I’m on the sofa, my feet are up. It’s a little past 10 in the evening.
The living room is dark. The glass shade on the solitary lamp in the corner gives off an amber glow. In my right hand I hold the universal remote, my scepter—the king in his castle on his L shaped leather throne. My left hand is tucked into the waistband of my sweats. I don’t know why men find this so comfortable but there you go, it’s part of this picture, the junk close at hand in case of emergency, I suppose. Maybe it’s about the elastic, a little breathing room. Maybe it’s what women mean when they talk about waiting to exhale. This is how I go about doing it after a long day.
Directly in front of me is the big TV with surround sound; I’m hunkered in the aural sweet spot. The music is eerie and portentous, cranked super loud, a new episode of The Walking Dead I’ve been saving in my queue. Sheriff Rick and his band of apocalyptic survivors are stealing through the woods. Something is about to happen…
The phone rings.
I press pause.
“What time did you leave?” my girlfriend asks.
I picture her in the dark in her bedroom, her air purifier humming gently, a spectral white fog issuing from her electric aroma therapy mister. Her cellphone, in speaker mode, is lying next to her on the pillow, in the dent left earlier by my head.
“Around nine,” I say. “You were asleep.”
Instead of comingling our lives, putting everything together into one big pot, we have chosen to intersect at strategic points.
As sometimes happens on a weeknight, she’d gotten off work at five and we’d met at her place, had a couple of Manhattans, talked about our respective days—she’d white-knuckled a sick preemie between life and death in her operating room; I’d just finished a deadline, a drama of a different sort. After the Indian delivery was cleared away, she gave me that special look and we headed upstairs.
“I locked the door,” I tell her now, from my place on my living room sofa. I always say the same thing; I know it makes her feel safe. Her security alarm and trio of dogs will handle the rest—she calls them her girls, her teacup yorkie, curled at the moment against her hip; her white maltipoo, on its throne in the corner of the bedroom; the old golden with the crew cut, Sophie, lying sentinel at the bottom of the stairs, getting too old to climb. A few years ago, she gave me a key. I’ve used it most often to let myself out.
She yawns audibly, a little theatrically. She sounds sleepy and cute. She’ll be up again before first light to feed the girls. Then she’ll be off to the hospital and another round of sick kids.
“Good night, my love,” she says, a sleepy singsong. I’m not sure how she came up with this endearing little salutation; maybe reading one of the pulp novels she is endlessly binging on, often in the middle of the night—since medical school she has slept mostly in fits and starts; she jokes that her internal clock needs repair. Anyway, one night she said it, “Good night, my love,” and now she always says it, our little version of pillow talk, albeit from across town. It makes me feel like a million bucks.
“Good night, my love,” I repeat.
And then I hang up. I press play.
Call it the No Toothbrush Policy.
One man, one woman. Two houses, two beds.
And separate bank accounts.
We love each other. We have chemistry. We are exclusive. We know we have a date for all the important occasions, and for all the ordinary times, too. We know we have in each other a friend and an advocate, someone with whom to commiserate, someone to list under “emergency contact.”
But instead of comingling our lives, putting everything together into one big pot, we have chosen to intersect at strategic points.
I spent my twenties trying to cohabitate. I was a committed serial monogamist, a cockeyed romantic. There were two live-ins (one engagement), a couple of long-distance relationships (with reciprocal visits), a number of four month infatuations (that seemed to be a type), a long entanglement (with a notorious fabulist), a year-long dalliance with a hairdresser (who seldom spoke but was always agreeable), and one spontaneous starter marriage, at age 29, that lasted six months.
For my youthful foolishness—my stubborn yet earnest quest to build a nest, to cohabitate, to stuff my life into a conventional framework that may not have fit at that particular time in my life—I blame my DNA.
In my family, people always mated for life. My maternal grandparents were together for 61 years. My paternals, more than 50. My parents would have 57 years together.
Interestingly, all of their marriages came to an end with the death of the male partner. I’ll never forget the way my dad’s father would turn off his hearing aid after dinner and focus inward, pretend he couldn’t hear anything being said. Or the way my mom’s father would go on hours-long walks. Or the way my dad loved to disappear into his job, driving off to the hospital to deliver babies at all hours.
At 35 I married again, “this time for real,” I told myself. In short order I became a father. The needs of the one deferred to the needs of the whole.
When I was 53, my wife unexpectedly decamped for greener pastures.
Two years and one month later, I went on my first “blind” date and something clicked. We’ve been together ever since.
But we’ve never spent the night together in our hometown. (Not counting the two nights I was recovering from eye surgery; we camped out on my sofa and she took care of me.)
In the beginning, our No Toothbrush Policy was a matter of logistics. By his choice my son was living with me full-time; the idea of a sleepover at either house was a non-starter.
Which was fine with my girlfriend—who sleeps irregular hours, had four dogs at the time, gets up very early for work, and enjoys her group of friends and also the solitude of her house, which she has customized and provisioned for her every need.
In my girlfriend, I have someone with whom to eat meals, share difficulties and good times, watch movies, make out and take vacations.
Now that my son is off at college I’ve grown accustomed to the quiet. I talk to a lot of people for work. I like to be alone. I like to wake up in my own bed and go through the various morning rituals that lead me to my keyboard. I have the furniture I want in the arrangement I want, the pictures I want on the walls where I please. I can sleep in the middle of the bed, stay up late or go to sleep early, leave the toilet seat up, let the water mellow according to drought protocol, leave the dishes soaking in the sink, do anything, really, at any time I wish.
Meanwhile, I’m no misanthrope. In my girlfriend, I have someone with whom to eat meals, share difficulties and good times, watch movies, make out and take vacations—at which time we do share a bed, a delightful treat, like a honeymoon without the wedding, repeated once or twice a year.
At this stage of our lives, the thing my girlfriend and I have most in common, I think, is that each of us knows what it takes to make ourselves happy—including one another’s company.
Neither of us is looking for our missing piece. Neither of us is looking for a meal ticket or roof over our heads. Neither of us wants a warm lump on the other side of the bed (well, she wants the dogs; I’m allergic). We come from very different cultures; we have our odd habits and our different tastes; sometimes our opinions are diametrically opposed. But because we each have our own little kingdom to rule, we can do whatever we please. Nobody is the boss of anybody. Beyond fidelity, no lifestyle compromises are necessary.
My girlfriend and I are bonded by our primal need to love and be loved, to couple. At the same time, we enjoy our freedom. In each other we have a partner as we journey along this particular segment of life’s wonderful and difficult road. A person to care about and to care about me. A person to depend upon. A person to drive me home from an outpatient procedure.
A person to be with because that is what I want—and never just because there is nowhere else to go.
Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. For more, go here.
And for a brief chat between Mike and his girlfriend, go here.