Meg Wolitzer's new novel The Uncoupling imagines what would happen if a sex strike like the one in Lysistrata took place in modern-day suburbia. In the excerpt below, teacher Dory Lang is stricken by the no-sex spell, beginning a time of crisis and reevaluation that will affect the entire town.
Robby turned her, and she faced him, and his hand was upon her and his mouth was on her face, her neck, and instead of being drawn toward him as usual, all she knew was that she had to ﬁnd a way out of this moment. Obviously, it wasn't the ﬁrst time she'd ever wanted to say no, or had ever said no to him, in bed, but she thought it may have been the ﬁrst time that she'd felt the need to lie.
Other times, entirely truthfully, she'd said:
I'm not in the mood.
I'm coming down with something.
I've got that thing in the morning.
And all those times, she had been telling the truth. The excuses were real. If Dory Lang said she had a thing in the morning, then she certainly did; there would have been some legitimate event that she needed to rest up for.
Now, though, under the power of the spell, all Dory could think was that sleeping with your husband after so many years was not at all like sleeping with him when you were young. It was no longer effortless; it was full of effort, and now that she was aware of that effort, how could she ever ignore it again? She was irritated by the realization, and angry. Suddenly she wanted to shake everything up, to take the sweetness and constancy and even the conscientious effort that was apparently now a part of their love life, and throw it away. Destroy what they had.
Robby was touching her, and she was meant to touch him back, but she couldn't bear it. She had to say something to him, for he was patiently waiting. "I have that thing in the morning," she said to her sweet and lovely husband, who had done nothing different, nothing wrong. It was as if the words had been supplied to her by some hidden prompt.
"What thing?" he pressed, for he also didn't understand what was happening to his wife.
Dory paused for a moment. She actually did have something in the morning, she remembered with relief.
"That conference with Jen Heplauer and her mother," she said, settling into this alibi, making her voice serious and responsible. "The plagiarism thing."
They shifted in the bed, moving apart. All around Stellar Plains, the same low, hard wind was starting to blow in and out of bedrooms, under blankets, nightgowns, skin, and it would keep doing that for weeks, making its circuit, taking its time. That night and over the days and nights that followed, other women, newly enchanted, said to men, "I have that thing in the morning," or "Sorry, I'm kind of out of it," or "I can't see you anymore," or simply, "We're done," or else they just turned away, giving their husbands or partners or boyfriends the long ﬂat of the back like a door in the face.
Now, in bed, Dory imagined telling a couple of other women in the teachers' room tomorrow morning about what had happened here tonight. "It's strange," Dory could have said to them. "In bed last night, when Robby touched me, my ﬁrst thought was, Please, please don't."
Had Dory admitted this, another teacher might have looked up from scraping the last of her yogurt with a plastic spoon, and said, "Funny. Same thing happened to me last night too." Across the room, by the coffee machine, still another female teacher might have looked up as she ﬂattened and smoothed a ﬁlter, wondering if she should also join this conversation, because, interestingly, the exact same thing had happened to her within the past few days.
Dave Boyd, the biology teacher, might have watched from the side, not really relating to any of it. He was a gay man, and he would never be affected by the spell. Apparently he and his boyfriend Gordon, a landscape architect, would continue to throw themselves upon each other in their restored carriage house without any interruption. Only women were enchanted that winter — speciﬁcally, women who were in some way connected sexually to men. The men, it seemed, stayed the same, never changing, only responding to circumstances. But Dory didn't say a word to anyone in the teachers' room, and no one else did either. What she had done in bed was private. She had no idea that what was starting to happen to her would happen all around the high school, and that it would keep happening in waves. It happened mostly to middle-aged women, but also to ones who were older or, notably, younger. The spell touched some teenaged girls, who had so recently experienced the ﬁrst shuddering illogic of love, only to ﬁnd themselves sharply pulling back from it, leaving boys shocked and thoroughly undone.
"Really?" a boy might say to a girl, his voice splitting in the middle. "We can't do this anymore? Never?" How could he have been introduced to all that beauty, only to have it taken away?
Suddenly, the sex lives of these girls and women caved in and collapsed, just as the women had been warned they would some-day; suddenly, they collapsed them. Dory knew she was obviously much too young for this moment to be considered the someday she had been warned about. She was still on her own upward trajectory. She was only just past forty, after all, and forty didn't mean sixty. Forty was still rapacious, viable, possibly fertile, in the mix. Forty was way too soon for this to happen. Forty didn't need to lie on the front hall rug in a patch of sun, licking itself into unconsciousness.
But the spell had started to come over all of them, seizing them in their separate beds, changing them in an instant. Starting that night, and continuing for quite a while afterward, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped and the windows shook like crazy in their frames, and all over that town, you could hear the word "no."
Reprinted from The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Meg Wolitzer.
For more information, and a song about the book by Suzzy Roche, visit MegWolitzer.com
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