We sat on the stoop and drank forties. We made spaghetti at my place and drank wine. We perched on barstools and did shots of tequila. We stayed up all night, drinking and talking, filling the kitchen table with empties, laughing a lot, saying little. But for some reason, we didn’t have sex.
We’d known each other about six months: She was coming out of a long and listless relationship, and I was slowly forgetting a broken heart. One would imagine the free flow of booze and confession would have led quickly to sex, that we might have moved all too easily from kitchen to couch to futon, from awkward morning goodbyes to phone messages left but not returned — but no, the situation remained chaste and uncomplicated, our friendship feeding less off sexual tension than honest conversation and a shared love of cold beer.
We even managed to spend a weekend alone in the country, staying up late by the fire one cold night, playing records, sipping whisky, talking about possible futures, revealing exaggerated pasts.
The house was unheated so we made up a bed close to the fireplace, angling couches behind us to trap the heat, moving furniture and cushions like it was a sixth-grade slumber party, and still woke up the next day with our clothes on.
It might have stayed like that, warm friendship and hot sake, if she hadn’t slipped one night on a stray copy of The New Yorker half-concealed under the coffee table. I reached out to grab her hand, caught her fast just below the elbow, steadying her. We stayed like that for nearly a minute, locked in an awkward pose out of a bad wedding Polaroid. I brought my free hand to hers, the one I held. I traced a slow circle around her palm with my index finger. Our eyes met, and we kissed. Then we had sex. Twice. And then a few hours after that. And then at least two times a day for a month. Obviously, we were making up for lost time.
The sex was very good, and we had it in every corner of the apartment — and in the car, the park, the woods, in bar bathrooms, on the roof, in a cemetery (once), at dawn, mid-morning, high noon, tea time, rush hour, dusk, primetime, midnight, and during the wee small hours.
I’m not suggesting it was any kind of record-breaking sexual marathon, but contrasted with our period of unspoken chastity, it felt like 120 Days of Sodom.
We spent as much time together as possible — the dramatic transition to a sexual relationship had done nothing to affect our friendship. She lived by herself in a much nicer apartment than mine, so that’s where we stayed every night. My roommates called after a few weeks, a little worried, but happy to have the extra space and the rent. I was in a relationship, and it was a good one.
After a month or so, our twice-a-day sex regimen slipped into once-a-day, more often than not in the evening, in bed. And then I moved in. Over the next few months we were happy cohabitants, preferring most nights to stay in and cook dinner for each other, watch movies or sit on the balcony drinking beer. We were boyfriend and girlfriend, and despite the apparent fact that we’d both vowed to enjoy an extended period of singlehood at the end of our last relationships, our headlong rush into full-scale monogamy felt neither claustrophobic nor foolish. And the sex was good, and daily.
One night, though, after a particularly spicy, devastatingly filling meal of Mexican takeout, with both of us tired from long days at work, the sex, for the briefest moment at the beginning — the foreplay to the foreplay — seemed, well, just a little bit like a chore. And that’s when the fear took root.
The next day, over a plate of half-eaten eggs and worried-at toast, I began to ask myself some unpleasant, definitely neurotic questions: What would happen if we went a day without having sex? After all these months, how is that going to feel? How is it going to happen? Which one of us is going to deny the other? Will she try to cushion the blow with an ironically self-aware “not tonight honey,” allowing us to share the benign but inevitable cliché of any serious, long-term relationship? Or will I just create some debilitating fake illness that comes as quickly as it goes? (Dropsy? Dengue? FOOD POISONING!?) Luckily, just as I was descending into an irrational pit of self-doubt (lined with self-loathing), she came in the door after a long, early-morning run. She was sweating, wearing shorts and a tank top. We had sex on the kitchen table, plate of eggs rattling against a coffee cup.
The next several days were fine. There wasn’t anything particularly forced about the sex, I don’t think — and anyway, it was summer in Brooklyn, a loud, hot, sweaty and always, in my mind, very sexy time of year: all that exposed skin, beads of sweat on the upper lip, the glide of an ice cube from navel to neck. How could anyone not be having sex all the time? Well, pretty easily, it turned out. A few days later I had the misfortune to read an article in the New York Times’ Science section that claimed a man’s libido can be reduced up to thirty percent during the hottest months of the year. Luckily, we’d already had sex that morning (in the cool, libido-boosting early hours) so I was able to sleep. But I woke up in the middle of the night, convinced my mojo was melting in the hundred-degree heat. Not good.
I thought about telling her of my fear, but I didn’t even know where to begin. Vocalizing it seemed akin to validating it, making it real. Instead, we had sex every day for the next week, one of the hottest on record. Fuck you, New York Times.
Still, I worried, terrified of going a day without sex, terrified of what it would signify.
It was as if our relationship was under a spell that would be broken by twenty-four hours of abstinence. I knew it was crazy, but I didn’t want to test my magical thinking in the real world. So each day I stressed a little bit more about whether or not we would have sex before midnight. I’d get off the subway after work and walk the six blocks home in a kind of erotic dread, wondering if this was the night it would all end, finding omens everywhere: cheap bouquets of flowers wilting in buckets outside of delis; soggy hot-dog buns drifting along in gray gutter water; pregnant cats laid out like wineskins on humid stoops; exposed midriffs hovering in the heat, taunting me; bare shoulders gleaming in the evening light, goading me. I’d catch myself talking out loud on the bus or walking down the aisle of the grocery store saying things like, “Does a hand job count?” Or, “What about one-way oral?” (No and yes, respectively, I decided). I was not doing well.
I tried to implement a routine of early-morning sex to reduce the stress levels in the final third of the day. I’d roll over, wake her with kisses, caresses and my “every man under forty” automatic daybreak erection. More than half the time, though, she rebuffed me in favor of more sleep, or the alarm would go off to an erection-killing NPR story about mortgage foreclosure or rape in Darfur.
Finally, predictably, my obsessive worrying over The Last Time We Would Have Sex began to affect the actual sex we were having. I rushed things. The foreplay was forced and perfunctory. And as soon as we were actually, technically doing it, I was so pleased to have gotten through another day that I didn’t really concentrate. One day, after I’d gotten back from work and started right in on an awkward shoulder rub, she said something: “Is everything okay with you? With us?” I asked her what she meant. “Well, you seem a little freaked out these days, like you’re having an affair with a coke dealer. You’re not, right?”
I stared at her, mute, petrified. She sat down at the kitchen table, not really looking at me. She gestured for me to take a seat across from her. “You’re not, right?” She looked up at me as she said this, and I shook my head, “Heh, no.” The air conditioner thrummed up a notch, and I looked down at the table. What the hell, this was it. I told her the whole story: the weeks of anxiety, the fear of never having sex again, of risking our relationship. I even told her about the whole morning-sex strategy. She started to laugh. It was a warm laugh, relieved and generous. I started to laugh, too, as the idiocy of my paranoia revealed itself in the garbled constructions of my explanation, each qualified bit of reasoning so patently crazy I already couldn’t believe I’d ever, ever allowed my thoughts to get so muddled.
After a good laugh we sat quietly for a minute, just looking at each other. She spoke. “No sex tonight, okay?”
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays.