by Jody Reale
It was not so long after Our Ugly Wedding that I made a friendly gesture toward my husband, Alex. We were in the car, taking a springtime drive to Boulder. We were going to walk down the pedestrian mall while eating ice cream, watching the buskers and musicians perform, but not the Rasta contortionist who has been folding himself up inside a small Lucite box for 10 years. That was old news.
During the drive that wound down the 17-mile canyon, I suggested we take up a hobby together; he liked mountain biking and I didn’t anymore. I liked fencing and he never did. I liked petting dogs and he liked running them until they dropped. “So what can we do together that we would both enjoy?” I asked, not knowing until just now how much that sounds like something from a church-sponsored marriage retreat.
Alex had just opened a new section of the newspaper when I continued, “Come on, help me out. How about skydiving?”
“Did you know kayaking is really cold?”
I hate being cold, so I suggested painting, knowing before I had suggested it that anything artsy was right out. Out of ideas, I resorted to bowling. And then Alex said, “How about a three-way?” without even looking up from the classifieds. I went to the mall and ate my ice cream out of a chocolate covered waffle bowl–vanilla bean interrupted by jagged little Kit Kat bars. The cold helped to slow the signal my brain was sending to the troops below: “Your orders are to mount a free-form spoken word mall jam with an interpretive dance segment entitled, ‘It is Easy to Sneak Ground Glass into a Man’s Ice Cream.’ That is all.”
Once I was back at home, I did what I normally do when I’m so pissed that even cuss words fail me. I grabbed a book at random from a shelf in my office, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I closed my eyes, opened it to a random page and pointed. I quote from Appendix I, Chapter V: On Responding to Changing Conditions, Section II: Marquis Wu asked: ‘If a greatly superior enemy force attacks my inferior force, what remedy is there?’Wu Ch’i replied: ‘If the ground is easy, avoid him; in a defile, encounter him.’
What the hell does that mean? No wonder I never read this thing. I closed the book and meditated on the cover graphic. I took the book upstairs with me anyway, trusting the 2,000 years of military knowledge therein. And while Alex was fussing with his bike in the garage, I smacked him in the arm with it before he could say, “What the…”
“Given your history,” a friend wrote in an email, “I’m surprised you didn’t just agree to the three-way.” I told her that, given her history, I was surprised she didn’t just come right out and call me a whore. What I call my behavior before I was married and 30-something varies, depending on my mood. I’ve been a ho-bag, a slut, a skank and a nympho. I’ve acted a trailer park Betty, without ever going so far as the lowest rung on the loose woman ladder: Truck stop Jane. I don’t have to rehash the fact that men don’t even have such a ladder. I’ve never been a rock n’ roll groupie, but that’s mostly because I’m much too lazy to travel state to state just to blow some guy who’s probably too coked up to care. (With the exception of Jon Bon Jovi, of course.) Double standards be damned, I am not ashamed of my sexual activity. Go ahead, ask me, but now that I’m a little more self-aware, I try to withhold the information until I’m actually asked. So out of decorum, I always spared Alex the details; I figured they would make him as uncomfortable as he and his man-friends have made me when they thought dinnertime banter should consist of bragging about their long-gone conquests.
Why they thought I would enjoy spending my whole engagement to Alex listening to them assign their ex-girlfriends nicknames that all included the word “butter” I don’t know. At the point that I learned that one woman was such a “super smoking hottie” that she was known as “An Entire Stick of Butter,” I asked them to churn up their memories somewhere else; I was reaching lactose intolerance, and I’m a woman who needs her dairy. I got my sexual experiments and my bragging about them out of the way while I was still young enough to look cute doing either.
You make your choices, and you live with them, and maybe you hope years later that there wasn’t a camera on the premises. (Maybe you hope there was.) You get honest about the methods you used to find your way to the here and now; you admit to yourself that there were times when you smashed your own moral compass against a rock so that you could stay lost for a few more days or years. You plugged your ears and said, “la-la-la…” when your instincts were screaming, “No! don’t!”; whatever happened, happened. My heart goes out to those who killed or hurt themselves in the process. Whether or not you give that path a voice or a name out loud, whether or not you write a book about it, the talks that happen with yourself are what matter. And that is how the truth sets you free.
So I took the decidedly cryptic Sun Tzu back down to my office bookshelf and tried to learn to “use my words,” as the more affluent parents of today advise their children. I thought about how Alex and I are married. Married. That if the shit goes down, it’s your spouse who dresses you when you can’t dress yourself. When the nurse has the night off, the spouse is the one on duty–if you even have a nurse. Marriage is not a game, not a test. It’s not a walk in the park to the teddy bear’s picnic. There’s more to lose than there is to gain from reckless choices.
What did I want? I wanted to be heard, I wanted to be understood by the one person in the universe who is supposed to understand me. I admit it: I wanted Alex to know that my past is so much juicier than his. “You hardly know what to do with one woman, much less two. Put that in your snotty private school and study it,” I said to myself. Then I decided to leave that part out. With the ghost of three-ways past yawning and checking his watch, the perfect words came to me. They were pleasant and clear and communicated that, come hell or cold water, we were going to find a couple’s hobby. And it wouldn’t include latex, lubricant and nametags. And as I practiced them in my office, I decided all the words I ever needed for such an occasion were not on a shelf, but in me. I went back to the garage. Alex braced himself in case I had brought something more substantial than a book with me.
I said, “Hey hon, Ixnay on the three-way, OK?”
“OK,” he agreed.
I patted his shoulder. Now we’re cooking with glass. I mean gas.