(This essay is excerpted from The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in September, 2016.)
As my marriage of thirty-odd years was exploding in a spectacular fashion, I said to my therapist, “Well, one good thing is going to come of this. I’m going to have a sex life again.”
I hadn’t planned on saying this. I’m not sure I was conscious of even having thought it. But out it came. “You know why?” I said.
“Because you like sex,” he said.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” says my friend Mary. “I am so sick of aging women who boast about how much they still like sex.”
Believe me, I am not boasting. But when you did enjoy something (like a sex life) and someone (like, your husband) took it away from you (when? only the assiduous journal keepers among us ever record the final fuck), you do have a hankering to get it back in your life.
“You will not sleep with him on the first night,” my friend Stella told me firmly.
Let’s paint this picture: You are no spring chicken. In fact, you are in spitting distance of sixty. Over the years, your husband has taken to accepting work that takes him farther and farther from home, and longer and longer to complete, until one day he just doesn’t come back. “Sweets,” he writes, “got to see a man in Bratislava. Wi-Fi spotty; will try to Skype soon.” He never does.
The man in Bratislava turns out to be a Czech boutique owner in her thirties. But let’s get back to me.
My world collapses. But in short order I get something extraordinary: a handsome widower who is ready to be happy again. He will woo me with flirty e-mails and surprisingly thoughtful gifts. He will call me his “sweet angel,” but of course he’s not the only one being saved. And there will be sex. I want to say a lot of it, but then my teenage self looks down on me with a cocked brow. Okay, fine: There will be plenty of sex.
But before there can be sex, there are—there must be—The Preparations for Sex.
The Handsome Widower
The handsome widower lived in one state, I in another, and we met in a third, at a dinner party (thrown by a mutual friend). He was ten years older than me—so, getting on in age and a bit stooped, but still lean, and I could tell he liked sex by the way he kissed my cheek at the end of the night, and he could tell I liked sex, he later said, by the way my hand lingered on his back as he proffered that kiss.
He sent me an e-mail. He would soon be passing through town, he wrote. Would I be interested in dinner and a play? This was exciting stuff! No longer young, not yet divorced, and already I was being asked out.
“You will not sleep with him on the first night,” my friend Stella told me firmly. I was camped out in her apartment, in exile as my future ex-husband, back from God knows where, took over our home to sift through thirty years of belongings, ferreting out what he wanted in his new life.
Stella and I go way back. She knew me in the reckless seventies, and she was a step ahead of me now, because, while her long relationship had ended a few years ago, she was in love again. She had both old and new wisdom to share.
“I don’t care how much you drink,” she said, “and you can kiss him—kissing’s fine, kissing’s good—but that’s it, Sarah.”
Wait. What was she saying? That it’s my inclination to be a slut? That I—
“I’m saying you’re not ready yet.”
What Stella was saying was that women’s bodies that have not connected for some time with other bodies lose the physical memory of sex. And she was surmising: The last time you had sex was before you went through menopause, and here you are on the other side of the great divide, and your body probably needs some help getting ready for what it is you think you may want to do.
When had the welcoming port to my being pulled up the plank? Where was I when this happened?
But I knew Stella was wrong about me. Here’s why: I happened to have had a gynecologist appointment that very week. “I’ve met a man,” I told my doctor. She poked around, and she smiled. “You are good to go!” My doctor is on Park Avenue; she’s fancy. You should have seen me sashay down the street that afternoon. Lookee here! My husband may have gone walkabout, and I may be postmenopausal—but, baby, I am good to go!
“Really? That’s what she told you?” Stella looked askance. “Huh. She’s wrong.”
I was offended. What did my friend know about the inner workings of my body? Maybe other women go dry. Maybe a lack of visitation causes their muscles to lose a lusty spring, whereas mine—
I visited myself that night, if only to prove my friend wrong, but . . . Oh. Whatever readiness my gynecologist had found eluded me. Where my hand landed, where once it had been as inviting as Gauguin’s Tahiti, was now as . . . well . . . I’ll tell you many things, but I won’t tell you that. But it was frighteningly clear that even if I was determined to sleep with a near-stranger on a first date (and at my age, why the hell not? At what age do you no longer have a reputation to protect?), even if I was willing to throw my body down, I was not, at this moment, ready to receive guests.
When had the welcoming port to my being pulled up the plank? Where was I when this happened? Asleep? Alone, at least. That much I know. I was alone when it happened.
Oh, the degradations of inattention! It isn’t so much time that does us in, I think, as being ignored as time glides along. Toward the end of my marriage I had begun to feel like a wife in a 1950s comic strip. “Let’s see if he notices this haircut!” “I wonder if he’ll comment on my new glasses!” There was an upside to this, of course. There are some changes you’d prefer no one monitor. “You look fine,” my husband would say, in part because he wasn’t looking.
The wear of six decades is inescapable: I am crisscrossed with scars, peppered with moles. But the spirit and the power of my younger self is still very much present.
Now I stand in black underwear before a full-length mirror, and I do look fine. The misery of recent years has inadvertently served me well. The lack of an appetite has slimmed me. The highlights to hide the hair shocked gray are “pizzazzy,” says my mother-in-law. (She’s southern. And yes, technically she’s my ex-mother-in-law, but not in either of our hearts.) It startles me, this body, simultaneously young and old, smooth and loose, taut and round. The wear of six decades is inescapable: I am crisscrossed with scars, peppered with moles. But the spirit and the power of my younger self, the twenty-eight-year-old woman who could feel heads turn as she walked by, is still very much present, in the long legs, the broad shoulders, the narrow wrists that I have always loved because they are the only parts of me that ever seemed petite. If I spotted this woman striding down a French beach in a bikini, I would marvel, “Look at that attractive older woman, so comfortable in her own skin!” (Okay, maybe not marvel. But note affirmatively, I like to think.)
If my date with the handsome widower goes well, there will likely be another, and eventually the time will come when all these scars, these imperfections and more, will be exposed. And you know what? That will be fine. “Really,” says a friend, “by the time you take your clothes off, men are so grateful to have you naked they don’t care what you look like.” I will bank on that too.
Sex and Middle Age: The Research
I am a good student. If I’m dreaming of having sex in this new older body, I will learn how it works, and how his works as well. On the AARP website I call up “How Sex Changes for Men after 50” and find this: “It becomes less like the Fourth of July, and more like Thanksgiving.” That’s not really the fun I had in mind, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the postmenopausal kicks promised on a popular woman’s site: “We do wacky things, wear purple, or join Red Hat Societies.”
I don’t want to be wacky. I want to have sex.
I go to WebMD and mayoclinic.org. I am ill prepared for the horror of it: vaginal atrophy, thinning tissue, penetration pain . . . Dear God. Maybe it’s too late for me. Maybe this is not to be.
“Poor Cinderelly!” says the sad little mouse in the Disney movie. “Cinderelly not go to the ball.” It is a very poignant moment. But you know what happens next? The other little mice and bluebirds of happiness spring into action—and they save Cinderella.
In my story, it is the Sisterhood of the Still Sexually Active that rushes to my aid. I started to write “the small Sisterhood,” but really, you rarely know who among your friends is sexually active. And what is “active”? Every wedding anniversary or every Sunday? As my marriage came unglued and I shared intimate truths with dearest friends, they offered me glimmers into their lives, and I was dazed by the spectrum of behavior. Some long-married friends were having sex faithfully—once a week, even twice, and more on holiday—while others who I’d assumed led lively lives turned out not to have been intimate in decades.
The Sisterhood of the Still Sexually Active rushes to my aid.
“There’s absolutely no norm,” I said to my therapist.
“I mean, the only norm seems to be that you either think you’re the norm or fear you’re not.”
He nodded again. “And the norm changes.”
Yes. What was normal for my body forty, twenty, even five years ago isn’t now. Will this new body like what it once liked? Will it respond as it used to? What if I’m now just . . . a cuddler? And this new body of mine will engage with a sixty-eight-year-old man. What if he’s just a cuddler? So much is unknown.
Will this new body like what it once liked? Will it respond as it used to? What if I’m now just . . . a cuddler?
The Sisterhood steps in with practical wisdom. They debate lubricants, weigh in on waxing. (Friend one: “At our age, Brazilians are a seriously bad idea.” Friend two: “Brazilians can be a fun change of pace.”) If my goal is to return to an easy state of play, I need to consider hormone replacement therapy. My friends demystify this low-dose, local estrogen and break down the differences between tablets, creams, patches, rings. To get me started, a beloved buddy offers me spare sticks of Vagifem, much as she used to slip me Percocets in the old days. “Amp up!” she says. “It will take weeks, even months, but you’ll get there, girl!”
The First Date
I have my date. It goes swimmingly. He worries I haven’t ordered enough dinner and feeds me meat off his plate. He leans in at the punch lines of the play, and afterward, dazzles me with magic tricks at a bar as we sip limoncello, which I pretend to like. At the end of the night, in a subway station in Times Square, we embrace and promise to see each other again.
“Stella!” I exclaim as I get home. “I need new underwear!”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. At our age, you don’t spend a lot of time prancing around.”
“But there is this other matter we haven’t discussed.”
In essence, what Stella asks is this: You are thinking of entertaining again; you are ready to invite a gentleman caller into, let’s say, your private chambers. If (to keep the euphemism rolling) he shows up at your door with a large piece of furniture, hoping to move it in, will there be room for it?
That night I visit myself again, this time in order to explore dimensions.
Stella can read the dismay on my face the next morning, but as always she takes matters in hand. “This is completely solvable. Just get out your vibrator—”
Her eyes widen. “You don’t have one?”
I glare across the room. I am sick of having to learn about what once came so naturally. And if Stella evinces a scintilla of pity, I will pop her.
Of course, looking at it objectively, this is not punishment. I’m not being ordered to run laps or lift weights. It is simply being suggested that if I want to get key muscles back in shape, stretched and toned, after a long period of disuse, then there’s a method (masturbation) and a means (a vibrator).
But which vibrator? I am, as I’ve said, a good student who appreciates homework, and I am not an impulse shopper. So I do my usual when shopping for any piece of equipment: I log on to ConsumerReports.com. But alas, their V listings cover only vacuum cleaners and video game consoles; there are no vibrators here.
I Google, I Yelp, and I finally hit the mother lode at Babeland, a women-friendly sex shop, which has not only a snappy and informative website but an actual brick-and-mortar shop not far from where I live. I can do my research online, in the privacy of my own room—and then shop locally!
I study the Customer Pick reviews, peek at the “luxury vibrators,” quail at the strap-on cocks, narrow my choices, then head to the store. Within minutes, its supremely knowledgeable saleswomen exhaust me: I don’t want to discuss what I’m “looking for in a vibrator.” I grab the cutest of the bunch. Barney purple and nurse white, it promises cheery fun, not scary times. It’s not cheap—$149!—but this is an investment in my future.
Stella is at the kitchen table, playing Words with Friends and sipping espresso, when I return. “Good for you!” she says. “Let’s take a look.”
I sigh and pull out my new toy.
“It’s quite small, isn’t it?” Stella says. With a jolt I realize that it is indeed downright Lilliputian.
Flipping it over in the palm of her hand, she says gently, “It’s quite small, isn’t it?” With a jolt I realize that it is indeed downright Lilliputian. Truth be told, if the handsome widower turns out to have an erect penis the size of this vibrator, I may want to reconsider my options.
Back to Babeland I go for a more practical practice penis. I find Boss Naked. It’s a massively manly thing (8 3/4 inches long and 1 1/2 inches thick), but it is smooth, almost velvety, with a pretty ridge, and I find I’m oddly moved by it, this disembodied erect joint looking for a home. It comes in two colors—a pink (“vanilla”) and a gentle brown (“caramel”), which, I don’t why, calls out to me—but I am on a mission to prepare for a pinkish person, so I opt for Mr. Vanilla (a more-affordable-than-last-time $69).
As I pay up, they award me a bonus gift for being such a good Babeland customer: a vibrator. It is turquoise and tacky, and for a while I snub it. But in the end, it turns out to be just the right size for me.