Excerpt 26

The psychiatrist, who treated Nancy in her final year,  asked me:

“How did you ever survive?”

(Well, that is what this book is about, isn’t it?)

***

It is not always what we accomplish in life; it is what we overcome.

In the world of Destiny, there are no statistics.

***

I told the nurse that my bruises and lacerations were not from my husband.

Riding drunk on my bicycle in the dark on the highway with speeding trucks and cars…then crashing onto the sidewalk…that was the reason for my injuries.

Don’t know if she believed me or not, but the nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment–drugs and/or therapy–would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.

He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy… what a cool bus ride they had together.

Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.

He  drugged Douglas and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door. After his door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated every room of that hospital.

Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek. Much of the attack is now just a blurry nightmare in my head.  I was assigned to a bedroom only three doors away from his.

My skinny roommate, Melanie, sat on her bed with her knees clasped to her chin. She looked like a praying mantis cut in two.

“Why are you here?” the frail, depressed girl asked.

“I can’t stop drinking.”

Excerpt 25

“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke

My mother’s wedding night was a threesome:  My mother, father, and Joe,  an Episcopal priest, who was my father’s favorite lover. They were in Fairhope, Alabama, an artsy town on the Gulf.

No family members attended.

It was 1949.

My mother told me this when I was twelve years old. We were having dinner at Britling’s, the local cafeteria, in Memphis. I really liked their shredded carrots with raisins.

 

###

1971

Weeks later in New York City, I lost my virginity to Noah—a not nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn—on a large, heated waterbed behind blood-red padded leather doors in a closed wing of Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital on First Avenue.

I was terrified, but just wanted to get it done.

My college roommate had nicknamed me: LVOC (last virgin on campus).

After fucking, Noah complained, “I feel like I’ve been through a meat grinder.”

He had an amphetamine-addicted roommate who shared his East 24th Street apartment. Both were dental students at New York University and had easy access to  the closed wing at Bellevue, the spooky, dark,  gothic hospital for crazies.

Excerpt 24

My parents never even had medical insurance, which they considered an extravagance, until they were eligible for Medicare. They gambled…and won the health lottery, despite their decades of heavy smoking and drinking.

And when my father died, my mother gave his body to a medical school so that she wouldn’t have to pay for cremation. Afterward, she refused to accept his ashes for burial; she told the hospital to dump them in a public veterans’ grave.

 

###

Thanksgiving 1966

My father and I went to the local Holiday Inn for our Thanksgiving dinner.

My mother was indisposed, once again, because of her drinking.

We ran into Anastasia at the restaurant; she was one of my father’s loyal,  female friends. If I had looked closely, I might have seen the Trojan condoms in her Lucite handbag; Anastasia was a wealthy divorcée who got her kicks by pimping for the secret society of artistic, homosexual men in the East Memphis neighborhood.

She threw raucous, extravagant parties where handsome young men and older patrician gentlemen were introduced. Women were invited also, but they tended to be in their 50s and 60s and were oblivious to Anastasia’s lascivious machinations.

 

###

[music: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana]

November 1977

          Lovers and Other Strangers

Poor Maurice, the surgeon. He was so depressed last night because of a terrible fight that he had with his wife. She and their sixteen-year-old daughter ganged up against him.

He said his wife had lost her emotional softness ever since she published her first novel. Now she lacks compassion and patience, according to him.

What he—and, unfortunately, many men–want in marriage: cook, lover, mother, servant, nursemaid.

God forbid his wife would seek accomplishments of her own! And he was furious when he discovered that she had a lover, too. Of course, the scrofulous physician had been unfaithful to his wife on their honeymoon!

What do I remember most about him? His underwear. He always bought it in Switzerland—the softest briefs I ever touched.

###

The married English WASP who actually used a cigarette holder! He was an executive with a large advertising agency, but always an aspiring writer. His novel, The Girl Watcher, was published while we were dating.

He liked to have sex with me in sleazy motels in Westchester. His wife was an entomologist, who spent 12 hours daily studying the social organization of ant groups.

The handsome, charismatic art student who worked part-time as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art. We had sex on a couch in a bedroom, while a wild party was going  on in the host’s living room.

The skinny, Australian investment banker who said that my birth control foam smelled like Pabulum.

The much older advertising executive who liked for me to hold his penis when he peed.

The mustached Hungarian who liked for me to sit on his face.

The married uber rich Greek, tall and very slim, who picked me up in his white Rolls Royce.  After a lavish meal at La Caravelle, we returned to my apartment.  He followed me into the bedroom, but instead of approaching me for a kiss and whatever, he headed to my closet and pulled out a negligee. He then proceeded to pull the silk garment over his head!

My strict Southern upbringing held me back from so many fascinating opportunities, because the culture in which I was raised hammered [sledge hammer] in the importance of being a soft-spoken, gentle, self-effacing, well-mannered lady. And I always flourished at following the rules.

Rebellion was only possible later on in my secret life of men and questionable sexual mores.

The perfect Southern female of the ’60s and early  ’70s was a reserved lady in the living room and an enthusiastic  whore in the bedroom; I managed the duality pretty well.

 

more…

The married French radiologist, Pierre, with the severe features of a Christian Schad portrait, whose patients included many celebrities and Manhattan socialites.

Our first date was in the King Cole bar of the St. Regis Hotel. We drank champagne and kir. A very attractive young woman sat alone nearby. He invited her to join us for dinner at Gino’s restaurant on Lexington. She accepted. The dinner was just dinner. She was an actress from Los Angeles and had come to New York to work on a film. Pierre wanted a ménage à trois; but it didn’t happen. (I think she was just an expensive hooker looking for customers.)

He came over to my apartment once a week with a cheap bottle of Beaujolais, some smelly French cheese, purple grapes, and Carr’s crackers.

We met in an elevator in the office building where both of us worked, when he complimented my black fedora with the wide brim. He liked to spank me, lightly and playfully, and talk dirty simultaneously.

______________________________________________________________

 

The South African psychiatrist whose fingernails were always dirty because he rode his bicycle everywhere and kept it well oiled. He thought I desperately needed him because of my unsavory childhood. We met on the street when he almost ran over me.

 

The Italian who always giggled before and after sex. He gargled his snot and rinsed his teeth at meals with coffee. That was a very short-term relationship.

 

The loquacious Jewish art director who airbrushed photos for multinational cosmetic companies. He liked for me to wear a black garter belt and long silk stockings. He called me his Egon Schiele woman.  We met in front of Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” at the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.

The Jewish-Russian taxi driver who became a wealthy sportswear manufacturer. One night he invited his best friend to join us in bed. I dated both of them, and several times the three of us went to bed together. We practiced sixty-nine as though we were characters in Fellini’s Satyricon (which had been produced in 1969).

The Irish man whose immense fingers looked like Polish sausage—large Kielbasa.

The Swiss doctor whose wife had died from breast cancer when she was in her 30s. He sent their three children to live with the grandparents in Geneva. His favorite companion was his adorable black Labrador, Othello, who sat at the dinner table with us. Othello loved bread and cheese.

The  Israeli who was also in the clothing business. A garmento as we call them in New York. Every summer, he  sent his wife and children to Israel for an extended vacation, so that he could chase women in Manhattan.  On Monday nights, he always played poker with some friends, except when I was available.

The West Point jock who remained unhappily married for 30 years until his neighbors in Greenwich, Connecticut, started getting divorced; he then believed divorce was socially acceptable. A very sweet man and wonderful lover. He loved to go to piano bars and dance.

I hated piano bars and dancing, but if I drank enough vodka stingers  and cognac, I had dancing feet that wouldn’t quit, and the following day I would have the  blisters to prove it.

Excerpt 23

2002

I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted-living facility.
When I entered her house– with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)– I was horrified.
The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned. Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied. The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.

My relationship with my mother had always been strained; I was terrified of her. There had never been any kind of emotional intimacy between us: no affectionate caresses, no bedtime stories, no nicknames, no birthday parties, no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy, no hugs and kisses, no cuddling, no appearances at the camp horse show or water ballet or school spelling bee, no phone calls, no care packages…nothing–even when I was very young.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.

 

 2006

 Joseph has diffuse Lewy dementia—like Alzheimer’s  combined with Parkinson’s.

This morning,  he cried in the hospital. He was hospitalized for pneumonia. His disease makes it almost impossible for him to swallow.

He cried because he thought I had been kidnapped. My heart is breaking. All the bad memories disappear, and I feel nothing but overwhelming love and compassion. I want to take away his fear, his illness, his discomfort. Make his life all Chateau Margaux and Mozart conducted by Toscanini.

His last words to me in the nursing home were:

“Stop petting me like a fucking dog.”

I had been gently caressing his forehead and forearm. That was the dementia talking, I know. Perhaps,  he understood that death was near and raged against the universe.

He obediently followed Dylan Thomas’s dictum: “Do not go gently into that dark night.”

He was cremated. His remains were mailed to me. I received them this morning in a sturdy white box, certified mail, return receipt requested.

Joseph,   I will play Mozart’s Don Giovanni all weekend in your memory. It was one of your favorites. I will mute the television, but  will occasionally glance at the screen  in case of another terrorist attack.

I love you, Joseph. You saved my life. You were The Good Father. You adored me before and after  all of  The Troubles. You protected me against my mother…the first person ever to do that.

I will love you forever. Your spirit  will be with me until the day I die. Farewell, my love.

 

Children’s Book: Fantasy Friends on Furlough [copyrighted]

SAOLA
Saola, shmayala…hard to pronounce.

When she jumped on the scale, she was more than an ounce.

Nevertheless, she remained quite rare,

Almost as much as cities with clean air.

She lived in hot Vietnam

With her long, pointy horns,

She avoided all thorns.

Some called her a saola.

But her dream was to be an adorable koala.
So furry and cute,

Wrapped around a tree branch,

Almost a glove.
Ready for a bear hug

And oodles of love.

 

MR. FLUKE FISH

It wasn’t a fluke or kind of rebuke

When Mr. Fluke Fish

Fell in the blackstrap molasses

‘Cause of the stress in

Shopping for his 3D glasses.

You see his eyes are up here

And across over there….

 

YOGA FROG
The yoga frog stuck out his tongue

In order to eat tasty morsels of young…Quail eggs!

No legs, he begs!

Just meat juicy and sweet

To make my parts so flexible and neat.
And please remove this spaghetti!

He cried to the dragonfly, who

Was hoping for calm

But instead got confetti

When he flew through the shredder

On the desk with the teddy.

Oh my! What a mess! Bear hair!

What a pair: The frog and the dragonfly

Searching the sky

Looking for, hoping for yum-yum pumpkin pie.

But instead in their eyes

Fell rays of moonlight.

They said it felt good.

Then bid all a good night.
PEGASUS
It was raining cats and dogs (but no icky, sticky frogs)

[literal drawing/puppies and kittens]…(Ostrich and worm are covering their heads)

As Ollie and Winton cuddle together

And say with relief, Oh, what a bother!

Could have been falling on us those fat hogs

With a whine and a holler !

And a snoutful of fodder…
Pegasus was showing off his shiny shoes to Norse, the horse, and

PlumPie, the horsefly, and

MaggieMead, the centipede (who really needed lots of shoes!).

Oyvay!

To polish all those shoes took three hours and a half!

Enough time for a cow to give birth to a calf!

 

TEA TIME

The Germanic gerbil [wearing little Valkyrie  hat w/upturned horns]

And the Balkan bat

Met together for tea

In their nondescript flat.

Too sweet, said the gerbil

With a throaty, loud gurgle!

Too hot, said the bat

With a big, bad splat!

So they went out together

In worrisome weather

To search for a drink,

The color of ink….

 

Bad Boy Bear

Bad boy bear had really pretty hair.

He lured shiny new things

Into his glamorous lair.

Where sometimes he robbed them

Or used them as objects

And sometimes as subjects for his

Contemporary art,

Which was not very smart

Because the slick lawyers

Were hiding in rooms

With cell phones and videos to

Ensnare the bad boy bear

With really pretty hair.

 

Gulo, the Wolverine

Gulo so sleek and furry

With pearly whites…

The predatory wolverine

Can be quite scary and oh so mean!

He prowls Alaska on long-nailed paws

With agility and grace.

He kills and hunts

At his very own pace.

Pity the poor rabbit

Who was wearing the lace!

 

Celestial Cat and Dutiful Dog

Celestial cat and dutiful dog

Live with the morose Mrs. Bog

At the edge of a clearing

Not within hearing

Of the fire station

Whose bells and alarms keep the

Neighbors free from flickering harms.

Celestial cat loves Dutiful Dog.

You should see her put her puddy-cat

Paws on Dutiful’s jaws.

Looks like happy dog

Is getting a massage on his maws!

 

Touchy Toucan

Touchy toucan was quick to give you a peck with her beak.

“Think before you speak,” she squawked,

“Or you might dread the consequences.

The words you spout

That all come out

Can cause unnecessary harm

And will alarm those who don’t understand

And are too shy to take a stand.”

So be polite.

Avoid a fight.

Try to cultivate wisdom

Instead of a schism.

 

Doughty Dodo Bird

Doughty dodo bird was so determined.

The ermine looked up at her and asked,

“You never give up…what’s up with that?”

The dodo replied, “My dreams are big, and I

Don’t give a fig about those who tell me,

‘No, your aspirations are silly, and you will fail

Willy nilly.’

Don’t don’t tell me what I can do.

My plan is to fool you too!

I will soon succeed and

Fulfill my need to

Be the very best that I can be.”

 

Purple Pumpkin

Purple pumpkin was perplexed by the

Hex on the local barn.

“Why am I purple?” she purred like a kitten.

“Because you are special, the color of yarn.

One day in the future, the sweetest girl will

Twirl her horsehair paintbrush across a large canvas.

Then you will rise above ordinary lumpkin

And be transformed into an immortal pumpkin,”

Said the wise fairy who lived in the aerie.

 

Palomino Puma

Palomino puma was super sleek and fast.

Had the habit of chasing rude and rowdy Ruby the rabbit.

After too many races and both out of breath,

They agreed to stop hating and start contemplating what a

Peaceful life could be.

Just then, interrupted by a friendly, but fearsome, flea who said,

“Let’s all live together with Peace

As our goal…

So never again must we hide in a hole.

 

Flaky Flamino

Flaky flamingo was such a fussbudget

And so irresponsible.

Never did what he said he would do.

Never told quite the truth.

Was always late and appeared at the

Gate with another excuse.

“Boo-hoo Boo-hoo,”  he cried.

Well, the other critters said, “Enough is enough,”

And old flaky flamingo ended up fried

In a dish of ointments ‘cause of all the delays

On his way to appointments.                     

                                                                                                        [excerpts continue below]                                                                                 

 

Excerpt 20

I’ve always had an affinity for foreigners. When it comes to men, I’m the poster girl for cultural diversity. (After all, John Wayne had three Latino wives!)

Probably, because I know everything there is to know about Southern WASP culture, and much of it is not very pretty.

London

[music: Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise]

We met on Bayswater Road.

“Hello, are you English?” the handsome Greek young man asked with a seductive accent.

“I like your hairs.”  (Yes, he cutely said hairs.)

He looked exactly like Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago, and I instantly wanted to be his Lara.

(The people I grew up with in Memphis, Tennessee, would choke on their Corky’s barbecue if they knew how many men I dated who had picked me up on the street, at an airport, on a bus, or beside a swimming pool. But never ever in a bar; standards must be maintained!)

“No, American,” I answered.

 

Excerpt 19

When I was a counselor-in-training, it was my job to clean all the toilets in camp. It took hours. Lye, water, and mops were my weapons against an onslaught of urine, feces, and menstrual blood. Additionally, I was responsible for scrubbing the floors of the infirmary and the apartment where the Wagners lived. Mrs. Wagner, with wrinkled, sun-splotched hands on hips, supervised and critiqued my cleaning.

Also, it was my responsibility to shovel coal into the outdoor furnace several times a day to provide intermittent hot water for the group showers.

Today, I love luxury more than anything. I am a sybarite whose religion is hedonism.

“Rather than a tale of greed,” writes Alain de Botton, “the history of luxury goods may more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. The legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others is the perceived need to add an extraordinary amount to one’s bare self in order to signal that one also may lay a claim to love.”

Excerpt 18

The psychiatric male nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him. Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle? Another Frances Farmer?

I have never been so scared in my whole life.

I got married six months ago.

Would my husband divorce me? Would I become a homeless woman sitting beside overflowing garbage bags on the streets of New York?

I felt like an astronaut floating in space whose umbilical cord to the spaceship that would return him to Earth had just been severed.

Excerpt 17

Once, I wrote to you, Father, informing you that I had signed up with an escort service.

I didn’t; it was a falsehood, but I really considered it.

Probably, I would have ended up like the seventeen-year-old Russian girl in the exceptional and tragic film, Lilya 4-Ever.

I wanted you to respond, to react.

I was  just trying to get your attention.

But I received the usual from you:

Nothing.

Thanksgiving 1966

My father and I went to the local Holiday Inn for our Thanksgiving dinner.

My mother was indisposed, once again, because of her drinking.

We ran into Anastasia at the restaurant; she was one of my father’s loyal,  female friends. If I had looked closely, I might have seen the Trojan condoms in her Lucite handbag; Anastasia was a wealthy divorcée who got her kicks by pimping for the secret society of artistic, homosexual men in the East Memphis neighborhood.

She threw raucous, extravagant parties where handsome young boys and older patrician men were introduced. Women were invited also, but they tended to be in their 50s and 60s and were oblivious to Anastasia’s lascivious machinations.

Excerpt 16

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.”

 

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