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.

SOME DISCONTINUOUS OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LOVE

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Thanks to the give-and-take most book groups require of their members, I recently found myself obliged to read a novel by Penelope Lively called Moon Tiger.  I didn’t like it, despite the promise of its early chapters.  (A woman in her seventies, dying of cancer, looks back on her life and the important people in it.) But there was one aspect of the story that really held me — so much so I would gladly, and with excitement, have read more and more, and never mind the rest.

The heroine has a brother one year older. They grow up together and in late adolescence become lovers. No one suspects.  After a few years, the physical expression of their feeling for each other fades, but not the feeling. No one she meets subsequently, except for a British captain with whom she has a brief (and unconvincing) love affair during World War II, can compare with the brother. Throughout the rest of their lives, this feeling between brother and sister seems to trump any emotions either of them can experience for other potential love partners. When he is about to die, she rides with him and his wife in a taxi to some last meeting he insists on attending:

He goes on talking and she goes on talking and interrupting and beneath what is said they tell each other something entirely different.

I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things — love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness. I do not need to tell you, any more than you need to tell me. I have seldom even thought it. You have been my alter ego, and I have been yours. And soon there will only be me, and I shall not know what to do.

Sylvia [the wife], she sees, is weeping again. Not quite silently enough. If you don’t stop that, thinks Claudia [the protagonist], I may simply push you out of this taxi.

I was an only child. I yearned for a slightly older brother when I was growing up. But I did understand early on that as a first-born, I could never have an older sibling, except by adoption, which I felt wouldn’t have been the same. Lacking this much desired older brother, I made one up. [SeeFairy Tale,” an account of my childhood fantasy, its development as I grew older, and how it looks to me now.]

This is not to say I truly believe I could have fallen in love with a male version of me who I had known all my life.  Lively’s heroine believes that brother-sister incest requires narcissism in both parties. As I didn’t love myself enough for much of my life, narcissism does not seem to have been my problem.    What I yearned for was an alter ego, someone who would accept me as I was, knowing everything about me. Someone who was my other half.

 

Diana Athill, last mentioned in this blog for having at the age of 89 written “Somewhere Before the End,” a trail-blazing account of old old age — has come up with a sequel of sorts now that she’s 97; it’s called “Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter.In her introduction to this new book, she observes that persons in retirement homes spend a good deal of time just sitting and thinking. In her case, it’s been thinking about events in the past which were enjoyable.

Until about two months ago, those events included people, usually men. I talked about it the other day with someone who is also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, “Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,” whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.

Athill has now moved on from thinking about men to thinking of pleasurable scenes in nature. But let’s do a rewind for a moment: How is putting oneself to sleep by reviewing past bedmates “indulging in foolishness?”  As the saying goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, talk, write, or think about it.  I do have some years left before my nineties, but I too have sometimes counted “sheep” in somewhat the same way as Athill and her acquaintance; I review the sexual particulars of those relatively few men I have biblically known, with emphasis on the memorable ones.

However, and getting back to the theme of this piece, I don’t do that very often.  More frequently, I make up erotic stories.  They’re short on variety. I provide only two or three mises-en-scene; the two principal characters are always in their late teens or early twenties, and two or three years apart in age; I play both parts, moving in my mind from the point of view of the young man, then the young woman. But irrespective of the details of the flimsy “plot,” the underlying theme is always the same: these two grow up together, a tragic separation tears them apart, they cannot find each other, some time later, quite by accident, they do. Then nothing, nothing at all, can keep them from each other. Yes, they make love, occasionally in satisfying detail. But what is most exciting and rewarding about these pre-sleep lullabies, of which the physical “coming together” is just an expression, is the emotional coming together after having been so painfully separated.

 

The last time I read Plato’s Symposium in its entirety, somewhat unwillingly, was in the fall of 1949, when I was a sophomore in college. However, one section of it made a sufficient impression on me that I have revisited it on several later occasions.  For those of you who haven’t read it, or read about it, the Symposium is a disquisition on love as the ancient Greeks viewed it.  Since Plato wrote it, we may assume that in its entirety it represents the Platonic ideal. Briefly, six or seven of Socrates’ disciples gather with him at a dinner where they will all speak, in turn, about each one’s view of this important emotion.  The fourth in order is Aristophanes, who attempts to describe the feeling of love in “historic” terms he fears will be laughed at.

Mankind, he [Aristophanes] said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race….

In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different…. The primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast….Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods;….

Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts…. then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”

He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson in humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms.  So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last;….

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them — being the sections of entire men or women — and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they mighty breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half….And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself….the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment….And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. [Italics mine.]

After my second husband and I separated, I sequentially looked up (and in my older son’s words, recycled) the two significant boyfriends of my premarital life. You may see where, perhaps not entirely consciously, I was trying to go with this coming together after painful separation.  I showed each of them the Aristophanes riff on love.  The first was both tactful and rueful as he turned its pages in bed:  “Here I am,” he said, “thirty-odd years later: same bathrobe, same book.” At least he didn’t laugh.  The second did laugh; halfway through his reading, the phone rang. “Hi,” he said, “I’m reading about these funny round people with four arms, four legs and two heads….”

As you may surmise, neither effort to rejoin what had come apart worked out. There’s a reason the Platonic ideal is called an ideal.  Real life just isn’t like that.  Romantic love, youthful passion, may feel so compelling nothing can get in its way.  But if satisfied, it begins to dilute itself into something else which we also call love.  However, that’s a different love: warm, safe, familiar, comfortable, with cranky moments, boring times, tough passages, and also good ones. A love that leaves time and space for the speculations in this piece.  A love to be explored in some other post.  I invite you to do that.

 

MY MOUTH

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My parents spoke a very clean, if accented, English. (It was their second language.) No questionable word ever passed their lips.  My mother referred to pee as “little wee wee” and shit as “big wee wee” well into her eighties. When she decided it was time I understood where babies came from she went to the librarian in the children’s section of the public library; that lady, after inspecting me, solemnly unlocked a special cabinet behind the checkout desk and handed over a boring book that began with bees and flowers and relieved my mother of embarrassing explanations.

The book managed not to contain the words “penis” and “vagina.”  I picked those up several years later from permitted perusal, in her bedroom, of her much less boring copy of Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living. (No question-and-answer period afterwards, though.) She did, however, have lifelong and frequently reported problems with “moving her bowels” and until my adolescence inquired daily if I had had success with moving mine.

My father never in my presence discussed anything pertaining to human execratory or sexual functions in so many words,  The one time I accidentally opened the bathroom door at the age of three while he was peeing, he roared so loudly I ran away crying without quite understanding what it was I saw that I shouldn’t have seen. When the human need to vent became overpowering, my parents fell back on Russian. By dint of living with them long enough I picked up the Russian words for “My God!” (bozh moy), “shit” (govnoh) and prostitute (“bladz”). This was apparently okay for me to know because nobody else would understand it.

It should therefore come as no surprise that upon emerging from this nest of conformists, I flew free.  No euphemisms for me. I never called a shovel a spade, a breast a bosom.  After the age of thirteen, I gave up darn for damn, heck for hell. I use gosh and golly (pious replacements for god) only facetiously in replies to blog comments, to express feigned surprise.  Gee whiz, jeez and jiminy (cricket) have never been in my vocabulary, although jesus! is, especially at peak intimate moments.  Speaking of such moments, as a very young woman I preferred to refer to them as “making love” but after discovering in a graduate school Chaucer course that the Wyf of Bathe (Wife of Bath), who had had five husbands, talked quite freely about liking to fuck (she spelled it “focke”), I adopted her language as a linguistically purer way of denoting the act.

In other words, whatever you may have deduced from my blog and its title, I have what anyone who’s even residually a prude would call a dirty mouth.  I also gesture.  Bill thought about breaking up with me two weeks after we met when he saw me give a driver — who had cut in front of me to make a sudden left turn — the finger!  Instead he became like a blotter, soaking up everything he’d deprived himself of all his long life, so that now we have to ration the “fuck”s and “shit”s coming from his mouth when he’s in a bad mood about anything.

I don’t insult, and I don’t call anyone names. I would never say of a real person that he’s a “stupid fuck” (pace other blogs), even if I wildly disagreed with that person’s views.  In the presence of the pious, I do not take the name of the Lord (who in any event is not my Lord) in vain. In the presence of the proper, I am seemingly “proper” myself.  I wrote academic papers in academic language. I wrote briefs in more-or-less legal language. I wrote newspaper articles in socially acceptable language. I write posts for this blog in language I hope won’t drive anyone away.  But if you lived with me, you’d hear a lot that never shows up on this screen.

I raised my children in Manhattan.  When he was four, my younger son asked me, “Mommy, what’s a motherfucker?”  He had heard the word from a truck driver on West 86th Street.  Once, when visiting East Hampton, we took both children to a movie recommended by the mother of one of my older son’s friends. (Older son and friend were eleven at the time.)  The movie was Saturday Night Fever and my older son’s friend’s mother was wrong.  Halfway through, younger son, then eight and a half, whispered, “Mommy, what’s a blow job?”  Still, what can you do?  You can’t shield children from the spoken language forever.  You can only teach them the difference between the vernacular (i.e. slang) and generally accepted English, and when use of each is appropriate.

Fast-forward twenty years.  I was spending Thanksgiving in northern Maine at the invitation of the mother of my older son’s girlfriend (later to be wife).  The only entertainment on the only channel available was a rerun of Sex and the City, in which the episode’s plot revolved around the bad taste of the semen of a boyfriend of one of the four main characters.  The language was equally salty. I later heard that my future daughter-in-law had whispered to my son she was so embarrassed I had to see it. What would I think of her?  My son reassured her:  “My mother?  You’ve got to be kidding!”

The foregoing may be one of the reasons this same older son gave me, as one of two presents on my birthday last July, a copy of Mary Norris’s new book, Between You and Me. Mary Norris is the copy editor of The New Yorker, a publication of extreme correctness about written style, punctuation, word usage, and  her book is an amusing meander through the do’s and (mostly) don’t’s of New Yorker style. Chapter Nine is entitled F*CK THIS SH*T.  I’m sure my older son thought I’d enjoy it.  It begins: “Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway:  Fuck yeah.”

(Note: If anyone is interested in reading a very truncated version of this chapter, I would be happy to oblige in the next post. Just make your wishes known in the comment section below. Or you could indicate the converse:  “Enough already!”)

Interestingly, my two sons have developed late-blooming modesty since they left the nest.  Do inclinations skip a generation in this regard?  The three-year-old who walked down West 86th Street with me, joyously pointing at strange ladies and calling out, “She has a vagina!” is now a forty-six year-old father who references that area of the female anatomy, rather embarrassedly, as “private parts.”  His brother doesn’t mention such things at all.

Their grandparents would be so proud!

WRITING SHORT: 46/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

A charming Hungarian once told me that men and women grow more alike as they get old. I was in therapy with him at the time and the transference was positive, so I never thought to question him. It didn’t seem relevant anyway, as he was forty-six when he said it and I was thirty-five.

In any event, he was never able personally to verify his observation. He died of a massive stroke at the age of 71 while walking vigorously along the shore at Clearwater Beach, Florida, to which he had retired about eighteen months before. When I met with his small wren of a widow fifteen years later, she declared him a fine figure of a man to the end, still virile and erect as he strode over the sand, nodding at attractive passing ladies.

Bill and I now both qualify as “old.” Have we grown more alike since the salad days before we met? Well, yes. I tell him all the time we would have been entirely incompatible had we come across each other thirty, forty, or fifty years earlier – when he was always thinking nooky, wherever he might find it, whereas I was always thinking nest-building and settling on the nest. I would have called him a swine; he would (eventually) have called me a bore.

On the other hand, the hunky Hungarian was perhaps not quite right. The body’s fires, whether wandering or domestic, may indeed be banking after eighty — bringing both sexes to the living-room couch after dinner, two versions of the same generic old person, slightly different in appearance thanks to bone structure and haircut, but who both hold hands (or not) while surfing channels till it’s okay to go to sleep.

However, our minds remain differently hard-wired. No matter how impossible a favorable outcome, even philosophical old men still covertly eye hot young things who flaunt their this and that, the urge to propagate their genes undying. Even bookish old women still secretly covet well-muscled bodies of shirtless young men seen ripping up streets with the brute physical strength required to protect a nest against marauders.

I bet you think I’m making all this up. Give it some time. Getting old doesn’t happen overnight. Sooner or later, you’ll see.

WRITING SHORT: 34/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I want to eat everything. The whole carton of chocolate ice-cream. The whole cheesecake. The whole box of blueberry muffins.  The whole family-size bag of potato chips. All the candy the kids collected in their hollowed-out pumpkin on Halloween and couldn’t finish.  It doesn’t matter that it will make me sick, and  later fat.

I want to buy everything I like in Vogue or at Pret-a-Porter — coats, dresses, sweaters, pants, boots, shoes, sandals, bags, scarves, hats. It doesn’t matter that I don’t need, can’t afford, wouldn’t know where or when to wear any of it.

I want to live in France, Italy, Spain, Greece — without moving away from home.  I also want to see Scandinavia, Germany, Japan, South America — without moving away from France, Italy, Spain, Greece. It doesn’t matter that unless someone figures out how to access multiple parallel universes before I die, this is impossible.

I want to be young, adventurous, and sexually attractive to all men I find attractive, while retaining everything I now know about youth, adventure and sexual shenanigans and without relinquishing Bill, social security, or the privileges of age. It doesn’t matter that this would make me a dirty old lady who can work miracles.

I want to take piano lessons, relearn French, enroll in a Shakespeare course, lead a meditation workshop, tutor English as a Second Language, do Pilates, participate in two reading groups favoring long books because I like the women in them, play Scrabble once a month, pet the cats, and go to New York once in a while without giving up my blog and long luxurious afternoon naps on our new bed. It doesn’t matter that there aren’t enough hours in the day for all this or enough energy in me, doesn’t matter that I’d collapse, despite the naps.

I suppose you could say I want to be God. (God can have everything.) But I’m still asking “Is there a God?” and coming up with “No.”  So it looks like I can’t have it all.  Bummer.

WRITING SHORT: 32/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

What if I’d been less timid in days gone by? Such as when teaching Freshman English at USC.  Aged twenty-two, I would sit cross-legged on the front desk in pencil skirt and white linen blouse, imparting my view of life to a group of sorority and fraternity pledges, a few Korean War vets, and several members of the Freshman football team who sat slouched against the back wall, exchanging sotto voce opinions about my ankles and other anatomical parts.

The weekly writing assignments generally resulted in compositions mediocre to bad. (I was not an easy grader.) However, one stood out. The writer had a strong sense of what was wrong with the world and no hesitation about putting it on paper. Despite his technical mistakes, I gave him an A minus and a “See me.”

He was eighteen, and not frat material. Not a jock either. Strongly built, tall and suspicious, he was racking up D’s and F’s in all his other courses. They were basically crap, he said. He’d pretty much stopped going. How come the A minus? I told him how come. I encouraged him. He wrote more. He never missed a class. He hung around afterwards, wanting to talk. Intrigued, I listened.

His father had thrown him out a year before, for unacceptable behaviors he didn’t itemize. He was living on his own and paying for college by running drugs into California from Mexico on a boat belonging to his uncle. (Whether the uncle knew was not made clear.) He’d had girls, but never a keeper. Soon he was wishing for someone like me.

I had a steady boyfriend. Tony was my student, and four years younger. But I’d never before met a strong, angry drug runner  who wanted someone like me. I let him buy me a beer.

We had the beer at an out-of-the-way bar where no one would see. Then his eyes asked the question. I chickened out. The next semester, he left school. He’d knocked up a girl and was marrying her. He said It was the right thing to do.

All the same, I sometimes wonder. Suppose I’d gone down the road less traveled. Would my life have been different? Would his?

WRITING SHORT: 27/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

The difference between Bill and me in what you might call our erotic dotage is that he comforts himself for having got old by reviewing, often aloud, how attractive he was to women in days gone by, whereas I comfort myself by reviewing — usually to myself but if retaliation is in order, not always — the things men have said to me about what was in their hearts.

Thus, I’ve heard from him about L., who kept staring at him from the bar as he sat, age 40, having dinner at the Casablanca in Cambridge, until he had to ask if they knew each other, which they didn’t, but which led that very night to the biblical kind of knowing. I’ve heard about S., briefly a patient, who said to him, age 50, “You’re not hard to look at, Dr. Bill.” And I’ve heard, more times than you can count, about the wealthy woman at a Swiss hospital where he was doing his residency at the age of 32, who passed him the address of her hotel when the medical part of her visit was done, with the smiling remark: “Je suis a votre disposition, M. le Docteur.” (“I’m at your disposition, Mr. Doctor.”)

By contrast, I don’t really care about who came on to me and who didn’t. I count the words that came from deep inside: “You were my heart’s desire.”  While having dinner with an old beau: “You’re an enchantress.” From a letter two years after a breakup, telling me of an impending marriage to another: “But old loves never die, and I still think of you very tenderly.”

Is this just the quantity versus quality thing continuing to resonate in aging bodies? Or does it mean that despite all the therapy we each have had, we’ve both stayed insecure and neurotic?