I learned to be fully present with another while holding no huge expectation of what things mean and where they are going.
“How many gears does your motorcycle have?” he asks on our first date, dining alfresco on a balmy L.A. evening, picking at salmon salads. It is the third first date I’ve been on in the year since my 25-year marriage ended, and the only one I can picture leading to a second. I am not looking for a serious, settle-down kind of relationship. Still, I’m craving something.
“Five,” I answer, unsure where the discussion’s going.
“You can think of me like that motorcycle.” He ticks options on his fingers: “I can be boyfriend material,” first finger. “I can be a friend,” second finger. “I can be someone to get serious with later, when you’re done grieving your marriage, if we’re both still interested,” ring finger. “I can be a friends-with-benefits arrangement,” pinky. “Or I can be a one-night stand,” thumb. “Take your pick. I’m single and interested. Plus, you ride a motorcycle. I figure you might be up for a challenge.”
His bluntness stuns me. I am used to guys (or myself) beating around the bush about what we want. Isn’t dating supposed to be a kind of guessing game? Does he like me? Will he take my hand? I want that opiate of romance, the heady, illusive chemicals of falling in love—if only for one evening. He is stripping away all the societal niceties, exposing truths for what they are.
He eyes me from across the table. “What is it, exactly, you’re looking for?”
I knew my marriage was over when we had sex for the last time. I found myself completely incapable of giving in to the feelings of desire I’d always been able to jumpstart. I couldn’t manufacture even the tiniest dash of yearning. I was hyper-aware of the gardener’s leaf blower buzzing next door. I couldn’t block out the stale taste in my mouth. I watched dust motes move under the ceiling fan, completely disconnected.
For many years, sex had been the rubber band that held our marriage together, the oxytocin producer that made us feel warm and loving toward one another. We used it to smooth the rough patches, and over two and a half decades and three kids, there were a lot of those. Sex was the one area of our marriage that stayed good the longest. Long after we’d stopped talking about the things that mattered, long after we’d gotten into the habit of putting the kids’ needs ahead of our own, long after we’d prized our role as parents at the expense of our role as spouses, we could still communicate with this one physical act.
That’s not an altogether good thing. If our sex life hadn’t been satisfying, perhaps we might have confronted the issues that bedeviled us. If that physical act of reconciliation had been less effective, maybe we would have demanded more from our marriage and worked to ensure that it met our needs.
Or possibly, the divide would have been apparent sooner.
Now at dinner, I wonder if this man, seated across the table from me, is someone I want to be bonded with. I consider the hormone oxytocin that I’ve been researching for a book I’m writing. Considered the “bonding chemical” and a “love drug,” oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reduces anxiety, and produces calmness and security when in the company of one’s mate. A small molecule or “peptide,” it serves as both a neurotransmitter, sending signals within the brain, and a hormone, carrying messages in the bloodstream. When scientists inhibit oxytocin in the small, furry creatures they use to study it, mother animals are known to shun their offspring. But when oxytocin is induced in the animals, the peptide causes mothers to nurture not only their own offspring, but the offspring of other animals—even the offspring of other species.
I answer his question about what I’m looking for with as much candor as I can muster: “Someone to chat with at the end of the day. Share stories with. Grab a bite. Cuddle. Take a walk. And yes,” I admit, “someone to have sex with.”
I know the possible pitfalls. Thanks to oxytocin, sex brings a thrill, a kind of high. Watching The Sessions, a movie about a paraplegic who hires a sex surrogate, I am deeply moved with its explication of the human need for intimate touch. The woman surrogate is pulled into something powerful with the man. Sex is only part of it and yet is paving the way. The oxytocin response in the body is doing what it was meant to do: bond these two human people together.
He suggests a walk after dinner but doesn’t try to hold my hand or make any moves. “You know, whoever you have sex with for the first time after a 25-year marriage will have quite a challenge. Some men might be intimidated.”
“It might be awkward and weird,” he continues.
The date ends with a peck on the cheek. Perhaps my situation is too daunting.
Half an hour later my phone buzzes with a text. “There’s one dating option I forgot,” he writes. “The playmate.”
We decide to see it this way: A marriage is like buying a house. Friends-with-benefits is like staying in a hotel for a night or two. But a playmate is like leasing. We will take things on a day-by-day, month-by-month basis. At the very minimum, we might have fun with each other.
A few nights later he comes to pick me up. It’s late. We meet in the darkened street dressed casually in T-shirts and jeans. This is purposefully not a “date.” We are testing companion/playmate possibilities. There is no will-he? or won’t-he? No does he like me? Am I cute enough?
Just: How do we feel together?
He takes my hand and I collapse my head against his chest, afraid to look him in the eye. My skin burns where he touches me. He inches my face toward his and kisses me. Every second of the year-long physical-touch drought I’ve survived is evident in that kiss. Suddenly, I don’t need violins to serenade me. His mouth is enough.
I see myself for exactly what I am: a stack of dry kindling waiting for a spark.
Before the night is over, the kindling blazes. The awkwardness he predicted fails to materialize. He takes a photo of our clothes clumped together on his bedroom floor. “My favorite picture,” he captions it.
We make plans to see each other in a day or two, and then again. And again. The oxytocin goes to work, beneath the surface, convincing me of companionship possibilities that are not really there, linking me to someone I might otherwise have passed by, persuading me to nurture what is not mine.
Three months later, when he breaks it off, I’m not completely surprised; he’s been pulling away recently. I am, however, thoroughly crushed. Even though I know better, I’ve gone and gotten myself all oxytocin-hooked. I say goodnight and make it back to my place, my front door shut and bolted, before I allow the blows to hit. One by one, the little dreams I’d conjured to share with him—whale-watching outings, tours of the old Broadway movie theaters downtown, camping excursions, meeting my kids—disintegrate like partially emerged butterflies, dead before they’ve extracted themselves from their cocoon. Maybe that’s the course of things, I console myself destroying a box of tissues. If you’re not moving toward a deeper intimacy, you’re moving away from it.
I haven’t been broken up with in 30 years.
Still, I regret not one moment. During those months, I exorcised the young-girl mentality that held me hostage for decades, convinced that to be with a man was to plan a future. I came to appreciate the moment-by-moment nature of what we shared. I learned to be fully present with another while holding no huge expectation of what things mean and where they are going.
I learned that I am an attractive woman who heartily enjoys sex. I found that I can navigate a grown-up world in which male-female relations do not revolve around marriage and the future. I no longer feel like a victim of famine, withering away for lack of human touch. The more desperate feelings of desire have substantially eased, as have my fears of being left. And I have finally been able to answer that pesky question of what it is I want.
Which, as it turns out, is significantly more than a playmate. Some of my favorite moments during our time together were far from sexual. The joy of texting someone to see how his day is unfolding. Making plans. Inviting that person inside my life. The sex was great, but those moments were key.
Most importantly, I developed new respect for oxytocin. This is a chemical that kept me bonded in a marriage longer than was good for either one of us, then brainwashed me into believing that I was building something real with a new man when I wasn’t. I create this chemical in my own brain and yet it has the power to make me see stars in eyes that do not really contain them.
I needed every experience I have had up until this point and am grateful for them. Still, I vow to more fully appreciate the power of oxytocin as I move forward. And the next time a man asks me how many gears my motorcycle has, I will know exactly which gear I’m looking for.
Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, to be published in May. She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.
Excerpt from Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life by Bernadette Murphy. Counterpoint Press, May 2016.