When I call my friends, I hope their husbands will not answer. "Hi, Ben This is Lucinda. How are you?" That's how the conversations tend to go. "Good," Ben says. "How are you?" "Good. Is Jennifer there?" "Yeah. Just a minute."
In the silence, I always feel I've let myself down. I might have tried a little harder to connect. After all, I know a lot about Ben. I know he had gum surgery last week, I know he just got a new client on the Cape and I know he is reading a book on male passive aggression recommended by his and Jennifer's couples therapist.
But Ben does not know I know this. Or Ben, an intelligent man who surely is aware women talk more intimately about their lives than do men, does know I am something of an expert on him via my chats with Jennifer.
And he no doubt knows some choice tidbits about my marriage or my parenting or my past via his chats with Jennifer. I do not mind Ben having the buzz on me: In personal matters, men often reserve judgment. I know this from all the years I preferred (with the exception of my beloved best friend) their companionship. And yet here I am now: How are you? Good. How are you? Good.
"Other women's husbands, those shadowy figures," a friend says and we laugh, knowing that is how she finds mine and how I find hers. But consider. Twenty years ago her husband might have been the guy across from me in astronomy class that I had a crush on. Twelve years ago, my heart might have sung as I walked through the city after work to meet him for a drink.
Instead we went to different colleges, lived in different cities, met other people, fell in love, got married, had babies. Does some of this lost possibility, this essential male/femaleness linger in the air between us? Not that I have noticed.
The person I am excited about is his wife. Once you are happily married with children, it is female friends who hold out the promise of new intimacy, the discovery of new parts of yourself. Someone else's husband? It is awkward even to go on a power walk with him.
But this approach is depressingly conventional, particularly from someone who 25 years ago yelled at her mother's knowing smile, "It is too possible to have a real friendship with a guy!"
My mother was a young wife in the '60s, the days of Updike and Cheever's tipsy suburban parties. In that world a friend's husband was a potential lover, if we are to believe Updike and Cheever's short stories.
I believe them. In the affluent "village" where I grew up outside Cleveland, there were two cases of women leaving their husbands for their friend's husbands and marrying them. In one (these were the parents of a friend of mine), the abandoned husband and the abandoned wife then married.
Maybe this is just the kind of Midsummer Night's Dream-like romantic anarchy that starts with a power walk with a friend's husband. Maybe sex does lurk beneath the surface as we stand next to each other at backyard birthday parties, pushing small bodies on swings. Maybe when I see husbands in safe black and white and their wives, my friends, in Technicolor, I am making a choice -- unconsciously -- against the marital messes of those sorry grown-ups of Updikeland.
Exceptions prove the rule, and I know friends' husbands who over the years have taken on plenty of color -- friends' husbands to whom I can say "Oh good!" when I find out we are seated next to each other at a dinner party and they take it in just the right way; friends' husbands who deal with peri-menopausal mood swings in their wives that would have lesser men knocking back wine like soda.
There is a wry stoicism about some husbands that book-writing therapists might call emotional shut-down but which I, knowing the details (via the wives), have come to admire. I do not doubt that my friends may have the same private respect for my own wryly stoic husband.
Recently I called a sensitive, charming friend. A sullen voice answered, so close to the receiver I could not tell if it was male or female. When I said I must have the wrong number my friend piped up, "Lucinda! I thought you were Bob. He's late." Natural allies, we laughed and I told her I, too, had a voice for when I am with the kids and my husband is late -- not Bette Davis-on-a-bad-day like hers, more like George S. Patton.
I also want to laugh as a natural ally of men. "At your age, good luck," my mother says to this but no longer with that irritating, knowing smile. Now a widow in Florida, she walks the beach every morning with another woman's husband. His wife has Alzheimer's and he is her caretaker. My mother's husband died of Alzheimer's and she, too, chose to take care of him late into his illness. "Oh we don't just talk about Alzheimer's," she says with surprise when I ask. "We talk about everything."
They meet daily at 7 a.m. Their two spaniels strain against the leashes as they approach, stumpy tails moving madly. Once they hit the beach they get released for a friendly romp.