Newly single Bernadette Murphy has a crush on a new man. Does this mean she’s ready to be in a relationship again or that she’s just craving some companionship?
Can I legitimately call it a sexual fantasy when it starts off so chaste it could be a G-rated movie, or an ABC after-school special from 1976? And though I may add juicy bits when my mind (and body) demands more, it’s the G-rated version I find most comforting, the pre-adolescent puppy love of affection I keep returning to these days.
Trying to fall asleep at night is when this imaginary world becomes most vivid, when, instead of letting go into the arms of sleep I find myself fighting to stay awake in order to construct one of a number of tame little non-sexual but intimate fantasies involving a man on whom I have a crush. These dream creations are unlike those I’ve had with crushes of the past, different from any sexual fantasy I’ve ever experienced, so pure and innocent, in a way, they’re even more exposing than if I were dreaming up some bodice-ripper, straight-out-of-romance-novel scenarios, or kinky S&M fantasies. At times, the desire for these moments is so strong and overwhelming, I am reduced to hot tears by how deeply I crave them.
They pierce my heart, they’re so guileless, and embarrass me by their meagerness: Sometimes we link pinky fingers and swing our arms. Other times, I knock on his door and ask if he can come out to play (I’m into hopscotch). Other times, we walk along a path, bumping shoulders, happy in each other’s company, racing each other to the next mailbox. Sometimes we swing dance; I feel the calluses on his fingertips when he holds my hand. The most racy ones involve dry, gentle, soft kisses, the only kind I knew about until some classmate in grade school filled me in on the French variety and totally grossed me out.
Sixty-one days ago (but who’s counting?) I left my marriage of a quarter century. At 49, I’m living alone for the first time in my life, with no siblings to help raise, no parents who need my care, no spouse and none of our three mostly grown children living at this address. I am eating up the quietness, the fact that the place stays neat, that if I put a tea mug on a table it will be there when I get back, the fact that I can turn out the light and go to sleep whenever I feel like it and indulge all the fantasies I can create.
You would think I could come up with something a little more spicy.
But perhaps these innocent longings say something important about the human heart—or at least, my own human heart. While sex is delightful and bond-creating, both cozy and heart-startling and something I enthusiastically endorse, it’s layered with responsibility and relationships, a far cry from the more quiet kind of companionship I hunger for at the moment.
I was married 25 years and was faithful to my husband that entire time. If we add in a courtship of nearly two years, I’ve been with the same man since I was 22. The most sexually transgressive move I’ve made outside my marriage in those years was to reach out and touch the hand of this man on whom I have a crush—one time, for a split second.
I swear, he gave off sparks.
But this new separation is not the time for that, for spark making, for crush indulging, for distraction. It’s a time to focus on myself, to tend my own garden and I’m diligently doing so.
And yet that nagging school-girl crush keeps showing up.
Am I really one of those women who believes she’s not whole without a man? Perhaps I’m just seeking affirmation that I still have something to offer the male of the species. It crosses my mind occasionally that maybe I’ve passed my prime, that maybe no one will ever find me attractive again. Even if that were true—and I don’t think it is—so what? I am happy as I am.
Maybe I’m simply craving male approval in a more general, less sexualized way. In leaving my marriage, I lost whatever of my husband’s approval I might have still claimed. Years ago, I lost my father’s approval when I chose to write about touchy family things. He died last year, and though I have no doubt he loved me, I still, on some level, craved his blessing. If he knew I’d left my marriage, he’d be rolling over in his grave. So maybe that’s all this little crush is: looking for some guy to tell me I’m doing OK, that I’m taking care of myself, and to pat me on the head for doing so.
Why is the crush still here? Just animal magnetism? If that were the reason, surely I could come up with steamier ways to indulge it.
In the latter years of our marriage, with three kids at home, having sex became a scheduled activity, saved for those times when we knew we’d have the place to ourselves if even for half an hour. And while that’s true for many couples with kids and they find a way to make it work, the distance kept growing between us. There were few hugs or bumped shoulders on a daily basis. Certainly no play. We’d wait until the appointed time for our scheduled sexual encounter and then, like race cars, rev our engines from zero to 60 to squeeze in whatever lovemaking might be had that day. And the minute it was over, bam!, back to normal life, back to living like co-workers whose primary jobs were raising three kids and keeping the household afloat. No whispered confidences. No sidelong glances. No intimacy outside that conscribed time.
I sought out therapy on my own before suggesting couples counseling. When my individual therapist asked if my husband and I were still intimate, I told him of these encounters. He said that true lovemaking is what takes place between those times in bed, the little niceties, the hands that touch accidentally-on-purpose just because it feels good.
And I knew then that it had been a very, very long time since I’d been intimate with anyone.
So maybe that’s the extent of it. I want a playmate. I can hear the Beatles crooning their own innocent version: I wanna hold your ha-aa-and. I am becoming deeply aware of how empty the past decade has been of such things and I am finally allowing myself to feel it. Toward the end of the marriage, I made arrangements with friends to do a lot of fun things I’d long wanted to do and that my husband had no interest in: running a marathon, backpacking, climbing Mt. Whitney, kayaking in the open ocean, learning to ride a motorcycle. All great experiences, all with people who love me and want the best for me. I tried to allow those activities to fill that fractured part of my heart that craved deep companionship. Those outings did just that, but in a temporary, duct-taped kind of way.
I guess I’m seeing clearly now what it is I want in my life and how deeply, how concertedly, how pointedly I want it. I’m not looking for another committed relationship—not now, not yet. I have so much growing to do on my own, so much exploring of my own psychic landscape that I’m in no position to consider such things. And maybe that’s why this crush remains so unsullied and innocent. It reminds me of what I wanted as a very young girl, before French kissing and “bases” entered the equation. When sharing your Jolly Rancher with the boy you were crushing on was enough. Can that still be true at 50? Can I simply enjoy this crush and what it tells me about myself, take it as a sign that I’m hungering for a little male camaraderie without all the ties of a serious “relationship,” for a little fun, some laughter, a moment of feeling special, for someone’s tennis shoe to kick?
Only time will tell. Maybe these non-fantasy fantasies will slip away when they’re no longer needed, maybe I’ll grow daily more comfortable with my own solo companionship, maybe some other man will enter my life and blow all this speculation to smithereens, or maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll gather the courage needed to see if this one particular man whom I’ve chosen to crush on for reasons that elude me will link pinky fingers with me. And maybe, if I’m able to rally my courage, I’ll croon in his ear: I wanna hold your ha-aa-and. I wanna hold your hand.
Currently writing “Don’t Call Me Biker Chick,” a book about women, risk-taking and motorcycles, Bernadette Murphy has published three books of narrative nonfiction and teaches creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program.