The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I was judged for having sex after my husband died. I think he would have understood.

(iStock/Lily illustration)

I reimagine the last moments I had with my husband, Jacob, often. The feel of his freshly washed hair slipping between my fingers. The smirk on his face as he sat next to me on the floor of our bathroom while I soaked in the tub, handing me a lit joint and fumbling. He dropped it on my chest and we laughed at the little flame that posed no real danger. Nothing could hurt with him protecting me. In the contentment and warmth of our home that New Year’s Eve, we made love in the afternoon. Sweetly, tenderly he said without words:

I know you so well,
I love you so much,
I want to make you feel so good.

When I woke up from a short nap, he was not in bed with me. I turned down the hall from our bedroom and found him unresponsive in the bathroom. I wanted to protect him and bring him back to life. But there was nothing medics or I could do; he died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed aortic dissection. The last moment I shared with my husband was intimate, and in the darkness without him, I longed for his touch.

Every day for a year, I wrote mini-essays that told of the many ways in which being with Jacob changed me, and how life without him continued. Using our vast photo archive, I shared these tributes publicly on Instagram. Next to these public love letters I scribbled on my phone, I kept a private journal — a digital black book. The numbered list describes each sexual partner I’ve had since becoming a widow and a short summary of our encounter. Some of them I met only once; others asked for more.

In the depths of my grief, I wanted sex and intimacy without having to date, compromise or be emotionally available to anyone new. I did not want to make small talk about my life as it was falling apart. Having sex with strangers healed me in ways that therapy, friendship, travel, writing and photography could not. These encounters made me feel empowered, desirable and more in tune with my body. They gave me agency when my life felt out of my control.

She met her husband on Instagram. Now she’s using the app to heal from her loss.

1. The Hotel Manager. Arrived in a suit, which made him appear as an escort. Because it was the first, all that mattered was he did what I asked. It was glorious.

I started the list because I felt it might never end; a string of love affairs might pale in comparison to the type of connection I shared with Jacob. When he was alive, I never felt the need for anyone else. With him gone, I feared that these casual hookups would bleed into one another and that the faces or details would be harder to recall as time passed.

At age 29, few of my peers on Tinder, Bumble or OkCupid are single because they’ve lost a spouse. Compared to the more common ways most relationships end, the extent of my heartbreak is intimidating. I was thrown from a healthy marriage into a pool of young people looking to escape loneliness. Many of them have not yet found the kind love I had with Jacob.

12. The Entrepreneur. The first time was electric, magical, wild. The second time, he acted overly comfortable in my house and helped himself to a shower without asking whether I was satisfied. I wasn’t. He’s the only one that has made me feel used. I prefer getting what I want.

I found that making myself vulnerable gave me confidence, and experiencing pleasure made me feel alive. I worried about how friends, family members and the public would judge me. Promiscuity is assumed to be self-destructive, but it was helping me rebuild. When I first brought up the idea of sex with others on my Instagram, one troll commented: “Your husband’s body is not even cold in the ground and you’re lying next to strange men. He despises you from the afterlife.”

Before I had slept with anyone, I was having drinks with one of my husband’s friends a few months after his death. I confided in him that my need for intimacy felt dire, like a big weight on my chest each night. He was taken aback, and asked, “How can you even be thinking of that right now?”

17. The Barber. Big, big flirt. A great build. While admiring my skin and the thrill of being with an Indian woman for the first time, he called me “morena.” Unmatched me after I made him dinner.

I didn’t want to care about meeting people’s expectations of how I should think, feel and act. But of course, it hurt to know that people who had never been in my position had specific ideas about the amount of time that should pass before I opened my heart (or legs) to another person. I plotted for five months before my first encounter.

In looking for eligible sexual partners with the skills and passion to meet my needs, I tried to find a bright side. I skipped entertaining them over dinner and drinks, opting for an open discussion via text about my rules. It had to be safe and consensual. I am nurturing and open-minded, and wanted to feel respected.

25. The Touring Musician. I could have talked to him for hours. His mind and charm were the most intriguing. Our chemistry was intimate and wonderful. He had such beautiful skin, which I probably will never see again.

What I was doing was far from new — people seek casual sex on the Internet all the time — but for me, it felt subversive. I scheduled meetings and designed my own sexual revolution. The time I saved by not dating freed up space for my friendships.

To my surprise, I matched with several men in open relationships. Men who were happy to come over, service and exhaust me. Men who told me I was beautiful, took their time to explore my body, and reminded me that my sexuality did not die with Jacob. The rush of feel-good chemicals created an overwhelming sense of happiness, even amid my loneliness.

33. The Guy with Four Jobs. I told him: “Let’s get to know each other before we have sex. I want things with you to be different.” I sat on his lap and looked in his big, brown eyes. He told me about his past and his imminent divorce. We laughed, a lot. Then, because we lack self-control, we had sex anyway.

I figured that my proclivity to be in a committed, monogamous relationship would take time to reemerge. While I had the freedom to explore my sexuality with a variety of people, I cleared out a drawer in Jacob’s dresser and filled it with condoms, lube and sex toys. I bought expensive lingerie. I got my first Brazilian wax. Sometimes I was submissive, other times dominating. In every encounter, I felt power in choosing the narrative.

After seven months of biweekly hookups with one of my regulars, I yearned to be seen as more than a sexual being. I was exhausted by never being a priority. I still wanted sex, but suddenly, I wanted to be loved again. I fantasized about being seduced, cared for and supported. I missed cooking for Jacob, planning our trips and our future together. I stayed single as a whirlwind of marriages and divorces happened around me. I missed being a wife and having my person. I am surely capable of another great love, and I’m hopeful that I will eventually find a person with whom I can share my life.

35. The Lab Scientist. He laid me down on the couch and caressed me for a very long time. He began with a gentle approach, but soon made it clear that his confidence and knowledge would leave me speechless. Perhaps he’s the best I’ve ever had.

For the short-term, and while my grief prevents me from planning too far ahead, fleeting connections and temporary gratification bring me great comfort. Finding any sort of genuine pleasure after the sudden loss of my favorite person feels triumphant. Without Jacob, it has been hard to celebrate my victories. He did everything in his power to bring me happiness, and in his absence I am finding a way to make my own. I’m confident that he would be proud of me for paving a path to survival, however taboo my approach.


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