One afternoon last summer, somewhere high in the Beartooth Mountains of Wyoming and Montana, I was wet, I was naked, and I was not alone. Skinny-dipping alongside me in the lake was my companion on this four-day hike: Mary Ellen, a cute, half-Korean lesbian with pierced nipples, twelve years my junior. And on shore behind us was my video camera, capturing all the action for my New York Times travel blog, a decision that incurred the wrath of my editors, but not, mysteriously, my wife.
The next day, when Mary Ellen and I again went swimming (this time in proper attire), I emerged unable to stop shivering — a case of mild hypothermia from the glacial water. I rushed back to our tent, dried off, put on as much clothing as I could and crawled into my sleeping bag. When I couldn’t stop shaking, I asked Mary Ellen to join me (body contact is the fastest remedy for hypothermia — check your Boy Scout manual). We spooned, and soon I had a massive hard-on. Ridiculous. I was debilitated from exposure, yet some ancient, cretinous part of my brain was circulating hot blood down to the one place it wasn’t needed.
Cut me some slack. I hadn’t had sex in two months. As a travel columnist for the Times who also happens to be married, my job is an exercise in sexual frustration. I spend months at a stretch traversing the globe while my beautiful, smart, sexy wife, Jean, remains at home in Brooklyn, working the stationary job that pays our bills, and being patient and trusting during my long absences. This is my life: Propelled by a more-than-adequate expense account, I leapfrog from one exotic locale to the next, where as a reporter I am essentially required to flirt with beautiful women — women who sometimes flirt back, offer to have sex with me, and even end up sharing a bed with me (more on that in a moment). I, in turn, must remain unfailingly chaste. Stanley Milgram couldn’t have devised a more sadistic psychological experiment.
Travel is about embracing new experiences: foods you’ve never eaten, languages you’ve never spoken, religious rituals you’ve never even heard of. To decline any offer at all — a spontaneous wedding invitation in Pondicherry, a swig of rice wine from an unmarked flask in a Saigonese goat restaurant — is to deny the very spirit of voyaging, and so I decline nothing. Except for it. The fact that I can’t take part in it, that most hallowed ritual of travel — sex with strangers — frustrates me on a philosophical level as well as a primal one.
What’s worse is that I’ve never been able to take part in it. Back when I traveled as a single guy (to Vietnam, where I lived for a year, and around southeast Asia), I was too nervous, too poorly dressed, too plain weird to even approach women, or to know how to reciprocate their infrequent interest. It was only after I met my wife ten years ago that I gained enough confidence to even attempt to pick someone up, and by then it was unnecessary. The closest I came to travel sex was after Jean and I started dating, when I visited her in Paris, where she was studying abroad.
Now that I have a wife, a glamorous job description, a man-of-the-world aura and clothes that fit, the temptations are everywhere: the Cambodian prostitute who offered me $40 to take her home; the young Indonesian who held my hand as we weaved drunkenly through a Singapore market until we ran into her parents; and the soft-featured Thai girl nicknamed (completely inaccurately) Mom, who lured me into a bedroom during a party in a luxury Bangkok apartment "so we can make love," she said.
"But I know you are married, so we don’t have to make love," she added. "We can just kiss."
"No, we can’t ‘just kiss’," I had to say. She looked disappointed, and was about to leave when I asked her to wait. "Hang on," I said. "I don’t want your friends to think I finished in just one minute." I told her I had an idea: Since we were both wearing t-shirts, we could turn the lights off, trade garments and return to the party as if we’d dressed in a hurry. Perfect! But something must have been lost in translation, because the lights stayed on, Mom’s top came off, and for an instant, I got a glimpse of what I could have at any time, in any corner of the globe, if I decided to.
But I’ve never made that decision, which means I routinely spend several consecutive months completely abstinent. You might think such celibacy would be torture, but what’s scary is how easy it’s become to say no to sex. It’s not that I don’t desire it, but sex with strangers has been out of the question for so long that I can’t even imagine saying yes. (I can imagine all too easily what happens after saying yes — it’s the moment of assent that’s beyond me.)
At times I wonder if I’m missing out — not just on new bodies, but on new experiences of place and culture. And obviously I consider deception: How hard could it be to keep legions of foreign lovers hidden from my wife?
Not hard at all. Still, I get by on the married nomad’s version of cold showers and dirty magazines: sexual tension. To that end, I’ve cultivated a network of what I call my "travel mistresses" — women whom I meet on the road or who accompany me on trips, and with whom I sometimes even share a bed, but who would never consider having sex with me.
Sleeping with someone you’re not sleeping with can be a tricky proposition, partly because the need to desexualize the relationship often emphasizes the possibilities. One person showers while the other person dresses, and all that separates two mostly naked people is a hollow, wood-veneer bathroom door. "Don’t turn around" is as much a dare as a warning. Sharing a bed in a Cambodian hotel room, two platonic friends in t-shirts and pajama bottoms discover that their modesty is no match for the Southeast Asian heat, and off come the nightclothes. Even waking up to a strange face provokes the question: What exactly happened last night?
Sometimes, the tension is almost unbearable. Once, in Ho Chi Minh City, I invited Mary Ellen over to check out the ultramodern hotel room I was reviewing. She had been living with a Vietnamese family, and was amazed at the bathroom I had access to, so she asked to take a multi-nozzle shower. Fifteen minutes later she emerged in a fluffy white bathrobe and climbed under the covers next to me, where I, too, was naked but for my own white robe. I cracked open a bottle of soju, poured us each a glass and turned on the TV. The movie that had just begun was, of course, Lost in Translation.
Even being the "good friend" fosters a kind of intimacy that can be disconcerting. I now know all about Bonnie’s addiction to dental floss, while Sandra stood by me during some humiliating moments of gastric distress in northern India. It’s even recognizable to outsiders: At the end of a weekend in Palm Beach, my friend Sara and I had brunch with my wacky great aunt, who told us after the meal, "I know you’re both involved with other people, but you’re really cute together." We laughed her comment off, trying not to wonder whether it might be true.
The reward for all of this repression is coming home to my wife. No, we don’t tear our clothes off the second I walk through the door. Instead, reunion sex usually takes a while to get going. After months apart, our faces seem unfamiliar, my presence unnatural in our home. We are foreign to each other; the intimacy I’ve found with other women on my travels is missing here.
But eventually, after several hours or even days, when we’ve relaxed enough to take showers or get dressed with the other person in the room, it happens. And then we then have to remember how sex actually works for us — what goes where, and when, and why, and for how long. It’s almost like sex with a stranger.