HAVE A HAPPY DAY!
HAVE A HAPPY DAY!
[Author’s note: I’ve been writing this story for what seems like forever. As a factual matter , it hasn’t been forever. I probably began it in 2007 or 2008. The first version was in the third person, as if it were fiction; the protagonist was named Sophie. It seemed easier to write it that way. Every time I revised it, I would make small changes, but left it Sophie’s story. It even went into this blog in September 2014 as Sophie’s story, a fiction. (It was called “Sophie Before Feminism.”) Ten readers “liked” it then and four or five commented, favorably. It’s had only sporadic readership over the years since then. But I’m a stubborn cuss and reluctant just to leave it like that, especially as Sophie is now the name of one of my cats. So I’ve put it into the first person, where it always belonged, to see if it reads better that way. What’s in it all happened a very long time ago, but it really happened. If any of you remember the first version, you can tell me if this is an improvement. Or not.]
[A true story. With one name changed.]
I was again living with my parents. This was customary back then, if you weren’t yet married. I did have a boyfriend. But Ed was divorced with four children, had alimony and child support obligations. His job as an instructor at USC paid nearly nothing. He was also thirty-one, nine years older than I was. He rented a furnished studio opposite the Paramount lot, drove a broken-down ’37 Plymouth coupe, spent his spare time writing unmarketable novels. The silent parental disapproval was palpable.
Initially, Ed’s tweed jacket and MFA from Yale had been considerable attractions in this cultural wasteland to which my parents had dragged me after college. He’d also taught me quite a lot in his pull-out Murphy bed about what men like. Still, my parents were right. There was no future in it. He worked the summer session to make ends meet and spent August in Texas, where his children lived with their mother. All he could provide were modest weekend suppers, which I cooked on his two-burner hotplate, and the diversions to be found in the Murphy, now becoming routine. He wasn’t even apologetic. “We’re made for each other,” he crowed. I could manage only a false smile. I hated scenes, fled from conflict, chose the easy way. Also, there was no one else on the horizon.
I had to admit he’d been useful in one important way. I was now a graduate student at no cost in the USC English Department, thanks to a teaching assistantship I probably owed to his recommendation. I was only a year or so older than some members of the English 101 section I taught; the front row consisted mainly of vets newly returned from Korea. But I made sure to wear elegant suits with narrow skirts, handkerchief linen blouses, nylons with seams marching smartly up the back of my calves, and neat low-heeled pumps from Bonwit Teller – so no one could mistake me for a coed. I also sometimes sat on the desk, legs crossed like Lauren Bacall on Harry Truman’s piano, to appear more sophisticated and at ease than I felt.
My own graduate studies included British History 340 (MWF 2:00-2:50), an unwelcome but necessary undergraduate survey course. No survey course, no graduate English degree. It was surprisingly hard. Moreover, the thirty other students fanned out towards the rear of the auditorium, although mostly male, seemed useless for horizon-broadening purposes. They almost all looked too young. A somewhat older fellow with bad skin, up front on the left, nodded hopefully in my direction each time I slid into my seat up front on the right. I always pretended not to see. Two other older ones, halfway back behind me, sat together on their spines. Returning GIs? Neither paid attention whenever I sailed past.
Last Friday in October: the professor slapped the graded blue books containing our five-week British History exam answers on the first seat in front of the podium. 25% of the final grade right there. Would a B jeopardize my assistantship? The class line snaked towards the diminishing pile. I took a deep breath, flipped through the top ones and recognized my name. On the cover, a large A-minus. New questions quickly trumped relief. Was grading on the curve? Had anyone done better?
A voice with a distinctive crack disputed a grade. The owner of the voice waved his blue book in the air. It was clearly marked with another large A minus. Indignation rose sour in my throat. A-minus wasn’t good enough? He was arguing? As I watched, the professor re-marked his booklet with an A and altered the record of the grade in his grade book. The owner of the new A turned to the room at large with a smile of triumph. I recognized him. The taller of the two who sat on their spines. His achievement clouded my weekend.
How fortunate he was expounding crap as I came down the aisle on Monday. “The Jansenists were right,” I heard. “The world is evil and damned. And I’m evil and damned too. There’s no hope for me. So what can I be but a Jansenist?”
Such an opportunity! Partially turning, the better to show a curved hip and the relative flatness of my girdled stomach, I sweetly inquired: “But why call yourself a Jansenist? This is the twentieth century! If you eliminate God from your Jansenism, you could say you’re an Existentialist. Haven’t you read Sartre?” Sometimes I impressed even myself with the nonsense that emerged from my mouth when needed. His dark eyes had a downward tilt at the outer corners. It gave him an amused look. “Hm,” he said. “I’ll think about it. Since you say so.”
“Do.” I felt much better about my A minus.
He was lounging against the stairwell banister when I came out after class. As faculty, I had an elevator key. The preliminary repartee was predictable. It got him into the elevator with me. Our trip to the lobby was brief and silent. He looked at me. I looked at him. He was tall, a tough guy – but with a full mouth, pale skin, dark crew cut, and those amused eyes. He needed a shave. He wore a heavy navy blue sweater with a large white ND on it. Too soon the elevator door opened. “Well, thanks,” he said. “It was a pleasure. See you Wednesday.” I so much didn’t want to forget any part of this encounter that I wrote it all down as soon as I got home.
Wednesday: He had shaved. He was very polite. He gestured to the empty seats next to me: “Anyone sitting here?” I smiled, shaking my head. He left one seat between us. The lecture began almost at once. We both took careful notes. I couldn’t have repeated a single thing I wrote.
We again rode the elevator in silence. Outside he asked if I’d like a cup of coffee. We walked on slabs of sidewalk between wide swaths of late autumn grass. The mid-afternoon sun was shining. It was like being in a movie. He offered to carry my books. No, no, I could manage. He insisted on taking them. No one had ever carried my books before. I knew we were talking about something, but the actual words didn’t count. Another something, very powerful, was pulsing between us. We reached Commons. The other teaching assistants from the English Department were sitting together at two tables and saw him holding my books as well as his own. I suggested we go sit with them but he said no, we should go downstairs. So the other teaching assistants also saw us go down to The Hole, where only undergraduates hung out. What did it matter? My real life was beginning at last.
We found an empty booth. He slid in opposite me. I ordered my coffee black, with saccharin. (I counted calories in those days, so as to look good naked.) He poured lots of cream and sugar in his and put away a big slice of blueberry pie while he told me about himself. I was so preoccupied with leaning my chin on my hand and hanging on every word I forgot to ask his name until he suddenly said he had to go. It was Yates. Like the poet’s, only spelled differently. And his first name was William, also like the poet’s. Will, he said. The middle name was Benedict, not Butler, but at least the initial was B. I loved it that someone who looked so tough had a poet’s name. Well, nearly a poet’s name.
When we went for our second coffee on Friday, a buddy of his caught up with us, so Will sat next to me. Maybe to show the buddy I was his. Although the buddy seemed to know about me already, whatever there was to know. He soon left for a date with a girl who was helping him with his German. After he was gone Will explained it wasn’t a date, exactly. The girl the buddy was meeting was a prostitute from Germany and he had to pay for the sex; only the help with German was free. The idea that I had just met someone who paid women to let him inside their bodies was so astonishing I couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so I just tried to look amused and knowing, and asked instead if he was a really good friend. Then Will hesitated a bit before saying they had only had a couple of classes together. But the buddy, casual acquaintance or no, brought us closer together. For our third and fourth coffees, on the following Monday and Wednesday, we went on sitting side by side. Although I did notice Will was still being very careful no part of him touched any part of me. I wasn’t sure why. Even though going slow was supposed to be a sign of respect, he must know, I thought, that I knew neither of us were playing games.
However, before the third coffee came a weekend. That Friday evening in the pull-out Murphy bed, Ed toiled between my thighs without success. His head conveniently out of sight, I could go on thinking about how Will had grown up in a place in Boston called Southie, which I understood to be a poor neighborhood or maybe even a slum because he’d said he used to hang out with street gangs. He’d enlisted at sixteen by lying about his age. (He was actually only two years older than I was. Perfect!) But the war in Europe was over by the time he’d finished basic training, so they’d shipped him to the Pacific. Fortunately, he missed the bad parts, like Iwo Jima, because MacArthur picked him to be in his Honor Guard instead. (The Honor Guard was all tall white guys, he explained.) After discharge he’d eventually gotten his high school diploma and gone to Notre Dame on the GI Bill. He’d also told me how once, during football practice, he scored the perfect touchdown. It didn’t count, he said, because he was only the third string quarterback, but he didn’t care, because he had done it and he knew he had done it.
Ed looked up at me over my stomach and asked how I was doing. I apologized for taking so long. Then I thought about how Will had finally walked out of Notre Dame one semester before graduation because he’d become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the Church. (Which was the reason he was finishing up his last year out here; he’d started in February and now was nearly done.) That was so principled and brave of him there was no way I was going to be able to come, no matter how long poor Ed kept at it. It didn’t occur to me to fake it. (Expedient fakery would be an acquisition of my thirties.) I encouraged him to forget it and finish up for himself. “I must be catching something,” I explained. On Saturday night, I said my period had arrived unexpectedly. I put the diaphragm back in its case in his bathroom cabinet and we went to the movies instead. By then, I could hardly bear to hold his hand. I wondered if I ought to be feeling guilty, or at least selfish, but all I could feel was glorious anticipation.
Will was unhappy at our Monday coffee. He said he hated his life and especially hated having to work after class selling Hoover vacuum cleaners door-to-door to ladies who already had an okay vacuum cleaner and didn’t need a new one. He really wanted to stay longer in our booth in the Hole. He wished we could stay there forever. On Wednesday he even walked me from Commons to the faculty parking lot and seemed to have difficulty leaving. I considered this a promising development and wondered when he would ask me out. He was certainly taking his time. One thing I did know: absolutely no more weekends in the Murphy bed.
Ed had a late afternoon class on Wednesday. I drove to his studio immediately after leaving campus, let myself in with the key he’d given me, stealthily removed my diaphragm from his bathroom and tiptoed out, locking the door behind me. I’d have to keep the diaphragm case at the bottom of my purse because I couldn’t leave it at home, my mother looked everywhere. But it was a big purse, there was room.
On Friday Will was apologetic. He had to go right after class. He was sorry. So sorry. Coffee would have to wait until Monday. I telephoned Ed to say I was ill, had skipped history class and gone right home. Fever of 103. If I were better on Saturday, I’d let him know, but I felt awful and it didn’t look good. I was sorry. So sorry. I spent the weekend douching in the bathtub to clean every trace of him out of myself. My mother kept asking through the door if anything was wrong. Between baths, I studied British History. It reminded me of Will.
My first Freshman English section met at 9 a.m. on Monday. I was there five minutes early, in suit, pumps and makeup — looking pretty good, I thought. The students drifted in. Just as I was closing the classroom door to begin, Ed’s face, red-eyed and distraught, appeared through the glass panels. The students strained to see what was going on. “You’ve left me,” Ed sobbed, not quietly. I heard a suppressed giggle from somewhere behind me. “Ssh,” I hissed to Ed. “I’m teaching now.” Couldn’t he just slink away and lick his wounds by himself? “You took your diaphragm!” he exclaimed in strangled grief. A freshman football player trying to enter the room around him did a second take and smirked. “You’ve left me for someone else!”
“And?” I closed the door on him, turned to my class and shrugged. They laughed. I knew I should have handled it better, and managed to not smile back. Then I took attendance, chewing the inside of my mouth to keep the corners from turning up. Everyone was unusually attentive. It was a rewarding class.
I was afraid Ed would reappear at any moment during the rest of the day, but he kept his distance. Now and then I thought how awful he must be feeling, but that made me feel awful myself. I tried to reason myself out of it. Didn’t he understand that we couldn’t have gone on endlessly, with me just providing the sex in his financially constricted life but getting nothing else out of it? Didn’t he have any remorse for his exploitation of my youthful optimism, my good nature? It had to stop. I was entitled to a life, too.
Then I was at last in the Hole again, sitting side by side with Will. His bare right forearm lay on the formica table parallel to and no more than a quarter inch away from my bare left forearm. I looked at the two arms, so close together. The skin on his was paler than the skin on mine, as if he hadn’t been in the sun at all, even last summer. And it had fewer hairs on it than Ed’s or my father’s. It was foreign flesh. Pale muscular foreign flesh, sparsely dark-haired. So different. So exciting.
“I want to go to bed with you,” he said.
I went on looking at our arms. Well of course. Wasn’t that what I wanted, too? How honest he was! “You have to understand,” I said carefully. “I don’t just do that. With this person and then that person. When I go with someone, it has to mean that we’re together, really together.” I stopped short of mentioning love. I wanted him to say it first.
“I do understand,” he said solemnly.
Now I had to say yes or no. If I said no not yet, would that mean I wasn’t the sophisticated woman he took me for? I didn’t think I could say no. “All right then,” I agreed. “If you really mean it.”
“ I really mean it. Let’s go.” He started out of the booth.
“Wait! Go where?” This was all happening very fast.
“I’ll find somewhere.” Up the stairs he went, to the public phones on the street level.
His car was a green ’51 Pontiac. He put our books in the trunk, next to some spare Hoover vacuum cleaner parts, and we screeched out of the student parking lot. I asked where we were going. He said he’d called friends in Covina who were willing to take in an early movie. Their key would be under the mat. Then he didn’t say anything else. He just drove, both hands on the wheel, eyes fixed straight ahead — with focus and speed appropriate to the driver of a getaway car. Maybe I was making a mistake.
“Considering what we’re about to do,” I said after a while, “you might be a little friendlier.” The car lurched to the curb, I heard him jerk the hand brake, he grabbed me like a starving man, his mouth opened on mine, my heart dropped, we kissed and kissed, I dissolved next to a hydrant on North Puente, and long afterwards I could still tremble when I remembered.
The rest of the ride was better. Will found a Thrifty Drug, where I bought spermicidal jelly and he bought fortified port wine. After we got back into the car, he took my hand while he drove with the other. “Tell me,” he asked, “do you always carry your diaphragm around with you?”
It was nearly dark when we arrived. There were two rooms. We tiptoed through the first, which had bookshelves, but that’s all I could see, because of course I had my glasses off. The second was the bedroom. He was clumsy at finding my buttons and hooks so I quickly undressed myself while he pulled off his sweater, shirt and pants and kicked off his shoes. Next I went to the bathroom. Sitting on someone else’s toilet squeezing jelly into the rubber cap, I reflected this wasn’t as romantic as I might have liked. But after I emerged protected and we’d drunk some of the port out of the bottle (I took only a few sips because of the calories), the passionate kissing started up again and reflection disappeared. Then his erection got in the way so we went to bed, he climbed on top and came very soon. “That’s okay,” he said, putting his arm around me. “There’s lots more where that came from. Once I came seven times in one night.”
I did like the arm around me.
The second time I managed to get a pillow underneath myself before he mounted; it didn’t help much. I wondered if it was because his penis was rather slender compared to Ed’s, but decided that was probably not it, since it was long enough and hard enough, and certainly energetic enough. More likely, it was just that he seemed not to know what to do with it except come as quickly as possible. He didn’t even seem very concerned that I hadn’t. I would have to give lessons. Very delicately. I forgave him. For now. How could he have learned about lovemaking, given his rough and difficult life? He might have been mostly with whores, like his buddy. Maybe I was his first real girl.
The third time I suggested I get on top – which was apparently such a novelty to him that again he came almost at once. Instead of apologizing, he beamed. Finally, out of desperation, I offered to go down on him, to empty him out a bit. But just as he was about to come rapidly a fourth time, we heard a key in the lock. All I could remember after that is cowering naked and scared under the sheet while Will pulled on his pants and went to the front door for whispered negotiations. We had ten minutes to wipe up, make the bed and get out of there.
He was hungry. At a drive-in near the university he ordered a double cheeseburger, extra large fries and a malted. I held off, lit a cigarette and tenderly watched him put away his food. Men were really just little boys, weren’t they? But after he’d finished the last crumbs, he remarked only that we’d better be getting back to the faculty lot for my car. Was that all he had to say? I looked away through the side window, so he shouldn’t see my disappointment. He did ask for my phone number, though, and memorized it right there. He didn’t have a phone himself, he said, but he’d find a way to call. He nodded twice when he said it, for emphasis, and repeated the number out loud afterwards, to show that now he really knew it. He also leaned over and gave me a little kiss on the lips, when we reached my car. The next morning I slipped Ed’s key into an addressed envelope and dropped it in a mailbox on the way to school.
The phone rang Wednesday evening as I was finishing dinner with my parents. It was Will. He had some free time. Could I come out with him in about ten minutes? We did some fooling around in the green Pontiac before he explained that he hadn’t been able to find a place for us to go. Would it be all right if we just had a bite and wandered around? Silly boy. Did he really think it wouldn’t be? He drove to a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard where I watched him put away half a large roast chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, a dish of cooked sliced carrots glazed with honey (he said he liked carrots very much) and two ice-cream-soda-sized glasses of chocolate milk. He spread a pat of butter on each of the two white rolls that came with the chicken and wolfed them both down for dessert. “How can you eat so much and not gain weight?” I asked. “I burn up a lot of energy,” he said. “Can’t you tell?” I guessed I was supposed to giggle at this, so I did.
We strolled out of the restaurant hand in hand and went to Pickwick’s, where we gazed at the shelves in the literature section and I talked about Proust, which I had read most of and he hadn’t, while my curled fingers slid up and down his thumb. His goodnight kiss at my front door seemed almost reverent. I felt we might be together forever.
On Thursday he sauntered into the English Department office and up to the open door of my cubicle unannounced while I was in conference with a Korean War vet from one of my sections who was seeking guidance (he said) with setting up his next semester’s courses. Will and the vet eyed each other suspiciously. It was wonderful. When the conference was over, Will and I went out into the late afternoon. I had a graduate seminar on Dryden and Pope in half-hour but didn’t mention it. We stopped to watch a football practice. The field was walled on the side near the sidewalk so that I couldn’t quite see over, even on tiptoe. Will noticed. He put down my books and lifted me so my head was level with his and we could look together. I had no idea what I was watching or what it meant, but for those few moments that his arms held me up with my feet off the ground, how could I not be happy?
He took me to a studio apartment much like Ed’s but closer to the university. “Whose place is this?” I asked. “Don’t worry,” he responded soothingly. “We can use it all afternoon.” That didn’t answer the question, but I didn’t press it. I had another problem. Now my period really was here. I told him as he was lowering the Murphy bed from the wall. He said it didn’t matter, he didn’t care.
He did care about not making a mess, though. With a thick layer of old newspaper crackling under my naked behind every time I moved, and toilet paper and my last unopened Tampax within reach on the floor next to my side of the bed, the afternoon began to seem more about keeping the bed clean than abandoning myself to the transports of love. Did I dare turn over? Was my ass covered with newsprint? Was now the time to pull the plug and let him in? I groped for the little white string with one hand; it was slippery and wet and impossible to yank. Then I wrapped a thick wad of toilet paper around it and gave mighty tugs with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands until finally out came the used and swollen tampon, hot from my body and soaked dark.
“Wait!” I cried, holding him off with elbow and knee while I wrapped the detritus of my innards in more and more toilet paper until I could see no more seepage. Predictably (and mercifully), he came fast, at which point I could push him off — lovingly, I hoped — in order to insert the last clean Tampax before there was damage to the sheets. That pretty much ended the promise of the afternoon. I wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off at the Pope and Dryden seminar.
His cleanup was thorough. Bed carefully remade and folded away. Roll of remaining toilet paper replaced in the bathroom. Stained newspaper, soiled toilet paper (with its contents), and my three cigarette butts into a garbage bag. Ashtray wiped down. And then out — holding the garbage bag, to dispose of elsewhere — after checking that nothing was left behind. As he locked the outside door, I peered at the name next to the bell. “Yates.”
“Then this is your apartment!”
“No, “ he replied. “But it used to be.” As if that were an answer. He hurried me into the car.
I thought I would see him the next day. But a teaching assistant meeting had been scheduled for two that afternoon, so I had to cut British History. Two cut classes in as many days; my life was going out of control. At the meeting, another teaching assistant who was my best friend in the Department whispered that Ed had called to ask for a date and she had said yes. As I’d broken up with him she thought it would be all right. They were going out Saturday night.
For sure he would try to get her into bed. Not because she was so gorgeous but to get even. Would she yield? On the first date? She was still a virgin. (Unless she was lying.) But he was very skillful. Should I warn her? Maybe she wanted to be deflowered. Maybe she’d been secretly jealous of me this whole semester. We never know the real truth about anyone, do we? The Department Head was discussing the last composition unit of the fall Freshman English semester. Did he actually believe you could teach anyone to write? Afterwards I walked over to Commons with the best friend to show no hard feelings, and we had coffee with the others who’d been at the meeting and were jabbering about what the Department Head had said. I kept my eyes on the door but never saw Will come in looking for me.
I didn’t hear from him all weekend. I tried not to think about the apartment with his name next to the bell or what he might be doing when he wasn’t in school or selling Hoovers door to door, and thought instead about what Ed and the so-called best friend might be up to.
On Monday, I cornered her. “So? How was it?”
“Going to see him again?”
“Don’t know yet.” She didn’t look particularly glowing or fulfilled, but maybe she was simply distracted; she had a class in five minutes. What did ‘fulfilled’ look like anyway?
Two o’clock finally arrived. There was no time to ask Will about his weekend. After the lecture, he carried my books again, though. And the sun — I would always remember the sun was still shining and we sat on a bench for a while to enjoy it. “Thank goodness next Thursday is Thanksgiving,” I began. “A four-day break. We’ll have some real time together.” He looked uncomfortable. “Well, no,” he said. “We won’t. I can’t see you then. My mother’s here.”
He’d never mentioned a mother before. Should I suggest he introduce us to each other? No, the thought should come from him.
“You won’t have to spend all that time with her, will you? Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, of course. But all four days?”
He nodded sadly.
“But Will, why? Doesn’t she understand you have a life? I mean, it’s not as if you were married!”
He took a deep breath. “Actually,” he said, “I am.”
His wife was seventeen. He’d knocked her up on the beach at Santa Monica the previous May. She’d been a virgin. Catholic, too. So how could he walk away? The wedding had been in August, before it really showed. Her family was helping them, until he got his degree. In fact he was living with them. I couldn’t process it fast enough. Seventeen? It was those cashmere sweaters, he said. All the coeds in their cashmere sweaters. After Notre Dame it drove him crazy. And she was pretty. Smart, too. She wanted to be an electrical engineer. So once he got her panties off.…
“But if you were married,” I cried, “what did you think you were doing with me?”
He looked down at the ground. After a while he said quietly, “I thought I could have a wife and mistress both.”
Mistress? What did he think this was? Some kind of Victorian novel?
“Can I still go on seeing you?” he asked.
I couldn’t give him up now, just like that. Temporize, I told myself. Play for time. Cry later.
He looked happier when I said yes.
We walked to Commons. His mother really had come for Thanksgiving. She was staying in the apartment with “Yates” on the doorbell; he’d kept it after the wedding as a place to escape to. She was also job-hunting, she might move out from the East, he was her only child. I nodded. And nodded. What could I say? He went on, suddenly a fountain of information. The new Mrs. Yates was called Mary, she’d had to give up school this year because of the baby, she was a good sport ….
Thigh by thigh we sat in the Hole. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute passed and waved. He must have known all along. I felt dirty.
“I wish we could run away to Alaska together,” Will said.
“I wish it had been you I met last May,” he said.
“I wish I were a better person,” he said. That’s about as contrite as he got.
He called on Thanksgiving, around ten o’clock, from a phone booth on the corner near his in-laws. “I had to get out for some air,” he said. I was ready to meet him, but he had to go back.
We both got A on the History ten-week. I wondered how he’d managed, with so much going on in his life. I really had to study for mine. The week after Thanksgiving break he came to the house to pick me up. A theological student who was out of town had lent him a key to his room. It was a narrow sliver of space containing a single cot with black blanket, a metal desk piled high with religious texts, one folding chair, and a dark prie-dieu. On the disapproving walls were several crucifixes in various sizes. We sat on the austere black blanket and tried to kiss. Then we hung our clothing over the back of the single chair and did what we had come to do. It was all very sad, although Will seemed to be in good working order in spite of our situation.
Afterwards, we lay on top of the black blanket while he stroked my arm. I told him he would love the baby when it was born. It was going to be his baby, a part of him. I thought I ought to say these things to sound wise and warm, and to make him feel better, although I had no idea if they were true. He looked doubtful. “But I don’t want to be married,” he said. “The baby will make everything all right,” I murmured reassuringly, hating Little Miss Pure who couldn’t hang on to her underpants. I was dying for a cigarette. The theological student had no ashtray. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We went to Milani’s French Dip on Santa Monica near Highland. Plenty of ashtrays there. Our booth had a little box on it labeled “Swami Says.” For a penny, inserted in the appropriate slot, you could ask Swami any question answerable with yes or no.
“Do we have a future together?” I asked. Swami said no.
I fished another penny from my change purse. “Will we at least see each other until the baby comes?” Swami said no.
I counted out more pennies. “Will we go on being friends?” Swami said no.
“Is there anything we can do to change your mind?” Swami said no.
“All it can say is no!”
Will dropped my last penny into the slot. “Will the baby be a girl?” he asked. Swami said yes. Will smiled.
Then it unraveled. Will began to look for another job for when his classes would be over and had to hurry away after British History to go on interviews. The week before Christmas break, we went a last time to the Hole. He seemed resigned to what would be. I tried to memorize his face. “Time was out of joint for us from the beginning,” I began. “I guess,” he said. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute came by; Will invited him to sit with us. They talked about the baby coming, and the job market, and it was almost as if I weren’t there at all. At the end of the last History class, Will said he had to go. He was still wearing his navy blue sweater. I was getting fond of it, now that I would never see it again. He put his hand out half way, then took it back and gave a little wave goodbye. I nodded and turned quickly, before he did. I wasn’t going to stand there and watch him walk away from me.
He must have taken the final with a different proctor because I didn’t see him in the exam room to which I was assigned. I got an A in the course and assumed he did too. Although what difference did it make, now that he was out of school and about to become a father?
Ed soon re-insinuated himself in my life. The business with the best friend had never gotten off the ground. He forgave me my trespasses. (Although he didn’t forget them.) All was (almost) as before. Except I did hear from Will once more. He phoned from a booth in the hospital one evening in February. The baby was a girl. He was naming her Cordelia, after Lear’s third daughter, so she should always tell the truth. “I had to call,” he said, “to say you were right. As soon as I saw her, I loved her. I wanted you to know.”
The following Christmas he also sent a card without a return address, wishing me the joys of the season and enclosing a snapshot of a ten-month baby girl with dark curls clinging to the bars of a playpen. The line drawing on the front of the card showed a naked showgirl sitting in a giant champagne glass full of bubbly with her legs and arms in the air. I looked at it for a long time, trying to make it feel less hurtful. I couldn’t. At last I tucked it in a file folder discreetly marked WBY, together with my notes of our first meeting and the Thrifty Drug sales slip for spermicidal jelly and port wine from that time we’d driven to Covina.
Eventually Ed’s ex-wife found a new husband, the alimony payments slipped from his shoulders, and he proposed. He should have known better, but didn’t. I was by now nearly twenty-four, only a year from old-maidhood. Fate had already dealt me what I thought of as a tragic blow in the true love department. So it seemed best to put away lingering thoughts of William Benedict Yates and accept what was offered.
Maybe it would work out.
[In July 2015, streaming was relatively new, at least to me. However, the summer was hot and steamy, my darling Bill was not well, and we needed something entertaining for all our indoor hours on the living-room couch. We already had a Netflix red -envelope subscription; it was easy enough to add streaming. Then a cultured friend with psychiatrist husband recommended a teledrama she described as “the Iberian Downton Abbey.” Well, why not?
That’s how I discovered “Gran Hotel.” Fifty-one viewing hours later, I wrote a long post about it. (“Gran Hotel: You’ll Never Want to Leave!”) It turned out to be the all-time most successful post I ever wrote. Even after Netflix at last pulled the teledrama off the United States streaming platform, it went on streaming in other English-speaking countries. Nearly five years later, my post about it was still getting clicks.
Now “Gran Hotel” is back. And just in time. Netflix knows what to run during those hot and steamy stay-at-home summer days and nights ahead, especially for those of us deemed virus-vulnerable. I’ve therefore resurrected the post. Practically in its entirety. No more digging it out of the 2015 archives. Read at your peril.]
Gran Hotel (which Netflix has helpfully translated as Grand Hotel) was a television series that originally ran for three years in Spain, from 2011 through 2013. It reached 18.5% of the viewing audience during its first season; by the third season, between two and three million people were watching each episode. Since then, almost every European country, including Russia and the UK, and several in the far East, acquired the rights to run it. In America, Netflix chopped it into 68 continuous episodes (with great cliff-hangers after each), running 45 minutes apiece. That’s 51 hours of viewing pleasure. Give it three or four episodes and, ladies (I’m not sure about the men), you’ll be hooked! After a while, you may forget meal preparation, eating (unless before the TV set), perhaps basic hygiene, certainly bedtime. By season three, it was Bill, clutching my hand, who was saying at 12:45 in the morning, “Let’s just see one more….”
It has nearly everything, including a multitude of mysteries and sub-mysteries involving characters, both upstairs and downstairs, who speak beautiful Castilian Spanish, of which I know nothing. (Although I did learn a few useful expressions during my 51 hours glued to the set. People said “I’m sorry,” “excuse me” and “I don’t know” a lot.) The subtitles are reasonably clear and comprehensive (until the third season when the excitement mounted to a point where the translator began to misspell and omit a few words.) It’s true the costuming isn’t quite as elaborate as in Downton Abbey, but the whole thing runs only a year and a half in story time (with a few flashbacks), so styles and hairdos don’t really need to change. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Gran Hotel takes place in 1906 and 1907 in northern Spain near the fictional town of Cantaloa, at the eponymous and equally fictitious Gran Hotel. All the outdoor shots were filmed on the grounds of the Palacio de la Magdalena (representing the hotel) and at several points nearby in Santander. The indoor sets — sweeping entrance hall, dining room, ballroom, yards and yards of red-plush wallpapered corridors where guest rooms are located, and more yards of grey-painted corridors of doors to small plain rooms where the staff reside, as well as the rooms themselves — were probably constructed in a Madrid studio.
The hotel is owned by the Alarcon family, now headed by Dona Teresa, a recent widow, and managed by the suave and suspicious-looking Diego Murquia, who was her deceased husband’s right-hand man. Dona Teresa (Adriana Ozores), will do almost anything to keep control of the hotel. She has three grown children: Sofia, pregnant with her first child and married to Alfredo, a future Marquis, who she hopes her mother will appoint as manager now that her father is dead; Javier, the only son — cute, but a womanizer and an alcoholic; and lovely Alicia, our heroine (Amaia Salamanca), who Diego (Pedro Alonso) wants and will do anything to marry and who our modestly born but literate hero, courageous and handsome Julio Olmeda (Yon Gonzales), loves at first sight. Julio has come to the hotel in Episode One to find out what happened to his sister Cristina, who was working there as a maid and has stopped writing letters home. When he learns Cristina disappeared on the night the hotel went from candlelight to electricity, he lies his way in as a waiter to discover what happened to her.
The hired help consists of a staff of waiters and maids, presided over by stern Angela the housekeeper (Concha Velasco), who is the mother of Andres (Llorenz Gonzales), one of the waiters.Andres becomes Julio’s roommate and buddy. (At every parting, of which there are several farther along in the script, they clasp each other fervently to show the strength of their feeling.) A maitre d’ (different each season, for reasons made clearer as the plot thickens) supervises the waiters. One of the maids is Belen, who sleeps with Diego, as Cristina apparently did too, before she disappeared. Andres loves Belen. Angela, his mother, has no apparent husband. There is also a letter — in a large red envelope so viewers can’t miss it while it “secretly” travels from hand to hand during the first season — that apparently would wrest control of the hotel from the Alarcons (and Diego). That’s enough to get you started.
Be advised my friend was wrong in comparing Gran Hotel to Downton Abbey in at least one respect. Downton Abbey is polite. Gran Hotel flames with heightened Spanish drama and emotion. (And is also, perhaps unintentionally, much funnier.) You will find not only the star-crossed lovers Julio and Alicia, but a serial murderer who kills poor young women when the moon is full with a gold carving knife; an unhappy arranged marriage; a troubling mystery concerning when and how Don Carlos (Dona Teresa’s dead husband) died; the what-happened-to-Cristina subplot; the real skinny on Diego, who isn’t Diego at all; a detective Ayala suspiciously like Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot; Agatha Christie herself as a young English hotel guest trying to help Ayala and inhaling ideas for future mystery novels; Houdini performing a water trick at the hotel; a good-looking priest who fornicates with at least two of his parishioners in the confession box, impregnating one of them; an explosion which leaves the main floor of the hotel looking like a war zone; even cholera. There is jealousy, attempted murder, suicide, seeming suicide, good adultery, bad adultery, revenge!
Expect duplicity nearly everywhere. You will see much listening at doors, hiding behind corners, a hidden room; a fall down the stairs; a miscarriage; bloody childbirth with appropriate groans in the kitchen; kidnapping; an underground dungeon; a duel with pistols at dawn; people who come back from the dead; the slim yet physically tough — but sensitive, quick-witted and always handsome — hero fighting like nobody’s business with his bare hands (“Where I’m from, you fight or starve!”); same handsome hero stripped to the waist a satisfying number of times; the lovely heroine’s beautiful blue eyes welling up with tears just as frequently whenever confronted with her no-win emotional situation; many people slapping someone else’s face on the slightest provocation; many a stolen kiss (to swelling orchestral music cueing you in that it’s coming), one in the first season winning Spain’s award for Best Television Kiss and one or more nominated (but not winning) in Season Two. [There’s hotter stuff in Season Two.)
Also overlook a lack of realism. Blood never oxidizes but remains bright red on a knife even days after leaving a body. Shirts drenched red with blood can be rinsed clean white in a basin by a good housekeeper. A baby is born looking three months old. Same baby lies peacefully in his bassinet, never growing as the plot unspools over many months, and can be carried in the arms without movement whenever required by the storyline. A corpse is successfully disposed of in a rolled-up carpet. Another corpse, exhumed long after death, doesn’t smell. Bullets always miss vital organs in good people, and extremely bad wounds that would leave the likes of us lying in bed for at least a month or two heal sufficiently within a day for the victim to be up and about, intent on wrongdoing (if he’s bad) or on saving the heroine (if he’s Julio). Important documents are burned incompletely so that a person may find a scrap that leads to clues or permits attempted blackmail. Other important documents pop up just when needed. Poison and opium lie around where anyone can get at it. I’m sure I’ve left a lot out, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.
And whenever it all becomes too hair-raising, you can rest assured that after 51 hours of watching, the more-or-less good guys, plus Julio and Alicia, will reach a happy ending, and the others not. I’d watch it again myself, but I already know the plot.
[Originally posted July 11, 2015]
Don’t tell me about the person on your CV. Or the person you claim to be online in a search for love, or what passes for it. Try not to be selling some version of yourself when you answer. You’re alone in your house or apartment with no buyer in sight. So we’re talking about the real “you” here.
It’s a question that can easily arise during these days of solitary sequestration. What judgments are you making about what your “self” is doing, or not doing, during this time? Where did those judgments come from? Are they really yours? How much are you still looking at whatever world is left to you within your four walls, including yourself, through someone else’s eyes? Your goals, your ambitions, your needs, your guilts – were they, are they, really yours?
By telephone, I asked an old friend in Massachusetts — holed up with wife, two sons and a son’s girlfriend, in other words not someone in the ideally solitary situation for consideration of my inquiry. “If you were an onion,” I said. “And we could peel away all the layers reflecting your reactions and defenses to life experiences, including experiences with other people – what would be at the core?” A bad metaphor to use with this particular friend. At the moment, he’s cooking all the meals for five full-grown people. No surprise that he parried, “Not much to cook with! I’d need another onion!”
So forget onions. I still think it’s a good question to ponder though, now that we have the time. Almost like a daily mini-psychotherapy session on your own couch. Or an hour at your desktop with “Clean My Mac X.” And if you arise from couch, or desk chair, somewhat liberated, or cleansed, of layers of self-judgment or other gunk that’s been weighing you down and/or slowing you up, then maybe this coronavirus lockdown thing will turn out to have been good for whoever “you” is, as well as for the rest of us.
There’s always been a daytime me and a nighttime me. Over the years, daytime me has aged appropriately. (More or less.) In her twenties, she may have been emotionally immature and made unwise, self-destructive choices. But thanks to loads and loads of psychotherapy, all paid for by herself, she eventually began presenting to the world as a worthy applicant for the rewards and obligations of life. Now, one year and three months away from her tenth decade of living, she’s frequently even thought wise.
Nighttime me doesn’t know from wise. She didn’t age at all over the decades. Drifts off to sleep with the same erotically romantic fantasies she was having at eighteen and twenty, informed by more biological knowledge than she had then, but driven by the same emotional hungers. Even the fantasy plots are pretty much the same. (How many stories does any writer have in her?) Nighttime me never has any sense that what’s in her head couldn’t possibly be actualized by the body she currently inhabits. She simply is.
It’s true that nighttime me has disappeared, sometimes for very long periods of time, leaving daytime me to find other, more conventional, ways of falling asleep. (Having a beloved male body up against hers always worked.) But when such options vanish, it’s no surprise to daytime me that nighttime me may return as daylight wanes, a trusty, if embarrassing, lifelong friend. Daytime me doesn’t sweat it, though. After all, nighttime me has always known her place, which is under the covers when the lights are out, where there’s no possibility of public shame. And when real life becomes too painful or unbearably sad – that is, when fantasy can’t cut it — nighttime me bails out. Just when she’s needed, she’s gone. A no show. What kind of trusty friend is that?
You could certainly call these Covid days painful and unbearably sad. On a personal level, they’re also trying, debilitating, lonely. Daytime me now lives a protectively isolated life in three rooms with two cats and two telephones (plus a desktop) — except for a daily masked and gloved trip to the mail room, where only two sanitized residents are allowed in at a time. And for an elderly person like daytime me, there’s no likely end in sight. Until a vaccine. She should live so long.
Yet — paradoxically — just when you’d least expect it, nighttime me is back. Now daytime me can hardly wait to get under the covers and turn out the lights. In the warm comforting movie of nighttime me’s mind everyone is still eighteen or twenty, each yearning to be wrapped around the other, and the misunderstandings they confront in trying to pass go are nothing compared to sadness or loneliness or fear. Daytime me knows this is not a mature way to put her aged self to sleep in perilous times, but frankly doesn’t give a damn. And nighttime me is pleased to be again of service.
What’s doing it for you and you?
That’s an old chestnut of a question. It comes from some faraway period of my life before real adulthood brought less theoretical problems to think about. Does its reappearance in my consciousness now mean real adulthood is over?
So here’s the story. One of the two periodicals I’ve subscribed to for a long time is The New York Review of Books. (“NYR” for short.) NYR is a large, classy intellectual publication that addresses such subjects as (from the latest issue) the art of Gerhard Richter, includes lengthy reviews of books about how Austrian economists fought the war of ideas and about Greenland’s buried past, and – more accessible, at least to me – a consideration of The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and a detailed account of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s astonishing performance as the nation’s emergency responder in chief in these difficult coronavirus times. In short, some stuff I skip, and some stuff I read. Which means there’s never an automatic yes when it’s time to renew. I have to do cost/benefit analysis.
What almost always tips the scale in favor of renewal is the Personals column on the last or next-to-last page. During the long period of emotional draught after divorce from the father of my then nearly grown children I sporadically availed myself of its expensive services. (You pay by the word.) The results were interesting although not ultimately successful. But even if you’re not offeror or offeree, the ads are fun to read. Such as (again from the latest issue): “Slim, stunning blonde in her youthful 50s, accomplished, light-hearted, warm, seeks bright, successful gentleman 40s-60 for deeply loving partnership. Let’s laugh until our tummies hurt. Reply with bio/photo in confidence: Phoebe (and an email address).” Or, from the opposite sex: “Semi-retired professional, slender, athletic man in NYC seeks elegant woman 47-60 with reciprocal qualities to discuss James (Henry), Strauss (Richard) and for cultural events, travel, and the rest. Photograph/note reciprocated. Dicorinemo (and an email address). “
“And the rest?” “Tummies?” Who are these people? More to the point, who — if anyone — responds? There must be some results for some happy subscribers, else this feature would not have continued to bring in shekels to NYR for more decades than I can recollect.
Last January, NYR offered a contest to its readers. Submit a Personals ad suitable for Valentine’s Day and the winning entry would be published in the Valentine’s Day issue for free! Second and third place finishers could opt to publish at half-price. It was nearly midnight, a time when – if still up — I can misplace my moral compass and lose my way. I soon dashed off a short submission which pretty much reflected how I was feeling at the moment.
My ad had many flaws as a real-life solicitation. It was silent as to age, geographic location, size or shape, education, tastes or interests of the desired respondent. Nonetheless, it implied literacy, some assets and preparations for the end. So let’s see what happens, I thought. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And if I don’t win, it doesn’t run. A responsive email from a NYR person arrived two weeks later. I had tied for second place. Did I want them to publish what I’d written for $55?
$55 is a bargain for a NYR Personals ad. And I grew up in an era of pen pals. Even if only one lonely heart in Arizona wrote back, wouldn’t that be worth carrying on with for a while.
Reader, my second-place ad showed up in mailboxes all over the NYR-reading world on or around February 3: “F to M: Don’t want to go gentle into that good night? How about we make a big ruckus together and startle all the heirs? NYR Box 68305.”
Who do you think responded in the two and a half months since then? What is the sound of one hand clapping? However, NYR forwards responses to its boxes for six months after ad placement. This crazy (old) lady therefore suggests to any crazy (old) man with a free hand that there’s still time.
You learn a lot cooped up with a cat. Even when you think there’s nothing to do, she’ll find something for both of you. Like enjoying a shaft of sunlight in the apartment house hall. Or — if you can’t easily get down on the floor — enjoying the sight of her.
[A LONG SHAGGY CAT STORY]
Ten thousand dollars is how much I spent on Sophie last spring. And she wasn’t my favorite cat. Laying out that much money – in four installments, to be fair – was a major financial event for me. It took almost all the discretionary cash remaining in the private little slush fund I’d set aside for travel when I retired fourteen years ago. Together with frequent flyer miles, ten thousand dollars could have paid for two more modest yearly trips abroad – after which I‘d have been too old to enjoy hobbling around the world anyway.
So how could I have? Put simply: I couldn’t not have.
Even though she’d been a disappointment from the get go. For starters, she came with sticker shock. Sasha, my other cat — from the same breeder three and half years before — had cost $1200. Sophie’s price was $1500. Sasha had been adorable as a kitten. (She’s still gorgeous.) When ten-week Sophie arrived, she looked like a little rat. She was also a highly neurotic kitten. She’d been the runt of the litter, smaller and weaker than her seven sibling kittens. Because they’d kept her from nursing, the breeder had to feed her by hand. Safe from the killer seven with me, she was still afraid to eat. At mealtimes, she would look at her bowl longingly, lick her mouth and run away, creeping back in stealth only when she was sure Sasha — who in any event had her own bowl and no interest in Sophie’s — wouldn’t attack her for eating.
Eventually her appearance improved. At six months, she did look like a cat. But a $1500 cat? Candidly, no. She had a pointy chin, not typical of the breed, from which water from the drinking bowl perpetually dripped. Her head was smaller than Sasha’s, and her fur less fluffy. She had baldish spots beneath her ears. Even more distressing cosmetically, her eyes bulged. The vet shrugged off the eyes. He didn’t quite say “Suck it up.” But that’s what he meant. Moreover, her pupils were closer to the top of the eyeball than to the center, giving her a perpetually mournful look.
She did wash herself nicely, and had no accidents outside the litter boxes. But she covered her productions therein with such furious digging that litter sprayed all over the bathroom floor. (God forbid an enemy in the apartment discover her whereabouts from a whiff of her poop or pee.) She also had the unpleasant habit of taking a mouthful of wet food (when she finally worked up courage to approach a bowl) and then depositing it on the floor or rug, eating it from there in tiny bits but not entirely.
She didn’t really play, except with one cheap wand and one tunnel – ignoring all the other cat toys and equipment decorating my living quarters. Unlike Sasha, who investigated everything, Sophie had no intellectual curiosity. She ran away when you tried to pet her. She never came for cuddles. The one thing she truly loved in all the world was Sasha, the dominant cat of the two, who almost always graciously licked Sophie’s head and ears if they met in the apartment but otherwise kept her distance. Whenever I came home from outside, Sasha would run to greet me at the door (if she wasn’t already waiting on the hall table). Sophie didn’t care about me. She came running because Sasha would be there.
In short, an unrewarding cat. And not the sharpest tool in the box either. Who did she think was the food source anyway?
Because she was so standoffish, it took a few days to realize her left eye was half shut and oozing. At first I thought the eye was partially gummed together from fluid, but whenever I tried to soften the gumming with a warm wet washcloth, she pulled away. A traveling vet came to the apartment. She said it was a corneal ulcer, “common in flat-faced breeds with pronounced eyes.” She also explained Sophie wasn’t opening her left eye because it hurt when she did. It would need to be treated with antibiotic eyedrops four times a day for ten days.
In the vet’s dreams! I was living alone now, with no one to help. Sophie was not only skittish but had prominent and needle-thin dew claws. I was taking heavily advertised Eliquis, apparently the blood thinner par excellence for clot prevention, the one cardiologists, including mine, fly to like iron filings to a magnet. I would be bleeding non-stop all over the apartment at each attempt to bring an eyedropper near Sophie’s eye. But untreated, the infection would spread. Long story short: I was to try hiding the antibiotic in Sophie’s food, a method the vet admitted was of dubious effectiveness. And if that seemed not to be working, either because it didn’t get eaten or the eye didn’t improve, Sophie would need further treatment that Ms. Traveling Vet couldn’t provide. She gave me the name of the nearest veterinary surgical hospital – “nearest” meaning forty minutes away – and the name of the surgeon she recommended.
Whatever minimal amount of antibiotic I managed to trick picky Sophie into swallowing had no effect on the eye. An acquaintance in my building who had constructed her retirement years around adopting elderly cats with medical problems knew the back-roads way of avoiding hated Route 1 to reach North Star Vets (“Veterinary Emergency Trauma & Specialty Center”). She offered to give up the better part of a day driving us there, waiting for the diagnosis, and then bringing me (or hopefully us, meaning me and Sophie) home again. When I protested gratefully, she explained it was actually for Sophie, not me. She really did love cats!
This was a year ago last February. Until then I had no idea there were surgeons who performed only small-animal opthamological operations. Until then, I had no idea how much small animal surgery, and billed-by-the-day hospital recovery, would cost. Dr. V. – the recommended surgeon – was very kind. She regretted there were no miracle shots. The infected part of Sophie’s eye would need to be surgically cleared away. (I immediately felt guilty I hadn’t brought her in sooner.) Fortunately, the infection hadn’t yet reached her cornea.
There were two ways to deal with it. The first, a keratacomy, would address the present infection but not necessarily prevent such a thing from happening again. However, it would leave her vision and her appearance unimpaired. The more extensive procedure, called “conjunctival flap surgery,” did prevent recurrence 90% of the time. It would involve lifting a flap from behind the eyeball and bringing it forward to cover the cleaned part of the eye. It would save all her vision, but there would be a slight blue haze over her eyeball, “hardly noticeable except in certain lights.” I had to decide there, on the spot, what I wanted Dr. V. to do. I could tell she was leaning towards the more extensive procedure, despite the blue haze. But I was thinking “more extensive” meant more expensive. I was thinking we could always address future problems in the future. I was thinking why blue haze until absolutely necessary? I asked how much a keratacomy would cost.
A line-by-line estimate was prepared while my accommodating friend in the lobby waited. It was extensive, since it also included a three-to-four week recovery period, termed “medical boarding,” during which Sophie’s eye would receive, at North Star, all the post-surgical painkillers and medications her inept owner was unable to administer. North Star overlooked no detail. In addition to her medical care, every meal of Science Diet Sophie would be offered was listed. I would also pay $12 for the surgical collar that would keep her from pawing her eye. The “low” estimate was $5,187.14. The “high” estimate was about $1,000 more. I would need to pay half the “low” estimate before Sophie could check in.
Was there an alternative? Dr. V. looked sad. “We could remove the eye. That’s a simpler surgery, costs less, and heals faster. Cats can live long and happy lives with one eye.” We were all in the examination room together, Dr. V., Sophie curled up at one end of her carry case with the top open, and me. I looked into the carry case. Sophie hadn’t asked me to buy her and bring her home with me. She had never asked for anything, except to be licked by Sasha. Her idea of happiness might be different than mine. But she was a warm living breathing little creature entirely dependent on me for food, warmth, shelter and care. For everything really. Suddenly, despite her weeping half-shut eye, she looked beautiful. Much more beautiful than money, or another trip abroad.
I went with the keratacomy – the surgical alternative I thought might cost less and look better. As the cashier processed my credit card for half the low estimate, I did ask, “What about people without savings? Do their animals have to be put down?” (Shame on me for even having the thought.) The cashier looked shocked. “They charge it and pay over time,” she said firmly.
Sophie came home last March. When my cat-loving friend and I arrived at North Star to pay the balance due and collect her, the technician who brought her out exclaimed how “sweet” she was. One of the sweetest cats they’d ever had boarding with them, she declared. Everyone working there used to take her out of her “cat condo” – a two-story cage that invited climbing around — and pet and play with her whenever they had a little free time. One had declared she’d adopt her in a nanosecond if she ever became available.
My Sophie, sweet? Had she preferred medical boarding to me? Was she sweet only with others? Where there was no dominant Sasha to commandeer attention? I resolved to make future efforts to be more fair. To divide the cookie more scrupulously into two equal halves. (A metaphor originating in having once raised two small boys.)
A wise decision. In the next few months – strengthened in any resolve to assert herself by the unremitting favoritism she’d experienced at North Star medical boarding, and supported by increased cooing from me – Sophie became perceptibly less neurotic about hiding herself from person-produced pleasures. She stopped running away from the food she wanted to eat, and merely circled the area several times while scouting for invader cats before deigning to lower her head to the bowl. She left the expensive living-room chair where she’d formerly spent much of her life sleeping curled up on a protective towel and explored some of the nooks and crannies of the apartment. (Linen closet, open shower door, under the kitchen sink, all replete with interesting-to-the-feline-nose smells.)
She even began to spend some parts of some nights at the bottom left corner of my bed. (The right side of me was Sasha territory.) From there, she once or twice moved to my prone body and, if I were flat on my back with legs extended together, visit my mid-section to push down regularly with her two front paws – the pumping movement very new kittens use on their mama cat to bring on the milk. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, especially with a full bladder. I nevertheless glowed with pride in the dark. I was becoming Sophie’s mama!
Alas! I’d also made a less wise decision. Driven in February by trivial concerns like money and Sophie’s appearance, I’d chosen the keratacomy over the more comprehensive surgery Dr. V. implied was the better option. In May, Sophie’s left eye returned to half-mast and began to weep again. This time I skipped the traveling vet. My cat-loving acquaintance with back-road expertise was summoned. She was willing. (Although admittedly, when pressed, she was additionally willing to accept a bottle of expensive French sauterne by way of thanks.) Moreover, I’d been wrong that the keratacomy might save me money. The conjunctival flap surgery – although presumably a more difficult and delicate operation — turned out to cost only $200 more, even with the anesthetic and weeks of medical boarding and antibiotics and painkillers and Science Diet and new surgical collar added in. And candidly, the so-called “blue haze” was barely visible when she came home last June; after a month it disappeared, at least to the lay eye which was mine.
There must have been even more petting, playing and favoritism during Sophie’s second stay at North Star. This time she came home a quite different cat. Almost at once she staked out her claim to being a full and equal participant in a two-cat family. The crap with the feeding bowl disappeared. Every morning she now waits at the kitchen doorstep to be served, and immediately lowers her head to what is offered. Whenever Sasha jumps up to the kitchen counter to be brushed, Sophie scrambles up to be brushed too, and often pushes Sasha out of the way. Whenever I sit in the center of the sofa, Sasha has always taken the left side. Sophie now takes the right. She initiates crazy running-up-and-down-the-apartment games. She accompanies Sasha along the hall with me to the Trash Room, where “we” dump garbage in the garbage chute and put recyclables in their barrels; it’s also an opportunity for her to do some delicious floor sniffing. At night, I now get time-shared. One comes to the bed, the other goes. And vice-versa. It makes for some broken nights, but also for feeling loved.
Some people look for lessons in their life experiences. Formerly, that might have included me. But I’m not sure what the lesson is here. Money isn’t everything? You never can tell? (Both clichés, but true. And applicable.) The love you take is equal to the love you make? (Thank you, John and Paul.) Four months shy of eighty-nine, I feel it’s time to stop thinking about what life teaches and live it now.
“Now” – as I write — is coronavirus lock-up time. Just me, Sasha, and Sophie alone together in a reasonably spacious one-bedroom apartment with den and a small outside balcony for fresh air. So nothing to complain about. No small children to be home schooled, no working at home in an overcrowded space, no squabbles with a formerly loved one. And in these parlous times, I also have the benefit of what Sophie’s infrequent bedtime milking routine has morphed into during the ten months since her second stay at North Star.
Now, at least three times a night, she comes regularly to me from her corner at the left bottom of the bed. If I’m not on my back, I obligingly roll into that position as soon as I sense her careful approach. She may do a few exploratory paw pushes into my clitoris when she arrives on top of me. Then she settles down – tail towards my feet, little head between her paws on my upper pelvis. (With arms extended, I can just reach to stroke her silky cheeks and below her chin.) The center of her weight, all twelve pounds and two ounces of her, is right on my crotch, heavy, breathing and warm. It’s been more than four years since there’s been anything heavy, warm and alive pressing down on that particular area of my anatomy. It feels wonderful. Sophie enjoys it, too. I hear a low rumbling purr.
Five or ten minutes, that’s all it lasts. Then she’s had enough and jumps off, too soon for me but I know she’ll be back.
How priceless is that?
Know how it feels to be very old?
Imagine this: You’re living in Milan. You’re a fairly healthy eighty-eight year old. Then the virus gets you. Symptoms of Covid-19 appear: Fever, extreme fatigue, difficulty breathing. In other words, difficulty staying alive on your own.
Into the hospital with you. Ordinarily, they’d intubate – stick a tube down your throat and attach it to an apparatus called a respirator that would breathe for you while doctors had a chance to work on the underlying disease and you could breathe again without help. Except now, during this tidal wave of respiratory need, the hospital doesn’t have enough respirators. Your doctors have to decide who should get a respirator and who should go without. In other words, who should live and who should die. Who would get the respirator? Grandma (meaning you)? Or the mother of four young children? Guess who they say they must choose.
According to news reports, that was the situation in Milan last week. I don’t live in Milan. I’m in Princeton, New Jersey – on the East Coast of the United States. But the tidal wave has reached us. And I am eighty-eight years old. I have two other strikes against me, as well: underlying coronary disease (which my own doctors are managing very well, thank you), and a compromised immune system (thanks to a hospital infusion of contaminated blood in 1969). So I’m particularly susceptible to the virus. If it reaches me, I will almost certainly not be asymptomatic.
Like all my contemporaries, I recognize that the number of years left to me are limited – how limited still uncertain. Like all my contemporaries, there are memory lapses (in my case small ones, mostly of names – and thank goodness for Google). Like all my contemporaries, the body is stiff in the morning, there are minor aches and pains that come and go, prescription meds to swallow with breakfast in the morning. But I live in a residential community where the median age is 82, in a town that skews heavily to college professors and senior executives of pharmaceutical corporations, none of them spring chickens. So on a day to day basis, I don’t really feel so old. Until now, when I read the news from Northern Italy. What being old means has finally come home to me. It means that in some previously unimaginable circumstances –to a “decider” who is someone else, not me — I’m expendable.
That’s what it feels like.
Well, I really don’t think it will come to that. For one thing I am very well protected physically, in a fortress of a building where the resident trustees have taken every precaution that can be taken and then some. (More of that perhaps, in a later post.) And our state governors, if not the elected leader of our country, are aggressively preparing for the apex of the catastrophe. Many doctors have also spoken out on the nightmare scenario in Milan last week; the determining factor here would not be who’s a grandma but who’d be likely in any event to die of some other condition within the next half a year.
How do I end this gloomy post? With determination to go on living for as long as I can.
Keep safe. Be well. More later.
If you’re old enough, you may remember that game. We used to play it at birthday parties in someone’s house when we were five and six and seven, after the candles and cake. Somebody’s mother would double as pianist. Armless chairs were set out in two rows, back to back – one fewer chair than the number of guests. Then we marched around the chairs to the music, alert for the sudden stop. Quick! Scramble for a chair! Alas – one guest was always luckless and found herself out of the game. A chair was removed, the music resumed. It was very exciting.
I never won, although I came close a couple of times – one of three pushy little girls trying to commandeer either of the two remaining chairs. There were consolation prizes of course, as well as the real prize – all of them on the level of what could be found in a Crackerjack box and therefore not anything anyone had really wanted but nice to have won all the same. And afterwards, there were other games and maybe a few magic tricks performed by a father.
I’m reminded of this now that I’m eighty-eight and own an apartment in what is known as an “independent living community for people over fifty-five.” The truth is that very few people buy in here until they reach their mid-seventies, however energizing “over fifty-five” may sound. Since the community is about twenty-two years old, those who initially came when they were in their seventies are twenty-two years older. Of course they may have moved on to a nursing home or the hereafter. But if not, are they still living “independently?” Well, around here “independent living” seems to have become an elastic term, meaning that you require no services from the community other than those provided to residents who can still take care of themselves. So if you’re sufficiently well fixed to afford an aide twenty-four-seven and have an extra room so she (it’s usually a she) can live with you and help you do all the things you can no longer do for yourself, you may never need to go to a nursing home.
What has this got to do with musical chairs? The disappearance factor. Not the disappearance of a chair; we’ve got plenty of chairs – in both dining rooms, in the café, the pub, the living room, the library, the large community room. It’s the people you’ve gotten to know since coming here who keep disappearing from the chairs they normally occupy. If something non-fatal happens so that they’re sent to the ER or hospital (both quite nearby), then spend several weeks to a month in a rehabilitation facility, and then come back to the community but retire into their apartment or villa with the aforesaid help of a full-time aide, arranging to have all dinners delivered – they’ve essentially dropped out of community life. We no longer see them at activities, or outings, or movies, or meals. As in musical chairs, they’re out of the game.
That’s hard enough for the disappeared. It’s also hard for the rest of us. Setting aside questions of developing affection or friendship, what you see happening in a place like this, even if you’re still relatively “okay,” is probably a harbinger of your future. God forbid you fall. You realize from the experiences of those around you that even if you recover, it will take two or three times as long to regain most (although probably not all) of your prior mobility and strength as it might have done twenty years earlier.
Other residents start disappearing in another way. Put bluntly, as memory loss increases, it begins to make you a non-person to everyone else. You completely forget to come take your place at scheduled dinners with your friends. You can’t be relied on to participate in activities, or assume responsibility for a program. You tell the same stories again and again and again and again. Eventually you’re no longer invited to occupy a chair at anyone’s table.
In the past three months, one acquaintance – hitherto very active, although functioning (well) with one kidney — fell in her own villa and broke her shoulder. Her right arm (the one she uses) is in a sling for a month. Another sustained a similar fall in her apartment and hit her shoulder on the edge of a bureau, shattering it. After two months she was back from rehab in her apartment, still recovering, when she fell again, trying to pick something up from the floor. This time it was just bruises all over; she was lucky. A very active woman got out of her car the wrong way and put her hip out; four weeks later it’s still so painful she needs to lean on a walker to get around the building. Another friend was entering the back seat of a car when the driver, thinking she was already in, accelerated; the friend fell out and the car’s rear wheel ran over her heel. (She also broke her arm.)
My closest friend here, a year older than I am, came with me to a performance of the Messiah by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra two years ago. This year I went with others; my friend is now in hospice. In the intervening two years, she began repeatedly to fall while walking, always because her right foot kept tripping over the left; it was a symptom of what was eventually diagnosed as Parkinson’s Plus, the “Plus” being MSA (an acronym for a hideous disease descriptively called Multiple System Atrophy). She can no longer move, and no longer makes much sense; she has a doctorate, but asks me to observe all the rabbits running up and down the corridors of the assisted living facility where she will soon die.
I may be wrong, but I believe I am now the oldest American person with a personal blog. With astonishing regularity, Judy Kugel writes an Eighty-Something blog twice a week from Cambridge, Massachusetts; although her husband has Parkinson’s, she does try to look on the bright side of every day and has a devoted following. She’s only in her early eighties though. Ronni Bennett, in her mid-70’s, writes As Time Goes By from the West Coast; she has both pancreatic cancer and COPD and is an inspiration in how she’s been dealing with these appalling tribulations. I read both these blogs assiduously, considering their authors to be shining examples of how I should comport myself but don’t. As you can see, I disappear from the blogosphere for a year at a time and return with downer reports of all the not-good things that likely lie ahead.
On the other hand, so far I am still hanging in here. Which I shall have to continue to do, because I’m not one of those who can afford an aide. (Nor do I have a place to put her, or the temperament to put up with her.) Should I be unlucky and the need arise, my offspring will have to deal with it. Also, I still have most of my memory, so can remember when not only musical chairs but a number of other things were fun. Much fun. Happy memories do brighten gloomy days. So I tend to remain an optimist. What about I couldn’t really explain to you, but there it is. Perhaps an ostrich optimist.
And — oh boy! – do we have holiday festivities galore around here, for those not yet closeted in their apartments and villas. Christmas Eve dinner coming up real soon, followed by Christmas Day buffet, New Year’s Eve Buffet — with music and a removable dance floor in the living room till 10 — and then New Year’s Day dinner too. You may notice that when old people celebrate, it’s likely to be with lots of food! Ours is excellent. The Executive Chef recently got married; our menus glow with his happiness.
In conclusion, dear readers (if I still have any), enjoy your relative youth, your relative health and all the good things that exist in your now. You’ll never get your now back, so revel in it while it’s here. Believe it or not (in view of the realities I’ve just laid out in this piece), I’m looking forward to 2020 as much as you are.
Maybe you remember. (It was in “New Travel Companion,” four posts back.) The cardiologist gave me the green light on travel, as long as an oximeter went with me. So the oximeter and I went to Florida on a short trial run visit to a pair of grandchildren and their parents, one of whom is my younger son. I used wheelchairs to ease the airport ordeal. Once you swallow your pride about being pushed by another person, it sure beats waiting in lines for inspection and pulling a wheelie for miles and miles and miles. (Why does my gate always have to be the one that’s farthest away?)
But once I was home again, I wanted more. Something more adventurous. More distant. More memorable. I may be eighty-seven, but I’m still greedy. I mean, make hay while the sun shines and the oximeter numbers are good, no? And then, while I was debating with myself — France? Russia? England? River cruise? — and getting nowhere near a decision, a woman I know only slightly walked out of the Windrows dining room after dinner last spring and declared, to me and anyone else who might be listening: “I’m finally going to Israel!” She’s eighty-one (a mere youngster), but her late husband refused to fly anywhere. Now she’s free to wing it, while she can.
I expressed interest in the details. It was a late October eleven-day trip with Road Scholar, the organization that sponsored my jaunt to Dublin last year. The price included airfare, and was very reasonable. “And they have one single room left,” she added.
It was as if a scroll unrolled from the heavens bearing the commandment: “That single room is for you!” Bill had a niece I liked who lives in Israel. I had an old college friend who now lives in Israel. A WordPress virtual “friend” and blog follower lives in Israel. I could try to see them all. And if I fell into a-fib again from excitement, the cardiologist had given Israeli hospitals his imprimatur; he said they were very good. One more plus: apparently another woman from Windrows was going too. That would make three of us to do things together in the “free time” part of the program.
I hurried upstairs to nail that last single room before anyone else grabbed it. I bought trip cancellation insurance. I also threw caution to the winds because this trip is three times more physically challenging than the Dublin one. The Road Scholar catalog labeled Dublin “Take it Easy.” Israel is labeled “Keep the Pace.” We will have to deal with cobblestones, and hills, and “unavoidable” stairs. So I hired a trainer a month ago; my last session with her before departure was devoted to learning to walk with a (fold-up) cane.
It certainly takes the mind off old age and death. So I’ll do what I can do, and skip the rest. I spent two weeks in Israel twenty-five years ago and “saw” pretty much everything tourists are supposed to see; it won’t be a tragedy if this time I decide to skip clomping around the Masada ruins or putting on a bathing suit to float in the Dead Sea. What I really want is to see how other people live in other places, and feel for a while what it might be like to live there. I always did wish we could live parallel lives in multiple countries and not have to choose.
My bag and backpack are packed, and I’m off to JFK on Sunday. “On Being Old” is therefore closing down for a bit more than two weeks. I’ll try to take some i-Phone pictures. It’s quite an old phone but it’s got a new battery. Sort of like me.
[This is the second of the two lessons from law school I mentioned in my last post. The first was instructive. This one’s illustrative. Anyone following the circus surrounding the Judge Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in the United States Senate will be able to find connections with the seven-hundred-year-old foundational case on assault recounted below.]
THE ILLUSTRATIVE CASE OF I. de S. and WIFE
(At the Assizes, 1348)
In France, where the legal system is based on the Napoleonic Code, law students spend five years learning the nation’s codified statutes. By contrast, in the United States, law schools generally follow a three-year instructional method developed at Harvard Law School during the mid-nineteenth century which is based on the study of decisional law — that is, the study of how individual cases in the major branches of law were decided and why. These decisions are collected in casebooks, and assigned — usually three at a time in each course — to be read, outlined and assimilated sufficiently to enable the student to explain the court’s reasoning if called on.
Not surprisingly, it tends to be the earliest cases we read in the first weeks of law school, when all this was new, which linger long in the mind even after the student becomes a real lawyer and confronts contemporary problems which may have little, of anything, to do with those long-ago decisions. I will probably remember into the grave an early nineteenth-century property case, Pierson v. Post — otherwise known as “Who Owns the Fox?” It concerned a man (Mr. Post) who was chasing a fox, apparently for some time, without having come close enough to injure or capture it. Then another fellow (Mr. Pierson) spotted the fox, and did wound and capture it. In the end, who was entitled to the fox, or what was left of it? Hint: effort is not enough.
Another first-year case recently surfaced in my mind around the time the #metoo hashtag was born. It has refused to go away ever since — especially after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused Judge Brett Kavanauugh of sexual assault. It’s the fourteenth-century case of I. de S. et ux. This was the very first tort case reported in Anglo-American case law, and the first case I read in law school. I think “I.” stood for “Isaac.” I’m not sure where “S.” was. Suffolk? Smithfield? Sheffield? “Et ux” means “and wife” in Latin.
Now we come to a glossary of terms from lawyer-speak. Lawyers have an English language all their own; after you learn it, you tend to forget that non-lawyers may not be sure what you mean. I just mentioned “Anglo-American law.” American law derives from English law. No big surprise there. We were English colonies before we went off on our own. English law was all there was. Moreover, the law is thrifty; it keeps everything that gets decided, and builds on it. Even after a revolution. It’s all “stare decisis” — meaning “it stands decided.” So early English common law decisions crossed the Atlantic with early settlers and became the antecedents of our own common law.
I referenced “case law.” It’s also known as bench-made law. Or common law. (In contrast to statutory law enacted by legislatures. Although there’s also bench-made law construing statutory law, including of course the Constitution.) It’s what judges decide, usually on appeal, after all the factual evidence is in, and after they’ve considered all the relevant case law that came before.
I called “I. de S. et ux” a “tort case.” A “tort” in the law is not a misspelled Austrian pastry. It’s a branch of civil law having to do with various kinds of intentional or negligent harm people inflict on each other — excluding breach of contract, which is part of contract law. It has to be harm for which the court can provide relief, usually in the form of financial compensation.
“Civil law?” Not criminal law. No jail time. No executions. It can get expensive, though.
Ouch. But how can I tell you about I. and his wife, who both lived in S. in the middle of the fourteenth century, without the vocabulary? Anyhow, that’s all out of the way now. Onward!
As I recall — and it’s been a while so some of the details are fuzzy — I. was a tavern keeper. After he had shut up shop for the night, W. — also of Suffolk, or Smithfield, or Sheffield — came over to buy some wine and found the tavern door bolted. He had a hatchet with him, and swung it at the door, cursing and “caterwauling” near the window. I.’s wife stuck her head out and told him to stop the noise, whereupon he swung at her with the hatchet too. Although he didn’t hit her, she was “afeared” that he would. I. — her husband — went to the local assizes, which functioned as a court of law in the counties, and brought suit against W.
The judges decided there had been an assault, even though W.’s hatchet hadn’t actually touched or cut I.’s wife. It was the first actionable tort, and its facts provided us, the students, with the legal definition of assault. It’s any intentional act or conduct which creates in another person a reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm. Stare decisis. Significant words that will be on the exam: (1) intentional; (2) reasonable; (3) imminent; and (4) bodily. But never mind that.
What was really significant — to me and all the other women in the class — which in 1983 was 50% of us — was I.’s wife. Because she was so in-significant. She had no name. She had no right to bring her own complaint. I. had to do it instead. In the eyes of the law — which were the eyes of the contemporaneous fourteenth-century world — she was not a person, and therefore could not be injured. She was I.’s appendage, his property, his chattel. (Not so different from the fox in Pierson v. Post five hundred years later, although the legal issue was different there.) Frightening her — by causing her to experience a reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm — was an injury to him, for which he was entitled to compensation. Perhaps he loved her, but the law wouldn’t care about that. Perhaps he went to court because W.’s assault had made her too “afeared” to work in the tavern. We will never know. In any event, we will probably say it sounds nuts, and thank goodness we’re not living then.
Not so fast. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, when I was in college, a wife in some states still couldn’t sue her husband, except — under certain limited circumstances — for divorce. If the brakes on his parked car failed and the car rolled down the driveway and hit her as she was coming in from the street with the groceries — she couldn’t file a claim against his insurance company. Why not? Because of the time-honored legal doctrine of marital harmony, with which the courts, and the insurance company, chose not to interfere. Man and wife were one flesh, went the reasoning. So how could a man pay himself through his insurer for hurting his own flesh?
The Marital Harmony Doctrine may have finally faded away. And now we have decades of state and federal legislation prohibiting sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace. But much of the country sat glued to their televisions or other devices a few weeks ago as the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings touched on “boys will be boys” conduct in high school and the hallowed halls of Yale — conduct demonstrating that when some young men get drunk and their inhibitions dissolve, at bottom they still believe women are not quite people but prey — prey for touching, and grinding against, and sexual manhandling, and also fair game for sexual conquest by any means. A woman is still — to too many men, including those no longer young — not quite an autonomous person but flesh to be grabbed or bargained for when the woman appears not to belong to — that is, be the property of — a husband or father or other man.
This did not of course begin in the 14th century with I. de S., his wife, and the assizes court that awarded him compensation for her having been made afraid that a would-be customer was about to hurt her. In reading a biography of Cleopatra, I learned that the Romans of the pre-Christian era were surprised to discover Egyptians of that time treated women as the equals of men, permitting them to own property and run businesses by themselves without oversight or supervision. The Romans themselves were required to raise only the first-born of their daughters; they could dispose of any subsequent others at birth if they so wished.
But I digress. To sum up: long after I shall have forgotten just about everything else I learned about the law in law school, I will probably go on remembering I.’s nameless wife. Not for the definition of assault with which she provided us, but for how her husband’s case illustrates millennia of male attitudes towards women. Unfortunately, I very much doubt Mrs. I. de S. will become a mere historical curiosity in my lifetime.
[As some of you may know, I became a lawyer in my mid-fifties. The process of becoming one has therefore probably remained clearer in my memory than it might have been if I had done it in my twenties. I’ve even occasionally blogged about certain aspects of law school that seemed to me to remain relevant to life outside the law. This piece, and the one to follow, appeared in “The Getting Old Blog” about four years ago. But who digs back in the archives that far? So here they are again, in slightly different form — because they’re still useful to me, even now that I’ve embarked “On Being Old.” This lesson is instructive. The next one will be illustrative.]
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE TOO NERVOUS TO DO IT
In England I believe it’s known as “reading law.” That makes it sound very grand, although I understand you can get right to it after finishing secondary school, as long as you’ve passed three A Levels in “hard” — that is traditional academic — subjects. Here in the United States, it’s just called, quite casually, “going to law school.” But you need four years of college or university education and an undergraduate degree in something or other in order to apply.
Nonetheless, unlike many other graduate programs, and contrary to what you may have thought, law school is much more a glorified trade school than an immersion in higher thought. When you finally acquire the J.D. degree — “J.D.” meaning juris doctor, or doctor of law — you’re not yet entitled to practice. There’s another hurdle ahead: you must take and pass one last big test in a state or states of your choosing. And that’s what you really need the J.D. degree for. It’s your entry ticket to “sitting for the bar.”
“Sitting for the bar” means you register to take, and then actually take, a two-day examination — three days if you’re sitting for two state bars at a time. Each day’s part is six hours in length, with an hour’s break after the first three hours for lunch and for standing in long bathroom lines. It’s administered in a huge aerodrome or covered stadium designated by the state in question as the place where its bloodless torture takes place twice a year. The size of the venue is driven by the fact that as many as 1500 newly minted J.D.’s may be taking the bar exam at the same time, in addition to the ones who failed their first or second try and have to try again.
Only when you’ve at last “passed the bar” may you finally proceed to the practice of law, and find out how little you really learned about it in law school. You will either (1) become an associate at a private law firm; (2) find a municipal, state or federal government job as a lawyer; (3) go what is called “in house” as a member of the legal staff of a corporation; or (4) “hang up your own shingle” — quaint phrase — usually because none of the other three possibilities have panned out.
But let’s back up. Although I don’t know what’s involved in learning how to be a plumber or electrician, I imagine the subject matter to be mastered for those trades must be broken down into manageable bits. So it is in law school. Allegedly learning how to be a lawyer is broken down into various subject matters to be mastered, most of them in year-long courses. The specific choice of first-year course work may vary from law school to law school. In the end, however, all law schools will cover the six courses we took during my first year. Four of them ran from September through May: Property Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, and Civil Procedure. A fifth course, in Criminal Law, was tested at the end of the first semester and replaced in the spring by Constitutional Law, which was tested at the end of May, together with the four that had run for the whole year.
That’s right: five examinations at the end of the first year — and the first and only examinations we would have on each of those five subjects. Each exam lasted three hours, and consisted of three long-paragraph accounts of complicated hypothetical fact situations which between them raised every possible legal issue that had arisen in any case discussed or even mentioned in that course since September. We were advised to write for an hour on each hypothetical, but for no more than an hour, quickly identifying and explaining every legal issue we had spotted. Bathroom break? Take it at your peril! Leaving the room would mean less time to write, fewer issues spotted. Brilliance on one hypothetical did not compensate for ignorance on another. Failing an exam meant having to repeat the year-long course. Doing poorly in any exam adversely affected one’s class rank, an extremely important consideration in securing a first job — unless one of your parents or relatives knew somebody.
Understandably, there was much growing tension in the classroom as the weeks of May rolled by. Many of us, myself included, were there on federally backed student loans which would need to be repaid irrespective of the outcome of these exams. Some students were the first in their families to go to graduate school. Not making it would mean not making a family’s dream come true. The school had thoughtfully provided a ten-day study period following the end of classes before the first exam was scheduled to take place. But how do you study when you’re too nervous to focus on anything except the possibility of impending doom?
The youngest of our professors was an attractive woman who may have been a bit past thirty but certainly no more than thirty-five. This was only her second year as a member of the law faculty. It was known that she had taught fourth grade for a few years before going to law school; she brought a touch of the kindly and patient manner with which one instructs young children to teaching us, which was perhaps an error of style when addressing an auditorium full of twenty-somethings, plus me. What’s more, although she taught Civil Procedure — which governs courtroom practice in civil cases –she had never actually practiced law. She may not have even sat for a bar. She was slender, shapely, had great legs, and wore high heels to show them off — which was much appreciated by the young men in the class but did nothing to enhance her reputation as a professor to be respected for her knowledge.
On the final day we met with us, she did a quick review of what we might anticipate could be on the Civil Procedure exam. At last she put down her pointer and chalk, turned to us, and said she knew we were all very nervous. She had been through it herself not so long before, so she understood completely. And then this pretty woman with the gorgeous gams said something so important, and so applicable to so many other aspects of life, that I’ve never forgotten it, although by now I’ve forgotten almost everything I memorized that year.
“You may be so nervous,” she said, “that you’re too nervous to study. So this is what you do.” Now no one was looking at her legs. We were all listening very carefully. “What you should do when you’re too nervous to study,” she said, “is study. And then the nervousness will go away.”
I was nearly fifty-two, as old as the mothers of my classmates. They called me Mrs. Mishkin very politely, but not one of them had invited me into a study group at the beginning of the year. I had to do all the class outlines by myself. I hadn’t taken an exam, except the one in Criminal Law, for twenty-seven years. The word “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind. My husband had been out of work for well over a year. I had two adolescent children. I had done this all on loans. But I took her advice. And studied. And studied. And studied some more. And the nervousness did go away.
When the class rankings were posted after the grades were in on all five exams, I found myself tied for first place in a class of 345. That rank opened doors for interviews in major Boston law firms, despite my age. One of those interviews — and all it takes is one — one of those interviews led to a job that brought money into our family again, paid for braces, sneakers, music lessons, good private schools.
That’s why what I heard on the last day of the Civil Procedure class in May 1983 was the most useful lesson I learned in law school. There would be many more nervous-making situations ahead, beginning with sitting for the bar. Then came standing up in court in front of judges known to be misogynist. Leaving a marriage after twenty-two years. Being let go in my sixties and having to find respectable, interesting work again at that age. More recently needing to pull myself up from a nearly fatal medical experience and its aftermath. But I’ve never forgotten that when you’re too nervous to do something, just do it. The nervousness will go away. And then who knows what good things will happen next?
Readers for whom new posts from this blog arrive via email may not have noticed. Between the last post and this one, “The Getting Old Blog” acquired a new name. It was time. How long can you go on “getting” old without eventually reaching your destination?
“The Getting Old Blog” began life nearly five years ago, in November 2013. (This was after three weeks or so of baby-step experimentation in “Learning to Blog” — still out there in the ethernet if you’re interested, although I don’t see why anyone would be). Despite the scary-sounding year of my birth (1931), I didn’t feel particularly old at 82, and thought a blog marking my passage into the “later years” might be a good place to park bits of memoir (old folks tend to look back), memoir disguised as fiction, and general reflections on what was happening to me as I reluctantly rolled towards becoming 83, and then 84, and so forth.
But as you’ve already read (two posts back in “So What Happened?”) last year was for a nanosecond the end of me. Having your heart stop beating, although they get it going again, really does change the rules of the game. Not to mention the months and months of medical and pharmaceutical tribulation that necessarily follow such a near-terminal event. Who was I kidding with this “getting old” stuff? I was old. I am old. In bed at night, with the lights out, I can still fantasize that a near-crazed-with-lust eighteen-year-old is pressing hard and stiff against my luscious seventeen-year-old body. It helps, of course, if I’m on my back and an eleven-pound cat is lying vertically on top of my mid-section or else pushing in rhythmically with its two front paws. You think that’s funny? With the lights on, I do too. I know what I look like undressed; I still have a full-length mirror. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but no one ever called me stupid.
One of my grandsons, who at twelve of course knows nothing of his Nana’s occasional nighttime fantasies, tried to reassure me last week that “you’re only as old as you feel.” Like many pre-adolescents he’s a sponge for grown-up expressions — even though he still lacks the life experience to know when they’re cliches. To which I immediately replied, “That’s a lot of crap!” and everyone burst out laughing, partly because it’s true, but also because 87-year-old grandmas aren’t expected to say “crap” out loud– at least not in the suburbs of Brandon, Florida.
I’ve therefore been thinking for a while of what to rename the blog. Some ideas — “While There’s Still Time” or “Near Journey’s End” — were too funereal. “What It’s Like To Be 87” was appealing; I could change the number each time I acquired another birthday. But it would be inaccurate. Each of us ages somewhat differently, and what 87 is like for me will not reflect the experience of every 87-year-old woman. I seem to be an outlier. One example only: I know a number of near-87-year-old women who sleep with their cats but are glad — at least they say they’re glad — their sex lives are over. Hand-holding might be all right, but anything more than that: no-siree, an expression that dates them as much as anything. Bottom line: “On Being Old” seemed most descriptive without necessarily being depressing. It’s also an accommodating title. It can encompass scraps of memoir as well as details of my life in a so-called “over-55,” but really more like “over-70” or “over-75,” community. In fact, it will accommodate just about anything about being me at this stage of my life, whatever that stage is.
So welcome to “On Being Old.” Don’t get hung up on the new name and go away. It’s really just the same old same old… me.
As you may recall, in April I made a deal with the cardiologist who had brought me back from near death in a hospital procedure room the previous December — and two months later also got me out of a-fib. He agreed to let me go off amiodorone. Amiodorone is the med that was keeping a-fib at bay but also making me feel like a stumbling zombie. In exchange, I was to check my heart rate every morning before I got out of bed. Any number between 60 and 100 beats a minute was good to go. Over 100 beats? The a-fib was back! What then? Call the cardiologist and get ready for another cardioversion. (Allegedly a day procedure the second time.)
To check your heart rate these days, you don’t have to count your pulse beats against a stop-watch the old-fashioned way. Now there’s the oximeter, a gadget just about the size it looks in the picture (on a desk-top) and named for the first of its two functions: determining the oxygen level in your blood. As a pulmonary fibrosis patient, Bill had two of them, one on each floor of the house. He kept sticking a finger in one or the other just about every fifteen minutes, hoping I suppose that if he did it often enough the disappointing top number on the little screen might go up. It never did. [If you’re really curious, 95-99 is excellent, 90-95 is okay, below 90 means trouble.]
My feeling about many of Bill’s medically flavored devices was that some of them might come in handy when I got older, one way or another. As the oximeter did — because it also measures heart beats per minute. You press the bottom two sides together to open the top enough to insert a forefinger. Then you press the button near the top so the oximeter lights up and goes to work. Presto! Two numbers appear in red on the lighted screen — top one for oxygen saturation, bottom one for beats per minute.
Awful as amiodorone was for me, I was nonetheless dismayed at the price of my freedom from it. “But if I have to call you and hurry to the hospital — that means I’m chained to Princeton for life!”
“Where would you go?” asked the cardiologist. He’s a dear man, and works very hard, and really cares about his patients. But he’s only 57 and perhaps feels that old-old people don’t mind rocking away their remaining years on a porch. (Especially in Princeton.) I cast about wildly for a destination. “Well, Florida?” I began. (Actually I dislike Florida. Heat, hurricanes, huge highways everywhere — and flat as a pancake.). “I have a son and grandchildren in Florida.”
Florida was apparently all right with the cardiologist. I could still call him from Florida and fly home. A day or two in a-fib might not matter too much with all the other medication I was still taking. “And suppose I want to fly to Europe?” (I think big.) At this he looked dubious. “Where in Europe?”
I had no immediate plans; that wasn’t the point. I wanted him to give me back freedom, as much freedom as I could manage at my age. So I improvised: “Maybe London, Paris, the south of France? Places where I can speak the language? (This was stretching it; my unused French has eroded badly with the years, but the cardiologist didn’t know that.) “Or Israel!” I declared. “Bill’s favorite niece lives in Israel. I might want to go there!”
The cardiologist brightened up. “Good hospitals in Israel,” he declared. “If you revert, have the Israeli hospital doctor call me; we’ll take it from there. But don’t forget to buy trip cancellation insurance.”
An imprimatur! I could get out of Princeton (nice as it may be) and go somewhere else. No crossing oceans yet. First I have to learn to be an old old person in an airport. But make hay while the sun shines, say I, because who knows how long it’s going to shine? So tomorrow I’m off to (what a surprise!) Florida — for a short visit to my two pre-adolescent grandchildren who live there with their mom and dad, my younger son. I haven’t seen these grandchildren for a year and a half. School has begun for them already, but we’ll have afternoons and early evenings together, and there will be time with their parents during the day. Philadelphia to Tampa-St. Pete is only a three-hour flight. I fully expect to survive it.
And I’m not going alone of course. Guess what cute little black thing is coming with me? Back in about ten days.