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Somewhere in the early stages of my post-divorce life,
I met a woman I liked and who seemed to like me. I was in the process of coupling up with somebody else, but she and I had a few probably ill-advised encounters that involved a certain amount of, you know, making out
On the last of these occasions, she said to me, in the tone of a waiter at a very good restaurant, “So what do you like?”
It was an uncomfortable question, because we were already doing about as much as I thought prudent. More, really. I shouldn’t even have been there. If I named anything else, that would sort of seal an agreement to do that thing and I didn’t think… in the larger scheme of things… that was a proper decision. I was doing a lot of thinking, as you can see, under the circumstances.
So I offered up some kind of vague, deflecting answer and then asked, just to be polite, “What do you like?”
“Penetration,” she said, not missing a beat. Can you believe the way people talk these days?
In my youth, there would have been no turning back. There’s an expression: let the little head do the thinking for the big head. Maybe I have reached a point in life where my big head is as big as my little head in those situations. Brothers and sisters, I did not penetrate that woman. Do you suppose Bill Clinton would have been better off saying that? It would have been true, but it might have been putting too fine a point on the matter.
Anyway, I didn’t, because I knew it would come back to haunt me. (This was such a good restaurant that, karma-wise, the prices weren’t really on the menu.) Instead, it was added to the relatively short list of Good Decisions I Have Made Not to Have Sex.
As I get older, that list gets longer. You finally grow tall enough so that your foot reaches the brake pedal once in a while. And thank God for that.
Let us linger for a moment over the exquisite – and mostly undocumented – pleasures and pains of the unturned screw, the pipe not laid, the verb not conjugated. I’m not talking about the times you were turned down or interrupted by dogs or children or temporary flaccidity (although that last category can erupt with a special tragicomic ache on those occasions when you can’t get it up, she leaves, and 14 minutes later, you have an erection visible from the space shuttle).
I’m talking only about instances when you voluntarily pulled back on the throttle for the sake of fidelity to someone else or some other cause worth (half-)dying for. I’m talking about skipping sex with a desirable woman. I’m talking about hitting the pause button on sex that probably would have been really fun while it lasted. I am therefore not talking about sobering up enough to realise that this woman will, in the morning sun, look more like Rod Stewart than Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Also, to qualify for this particular commendation – the much-prized Blue Star – the incident has to have included enough physical contact to have caused some metabolic activity in you, even if it was only a matter of her lightly drawing little circles on your knee with her fingertips. Actually, I suppose there’s nothing “only” about that.
As a young man, the sword of regret will probably hack at you from the other side. Later, you look back on all the women you could have had if you’d summoned a little confidence, if you had overcome your fear of rejection, if you hadn’t been such a chicken shit. I caught the fancy of one of my high school teachers (a woman, I might add), and when I started varsity, I actually had a second chance with her. I choked both times. Terrified. You think the dangerous curves of Miss Pringle do not still haunt me today?
The late essayist Gore Vidal said there are two things you should never turn down a chance to do: have sex and be on television. (They turn out to be cross-promoting activities; one tends to create avenues for the other. Imagine how much sex Vidal got out of a typical late-night talk show appearance.)
Anyway, when you were younger, there were times when you didn’t pull the trigger and probably should have. At night, trying to fall asleep, you think of the raven-haired Rochelle and the hungry looks she gave. I’m an idiot, you tell yourself. But now you’re older. You’re a person of great substance and accomplishment. You don’t reek of desperation.
These new qualities will attract all sorts of women to your flame, including those who are much younger than you. Paradoxically, those 23-year-old women would not be so interested in you if you were magically transformed into your 24-year-old self and therefore much more physically able to keep up with them. If you’re in your 40s like I am, your current mild state of decrepitude – as long as it really is only mild and is accompanied by a kind of personal gravitas – is kind of a plus. Go figure. Anyway, you should probably not have sex with them. You probably will, but 95% of the time, it will be a bad idea. Trust me.
And eventually, you will figure it out. You’re not Gore Vidal anymore. You don’t have to have sex with everyone who asks. You can (gently) turn down lovely women of many ages and backgrounds. (Most of them will be women your own age who, after a series of bad relationships, are inexplicably interested in trying you out.)
And here is the odd secret: saying no will actually feel kind of good sometimes. I mean physically. After you’ve ushered her out the door with a hug or perhaps even one last lingering kiss, you’ll sit down and wait for the icy leghold trap of genital pain and general self-loathing that hit you when you were younger. But it won’t seize you. Instead, there will be a sweeter ache, the cherry-orange sunset of melancholy. You did the right thing, and you can feel it in your bone(r)s.
Edith Piaf sang “Je ne regrette rien.” I regret nothing. That’s the way to live. Don’t regret anything you’ve done, and don’t do anything you’ll regret. In the last few years, I’ve ignored Vidal and passed up the chance to have sex a whole bunch of times. It’s probably only three, but it feels like a whole bunch, because that’s the way guys are.
Our half of the species is hardwired to have sex and to damn the consequences. Think about that. Think about how powerful a “No! Don’t!” signal has to be to fight its way upward against the tide, along our ganglia and neurons, to get anywhere near the brain.
If it’s still there in your thoughts, at all, when you can see, let’s say, part of her bra strap, then it’s probably a thermonuclear warning.
I don’t regret any of the times I’ve taken a rain check. And I’m still friends with all of those women, better friends than I would have been had we woken up together in a big, sticky bed.
Except, maybe, Madame Penetration. I run into her every couple of months and I don’t think she’s particularly cool with the way things played out, but I am.
She’s one of my greatest conquests, actually. I mean, talk about master of your domain.