Pictures are liars because of us. They trap a moving, changing moment into a single frame that points to a vague encapsulation of the truth. I saw a picture of Barack and Michele Obama dancing face to face at the inaugural ball, and I immediately started wondering if they were going to have sex that night. I wonder what it must be like to be so close to a lifemate after having gone through such a major transformation, from gangly law student to American figurehead. Does sex have a place in that world anymore? Is there time for physical intimacy with so many dire threads dangling on the periphery of the celebration?
Watching someone evolve is inevitable in relationships. This is very often a bad thing, a kind of gradual slackening. Getting married is a finish line, a celebratory goal after which two people give over to the pursuits of property management, consumption, and an annual vacation to a postcard somewhere in South Western Bavaria or the West Indies. How many people get to see their partners actually excel over time? How many loving spouses watch their mate become more than he or she was as an awkward undergrad?
It’s hard not to see the sex between them, watching the Obamas dancing against a blue sea of heads gazing up in the darkness. Barack’s forward-leaning posture, his chin jutting hungrily into Michelle’s face, I can almost see the thoughts in his head. The wetness, the warm touching of skin, the rhythmic thrust inward, straining to ascend, the hips rising in anticipation of his momentum. The arch up, the coming together, the falling back, the dilated pupils, the clenched hands, fingers interlocked.
It all becomes a metaphor in the picture when I look at it, the two people there project sexual silhouettes, stuck in the gaze of a political machine, but still holding onto the mundane mystery of a human relationship.
One of my greatest fears about long-term relationships is thinking about the ways that I’ll change over time. I don’t feel any different inside now than I did when I was a boy, but pictures tell me that I have changed. I can only imagine what changes are left for me in the coming decades. This image terrifies me: a woman looking at me in 20 years, wondering where the wave broke, wondering when the man I used to be transformed into the slouching, wrinkled reduction sitting on the couch.
It makes me woozy to imagine a relationship that is still on the upslope 20 years later, cresting unimagined territory, moving forward in tandem. I can’t imagine experiencing it from that height without needing the expression of affection to take a physical form, to put in primal action all the things words miss.
But it’s just a picture in the end. A stolen frame, a fraction of a second in a night that must also be larded with hand shaking, obsequious coddling, political ingratiation, and impersonal pomp. How much of that momentary flush of desire can be left after a maelstrom of toothy smiles and flashing bulbs? I don’t know. When I imagine myself in that position, the secret service is guarding the door while I’m in the bathroom fucking my wife, trying to hold on, in momentary freefall.