As a New Widow, Sex Was an Escape
I was 23 when I met my person. He surpassed my expectations for what sex, love and intimacy could be. Unlike the flailing and disappointing relationships I’d been accustomed to in high school and college, I found a true partnership. He showed me kindness, friendship, honesty, consistency and vulnerability. We grew into our best selves. I yearned for nothing in his company. We married and dreamt together.
My husband and I shared a morning routine for the four and half years we spent together. He woke, made coffee, and stretched. I woke, shuffled through the house, wrapped my arms around his waist, and rested my head on his chest. He was nearly a foot taller than me. With my hands interlocked over the small of his back, he held me there for as long as I needed. I relied on that embrace to start my day.
I am recharged by touch. I like hours spent chest to back, hand to hand, cheek to neck. During many restless nights of my marriage, I simply rolled over, cradled my husband and was comforted back to sleep. Without warning, he died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition at home on New Years Eve. He was 30, I was 27. Our life together had just begun when his ended.
My mother, distraught, confided in one of my friends at the wake — “My daughter loves body contact, who will hug her now? He’s gone.“
His void was all consuming and shocking. The plans we made for our future, the secrets we shared – everything that had been ours became mine alone. I had to carry our history and continue living without the life we had built. My marriage was over in an instant, without warning. I felt powerless, submerged, untethered. No one could fill the emptiness I felt after his death.
I met other widows, people who watched their partner deteriorate over time. Every one of them told me, that given the opportunity, their dying spouse reassured them to love again and find happiness. My husband and I never faced that conversation, but I imagined he would trust and support whatever decisions I made to feel okay.
As early as the first days after his funeral – I laid restless in bed longing to be held. Sleep would not come, only thoughts. When will I have sex again? How long will I stay here, alone in our home? Who will be the next to touch me, and how will I find them? Who am I without him? Alongside despair, I also feared people would judge me for wanting sex. Were my desires normal or perverse? Touch had long been my source of comfort and strength, and without him I felt worn thin.
When I closed my eyes, I could recall each tactile detail of how he felt – his chest hair shifting beneath my fingertips, the softness of his lips, and the weight of his body on mine. When I opened my eyes, I felt crushed by the finality of never seeing him again. I wanted what I could not have, to be next to my husband during tragedy. “Two rocks we shall be for one another,” he vowed at our wedding.
My mind wandered down many strange, dark back streets imagining solutions for my sudden lack of sex. Perhaps I could hire an escort. Maybe a friend would be generous enough to blindfold me and bring me to orgasm. Would she lend me her husband for the night? Are happy endings at seedy massage parlors for women too? Maybe an open-minded couple could take me in. What if I buy a flight to a foreign country, pick up a stranger at a bar, and pretend for one night this never happened?
The hookup scene had changed drastically in the years I spent monogamous with my husband, we met before the dawn of Tinder. It was an obvious solution, but I felt trepidatious to be matched with the variety of disappointing partners I had before my marriage. Nevertheless, I set up an account and wrote my bio: “My husband died suddenly in December. He was the best, but maybe you’re fun too?”
My first date, a handsome man at a bar in Brooklyn, described over drinks how cooking helped him maintain a muscular build. The dish he makes – corned beef mixed with teriyaki chicken – made me so revolted I decided to take a cab home. He opened the door to my car, clearly agitated but insistent on maintaining chivalry. I left feeling like I’d rather be alone than listen to men talk. Maybe I wasn’t ready after all. In comparison to my beautiful, funny, and compassionate husband, strangers seemed inadequate. I did not want to know them, I just wanted them to touch me. The more I knew their interests, the less interested I felt in sex.
I needed purely the physical connection — the flood of endorphins, unadulterated happiness, and validation that I was alive. I worried sex with someone new would make me feel worse, or make me miss him more. But the passing of time made me desperate. I felt like a teen again, with hormones surging and sex consuming my thoughts. I did not know how I would feel, but I wanted to find out.
Around the 6 month mark after his death, I began a new routine of inviting strangers into my home. After my first visitor left, I journaled.
Friday, June 9, 12:13 am
23 weeks without even a kiss. Then I found him. Cute face, kind eyes, tall, beard.
“What are you on Tinder for,” he asks, “Friends?”
I reply, “Casual sex, you?”
“Pretty much the same. Usually guys can’t just come out and say it. And if that was a trick to root out who is here for a hookup it definitely worked,” he wrote.
It wasn’t trick, It was an experiment. Can I negotiate exactly the kind of sexual experience I’m looking for, invite a stranger to my home, and enjoy myself?
The short answer is amazingly yes. Outstandingly yes.
Yearning for touch and eventually finding a way to satisfy my sexual needs was a method of surviving an unbearable reality. The kitchen where I once made meals for my husband became nothing more than a sink full of empty water glasses I had offered to my guests. I looked forward to the days or nights I had company planned, a simple feeling I missed when our future was ripped away.
I discovered unimaginable sexual pleasure outside the confines of a loving relationship. I felt thrilled by the power I gained from providing pleasure, even more than being the recipient. Some of my partners made me feel euphoric and others left me emotionally blank. I came to know and appreciate a handful of them deeply, despite not dating them in a traditional way. Is a person still a stranger if you know their most intimate preferences?
Sex, for a string of many months, was one of the few consistent sources of joy I could control. It gave me escape from the pain. The care and connection with my partners made me feel less alone. Touch acted as a placeholder for all of the pleasure I still hope to experience in my life. With time, my interest in dating reemerged as did my curiosity for meaningful relationships with new people. Fulfilling my sexual needs and exploring my desires helped me heal and regain more stable ground. Treating myself with kindness allowed me to feel hopeful again.
Featured image by Alexander Krivitskiy
Author Bio Anjali Pinto is a writer and photographer in Chicago. Her photography and essays have been published in Chicago Magazine, The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, Bitch Magazine and Rolling Stone. After studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri, she began her business in Chicago and established a mix of editorial and commercial clients. During the first year following the sudden passing of Pinto’s husband, Jacob Johnson, she shared a photo and long-form caption to Instagram every day as a way of healing. She wrote about many facets of the unbelievable reality in mourning her beautiful, seemingly healthy 30-year-old husband. With each photo and glimpse into her grief, she was able to offer her audience an honest account of what sudden loss and everlasting love are. In being vulnerable, her pain and joy enriched many people’s perceptions of grief.