Novelist Sally Koslow on how to handle a persistently playful spouse
I am married to a charmer. This is both a blessing and a curse.
When we met in college, I was immediately drawn to the tall, curly-haired guy with the contagious laugh and breezy attitude. This last bit was strategic. Were Rob not exceedingly gregarious, I doubt we’d be together. Why? Because back in the day, if confronted with the merest suggestion of a crowd — the proverbial three, let’s say — I fell into a coma. College parties were a circle in my personal hell.
Luckily, Rob saw beyond my twitchy reserve. And eventually, I recognized that it’s simply bad form to show no interest in others. I also didn’t want to be thought of as rude: I’m from the Midwest, where manners are cultivated along with soybeans and durum wheat. So I practiced at being a reporter until all the questioning got me past my pathology. At least on the outside. Sometimes. And Rob has continued to be charming. In public. Almost always.
Let’s say we’ve escaped to the Bahamas. While I’m hiding under an umbrella, my SPF-45’d nose in a book, he’s patrolling the sand, meeting cute dogs and, yes, cute women. If, within a 50-foot radius there are females — young or old, he does not discriminate — my husband’s flirt flag will fly, because that’s what friendliness looks like when it’s between a man and a woman: flirting. (Were he to approach cute men, hey, that’s a different story.) Rob genuinely enjoys women, especially talking to them, in complete sentences. He honestly believes that females are the more interesting gender. You’ve got to like that in a guy, even if he is your husband.
I trace Rob’s ease with the opposite sex to his DNA. He’s not only the son of a dashing, “Mad Men”-era dad who could get away with calling women “darling” — generally because he’d forgotten their names — but related to a circle of strong, beguiling females. I admit that I have benefited generously from Rob’s connections and special talent. Thanks to his older sisters, for example, he’s a good dancer. The two of us have only to hear “He was a famous trumpet man from old Chicago way” and we’re doing the Lindy as if it’s WWII.
My husband also knows his way around Paris like some men do their local bowling alley, speaks French with an accent that won’t make natives choke on a brioche and has superb taste. This is a man perfectly capable of giving me the kind of exceedingly chic garments that, left to my own devices, I’d only covet from afar. I’m still living off compliments received after strutting my 20-year-old stuff in an early gift, a spiderweb of white yarn that barely covered my tush, worn — per Rob’s instructions — over a nude body stocking. For my last birthday he surprised me with a glamorous black fur wrap. I have it at the ready, should I ever get out of my yoga pants.
And yet, I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been times when I wanted to stuff my husband’s flirt flag down his throat — most notably when his wiles waft away from me. This happens most frequently when we’re out to dinner with another couple. To start, I chat with the wife while my husband has an animated conversation with her husband. Yet after our salads, he offers Female Friend a galvanizing beam of curiosity, his eye contact activated. “Did you and your sister get along?” he might ask. The two start a little confab. Meanwhile, the other man has bleated a feeble “So, how about those Mets?” in my direction and that’s … it. I may as well be the lone penguin at the South Pole.
When the conversation flatlines, I try valiantly to engage Socially Awkward Guy. This can be like trying to open a painted-tight window, since an exceptionally large number of our male friends are apparently CIA operatives. Meanwhile, I sneak looks at Rob and Female Friend, who are howling with delight, since Rob can get very busy very fast by being a good listener and egging on others to talk about themselves. Within minutes, he typically transforms Female Friend — be she a judge or a truck driver — into a giggling, preening idiot whose fingers I’d like to swat as they inch toward his arm on the march to the bread basket.
What troubles me most about my husband’s pair-skating finesse aren’t the flutters of jealousy that you might imagine would result. This assumes, of course, that the other woman at the table doesn’t have the brains of Hillary Clinton and the spunk of Katie Couric in a package that resembles Jennifer Aniston enhanced by the commanding authority of his mother — or that Rob’s fingers are making the climb on Female Friend’s arm. (This, I’m happy to say, I’ve never seen happen.) What’s disturbing is that while the hubby is teasing and toying, I’m often left to fend for myself. And not every man I meet is the weak, silent type. Sometimes I’m saddled with the sort of bore who will not end his inquisition until he finds out exactly what I think of Idaho tax reform. Worse is when I am held hostage to a man with more smarm than charm. I’m thinking of when we were trapped on the Fast — but not fast enough — Ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Rob was so busy guffawing and batting his arresting green eyes in the direction of a blonde from Rhode Island that he didn’t notice her even-blonder husband trying to perch me on the bow Titanic-style while inquiring about what kind of bathing suit I wore. Moments like these make me remind myself to ask Rob if we can’t, please, develop one of those couple S.O.S. signs. Not that he’d notice a raised eyebrow followed by two coughs when he is into full-on flirting — ahem, I mean friendliness.
Here’s the truth: Very often when Rob’s doing his affable thing, I am wondering, What happened to the man I married, who will flirt some of the time, but just as often stare at a television set anesthetized by the golf channel while I ask, again and again, do you want the chicken or the salmon? I also ask, What would the recipient of Rob’s flirting largesse think were she to see him in his other au natural guise, an occasionally controlling Larry David-disciple who raises hell when I don’t wash a dish to his liking, the man who along with starting therapeutic dialogues can also ask questions that not only stop conversations, but once or twice, friendships? Because — sorry, snookums — this is also the real Rob.
Even an accomplished flirt can’t keep his act going 24/7. Inevitably, there is an irascible and sometimes inscrutable yang to a flirting yin. Does this make a man a hypocrite? Of course not. It renders him authentic.
Human beings are complicated, and it’s their facets that make them interesting, at least to me. Do I let myself reach meltdown whenever I encounter sarcasm at home, recalling Rob in Casanova mode? I don’t, because I see my husband’s flirting as both a public service and a fraction of a package. Were he always in one state, be it placid, adorable or relentlessly outgoing, I’m fairly sure we’d get sucked into monotony. Which for monogamy is about as appealing and scary as a circus clown.
When our two sons started noticing girls, I offered three tips: Talk to them. Ask questions. Listen. Works at least 67 percent of the time. But I really did not have to worry about our boys becoming social zeros, because like their father, they were sired by a master: charming, yet never wolfish. They’ve grown up watching Rob in action, and fortunately, a fair amount of that action goes on at home. Because — yes! — after years of marriage, my husband still flirts with me.
“So, how was your day?” he asked, just last night in the exact right tone of voice, his arms circling my waist and his hands on my butt. And the rest of the evening was … private.
Editor’s Note: Sally Koslow’s latest novel is With Friends Like These. Her essays have been published in More, O: The Oprah Magazine and the New York Observer, among other publications. The mother of two sons, she lives in New York City with her husband.