I never looked to my father for advice about women when I was growing up. And I certainly didn’t after I left for college and my siblings described how our mother chased him around with a paring knife when she learned about his little fling with his secretary and he packed up and left. As an enthusiastic English major and lacking any advice to the contrary, I still held out hope for transcendence—what D. H. Lawrence called the “star equilibrium,” the perfect balance in the relationship between a man and a woman.
And I suppose I’ve found it in a marriage that is now over 40 years old and is as comfortable as a good sofa and as battle-weary as a barnacled Maine lobster. We’re all tangled up in one another like two fish nets, my wife’s narrative and mine hopelessly interwoven. Divorce? Oh, there were certainly times when we both probably considered it, but we never got even close to any big knock-down drag-out door-slamming Sayonara with a knife chase.
Ours is as happy an older marriage as I can imagine. Mind you, it’s not a matching Christmas reindeer sweater sort of marriage, but we’re about as well matched as a couple can be. Besides, I’ve really got my doubts about the concept of “soul mates.” If the ideal marriage is a link between two old souls who manage to find each other in this lifetime, then someone needs to give us clearer instructions on how to find our soul mate. I mean, what if my soul mate were waiting in a yurt in Mongolia?
Personally, I don’t think Nature is that complicated. I mean, if you believe the old bromide that geese mate for life, then what happens if one of them gets shot by a hunter? Does a single goose live a life of monastic solitude afterward? I doubt it. In other words, there is no one person, no single perfect match in all of Nature, who can or should be expected to fill all the needs of the partner. It’s an absurd proposition, when you think about it really, our modern search for perfection. I’m more of a “wabi-sabi” kind of guy: I see beauty in life’s imperfections. But this view of a healthy marriage, with more realistic expectations, would seem to leave open a few alternatives for both partners. One is the “quickie,” a one-night stand hardly worth mentioning. Another is the more complicated “affair of the heart” with the object of one’s desire, which lusts until time runs out or until tired routine unmasks the beloved. The third I’ll dub “The French Solution,” given French politicians’ proclivity for parallel partnerships: married men and long-time mistresses. All so very French or Californian—or Midwestern, if Kinsey’s right.
A safer alternative to these impulses is what I will call “The New England Solution”: the simple friendship of a man and a woman who are not married to each other, who are either single or married to or partnered with someone else. They are merely good friends of the opposite gender. They are conversation partners without “fringe benefits,” which would just muck up the mystery. And mystery is essential to the allure of this friendly chat. That’s where the first three alternatives get it wrong: they offer no mystery.
What I sing of is the pleasure of a long-term, sometimes long-range, conversation between a man and a woman, with a few interruptions and no strings. Their conversation spans time like a slow verbal fan dance: Scheherazade’s bedtime stories stretched out in small climaxes.
Obviously, this type of friendship has the potential for lust. Perhaps it’s just below the unspoken surface, the attraction. And though both conversation partners are aware of it, they leave it there. And if one of them should broach the matter, the counterpart settles it quickly and discreetly declares it off limits to their friendship.
A good conversation digresses, and the good ones playfully, like dance steps, but not necessarily off to bed. Maybe you’re thinking about the film “Before Sunrise” and the sequels. You ask, “Isn’t conversation a form of foreplay?” Of course! But until the 18th century, “intercourse,” simply meant “communication.” And the conversation I propose postpones the climax. It prefers discretion, magical misdirection and artful interruptions. And if anything is inserted, it’s an interjection or a witty remark.
Let’s be honest, marriage, as currently embraced by the general public, is more breathless fantasy than earthy reality. And sorry, but monogamy is an illusion, at best an aspiration clung to desperately by those lacking imagination and honesty. The 1950s post-war nuclear family is as ephemeral as the dusty fiction of “Father Knows Best.” First marriages fail at a rate of 40-50% and although most re-marry, re-marriages fail faster.
Obviously, many on all sides of the political spectrum are now engaged in fierce battle to save the sanctity of marriage as they conceive it: the union of one man and one women (or two men, two women)—a nuclear dyad, a harmonious duet, conjoined mates at the center of a spinning family. I think we can agree that marriage, however it is defined, is in a struggle for survival or, at the very least, redefinition…if it’s not already on the way out the window with the baby and the bathwater.
In ages past, long before the Shakespearean, Hollywood, star-crossed fantasies, medieval troubadours and Odysseus’ faithful Penelope, our human coupling was all unceremoniously biological, pure agrarian practicality, and a matter of convenience and economics. Love? What’s love got to do with it?
The older we Boomers get, the more varieties of love we experience. Love doesn’t get simpler, it just gets more complicated. The elusive dream of perfect love, wherein two partners find in their counterpart a diamond mine so deep and so rich they need look no further, is a fanciful illusion happily perpetuated by those who are fearful of complexity. The New York Times keeps this myth alive every week in its wedding announcements in its tender stories of near misses and rebounds. This is the stuff of pure fiction. Or, more accurately, these accounts are the opening acts in the drama of a lifetime: happy endings before the real stuff hits the fan.
The kind of natural friendship and easy conversation I espouse here might even “save” a few marriages. As everyone who’s ridden a bike knows, a three-wheeler is more stable than a two-wheeler and a tripod is more stable than two tent posts. I’ve read all the articles in those magazines at my dentist’s and from what I can tell, all that most partners in a marriage really want is for someone to validate them, just pay attention to them, and talk to them now and then. And not about the bills or household repairs. To the good friend a conversation partner’s well-worn stories sound new again. More often, it’s a just getting new perspective from the “other team.” This isn’t about “Why don’t we do it in the road?” It’s about “How’s it going, your life?”
What I propose is a sweet conversation that is sometimes tension-filled—yes, sometimes even laced with cagey innuendo—but is more like friendly banter: a game of conversational shuttlecock in which a man actually listens to a woman, perhaps for the first time.
And how different the conversations those lovers have in films! Their talk is all passion and heat, all verbs and imperatives: “Kiss me. Suck me. Fuck me. Harder! Oh, God, yessss!” There’s no time to discuss the Impressionists in the museum where the lovers meet, briefly, before waking up between 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets in a swank hotel room that afternoon.
No, the conversation between these good friends, this man and this woman takes place in public: in the corner of a quiet café with white marble tables; in a bistro’s corner booth; or in an elegant Manhattan bar serving Glidden Point oysters. Their conversation isn’t about the last time or the next time. True conversationalists have no future time in mind, only the moment now. And the place where they choose to meet will have servers who understand that a conversation has begun and who will protect the sanctity of that conversation. These waiters will not interrupt to ask either conversationalist, “Are you still ‘working’ on that?”
These friends will savor the ritual of the drink and the meal and take pleasure in their conversation, for which they may have saved stories, like firewood stacked outside a cottage for snowy days. They will take some care in their dress. Perhaps a string of pearls. A tie loosely tied. Such details lend some elegance to the occasion, whose centerpiece is the artful conversation, which is a living script that is improvised like free jazz with no fear of pauses. For a pause can be the mark of a conversation’s depth—when one partner trusts that the other will emerge at the surface again with a pearl of thought. Or just the right word.
These conversationalists will have favorite drinks. With one friend I drink martinis, but two at most, as Dorothy Parker cautioned, for inebriation is death to the wit of a good conversation. With another friend I drink gin tonics. Unlike lovers, we never talk about our spouses or exes in that way. And if we do speak of them, it’s with good humor and respectfully.
There can be clumsiness in such a conversation, for perfection is not the goal, but there must always be humor. But what I have come to appreciate about the conversations with my female friends (to call them “gal pals” sounds perfectly ludicrous), the women whom I consider my friends—and mind you I can think of only a few—is that there is no expectation of sex. Not unless you’re prudish enough to think a Euro-style kiss on the cheeks is a subtle form of foreplay. There is only the companionship we share in that moment and the ebb and flow of our conversation.
The best conversations I’ve had with my friends who are women have lasted a few hours. We’ve talked about our kids, our plans, our professions, people in the profession, life, things we’ve been thinking about, our travels. As the German essayist Walter Benjamin wrote, it is the obligation of every traveler to tell stories and so, too, these conversationalists. But the stories they tell are not the stories of conquest which men tell other men. When a man and a woman converse, they swap honest stories from the other side, two wayfarers’ intersecting experiences, two ships passing in the night, hove to, briefly, on quiet seas.
Unlike social necessities like small talk and banter, I can remember the tiniest details from some of these conversations and I still savor them, years later: like sharing a Nat Sherman cigarette outside a wind-whipped Toronto restaurant between martinis with one of the most engaging conversationalists I know. What we said…disappeared in the night air. Ephemera! But we laughed and I know we spoke of serious things, unencumbered by real life. The difference, dear Reader, is that these conversationalists know there is another world to which they will return. They know that one world makes possible the other. Neither world is more real than the other. They are parallel universes.
Certainly these conversations may probe deep thoughts, or perhaps lead one to utter thoughts one dared not express, or to find unexpected insights, but they must never be morose. This is not about the big fade to black. This is about taking simple pleasure in the company of another human, loosened of old constraints. Freed of all the stored memories and disappointments of a loyal spouse, who’s seen the roller coaster from the bottom, too, as well as the top. One conversationalist might inquire about the other spouse, but only briefly, as if to mark the unspoken limits, but one must never encourage intimacies or griping about the spouse. This isn’t therapy. This is an agreed upon meeting in a brief moment in time.
Now you may be thinking, ok, that’s fine, but don’t you have any male friends? Of course. There are a couple of guys with whom I can have the sort of man-to-man conversation that mirrors, to some extent, the sort of conversation that I have with the women who are my friends. But they are rare because most men aren’t willing to delve any deeper than a choral recitation of obscure baseball stats or rants about Wall Street fluxes and the next election.
But even today, in 2014, if you mention the possibility of genuine friendship between a man and a woman, every white-gloved Puritan rises up to warn of the dangers: “It’s not just a friendship!” they shout.
To this I say, “No!” No, sometimes it really is just a friendship. And the truth is, I can’t imagine my married life without the conversations I have with the good women who are my friends.
William Anthony lives with his wife (along with a British lab, a Maine coon cat and an old turtle) outside Chicago and is writing a novel about a Damariscotta (Maine) policeman who's in love with a lobsterman's wife.