for garbage. There's only a common fund made up of the two of us. Being in yes makes me turn toward, makes me want to believe, makes me hope and look forward, makes me grin and shrug, makes me dance to Saturday Night Fever, makes me stretch full length along his body in the dark of the night. Yes makes him valuable to me, precious, and creates a space when he is gone. In yes, I am his answer; he is my question. Truth be told, I am growing accustomed to yes and coming to believe it is the only place to be for our particular sketch to go on.

(Title: From Eddie Vedder/Pearl Jam's, Soldier of Love)

1 comment:

  1. Let me be the brave soul to comment on the s-e-x (yes, I'm spelling it quietly out loud) post because what rang to me was beyond that. I totally get the example. Why is it that I am indeed a scorekeeper? Is it about protecting myself? What don't I trust? Such a coincidence that I've come across your blog and this particular post when I'm feeling keenly aware that I'm looking at my life and marriage with an accountant's eyes. Ack. Not a coincidence. Rather, an answer to a prayer. I'm going to contemplate this subject much more hoping that I will have a "yes" spirit when Scott calls me from Ghana instead of the bitter/balance sheet one I've been harboring. :)