Illustration: Guy Billout
"I want my husband to have more sex with me," a girlfriend remarks at lunch. "I feel like he rarely initiates it, and I want to do it more often."
"Did you tell him how you feel?" I ask, after the waiters have administered strong smelling salts and propped me back in my chair. "Don't you think that the first step might be saying that to him instead of me?"
"Honestly, I could never," she responds. "He would assume I was dissatisfied or accuse me of being a nag. But I've been buying lots of silk lingerie and sheer little nighties and making sure I look my best at bedtime, hoping to pique his interest. Besides, it's not like I necessarily want to have more sex per se, I just want him to want me to."
Right. So, she wants sex, but she doesn't want it. She merely wants her husband to want it so she can get what she wants—which, perversely, is something she doesn't particularly want. Wouldn't it cost less, both in mental and actual currency, if she were to sit out the dance, look him plain in the eye, and speak her mind? Why can't she say what she wants?
She's afraid that people will label her needy, bitchy, clingy, whiny. In other words, wanty. Wanty (known in Italy as volere, on New York's shrink-saturated Upper West Side as the id) is the hobgoblin who scrambles the signals so that wanting becomes a bad thing instead of a way to move forward. His cohorts are guilt and denial; his ace up the sleeve is fear of rejection.
What if I look stupid?
What if the answer is no?
What if, what if? So goes Wanty's refrain.
Wanty should not be confused with pure Want. Pure Want is the essence of living. It's the human condition, the slender quill that pricks the sectors of the soul, stimulating yearning or envy, desire or desperation. Nor should Wanty be mistaken for his cousin, Wishy, who pines for a more unattainable horizon and subsists on fountains glutted with coins, birthday candles, and the sternum bones of most poultry. Incidentally—spoiler alert—whoever grasps the wishbone higher up toward the joint will always win.
Wanty looks daggers at Wish and Want and shames them into silence. He flicks open the refrigerator door and slams it shut, thumbs through your credit card statements reproachfully, reaches out and shakes up your mind, juddering friendly old desires into unrecognizable enemies.
Do we even allow ourselves to know what we want?
"Where should we go for dinner?" I ask my husband.
"Wherever you want," he says.
I suggest a nice barbecue place around the corner. No, he says, he doesn't feel like barbecue. Chinese? No, he had Chinese food for lunch. Italian? No, too heavy. Thai? Too much like Chinese. Where, then, I repeat, does he want to go for dinner?
"I dunno. Wherever you want."
Kill me now.
It wasn't always this way.