I’ve just ordered three new dresses to kick-start summer, and I’m twirling around, modeling the cutest, frilliest, blackest, lowest-cut one for my husband, Pat. He’s smiling ear to ear, but instead of smiling back (or kissing him), that’s when I make the mistake I’ve made so many times before.
I open my mouth.
“Oh, yeah — do you like these?” I ask, pleased with myself as I pull out the price tag and label. “I am so excited about this sale, honestly, because each of these little cocktail dresses is like $40, $50 apiece, and they all came from this vintage shop I found online … ”
About as sexy as a PowerPoint presentation.
I can see Pat’s face fall, and I realize what I’ve done. I am guilty (yet again) of marital TMI.
It doesn’t stand for what my husband wishes it did. I’m a classic case of someone who gives way “too much information” and way too little “total maintenance of illusion.” After all, what is a relationship if not a long-term extrapolation of an illusion you created at the beginning of your romance?
There’s the “money illusion” (the perfect shoes, the perfect watch). The “success illusion” (“I’m so sorry, I have to take this call … ”). The “sex illusion” (lick the lips, oil the legs, tousle the hair). The “do-gooder illusion” (aggressive reminders of what you definitely don’t have time to do because of your suffocating commitment to charity). And then there’s the “beauty/fashion illusion,” two separate hoodwinks that make quite a power couple: the Bonnie and Clyde of relationship cons, if you will.
Off the top of my head, here’s a quick and dirty accounting of my fashion-and-beauty-illusion costs, which doesn’t even include the thousands in gym costs, dermatological upkeep, and hours spent researching and testing the ultimate outfit: There’s hair ($200 to $600). Brazilian ($70). Eyebrows ($20). Exfoliation ($20). Shaving ($10). Spray tan ($60). Shoes ($200). Dress ($300). Lingerie ($250). Accessories ($50). Makeup and skin care ($400). Manicures and pedicures ($60).
In my 20s, I tended to none of this. I despised anything that had a whiff of sorority girl. I was that girl who defined herself by not being That Girl. I even shaved my head at one point. But then what did I do when I discovered that my super-feminist, super-liberal first husband was cheating on me left and right? I began to tend and care for my illusion like my life depended on it.
I asked every woman I met: “Where did you get that dress? Where did you get those heels? Who does your hair?” Essentially, I George Costanza’d everything in terms of my approach to being a woman. I began primping, purchasing, and preening like a stealth Tri-Delt. (There’s nothing more punk rock than that, right?) And I wanted to talk about it.
“Uh,” I stammer to Pat, recognizing the annoyed look on his face, “you want me to shut up about the cost and the origin story of these dresses, don’t you?”
It’s like the Old Me and the New Me are at war: I have this near-compulsive need to undermine the mystery, transforming what had initially been a breathless vision into a conversation I might have with MasterCard to ensure my fraud protection is up to snuff.
The cause, I believe, is that the idealism I experienced in my first marriage has returned in a strange new way. I love Pat more than I thought I could ever love another person, and I don’t ever want to be fake with him. I don’t want secrets. I don’t want him to be part of my long con.
“You really do look amazing,” Pat starts. “I guess I just don’t understand why you feel like you have to tell me the details when all I want to do is see you and appreciate the final result.”
I can feel myself starting to get pissed, and he sees me starting to get pissed, so he keeps explaining. “Look at it this way,” he says. “The rest of the world sees this gorgeous final vision, and I want the same treat. I mean, no guy really wants to know, ‘Oh, okay, so the woman I see before me actually breaks down to $13 worth of Sephora, $30 worth of dresses, $20 worth of shoes … ’”
I laugh out loud, interrupting his adorably naïve itemization of the price gouging that is Big Primping. Does he think they sell anything at Sephora for $13?
“Except for,” I say, “you’re my husband. You’re not just some guy.”
“Sure,” he says, “but it’s not like we go to the bathroom with the door open. We don’t shave in front of each other. For the most part, we don’t do anything that would be better left in private. I mean, you get why that’s good for us, right?”
“I suppose,” I say, now beginning to want to antagonize him just for the sake of not admitting defeat. “But come on, you do like it when I pluck chin hairs in front of you, right?”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he laughs. “That is a total turn-on.”
As we debate, I feel myself start to open up to his argument in a way that I never have before. I imagine what it would be like if he were to take me through the entire routine that provides the finishing all-five-senses touches to the man that I love before me. I fantasize about a giddy and excitable version of him holding up a shopping bag of Hugo Boss, a bottle of his barber-shop aftershave, and a pair of his Ecco shoes, and how ridiculous the entire scene would seem.
Maybe the distinction between maintaining illusion and conning is akin to what separates erotica and porn: impossible to define, but you know it when you see it. Or maybe it’s like what makes someone a great storyteller: Get in late, leave early, and let people put the story together themselves.
Defeated via empathy (the best possible kind of defeat, I suppose), I start to pack my little treasures back into the brown paper boxes they came in, as I slip away from him.
“You really do look amazing,” he repeats, and kisses me. “I don’t want to fight.”
I am quiet and let the words hit.
He smiles at me as I begin to walk away. I turn my back so he can’t see. I’m smiling, too.