At 25, I went through a rough breakup with a live-in boyfriend. A throw-all-your-things-in-a-trash-bag-and-run-away breakup. Extracting myself from that relationship was brutal, but I landed safely in a tiny bachelorette pad. It was my first time living alone. And what this liberated self wanted to do was eat candy bars for dinner, take three-hour baths and hold epic solo underwear dance parties.
In my time as a single woman, underwear dance parties (a.k.a. UDPs) were an almost nightly ritual. These were fantastically goofy, and they were the antidote to everything I suffered as a shut-in girlfriend. Some people go into sexual hibernation when they’re single, only to wake up when they’re paired off again. My reality was the opposite: My libido had flatlined in my relationship. The UDP was my electric jolt to get it going.
When I held these danceathons, I’d prop a mirror in front of the speakers so I could watch myself gyrate around the apartment. I’d give sideways smiles, winks or laugh as if I was flirting with myself. If that sounds deeply weird, well, it was. But there was a reason for it: I was trying to remember the silly little coquette I was before my relationship stomped her flat.
I was still a college student when I met my boyfriend, a charming Brit in his late 20s with a fancy “Downton Abbey” accent. He was absolutely gaga over me. I basked in his attention and desire. I was new to adult dating, and it seemed so cosmopolitan to have someone buy me drinks in a bar when I was used to having plastic cups foisted on me at college parties. I found him worldly and brave, having come to the United States entirely alone in his early 20s to eke out a living in a record shop.
We were together for six years. As with many couples, we had a jumble of problems. But for me, one thing stood out: I wasn’t sexually attracted to him. Attraction is an odd thing; it’s not entirely based on being good-looking, or being a skilled or generous lover. My boyfriend was those things, but those characteristics alone can’t conjure real desire. That type of attraction is chemical, not concrete. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in “Eat, Pray, Love,” attractions boils down to one question: “Do you want your belly pressed against this person’s belly forever — or not?” Despite his handsome features, his posh accent and his warmth, when I thought of pressing my belly to his, I wanted to wriggle away.
Before meeting him, my dating experience was limited. I went to a women’s college, and the opportunities to meet men were paltry and competitive. I considered Mr. Downton a get. So ignored my gut and gave myself pep talks before sex. “You’ll get into it with the right music!” “Try on some lingerie! Lace and silk makes anything sexy!” I thought real desire would come as our love deepened. And until then, I could manufacture it with the right lighting and playlist.
You can’t. What happens instead is like a limb falling asleep: numbness, pain and a deep discomfort at knowing something vital is cut off.
We repeat the patterns we know, and with this relationship, I was mimicking my parents. They met in another era and another culture (Latin America). My mother was a shy woman with beauty-queen looks. At the time, she was clinging to the last corner of her 20s in a conservative society, and her marital options were limited. So she was relieved when my father arrived on the scene, a warm-hearted, burly gringo who was bonkers about her. They got married, moved to the United States, had two babies and continued through a 19-year marriage.
Even as a child, I could sense a chilly distance between them. My father took long business trips, the communication between them grew frosty, and his erratic temper always loomed. But I often wondered if their relationship was fragile to begin with, because my father wasn’t my mother’s type.
My mother and women in her generation were often given this message: Lust is a one-way street. Women do the attracting and men do the selecting. I had absorbed that idea as well.
My parents separated and then I watched my shy mother orchestrate her own renaissance in her late 40s. She was free to make any dinner she liked, invite friends over any night she wished, pursue her own interests and hobbies, and rock a little black dress like a diva.
More than a decade later, I was trying to get my own groove back — and somehow I knew it had to start with doing a booty drop utterly alone. I reconnected with so many buried things: my body, my humor, my flirtatious nature, my knowledge of Abba’s discography.
All of these parts of myself were asleep in my relationship. But once they were zapped back to life, I no longer ignored my physical reaction to another person. I could really feel in my body whether I wanted to draw a person close or push them away. And I honored that reaction.
Eventually I did some online dating, and I was determined to be the one doing the choosing. When I reached out to my future husband, I quickly suggested that we meet in person. I didn’t want a volley of emails to give me a false sense of chemistry. Thankfully, when I spotted him at my corner bar and settled in on the seat next to him, the electricity was instant. Many other elements eventually added up to our love, but I know that without this mutual chemistry, our connection would have sputtered.
I still indulge in the joy of a semi-nude rumpus. But now I can kick out the jams with my husband. Sometimes we’ll race home, throw off our work clothes, crank up the music and jump around the apartment together. And there are moments, mid-dance, when I’ll throw my arms around him and press him close to me, belly-to-belly.