It's not that Joe's been looking unhappy lately. Just tired. And stressed. And distracted. Like me.
"This is for you," he says, handing me a big white envelope.
I put down my spoon. I open the envelope. I pull out two plane tickets. "We're going to Venice," he says.
"Venice, Italy?" I ask. I can't quite grasp the concept. When we first moved to London we traveled a lot, but we haven't been anywhere in a very long time. Since our first child was born, to be precise.
"Venice, Italy," Joe answers. "For your birthday. I thought it would be nice to do something romantic."
He's not wrong. It would be nice to do something romantic. If I had the energy. Or the inclination. If I weren't feeling so romantically preoccupied.
"But who's going to stay with the kids?" I ask.
"Alexandra," Joe says, referring to our babysitter. "I asked her whether she would do a weekend and she said yes."
I know I am lucky to have a husband who both wants and can afford to take me to Venice. But I really don't want to go. Just because I've been getting tired of staying home with the boys doesn't mean I want to leave them. Not even for a weekend. Not even to go to Venice. And especially not to get on an airplane. If I'm going to go anywhere, I would like it to be to sleep.
But I know better than to put up a fuss. My husband is young and virile, and if I don't want him embarking on the path that you hear the husbands of distracted new mothers embark on, I'd better get with the plan: not simply agree to go to Venice but even show enthusiasm for the idea; not only have sex when I am there but even—if I can remember how—be sexy.
"Thank you very much," I say, making a point to kiss Joe directly on the lips. "That's a really sweet thing to do."
The big Friday morning arrives, so does our taxi to the airport. The children lunge at my shins, begging me please not to go. I drop to my knees, pull them into my chest, and learn the origins of the cliché "Bite your tongue." I literally have to sink my top teeth into my tongue to prevent myself from uttering the words "Talk to Daddy. If it were up to me I would never leave you."
I continue biting my tongue as Joe and I walk out of the house and into the taxi. The taxi pulls away. Joe puts his hand on my thigh.
I bite my tongue so hard I think it will bleed.
"Okay," Joe says, removing his hand. "Why are you being like this?"
"Because you're pigs!" I want to shout. "Because you're all pigs! Because even the most enlightened of you is only after one thing and that's sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. Yes, I have agreed to come on this weekend, and yes, I have agreed to appear enthusiastic. But can't you nonetheless intuit that this might be a little bit hard for me? That I might need some time to transition? That my hormones have me wanting to stay home with my young, not flying off on a dirty weekend with you?"
But to answer this truthfully would clearly defeat the purpose of going away in the first place. And so I move down to the next item on the list of things that are tormenting me: fear that our plane might crash.
"Because we haven't figured out who should take care of the children if anything happens to us!" I wail.
"We can take care of that on Monday," Joe says, looking out the window, narrowing his eyes, and running his hand through his hair, which I notice is going gray at the temples. I feel instantly, terribly guilty. He was very kind to go ahead and plan this weekend. I must be nice to him even if it kills me.
"I can see at once why Venice has inspired so many writers"
"I'm sorry," I say. "I'm really looking forward to spending time with you. It's just hard for me to leave the children."
And again he goes with the hand.
Our taxi boat pulls up to Piazza San Marco at 3 P.M. The sky is gray, the air is cold, and Venice is more beautiful than I ever would have imagined had I taken the time to imagine where we were going, which, of course, I had not. As we follow the windy cobblestone streets to our hotel, Joe announces that he has managed to book us a room right on a canal. Damn! is all I can think. One does not book a room on a canal so one's wife can curl up in the corner with the DO NOT DISTURB sign over her head.
"Come here," Joe sure enough says, the moment we walk in the door.
"Do you mind if I take a bath?" I ask, feeling very clever to have thought of it. It seems a bath might clear me out a bit, hasten the return of that part of myself I am trying to access. I make the water very, very hot. I pour into it every calming oil I can find in my toiletry bag: ylang-ylang, lavender, musk. I get in the tub. I let the water lap over my body. I think I will faint.
The water is so hot and the smell of it so pungent that my heart starts to race, my feet start to throb, and my head starts to get very dizzy. I realize I had better get out. I climb out of the tub, as steaming and red as a freshly cooked lobster. I stagger back into the bedroom, collapse onto the bed, and apologize—yet again—to Joe. "I'm sorry," I say. "But I don't think I can stay awake."
The funny thing is that Joe doesn't look nearly as disappointed as relieved. He tears off his clothes, climbs into bed beside me, and we sleep until the next day.
I wake up the next morning with a feeling I used to know well but hadn't remembered in a very long time: the sense that if a strong wind came, it wouldn't literally knock me to the ground. Joe and I eat a big breakfast and head out to explore the streets. I can see at once why Venice has inspired so many writers. You get the feeling that if you listened carefully to the stones they would tell you stories.
Walking across a bright yellow bridge, Joe takes my hand. This, too, feels pretty strange. You make a point of having sex when you're new parents because you know your marriage needs it. But you don't make a point of holding hands. I hadn't remembered Joe's hand being so big.
We navigate alleyways, campos, and basilicas until it's 1:30 and we are hungry. We enter a restaurant with red-and-white-checked curtains on the windows and no more than eight or nine tables. Midway through the linguine vongole, Joe says he is tired and would like to take a nap after lunch. Uh-oh. I know what that means. I drink two glasses of wine.
With the pregnancy and the nursing and the pregnancy and the nursing, it's been years since I've had two successive glasses of wine. The effect is dramatic. But still I walk back to the hotel feeling as nervous as I imagine brides must have felt back in the days when they were still virgins. A room on a canal in Venice in the afternoon! It's going to have to be good. I only hope this stuff is like bike riding.
Luckily, the sun is pouring through the window. I've always been a sucker for good lighting. When I close my eyes, the combined effect of the wine, the sunlight, and Joe's kissing transports me to a place I haven't been in a very long time— a place where my body is my own again, not the machine for growing our two little boys. The end result, I am pleased to report to you, is like bike riding. Only better. It breaks down a wall between my husband and me that I hadn't realized existed. I had forgotten how sexy he can be when he isn't stressed out.
And when he takes my hand on the way to dinner, it doesn't even feel weird. It feels good. It feels as though I am young again—though aren't I too young to be thinking this way? I turn to Joe and fling my arms around his neck. We kiss, right there on the street. I try to remember the last time we kissed standing up, but I can't.
We step into a dark, wood-paneled restaurant. As Joe orders dinner, I find myself checking him out like I did on our first date. I come to the same conclusion I did then, only this time with a caveat: He's pretty cute when he's gotten some rest. He suggests we visit the Jewish Ghetto in the morning, which I think is a wonderful idea. I think he's a wonderful man. I lean across the table and kiss him on the lips—not because I told myself I should but because it seems natural.
"The question," I say, "is whether we'll actually manage to have sex twice in the same day."
The poor guy looks ecstatic. "We have to," he answers. "It's like shopping at Price Club. We have to stock up while we're here."
The ghetto makes me angry. As a tour guide shows us around the various buildings, I am outraged to think that as the rest of the population mingled on the streets I've been finding so beautiful, the Jews were confined to this small space just because they were Jews. I become angrier still when the guide notes that the Ashkenazic Jews, of European descent, chose to live in one part of the Ghetto, while the Sephardic Jews, of North African and Middle Eastern descent, chose to live in another.
"Can you believe it?" I ask Joe, when the tour has ended and we are walking back toward the center of town. "There are the Jews, locked away from society like dogs in a kennel, and what do they do? Segregate themselves further still!"
"It's the problem with religion," Joe says. "When people believe they have God on their side, there's no end to how nasty or petty they'll be."
"You feel like the old you again"
My adrenaline rushes with the thrill of this argument, an argument about something other than why I let Aidan sit on the open dishwasher door when it has already broken twice, and why Joe leaves the boys' clothes around the rim of the toilet when he gives them a bath, creating unnecessary laundry. I take Joe's hand and squeeze in delight.
"You feel like the old you again," he says, looking at me with such joy it's sad. "I hope this doesn't have to end. From now on please let's try to make love even when we're too tired."
"Okay," I say. "And please let's try to kiss standing up."
We do try. For a while, we even succeed. The first ten days we're home, we make love even when we don't initially feel like it, and one night when I am washing my face before bed, Joe grabs my waist and we kiss standing up. But then our older son gets an ear infection and wakes up screaming, and our younger son catches it and wakes up screaming, and before we know it we're so exhausted we revert to our pre-Venice ways. At least on the outside. Inside, we are buoyed by the knowledge that our passion hasn't died; it's just sleeping, exhausted by the pip-squeaks who are its product. If it can be woken once, it can be woken again.
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