BIG WORD FOR FEELING AWFUL

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[Whatever the headline may suggest, this post is not about last Tuesday’s election.  My feelings about that are indeed awful, as if someone had suddenly and unexpectedly died, except it’s not the heartrending death of a someone but of political, ethical and perhaps even personal life as I and everyone I know has come to expect it. However, everything that can be said at this point has already been said, by other bloggers, columnists, friends.  As for the frighteningly uncertain future, we can only grit our teeth and wait for whatever comes next. So I am returning here to last May, after Bill’s death and my visit to the undertaker.]

Bill died on a Friday. On Saturday morning, of necessity, I visited the undertaker/funeral director. I then got myself home and didn’t go out until Monday.  There were comforting phone calls, which made me sad when they ended because I was alone in the house again. There was also cuddling with the cats and raw sorrow.  It felt as if a large part of me had been cut away, leaving a hollowed-out bleeding cavity. Solicitous acquaintances sent flowers.  I had no desire to eat (although I knew I should), and wished I could sleep (but couldn’t).  The refrigerator was still full of Orgain, a packaged drink somewhat like Ensure but designed by a doctor undergoing treatment for cancer and allegedly composed of more nutritious ingredients, which Bill had been able to consume even when the medication he was taking to slow the progression of his pulmonary fibrosis removed his appetite and made him nauseous.  I survived the first weekend on two or three daily vanilla Orgains.

I did go to bed early and lay there until it was light again, but if I slept (and I probably did, in fitful bits) I don’t remember it. I do remember my law-school-trained mind spinning like a kaleidoscope gone crazy, unable to focus either on my misery or what I had to do next on Bill’s behalf.  Which was to (1a) sell the red Honda he had driven; (1b) try to return to the distributor for credit his newest and virtually unused portable oxygen concentrator,  five pounds lighter than the one Medicare had provided — for which he had paid nearly $2000; (1c) close his credit card accounts; (1d) notify his insurers of his death; and (1e) verify that I would not need to probate the will, since New Jersey doesn’t require it if the decedent owned nothing solely in his own name at the time of death. There was also what had to be done, all by myself, on my own behalf. Which was to (2a) sell the condo as soon as I could, since it was both too big and too expensive for me to maintain alone much past the end of the calendar year without seriously dipping into capital; and also to (2b) find another place for the cats and me to live as soon as the condo was sold, although the money to buy this “other” place, when I found it, was solely the equity in the still unsold condo because I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify for another mortgage while I still had one. (A few weeks later, I found out I was right.  I was coldly informed by loan officers at two separate banks that I would need to show at least $10,000 in monthly income to carry the two mortgages, even for only the three months or so before the condo would presumably sell.  Hah.  That was not something I would ever have been able to do, even when I was working.)

The (1a-1e) through (2a-2b) in the prior paragraph is of course so neatly organized because I am writing this piece six months later; organization or any kind of  plan was completely beyond me that weekend.  My mind lurched from “close his credit card accounts” to “see if I can get a mortgage” to “should I take the car to Honda or try to sell it myself” to “do I know a lawyer I can consult about the will who won’t charge me” to “the condo is an unsightly mess of medical equipment and books all over the floor” to “how could he leave me to deal with all this by myself?” to “I need more Orgain from Amazon, chocolate flavor this time.”  Then one of the cats, still missing Bill, would come to the bed in the middle of the night to be scratched, petted and comforted. And I would cry, in the dark, into her fur.

Everyone who called advised doing nothing for a while until I felt stronger.  That was good advice. But the Type A person I also am thought: What do they know?  “Listen to what your body wants,” said Bill’s niece, a psychotherapist practicing in Israel.  Well, all right.  Unfortunately, by Monday — when I attempted to walk to the brick mailbox stand two driveways away from mine — I realized I could move only very slowly and was wobbling. Was my body trying to tell me something? I began to eat again, carefully, because I knew I should, and also because kind acquaintances were deluging me with offers of meals at their house, meals at restaurants, prepared meals brought in (one even vegan and surprisingly tasty) — none of which I could in good conscience refuse — and also because a survey of the refrigerator and pantry cabinet revealed so much food stored there to tempt Bill’s appetite that I would have to give it away, throw it all out or begin consuming some of it.  Sleep didn’t come as easily as the meals.  And the trips to the mailbox were becoming even more difficult. By the end of the first week, I was making them only every other day.  (Since Bill was the King of Catalogues, that meant the box was so stuffed when I did eventually open it that I hardly had the strength to pry out its contents and scraped the outsides of my fingers raw on the metal sides of the opening.)  A friend who picked me up to feed me rotisserie chicken and salad had stone slabs for steps up the grass from her driveway to the house. I had to ask her to let me clutch her arm to make it to the front door.

This was both embarrassing and worrying.  I was all alone in Princeton.  Although they were warm and supportive on the phone, one son lived in Florida and the other shuttled back and forth by train between work in D.C. and weekends with his still-young children and wife in New York.  If I became too weak to take care of myself, not to mention all the things needing to be done, then what?  By the time I stepped out the door to get the mail a week to the day after Bill had died, my heart was pounding loud and frighteningly fast, I gasped for breath as if I too had suddenly developed pulmonary fibrosis, and I was so dizzy the ground under my feet spun around. As I proceeded very slowly towards the box with legs far apart, like Charlie Chaplin, to keep some kind of shaky balance, I felt I might be on the verge of dying — not that very minute, but soon.  Although my head was still revolving like a top, I was able to grasp and hold on to one thought:  Call a doctor before it was too late.

Easier said than done.  For nine and a half years, since coming to Princeton, Bill and I had been seeing an internist highly recommended by the nurses in the major medical practice nearby as the most patient-friendly.  Dr. L. was indeed apparently much interested in each of his patients, at least for the time allotted him by the insurance companies, and even seemed to remember just about everything about you when you showed up for bi-annual checkups without first having to review your chart in your presence. But as we each grew older, and more symptoms of this and that surfaced, Bill pulled away. He was mostly seeing specialists by then, anyway.  I hung on to Dr. L. until last year, although Bill kept urging me to switch to Dr. G., another internist in the same practice whom he liked much better on the one or two occasions he had consulted him.

The cause of Bill’s disenchantment with Dr. L., and eventually mine, was that patient-friendly as he was, Dr. L. was a worrier. He was also perhaps over-impressed by our academic and professional credentials and shared all his proactive medical hypotheses with us.  If there were a symptom or a complaint, he not only knew all the conditions and diseases of which it might be a harbinger, which would need to be tested for, but would share all this (potentially scary) thinking with us.  In my seventies, I was sufficiently healthy that Dr. L.’s proclivities as one’s medical advisor didn’t really bother me. Later it did, very much. By then I had enough to worry about, without contemplating dire possibilities that might not come to pass.  But that’s another post, for another time.  Suffice it to say that last March, Bill prevailed, I switched to Dr. G., and obtained an appointment for the end of May.

Thus, in the middle of May when I suddenly needed him, Dr. G. had not yet met me. Moreover, a phone call revealed he was completely booked through the end of June, and certainly couldn’t squeeze in a new patient he didn’t yet know.  Although no one suggested it, I felt unable to return to Dr. L.  Nor would I under any circumstances take myself to the Princeton ER, given my recent experiences at that hospital.  (See “After Death, What?” TGOB, July 29, 2016.) However, Dr. G.’s appointment secretary was very kind when she learned my husband had recently died and I felt as if I were going to die too.  Her husband had died two years previously and she had felt exactly the same way.  She would try to find someone else to see me. (I did hope it wasn’t going to be Dr. L. but kept that to myself.) Good as her word, she called back an hour later with the name of Dr. S., who had recently joined the practice and therefore had an opening, five days from then (no, not sooner), at 8 a.m.

Beggars can’t be choosers.  In the meanwhile, I googled Dr. S.  His photo showed pink cheeks, a big smile on a round young face, lots of neatly combed dark hair; he looked as if he’d just emerged from college. Although he hadn’t gone to any of the medical schools known to me through fifteen years of living with Bill (a psychiatrist), young Dr. S. had practiced for a couple of years in Philadelphia, could probably determine whether I was dying or not, and could then hand me over to the appropriate specialist(s) to treat whatever was wrong with me.

Dr. S. looked exactly like his picture.  He might have been a classmate of  one of my sons when in their twenties.  Still, he was an M.D..  I explained why I was there. Husband died ten days ago. Heart fast and pounding. Unable to breathe. Legs like cooked spaghetti.  So dizzy the world was turning round and round.  No balance.  Unable to think a straight thought.  “Well, let’s see,” said young Dr. S. soothingly, reaching for his tools.  My blood pressure was normal.  My heart rate was normal.  My blood oxygenation level was 98-99 (so the breathing was normal).  “Then why am I feeling like this?” I demanded. “As if I were going to die?”  Young Dr. S. must have been a very good student in whichever medical school he had attended.  He knew exactly what ailed me.  It sounded as if it had come right out of a textbook.

“Somatization!” he declared.  

He meant it was all psychosomatic.  The pounding heart, the breathlessness, the vertigo, the loss of balance, the inability to focus.  I had never heard the noun form before, but if there’s a medical adjective, there’s usually a big and latinate related noun. “It’s just a reaction to your loss,” he said to me in a voice appropriate for addressing a small child or someone not quite with it.

And what was I supposed to do with this information? Learn to live with it? Dr. S. mentally turned pages till he reached the one that dealt with treatment for the grieving patient. He then told me I needed sleep and food. I was to get eight hours of sleep, and if I couldn’t fall asleep when I went to bed, I should get up and read till I felt sleepy, and then try again.  I was to eat whatever I wanted, even if it was french fries, without worrying about it, because I now needed the calories.  I suppressed various impulses to tell him I wasn’t stupid and instead listened impassively, not quite the good and grateful patient contemplated by the medical textbook but close enough. What was the point in pushing it with young Dr. S.?  He was doing the best he could.  He also told me to exercise. “Even if I’m moving like Charlie Chaplin, but more slowly?”  Yes, exactly.  And then I would start to feel better.  Well, perhaps that’s what the medical textbook said. “Could you also write a scrip for ten days of a mild sleeping pill?” I asked.  “To get me through till my appointment with Dr. G.”  No, young Dr. S. feared I might become addicted.  If I really couldn’t sleep after the getting up and reading for a while, I might try Benadryl, which is over-the-counter and not (he said) addictive.

While waiting in line at Rite-Aid to pay for the Benadryl, I thought about Dr. S.’s big word for feeling like death.  Somatization. I had never believed that symptoms of what were later diagnosed as real physical complaints, like chronic fatigue syndrome or Lyme Disease, were psychosomatic, even if they were first dismissed as such.  Apparently I was wrong. It seems in some instances the body does speak up to tell you what you’re really feeling.  Mine, for instance. It was saying that all of me was suffering from mortal grief, even where my heart was actually beating regularly and my lungs actually functioning normally. I had just been been in shock too great to realize it.

And that did make me begin to feel better.  Or at least less worried. The Benadryl was a bad idea; one tablet knocked me out for eleven hours and left me woozy for twenty-four.  But after that I began to fall and stay asleep without help, except from the cats.  So although I continued to weep often and spontaneously when by myself, I had become somewhat more optimistic about being able to manage living without Bill, even if unhappily,  by the time my scheduled appointment with Dr. G. rolled round.

The following week, the undertaker called me to come pick up Bill’s ashes. For the $3,000 I had paid him he probably would have kept them for a while, had I asked. But better sooner than later, and be done for good with that unctuous and falsely sympathetic man. The bag containing the plastic urn seemed surprisingly heavy when I picked it up, although Bill hadn’t been tall or big-boned.  Regretfully, I needed Mr. Unctuous to carry it to my car for me.  I hadn’t thought to bring a cane (although there were eight or nine of Bill’s, in various styles, in the house) because I wasn’t used to needing one.  But I was still afraid I might fall if I held the heavy bag while going uncertainly down the incline from the funeral home door to the curb.  However, I wasn’t dizzy anymore, and that was something.  Besides, Dr. G. had written a scrip for physical therapy to get me stronger again and I already had a first appointment scheduled.  He had also given me another prescription, for thirty days of a mild sleeping pill.  I did fill it, but by then I no longer wanted or needed sleep aids. Six months later, the thirty little pills are still in the drawer of my bedside table.

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MY DARLING BILL IS DEAD

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i.

He died at the University Medical Center of Princeton on May 6, 2016.

ii.

It was sudden, and not sudden. Although this blog has candidly addressed my thoughts and feelings as I enter late life, there have been significant and purposeful omissions. The biggest is that from its inception two and a half years ago, Bill and I both knew he had a fatal disease for which there was no hope of cure.

For a long time it was a theoretical knowledge, obscuring our horizon but not imposing much practical restriction on daily life.  Back in 2005, when we had been together only four years and still lived in Massachusetts, he felt unwell and checked himself into the ER of Mass. General.  It turned out he had been overdosing with vitamin D, which is unwise (as he should have known, being an M.D. himself).  In the course of the complete workup that hospitals are wont to do when addressing a systemic complaint, a perceived crackle in the lungs led to a scan, which led to a hospital pulmonologist showing up at his bedside to announce bluntly that, by the way, he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and the average life expectancy for that disease was three years.

“Idiopathic” meant, in his case, no known cause.  Fibrotic scarring of the delicate lung tissue can be generated by continued exposure to and/or inhalation of strong irritants, after which it continues even where there is no further exposure. Bill had never worked in an environment polluted with noxious substances, never smoked, never lived in a heavily trafficked inner city.  He was a psychiatrist who sat in a chair in a comfortable and well ventilated suburban office for most of his working life and listened to unhappy people talk about their problems. “Why him?” is another of life’s unanswerable questions.

Moreover, the diagnosis was inadvertent.  If he had not gone to the hospital because of the excess Vitamin D, the fibrosis would not have been discovered until one or both of the two symptoms of this hopeless disease manifested themselves: continued coughing and/or shortness of breath.  Bill was symptom-free in 2005 and remained so for eight more years. That said, it’s not a diagnosis one can forget. He took a copy of the scan with us when we moved to Princeton and began a rigorous program of what he hoped would be proactive “alternative” treatment for lung issues.

These I will not describe, other than to remark that for the rest of our time together half our freezer and refrigerator were given over to expensive, time-dated and time-consuming antioxidant substances to inhale or swallow, and that one of our two linen closets contained enough supplements to open a store, plus boxes of bottled remedies to ward off any incipient cold that might develop from a sneeze or a sore throat, because even a cold could turn into a bronchitis or a pneumonia that his compromised lungs might not be able to handle.

iii.

The threat of death by suffocation was not all Bill confronted by the time he was 83 or 84. But although several of his other medical conditions were extremely painful, they were not fatal, and all but one tended to be cyclical, so there were periods of relief.  He was brave, patient, not particularly complaining, and appreciative of everything he felt life still had to offer.  However, these other ailments distracted me, so that I didn’t note with precision when the coughing began.  Looking back without notes, I place it in the fall of 2013 — two and a half years ago, which was when I began to blog.  (I don’t think there was a connection, but I must say that although he was never a demanding man, when doing all the chores around the house and tending to him began to consume much of my time, the blog was a great help to me; it could be written at home but also connected me to the world outside.)

The coughing was awful, and incessant, and utterly exhausting.  It sounded like a large dog barking non-stop.  If I had gone out to market or the drugstore, I could hear it coming from the front bedroom or living-room when I pulled into the driveway.  One or two of the neighbors inquired.  Not wanting to explain about the fibrosis, he said he was having a bad bronchitis.  Perhaps he thought that was true.  Somewhere he had picked up the idea that if the coughing was productive, as his was (meaning it produced phlegm), it was not a fibrosis symptom.  If so, he had been misinformed.  Even if productive, that kind of coughing is a sign of fibrosis.  In any event, he found a medication, Gabapentin, which suppressed the cough (although not the cause) and another year went by.  He could still climb the stairs in the condo without getting out of breath, and if he seemed to tire on short walks more quickly than before, that could be attributed to age. The last time we strolled the paths in Marquand Park together, in May 2014 (a visit memorialized in this blog with many photos of the trees he loved), he needed to rest on a bench halfway along.

iv.

At the end of 2014, the stairs became more difficult for him and we began the search for a pulmonologist to work with.  We did not revisit a second time the full-of-himself head honcho at Columbia Presbyterian in New York who had replied to Bill’s initial question, “How long do I have?” with a shrug and the curt, “Pick a number.”

In Princeton, the kindly fellow who ran the pulmonary rehabilitation lab at the University Medical Center where Bill would die a year and a half later told him he was off the bell curve for death from pulmonary fibrosis because he was still alive nine and a half years after diagnosis. That was cheering but also wrong. As we were told by the third pulmonologist, who took over when the kindly fellow retired, the clock begins to run from manifestation of symptoms, which is usually when the disease is diagnosed, and not from the time of an inadvertent diagnosis made when there were not yet symptoms.

Oxygen entered our house.  Medicare paid for a large concentrator with a fifty-foot cannula attached. (Easy to trip over.)  It stood at the foot of the stairs, so the cannula would reach Bill’s side of the bed in the master bedroom.  He didn’t need it for a while. He did need the seven-pound portable rechargeable oxygen concentrator that could be carried, with effort, in a shoulder bag or a backpack whenever he left the house or did anything requiring exertion. It had to be recharged every two hours or so, which meant we couldn’t stay out very long.  By now, I was doing all the driving anyway.

There was also Esbriet, an obscenely costly prescription medication the FDA had just approved; in Europe it had been shown to delay the development of the fibrosis somewhat if taken at maximum dose.  Bill was never able to achieve the maximum dose.  Even a two-thirds dose closed his esophagus so he couldn’t swallow, made him round-the-clock nauseous, and removed all his appetite, so that he lost significant weight — for him, always trim-to-slender, not a good thing. The third pulmonologist thought his problems with it might be age-related; younger patients seemed to tolerate it better. He recommended stopping it entirely or else trying an alternative and equally costly new drug, Ofev, that similarly slowed fibrosis development but had a different, although equally undesirable, side effect: constant and urgent diarrhea. Bill rejected the alternative without trial.

v.

At the beginning of 2016, a fourth pulmonologist arrived at the University Medical Center. She seemed empathetic and had a father with emphysema and his own oxygen concentrator at the foot of the stairs.  That may not have been the best of reasons to switch, but Bill wanted to feel comfortable with his doctor, which was probably as important as anything at this point. She put him on oxygen 24/7, which meant he began using the fifty-foot cannula day and night. Essentially, he was trapped in the house. It also rubbed sores on the tops of his ears. We had to put moleskin rectangles there.

The pulmonologist at Mass. General who had said the average life expectancy was three years did not offer detailed statistics.  50% of pulmonary fibrosis patients live five years from onset of symptoms; the other 50% don’t.  Since the coughing had not begun till the fall of 2013, I calculated that with some luck we might have another two or two and a half years together. Bill, tethered to his tubular lifeline, wanted to believe me but I think now probably realized it was not likely to happen.  He read books about the meaning of life, listened to Baroque music, watched nature videos, and slept more. We also held hands much of the time, even as we fell asleep.  I felt he was drifting into some space in his mind where I couldn’t follow, seeking to make peace with death.  Someone commented on this blog that the few and sporadic pieces I managed to post in 2016  were very dark.  Of course they were: It was just too hard to be lighthearted, even in a virtual world that wasn’t our real one.

vi.

Bill turned 88 on January 27.  After he died, I found in the recent Google history of his iPad the question, “What percent of people live to 88?”  Was he trying to comfort himself?  April 13 was our fifteenth anniversary but it was raining, so we postponed celebration.  A few days later, he made the effort to shower, shave and dress nicely; we went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant. (He loved pasta to the end.)  I let him out at the door with his portable oxygen, parked, and walked back to join him.  Although neither of us knew it, it would be our last outing together.

Near the end of April, I came down with the worst flu I had had in forty years (despite our both having had the recommended flu and pneumonia shots the prior fall).  For four days, I could hardly get up in the morning.   Of course, he caught it from me.  Just as I was beginning to recover, he sank fast. He fell out of bed the following afternoon, so weak I couldn’t help him off the floor.  I had to call a neighbor and her teenage son; the three of us managed to hoist him onto the mattress. That night it happened again, at one in the morning.  This time I called the police. They sent an ambulance and the EMTs, as well as a young police officer.  The head EMT wanted to take him to the hospital, but Bill refused and signed a paper to that effect.  However, the following day, his fourth pulmonologist insisted I bring him in.  He had to rest several times between the door and the car. When we reached the hospital, I brought a wheelchair out and helped him and his portable oxygen into it, parked, and came back for him.  I had never pushed him in a wheelchair before and was picturing in my mind that I might be doing that from now on.  I still thought there would be a “now on.”

vii.

He arrived on a Friday. He died the following Friday.  A nasal swab indicated that what we both had had was a viral flu, which in his case had turned into viral pneumonia with a probable overlay of bacterial pneumonia.  For three days, while he remained relatively upbeat, they pumped him full of steroids, antibiotics, anti-viral medication and much more oxygen than the home concentrator could generate, but were unable to reverse the infection in his lungs. They then suggested a bi-pap mask, which would prevent him from eating.  They also explained that they couldn’t leave him on it long,  and the next step would be intubation (breathing on a respirator) followed, if that didn’t work, by a tracheotomy.  Bill adamantly rejected the idea of tracheotomy; he refused to live connected to tubes and machines.

At first he decided against intubation as well, knowing that if it didn’t assist him in beginning to breathe on his own, he would never come off it, meaning when they removed the tubes, he would die.  But then on Tuesday, he changed his mind. One of the hospital pulmonologists was encouraging intubation because with the extra time it could provide, the medication might eliminate the infection and he would have another two or three months of life. Eventually, he agreed.  “Let’s give it a shot,” he said.

viii.

I spent Tuesday night at the hospital.  We both knew it might be our last night together, because intubation involves so much morphine that he would be unconscious from then on.  But we had time to tell each other most of what we wanted to say.  When I couldn’t quite understand him through the bi-pap mask, he wrote in a little notebook I still have in my bag. I did most of the crying. He said he wasn’t afraid to die anymore, that slipping away under morphine was not a bad way to go, and that he was only sorry he was leaving me.  He also said many other things I shall treasure all my life, but they are not to share.

By Friday morning, it was clear that intubation was an exercise in futility; it was not helping him breathe on his own. The doctors asked if I wanted to continue. I called Bill’s son in California, with whom I had been in daily contact. He agreed we should let him go. I had asked the attending that day how long Bill might live when removed from the respirator.  He said a few hours, or even a day. They removed the tubes at 2:35 in the afternoon.  He was pronounced dead at 2:52.  I sat by his side, and held his hand, and watched the blood drain from his face.  Although the hand remained warm for a while, his face turned yellow.  Whatever was lying in the bed wasn’t Bill any more.  Bill was gone.

SEX AT NINETY-ONE

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Going to high school on the subway by myself at twelve and a half, I sometimes eyed women who looked to be about thirty and wondered if they could possibly still be doing “it.”   Life disabused me of such naivete. By the time I myself neared thirty, I was newly separated from a three-times-a-week husband and found myself dying for it (no longer in quotation marks) after just a couple of weeks of abstinence.

The psychotherapist I was then seeing assured me these cravings were normal and that human sexual appetite continued practically into the grave. One of his patients was a ninety-year-old widower who had a weekly appointment with a prostitute he particularly liked. Once a week at ninety! Of course, the therapist didn’t specifically discuss what they were doing together. Nor did I care; at twenty-nine I had neither hands-on experience nor theoretical knowledge concerning the various kinds of disappointments and failures with which aging equipment too often needs to contend. Nonetheless, if in fact the therapist’s report was accurate –and why shouldn’t it have been? – these paid encounters must have produced positive results or the ninety-year-old patient wouldn’t have continued them.

Avid readers should of course recognize that such piggyback hearsay, from elderly client to psychotherapist to me to you, is not admissible evidence in a court of law. But as I myself grew older, which meant the applicant pool in which I could go fishing when unpartnered began to shrink for various reasons none of which need exploration here, I occasionally thought back to the ninety-year-old. Aging ladies, if you too are beginning to feel opportunity-challenged, take heart. The next part of my narrative has nothing piggyback about it. It’s cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die true, and happened not so long ago either.

But first, some back story. The separation from the three-times-a-week husband occurred early in November 1960, at which time I was working on Madison Avenue as a copywriter. A client invited me to a masked New Year’s Eve ball. We were to come as our favorite eighteenth century characters. How romantic! Sure enough, as I was wandering around in my rented empire white dress (from the Napoleonic part of the century) with a white silk mask covering my eyes, there came a loud rapping at the door. A tall Venetian doge with dark hair, black cape, black mask and black staff burst in, cased the room, and found me. As explained above, I was ripe for the picking. At midnight, the masks came off. The doge, transformed into a most attractive thirty-six-year-old Harvard graduate, kissed me and took me home to my nearly bare new one-room apartment, where we danced till three in the morning to Frank Sinatra exhorting us from my portable victrola to take it nice and easy. The next day (after I had reported back to the psychotherapist, who gave provisional approval), we crossed “Go” and 1961 was off to a great start.

He had the same first name as my first husband, but that name by then brought up such odious associations that I thought and spoke of the desirable masked man only by his family name, which also made me feel quite sophisticated. (I was a very young twenty-nine.)  McDonnell (let’s call him) was a terrific lover. He cared as much about giving pleasure as getting it. “I am a good cocksman,” he crowed one night, explaining how he had learned four or five years before to hold it for a long time.

He was also extremely poor husband material. Not that I was looking to marry again just yet; it would be a while before I had fully and legally untangled myself from the first husband, not to mention the time needed to recover from the emotional battering of that first marriage. But taking the long view, it must be said that McDonnell had already been married and divorced twice, and was trying to survive in Manhattan on the $6,000 a year left to him after deductions from his salary for alimony and support of the three young children of his first marriage. A philosophy major in college, he hated his job as Personnel Director of a large insurance company. He occupied a single room in a residential hotel with a good address and wore (in rotation) three gently used Brooks Brothers suits from Gentlemen’s Resale. When we went out, we often ate $3 suppers at Original Joe’s, off Third Avenue. He liked Gibsons, which were extremely dry martinis with cocktail onions instead of olives at the bottom of the glass. He probably liked them rather too much. However, he didn’t start drinking till 5 o’clock and the Gibsons never interfered with what went on in bed, so I was probably less judgmental than I ought to have been. I even kept gin and cocktail onions in the one-room apartment for him.

About a week after we met, he also sent me the most beautiful and poetic love letter I have ever received. It was written in his office when he was supposed to be working, blue ink on three pages of closely lined yellow legal paper. All I remember of it now is that we were in the Garden of Eden, and God didn’t know about us yet, and the writer of the letter was going to chase and chase me until I could run no more and fell down. It ended, “I am your you, you are my me. I love, love, love, love, love you.”

But did he ever become my me?  I think not.  I was certainly somewhat in awe of him, with his haut-Wasp inflections and what I thought of as his deep knowledge of the world. And especially at the beginning, I was extremely pleased and happy he was in my life. He made me feel like a desirable woman again. However, he also caused distress and then pain, probably unintentionally, by keeping me always at arm’s length, with the result that throughout the year we spent together we really led separate lives. He didn’t want to socialize as a couple (except with a few of my friends, when it was convenient for him), or to meet my parents when they came east to visit me, or to talk seriously about anything. We never spoke on the phone, except to arrange meetings. Nor do I think he ever really loved me, despite his facility with the written word. By fall, it was clear he was developing a roving eye. He began to drift off. He called less regularly. We saw each other only every other week. When I finally worked up courage to ask what was going on, he confessed he was trying to maintain two relationships at once, the newer being with a married lady. (She eventually gave him crabs.) That was it for essentially old-fashioned me. Four months later (and crab-free), he tried to come back, but the psychotherapist helped stiffen my spine. It was time to move on.

Afterwards, I spotted him on the streets of Manhattan only once, in the late 1970’s. I was now again a wife, mother of two young boys, and walking our golden retriever along the curb of West 86th Street on a Friday evening when suddenly a tall man strode swiftly towards me out of the dusk. My heart jumped with recognition. McDonnell. He looked just the same. By contrast, I looked awful – ten pounds heavier, bad hair, disheveled and damp from having made and cleared away dinner, with a stained apron still on under my unbuttoned coat. I swiveled to the side, hoping he wouldn’t see me, and he went right by, intent on his destination, which turned out to be an apartment house near Central Park. I was pretty sure there must have been a lady friend in that building. He had the eager look on his face I associated with Gibson-lubricated anticipation of a romantic interlude.

In the fall of 1995, my older son moved back to New York for a job after graduate school and I came down to visit from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was then living. I would be arriving before he got off work, so I needed to fill a couple of hours until we could have dinner together. Almost all my former friends had moved away, but I found McDonnell in the Manhattan phone book and called a few days before my shuttle flight. We arranged to meet for a drink at a well-known watering hole in the East 20’s. He didn’t sound especially enthusiastic, but that may be because my call came out of the blue, after (for him) about thirty-four years. However, he certainly knew my name and voice.

I was now sixty-four, he was seventy-one, and I wasn’t at all sure I would recognize him. But I knew I looked pretty good this time. I had become a well-paid lawyer, and money buys gym membership, a good hairdresser, nice clothes, tasteful makeup. I was also at liberty. Truth be told, if circumstances had been favorable I might have considered a reprise. Old friend and all that. I waited across the nearly deserted street from the appointed place until someone came along on the other side. I knew his purposeful walk at once.

Although still trim and despite his years looking otherwise not much changed except for a few grey streaks in his dark hair, he sounded petulant over our glasses of Pinot Grigio. He was living in Brooklyn Heights with a patent lawyer of Scandinavian origins about whom he couldn’t stop complaining; she had got fat during their five years together, she was sloppy, she bought too many clothes, she had no interest in art or literature, she didn’t understand boundaries. Afterwards he filled me in on what else had been going on with him during the previous thirty-four years: a third marriage, fourth child, third divorce, grungy jobs (including night word-processing at a law firm) that permitted him to write a failed novel, and then a modest family inheritance which freed him from the necessity of supporting himself, bought him a tiny studio apartment in the East 90’s just below Spanish Harlem (then being occupied by the fourth child, now grown), and permitted him to travel a bit. He had almost no curiosity about me. We each paid for our own wine and parted with pecks on the cheek and obligatory murmurs about keeping in touch.

Although often privately critical, I am almost always loyal. Now that we had, as it were, reconnected, I began to send McDonnell seasons’ greetings most years. Each was politely but minimally answered, sometimes two months late, in a familiar handwriting which had become mysteriously tiny and crabbed. In 2000, we met for another drink, at the same place, when my son became engaged and I came to New York for a lunch given by the bride’s mother for the bridesmaids, the bride and me. His “drink” was now coffee. He’d gone on the wagon when he finally left the Scandinavian and moved back into his studio apartment. I was sixty-nine, he was seventy-six. On inquiry, he declared himself to be quite fit and well. He had also become spiritual, he said. He had a  Maharishi with whom he spent summers in the Berkshires. He did yoga twice a day, took a marvelous powder every morning called Green Magma, then walked around the reservoir, rain or shine. In the afternoons, he looked after his investments and meditated.  Gone were the Brooks Brothers suits and cotton oxford button-down shirts; he looked a trifle shabby in a worn pullover sweater under a tweed jacket out at the elbow. But he did have a (new) lady friend in White Plains with whom he spent every weekend. Cocksman to the end, I thought. God bless.

The following year I met Bill and we began living together. We also regaled each other with tales of our respective pasts. At seventy and seventy-three, why be coy? Eventually, we came to McDonnell. “Have him to lunch if you want,” said Bill. “If he’s ever up here to see his guru.” (Neither of us are guru-minded.) And so it came to pass that McDonnell did indeed have lunch with us in Cambridge in 2004 on his way to a summer of spirituality in the western part of Massachusetts. He was still without a perceptible stoop, and retained a full head of hair, although it had become entirely grey. (Hey, he was eighty.) He also displayed excellent company manners. It was as if there had never been anything between us. We three discussed castles in the south of France, good places to stay in Tuscany, a charming little guidebook written in French in the eighteenth century he told us about, the name of which now escapes me. There was also some chat about minstrelsy. On leaving, he pronounced the meal delightful. “Come again,” we urged. “Mmmm,” he agreed noncommitally.

Then we moved to Princeton, which is much closer to New York than Cambridge. As old friends became ill and began to die, I would occasionally mentally calculate McDonnell’s age. The year he turned eighty-four, I suggested we have lunch together the next time I came to the city to visit my new grandchildren. We settled on a day, he named a favorite place in his neighborhood, and then got a cold so the lunch never came off. I abandoned desultory efforts to stay in touch. Even stopped sending holiday cards. Time marched on. Four years after that, which was three years ago, when he was eighty-eight, he inquired by email: “Weren’t we supposed to have lunch a while ago?” I reminded him about his having had a cold and added that I didn’t come in much any more, but was going to an opera matinee in the near future and if he wanted to meet at Lincoln Center for a quick lunch at the restaurant inside Avery Fisher Hall before the curtain went up at the Met, that would be fine. It was the first time he had ever initiated a get-together. In retrospect, the fact that it was three years ago was significant.

I hadn’t seen him since the Cambridge lunch eight years before, but assumed I would still be able to spot him when he showed up. I was wrong. I waited alone in the deserted lobby of Avery Fisher for some time. Then a strange figure came up an internal staircase from the basement level. He wore a clownish red knit cap with a pompom on top, a dull grey cotton padded coat, and a green wooly scarf tied clumsily around his neck.  The figure wandered about uncertainly. He was tall. Although he looked nothing like any version of McDonnell I could remember, the height decided me. Who else could it be? I rose and addressed him. The responsive voice was somewhat shaky, but the haut-Wasp inflections were impeccably in place. It was indeed he.

As soon as I identified myself, he gave me a warm and intimate smile. Of course he recognized me! He had such wonderful memories of me! Wonderful memories! He leaned forward very close, as if it were 1962. I pulled a few steps back, involuntarily. I was eighty-one. I tried to picture my twenty-nine-year-old self naked and spread-eagled on her back.  “I’ll bet you do,” I said, perhaps more acidly than he deserved.

He had in the past eight years become a stranger with no recognizable similarities to any of the prior McDonnells I could recollect.  When we entered the restaurant, he seemed so unsure of himself  I felt I shouldn’t have brought him there. He pulled off the silly knit cap to reveal a shock of thick snow white hair. His once dark eyebrows were sparse, and he had a black mole on his neck I didn’t remember. When he slipped out of his unusual coat, I noticed a large moth hole near the neckline of the old yellow merino wool sweater he had on underneath. He didn’t know what to order. I suspected most of the offerings might be too expensive for him in his currently threadbare condition and suggested the frittata, which was the most reasonably priced. He didn’t know what a frittata was, but agreed it would be all right when he heard it was essentially Italian fried eggs. When it came, he asked me how to eat it.

I tried to bring up pleasant memories. In February 1961 he had bought me a copy of John Updike’s Rabbit Run for Valentine’s Day the week it came out and written a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if inscription on the flyleaf: “For darling Nina, from the author.” He didn’t remember. For my thirtieth birthday, his gift had been the collected poems of Cavafy, of whom I had not yet heard. “Did I do that? Marvelous poet,” he said, accepting my Parker roll after he had consumed his own. And he had no recollection whatsoever of having hand-written the three-page love letter about the Garden of Eden.  He said only one thing about our mutual past: “We were so happy. Why did it end?” I told him he had left me for a married woman who gave him crabs. The crabs he did remember. “Oh yes,” he said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. Then he shook his head a few times, presumably at himself.

I paid for my own share of the lunch; he didn’t argue or resist. At my request, he walked me across Lincoln Center to the opera house. There was another opera in my matinee subscription a month later, but when I suggested we might meet again before that performance, he gave a vague smile without agreeing. I didn’t press it. He assured me he’d be fine going home on the subway by himself. It was the last time I saw him.

But not the last time I heard from him. (Yes, we have arrived at the climax of my story!) Last December he suddenly popped up in my email box, without a subject line. By now, he was 91. I quote the email in its entirety:

Woke up thinking about you! How are you? Fondly,  E__.

“What do you suppose he wants?” I asked Bill.

Bill thought McDonnell must be lonely, living alone in a grim little rear room on the third floor of a brownstone in a New York City very much changed from the years of his prime.  Bill is getting up in years himself, and because he doesn’t go out much anymore he welcomes company. He had pleasant memories of the Cambridge lunch and the talk about the south of France.  He suggested I invite McDonnell to Princeton for another visit.  So I did.

I have reviewed the email I sent this aged man who Bill and I agreed must be lonely. In light of what followed, I was clearly too warm. I said his email was synchronicity, because I had been thinking of him too. (Not entirely a falsehood; I do occasionally check the internet to learn whether those whom I know or knew continue alive.)  I inquired as to whether he could still get himself to Penn Station, issued the invitation (with instructions as to how to reach us), offered my two phone numbers, and ended unwisely: “Your little email opened the door to many memories safely tucked away in the basement of my consciousness, beginning with that masked ball on December 31, 1960. Fifty-five years ago.  Ball is now in your court. I’m dancing back and forth on the service line waiting for a return.”  (An instance of extending a metaphor too far.) Moreover, and much to my subsequent chagrin, I signed it, “Hugs.”

His immediate response was captioned “Fire!”

(Fire?)

Thanks for your ready response. It instantly lights a fire. I’d love to be with you and will reply more fully later tonight. E___.

Another email came two hours later, captioned “Hot!”

 (Hot?)

I just left word on the two phone numbers you gave me and am dying to hear from you. E___.

So I had to call him back.  It was 10:30 in the evening, rather later than people of our generation are used to calling, but if he was “dying to hear from me,” so be it. The conversation was extremely peculiar.  Sounding both happy and hesitant, he said he would be glad to make the trip to Princeton but had no experience with the protocol.  Protocol?  I explained again where to buy a round-trip ticket, which train(s) to take, and that I’d pick him up at the station.  If it was a nice day, we could have a little tour of Princeton and then come back to the house for lunch with Bill.  He had met Bill in Cambridge, remember? McDonnell didn’t remember.  Then he inquired into my feelings about the visit.  Feelings?  He pressed on: “Yes, how do you feel about me?”

“Well, I feel friendly,” I began. “What did you think?”

“No, I mean what is your mood? Is it warm?”

Oh God.  “My mood? What do you want me to say, E_____?  I have fond memories of you. But we haven’t known each other for more than half a century.”

“Do you want us to know each other again?”

This back and forth went on for what felt like an eternity. He assured me he hadn’t been in a relationship for three years. (Which explained his getting in touch prior to our Lincoln Center meeting three years before.) He also made reference again to our supposed past happiness together. Don’t ask how I finally managed to extricate myself.

Five minutes after we hung up, a third email arrived.

Dear Nina,

What I was hoping was that you might be in the mood for having sex with me, either chez-vous in Princeton, or here on 96th Street. I hope this directness doesn’t offend you.

That’s what I meant when I asked about the “protocol” — the having of sex with another man’s wife, in the husband’s presence (or at least knowledge), which is what I suppose a visit to Princeton might entail. (Please excuse the expression.) I’ve never done that before.

Anyway what I’d like to propose for openers is: on any day you feel like it, come to town for luncheon with me where I usually have dinner when I eat out at the Corner Cafe (they serve wine) on Third Avenue and 92nd (or so) at, 1 p.m., followed by letting me show you my apartment and so forth, and then putting you in a taxi for Penn Station.

What about it?  E______.

You want to know what happened next, don’t you?  Although to be desired at eighty-four is nothing to sneeze at, even if the desirer has become unappealing and the suggestion is nuts, I’ve always been serially monogamous and it’s too late to teach me new tricks now, even if I had wanted to learn them, which in this instance I definitely didn’t.

E_____,

I understood perfectly what you meant on the telephone, and thought I had disabused you of your fantasies. Apparently not.

What you propose is out of the question. I am eighty-four and have no desire to “have sex” with a nearly ninety-two year old man, whatever our relatively brief relationship may have been fifty-five years ago. Nor do I have any desire to see your apartment “and so forth.” If my email suggested anything to the contrary, you misread it.

In light of your hopes, which are entirely unrealistic and disconnected from life as I know it, I must also withdraw the invitation to Princeton.

Good luck in your quest.

Nina

At two in the morning, he replied:

I’m sorry I jumped to too many conclusions, Nina. All the best. E_____.

And thus, dear readers, I cannot provide more specifics about what this ancient lover from my long-ago past might have meant by “having sex.” Was it Clintonian sex (excluding vaginal intromission)?  Would it have required assiduous oral or manual assistance from me?  He was certainly hot to trot, and seemed confident all would be well, assuming my assent. I conclude from this extraordinary and entirely unexpected episode in my very late life that there must be some truth in old saws.  Practice does make perfect. Sow and you shall reap.  You don’t lose it if you keep using it.

Also, piggyback hearsay or no, my psychotherapist told the truth.

IF ONLY….

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Eventually you reach the point where most of your life is behind you. You have to exert considerable imagination to keep the days from being repetitive. What’s coming down the pike is at best not likely to be particularly exciting, at worst not advisable to think about too much.  That’s when some of us who are crossing over into old age may be tempted to amuse ourselves by wondering what sort of life we might have had if we’d played our cards differently.

Bill is a big one for this kind of fantasy. If only he hadn’t done thus and so.  If only he’d listened to M. If only he’d chosen a different career path, a different wife, a different country in which to settle. Right now he’s mourning the fact he never applied for dual citizenship and a Swiss passport at the time he was married to a Swiss national, had just become the father of a Swiss-born son, and was practicing medicine in Geneva. When he becomes especially disgusted with the domestic and international news, he so yearns to live in Geneva again! What he would do about me if he could take off for Geneva we don’t discuss, because it’s a pipe dream.  Not only would he likely find lots to dislike about present-day Geneva. He doesn’t have the passport, or the social benefits Switzerland affords its citizens.  Becoming Swiss was the road not taken.

He’s tried playing this game with my history, too. He thinks younger me, the one he never knew, had an unnecessarily hard time, beginning with college. “You’d have had a much better life if you’d gone to Radcliffe,” he declares.  In this scenario, he gives me a happier, more flirtatious four college years than the ones I lived through.  He also has me engaged to a Harvard man by the time I graduate, preferably someone who will go on to become well-fixed and famous.  I will then have the money, leisure and connections to develop my talents, whatever they might have been, instead of having had to “settle” for less than optimal husband material and then having to slog away at earning a living in various jobs/industries/professions while being married to men less meritorious, in his view, than I deserved.  When he talks like this, he almost sounds like my mother.

Does he really believe I could have attracted the likes of, let’s say, John Updike, who actually was at Harvard during the years I attended college? Maybe he does. (He overestimates my abilities in almost every area.) He’d be wrong. Or if not completely wrong, if John Updike had been fool enough to fall for insecure, emotionally immature me — then we almost certainly would have divorced each other pretty soon, as both of us did, with other people, in our actual real lives. Besides, would twenty-year-old John Updike, fresh from Shillington, Pennsylvania, have been attractive to irrationally picky me? Bill doesn’t factor in questions like that when he’s spinning straw into gold.

Mind you, he’s no dummy. He’s not a believer in the actual possibility of these alternate reality fairy tales.  Maybe it’s a holdover from all those years of doing psychiatric talk therapy with patients.  He just enjoys speculating. But count me out of the “if only” game. I don’t want to waste time on trips to la-la land. (We are ying and yang about that.) In my view, most of us played the cards we were dealt as best we could, often after careful consideration, although sometimes also driven by irrational impulses of which we were at the time unaware. If in retrospect, it seems there might have been preferable alternatives, they weren’t real alternatives.

For the record, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College — the school Bill believes I would have done better not to attend — at a time when the last few World War II vets, beneficiaries of the GI Bill, were graduating. It would be about twenty years before the college again became co-ed. I nonetheless accepted its offer, despite the absence of men, like a wallflower being asked to dance.

Sarah Lawrence in 1948 was a twenty-year-old college, slightly north of New York City, which for its first couple of years seems to have functioned as a two-year holding pen for young ladies waiting to become wives of future lawyers, doctors and financiers. But in the early 1930s it somehow managed to transform itself into an experimental four-year adventure in learning to learn for oneself. Alas, in 1948 I was a highly conventional young person of seventeen who wanted to be like everyone else. I would have felt perfectly comfortable with a conventional college education. Experimental adventures in learning for oneself sounded absolutely terrifying. I knew how to memorize, to do extremely well on examinations, and to compose in fluent, dutiful prose any number of well-organized but boring thoughts on set topics.

This was absolutely not what Sarah Lawrence was about. There were no exams, and no memorizing, except for vocabulary in foreign language courses, of which there were few.  There were no textbooks; one read source material.  Small classes met for an hour and a half around a conference table, but only once a week. In addition, there was an independent term-long project associated with the class subject matter on which each student worked by herself and on which she reported every other week to the course professor in a private conference in his or her office. The project was supposed to culminate at term’s end in a long paper called a “contract.” There were also no grades, and therefore no conventional way of knowing how well you were doing. Every semester, you received a paragraph or so of commentary on your work from the professor of each course, assessed in terms of your ability and potential. (The office kept grade equivalents of these reports, in the event you needed to apply to graduate school afterwards, but you never saw them while you were an undergraduate. You weren’t supposed to be working for grades.)

You’d think someone whose modus operandi had hitherto been to claw her way to the top of her classes might not be ideal raw material for this educational experiment. But based on my academic record and completion of a sixteen-page application consisting of thirty-two questions about myself, each to be answered on half a blank page, I was offered a full scholarship.  It was probably a mistake in judgment on the college’s part. They may have thought they could shake up the way my mind worked. As for me, I didn’t question their motives. Despite some apprehension about the novel educational environment into which I was about to plunge myself — would I be able to keep the scholarship being the principal fear — I had no hesitation in saying yes, yes, yes.  Sauve qui peut.

The situation at home which drove my acceptance was as follows:

(1)  Radcliffe, where I did really want to go (because it was the sister school of Harvard), did not give me a scholarship and didn’t even admit me, probably because there was no point in wasting an admission on someone who needed financial aid and wasn’t going to get it.  I was “wait-listed,” a polite way of saying, “Sorry.” Did being Jewish have something to do with that? Some might have said yes, although you probably couldn’t have gotten anyone in the Admissions Office to admit it. A girl from my high school with the exact same grades as mine, but who wore a cross around her neck and sang in her church choir, was admitted — with financial aid from the Radcliffe Club of New York. I had no cross or church choir membership, although I did then play classical piano fairly well. I also remember sinking fast with the ladies from the Radcliffe Club at their tea for applicants during our high-school senior year. I was entirely inexperienced at gracefully holding a teacup and saucer, plus a cookie, plus my handbag, while trying to balance on rarely worn cuban heels and searching for subjects about which to converse with the several minimally polite Radcliffe Club members in their forties and fifties circulating the room to check me out.  Bill’s reveries about my going to Radcliffe might have made allowances for these circumstances; he himself had to go to medical school abroad — in Geneva, to be specific — because Jewish boys had such a hard time getting into medical schools here at home.

(2)  Vassar, my second choice, did make an offer but provided no aid.  The Admissions Office there informed my parents that if they could swing the first year and I did well, there might be a scholarship for the second year. Tuition and board that year was $1200. My father earned $5000 a year (before taxes) when he was working, thanks to Local 802 of the AFL Musicians’ Union.  But a hotel musician had no guarantee of a steady job, could be let go on two weeks notice, and frequently was. So my parents banked half of every paycheck that came in, and managed on the other half.  $1200 would have just about cleaned out the savings account. My father was reluctantly willing, my mother less so. She believed a woman’s economic security lay in finding a husband with a good job, not in acquiring fancy higher education that might lead to who knew what. As for me, I was afraid of wiping my father out and then finding that Vassar’s conditional second-year scholarship did not come through, leaving me without any alternative after the first year.

(3) There was also a fallback school, where I didn’t even have to apply. It was Hunter College, to which the high school for girls I attended was attached, both administratively and geographically.  A diploma from Hunter College High School automatically entitled you to a place in the freshman class of Hunter College. Moreover, because it was a city school, it was free, or almost free.  I could have gone on living at home, in the tiny room at the end of the short hall behind the kitchen which I had occupied since I was eleven, and taken the subway from Kew Gardens into Manhattan and back every day, just as I had done all through high school. I’m sure I would have received a good, if conventional, college education in some subject of my choice, probably English, and then gone on to teach it, perhaps at Hunter. Maybe I might also have met someone to marry, although I wasn’t sure where. I would also have had to go on spending too much time alone in the small apartment with my by-then depressed and menopausal mother, since my father frequently had to take out-of-town jobs. This future so much didn’t make my heart beat faster I wanted to cry whenever I thought of it.

(4)  Finally, there was Sarah Lawrence. The high-school college guidance counselor had suggested applying to at least three schools if I wanted to try to avoid enrolling at Hunter. It would have been prudent for all three to be in New York State, because there was a good chance I would win a New York State Regents scholarship in the competitive statewide examinations held midway through the last year of high school, and thereby receive $300 a year for each of four years of attendance at a New York institution of higher education.  True, Radcliffe was in Massachusetts.  But even the guidance counselor thought I should give Radcliffe a shot.  However, Vassar was in New York State. Now I needed another.  Skidmore?  Barnard? NYU?  What about this one, with the pretty light blue catalogue cover?  It offered courses described in expansive terms that had nothing to do with specific subjects — “The Individual in History,” “Classical and Christian Civilization,” “Renaissance and Reformation” — and therefore sounded grown-up and sophisticated.   “Why not? What’s the harm?” I thought, with my mind focussed on Radcliffe.  I listed Sarah Lawrence as my third choice on the SATs.  The catalogue cover was really very attractive.

And that, dear friends and dear Bill, is the story of how I became a Sarah Lawrence girl rather than a Radcliffe girl (or, for that matter, a Vassar girl).  There really was no choice; “if only” never entered into it.  What came afterwards may not have been the easier ride Bill might have wanted for me if he could have rearranged things his way, or the opportunity for a rich choice of well-heeled husbands that was undoubtedly my mother’s dashed hope.  But when I look back, it seems to me I wouldn’t have become whoever I am had I been able to follow a hypothetically easier road.  At Sarah Lawrence, I did (with angst) eventually learn to learn for myself, to connect disparate facts in a new way, and thus equipped, was later able to survive and even somewhat prosper in what was then still really a man’s world. Yes, it was sometimes lonely.  Yes, I was sometimes envious. But with time it became evident that no road is really easy. Better to learn to tough it out early, while you’re still resilient and can roll with the punches. There’s also a bonus.  In your later years, you can always blog about it, and it won’t be boring.

 

 

LAST PAPER PAPER

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The New York Times for October 11, 2015, pictured above, is  the last issue of theTimes I’ll be going down to the end of the driveway to collect on Saturday and Sunday mornings. With mixed feelings, I’ve canceled the subscription.

As far back as I can remember, there was a New York Times at home. My father carried it in from work six evenings a week, having bought it at the newsstand outside the subway station in the morning to read commuting in and out of the city.  It would remain in the house until the next one arrived the following day, after which my mother could use yesterday’s paper to wrap up coffee grounds, orange rinds and other organic garbage before taking them to the incinerator. On Sunday mornings, my father got his constitutional by going out to pick up poppy-seed rolls from the bakery and stopping at the newsstand on his return to get a copy of the Times, on that day a heavy and unwieldy multi-section affair.

By contrast, my mother favored an afternoon newspaper, which she bought when she went out to do her daily shopping — first the New York Telegram, and after it merged with the New York World, the New York World-Telegram.  As a young girl, I preferred my mother’s choice; it had bigger type, more photos and fewer boring news stories about government and politics; instead it featured murders and other local tragedies, a horoscope column, advice to the lovelorn, a column of Hollywood gossip by either Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons (I forget which), an easy crossword puzzle (with the answers appearing the next day) and a page of “funnies” (comic strips).  The Times —  despite its considerably harder crossword — was, in a word, dull. However, I did always piously acknowledge it was where one went for “the real news” (as my father put it).  It was also where you looked for an apartment, a used car, or a job if you were old enough to work and didn’t have one; the Classified Section in the Sunday Times was massive.

Those were the days when newspapers were one of the two major sources of news; there was no television, internet, smart phone.  (The other  news source was radio, but only at certain specified hours in the morning and evening, unless an announcer interrupted a regularly scheduled program with “a special news bulletin.”)  Most cities had at least two newspapers. New York had seven when I was growing up (before the Telegram and World merger).  Besides the Times, the other full-size morning paper was the Herald-Tribune, which my parents dismissed as “too Republican,” whether with justice or not I have no idea. Since they equated “Republican” with “anti-Semitic,” the Tribune never entered our house. These two, plus the Telegram and the World in the afternoon, were all large newspapers, difficult to read unless on a table or with your arms spread wide apart to turn the pages.  You had to learn how to fold these papers to be able to manage them neatly on a train or a bus.

The other two morning papers, the New York Daily News and the New York Mirror, both called “tabloids,” were much smaller in size; you didn’t need to fold them before reading. I understand they were good on sports, but otherwise seemed pretty cheesy; needless to say, my immigrant but educated parents, who didn’t know from sports, scorned them as papers for “riffraff.” There was also the tabloid-size Post  in the afternoon; in my girlhood, it earned theoretical parental approval as “liberal.” But as it was always getting excited about some new scandal in very big headlines, which my parents probably thought uncultured (nyi kulturnyi), it never dislodged my mother’s loyalty to the Telegram or, later, the World-Telegram.

You can safely bet the Sarah Lawrence College library had a couple of copies of  the current issue of The New York Times up near the front desk during all the four years I was there. Then I went to California with my parents and did not read theTimes for five years.  Not that I had really read it before, but it had been there, if I’d wanted to. The Los Angeles Times, which entered the parental home soon after we reached the West Coastwas equally bulky in weight, thanks to much advertising, while at that period of time being considerably lighter in intellectual content.

Back in New York again with first husband — a tight man with a nickel, not to mention a dollar — we were paperless for a while, except for when he pinched part of the Times (or anything else he could find) from street wastebaskets while he was out and about. That wasn’t often, as shortly after we arrived he decided not to accept paid work he deemed beneath him and was devoting himself instead to writing great books. (No, you have never heard of him.)  I myself became gainfully employed as quickly as possible, because one of us had to, and soon thereafter began bringing home my boss’s copy of the Times, with her permission, when she’d finished with it.  I was still pretty much ignoring the front pages, but made careful study of the Times “Help Wanted” Classifieds (in search of a better job) and slightly later of the Times “Apartments for Rent” Classifieds when planning escape from the marriage.

Once legally separated from first husband and ensconced in a studio apartment on the other side of Manhattan, I assumed my own purchase of the Times.  If like me, one were looking for an appealing second husband and father of one’s as yet unconceived children — that is, a not unsightly possessor of sperm and a decently remunerated profession — it was important to be well informed on subjects of interest to upwardly mobile men.  I therefore had to learn at last how to read the Times, including the front page news, on the bus. You open it up completely and fold it vertically down the middle. Then you fold back half a page at a time for reading, as needed. You can bend your half a page horizontally if required. You are thus looking neatly and compactly at a quarter-page at a time and don’t have to hold open a full paper to turn a page, to the detriment of the  faces or laps of those sitting next to you.

The only problem with reading the Times, or any kind of newspaper, in public was related to the white gloves — think Grace Kelly — mandatory for the professional young woman aspiring to upward mobility herself; it was impossible to touch newsprint and also appear at the office with pristine white gloves. The solution? Keep the gloves wrapped in Kleenex inside your purse until outside your office building, at which time you tuck your folded Times under your arm, fish out your unblemished white gloves, put them on, and enter your place of work absolutely comme il faut.

Another observation about theTimes in what we might call my second-husband-hunting days: I spent two summers worth of weekends during this era of my life hunting on the right-hand side of the East Hampton Main Beach. As far as I could then tell, the apparent principal occupation of appealing professional single men in their thirties sitting on towels becoming tan while waiting for an attractive woman to show up — was timing themselves when doing the Sunday Crossword in the Times. The Times Sunday Crossword was otherwise known to most of the rest of us New Yorkers as a real bitch. Some people worked away at it all week, till the answers showed up the following Sunday.  But those young lawyers and doctors and bankers on East Hampton Main Beach: a couple of them could fill in 98% of it in slightly less than an hour!  It’s not clear to me that this skill correlated positively with qualities one might appreciate in a second husband, as I didn’t get to marry one of them and find out for myself, but I was certainly impressed. That’s the Times for you.

In the marriage to the second husband I did get, I continued to read the Times. There was never any question about it.  While we still lived in the city, one or the other of us went out to buy it at the corner.  When we moved to Massachusetts, we had to order it and have it delivered, together with The Boston Globe.  The Globe was for what was happening where we lived. The Times was for what was happening in the world.  (Also for what was happening in what both of us probably still thought of as the center of the universe. But I won’t go there. Not this time.)  I kept on with this bulky habit when we parted after the children went away to college. What was home without the Times? By then, I was a lawyer, and the Times was also the paper of record. But the Globe, which began to improve the longer I lived in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was the paper of the Commonwealth, where (and only where) I was licensed to practice.  So how could I choose?  Let me tell you those were heavy trips to the recycling bins in the basement with a weeks’ worth of both papers.

And then came the internet.  Once I had met Bill and five years  later retired, we transferred ourselves to Princeton. Where of course we kept the Times delivery going. What good was a Trenton or Philadelphia paper to transplanted (via Boston) New Yorkers like us?  But what do you know? A few years after that the Times went online!  At first it was free, and a sort of novelty.  But several years later, just when I was getting used to reading most of my news on the desktop, it wasn’t free anymore. You had to subscribe to the paper printed on paper to be able to read more than ten articles on the web.  Except we were already subscribing to the paper paper.  Even if I cut the paper delivery down to weekends, the online Times was still free. So that’s what we did. Every weekend, we had a Saturday and Sunday delivery at the end of the driveway; every day we had the Times on the computer.  And then on the two iPads, with cute little apps to make it even easier. And finally, when I at last succumbed to a smart phone  — iPhone naturally, not to have to deal with too many Clouds — the Times app came with it.

Now I could read the Times everywhere, anywhere, wherever I was.  Well, it wasn’t exactly the Times as I’d known it all my life. It wasn’t the post-Sunday-morning-coitus Times. It wasn’t the after-Sunday-morning-breakfast Times, spread out everywhere, with sections traded back and forth between members of the family. It didn’t carry with it all the associations — childhood, marriages,  East Hampton bachelors — that the look of its type and neat front page always brings up for me, like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea.

But for the past two years, Bill or I have been trundling two heavy weekend copies of the Times in its paper incarnation back out to the curb in the yellow recycling bins Princeton requires for its bi-monthly recycling program — and they haven’t even been opened!  That’s right: we were now keeping the paper on the coffee table in the family room near the kitchen just for visual effect.  Even the cats have lost interest in lying on it or chewing up bits of it.  So I made a phone call.  It seems we were paying $93 and change every three months for the privilege of bringing the paper paper in from the driveway every Saturday and Sunday and dragging it back out to the curb twice a month. But if we dropped the paper paper, access to the paper through the web and the app on the iPhone would cost less than half that:  only $15 a month, or $45 every three months.

I suspect the Times doesn’t really care if we never turn another page of its newsprint again.  I suspect the Times is pricing its digital subscriptions so favorably because selling advertising on its web edition is more lucrative than selling advertising in its paper edition. The Times keeps interrupting my online reading to proclaim that it’s got one million digital subscribers already.  I doubt very much if as many as a million present and past New Yorkers, libraries, universities and the like bought the paper newspaper, even in its heyday.  What am I saying?  This is the Times’s heyday. It’s making more money than ever, and you have to click “x” (if you can find it) to make its online ads go away.

You know the end of this story.  We caved to “progress.”  Also to the fact that we’re getting quite old, and the recycling bins seem to be getting heavier, and money keeps going out without coming in (except for those “entitlements” the Republicans want to shrink or remove), and we weren’t reading the damn paper paper anyway. Still, it’s hard to think there’s one more thing gone that used to be so much a part of life as I knew it.  At least I took its picture before throwing the October 11, 2015 front section away.  I told myself I was photographing it for you. Who was I kidding?  It was really for me.

HOUSEKEEPING

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Having spent an inordinate amount of my life in connection with school — going to endless amounts of school myself, preparing children for school, teaching school — it’s hard for me not to think of September as the real beginning of the year. (That stuff on January 1 is calendar business; you enter a new grade/class/year in September.) I even live in a university town!

So now that it’s really and truly September — yes, I can feel it in the air, and all the undergraduates are back — I decided to tidy up the blog again, in preparation for whatever may be coming out of me in the months ahead.  Apart from the fifty “Writing Short” pieces I did this summer, there were two long pieces of memoir, each presented in parts, that were written in 2015 and are now rapidly receding into the WordPress archives.

I’ve therefore pulled them back up and made them into Pages, in the event you’d ever like to see either of them again all in one piece, as originally intended, or know someone who might be interested in reading memoir.  The earlier-written one, “The Practice Boyfriend,” which first appeared in February, is now a Page called “Perry: A Memoir.”  It runs nearly 12,000 words, so don’t tackle it unless you’re prepared for a (somewhat romantic) lengthy read.  The more recent, “Losing Fifteen Pounds,” is now a nearly 7,000-word Page called “Getting to 128: A Memoir.”  In case you’re wondering: I changed the titles so that WordPress doesn’t confuse posts with pages in doing its tabulations.

Now, what shall I do next?  Any suggestions?

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART SIX

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[…continued from previous five posts.]

Gathering clouds obscured all traces of sun as I traveled north to meet my friend Emily in Ogunquit – first on a train from New York to Boston, then on another train to Portland, Maine and finally on a bus. During the long trip I mused pleasurably on what the next two days might offer. Cozy confidences while Emily’s new friend Kit was otherwise occupied? Confessions of wrongdoing? Appeals for help? Less pleasurably, I was also quite hungry by the time I reached the Ogunquit bus terminal where they were waiting to pick me up. Emily looked glad, but Kit was merely polite, which made me suspect my presence was some kind of peace offering to Emily.

The weather was both cloudy and cool; beach was out of the question. Not to worry, said Kit, there were plenty of other things to do. Since they’d already had lunch, we stopped at a grocery for two apples I could eat in the car. Then we went from art gallery to sculpture workshop to arts-and-crafts gift shop to seafood restaurant. The proprietors of all these establishments seemed to know Emily and Kit quite well; they were soon engaged in warm conversations about local people and events to which I couldn’t contribute. I smiled whenever anyone looked at me, which was now and then but not often, until I realized smiling was unproductive of anything but a return smile.

There was no private time with Emily; she participated fully in all this Ogunquit-based chitchat. After dinner at the seafood restaurant, I pleaded I really wasn’t up for anything more. By then it was actually true. Kit agreed it was probably time for bed. My mother had been wrong about the house. It was an A-frame, with an open area that served as living room, dining room and kitchen. There was only one bedroom — with a double bed, I noticed as we passed by the door. “Will I be using the sofa?” I asked when we got back after dinner.

“Oh, no. You’re going to have a place of your own,” said Kit, as if this were wonderful news. “We’ve fixed up a bed and lamp in the barn. I left an extra quilt out there, too.” What was wrong with sleeping on the sofa? Their bedroom had a door. If they were very noisy doing whatever they did, couldn’t they refrain, just for this one weekend?

I let myself be led to the barn. An oval braided rug had been laid down in a corner and a few minimal furnishings arranged on the rug. Kit lit the lamp. The light showed the rest of the barn floor to be tramped-down dirt with bits of straw scattered on it. They showed me how to bolt the barn doors from inside. “Now let’s go back so you can do whatever you need to do in the john,” said Kit. “As you can see, there isn’t one here.”

After hurrying into pajamas in the cold barn and burying myself under the blanket and quilt, I tried to imagine for a few moments what might be going on in the main house. Had I been sent out here because they preferred doing whatever they did in front of the fireplace? Just what did they do, anyway? Absent factual knowledge of such matters, my thoughts soon faded into sleep. I awoke to dim cloudy light filtering in from a skylight at the top of the barn and checked my watch. Morning. Very early to be sure, but time for the bathroom. If they weren’t up yet, I would sneak in quietly.

I scuffled into my ballet slippers and opened the barn doors. There was the A-frame, just down the path. I walked around the house in the damp grass to reach the door and set my hand on the cold doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It definitely wouldn’t turn. It was locked. They had locked me out. How could they!

Back in the barn, I rocked on the bed, really a camp cot, holding in pee but not rage. If there’d been anything to eat within range, anything at all, I’d have gobbled it up. But the barn held nothing edible. Why should it? It belonged to Kit, who pushed food around on her plate as a prelude to smoking.  An hour later, I returned to the house. The door remained locked. Now it wasn’t too early to knock, and I certainly did.  Nothing.  I put my ear to the door. Nothing. I knocked more forcefully. Nothing. What were they doing in there?  I picked up a rock from the flowerbed by the door and pounded. Still nothing.

What choice but return to the barn? This time I found a crumpled piece of Kleenex at the bottom of my purse, took off my pajama bottoms, stepped off the rug onto the dirt of the barn floor, set my feet wide apart and let go with a vengeance. Only a little dribbled down my legs, and the Kleenex took care of that. Then I put on the pajama bottoms again and slid between the sheets to brood. If the whole barn stank of stale urine when I was gone, what did I care?

At ten o’clock, I finally heard voices outside calling “Wake up, sleepyhead.” We had brunch, prepared by Kit, who now seemed in exceptionally good spirits. Of course, she ate none of it and neither did I, since it was fried eggs and bacon, followed by pancakes with syrup – a meal that could have undone a week of fast walking up Forest Hills Boulevard and down Austin Street. Like Kit, I had only cigarettes and black coffee. Emily, who’d never dieted in her life and had apparently worked up a tremendous appetite overnight, was glad to eat my share as well as her own.

The meal over, we cleaned up and read the Sunday Times and went to a summer playhouse matinee of Harvey and had another early seafood dinner. I read more of the Times in the evening while they went through the local paper. There was no talk, except about the play and what was in the news. Before I again retired to the barn, I asked them please to leave the house door unlocked so I could get to the bathroom. They professed surprise they hadn’t done it the night before. “Force of habit,” Emily explained.

And that was the whole visit. Next morning, after more black coffee and cigarettes for me and Kit (and eggs benedict for Emily), we all three exchanged hollow thanks for how great it had been and I embarked on the long trip home. Reading furiously without remembering a word of what I read, I tried not to think how much I had wanted Emily to be my friend again, how hurt I felt and also how starved. I remembered when I reached Grand Central I could buy eight or ten candy bars to eat on the subway ride home to Kew Gardens.   But it was Labor Day, and the newspaper stands were all closed.

When I returned to college a week later, the bathroom scale did indeed read 128. Despite my own subterranean (and not so subterranean) urges, I had finally managed to succeed. By anyone’s definition, I was thin.  For now.