In this excerpt, a writer whose marriage is slouching toward the doldrums interviews a "Love Coach"—and learns a lot more than she expected to.
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“Love. It’s the final frontier,” the Love Coach declares.
“Well, you’re the expert,” I tell her, “but I thought space was the final frontier.”
“Nope, it’s love. Women have forgotten how to be feminine. We’ve lost touch with our sensuality.”
I’m interviewing the Love Coach, a professional in the lucrative field of romance, for a women’s magazine, but I am suspicious of her enterprise. She is decked out in towering stilettos, a slinky aubergine sheath, and wearing a scent she’s created called Vulvacious, a Proustian combination of bubble gum and vagina. We take for granted that there have long been baseball and football coaches, but now there are all manner of specialized “experts” who regularly award themselves honorary degrees.
She tells me that her work is “on the cutting edge of feminism.” I live at the intersection of feminism and Feministing, so I take a claim like that seriously. Are we talking first-, second-, third- or fourth-wave feminism? I wonder. As I understand it, the first wave gave us the vote; the second freed us from our kitchens and bras. Postfeminism promised we could have it all. The third wave made sexy bras safe for grrls as long as we’re wearing them for our own enjoyment, and the fourth wave promises we can blog about it all. I was raised with second-wave values in a postfeminist world and now find myself surrounded by third- and fourth-wavers. I am easily identifiable as the oldest of the women I share an office with. I’m the only one without tattoos, ironic eyeliner, fluid sexual preferences, and a Pinterest account.
“Do women really need to pay someone to help us with our love lives? Don’t we seek out our girlfriends for help?” I ask her.
“I give them a totally objective eye.”
She might have a point. No matter how close you are, there is an unspoken line you cannot cross with even your closest girlfriends. Saying something negative about someone a friend is dating, considering dating, or married to, if they’re not already halfway through divorce proceedings, can be a friendship ender.
“You need to stay current with online dating etiquette,” she tells me. “I continually do research, and that’s one of the things we’ll focus on this weekend.”
The clients, Love Coach, and I caravan to a hotel. It’s a swanky place where electronic dance music pulses in the lobby 24 hours a day. At the rooftop-pool area, I can’t help but feel like I’m watching meat being carefully packaged as the Love Coach oversees a team that includes a hair-and-makeup artist and a photographer who snaps candid shots for use on dating sites.
LC shows me her clients’ “before” photos. There is a preponderance of poufy hair, some unflattering angles, and attempts to convey uniqueness that are somehow getting lost in translation. A nurse practitioner from Texas with symmetrical features has placed herself behind a sheer curtain of fabric. The image was probably meant to foster an air of mystery; instead, it sends one of two confusing messages: I have terrible skin and must not be seen with the naked eye, or I long to be recruited into a Saudi Arabian harem. Another client appears to be in her kitchen, preparing a meal with an adult son. Here the intent must have been I’m a nurturing person, but the photo screams We’re a package deal. LC’s marketing background is brought home when she points out that most women are dressed in black, while research shows that bright color can positively influence purchasing outcomes, and though I am hesitant to compare this process to purchasing, when I view one “after” photograph, I can see that a hot-pink cami really does make you stand out.
After the photos are all taken, we gather in a suite. Chairs have been positioned in a circle and journals embossed with the words “Love Notes” have been provided for us.
“Put some tissues out,” LC whispers to me. “Someone always cries.
“I want you to write down your favorite weather, colors, objects, flower, material, or magical creature,” she instructs the group. “These ‘essence words’ will become user names for your online dating. They will announce to the world who you are so you can attract your perfect mate.”
“Can Christopher Hitchens be my magical creature?” I say. “No, it should be iconic.”
“He was pretty iconic.”
“A Greek god, a phoenix, a mythical being, you know, the subject of your fantasies.”
At this point in my life, I find stainless-steel kitchen appliances a turn-on. I want to be useful to the group, so I suggest that the leggy real-estate magnate from Morocco should be “Successful and Statuesque.”
“It needs to be intriguing,” corrects LC, who proceeds to brainstorm something so perfect and captivating that I am stopped in my tracks: “Golden Lotus.” It really fits her. Drawing a blank, I toss out the worst moniker I can dream up, “Green Boots,” and all the ladies agree that I radiate “Green Boots.” I have no idea if this is a good thing, I suspect it’s not, but for the rest of the night, I answer to it.
Next, she wants us to pen our most passionate fantasy. “We’re taking a stand for love in an age that’s increasingly cynical. We’re casting our ‘love spells.’ You can’t manifest something unless you declare what you want.” I’m manifesting a lot of eye-rolling.
“Do it, Green Boots,” Coach orders me.
I feel like a low-rent romance novelist, but I compose a scenario that involves Umberto Eco, Paris, and Pinot Noir. I call my composition “Semiotic and Erotic.”
After I read it aloud, I announce, “I’ve stopped devoting energy to my marriage.” I’m first in the group to cry. I am, it turns out, the woman the Love Coach described to me on the phone.
Each woman reads what she’s written, and aside from the fact that the majority of the scenes take place in Paris or on a beach and involve consuming wine or brunch or both, they are all sincerely heartfelt. Texas describes sharing a particularly flavorful egg dish and chokes up. “It’s just been so long since I’ve been intimate with anyone.” She says between sobs, “I don’t know if I’ll ever meet anyone.” Love Coach consoles her by allowing that she’s really doing this exercise to get to know herself better and that’s what matters most.
As I drive home with my bottle of Vulvacious, I’m forced to rethink my initial judgment. I am awed by the courage it took for her clients to display so much vulnerability and terrified that I will soon be conjuring my “love spell” and composing my JDate profile under LC’s tutelage if I don’t step it up in my marriage.
I decide to skip the second day of the workshop. I’ve got enough material for my story. I stop in at a local lingerie outlet near my home. I purchase lacy boy shorts, and bras that have ornate straps and little bows. I gamely try them on for my husband in the afternoon and before I can even douse myself with my new perfume, he tells me he doesn’t consider them lingerie. If it’s not a garter belt, it doesn’t count.
I resent the garter belt. It acts like a framing device for the area of my body that I now dislike. Having always been one poop away from a flat stomach, I’d taken for granted the easy gait of the very slim. I’ve heard middle-aged thickness described as a swim floatie, but that sounds too buoyant to me.
At least I made an effort, I repeat to myself, as I catalogue my marriage pros and cons and change back into my Spanx. It should really be called a cons and pros list because when you reach the point of needing a list, the cons come so easily to mind.
Much of the communication I have with my husband in the last few years is down to texts regarding “scheduling,” which might be the most unappealing word in the dictionary, next to the phrase “Can we talk?” Can we talk about scheduling? A double bummer. My husband has asked me to stop using that phrase, but it’s hard to avoid. I’ve asked him to stop using “micromanaging” and “agitating.” My husband has banned my use of the adjective “delish” and the phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Much of the time we text “whr r u?” “hm” or “wrkng” to each other.
Extraneous vowels have disappeared. When we lose consonants, what will be left for us?
Our empty nest would seem to be within sight. The classic scenario for so many of my generation was for parents to split when the kids left home. My husband’s parents separated when he was in college.
“Next year we’ll have been married one year longer than my parents,” my husband announces as we cross paths before we head our separate ways, he to ESPN and me to bed. “Well, that still gives us time to divorce,” I call after him.
My mother-in-law was in her thirties, with an entire youthful life ahead of her, and I’ll be 54 when our son graduates high school. Just as daunting an idea as “until death do us part” is what’s being called the boomerang effect. Unemployed or underemployed adult children are moving back home after college, so if we’re waiting until our kid leaves home to sell our house and call it quits, we might be looking at an additional five years—if we’re lucky!
There are things in life that are really best experienced alone. Using a toothpick, sex, and longtime marriage are often most satisfying when you are separated from others by many miles. I had that experience on the night I ran away from home. I can’t remember what it was that sent me packing. It probably involved the word “scheduling.” But on this night, I had the Love Coach’s number in my back pocket; I spritzed myself with Vulvacious for good measure and headed to my friend Marin’s place.
Marin left her husband after he had one too many indiscretions with women from their church marital-counseling group. She says it was like she finally lost that last 235 pounds she was lugging around. Since then, she’s remade her life: She’s never looked better, and has established a new career after years of being out of the job force in one of history’s worst economies. She’s indefatigable. How much caffeine and Klonopin would it take for me to be as relentlessly upbeat and resourceful if I divorced at this point in my life?
I arrive at her home at around 7 p.m. Then the doorbell rings. It’s one of Marin’s ex’s exes, who has become a close friend. They have a standing date once a week to review men who’ve responded to their ads on an over-40 dating site. I have to look—this could soon be my life.
The men who have responded to Marin’s ad would appear to be in the same general range of men the Love Coach’s clients, the ex, and I might be interested in.
All the candidates appear to be professionals of some sort and claim to be between the ages of 45 and 55, so they’re probably 50 to 60 at the very least. Two-thirds are posed next to fireplaces with glasses of wine in their hands. That seems to be a good thing, an image that communicates I am a stable man with a home that has a hearth, or at least I have access to a hearth. I know how to relax and have a glass of wine. The other third have taken some creative license: One man is at the beach, wearing leather sandals. “Too much man foot!” Marin’s friend announces, and we nod our heads in unison. He’s also wearing shorts and a fanny pack. How often is this guy in shorts? Might he show up for a date in shorts? Photos of men that have long hair scream romance novel, Def Leppard tribute-band member, or might have a long pinky fingernail. What if some of these candidates are clients of a male love coach and these photos are professionally staged?
As we page through the profiles, the most unsatisfying part of evaluating potential companions is that each person is pictured solo. This makes for thousands of single people presented out of context. “You are the company you keep” is an adage that seems particularly true when you’re nearing 50. Each headshot announces, I AM ALONE. It takes only a short leap of the imagination to picture any of these men conversing with a volleyball that has a face painted on it named Wilson.
The whole online dating world appears to be a reductive way of learning about people, yet there might be some advantages. I didn’t know until long after I married my husband that he had lived under the illusion that he might have had a career in major-league baseball if only his mother hadn’t discouraged him. It just never came up. Perhaps if I had met him online, I might have spotted his large collection of baseball caps in the background of a picture of him. That would have been helpful; at least I wouldn’t have been surprised by the long hours of ESPN viewing he’s racked up. And yet I know at least a dozen friends who’ve found rewarding relationships online. The three of us flag three or four guys who are wearing long pants and have open smiles for follow-up.
Six months from now, one of us could be sharing a glass of wine in front of one of those hearths.
I never asked how much the Love Coach charges for her services, and I definitely haven’t allowed for romance consultation in any what-if-we-get-divorced budgets. I bet she’s pricey; she’s got that little teacup breed—they can be high-strung and sometimes need therapy. I wake up early in the morning, and quickly and quietly pack my overnight bag and head home.
I hear my husband in the kitchen making breakfast for our son as I walk through the front door.
“Just went for an early run,” I fib to our kid. I offer to take over, but Jeff says he’s got it covered.
“Mom, you smell good,” my son calls out to me. “You smell like . . .”
“Bubble gum. I know, I say. I head upstairs to our bedroom. I’m exhausted from my sleepless night.
As I undress, I notice the computer on my husband’s side of the bed. I glance at the screen and see a story he’s writing about how he chooses not to see the effects aging is having on my lower torso by pixelating his vision when he looks at my posterior. It never occurred to me that when he tells me how great I still look, he might also be “making an effort.”
This is quite simply one of the kindest gestures I’ve been treated to in my life.
My husband comes in the bedroom and whispers he’s sorry. I lie down and he places a throw around my body. I marvel at his ability to tuck the covers around my backside while simultaneously blurring his vision.
“Did you think marriage would be like this?” I ask. “I thought there’d be more fucking,” he replies.
“I thought there’d be more money,” I say. Maintaining a sense of humor is the final frontier or at least our saving grace as we age.
“What’s that great scent?” he asks. “It’s like . . .” “Vagina?”
“Yes. Mmm . . .” He inhales deeply and nuzzles my neck.
It occurs to me that maybe his story was intended to be a metaphor. Is he saying that he chooses to gloss over what’s come behind? He’s witnessed my bad behavior, crappy career decisions, poor housekeeping skills and yet he doesn’t focus on it. Now, that would be very, very clever and shockingly compassionate.
I’m going to keep the Love Coach on my speed dial. My garter belt days might be behind me, but a sexy slip, maybe even pink, might be in my future. At least I can say I made an effort.
Excerpted from I See You Made An Effort, by Annabelle Gurwitch, reprinted with permission from Blue Rider Press/ Penguin USA.
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