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A Hotel For Married Lovers

When your husband of some years comes home one day with two elegant crystal champagne glasses and a bottle of Moet et Chandon, you get nervous. It is five months before your anniversary, three months after your birthday, and a surprise gift never appears unless preceeded by a catastrophic argument the night before. (Yesterday was quite peaceful.) Understand, this man is not an unemotional clod who watches TV in his undershirt, and you rarely greet him at the door in rollers and scuffies – but if passion is far from dead, it is not exactly quotidian. So what impromptu event is being heralded by champagne?

With the slyest of Brando smiles, Thomas tells me to prepare myself: In three weeks he will take me to someplace terrific. Now, that sounds promising. The last time he swept me off, it was to our favorite place in the world – Positano, Italy. (Of course, that was seven years ago, when we were living in Rome, so while the gesture was endearing, it was hardly extravagant.) Panic clutches me as I realize that my passport has definitely disappeared and probably expired. Someplace terrific has to require a passport when you live in the middle of Illinois, right?

Wrong. Someplace terrific, Thomas tell me, is twenty miles southwest of Chicago, smack in the suburbs – A romantic getaway called the “Sybaris”. The what? Well, he explains, it’s this unusual motel that has over-sized beds, mirrored ceilings, whirlpools, , and many other special features.

Special? Visions of whips, chains, and apparatus a choix dance in my head. I have read all of Nancy Friday’s compendiums of sexual fantasies, and even adopted some of the more warped for my personal repertoire, but that was fantasy – not the all-too-real sleaze of some tacky motel with built-in manacles on the bedposts.

Whom does Thomas think he is propositioning here? I am a woman with the poshest demographics – was raised in an affluent suburb, have lived in major European capitals, am addicted to designer handbags, and wear not a single garment containing polyester. The thought of driving to some shopping center to indulge n carnal acrobatics at a hotel for the horny is far to the left of my idea of bliss. “Carnal” we can get at home, if we really put our minds to it.

True, says Thomas, but when was the last time we did? Given the givens of children and phones and the insistent intrusions of real life, how likely is it that we will soon again? (He is beginning to score some irrefutable points,) The raison d’ etre of the Sybaris Inn is to simply recapture the romantic-erotic edge, Thomas insists. Ah, yes, I remember that romantic-erotic edge. It’s the first one to erode as a relationship eases into comfort and compatibility.

I have to admit that the Sybaris idea has merit, but still beset by suspicious of smarm, I decide to make inquiries of the local citizenry to see if any are Sybaritic veterans.

As it turns out, finding my veterans is a piece of cake. My plant-store lady knows a couple who’ve checked into the Sybaris several times, and we are not dealing with fringe types here: Myron is a stockbroker, Ilene a school teacher. They have three children, a Weber grill, and Myron returns home every evening on the 6:39 train. Ilene tells me they take Sybaris sabbaticals because the place offers such a nice conducive environment for sex. For me, the operative word is “nice”.

A week later, the nighttime news features the Sybaris Inn and its owner, Ken Knudson. For starters Knudson does not look like a modern-day Marquis de Sade. This is reassuring. He explains that Sybaris was an ancient Greek city, noted for dedication to pleasure and luxury, where beds were made of silver and mattresses were filled with rose petals. The purpose of his Sybaris is the same as in classical times – a plunge into sumptuous sensuality. I can’t tell from the TV image whether each room really is a “remote and voluptuous space capsule where couples can get back in touch with the love that brought them together.” That’s a direct quote. Knudson is one of those men who say “beautiful” a lot, but he seems terribly sincere about wanting every marriage to be terrific. He emphasizes that the Sybaris is a post marital operation, not a trysting spot for illicit duos. “People having affairs don’t need the Sybaris – all the excitement is already built-in. Anyway, the deluxe suites are reserved to provide a potential oasis of intimacy for even the most frazzled and overscheduled of husbands and wives.

Knudson’s earnestness absolutely negates any suspicions of smarm I’ve harbored, and his last story wins me over unconditionally: A seventy-year old man arrived one day clutching a newspaper clipping about the Sybaris. Clearing his throat, he inquired tentatively, “This the place with the waterbeds? Here’s my money – the missus and me want to take a try at one.”

Although Knudson had just raised the rate, he knocked it way down after hearing that the couple had put away five dollars a week until they saved enough. “These people wanted to come so badly…I don’t care if all they did on the bed was give each other a back rub.”

Well, if just back rubs are okay, a lot of performance pressure is off – though I doubt Thomas plunked down his money (nearly five month ago) if all he’s looking forward to is a back rub. Frankly, after talking to Mr. and Mrs. Myron and seeing the TV report, even my expectations are accelerating. Now that I know the raunch rate isn’t high and the privacy factor is, I begin to feel not only soothed but downright anticipatory.

As my perceptions of smuttiness chez Sybaris decrease, those of my friends corrrespondingly increase. Leers are veiled in gentility, but they are leers nonetheless. Even my dear friend Barbara, who has volunteered to baby-sit with our two kids, brandishes three fingers on each hand as she pushes us out the door on Saturday, saying “Six times, or don’t bother to come back tomorrow.”

Preparations for the journey were minimal. What do you bring when you’re going someplace to take off your clothes? They, Sybaris even provides toothbrushes, toothpaste, razor, and shampoo, so all we packed was the crystal and champagne…until the last minute, when Thomas threw in a paperback. The ultimate insult – I’m finally revved up for some debauchery and he brings Ian Fleming along as a hedge against boredom.

The trip triggers the sort of bashfulness I remember feeling when Thomas and I snuck off campus to a cabin in Wisconsin for a senior-year seduction weekend. We were so purposeful, so determined to experience intimacy. Even on our honeymoon, the other activities intervened -sightseeing, eating wonderful meals, recovering from the hassles of arranging a wedding. Now, after thirteen years with this man, I find myself wondering whether the flotsam and jetsam of daily living aren’t just a comfortable cushion, a disguise for the true state of our feelings. Are we still lovers just sharing a core connection? I suspect that we are, but we’ll know for sure when we check out of the Sybaris tomorrow.

As we turn onto the avenue where the Inn is located, my initial assumptions of tackiness are confirmed. Ogden Avenue in Downers Grove is a four-star franchise-blight strip, boasting two Taco Bells within four minutes of each other, separated only by a neon necklace of Denny’s, Arthur Treacher’s, Arby’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Red Lobster, and the inevitable golden arches. Here, nestled between Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins, stands an austere, cream-colored signpost for the Sybaris Inn. As we pull into the drive, trees close in behind us, blocking out the cultural cacophony we have just driven through.

We claim our key to suite fifteen, which occupies the top floor of a chalet-style edifice. Halfway up the stairs, we’re paralyzed by piercing moans. Oh, God, please don’t tell me we’ll be subjected to the audio of our neighbors’ ecstasy. We back down the stairs to check and discover that we are eavesdropping not on female delight but canine despair. Our neighbors’ dog has been banished to their Mercedes, and he is less than thrilled about being excluded from the revels.

We open our door and focus into the controlled dimness. It is truly swell – none of that Holiday Inn avocado and gold, but a symphony of soft pearly gray and silver. Dominating the main level is a huge bed covered in lush white fur and gently lit from below. The carpeted headrest resembles a spaceship control center, with dials and switches to regulate lights, music, and the TV screen built into the opposite wall. Mirrors on ceiling and walls are strategically angled to promise verification of our every move. There are no phones and no lamps – only pink and amber indirect lighting with a combined total wattage of about twenty-two. So forget Ian Fleming. Also on this level is a very sleek European-style toilet/bidet chamber with a Versailles hall-of-mirrors effect that would be the envy of every narcissist in town.

The raised platform contains two pieces de resistance: a seven-foot whirlpool bath, mirrored, heat-lamped, edged with piles of cream-colored bath towels, and behind it, the softly spotlighted Habitat. This is a fiberglass capsule where two people can recline, press a few buttons, and be enveloped by a series of changing environments. (You have your Desert Sun, your Jungle Steam, your Tropical Rain, and whenever you wish, please help yourself to the gentle Baja Winds.) Stereo speakers pipe in mellow sounds, and a hand shower allows you to cool down your steamed self at any time.

From the platform we step down to another sunken area with a shower and vanity, laden with toilet articles like a boudoir out of Colette. Our tour is complete. We are quite taken with the sexy sumptuousness of the place.

Now, where to begin? Novices in oversized beds, we decide that it seems like a logical take off to turning on. We deposit our clothes in piles, uncork the champagne, clink glasses, try to locate the adult entertainment on TV, and lean back to watch ourselves watch.

Thomas masters the digital channel switch, though, we locate what appears to be a very toney porn film.

Of course, who am I to judge? The last and first time I saw a raw X-rated film was three years ago in Amsterdam’s notorious red-light district. Some multilingual hawker lured us into what he promised would be a very dirty cinematic experience. The problem was that in order to partake, you had to be very German – because all of the four-letter nouns and verbs accompanying the fuzzy visuals were unmistakably Teutonic. Face it, in German, even the most salacious of sentences sounds just like one more order from the general.

So, snug in our Sybaris super bed, I’m delighted to encounter porn in my native language. This particular film is a very elegant period piece – 19th century ribaldry, heavy on the sets and costumes, with buxom damsels, decadent men of the cloth, Tom Jonesian romps with the peasant, and music by Vivaldi. The Secrets of Monsieur Dubois is truly wonderful, and between Monsieur Dubois’s secrets and the Moet et Chandon’s effect, we have no trouble at all plugging into the Sybaris spirit.

In my frolicsome exuberance, I have knocked my champagne glass to the floor soaking my discarded skirt, and since we have dinner reservations (is it that late already?), I bake the skirt for ten minutes in the Habitat’s Desert Sun – more proof that the heightened sensuality leads to increased resourcefulness, even out of bed.

Before breaking for dinner, we attempt to refine some of our newly acquired moves, but collapse in giggles over the next film accompanying our antics – The Job Interview. Looking for a chauffeur whose driving skills are secondary to his personal equipment, the heroine (ahem) hold the auditions. Some of the candidates are nothing less than awesome, and we roar over the incongruities Mother Nature offers between neck-up appearances and navel-down realities. I am having a terrific time. The idea that we must leave this cocoon for something as prosaic as dinner seems acutely intrusive, but we agree that we’d better satisfy our mundane hunger in order to keep up the stamina to gratify our increasingly exotic appetites.

More champagne at a decent restaurant just down the road from Sybaris, steak au poivre, and wild rice -nice enough, but we have no urge to linger. I feel like a kid whose mother has said, “Yes, you can go to Disneyland, but not until you’ve finished your milk.” We race back to reimmerse ourselves in harmless hedonism, confronted with the same dilemma that the kid must have felt once he got to Disneyland: What to do first. The bed, the whirlpool, the Habitat? We opt for the tub.

Slipping into all that liquid warmth, surrounded by reflections f our own nude bodies in the mirrors, makes me feel more than adequately sultry. And then we turn on the whirlpool jets. To strategically place yourself near one of those jets is to move from fantasy into the reality of bliss, I discover, Esther Williams never mastered the water with the grace and creativity that Thomas and I soon find ourselves displaying.

Abandoning the whirlpool is not easy, but Habitat awaits. How reassuring to control, with the push of a button, elements that are normally at the whim of nature. We give ourselves up to the purifying rites of Jungle Steam. Then, when our bodies glisten over, we mist them down with a touch of Tropical Rain and dry off with Baja Winds, emerging as refreshed as two born-again voluptuaries.

At this point, though, we must admit to lapsed ingenuity. Fastened to the mirrored ceiling over our bed is a heavy-duty hook, from which is suspended what the Sybaris bills as its trademark – the Taiwan basket. This apparatus makes your average rape fantasies or visions of doctor’s stirrup tables sound as comfortable as a pair of old brown shoes. Picture a macramé plant hanger large enough for a hotel-lobby-sized Boston fern. In lieu of ferns, however, it is you who plant yourself in this contraption with its artfully cutout seat bottom. What you and your partner do, once aloft, depends on your mental and physical agility. As a woman with a lifelong terror of swings and Ferris wheels, I am admittedly not optimum material for the Taiwan basket.

I am still a prime audience for adult films, though. During the late hours, their quality has definitely declined to the filmed-in-someone’s-garage genre usually viewed at stag parties. Our games have made me much more receptive to gaminess, however, I am riveted to every cinematic offering – until my contact lenses finally fog over and I must abandon my newly acquired voyeurism. Robbed of the sense of light, we focus on even more intently on the remaining sensory responses until finally sleep comes – at some ungodly hour of the morning.

We wake up languorously, feeling the delicious after-effects of a night semi decadence. Thomas turns on the TV and after catching the last half of The Jade Dildo we decide on a whirlpool reprise. Afterward, we dry off, fetch our clothes from hither and yon, and reluctantly make ourselves presentable for the outside world. Neither of us is in any hurry to check out of this womblike wonderfulness, into the glaring reality of a sunny Sunday morning.

I suppose we look just like any other sleepy couple sitting over coffee at the Pancake House a while later. But we feel different from everyone else, and from how we felt yesterday. We keep grinning and laughing and saying, “So what did you think?” and we both think the same: It was fun and different; a terrific thing to have done.

We’ve heard they’re building a new Sybaris, whose rooms will each have a swimming pool with a grotto fashioned after the one in the Playboy mansion and water slide and a “tunnel of love” and…We’re going to reserve. The idea is just irresistible. What one night at the Sybaris does to regenerate romance…well, it’s enough to make passports passé.

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