I have a friend I'll call Lady Verve. She is European, rather patrician and in her 50s. Not only can she do eye contact like no other person I know, she also has a penchant for getting right to the point.
Once, when she was seeing a man her age, she wanted to ask him if he wore a toupée. She hadn't slept with him, but was considering it, and there had been a few times that she thought his hairline looked a little funny.
"You can't do that," I told her. (We talk about lovers the way our mothers discussed their bridge hands.)
"Don't be silly," she replied airily. "I can say it in a way that will make him feel good."
All I will report is that she didn't sleep with him in the end, and we've taken to referring to him as Mr. Toupée. He's there in her pantheon of men along with Mr. Milk Bath, a lover for a time who, yes, liked to take milk baths with her and read from a book of poetry while they soaked.
Candour is the purview of the midlife woman (or MLW), who knows herself well, expects authenticity from others, has clarity about what she wants, sexually speaking, and isn't afraid to get it.
Many of the MLW I know, especially the ones who have exited their marriages, aren't looking for love from the men they see. They're not even dating them, really. They're just having sex with them.
Younger women, in their 20s and 30s, have sexual relationships with men they may not love. But that's Mr. In-Between as they wait for Mr. Right. They date them, which means sleep with them, party with them and introduce them to their friends. They just won't marry them. Fair enough.
Single MLW, on the other hand, often take sexual partners, but they stop short of integrating them into their lives. They are happy to be single and no longer suffer from "veil brain," which is how Lou Paget, an acclaimed sex therapist in Los Angeles and author of several bestsellers, describes a younger woman's thinking. As one older woman likes to say of marriage, "We have been to that barbecue."
At this stage of life, many midlife women like their men on the side, like a salad.
"After a lot of effort that didn't pay off in a marriage, you don't want to make a huge investment in a relationship," explains a friend we could call Ms. Can't Get Enough.
Divorced after 15 years, she belonged to what she called the "dead-from-the-neck-down club." In the last 10 years of her marriage, there was no sex. Currently, the 49-year-old has two lovers on the go. "If I could, I would have three guys. It's an elixir to have somebody like your body."
Soon after she divorced her husband of 12 years, Lady Verve took a lover. At the time I was still married, and we both had young children underfoot, so our phone conversations were spoken in code.
"What did you do last night?" I would ask.
"Oh, not much. Fed the kids. Watched some TV." A pause. "Then, I went out and had a little dessert."
"Oh, yes, very," she says. "Delicious."
Not that every man is a chocolate truffle. Some confess to so-so sexual encounters that were more like Pablum or worse, like a rotten bite of apple you want to promptly wash down with a good claret.
Like I said, candour is the point, as evidenced in Jane Juska's book Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex, and Real Estate. She memorably describes one sexual liaison: "I do my lightning-flash disrobing, slide beneath the covers, and here he comes on top of me. Jesus, I hate this, and after a decent interval, I claim orgasm, and soon after, thank God, so does he."
Ms. Juska became the poster granny for late-midlife sexual freedom after the publication of her first book, A Round-Heeled Woman. It was her account of the men she bedded after placing a personal ad in The New York Review of Books that read: "Before I turn 67 ... I would like to have sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
There were disappointments, including a bout or two of unrequited love, but she handled them with mature wisdom. "Life itself is a great big rental," she writes in the context of her real-estate, sexual and romantic needs. "We can pretend we own something, like a house or a husband or a child, but we don't; they are ours for only a while."
Like many of the women I've talked to, Ms. Juska understands the importance of living in the moment. Life is more complicated in middle age.
"These women have more to lose," Ms. Paget offers. Many have assets: a house, a car, some investments and a career. "They're not looking for a man to take care of them financially or even emotionally," she says. "It's cleaner and simpler to keep everything separate, and when you're clear with yourself that this is what works for you now, who's to tell you that's not what you're supposed to do?"
Children from a previous marriage can also be a factor in keeping a lover compartmentalized. "My children have enough to think about," explained Lady Verve about her decision to keep Dessert a secret pleasure. "I don't want them to be thinking that he might be their new dad."
There are other considerations, of course, that are not quite as generous. "I have my little friends," is how a fiftysomething woman who is well known in Toronto circles describes her anonymous lovers. "I don't want to be out in public with them because people ask things, 'Who is he? How long has this been going on?' I don't want to deal with that," she says dismissively.
In some society circles, it's a question of waiting for a new man who's as status-rich as the former husband, one worth public declaration of being the Boyfriend. "I was married to a doctor," one says. "I'm not about to go out with just anybody."
Or, as another divorced woman at a recent Christmas party confessed about a man across the room: "I tell him not to tell people we're involved. I let him into my bed more than a couple of times a week. But his life is not big enough for me."
She takes a sip of wine and adds, "Still, his parts are good."
Next week: Generation Ex asks men what they think of being
desserts and side salads.