As humans, we’re practically hardwired to keep a memory vault — a spank bank of sorts — of all the sexual things we’ve witnessed or experienced. Two of my most titillating memories were imprinted on my brain in the mid-aughts, while I was traveling out of New York City on a Peter Pan bus, my forehead pressed against the glass in search of something, anything, that might pique my interest. At a stoplight on the Upper West Side, I peered into the window of a well-lit brownstone where a topless older woman held a Champagne coupe in one hand while tending to the hardened needs of a much younger man with the other. A few months later and a few blocks north, I gaped with burning cheeks as a 40-something couple went at it like teenagers against their bay window. In both cases, the occupants were, of course, oblivious to the fact that a 22-year-old woman on a bus was watching their every move with the intensity of Richard Ramirez.
Though I haven’t witnessed anything nearly as scintillating in the 16 years since — during which I moved to Chicago, got married, and had two kids — my early voyeurism grew into a deep-seated curiosity about the intimate lives of strangers. When the coronavirus swept in last March, that curiosity spiraled into a full-blown obsession. Part of this, I imagine, was a result of those early days of quarantine setting fire to my own libido: See? This doesn’t have to be terrible, I remember thinking as I reached for my husband in the dark. Here’s how we can make it fun!
Walks around the neighborhood revealed a buoyancy that confirmed I wasn’t alone; longtime couples who’d never been especially affectionate were holding hands like new lovers, their masks barely concealing the flush in their faces. But as days ticked into weeks, that novelty began to melt like a forgotten Popsicle. By fall, a big, messy puddle of boredom and apathy was left in its place, its edges ringed with resentment. The lifestyle side effects of social isolation — eating and drinking more, exercising less, and the mental exhaustion of our daughters’ misadventures in remote learning — had officially taken their toll. My husband and I made the slow roll back to our respective sides of the bed.
But it wasn’t just us. In line outside Trader Joe’s, I sniffed out sexlessness with the nose of an airport security dog. That harried, bedraggled mom toward the front? She hadn’t had anything resembling an orgasm in weeks, maybe months. As I watched her gaze longingly at the shelves of wine on the other side of the glass, I felt a strange sort of kinship. I get it, I wanted to say. It’s going to be OK. But I said nothing because I’d moved on to a hunched-over man a few yards behind her. His face was hidden behind a full-on gas mask that looked like a relic from a Hitchcock set, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would wear something so unabashedly attention seeking in public — unless, that is, he wasn’t getting any attention in the bedroom. Seriously, was anyone having sex anymore?
I called my old friend Will. Despite the fact that he and his wife had been living off-grid in Costa Rica for the last few years, he was my go-to for any conversation that required commiseration. But when I asked whether the lockdown had put a damper on his sex life, he laughed. “Funny you should ask …” Twenty minutes later, I hung up, floored by the knowledge that Will and his wife were now unbearably satiated swingers, joined on the regular by another couple — the sexiest version of a quarantine pod I’d heard of. Really, though, what did I expect? A childless couple on a perma-vacation in the tropics had absolutely nothing in common with us Miserable Midwesterners. I needed to talk to someone closer to home, and I needed an expert. That night, I emailed Laura Berman, the local sex and relationship therapist, TV personality, and friend of Oprah.
She replied almost immediately: “COVID-19 has definitely put a damper on our libidos and our ability to feel desirable. But it’s important to resist the urge to make up negative stories about your sex life right now. Instead of ‘we’re never going to go back to normal,’ create positive stories like ‘our intimacy has decreased, but I believe that can change.’ ” Huh. Considering how often I bemoaned — make that catastrophized — everything that had been happening since March, this advice seemed worthy of a Post-it note on the bathroom mirror.
Berman also wrote: “Have date nights at home, and make sure you’re putting on actual clothes when you spend time together.” I glanced at my husband, whose faded plaid pajama bottoms were growing more hideous by the second, then down to my own threadbare sweats. I looked back at the screen. “There’s a hidden invitation in this time of isolation that offers you and your partner a chance to deepen your relationship and make your sex life even more exciting than ever before.”
Reading on, I expected her to suggest something along the lines of a silent, socially distanced couples’ retreat in the Adirondacks or au naturel sex therapy in the comfort of our living room. So when she replied with the sexual equivalent of “eat your vegetables,” I couldn’t help but feel skeptical. While “find time to exercise and get outside every single day” is certainly sage advice, it seemed unlikely to put me in the mood. It was cold out! And “scheduling sex” made sense in principle, but “missionary at 8:30” sounds like something written on the calendar of a couple who fold their underpants. Her other suggestion, “trying new positions and experimenting with sex toys,” was by far the most enticing, but in order to do those things, I had to get naked. And I didn’t feel much like getting naked these days.
That night, though, something that felt suspiciously akin to enthusiasm began to build deep within me, and by sunrise I was a woman on a mission. I woke before the kids and went for a run. It was brutal at first, but I bounced back into the house so invigorated I forgot to make coffee. Midmorning, the new me texted my husband to let him know Tuesday was now Sexday (it was Wednesday, so I’d bought myself some time here). I went online to order fancy loungewear — silky PJs for me, tapered joggers for him — and before I knew it, I’d invested in a sleek silicone vibrator and a bottle of aloe-based lube that cost more than my favorite truffle oil. Tuesday approached. Tuesday arrived. The clock struck sex.
After we’d finished, it was a tale as old as time: I lay staring at the ceiling while my husband slept soundly beside me. Did I feel better? I wasn’t sure yet, but our hands were touching under the covers for the first time in recent memory. My thoughts wandered back to those couples in New York. It occurred to me that they must have known what I’d just discovered: that the secret to good sex isn’t sexy. Within the confines of my pandemic-ravaged marriage, the thought of going for a run or putting on pants with a fly was exhausting, but if you did it enough times, it would become a habit. Like everything else in life, it was all about consistency. Want more sex? Eat your vegetables.