#TrueTales: How my ‘electric husband’ saved my marriage to Paul

by Patricia McCormick

Model, stock image

 

It was the purple Big G that I fell for. After an awkward first time, we spent some lovely evenings together. And some lovely afternoons. If we had a quickie in the morning, my friends would ask about the glow in my cheeks. Had I had a facial, they’d ask.

When my husband and I weren’t feeling especially close, I would often spend long, contented afternoons reading or napping with the cat on my lap. Once in a while, the cat would gaze dreamily at me, then nuzzle me, pressing the flat of his head to the underside of my chin. Sometimes he’d stand on his hind legs, put his paws on my shoulders, and regard me with those golden, soulful eyes of his. My heart melted at the touch of his wet nose against mine.

Sometimes I would wish he were my husband. I even made jokes, calling the cat my “fur husband”. There was something so instinctively affectionate, so uncomplicated about our relationship, that I often thought how simple it would be to be married to the cat.

Meanwhile, after years of a low-grade marital malaise, my husband and I had become entrenched in a cycle of increasingly hurtful arguments that seemed to erupt over issues both large and small. During a particularly sour family holiday, when I’d stormed off to take my frustrations out on a treadmill overlooking a wide-open landscape, I pictured myself running and running, and never coming back. Back at home I pored over the accommodation listings; when my husband, Paul, saw what I was doing, I told him what I hadn’t fully admitted to myself: I wanted to move out. For the next week, we talked about our relationship more freely than we ever had before. We agreed that after nearly 20 years we didn’t want to end our marriage. We wanted to work on it. But we both knew it would take a radical step to force us out of the unkind and ugly patterns we’d got into. And so, with surprisingly little drama, we agreed to see a marriage counsellor and to separate.

When I moved to a small apartment a few blocks away, my one consolation was fantasising about the cosy, fireside nights the cat and I would spend alone together. I would have “custody” of him one week-night and every other weekend, a schedule similar to the one I would keep with my 13-year-old son. I bought him (the cat, that is) a new litter tray, toys, his favourite food, and counted the days until our first date.

Week-nights and alternating weekends with my son turned out to be delightful. I cooked the meals he liked, we watched second world war movies, and read the sports section together over breakfast. The one and only weekend when I had feline custody, however, the cat cowered behind the dish drainer, crying. When I tried to pull him out, he peed on the worktop. No amount of sweet talk or chicken giblets could coax him back into my arms.

I sulked, considered getting a kitten, then accepted that I had separated from both my husbands.

One of the terms of the trial separation was that Paul and I each agreed not to see other people: we had separated to work on the marriage, not to dismantle it. But after a few months of single living, my needs for affection had gone beyond what the cat used to offer.

It was at this point that I met the electric husband. We found each other at a store called Toys in Babeland, a feminist-owned sex-toy shop on New York’s rough-edged Lower East Side. I arrived looking every bit the former Catholic schoolgirl I am – guilt-ridden and nicely dressed – only to be confronted with a Star Wars-like assortment of vibrators, dildos, whips, and harnesses. I instantly headed for the corner of the store where the books were and pretended to read. The only person on duty was a very, very large woman – picture a refrigerator with a shaved head and more studs on her face than on Dolly Parton’s jean jacket – seated at a desk on an elevated platform where she kept an eye out for shoplifters. The word intimidating doesn’t come close to describing her. “I need help,” I eventually said in the tiniest voice.

She grunted, then came down from her perch and in a very loud voice asked what I wanted help with. “Nipple clips?” she practically yelled. “A Big G?” She pointed to an industrial-strength tool that looked like it would require a licence to operate. She went on – “Maybe a butt plug?”- until I laid a manicured hand on her tattooed arm and whispered, “I’ve never done this before.”

At this point she morphed into a kind, gentle big sister – albeit a gigantic one in work boots – leading me around the store, explaining, still at a high-decibel level, the basics (latex v plastic, G-spot v clitoral). After I’d made my selections – a pink teddy bear-shaped clitoral vibrator and a less-menacing version of the Big G (a whimsical, tie-dyed purple banana-shaped thing mounted on something resembling a hand mixer) – she informed me (and everyone else in a 12-mile radius) that, “You’re gonna need some lube with that!”

I paid, thanked her, snuck out. “I threw in some batteries for free,” she yelled after me. “Typical first timers’ mistake: get in the mood and realise you don’t have any batteries.”

It was the purple Big G that I fell for. After an awkward first time, we spent some lovely evenings together. And some lovely afternoons. If we had a quickie in the morning, my friends would ask about the glow in my cheeks. Had I had a facial, they’d ask.

It was about this time I started thinking of my vibrator as the electric husband. This was not a thought I shared with my friends. They were having a hard enough time trying to understand how moving out was supposed to help my marriage. One well-intentioned friend called and invited me to the cinema. No thanks, I said, I don’t feel like it. Next time she called to invite me out I said I had plans. I did.

I’d make a nice meal, have a glass of wine, put on some romantic music, light a candle, then retire to the bedroom with the purple Big G.

One night after I’d had a glass of wine (OK, maybe two) at the candlelit table I’d set for a romantic dinner, I got a cartoon image of the two of us sitting there together: me and the electric husband. I pictured the purple banana-shaped part propped up at the table across from me, a little napkin tied in a neat triangle an inch or so from the tip. I imagined the two of us at the movies, at a posh hotel, taking a drive in the country (in this scenario, I was in the driver’s seat, the electric husband seat-belted in next to me).

Meanwhile, I was learning to live alone. I’d met my human husband when I was in college. I remember thinking, even then, “Right man. Wrong time.” I hadn’t ever really had my own flat, let alone had a Sex and the City lovelife. But those things seemed increasingly unimportant as we fell headlong in love. Before we knew it, we’d moved in together and settled in a surprisingly traditional division of labour. Paul handled the home repairs, the car, and the barbecues. I took care of the cooking, the laundry, and most of the childcare when our children came along. Now I was on my own, it was up to me to change the oil and grill the steaks. To my great surprise, I found I wasn’t bad at the chores I’d entrusted to Paul. I even developed an affection for tools – so much so that I bought a tool belt to wear during my home improvement efforts, along with a baseball cap and overalls. (Anybody inspecting my wardrobe might have reasonably guessed that I was dating the large woman from Toys in Babeland, instead of one of the items for sale there.)

Despite these I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar triumphs, I cried. A lot. Especially in the beginning. I think I was feeling a lot of unexpressed sadness that I finally had room to notice and crying a lot of pent-up tears that I finally had the privacy to shed.

The marriage counselling also took an unexpected course. At times it seemed we were well on our way to working things out; at others, we left sessions steaming with rage and ready to divorce. And as my apartment went from a stop-gap to a potential home, I began to have moments of contentment – even happiness. I got into Irish fiddle music in a way I would have been too self-conscious to do within earshot of anyone else. I fell back into the habit of reading late into the night. And I reveled in keeping my tiny flat spotless.

I did things Paul used to do: I did up a set of second-hand chairs, changed the windscreen wiper blades. I did things I’d always wanted to do: I decorated my bedroom in lavender, strung paper lanterns across the living-room mantelpiece, and had chocolate fondue for breakfast. And I did things I assumed Paul wouldn’t have wanted me to do: I visited a psychic, wore my hair long, and ate tofu hotdogs. And I bought batteries and scented candles by the dozen for my dates with the electric husband. In short, I did whatever I wanted.

All the while, my real husband and I continued to meet twice a week with our gifted marriage counsellor. As we excavated the issues that had ground away at our marriage – mutual and lingering resentments from the bad old days when Paul was drinking, old betrayals, and ancient grudges over money, in-laws, and child-rearing – we realised that if we were going to fix what was wrong with our marriage, we’d have to dig deep. We started the process thinking we just needed a little distance and a few months of counselling to patch up the cracks in our marriage; we ended up doing a gut renovation.

Reconciliation began to seem impossible. We still trudged dutifully off to counselling, but sometimes it was as if we were going to a funeral. Without either of us realising it, we had begun to talk in tones full of resignation and sadness; we both hired lawyers and we were using terms such as amicable – which is nearly always followed by the word divorce. Almost a year and a half after I’d moved out, all the old grudges and disagreements had been aired; we had apologised, in profound and meaningful ways and, as best as we were able, had made amends. But we were at a loss as to what to do next. I trudged home after one particularly downbeat counselling session unable to stop crying.

Later that day, I called Paul. I asked if he could come over. I was finished with marriage guidance, I told him. He nodded wearily. He was, too. My heart nearly broke. I hadn’t had a chance to finish; I’d called him over to tell him that I wanted to get back together. I’d felt we’d done all we could to look at what went wrong, that the only thing left now was to make things right. I was about to propose a step that felt even scarier than moving out – moving back in – and there he was saying he didn’t think we could get back together after all. Maybe I was just being contrary – a trait that had helped land us in marriage counselling in the first place – but I disagreed. I said I thought we could. He looked at me. I went a step further. I said I thought we should.

“Really?” he said.

“Really,” I said.

Then Paul confessed that he’d only said he was finished with counselling because I said I was, that he really wanted to reconcile but was afraid I’d say no if he proposed it.

“Really?” I said.

“Really.”

So much for the honest communications we’d worked on all these months. But the truth is we had walked through fire together. We had had to put our marriage completely at risk in order to save it. And by some miracle, we had.

Getting back together was, after all that, surprisingly easy. We decided not to go for a trial reunion, where either party could call it quits over the smallest slight. We wanted to get back together, totally, completely, immediately. Our kids were thrilled, our friends delighted. The only hitch: giving up the love nest where the electric husband and I had had such happy times. (And there was one other hitch – explaining the electric husband to the real one.) Paul wasn’t particularly surprised. Or even jealous. He confessed he had developed a relationship with a video involving some nurses. I wasn’t exactly jealous, either (maybe a little grossed out). He had also got into some new music of his own – including a new age vocalist who made me run screaming from the room. He’d gone back to smoking cigars and eating meatloaf with mayonnaise.

We had conquered the thorniest of marital issues. But we had – literally – grown apart. By that I mean that we had grown while we were apart. Long-buried parts of our personalities were able to thrive, and new qualities were able to emerge, once we got out of each other’s way. That, after all, had been the point of separating; we were too close to see how we’d been hurting – and cramping – each other. We were thrilled to be reunited. Our kids looked on in disgust as we held hands and beamed at each other; our friends looked on in awe.

We rarely fought now, not even when the big issues that led to our separation came back in new disguises. But we were, to our great confusion, having a hard time with some of the little things. I was a bossy, back-seat driver; he turned the volume on my exuberant Irish fiddle down so low it sounded like a cricket chirping. After everything we’d shared in the therapist’s office, there was one confession left: we each had to admit there were aspects of living alone that we had loved.

So when a tiny, fifth-floor flat across the street from us became available, I took it. Owning an apartment when I have a perfectly good house across the street is excessive. It is ridiculous. And it is the best money I’ve ever spent. I don’t live there; I live with Paul. Happily. Ninety per cent of the time.

But when we are at odds I tell him I’m spending the night at my apartment. At first, I was a little hurt when he didn’t beg me to stay. He got the hint, made a halfhearted attempt at pretending he wanted me to stay. And I got the hint, too. He wanted me to leave just as much as I wanted to go.

Now we don’t have to get on each other’s nerves for me to sleep across the street. Sometimes I just go over to listen to my music, to read, to write, or to just be alone. I always come home happier, saner, and nicer. Once in a while, I’ll confess, I also come home with that telltale glow from a fling with the electric husband.

Occasionally, when I’ve spent the night at my apartment, my real husband brings me my morning coffee and the newspaper. And once in a while the two of us go across the street for some romantic time alone. But mainly my apartment is a place to simply savour my independence – as well as the knowledge that we have a secure, battle-tested marriage that has room for two kinds of exuberant music.

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· © 2007 by Patricia McCormick. This is an edited extract from an essay in The Honeymoon’s Over, edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand (Little, Brown, £16.99).

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