The word "discussion" doesn't quite capture its ... essence. It was 1:30 in the morning on a weeknight, in our dark bedroom. Amy was in bed, I standing next to her. Both of us were on the verge of tears. The tone was sharp, but the words were hushed. Our children were asleep, and we were already exhausted. The last thing we needed was to wake them up.
The next-to-last thing we needed was to have this chat again, the one about our sex life. But here we were, so it was happening. As I said, I can't remember how we got there. All I know is that Amy was annoyed with me for doing this now ... annoyed, until I peeled back another layer of my frustration and gave a short monologue:
"I'm not talking about sex at this point, Amy. I'm talking about intimacy. I want to kiss you. I want to touch you. The sex doesn't even matter at this point, I just want to feel intimate, feel close to you!"
Suddenly she didn't seem "annoyed." She sensed the seriousness.
"Do you know what I mean?" I said, mostly to fill the silence, not really expecting her to respond. She did, though, in the affirmative.
"I mean ..." I struggled for a clearer example of my frustration. "... I can't remember the last time we went to bed at night and you were naked, so I could just press against you, skin-to-skin."
"I'm not comfortable being naked," she said quietly.
"Since when?" I fired back.
"Denis," she said, and she spoke more slowly to get it across, "I've never been comfortable being naked."
Struck dumb. Mind whirring.
Is she serious? Wait a minute, is she right? Is that true? Think, think, think ... when was the last time she was ... Holy shit.
"But that wasn't always true!" I insisted. "I remember ..." Yes, I remembered, but I remembered a long, long time ago. "... we used to be naked all the time." I finished the thought, but my stand was losing its footing underneath.
+ + +
I was realizing she was right. Pieces fell into place. I had often walked naked around our homes and apartments all these years, but she almost always had something on. On nights when we had sex before going to sleep -- with a few exceptions -- she would rightside-in all the inside-out clothes that had been hastily tossed off, re-dressing before going to bed. If we had fucked in a different room, she always put something on for the walk from that location back to our bedroom, lest she be seen through a side window by a neighbor.
I was blessed with good genes in the body shape department. I was the kid who got the jokes about the hollow leg or the tapeworm at family holiday dinners. I swallowed everything and went back for seconds, as my metabolism burned off the calories faster than I could consume them. Now in my forties, I'm still within ten pounds of my weight in college. That mercury-like metabolism has only slightly slowed. A little paunch around the middle, but overall, when I'm toweling off after a shower and catch my image in the mirror, I don't think I look too bad. I'm know that keeping in shape gets harder as I get older, but I'm never going to have the battles that other people wage for their lifetimes. I can sympathize with Amy, but empathy, in the sense of "I've been there," will always be hard for me when it comes to body image issues.
I knew that Amy wasn't quite as comfortable showing her body. But somehow I had completely ignored how deep this issue went. I had missed that she wasn't even completely comfortable naked in front of her own husband.
Initially, the deepest blow from this revelation was to my own ego. Had I really been this clueless? How the hell do I spend almost every day of the last decade-and-a-half with a woman and manage to miss this intensely intimate fact? I create this notion that I'm a sensitive lover, in tune with my partner's body and mind ... and I miss the fact that she doesn't like to be naked? So much for Mr. Metrosexual.
Eh. Metrosexuals are suffering from culture backlash anyway.
As I sit here writing about this, I think back to 1991 ... to my first 24 hours with Amy. It was a whirlwind day, involving much mashing of lips, sharing of thoughts, and soulful looks. Actually, it was the "soulful looks" part where I perhaps first noticed an issue.
We were on her black leather couch, fully clothed but engaged in a sensual bit of frottage. Her legs wrapped around me. My fingers working through her hair. And when I locked my gaze on her, she nervously laughed and turned away. This happened two or three more times, until finally I had to ask her:
She kept her eyes closed and almost bashfully said, "I'm just not comfortable when you look at me."
"Oh my God, why? You are ... so beautiful."
Spoken like a true, head-over-heels boy. You have my permission to roll eyes and/or feel nauseous.
She really was uncomfortable with anyone studying her from such close proximity. And that fact long baffled me. Amy is so stunning to me -- and other men have certainly found her so as well -- but that's a long way from saying that Amy felt that way. And you know, it doesn't matter how many other people tell you what you're worth if you have little self-worth.
If you met Amy in the workplace, you wouldn't suspect these insecurities. She is a presence in every room she walks into. She is a fighter. She's the kind of person that, with her quick thinking and steel-trap memory, makes herself quickly indispensable to an organization. She exudes confidence, and bosses recognize this. They give her the inside info and the power to affect their own careers. When she dons the power suit, she owns your ass.
I know this because I'm her husband; I see both sides of this woman. I call her at work, catching her in mid-project, and she says "Hang on," and I listen in as she gives explicit instructions to a co-worker or puts the finishing touches on a new strategy. And then later, in bed, I sense the vulnerability and near-embarrassment of a teenage girl when I pull back a bed sheet to admire her body. Like most of us (those that are human anyway), she's a dichotomy.
But this doesn't stop me, I suppose, from idealizing her in some way. Perhaps I lock in my head those moments when she strips away all caution and becomes unbridled, wanton, hungry for my body, and hungry to be consumed. I start to (want to?) believe she possesses those qualities 24/7/365. Maybe this is an easy trap to fall into when one focuses too much on the fantasies without checking in with the reality.
So nights like that recent chat are necessary to bring me back to Earth. Yes, sometimes as we're fucking, she whispers in my ear how good it would feel to be fucking another man, or how hot it would be to have another woman in bed with us. But the reality is, there is much to overcome psychologically before such fantasies can happen.
One might think that there's enough baggage here for me to break under its weight, to deduce that the taboos that so arouse me will never be broken. But I'm an optimistic guy, and I'm a patient guy. I still see a slow march of progress. After all, Amy is interested in knowing my predilections, and we discuss them. (I ask her often what her predilections are, and she doesn't cop to them. If she does have sexual needs not yet expressed, she may not realize what they are yet.) She knows what gets me off, and she loves me enough to want to do what she can to make them happen.
Likewise, I know what makes her happy, and I do everything in my power to help her experience that happiness. It's just that her happiness isn't necessarily about sex. She loves it, no question, but it's not a driving force as it seems to be with me. We respect the fact that we're in different places, and we know that being in different places doesn't mean we can't help each other in a mutual pursuit of happiness.
+ + +
Amy got more comfortable with my looking at her as she learned to trust me, and there was an extended early part of the relationship when she was very comfortable being naked around me. You know the time I'm talking about: It's usually called the "honeymoon," when not a moment passes that isn't consumed with thoughts of your new love. At some point -- I can't really tell you when -- she reverted to her more modest self. I'm not sure if it was something I did. Maybe it was her weight gain that came on as we got older.
The issue of weight is such a loaded gun for people's esteem, and for the relationships they're in. At her heaviest, Amy was close to 40 pounds more than she was when I met her. (Not counting periods when she was pregnant. Thank God she cut herself slack then, enjoying her body and everything going on inside of it.) So much of Amy's character is attractive to me that it colors the lens through which I see her. Yes, I knew she had gained weight -- I'm not blind, fer chrissakes. But my desire for her never waned, and that desire would often cloud the awareness that she was struggling ... until her frustration would come pouring out of her in an emotional breakdown.
But that didn't mean that I didn't still get diamond-cutting hard-ons when I walked in on her disrobing.
(I have a favorite thing to do: When I'm lying in bed an Amy comes in and changes into her pajamas, I sit up and watch, remarking: "This is always my favorite part of the day." I love having those tits revealed to me. I feel like a 12-year-old seeing his first pair, every time.)
Through Weight Watchers and a lot of work (on both our parts), Amy is back to only ten pounds above her 1991 weight. She's more confident, more sure of herself. But that doesn't mean that she has difficulty finding dozens of things wrong with her. For example: I remember a morning early on when I was thoroughly engrossed in her boobs, my face buried between them, licking, nipping, chewing. She remarked: "I think my nipples are too small for my breasts." Now, years later, she said not too long ago that nursing children has resulted in nipples that "may be too big."
Is there any winning?
Well, yes. There might be some winning. But it takes devotion to the task. This is a lifelong problem for her, so it's a lifelong problem for us. As often as we talk about fulfilling fantasies, we talk about helping her feel better about herself. The two, after all, are closely connected. I continue to throw every bit of support to her that I can. And she continues to look for the thoughts and actions that will steel her confidence and help her see the woman that I see.
Or at least perhaps accept the fact that I'm not bat-shit insane for feeling that way.