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An Intra-Marriage Affair

When you have two kids, two careers, too little time, too little sleep, what you don't have is sex. Five months after the birth of our second child, I miss my husband. I miss talking to him. I miss holding his hand. Mostly, I miss warming the sheets with him without one kid or another finding his or her way into our bed. The impulse is to flee--to Paris, the Orient-Express, or just some cozy Vermont inn for the weekend. But we are landlocked. We have eight more years before summer camp, 12 until military school. We discuss this fact over lunch--our version of a "big night out"--at 44, a restaurant near my husband's office. It's a publishing industry hangout, housed in the lobby of the chic, sexy Royalton hotel. My husband jokes that the only way we'll get together is if we go upstairs and take a room. My pulse quickens. I love hotels. I loved them B.K. (before kids), I love them more now in retrospect. So we agree to meet for an extremely expensive afternoon in the very hotel where we are now eating, to reclaim our love.

All morning, my nerves are jangly. I feel the way I did in high school when I knew my boyfriend and I would have my parents' apartment to ourselves. At work, my husband turns on the voice mail and mumbles to his assistant about "a long lunch." I shift a few piles on my desk, ask the sitter if she can stay an extra hour, and kiss the kids. I arrive first. Check in.

"Can I help you with your bags?" the desk clerk asks.

No bags.

"A reservation for dinner?"

Dinner--frozen pizza--is already covered.

Cheeks and ears burning, I rush into the lobby rest room, but it's so over-designed I can't distinguish the stall doors from the bathroom walls. I splash my face with water and head back out into the lobby. I have a room. It's legal for me to pee there. I board the elevator, look at the other guests, and wonder--do they know?I open the door with my little key. The room is compact but lovely. I'm afraid to put my handbag on the beautifully made white bed. I check out the bathroom (mirrors and a candle), the closet (no robes). Then I crack the mini-bar: Mumm Champagne and an "intimacy kit"--two condoms, spermicide, lubricating jelly, and two of what they term "obstetrical towelettes." Hmm. I check out the prices. The M&M's $4, the kit $12. I carefully replace it so I won't be charged, then I run down to the lobby. I sit on an overstuffed white chair until my handsome husband saunters in.

For the next two hours, hours in which we've pledged not to talk about our kids, jobs, or money, my husband and I hang out upstairs, order room service, have a naked picnic in our unmade bed--what is it about room service and upscale club sandwiches?We remember why we got married in the first place. My husband says, "Do people have affairs just to get out of the house?" As he bathes wearing, for the first time in his life, a shower cap--wouldn't want to return to the office with telltale wet hair--I steal the bathroom toiletries. Too embarrassed to face the desk clerk, I practice the fine art of express checkout.

Hurrying home on the subway to pick up milk and diapers and relieve the sitter on time, I am like a junkie; still high from this hit, I can think only about the next. In my head, I run down a checklist of hotels I've read about. When I finally blow through our door, my 21/2-year-old says, "Mommy, why are your cheeks so red?" I sigh and, for the first time in her life, say, "You'll know when you're older."

But our next date is long in coming: idiotic reservations people who cannot fathom how to book a room that will be available at 11 a.m. are keeping me from my rendezvous. "You'll have to check in the night before," several hotel pod-people drone. Would this ever happen in France?"I'll pay the full rate," I say. Can't you think of this as early check in?" But the culture's gone mad; everyone is now a bureaucratic automaton. Except, interestingly enough, the employees of hotels owned by Donald Trump. "You need it for a meeting?" the reservations person inquires, helpfully. And I nod yes, over the phone, busily storing the phrase for future use.

I arrive early for my "meeting" at the Trump International Hotel & Tower. The room is predictably luxurious; everything is covered in something soft but nubbly, the color of coffee and fine sand. There are orchids in the bathroom, and a cream rinse so, well, creamy, that I have since begun to order it by phone. But this hotel is really known for its four-star restaurant, Jean Georges. I pore over the menu, searching for a dish with fewer than four ingredients. I order up a $9.58 cup of coffee, and grade my graduate students' papers as I wait.

When my husband arrives downstairs, he's announced by the house phone. In our room, he announces himself by asking what's on the menu. I'm about to say: "Me!" as if I'm a cast member from Love, American Style, left for the past 30 years on an island in the South Pacific. But the war is over, I say to myself, as my husband rushes to the phone to order from Jean Georges. Thankfully, once that's out of the way, we get down to the business of love. The food arrives at the perfect juncture; my husband greets the server at the door in one of the hotel's perfect plush white robes. "Do you think people have affairs just so they can wear the bathrobe?" my husband asks, but I'm half-asleep, having been up all night with the kids. "Do you think people have affairs just so they can catch up on sleep?" I mumble into my Frette-clad pillow. We nap and eat (shockingly, the french fries taste frozen, although my salade niçoise is excellent) and gossip, and then my husband dons his shower cap. We're in and out in less than two hours. This time, at checkout, I have the courage to go face-to-face with the front desk clerk. He looks at me in my blue jeans and old duffle coat, my husband dressed like a minor-league player in something from the Barneys Warehouse Sale. The clerk smiles. "How was your extremely brief stay with us?" he asks. "Great," I say.

Actually, I don't say this, I don't say anything, but smile wanly, eager to disappear into the crowd on Broadway. Afterward, as we kiss good-bye on the subway platform, I ask my husband, "Do you think the concierge knows?" I'm 38 years old, and I ask, "Do you think he knows?" embarrassed, yet feeling cool. The way I did in high school.

Confession: People have affairs so they can confide the whole sexy, exciting mess to their friends. I'm on the phone with a friend just back from a year in Japan. In Tokyo, she says, quarters are typically so close that even the married monied classes frequent "love hotels"--the dressed-up equivalent of American hot-sheets motels, like the one I see when I'm driving to and from Newark Airport. I make a mental note to investigate, not the Jersey fleabag, but with a newfound entrepreneurial spirit, the practicality of opening my own. A love hotel. The Schulman Plaza. I'd make a million bucks!

And a million bucks would just about cover our costs. The bills arrive for our afternoon delight, and I put them in a drawer. It takes me 10 days to open that drawer again, and still I feel the sting. Maybe next time we could try the old standby, hire an unsuspecting sitter to take the kids to the playground, and have our fun at home. No beautifully made bed, no Frette sheets, no shower cap and robe, but it would be just the two of us in the afternoon, which anyone who has lived long enough, as I have now, knows is the sweetest time of day on earth.

Helen Schulman's latest novel is The Revisionist (Crown).

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