That summer my husband stopped screwing me.
To be more accurate, Aaron stopped initiating sex. I’d decided to stop being the aggressor to see how long it would take him to grab me or say, "Want to fool around?" After six lonely weeks with no action, I was getting worried. While I was acing sobriety, I feared I was flunking marriage.
"Let me get this straight," my best friend Claire said. "You've got this sweet rich brilliant hunk who’ll jump your bones whenever you snap your fingers. But you don’t want to snap your fingers? I really feel sorry for you."
She had just split up with the fellow architect she’d been dating. Plus she’d requit cigarettes for two months, gained twelve pounds, then started again. Now, she said, she was single, smoking and fat. She definitely was not the right person to commiserate with over my husband’s lost passion for me.
Instead I called my friend Jasmine, an English professor who seemed blissfully married to Glen, an attorney even taller than Aaron. He was a hunk too, and a great father to their three daughters. To my surprise, Jasmine admitted that Glen wasn’t sexually aggressive either. "His work takes so much out of him. His boss is a stressed-out maniac. We’re always broke. His parents are crazy and draining. When he gets home, I don’t think he wants to risk rejection," she explained.
"You don’t feel let down having to initiate it all the time?" I asked.
"Well, I give him a break. I let different things count as aggressive. If he says, ‘You look beautiful in that dress,’ or holds my hand, then I take it from there," Jasmine said. "Always with compassion."
Jasmine was so compassionate that for a second I felt sorry for modern men; surely the mixed messages from multiple waves of the women’s movement had paralyzed them. Aaron was exhausted, working crazy hours at three jobs. He had also been assisting me with my addiction therapy, going along with my therapist Dr. Winters’ semi-kooky mandates - holding me for an hour while we watched TV without talking every night, throwing out all candy or junk food in the house, taking long walks with me when I got antsy.
Dr. Winters latest written edict ordered: "Sex for Medicinal Purposes." I waited for the appropriate time to show it to Aaron over the weekend, as if it were a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
On Friday night, we had a fight when Aaron did the laundry but just happened to forget to do MY laundry. Then, afraid his clothes would shrink in the dryer, he hung them up all over the bathroom and living room, until our sleek Manhattan high rise looked like Fiddler On the Roofs' Anatevka. Since Aaron had dropped twenty pounds lately, why would he care if his jeans or shirts shrunk a little bit? He’d been coming home from work every night at midnight. He wasn’t sleeping or eating well. When I found a toothbrush and clean pair of polka dot boxer shorts in his briefcase, I worried that he was having an affair. Then I worried that he never even thought of having an affair.
Too preoccupied with stemming my own self-destructive impulses, I realized that Aaron wasn’t just acting like a male jerk. He was being insaner than I was. I suggested he call Dr. Winters to make an appointment for himself. To my surprise, he didn’t argue at all. I suspected that Aaron was becoming jealous of my fascinating weekly discussions with the good doctor. At least I hoped he was.
"I’m seeing him at eight forty-five Thursday morning," he told me when he came home at midnight on Monday.
"That’s so funny, because my appointment is for eight forty-five Thursday night. We’ll be Dr. Winters' bookends. There’s a screenplay in it, like Rashomon."
"Let’s screw with his head," Aaron said. "Make up bizarre conflicting stories to see if he’s really listening."
I was not thrilled to share my shrink, though I had originally stolen him from Aaron, who had stolen him from his ex-fiancée. I feared that Oedipal triangles and dormant sibling rivalry would resurface all over the place. Yet how could I not trust the guy who made Aaron make an honest woman out of me? Not to mention morphing me into a smoke-alcohol-and-freelance-headache-free soon-to-be published memoirist who weighed 137 pounds, a miracle all by itself.
Instead of leaving well enough alone, I'd made the mistake of admitting that the best way for me to stay off nicotine would be to nix ten pounds. That way I would relinquish the reason I'd always gone back. Thus Dr. Winters' latest torture involved giving up bread products - since that was the quickest, healthiest way I lost weight. I could eat unlimited protein, fat, fruits, and vegetables, while I said goodbye to my cherished pasta, potatoes, pizza, pita, pancakes, sandwiches, pastries, cake, and Entenmann's fat-free brownies. Worse, I'd sadly bid adieu to the fried rice, shrimp dumplings, sesame cold noodles, scallion pancakes, egg rolls, and almond cookies that I had been ordering in weekly from Sammy's Noodle Shop. I was still in the throes of serious Sammy's withdrawal.
Adding sex to the taboo list was killing me. It was deprivation overload. Making myself come wasn't really satisfying. Sort of like eating hard boiled eggs when I was dying for French toast made from challah. I was desperate. I figured if Dr. Winters had gotten me married, clean, and published, chances were he could get me laid.
At my eight-forty-five Thursday night session, before I could even say "hello," he looked at me and said, "Stop criticizing Aaron."
"Why?" I asked. "Aaron criticizes me constantly. He says incredibly mean things. If I take out his garbage, I’m an 'anal neat-freak.' When I didn’t let him order garlic naan at Café Spice, he said ‘You’re such a controlling shrew.' Did you know that when Lilly sold my memoir, Aaron had the nerve to tell my close friend Susie, ‘Thank God my father isn’t alive to read it.’ How passive-aggressive is that? He didn't tell it to one of his best friends,which would be bad enough. But he told it to one of mine!"
"What did you say to him?"
"I said, ‘Go chew on yourself,' which my brothers used to tell me. Sometimes I ignore him. I don’t care. Growing up with three rambunctious kid brothers, I'm used to fighting."
"Stop fighting with Aaron," Dr. Winters insisted.
"Why do I have to be more sensitive than he is?"
"Because criticism doesn’t bother you but it bothers him," he said.
"That’s ridiculous." I crossed my arms. "What a double standard!"
"You can eat anything you want in front of Aaron because it doesn’t affect him. But if you watch him eat one french fry, you'll start sobbing and shove twenty-two pieces of bread in your mouth. That's why he’s no longer allowed to eat any bread products in front of you. Remember?"
"He knew I was a castrating ballbuster when he married me," I argued. "That’s what he wanted. A woman who could do hard jokes. He’d dated enough actresses and suburban dolts who just wanted to cook and have babies. He didn’t want a kewpie doll."
"Both of you have changed in five years," Dr. Winters said.
"I can’t smoke, drink, chew gum, freelance, or order in one goddamn egg roll from Sammy's and now I have to play the barefoot wifey who makes him feel big?" I screamed. "Why don’t you just give me a lobotomy?"
"Who does it benefit if Aaron feels big?" Dr. Winters asked.
"Some men love brilliant, argumentative women who voice their opinions when they feel like it!" I felt like punching him.
"Who?" he yelled back. "I never met one."
"Come on. I’ve had relationships with strong men who can handle a real woman. My old boyfriend Brad loved to fight with me. We’d argue and wrestle and have hot makeup sex afterwards…"
"Brad?" he asked. "Isn’t he the guy who just married the quiet twenty-five-year-old graduate student?"
I knew I’d regret letting my shrink read my memoir in manuscript form. I also knew Dr. Winters was right. Not because he was a sexist pig trying to keep me sweet, quiet, and nonthreatening - 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.
"No men like tough, argumentative women?" I inquired in a softer voice.
He sternly shook his head no. "Not to live with."
I walked dejectedly back to my apartment, exhausted from my war of words with horrible, haughty Dr. Winters. Aaron opened the door for me. It was nine forty-five, he was home earlier than usual. As I stepped inside and hung up my coat, he wrapped his huge warm arms around me and said, "Hi, beautiful."
"Thanks. You feel so good," I whispered as he rubbed my tired shoulders.
"Want to fool around?" he asked.
Before I could say yes, now, and/or hallelujah, he grabbed my breasts and kissed me hard on the lips like he used to. I pushed him down to the floor, tumbling on top of him while stripping off both our clothes.
Later, lying naked in the middle of the living room, I asked, "How did your shrink session go today?"
"He wrote down an adage on the back of his business card," Aaron said.
I was heartbroken. I had imagined that Winters’ mini-messages, in his black felt pen, were just for me.
"It’s much easier to live with an addict who’s using than an addict who’s in recovery," he recited.
I wondered what Dr. Winters meant by that dumb little ditty. That it was more fun to be around someone self-anesthetizing and in complete denial than somebody who was bravely confronting all their demons?
I looked up to see that our blinds were wide open. The people in the building across the street could probably see us, but I was too blissed out to care.
"Sorry I’ve been such a bitch lately," I told my husband.
"Sorry I’ve been elsewhere." He kissed my forehead. "How was your shrink session? What did you talk about?"
"Nothing important, sweetie, " I said, noting that it was the first time I hadn’t craved a cigarette after sex. Now I wanted a bagel.
This is an excerpt from the memoir Lighting Up : How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else Except Sex