Excerpt: Reflections of A Late Bloomer
By Paula Derrow
There’s one in every crowd, the person who can always be counted on to slyly, subtly bring the conversation around to sex. I’ll admit, it’s usually me. I could blame the fact that I’ve spent the better part of the past 20 years working as an editor at various women’s magazines, mining friends’ sexual adventures (or lack thereof) for story ideas and splashy coverlines.
Yet despite my journalist training, teasing forth honest conversations about sex isn’t always easy. I still recall a dinner with two close friends a few years ago, when one woman, newly engaged and spurred by a few vodka tonics, wondered aloud if either of us had ever tried “you know, back-door sex.” There was a pause, I felt myself smiling stupidly, and before I could speak, before any of us could, I could tell from the sheepish expression on her face that she was sorry she’d ever mentioned it. We did get around to swapping experiences that night but all of us, as close as we were, felt awkward about our attempts to open up.
Afterward, I found myself wondering why three sophisticated, been-around-the-block, liberal-minded types had gotten so embarrassed by the mere mention of a sexual taboo, and a relatively tame one at that. It’s not that I’d never had frank sex talks with friends: We occasionally dished over a new lover or sniped about a lackluster ex and there had certainly been more than one drinks-fueled discussion over dinner about vibrators and blow-job techniques. But as we got older and many of us occupied ourselves with husbands and households, increasingly demanding jobs and new babies, these exchanges happened less and less. When they did, they mostly served to remind me how much remained unsaid, how little the women I know talked about the awkward couplings and surprising urges; the long dry spells or messy, mind-blowing encounters that make up a person’s sexual history.
Partly, I think, this silence stems from fear—fear of being exposed as inadequate or worse, of being boring. Living in an all-sex, all-the-time culture may be liberating in many ways, but it can also breed shame—shame for not keeping up, for not being invited to the party. When most of what women read, see and hear about sex has little to do with their own everyday, perhaps less-than-HBO-worthy experiences, there’s a disconnect, which breeds anxiety: How can any one of us know that what we feel and do is normal, that we’re good in bed, that our desires are kinky, tame or somewhere in between?
The 26 brave, funny, ballsy, smart, searching writers in Behind the Bedroom Door
explore the sexual territory that is not often talked about. Because despite living in a world where it’s possible to peer directly into bedrooms across the country via web cam, getting to the truth about sex hasn’t necessarily gotten easier, partly because what’s portrayed in the media is usually as inauthentic as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo throwing each other good-night kisses from their separate twin beds.
And so, the idea for this anthology: When I began mentioning to friends and acquaintances that I was putting together a collection of essays about the sexual feelings and experiences women are afraid to talk about, the stories started to spill out. At a party one evening, a Texan woman with frosted hair and sparkly eye shadow told me she felt guilty about rejecting her husband’s sexual advances the night before. “I needed to catch a plane early,” she explained. “Besides, all he wanted was a quickie. Why should I bother messing up my hair?” Another night, at dinner with a recently married couple, the wife—a dark, serious, intellectual in her late 30s—leaned toward me as soon as her husband slipped outside to take a call on his cell. “I’m only telling you this because you’re doing a book,” she began. “But I’d be interested in having a threesome, with another woman.” Another day, while hiking with a group of women during a vacation in Utah, our guide, a bright-eyed 73-year-old former Mormon told me she’d been married six times, had seven children—and had never had an orgasm. “But I’m done with men,” she said, with a laugh, stepping nimbly over the rocks in our path. “I wouldn’t want anyone to see me naked now.”
These conversations convinced me that women are hungry for a book that tells the truth about sex in real life. Behind the Bedroom Door
is that book, its 26 original essays meant to open a window into the libidos and longings of women of every age and stage of life . In her essay, “In Praise of One-Night Stands,” Susan Cheever up-ends conventional notions about casual sex. I n the harrowing “Sexercise,” Abby Sher comes clean about her view of sex as a means of burning calories, of making herself disappear. Lauren Slater contemplates her virtually sexless marriage in “Overcome” while Valerie Frankel takes a decidedly lighter view of things in “Ouch, You’re Lying on My Hair.” Hope Edelman makes a case for innocence in “The Sweetest Sex I Never Had” and Julie Powell, in Lost in Space, gives an unflinchingly honest account of the tempestuous affair that rocked her marriage and world view.
These essays, all so different, make it clear that for women, sex changes all the time, along with our hormones, our psyches, our partners. It’s always evolving, happily often for the better, as we learn what we can give and allow ourselves to get in return. Let the conversation begin.In Praise of One-Night Stands
By Susan Cheever
Growing up in the fifties, I heard many stern warnings about one-night stands. Men don't respect you afterward. They won't buy the cow if they can get the milk for free. Personally, I don't like being compared to a cow. Maybe that's why I've always loved one-night stands.
I never was one for picking up men in bars or in the next seat on an airplane. I usually met them at parties—New York is a city of parties. The two of us would start to chat, and the chat became something more serious. We talked about work and our ambitions. We'd find a common interest in Edith Wharton, or Fellini, or the Boston Red Sox. Soon we were sitting somewhere private. We would have another scotch or another glass of wine.
Then we would begin to touch each other—a hand on a shoulder to make a point, a light squeeze of the knee if a joke was particularly funny. I felt that familiar hot and cold feeling, that soaring and sinking, which I knew was my mind being overwhelmed by my physical excitement. I let it happen. Sometimes we would leave for a drink at a neighborhood bar; sometimes we simply took a taxi back to my apartment. In the cab, we kissed. I wondered about the condition of my apartment—had I made the bed? We kissed again and I forgot about housekeeping. Soon, we would be in my unmade bed, embracing each other and experiencing the awkward, thrilling moments of sex with a stranger.
If you are looking for love, sexual intimacy can be a shortcut. It is among the fastest ways to get to know another person. During sex, we show physical parts of ourselves that are usually kept covered; we display our private likes and dislikes. In its moments of unconscious response to physical pleasure, the body reveals a great deal of involuntary information: a need to dominate or a difficulty following orders, whether we are good at letting go or are uncomfortable with how we look. All this is revealed in the two-person drama of the sex act.
It's scary to do something that lets another person in on so much private information, but it's also ruthlessly efficient. Dinner in a fancy restaurant or even a long conversation in a dimly lit bar can be completely misleading. In e-mails and letters and telephone calls, people can act their way into being someone different. It's easy to fool someone with a turn of phrase. Sex tells the truth.
Most erotic fantasies are about one-night stands. In my own, I imagine having sex with someone I've started dancing with at a party; we end up in a bedroom on a pile of coats left there by the other partygoers. I smell the scent of someone's perfumed lining and feel the softness of mink against my naked legs.
Somehow, I never fantasize about sex with my husband in a marital double bed that I've neatly made with hospital corners, or with a man who has just changed our baby's diapers or emptied the dishwasher. Marriage can be sexy, too, but in my experience, it is never the stuff of fantasy. I think this is nature's way of telling us that sexual intimacy is distinct from emotional and financial and domestic intimacy. What's wonderful in bed can be disastrous in the nursery or the kitchen.
My deepest connections to men have often been at times when sex seemed like an impossibility, or at least an unpleasant afterthought. Two weeks after the birth of my beloved son, his father went to my favorite lingerie store and bought me a fabulous black lace teddy. I oohed and aahed politely as I unwrapped the layers of pink tissue, but the truth was that the skimpy fabric looked like an artifact from another life. Childbirth and its aftermath had given me enough discomfort for a lifetime; I could no longer imagine why a woman would ever wear such an uncomfortable thing.
When my husband and I finally did have sex after the baby was born, it was without the seductions of black lace. It was clumsy. Tentative. It felt like sex between two people who had just had their first conversation. It was, in many ways, like a one-night stand.
When I was a young woman in the sixties, I knew my life wouldn't really start until I was married. In a world without legal abortion, one-night stands were both dangerous and prohibited by parents, teachers, and everyone else in authority. So I planned to sleep only with men who were willing to marry me. The trouble is, my sexual enthusiasm far outweighed my desire to be a twenty-year-old housewife. Still, I managed to restrain myself: By the time I did get married at what I thought was the ripe old age of twenty-three, I'd been sexually intimate with only a few men I'd assumed I would be with for the long haul. It wasn't until the sad end of my first marriage eight years later that I was released into the wild, fevered atmosphere of the 1970s.
I discovered that a one-night stand is the erotic manifestation of carpe diem—only we are seizing the night instead of the day. Though sex with a long-term partner is many things, it is not that. With a husband or a boyfriend, there is the delicious certainty that pleasure will be both given and received. Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings. With a long-term partner, I can relax. He is not surprised by the moles on my back, nor is he self-conscious about the hair on his shoulders. There's a kind of transcendence to married sex, a connection that is more than the sum of body parts linked and flesh responding, as if this most physical of acts was also the threshold to spiritual intimacy.
One-night stands are spiritual in another way: They are sex without expectations. They are a leap of faith because you never know quite where they will lead. My one-night stands were never planned, and they were always, in their own ways, mysterious. Occasionally they took place in the afternoon in a hotel. Once, there was a dazzling ten-minute interlude bent over a washing machine with a fellow Sunday luncheon guest in someone else's suburban laundry room. When I was an editor at Newsweek, they sometimes happened early in the morning in the little infirmary room next to the copy machine. At the time, staying at the office until the next morning and editing in the same clothes was a rite of passage for anyone with ambition. One night, a writer I admired was also working late, and we ended up walking out of the lobby together and into the romantic early morning streets. Remember Marlon Brando singing about that time of day in Guys and Dolls? "The street belonged to the cop, and the janitor with the mop . . ." The writer offered to see me home.
When we got there, I opened a bottle of wine. "Let's drink this in bed," he said. Afterward, we both fell asleep for a few hours, and I woke up thinking how much happier I'd be if he wasn't there. I admired his work, not his body. He snored. He took up a lot of space in my bed. When he finally roused himself, he halfheartedly asked if I wanted to go out for breakfast, and I pleaded a headache. After that, we went back to being friendly officemates. We had tried out a different kind of relationship and found that it didn't work.
Most of my one-night stands have taken place in the conventional precincts of a bedroom, preceded by a few coincidences and some conversation. That didn't make them any less surprising. One-night stands can be nothing more than a few hours of pleasure, or they can be the beginning of something much more important, and it's impossible to tell until it's too late. Another man I slept with never intending anything serious was married to an acquaintance of mine, but she was far away. It was summer in New York City, when wives and children stayed in the country and all domestic rules seemed breakable. It was too hot to feel guilty. Slowly, with a lot of laughter and in the kind of emotionally woozy state that results from staying up too long, we repaired to my bedroom. The sex wasn't particularly memorable; we were both tired and quite drunk. I fell into a fitful sleep and woke to find myself sheltered in his arms. His flesh was pleasantly warm; he smelled good. I drifted off again, feeling buoyant and safe. When we officially woke up a few hours later we tried to pretend that everything was normal. I made coffee and changed the sheets. He got on the telephone with an editor, then called his wife and checked on his children. It was no use. By the time we wandered out to lunch we both knew something huge had happened. Our connection felt capricious, as if there had been a potion in my nightcap, or as if a rascally little boy had aimed an arrow in our direction. We sat in a bar holding hands, reveling in our exhilaration at having found each other and in our suffering at having to part. It was as if we had been together forever; I felt an uncanny sense of destiny fulfilled. The world, however, didn't care. I had to be in Boston for dinner. He had a plane to catch.
That one-night stand led to a thirty-five-year love affair—the most enduring love of my life. Some kind of deep intimacy between us had been released, an intimacy that remains decades later. After more than fifteen years of obstacles—my guilt, his guilt and pain, limited resources, our own confusion—we eventually married and had a wonderful son. We are now separated. I had no idea what was going to happen when I casually invited him up to my apartment. If I had known, would I have gone home alone?
That is the real danger of a one-night stand. Not that it will lead to nothing, but that it will lead to everything. In this way, casual sex is excruciatingly hazardous. Those who are not ready to have their life changed should probably abstain.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Behind the Bedroom Door by Paula Derrow, editor. Copyright © 2008 by Paula Derrow. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.