THEN AND NOW
Thirty, forty, fifty? It doesn’t matter how old you are, only how old you look….” begins an eye-catching cosmetics ad.
Jane Fonda, in retrospect, said, “Turning thirty was scary as hell.” Louise in Honoré de Balzac’s Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (The Two Young Brides) wasn’t too thrilled about her thirtieth birthday either: “I shall soon be thirty, and at that age woman embarks upon dreadful inner lamentations. If I am still beautiful, I shall perceive the limits of feminine life; afterwards, what will become of me?” In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart found the approach of her thirtieth birthday to be more than she could bear.
I wish I were immortal Athena living in the rent-free Parthenon. Instead, I’m thirty years old today, doubting my wisdom and inhabiting a New York City apartment that costs too much.
In work and in love, I find myself lurching forward and backward. The romantic and the realist continually joust on the playing fields of my heart and my mind. My résumé covers a lot of territory; in schools and summer camps I’ve taught children how to read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, to perform water ballet to the music of Ferrante and Teicher, and to jump horses over post-and-rail fences. I’ve been the administrative assistant to the president of a men’s clothing company and a production planner of mattress ticking (for jailbirds’ cots and cheap-motel beds) for a Fortune 100 textile corporation—the most horrendous job! Additionally, I’m a volunteer for an organization that helps autistic children and for a nonprofit group that promotes preventive medicine.
Now I’m gainfully employed as the assistant editor at a medical magazine on Manhattan’s East 60th Street.
On a pleasant summer day nine years ago on Bayswater Road in London, I met a swarthy Athenian—the kind you’re supposed to have a vacation romance with, but never marry. In rapid succession, Michael, the Greek, became my lover, my husband, my ex-spouse. I married Michael because he looked like a young Omar Sharif and spoke the little English he knew with a seductive accent and toss of the head. We shared zero history. I sought connubial bliss liberated from all traditional restraints. I got exactly what I wanted…for a while. That idyllic summer we communicated by drawing simple pictures, as we indolently reclined on green canvas chairs in Hyde Park. He was exotic, tempestuous, fiery, emotional. Everything I (exceptionally reserved WASP from bucolic Germantown, Tennessee) was not.
As husband and wife we traveled through the splendiferous Greek islands. The fragrance of white jasmine permeated the air as we nibbled fresh figs for breakfast on the tranquil island of Kos. We rode docile donkeys to the top of a steep hill on Lindos, Rhodes, for a breathtaking view of the blue Mediterranean. The countless cicadas hummed on Crete as we merrily wandered through the picturesque farms dotted with whirling windmills. Michael enthusiastically guided me on an unforgettable Hellenic sojourn. I will always be grateful for having been sucked into the vortex of Greek culture.
I’m passionate about all kinds of literature. It reveals the multifarious ways there are to think, to live. Biographies and autobiographies of writers also intrigue me, especially books limning the dark side of women and men considered to be artistic giants. Some rotten people have created great art.
Discovering what I am about is the main thing—an illusion as good as any other. I’m a promiscuous reader, a dilettante, an autodidact. Creative agitation in women of thirty or thereabouts is not uncommon. Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden, a collection of short stories and novelettes, and Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Americans—their first literary achievements—were written when the authors were twenty-nine and thirty-one, respectively.
Physically, I’m in better shape than I was in at twenty. A low-sodium, low-cholesterol, high-fiber diet, and low-impact aerobics are integral parts of my ritualistic health routine.
The rapid changes in women’s roles during the past decade have left me wobbly and straddled uncomfortably on the cutting edge of a social revolution. I don’t want to be defined by a job or lack of one. Evaluate my character, not my income!
In truth, sometimes I fear I’m a latent Southern belle, an inchoate Blanche DuBois who prefers Wild Turkey to Colombian Gold, unmistakably more of a Jean Rhys woman than an Ann Beattie character.
My idiosyncrasies are growing more pronounced. As Evelyn Waugh did, I detest the telephone and even prefer confirming appointments by mail. Always walking on the shady side of the street, always wearing sunglasses to prevent (I hope) the development of cataracts, never browsing in department stores, shopping for just about everything from mail-order catalogs, are among my myriad eccentricities.
Until a year ago, keeping a diary seemed a waste of time, but now maintaining meticulous records of impressions, literature gobbled or savored, is as crucial as wearing mascara, lipstick, and perfume. Constructing chronological tables as I read is automatic. I want to know how old the women, whether real or fictional, were when they graduated, married, had children, gave birth to novels, had their first extramarital affair, divorced, murdered, committed suicide. I want to know the same about the men.
My hypochondria is as evident as H. L. Mencken’s condition was, positively due to our mutual birthday. I am star struck by worry; Virgo is culpable. By working for a magazine where I have unlimited access to medical journals and textbooks, I’m relieved of the urge to move to an apartment within whispering distance of the New York Academy of Medicine.
Between three and three-thirty in the morning, I frequently wake sweating, with heart palpitating. My milestone birthday ended one passage and began another. I agonize: This is it. No more mistakes allowed. Finality. Horror. No more living in the future. There is only now.
According to recent National Institutes of Health statistics, the average life span of a thirty-year-old Caucasian female is eighty years. As a borderline optimist, I rationalize that I still have approximately ten years to go before tripping over the halfway marker.
Please, dear Fate, now that I’m old enough to be a senator, I suggest your letting me live as long as the nonagenarian Georgia O’Keeffe.
I bid a fond farewell to my twenties.
Forty-nine! Wow! How did that happen! I am firmly entrenched in glorious prime time!
Physically, emotionally, and psychologically I’ve changed during the past nineteen years. Geographically, I moved nine miles—from midtown Manhattan to a small community just across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
Thankfully…I’ve become more adaptable, flexible, resilient; whatever life slaps me with, I have grown confident enough to handle it with equanimity.
My marital status changed, too. At age thirty-two I married a native New Yorker, the firstborn son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. My articulate husband and I share a love of Shavian plays, Mozart sonatas, and Verdi operas.
Warm and loving, my spouse has taught me a lot about the redemptive powers of unconditional love and affection. When I withdraw into seemingly impenetrable silence, my customary but unproductive way to deal with anger, he instinctively knows how to gently take the defensive wall down, brick by metaphorical brick.
When I changed husbands, holiday customs were also altered. Instead of feasting at Easter on roasted lamb and mageiritsa (traditional soup made of sheep’s entrails), I politely swallow matzo and gefilte fish at Passover.
I wear the same size dress as I did a decade ago and have no new cavities. My hair—once the color of undiluted espresso—is heavily and naturally streaked with silver. I’m not going to dye it. The trichological transformation that I see in the mirror forces me to come to terms with aging. That’s meant in a positive way—acceptance of living, with more joy and more dignity, as a mature woman, never again to be called a pretty girl.
The late Alfred Charles Kinsey, founder of the Institute for Sex Research, said that a woman reaches her sexual peak around age thirty-eight. (I say between thirty-eight and forty-eight; two years ago I had to replace my All-Flex arcing spring diaphragm.)
Marrying for the second time and learning to drive a car (in effect, for the second time) coincided. Both require a lot of patience and a certain tolerance for risk. The year I left Tennessee, when I was seventeen, I had stopped driving after a near-fatal collision with a tractor-trailer on a major highway. Many years later, a girlfriend who owned a gleaming BMW persuaded me to sidle into the driver’s seat. I’ve been driving (unfortunately not BMWs) ever since.
My forties are better than my thirties. I sleep peacefully through the night. I know and accept that I’ll make lots of mistakes as long as I live; neurotic perfectionism is no longer part of the package. Living in the present is second nature to me now, like counting calories and the dollars in my mutual funds. I’ve grown more tolerant of my weaknesses and adamantly refuse to desert my most fantastic dreams. As Yogi Berra said: “It’s not over till it’s over.”
Always searching for an illusive frontier, I still don’t really feel settled. Deep down in my heart, I’m the worldly Somerset Maugham, the peripatetic Graham Greene, the restless Paul Theroux waiting for the next train. I look forward to change, to the next destination. I want to live in motion in a continually changing landscape with a changing cast of characters. Disliking quotidian routine, I want to be able to distinguish every day from all other days. I want to live fully in a rich phantasmagoria.
Evolving and learning give me the greatest pleasure. In my imaginary perfect world, based on my criteria for adventure, next year I would become a race-car driver and five years later—a commercial airline pilot; I’d fly 747s to Hong Kong, Sydney, Cairo, and Berlin. My altruistic side would head a foundation that keeps every library in the United States open seven days a week, twelve hours a day.
The unknown with both its disappointments and surprises enriches me. Being a quiet maverick of sorts, I suspect I’ve become somewhat addicted to those adrenaline rushes that invariably accompany the excitement of the unfamiliar.
In Passages, Gail Sheehy writes, “We are becoming accustomed to the idea of serial marriages. It will be progress when we come to think of serial careers, not as signifying failure, but as a realistic way to prolong vitality.”
However, I cling to my past eccentricities like white napkin fuzz to a black wool skirt, and I’ve generously added a few more. (Although occasionally now, I will amble into a department store when the inviting newspaper ad proclaims “40 percent off all merchandise.”) I can tell whether I like someone by the way she removes a paper lid from a jar or the way she organizes bills in her wallet. I’m critical of my own behavior as well…if I have more than ten items to buy, I never sneak into the express line at the supermarket. Anachronistic, chatty letters or e-mail (I LOVE E-MAIL!!!) are always preferable to disruptive telephone calls. And the other day I took my innocuous beige cloth coat to a tailor; per my request, he lined it in blazing-red satin: the anthropomorphic me.
When standing in motionless movie lines, I inconspicuously eavesdrop. Women and men in Manhattan, it seems, habitually talk hyperbolically about money and jobs. I prefer to go to films alone, to sit on the aisle, and to be totally absorbed in the celluloid drama in front of me. As an intense observer, I don’t want anyone to break the spell immediately afterward.
Modern life is too frenetic for my taste. Abandoning raucous aerobics, I spend more time these days practicing laid-back yoga. And I need more time alone. In Gift from the Sea, a collection of poetic essays about the conflicts and challenges facing women, Anne Morrow Lindbergh felicitously wrote about the importance of solitude to a woman’s mental and spiritual well-being. Lindbergh said, “Woman must come of age by herself. This is the essence of ‘coming of age’—to learn how to stand alone. She must learn not to depend on another, nor to feel she must prove her strength by competing with another. In the past, she has swung between these two opposite poles of dependence and competition, of Victorianism and Feminism. Both extremes throw her off balance; neither is the center, the true center of being a whole woman. She must find her true center alone. She must become whole. She must, it seems to me, as a prelude to any ‘two solitudes’ relationship, follow the advice of the poet to become ‘world to oneself for another’s sake.’ ”
I strongly identify with Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. “The search,” Binx says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Despair stalked me in my early years…but no more. I have what I want: not an easy life, but an interesting one.
There are infinite paths of possibility. Pulitzer Prize–winning Robert Frost said it best:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”