I’m slowing getting my way through Couples, John Updike’s famed fictional account of 1960s marital discord and sexual philandering amongst prosperous and dissatisfied Boston suburbanites. The book dissects the inner lives of its characters. They’re fairly ordinary, recognizable WASPs, who, despite their outward appearance of success and happiness, are miserable and lonely.
No, this book is no pick-me-up, but it is captivating to read as this very talented observer of human interaction and psychology peels away at his characters and the society that has formed them. As for the subject of this post—swinging couples and infidelity—I just finished the chapter that deals with the wife-swapping amongst two couples, the Smiths and the Applebys. The husbands, Harold Smith and Frank Appleby work in downtown Boston in jobs having to do with finance. Their wives, Marcia Smith and Janet Appleby, oversee care of their fashionably outfitted offspring and homes back in the suburb of Tarbox.
Frank Appleby, who likes to quote Shakespeare, and Marcia Smith start an affair. When voluptuous Janet Appleby finds out, she falls into the arms of Harold Smith. For some months, each of the adulterous pairs continues to meet up and have sex, all the while keeping these affairs a secret from their respective spouses. But a group of Tarbox friends, including the “Applesmiths,” take off for a winter holiday ski vacation at some New England mountain lodge.
The dreaded heterosexual foursome stay up later than anyone else drinking, smoking, dancing, and talking in rather frank and intimate ways. The one thing that amazes me about these characters is their stamina, for late night carousing and excessive consumption of alcohol. After two martinis I would be ready to curl and go to sleep at 9 p.m. I wouldn’t be able to stay up past midnight, dancing, flirting, and falling into some hot and heavy sex with my husband’s best friend.
On this particular night, as the couples are making their way up the stairs to their rooms, Frank and Harold finally acknowledge to each other that they are sleeping with each other’s wives. No hard feelings, old chap. In fact, the tipsy collegial husbands agree to switch rooms. Frank Appleby will go into Marcia and Harold Smith’s room and do it with Marcia, while Harold Smith will go into Frank and Janet Appleby’s room and do it with Janet. The wives comply, but with mixed feelings.
Wife-swapping: The practice seems like such a relic of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: the decades that introduced Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines, go-go boots, birth control pills, 1972’s bestselling The Joy of Sex, and the then racy 1969 wife-swapping film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (pictured above) into the social landscape. Wife-swiping, according to literary and film chronicles of the time, took place amongst educated, liberal middle-and upper-middle-class suburbanites. Maybe the participants in these alleged practices felt the weight and regret of mid-life fast approaching–life slipping them by–and they wanted to enjoy a last grasp of youth by adopting the mores and practices of the youth- and counter-culture-driven Sexual Revolution. The mantra these middle-class sexual revolutionaries embraced was that marriage and life-long monogamy are so passé. And unrealistic, considering that improved medical care and prosperity increased life spans. The big question they asked: Could you really commit to having sex with the same person for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years?
As much as I’d like to enjoy Updike’s book as a time capsule, it gets me wondering how much extra-marital boinking (do people really use this term anymore?) is going on amongst my friends and suburban neighbors. Look up the statistics on infidelity, and you’ll get varying numbers on how many men cheat on their wives, and women cheat on their husbands. One figure suggests infidelity is a factor in a third of all marriages.
If that’s the case, it must be going on, but it pains me to say that I’m a bit out of the gossip loop in my Walnut Creek neighborhood. A big drawback: we don’t belong to the community swim club where the stay-at-home moms hang out together with their kids on summer afternoons, the kids compete in swim team, and the adults enjoy a lot of hot-summer-night socializing.
I see some of these couples at school and at my son’s sports games. They present themselves as exemplars of loving, loyal couplehood. I can’t imagine any of these people doing it with someone on the side. But who’s to know? Another couple’s marriage is such a strange, mysterious creature.
At the same time, I hear about couples breaking up. For example, there was the one couple in which Dad had affair. Now he’s married to his one-time mistress, and they have a new baby. Mom has remarried, too, to a man whose wife cheated on him by sleeping with the owner of a popular Walnut Creek restaurant. Now, after all the pain and loss, everyone, it seems, is content: The adults have wound up with their true loves, and, at the very least, the adults and the kids are making the best of life around new partnerships and around new and blended family units.
A good friend, who used to work in the Walnut Creek headquarters of the Contra Costa Times, shares with me tales that depicts that newsroom as a nest of sexual intrigue and betrayal. Editors got flirty with each other and cheated on their mates, some who also worked at the paper. Bit emotional stinks occurred on a fairly regular basis.
There was the talented writer and very religious who wound up cheating on his long-time girlfriend by falling for a pretty young reporter. Then there was the driven, glamorous reporter who was married to this cool dude who insisted on an open marriage. Apparently, they threw wild parties. A real Peyton Place. You know, if the struggling Times wanted to increase its circulation, perhaps it should consider airing this bit of dirty laundry. One former staffer already aired some of her own dirty laundry. For the New York Times, the Contra Costa Times’ former film critic Mary Pols wrote an essay about how her buy-out from the paper prompted a quickie affair with a co-worker.
Of course, we’re talking about mostly rumpled newspaper reporters and editors. Do any of us really want to read about or imagine these people getting it on? They’re not in the same glamour category as Updike’s prosperous, Kennedy-era WASPs.
As for me, I wouldn’t cheat on my husband, and not just because he is the love of my life and my best friend in the world.
(NOTE: With regard to the Mayor of Claycord at Claycord.com, as our publicists, Moe, Larry and Curly have advised, I must repeat that “we are just friends.”)
Beyond that, as I said before about Updike’s characters, I just don’t think I’d have the mental and physical stamina for an affair. Maybe it was easier back in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe people had more energy for their social and extracurricular sexual lives. This was when professional men seemed to worked 9-to-5 jobs Monday through Friday—not 7-to-8 jobs, and on weekends, too, like men–and women–do today. And back in the 1950s and 1960s, women could focus on domestic duties during the day, and not have to catch up on laundry and bathroom cleaning at night after getting home from working all day themselves.
Another thing, parents back then—at least mine—weren’t called upon each night to monitor their elementary–school kids’ homework, because, in my experience, kids didn’t do much homework until they got to high school. For me, after trying to decipher my son’s math homework, which these days involves dividing fractions, I wouldn’t have the energy to skulk out after I put him to bed and meet some paramour at a hotel.
Also, parents, in Updike’s book and, from what I remember of my mom and dad, weren’t running around all weekend to their different kids’ sports activities. Rather, parents were running around to each others’ tennis, golf, boating, and dinner parties.
I’m one of those women who believe that the promise of the 1970s feminists was a bit of a crock. This was the promise that women can have it all. No, we can’t—and that includes having a lover on the side. Something’s gotta give. And this goes for me, too.
Oh, I often come across a few women who seem to have it all—an impressive professional resume, terrific marriage, happy, successful kids, beautiful house, narrow waists and tight abs. They juggle all their responsibilities, either because they don’t sleep, they skim across the surface of life, or they are absolute mistresses of time management. And as much as they might be mistresses of time management, I can’t see them also managing to be mistresses of some secret lover. That might be asking too much, even of these superwomen.
Me? An affair? I suck at compartmentalizing my emotional life, I’m a lousy liar, and I could never pull of that kind of deception. Most of all—and I’m going against what our busy, grasping economic and social climate demands of its citizens at this time—I really don’t like multi-tasking. It seems that in order for me–or anyone else–to have an affair in our go-go 24/7 life-style, I’d have to sign up for a class in time management and multi-tasking. And I just don’t have the time or energy for that.