Three Women is one of those books that consumes you—the kind you devour on a weekend bender, blowing off laundry and lunch plans and the plaintive complaints of your children. An astoundingly frank portrait of female desire, it dissects with forensic detail the sexual and emotional lives of three ordinary American women. There’s Lina, a housewife in rural Indiana, who trades her ice-cold marriage for a red-hot affair with a former flame. There’s Maggie, a twentysomething in North Dakota, whose life has been recalibrated by a relationship with her high-school teacher. And there’s Sloane, a Rhode Island restauranteur, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men.
Finding these women and writing this book consumed journalist Lisa Taddeo, too. She wanted to examine the tricky business of desire, so she drove across the States six times in search of people to talk to. She looked for subjects on Craigslist and Facebook, in lawyers’ offices and doctors’ rooms, in a Cleveland swingers club and a San Francisco porn castle. She printed up black-and-red signs at a Middle America Staples—going heavy on words like “unflinching” and “honest”—and tacked them to gas station windows, Starbucks bulletin boards, Louisiana slot machines and California juice bars. She fielded lots of obscene messages from men and a couple promising leads on women who would get cold feet and drop out. “I was flying blind,” Taddeo says, “and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I didn’t know what to do.”
Then on a reporting trip to the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction—“I was trying to find the heart of sex, whatever that meant”—she was tipped off to Lina, whose candour made an immediate impression. “She’s the most self-aware person I’ve met,” Taddeo says. “I was like, you know what, f-ck it: I’m just going to move to Indiana.” She found a room at an extended stay hotel, starting her mornings with free breakfast sandwiches or the pancakes she could make from a machine, then spent the rest of the day in constant contact with Lina. “I went shopping with her, I went to the supermarket and to bars, I went to her house and played with her kids,” she says. “I’d drive with her to see the places where she met her lover,” often a spot in the woods by a river, “and would go there right after she had been with him, so I could describe the scenery and sounds and smells.”
Taddeo did this for two years, then repeated the experience with Maggie and Sloane, resulting in a nearly-decade-long work of such immersive, intimate journalism that it reads like a novel. (That’s by design, Taddeo says: “For the most part, I don’t like non-fiction.”) And though the bulk of the book was produced before the #MeToo movement began, Three Women adds an important voice to its conversation. “With women’s desire, we’ve been very clear about what we don’t want,” Taddeo says: no harassment, no coercion, no assault. “But because we’re afraid of being shamed, we’re still not talking about what we do want. These three women speak very powerful of their lives and desires. I hope most people will be able to see themselves in them.”
Read on for an excerpt—reader beware, it’s racy—from Sloane’s portion of the book. Three Women will published on Tuesday, July 9.
This is how you deal with watching your husband with another woman. You need to have a buzz but you cannot be drunk. If you are too drunk, then you will get irrationally jealous. You will stop making sense of things. You will not have the part of your brain that says, No, he loves you, he is just doing this for fun.
Your husband must concentrate on you. Yes, something is happening for him, but that is a physical sensation and he needs to feel it, experience it, enjoy it, but in his brain he must be concentrating on where you are. Where you are in the room, and where you are in your brain.
As for the girl, she can do what she wants. You can’t control the girl. She has to be very attractive, but not as attractive as you, in both your eyes, and your husband’s.
It cannot be a porn scene. This is something you’re choosing to experience together, as one lobe of your loving relationship. You have to check in with each other, you have to be aware.
Awareness. You may think you understand the word, but you have to absorb the word. Your husband must be aware of you as though he is in your brain. This is about turning you on, and not the other woman. So even if he is f-cking this other woman, he needs to be f-cking you, in his mind. Each pump is going through this woman, and into you.
It’s been a long while of swinging, if you could call it that, because it is not actually swinging. Swinging is a word that belongs to another time, to people who are not Sloane. She is refined and so is her world, her bedsheets, her brain.
It is more like sexuality without boundaries, but not in some hedonistic, hipster sense. If you were to liken their sexual life to the setting of a dinner table, the table itself would be long and thick, decorated with antlers and other bones and flowers. To drink there would be wine and port and the guests would eat their dessert and salad at once. There would be velvet chairs and simple wooden bar stools, but guests could also sit on the table, naked, or in baroque dress.
It all began on her twenty-seventh birthday. The first week of July, over a decade ago. The restaurant had been open for two years. White cornices, sunshine. She was pleased with what she had built. She felt that everything she had done up until now had a reason.
It was hot and the island was humming with the force of the holiday weekend. The Fourth of July is the first lucrative weekend of the season. The summer people buy up the flowers from the farmer’s market. They carry dripping stems back to their air-conditioned island cars, their green station wagons and their vermilion antique convertibles. The rust on the undercarriage is a statement. Long-haired girls in their early twenties wear bikini tops and soft pants. Every year there is one kind of sandal that is favored over another.
In the morning Sloane went to the restaurant to fill out some paperwork. She ran her hand along the stainless steel in the kitchen, admiring the refrigerator full of cold, summer vegetables. All the machines, the industrial blenders. She owned these things. She could feed hundreds of people a night.
A noise startled her at the other end of the room. She looked up and saw Karin, a server who also worked on the restaurant’s books. Sloane didn’t know much about Karin, only that she had recently graduated from college. And, like many young women who weren’t sure what they wanted to do and where they wanted to live, Karin had come to work on the island, where her friends’ parents had vacationed. She had come as a preteen several times and learned what to covet. She had very dark hair and dark lips. They were vampiric, almost, as though full of congealed blood.
Sloane, who was known for being both thin and sexy, immediately, there in the kitchen, began to list the which ways in she was better than Karin, and the ways in which Karin was better than her. Sloane was thinner. Karin was younger. Sloane owned the restaurant, and Karin merely worked in it. But that could also be played to its reverse. It could be better that Karin was an employee, a pretty young thing obeying orders. Was that not a man’s dream, thought Sloane? But no, Sloane was confident, alpha, abundant yet reserved, partied but went home early enough to be missed. Karin was a child, she was likely insipid to talk to, good only at concerts and in the bedroom for the first fifteen minutes before you grew weary of the switching of positions. Because this was a girl, Sloane could tell, who moved about often, who displayed her whole deck, grinning. Enough would be enough, sooner than a man might imagine. Sloane, on the other hand, long-haired, yogic, fearsome, there were ever more layers. Eventually any man in the world would go to her, and stay there.
Hi, Karin said. It was an unusual hello, warm and spiky.
Hi, said Sloane. She has a way of saying hello that is at once inquisitive, judgmental, and a little bit sensual.
Isn’t today your birthday?
Sloane nodded. She could feel a smile forming. Is it so simple, she thought? For someone to say it’s your birthday, and your guard falls. Like you are seven years old, wearing your new Swiss-dotted dress.
What Sloane didn’t know is that a few days prior, Karin proposed something to Richard. She said, What if I join you and your wife in the bedroom? Of course that was not the actual question. Unless the moment has been recorded, you can never know what the actual question is. It’s an impossible thing to answer. You couldn’t be honest about exactly how something like that is worded. Utter honesty, Sloane knew, had no place in threesomes—in any kind of sex, for that matter.
Sloane imagined Richard raising his eyebrows, imagined him feeling shy and nervous. His wife wasn’t around. He was a devoted husband. He said, You can propose that to Sloane, if you like. Then he went back to what he was doing, preparing food for hundreds of people.
Karin suggested they take off the rest of the day. She didn’t know Sloane well enough to suggest such a thing, and yet it was precisely for that reason that she was able to. Let’s bring a bottle of champagne to the beach, she said, taking Sloane by the hand.
They drove to Madaket with the champagne and Sloane’s dog. The two women laid out on towels. Their toes were painted and their legs and feet were tan. The ocean was rough yet quiet; the way a snowfall blots out the world with its blanket, the ocean will do the same with its white noise. The two women played music from a little wounded boom box. They drank the champagne and ate grapes and Sloane felt like a girl. Something about Karin made her feel not just young, but childlike. Also, Karin was somewhat in charge. Perhaps because Sloane had allowed it, but in any case, it was nice, that she could rely on someone else’s personality to outweigh hers for a change.
Around sunset they returned to Sloane and Richard’s home. After a day of drinking on the beach, walking into her home with this stranger felt foreign. It smelled acidic, like decaying roses. The taste on Sloane’s tongue was pink and ashy. She was burned from the sand and the sun, her skin felt at once coarse and moist, and the night looked like it could go anywhere, though of course the path was much more knowable. It was, in fact, immutable.
The two women were, at first, alone in the house. Sloane thought to send Karin home before Richard returned. But something stopped her. The alcohol, for starters. But also, the way that sometimes doing something bad can feel homeopathic.
Within the hour they heard a car pull up. Richard joined them on the deck. He hadn’t brought a cake. There wasn’t one in the house. Sloane’s birthday was two days after the Fourth of July, and she owned a seasonal restaurant on an island where the Fourth of July was the most important holiday. She didn’t remember having had a birthday cake in a very long time.
The three of them drank cocktails and wine. Drinking was important, Sloane knew, for this kind of event. It was almost more important than the people involved. She knew she had to be the perfect kind of inebriated. Wine was good, a soft white. And in addition to alcohol, Sloane would say there is one other component involved in how a threesome begins. It is these words.
One thing led to another.
The individuals involved can rarely tell you the precise moment. That’s because it’s impossible. One would have to admit to something that feels unsavoury, alien. A husband who desires to enter another body, to hold another lobe of breast. A wife who wants to see her husband want someone else, so that she may want him as much as she’d like to. A third woman who is not frankly loved in the world, who enters a room as a digit in a tank top. A husband who makes the first move. A wife who closes her eyes to the first move. A third woman who has eaten nothing all day. Someone turns on the music. Someone pours a drink. Someone reapplies lipstick. Someone positions her body in such a way. Someone is less hurt than they should be. Someone is afraid by their carnality. Someone is worried they aren’t sexual enough. Someone lights a candle. Someone closes a French door. Someone’s stomach drops. It is everything to do with bodies and it is nothing at all to do with bodies.
One thing led to another, and Sloane was messing around with Karin. The phrase messing around means making out, feeling up, being physical with someone with whom you are not in a relationship. The connotation of it is that it’s a flimsy thing, it does not have holy meaning. There is also the idea of something being sloppy, mistaken. It was a phrase, with good reason, burned into Sloane’s memory.
One thing led to another and Sloane was messing around with Karin, and then Richard approached, and he would kiss Sloane’s shoulders while Karin kissed Sloane’s mouth.
Sloane always found it alluring to mess around with a girl. Even more than it was alluring, it was easy. It had never been, OMG I’m gonna kiss a girl. Not even in college, her first time with Lia. For Sloane there had always been something mature about not running a severe line between genders and marking your predilections on either side.
But this time she was married. It wasn’t about the girl, it was about her husband and another girl.
She rationalized it. She said to herself, This girl came onto me. It wasn’t that Richard said, I want you to make out with this girl. It was her and me, at the beach. And it’s him and me first, and this girl is just an additive. She is something fun.
Two years earlier, when Sloane decided to move to the island for good, when she packed all her things and drove onto the ferry—when, effectively, she decided to not become the same woman as her mother—she’d parked her car in the belly of the boat and climbed to the top floor, where she stood outside and looked out at the gray and blue water. The cold, salty wind whipped her hair around and into her eyes and she thought of what kind of a woman she wanted to be. All her life this had been a somewhat grave consideration. Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Kim Novak in Vertigo. Those women moved under a gauze of smoke and intrigue. Most exhilaratingly, they did not apologize for themselves. Even Holly Golightly, with her dizzy wavering, always seemed to make a deal with herself in the morning, in her tiny bathroom, that it would be her against the world.
Sloane decided on the boat that day that she wanted to be unflappable. To be unmoved by the tides that might shift around her. To hold herself in her own hands. There would be moments that tested her, and she would look at each of those moments as a learning tool. This was one of those moments. Here was this sensual young woman, holding a glass of wine in her home.
Still, Sloane didn’t yet know her husband completely. They had only been married a few years, and they had his daughter half the time, and the rest of the time it was about the restaurant, getting it up and running, writing menus, hiring staff, firing staff. It was go go go. Sloane was not completely sure that he was only into her, that he wanted only her in the world. After all, she wondered, could anyone really feel that way about someone else?
One thing she knew for sure was that Richard had never done anything like this before. At first he seemed unsure, even upset, and then someone said something silly and disarming and guards fell around the room and one thing led to another.
It happened slowly. The two women began kissing, and then they were both unbuckling Richard’s belt and taking down his pants. Then they were both sucking, taking turns, smiling, being polite, and all of it was easy at first, all eyes glittering with the absurdity and the excitement of it. Another thing led to another and suddenly Sloane’s husband was behind this other woman, f-cking her, and something inside of Sloane stopped. Not her heart, but something that kept her body running all the same. She could feel it, her actual soul melt out and skitter from the room. Then her physical body began to wilt, and she backed off.
Richard noticed right away. Immediately he extracted himself from the other woman, approached his wife, and he said, What’s going on?
It was really hard for me to see that, Sloane said. She looked past him, to the candle on the nightstand. The room smelled like figs. I suppose, she said, I wasn’t ready.
How silly, she was thinking, to use the word, ready. When can you be ready for anything? Or is life, in fact, a continuum of things you must prepare for, and only with perfect preparation can you exist in the present.
Sloane didn’t know what the girl was doing at that point. She didn’t care. It was her and her husband in the thick room. She did find it remarkable that Karin was young, considerably younger even than Sloane was at the time, but that it was not her first time doing something like this. Something so adult. On the bed the girl waited, knowing, perhaps, how these things went. That it would blow over.
Sloane was confused; it had been a fantasy of hers to watch her husband f-ck another woman, one she’d never quite said out loud, but something she often went to in her head, in too-plain moments. Suddenly now it felt terrifically wrong. In the near future, she would fantasize again about Richard f-cking the girl and it would turn her on, but for now she felt like she was leaking out from the inside. Her husband, for God’s sake, was consoling her with an erect penis that had just been inside of another woman who during the day worked in their restaurant.
One thing led to another and somehow, they resurrected it. Sloane decided she could keep going. After all, it had already happened. Her husband had been inside of someone else in front of her. She had watched the spine of him, thrusting. There was no going back. Even in the most complex of conjured realms, Sloane could not imagine a time machine convincing enough to take them back from this.
Excerpted with permission from Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster Canada. All rights reserved.