Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Road Taken

Where married sex is imagined by the ignorant as a vast, barely arable plain, ours--as with most veteran couples who have much sex at all, I believe--is more like an elderly mountain range. Peaks and valleys may be less spectacular and severe in the Appalachians than the Rockies, but negotiating them isn't for chickenshits, and only those doomed by their upbringing to a lifetime of slippery slopes find the challenges and vistas a bore. Carola and I have been together for nearly 23 years, 20 of them married. Our fifth year was simply ecstatic, our eighth highly problematic, our 10th painfully sexed up, and so it goes. But for most of that time we both would have said that the best sex of our lives came that week in Jamaica in 1973 when we pursued our story during the day and fucked without will or forethought every night (except, as I recall, Monday). Little did we know what would begin in the wee hours following our 17th anniversary--technically proficient bad sex, weird insomnia, my miserable and terrified 6 a.m. confession that for over a year I'd been nurturing the secret hots for another woman, hours of rage and reassurance and general verbalization that were barely a foretaste of the months to come, and unexpected good sex that was barely a foretaste of the years to come.

To the ignorant, this peccadillo may not seem like much. And indeed, while extramarital attractions can hurt, they can also seem laughable even to the other spouse. A secret attraction, however, is different. Most couples we know feel more or less this way, but with us mutual openness is a fetish. It dates back to a disastrous three-month affair (Carola's, the only time either of us has approached physical infidelity, you'll have to believe that) that left us totally intolerant of secrecy between us--which ain't privacy no matter what I-need-my-own-space cases claim. We count any unreported infatuation that lasts more than a frisson or two a betrayal of the emotional business at hand. So my admission was a dam-break. And so the raunchiest and fullest and freest and most daring and obsessive and orgasmic time of our lives came in 1992, while I turned 50 and Carola turned 47 and the 20th year of our relationship ripened and fell from the tree. Whether it was the drama or the relief or premenopausal hormone surges, neither of has ever, at any age, under any circumstances, had as much sex as we did in the month that followed--our nightwear from that period, tattered by frottage, protruding body parts, and general hard use, is in the archives. And when the modest decrepitudes of middle age forced us to reconceive a sexual urgency that finally began to run down a year and a half later, we found ourselves in a different sexual relationship than we'd had before--new terms, new tricks, new expectations.

Hey, it was pretty great before, you'll have to believe that too--far, far richer and sweeter and dirtier and more loving than I would have believed possible back when I was 23 and alone and worried sick about size and performance and the rest. We used to tell our marriage counselor we wanted more and he'd scoff. Later, after the counseling, our infertility, a book project, unresolved grievances, and a creepy friend's creepier neuroses culminated in Carola's affair, the counselor became my therapist, and in addition to teaching me much I needed to know about my basically excellent parents and my power to forget, convinced me to be thankful for what I and we had--normal frequency, reliable pleasure, unfailing love. "Resignation," Carola calls what I took from that lesson, which she disparages to this day, and indeed, between parenting and aging and a vaginal trauma caused by an overzealous and probably puritanical gynecologist, our sex life diminished, even though we can still go back and remember great ones from the late '80s, just as we can remember great ones among the forced fucks of infertility treatment.

Mating for life obviously leaves roads not taken. Although I know people who've gone in more or less cold and done well, I'm glad that between ages 23 and 30 I had three or four terrific sexual relationships, half a dozen decent ones, and a bunch of nights that went nowhere. I'm also glad that Carola gathered more experience than I did. At least we can be sure that the mind-boggling profusion of things we've learned about erotic love since . . . 1972, 1976, 1980, 1985, 1991 isn't a function of our naivete. Although I suppose it has to dry up as the juices give out, that leaves us with 20 or more years, health permitting. I'm regularly amazed by the feelings we uncover, the pleasures they lead to, and vice versa--by how many different ways there are to stroke and kiss, how many different ways to calm and excite. I credit Carola's kindness and imagination and emotional demands for this; she credits my warmth and patience and enthusiasm. Also, we really like each other's bodies. Not that we don't drive each other bananas sometimes--too often, we think. And nuff said.

Politically, it would have made more sense to write this jointly, but Carola declined on personal grounds that make at least as much sense. The happily married rarely describe their sex lives for the excellent reason that there's no way going public can make the sex better and lots of ways it can make it worse. Self-consciousness can intrude, conceptions ossify. Worst of all, tell people what you've got, and some envious jerk is sure to want a piece, if only to prove life can't be that good--we've been there. The trouble is, keep your good news to yourself and the public record gets one-sided. We take nothing for granted. But we don't believe we're alone.

Village Voice, Feb. 14, 1995