Physical closeness became even more awkward when I had to resort to sleeping on my side with a special pregnancy pillow between my legs, its big U cushioning my back and front.Pari Chang
One of the reasons I married my husband, Geoffrey, was that we had great sex. Before him, I gauged compatibility by quality of conversation: the Jewish jabbermouth school of thought. But Geoffrey is Chinese, and the Chinese are generally not a schmoozing tribe. Geoffrey is not a ruminator, a neurotic, or a bullshit artist. He doesn’t say “What if I kissed you?” or worry about kissing you or tell you a story before kissing you. Geoffrey kisses you when he feels like kissing you. I might be pulling my hair back into a ponytail, getting ready for the gym, when he’d curl into my neck, jolting me out of that ordinary moment. His breath smelled like Coca-Cola, a sweetness welling up from inside. Plus, he had the athletic, exotic looks of those Calvin Klein underwear models on billboards in Times Square. When he’d kiss me while my hands were tied up in twisting the elastic band, it thrilled me that a quiet man could be so bold.
We met at a bar, coincidentally sharing a booth with mutual acquaintances, when he put down his scotch glass too close to my martini and his pinky brushed against mine. Don’t look at him, I thought. Keep your eyes on the olive. But the energy of our two pinkies touching made me unable to sit still, so I shimmied out of the booth and zigzagged through the squeezed crowd to lose myself in a forest of tall people. Geoffrey followed and suddenly pressed his palm against the small of my back. Not just a pinky this time, but the whole hand, and on purpose. With the music blaring, I couldn’t rely on repartee to control his flirtation. Instead, I acquiesced and let Geoffrey lead me to the dance floor, where he never took his eyes off mine.
For our first date, Geoffrey suggested Central Park. I’d never before been asked out for the afternoon. I took it as a challenge by Geoffrey: get to know me without buffering the awkwardness with a few drinks. In the taxi, I asked him where he was from. “I don’t know really,” he said. “I was born in California. Then we lived in Boulder, Colorado. After that it was back to Cali, then Boulder again, and then New York. My father was a scientist, so we moved around a lot. What’s your story?”
“I’m from New Jersey,” I said. It actually sounded enviable. We took out a rowboat. Alone on the still water, I dug deeper. “So, after all of that moving around, what feels like home?”
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Geoffrey replied. Then he pulled the rowboat onto a muddy bank, dragged a log from the brush, and fashioned a bridge to a waterside boulder like an urban Tom Sawyer. He sidestepped across and I followed—touché. Our postures on the boulder were the same, shoulders rounded, hands atop bent knees. For many minutes, he made me brave silence. “Granola bar?” was all he said, then fished one from the pocket of his board shorts.
We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging together in the Sheep Meadow. I finally asked him what he was thinking. “I’m not thinking,” he said. “I’m just lying with you on a blanket in the grass.”
I always assumed I’d know, really know, the man I married, but Geoffrey was more like a scent I followed. I thought I’d end up with a Jewish guy who had my wiring: a running internal dialogue, a need to be organized, prompt, and approved of. Or else I figured I’d fall for my perfect opposite, that we’d yin and yang like pieces of a puzzle. But Geoffrey and I weren’t mirror images or halves of the same whole.
The first time we fooled around, he climbed up my stomach and exhaled, whispering, “Feels like poetry.” The second time, he said, “Does it frighten you that I think I love you?” We’d only been dating for a few weeks.
“A little,” I admitted, “like being outside when it’s about to storm.”
He tucked the top sheet behind the headboard so that it arced above us. “A tent for two, then,” he said. “It’s going to be a good rain.”
Soon we were making love, all the time, love. He’d undress me, peeling off one item at a time. I’d close my eyes, raise my arms above my head, and listen to his chest heaving. Holding my face in his hands, he’d kiss me hard, without opening his mouth. Then he’d gently take off my pearl earrings. In our tangle of lovemaking, I’d stop thinking, for once. Looking at Geoffrey, I’d see his black hair stiff as a paintbrush; his diamond-shaped face, a leopard; his smooth muscled legs, a sculpture. And after sex, the whir of bliss kept coming. It was a primordial kind of pleasure. Letting him inside me put me deep inside myself.
While looking for a like mind, I found belonging in a lover. A life mate isn’t always calculable on paper, by check marks on a list of traits. Sometimes rightness is ascertainable by instinct, like other gambles. I wasn’t a gambler, but I pinned my star on the psychedelic rush I felt just relaxing beside Geoffrey on that blanket in Central Park, watching the trees sway against the sky.
We were married for four years, both thirty two, when I got pregnant somewhat unexpectedly. Though I’d stopped taking the pill, we weren’t trying. Geoffrey liked to say that we pulled the goalie but still played defense. I’d purchased a pregnancy test mostly as an indulgence at Rite Aid, along with hot-oil treatments and tortoiseshell barrettes. I peed on the stick, propped it against the soap dish, and settled into a bubble bath. Squinty-eyed and rinsing my hair, I saw the blue plus sign develop like a Polaroid picture. When Geoffrey heard the urgency in my voice, he shut off the barbecue mid grill. He greeted me with a sausage wheel on a paper plate, the most foreboding of meats. I pointed to the evidence by the soap dish.
“Plus sign means addition, but to me this looks like an X,” he said. “What does X mean?” As if semantics could get us out of this one.
“X means we’re multiplying.”
My husband sat on the cover of the toilet seat. “I was just about to watch the Yankees game,” he said. Our dog, Iverson, lapped at the sausage wheel. “That’s my dinner,” Geoffrey snapped, then picked up the dog and tossed him into the tub.
“You’re mean to pets!” I shouted as he stormed off to the television. I thought of how I never would have agreed to name our Boston terrier after a basketball bad-ass with cornrows, but Geoffrey knew that I knew nothing about sports, so he posited that Iverson had a literary air, like Emerson. “Mommy’s pregnant,” I told the poor dog now, scooping him into my arms. I was hoping for a lick, some sign of enthusiasm that I didn’t get from my husband. But Iverson shook the water from his coat, spraying the entire mirror with bubbles. d
As I plodded past Geoffrey, I started to cry. “Because of you, I have to Windex!” I wanted to get into what I was really crying about: Geoffrey’s reaction to my news. The downside of being married to a passionate man is his temper. It made him behave like a real jerk sometimes even though he wasn’t one. I resented the way our communication occasionally broke down, but I knew from experience that the only way to connect with Geoffrey at times like this was to wait in silence until he composed himself.
“I’m sorry I threw the dog in the bath,” Geoffrey sighed later, when he finally came to bed. He rolled Iverson onto his back, scratched his tummy, and said “Forgive me, little buddy?” with such tenderness that it softened me. He nuzzled Iverson a little, and I cuddled in, too. “Look, a guy is used to trying not to get his girl pregnant, so when you told me, my first reaction was . . . you know.” But I didn’t know. “Dread,” he said. He kissed my shoulder, then my neck. “But I can’t tell you how excited I am now.”
“Yeah? How excited?” I pushed his shoulders back against the mattress, kissing him, on top of him. I slid my hand into his boxers, but he giggled.
“You’re tickling me,” he said, but I kept kissing him. “Can we take a rain check?” he asked. “I just feel really ticklish tonight.”
He rejected another overture a few nights later. My ob-gyn had just confirmed how far along I was, so Geoffrey and I Googled “pregnant + 5 weeks” and clicked on the first link that came up. Your baby is the size of a sesame seed, it began. Geoffrey asked me to scoot over to make room on my desk chair for both of our butts. We read along together. “This feels nice, sitting thigh to thigh,” I whispered.
“Don’t get any funny ideas,” he said. He sounded like a teenager at a drive-in movie whose date has just tried to cop a feel.
The same thing happened the next week, and the week after that: we tracked fetal development online every evening, then went uneventfully to bed. Your baby is the size of a lentil . . . a raspberry.
I spooned Geoffrey to mimic the shape of a kidney bean on the night we read that our baby had grown to that size. When he told me to stop, I apologized. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t a big deal that we weren’t having sex, After all, Geoffrey was being a loving partner in other ways—attending ob-gyn appointments, even boycotting sushi as an act of solidarity when the doctor said I couldn’t eat it. Still, after he fell asleep, I snuck over to the computer and logged on to our favorite pregnancy Web site. I scrolled past kidney bean, my heart thumping like a wily spy, and read ahead, even though we’d agreed not to do that. Next week would be grape, I found out, and after that, kumquat. If he doesn’t fuck me by kumquat, we’ve got a problem, I told myself. Kumquat. The word itself sounded evocative of orgasm.
When kumquat came, I wore a lace demi-cup bra with matching panties to bed and draped a bare thigh over Geoffrey’s hip. He pulled the duvet up to his neck. “It’s too weird,” he demurred, and kissed me chastely on the forehead.
“Weird?” I snapped. “Weird is for things in formaldehyde!”
“Lots of guys get freaked about having sex during pregnancy,” he said.
“I’m not even showing! My tits are fabulous! What’s your problem?”
Geoffrey lowered his head and gripped his hair in his fists. “I never imagined having sex with a pregnant woman,” he blurted. The truth always comes out in the dark.
I never imagined falling for a Chinese guy, I almost shot back. “Love is full of surprises,” I said instead.
“Maybe it’s evolution. The male’s desire drops once the female is pregnant.” He was grasping at straws, talking propagation of the species, stamen and pistil crap.
I slipped into something more comfortable—an oversized T-shirt and drawstring pajamas. Then I sat on the bed, took a deep breath, and interrupted him. “Hello? Your problem isn’t biological. It’s psychological.” Geoffrey had never seen a shrink or even smoked a joint. He had the just-do-it mentality of an athlete or a warrior. “Imagine this scenario,” I began. “You see me pruning the African violets on the windowsill, but I don’t know you’re there. You feel mischievous. You take the watering can and sprinkle my back, then trace my spine through my wet, clinging blouse. Then you push me onto the easy chair. I’m pregnant and we are about to make love. What goes through your head?”
“Poking the baby. The sonogram, this little tadpole swimming around, and then bam! A giant spear butts up against his bubble, stabbing and stabbing like a punch to the gut.”
A punch to the gut—that was exactly what his explanation felt like to me. If sex with his pregnant wife is weird, I told myself, then shouldn’t he wade through the weirdness? Isn’t that intimacy? I wondered if our problem had a cultural component. On the Internet I learned that Chinese women don’t have sex during pregnancy. But I wasn’t Chinese, and besides, when I ran the cultural precept by American-born Geoffrey, he told me that he was unaware of it. Still, maybe the tradition had seeped into him, the way ham grosses me out even though I don’t keep kosher. Kumquat. I never should have picked a Chinese fruit for our week of sexual reckoning.
“You have to meet me halfway here,” I told Geoffrey. “My hormones are raging. I’ve been having orgasms in my sleep.”
“Doesn’t sound so terrible,” he laughed.
“I dreamed the super of the building next door followed me up a ladder, wearing his tool belt and whispering to me in his Irish brogue. Okay?”
“That old man with the belly?”
“Please touch me,” I said. “I need you.” I reminded him of those times that he’d asked me to pleasure him as a courtesy of monogamy, when he woke me in the middle of the night because he’d had a stressful day at the office and wanted release. I had always obliged, just as a neighbor lends a cup of sugar. So now, he did.
During my second trimester, at my urging, we visited a New York sex shop called Come Again. Geoffrey chose an erotic book and a porno. I picked out a vibrator. The woman behind the counter had a crew cut and bound breasts. She looked at my pear-shaped belly but didn’t smile collegially or ask when I was due. “Can I ask you a question, miss? Ma’am?” I stammered. “It says ‘two-in-one’ on this box. What exactly does that mean?”
She shrugged. “You get penetration. You get stimulation.”
“American Express?” I said.
We began with the tamest item in our bag of booty: the dirty book. Then Geoffrey clicked off the bedside lamp and reached for the vibrator. “How does this feel?” he whispered. Like a buzzing gelatinous carrot I thought. Here I was, pregnant. I wanted our connection to feel organic, not manufactured.
“Maybe if we lit some candles,” I said.
“Is that better?” It wasn’t.
“Honey, no dice,” I finally said.
Physical closeness became even more awkward when I had to resort to sleeping on my side with a special pregnancy pillow between my legs, its big U cushioning my back and front.
“That stuffed snake takes up too much room,” Geoffrey would say.
“It’s called a Snoogle, and I need it.”
I’d get up to pee in the middle of the night and he’d toss, turn, and mumble, “This damned Snoogle.”
One Saturday evening, I woke up and found him sleeping on the couch. I missed him so much in that moment that I gently straddled him, hoping he’d be too groggy to protest. But when he felt himself inside of me, he freaked: “The baby! Get off!”
I guess he felt guilty the next morning, because as he folded the spare blanket he’d slept with, he offered, “How about we go shopping today?” I took that to mean, Forgive me for last night.
I put down the Times. Sitting Indian-style on the living room rug, I had just heard the knock of opportunity. So I slunk toward my husband on my hands and knees and kissed my way up his thigh.
“No way, “ he said. “You just threw up.” True, but now I felt better than ever, and I’d brushed my teeth twice. “I don’t do well with sick women.” I wondered aloud if it triggered bad memories for him, since he had lost his mother to cancer. “Must you get Freudian?” he asked. The moment had passed.
I’m a proud woman, not at all masochistic, so I had to ask myself why my desperation intensified with every rebuff. I thought about the word pregnant, how it meant “having a child developing inside” but also “full of meaning, significant.” That was just it: pregnancy had a way of magnifying issues, so our sexual impasse seemed suddenly portentous, as if we had some major marital problem that I had somehow overlooked. I wondered whether we communicated well enough to weather parenthood.
Midway through my second trimester, we took a trip to the Greek islands to reconnect. At the beach, Geoffrey dug a hole in the sand, then spread a towel over the indentation so I could lie on my stomach and read my book. In our villa on the cliffs of Santorini, I modeled my white silk lingerie for Geoffrey by the light of the moon. “How do I look?” I asked him. When I wore it on our honeymoon, he’d said, Good enough to eat, and bit me on the hip.
“Radiant,” he said now, and stepped back for a wide-angle view, as if I were a museum piece to behold behind glass. He regarded my body with respectful awe, as if I were a goddess. But I didn’t want to be rendered too sacred to fuck.
“What don’t you feel that you need to feel in order to make love to me?” I said.
“Aroused?” he ventured, which I found shallow, unenlightened, and a little bit mean.
As the window sheers puffed like a sail in the Mediterranean breeze, I wondered if I belonged with a loafer-wearing Jewish guy in the suburbs, driving an SUV with GPS. Geoffrey and I didn’t own a car that told us which way to turn. We didn’t even own a car. We borrowed one from Geoffrey’s dad, rented our Manhattan apartment, and partied on weeknights. Pregnancy was an abrupt adios to Champagne Tuesdays. My life with Geoffrey had no blueprint, and I had always relished the possibilities. But now that we had a peppy little dog and a bun in the oven, the vista seemed to be narrowing.
The following afternoon, we meandered through the island streets buying a Greek baby bonnet, a European rattle, a watercolor painting for the nursery. At outdoor cafés along the way, we dipped pita in a shared plate of hummus and ate ice cream in giant waffle cones. On our last day in Santorini, we spent sunset at the beach. At the water’s edge, I faced the sea, stretched my legs into a wide V, and hung my head, the tide lapping the ends of my hair. From this upside-down view, I admired the figure of Geoffrey sitting in the sand, bent-legged, palms cupped around his knees. He’s not thinking, I knew, without having to ask. He’s simply watching his pregnant wife do yoga along the orange horizon.
A few days later, in Mykonos, Geoffrey ran his hand down the curve of my side while we napped one afternoon. I pulled him close against my back, all sunscreen and salt, his breath a conch sound in my ear. He reached under my cover-up and tugged down my bathing suit bottom. My belly was too big for us to lie face-to-face, too big for me to reach my arms over his head and let him slip off my top, too big for him to toss me onto an easy chair with abandon. We made quick, silent love, then we fell asleep. When we rose at dusk, the sheets glowed white and the pillows were as cool as clouds.
Neither of us mentioned it afterward, and when we returned home, we settled back into our abstinent routine. I didn’t expect otherwise, now that our Internet research no longer alluded to small fruits or salad beans and instead referred to an actual baby. Geoffrey and I connected physically in a different way now. He rubbed shea butter on my stomach at night or rested his head on my belly to feel a little foot kick.
In my eighth month, he left on a business trip. I made popcorn in my slippers and rented Mona Lisa Smile, free to watch a Julia Roberts movie in peace. I opened the DVD drive and recoiled from what I found inside—the Come Again porno. So on those nights when Geoffrey had stayed up late in the living room and I called from our bed, “What are you watching?” it wasn’t the Patriots game after all.
Now it was my turn. I fast-forwarded past the raunchy plumber laying the pipe to the housewife on the kitchen counter. In fact, I skipped all the scenes with men in them. The lesbians did it for me. The lesbians! A female lover would not hesitate to make love to a pregnant woman, I thought. She’d watch the Julia Roberts movie with me, then make my Mona Lisa smile all night long.
Geoffrey called me from his hotel room before going to sleep. I told him I’d found the porno in the DVD player and asked why he hadn’t copped to watching it.
“You would have asked me to watch it with you,” he said, the telephone allowing him to be more frank than if we had been speaking in person. “I’m sorry I lied about the Patriots,” he said before we hung up. And with that, I forgave him.
In bed, I cozied up with my Snoogle, but all I could think about was the baby. So I got up, gathered my jars of sample paint and let loose in the nursery, brushing swatches of periwinkle on the walls. Geoffrey maintained 99 % certainty that the baby would be a boy, but as a favor to a friend, I let a Hollywood psychic read my belly for an Access Hollywood segment and, as broadcast on national television, the psychic predicted a girl—and an easy labor, to boot.
A few months after our baby was born—a boy by emergency C-section (so much for the psychic), Geoffrey and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. While my mom babysat, we spent the day at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the site of our wedding. We walked through the Shakespeare garden, passed the Japanese pagoda, and ambled up Celebrity Path, a trail of stones, each carved with a name of a celebrity from Brooklyn. Somewhere between Marisa Tomei and Judge Judy, Geoffrey squeezed my tush. We arrived at the amphitheater where we’d said our vows and he slid his hand up my skirt. Call it adolescent exhibitionism; actually, it was love. Beyond the cherry esplanade and rose garden, past the signs for compost and native flora, we ravished each other, trusting the moment.
Suddenly, Geoffrey noticed a man at the crossroads ahead whom he took for a park ranger. Frantic, he buckled his belt and tucked his BlackBerry and our bottle of Poland Spring water into his pants pockets. “That’s a uniform he’s wearing,” he whispered.
“A polo shirt and khakis?” I whispered back.
“I think I saw a wire in his ear.” The only other tourists we’d run into were two bearded Deadheads, hard-core environmentalists, and now Geoffrey was convinced they’d reported us to the botany police.
“Sir, madam, you’re under arrest and charged with one count of fucking by the ferns, two counts of coming in the compost,” I teased, but Geoffrey couldn’t be calmed.
He grabbed my hand and we ran like Hansel and Gretel through the forest, looping to the parking lot and sliding into his father’s car. In the shelter of the capsule, sun-warmed leather kissing the backs of our thighs, Geoffrey loosed a loud “Wooooey!” and gunned the gas, my husband and I like the Dukes of Hazzard making our getaway in the General Lee.
On the Brooklyn Bridge, I opened my window all the way and let the wind pull at my cheeks. Then I craned out to see the water, a vantage both terrifying and irresistible. When traffic slowed to a near halt, I sat properly in my seat. Geoffrey’s wedding ring flickered with light on the steering wheel. I knew what he’d say if I asked him now: What does home feel like? He’d say, Home feels like this. At the crest of the bridge, Manhattan sprawling, Geoffrey said, “Happy anniversary.” It came out like a promise reiterated, as if he was declaring, I do. I still do.