I love Rachel, but after fourteen years together and two children, sex isn’t the same. Being inside her feels like inserting a finger in a nostril. Where I used to feel the grip of her, I’m aware of empty space. And none of my solutions work: sticking pillows under her, though Rachel claims she feels like she’s the princess on the pea getting fucked atop a pile of mattresses. Doggie-style, her on top, it’s all the same. I feel shrunken, as I literally am—according to my GP only 5’11” now, no longer six feet. And of course death looms, still decades away but within sight now, a cypress on the horizon.
No doubt these observations seem well-worn, just as my wife is well-worn, but I present them not as excuses but rather as context. Rachel and I fit well in so many ways, just not, unfortunately, in this most literal sense. There I find myself fitting better with a young, childless woman. In her late-twenties, Eileen is so pale she’s almost amphibious. The blue veins networking her milky breasts make her look like some transparent creature, a jellyfish.
But to be inside her is to be clasped in the warm grip of life.
Outside of bed, we have only the blandest things to say to each other—conversation as stuttering and out-of-tune as my wonky record player—but who cares? I’m not looking for a partner in any sense other than this specific one. I see Eileen as an exceptionally graceful woman I ask to dance at a wedding: she has that little to do with Rachel, with my marriage.
Rachel and I are well-matched, in ways not necessarily forecastable in advance. For instance, our parenting is in accord. We are similarly delighted by and realistic about our children. Whereas Lillian, my ex-wife, is a deeply flawed mother, raising our daughter Annika to be an eye-rolling, gustily sighing teenager, with eyes for nothing but the small glow of her phone. After one exhausting visit from Annika, I complained to Rachel that Annika’s mother was an odd mixture of neglectful and indulgent. “There should be a word for that combination,” I said, and Rachel said, “There is: negligent.”
But then Rachel proceeded to downplay Annika’s obnoxiousness—“It’s fucking hard to be sixteen.” She’s a good step-mother as well as mother, as well as wife. In so many fundamental categories, I am blessed to have my witty, clear-eyed Rachel, with the exception of this limited, inconsequential way in which we no longer fit.
And I have so convinced myself of Eileen’s inconsequence—of her status as merely a dance partner at a wedding, that unthreatening—that I’m shocked to return from extracting leaves from our gutters to a transformed Rachel, red and puckered, like one of Caravaggio’s vegetable-faced people. She shakes my phone at me: “Who the fuck is Eileen!?” On our bed she’s put my roller bag. “So this is why you’ve been so cheerful lately. This is why I hear you singing in the shower,” she says, in a voice both wet with tears and dry as grit. “Now it all fits.”