sex

Married-people sex: When the best intentions go wrong.

On the plane trip home, after we’ve been travelling, I always ask my husband, ‘What was your favourite bit?’

He always says, “The sex.”

I say, “We could’ve had sex at home.”

“I know,” he says. “I’m a simple person, really.”

It was his birthday. I considered buying him a power tool, or maybe a gift voucher from Bunnings so he could choose his own. Bunnings makes him immeasurably happy. He hums in the aisles. He denies this. He says the Bunnings experience is satisfying, but not rapturous. He says I have a misbegotten idea that he likes home renovation.

This puts me in mind of a very satisfying conversation he reported having at Christmas drinks at his work. He said that several of his male colleagues were discussing their holiday plans. Most were allocating time during their break to undertake necessary home maintenance. All agreed that their wives regarded this as an imposition. An act of selfishness. A commandeering of the family summer holiday as ‘me time’.

Apparently, wives regarded their husbands’ painting and hammering as willful and self-centred, and to have the audacity to ask the womenfolk ‘to hold something, like a ladder or a tape measure’ was tantamount to wrecking things for everybody.

I can see the truth in this. I am that wife. So, to avoid any unpleasant stirring up of hostilities, I decide to steer clear of the power-tool option and go straight for the default sex.

I book a hotel room.

We don’t live very far from the city; in some respects, it is odd to spend money on sleeping up the road from your own house. In view of this, not wanting to be wasteful, I opt for the discounted mystery hotel deal. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s only one night, after all, and seediness can have its own allure. Like a Graham Greene novel. We could pretend we are in Vietnam. Or India, in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Judi Dench's character travels to India in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Our mystery accommodation is standard and unremarkable, the kind of hotel where you might see John and Janette Howard coming down in the lift.

We meet in the foyer on a Friday afternoon. We kiss. We’re a bit excited. I wonder if the receptionist suspects adultery. Hannie from Accounts and Michael from Sales, embarking on a tawdry assignation which will taint their lives forever. Surely she should intervene. Surely she should caution us, before one of us hands over a credit card.

Too late. She has taken a copy of my Visa and handed over the key to Room 1573.

We go up to the fifteenth floor and marvel at the spaciousness of our apartment. We make gin and tonics and eat cashews from the minibar and pad about in our socks. We make plans to sell our house and move in here. I flick through the recommended attractions in the plastic hotel folder. We could visit the Melbourne Aquarium. We could see the world’s largest saltwater crocodile, in the state-of-the- art Croc Lair exhibit. We could marvel at the world’s only display of elephant sharks.

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"When they say interactive animal encounters," I call out, "what do you think they mean?" He can’t hear. He’s in the shower.

Suddenly, I am reminded of our real purpose in coming. How disappointing if we squander precious time viewing stingrays or brown leopard-spotted honeycomb morays.

Forget the fish.

I read a magazine article once where the comedian Wendy Harmer was asked, ‘What do you most like about men?

She said, "When they come out of the shower wearing a towel."

I completely love that answer. But I hasten to make a distinction between a white towel tied around the waist and the white towelling ensembles made famous by Bob and Blanche. Michael and I have a policy. Never wear a fluffy white bathrobe, even in a hotel fire. Better to rush out naked.

What do you like most about me? ‘When they come out of the shower wearing a towel.’

We rip the tightly tucked blankets off the bed and leap onto the crisp white fitted sheet.

It’s Friday. We’re stuffed. It’s so beautiful to lie down. We both fall into a sweet, deep coma.

An hour or so later, the bedside alarm clock drones. Short, deep reverberations not dissimilar to the rumble of a dentist’s drill. We shake ourselves awake, disorientated and slightly nauseated. My skin is ice-cold from the air-con. I feel strange.

"We could order in?" says my husband, hopefully.

I am reminded of Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park. She disappears into her sixth-floor apartment with her newlywed husband, Robert Redford. To show the passing of time, the neighbours on their floor note the daily accrual of milk bottles outside their door. Eventually, Jane comes out wearing Robert Redford’s oversized shirt. Even as a little girl, despite not knowing exactly what they were doing in their apartment, I knew I approved.

So it is appealing to stay put. But do we really want to watch Scary Movie 5 or Swinging with the Finkels?

No. We have made a booking at a Japanese restaurant. The night’s a pup.

We stumble out into the humid evening. The city streets are pulsing with office drinkers. Bars throb with doof-doof music. Pouty girls smoke and flirt with nervy boys, engorged with bombast and longing. The pavement is hot. The air is wet with lust.

We walk through our own town like tourists. Savouring the lanes and nooks as if this is Venice, as if we are our younger selves, in Buenos Aires. Or Barcelona. We smile and lace our fingers together as we walk.

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Married-people sex does not enjoy good press. And, after 50, there is a certain unseemliness in mentioning it. This is one of the cruel imbalances in the life cycle. Just when we are in possession of the mysteries, we must act as though sexuality is a young person’s game. Look at these callow youths. For all their carnal posturing, they know nothing.

The license to talk about sex depends on two factors. The first is what you look like. Fat people just mustn’t. A fat person talking about sex invites the listener to consider the mechanics, and this induces a reaction ranging between derision and disgust. Given that 60 per cent of Australians are overweight or obese, and on average are seven kilograms heavier than our counterparts of 30 years ago, this suggests most of us should keep very quiet on the subject.

The second factor in talking about sex is getting the tone right. Bragging or lechery is unattractive at any age. But over 50, forget it. The sexual predator is creepy.

The Japanese food is light; the wine, crisp. I know of a jazz club we could go to.

Married-people sex does not enjoy good press. And, after fifty, there is a certain unseemliness in mentioning it.

On the way, we pass David Jones. Could we just pop in and see what perfumes are on offer?

My husband has a different idea. He needs new shoes. I forget that tonight is his birthday. And, in my defence, he does not express his desire for shoes very forcefully. He does not say, "Listen, it’s my birthday and what I would really love to do is to try on a whole lot of brown shoes".

He does not express this because in truth he hates buying shoes. But what is left unsaid is how ferociously he does not want to go to the perfume department. His desire not to go to the perfume department is intense.

So we go to the perfume department, because as my friend Matt says, every relationship needs ‘a fricken stenographer’, so there is a WRITTEN RECORD of who said what and when. In the absence of documentation, my recollection is that the decision to pop into David Jones is a mutual and happy one.

A lady sprays exotic, sensual fragrances onto small cards and wafts them across my nose. A helpful young man sprays scent on my wrists. On my forearms. On my neck. My husband (who is being genial and obliging) engages like a wine buff, swirling the bouquet in an attempt to detect the difference between a floral and a fruit scent. The lady talks about the complex base notes. My husband asks whether they have something plain. Like mandarine. No base notes. No "gardenia finish". Just something that smells like mandarines.

They don’t. We decide to give the jazz a miss, and waft back to the hotel.

The first sign of trouble afoot is in the lift. Then in the room itself. My husband opens the door to the balcony.

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"Men don’t like perfume," he tells me, as if he is a senior market- research expert with the Roy Morgan Group. "We just like women to smell like a woman."

He is finding it hard to breathe.

The scent on my body is so delicate. I don’t know what he’s carrying on about. If men don’t like perfume, how come women have been wearing it for thousands of years? Honestly.

This is just a small performance to register his disapproval about the David Jones interlude. I ignore it. We repair to the bedroom.

After a while, he says, "Maybe you could have a wash. Or something."

This is irritating. A trifle offensive, even. I ignore it.

I shove my arms under the covers, because the smell does appear to be intensifying.

When I see that his eyes are filling with water, I fling the covers aside and stomp off to the bathroom.

I stand in the shower, running the little round cake of soap over my body.

This scenario may have helped the situation.

Wrapped in a big fluffy white towel, I am about to return to our king-size luxurious bed—when I smell the smell again.

I get back into the shower. This time, I scrub. But there is nothing I can do to remove the dominance of the pong. It has permeated the core of my being with a cloying cocktail of flowers and spices and the musky aroma of a rotting rainforest. I am chemical. I am a concentration of aromatic compound in solvent.

I begin to feel sick and claustrophobic.

"You wanna make love or not?" I bark.

My husband is manfully fighting for oxygen.

"Let’s go for a walk," he suggests. "In the fresh air."

"No." I don’t want to walk. I am too miserable to walk.

"Do you want to just go home? You know — to our own house."

"What good would that do?" Unless I sleep in the shed.

I’m too miserable to talk. I just want to sulk.

We fall asleep in our hotel room with the door open.

The next morning, we take the tram to the sea and we dive in and swim and swim.

Then we have bacon and eggs in a café overlooking the water and read the paper.

I don’t come out of this story very well.

The is an extract from HELLO BEAUTIFUL! by Hannie Rayson published by Text, RRP $29.99. You can purchase it here.

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