But the rituals of inquisition go beyond that question, of course. There is, for instance, the de rigueur shopping trip for clothes or shoes. (The second I step into a store, I look for a "husband chair." No matter how beautiful the clothes on the rack, or on my wife, my back develops a ferocious ache in proximity to Blahniks, TSE, and the like.)
"The shopping trip is part of the pain process," says a 40- year-old bachelor whose profession is pediatrics, whose passion is good wine, and whose luck with women has not been great. Like most men, he dreads the moment when he's asked for his opinion. "I lie," he tells me over a nice bottle of Barolo. "But, of course, it’s not good enough to lie. Women are so much more intuitive than we are."
A filmmaker out in L.A.,who's been happily married to a former Vegas showgirl these last 20 years, says that when he's put on the spot, he wants to take the fifth. Even if he's thinking something critical, he won't say it. "I usually tell her, 'You look great!'" He also suspects (and half hopes) she's got a built-in filter for tuning out his brand of BS. “If she hears what she wants to hear, then she listens," he says.
This instinctive male aversion to the truth may be a matter of self-preservation. My idle observation, made in a daze of l'Air du Temps in 1978,was revisited by my girlfriend for decades. Rethinking that moment I ask women, friends, and acquaintances what they really want to hear from their husbands or lovers. They're surprisingly passionate on the subject. One of the most down-to-earth, a 39-year-old working mother, fixes right away on what a fraught moment we are talking about. "This 'how do I look' thing is very loaded," she tells me. "Because when you feel like you look great, and you ask, and you don’t get that back, it crushes your confidence."