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Authors: Erica Jong

Fear of Dying

BOOK: Fear of Dying
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For my BFF, Gerri

&

L'Ultimo Marito,
Ken

 

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; Let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder, “How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it!”

—Attributed to
Mishkan Tefilah
:
A Reform Siddur

 

 

1

Happily Married Woman, or Is There Sex After Death?

I generally avoid temptation
unless I can't resist it.

—Mae West (stealing from Oscar Wilde)

 

 

I used to love the power I had over men. Walking down the street, my mandolin-shaped ass swaying and swinging to their backward eyes. How strange that I only completely knew this power when it was gone—or transferred to my daughter, all male eyes on her nubile twentyish body, promising babies. I missed this power. It seemed that the things that had come to replace it—marriage, maternity, the wisdom of the mature woman (ugh, I hate that phrase)—weren't worth the candle. Ah, the candle! Standing up. Burning for me. Full of sound and fury signifying everything. I know I should fade away like a good old girl and spare my daughter the embarrassments of my passions, but I can't any more than I can conveniently die. Life is passion. But now I know what passion costs, so it's hard to be quite so carefree anymore.

But was I ever carefree? Was anyone? Wasn't love always an exploding cigar? Didn't Gypsy Rose Lee say, “God is love, but get it in writing”? And didn't Fanny Brice say, “Love is like a card trick—once you know how it works, it's no fun anymore”? Those old broads knew a thing or two. And did they give up? Never!

I'm not going to tell you—yet—how old I am or how many times I've been married. (I have decided never to get any older than fifty.) My husband and I read the obituaries together more often than we have sex. I'm only going to say that when all the troubles of my family of origin engulfed me and I realized that my marriage could not save me, I reached a point where I was just unhinged enough to put the following ad on Zipless.com, a sex site on the Internet:

Happily married woman with extra erotic energy seeks happily married man to share same. Come celebrate Eros one afternoon per week. Discretion guaranteed by playful, pretty, imaginative, witty woman. Send e-mail and recent picture. New York area.

Talk about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown! It was autumn in New York—season of mellow mists, Jewish holidays, and five-thousand-dollar-a-plate benefits for chic diseases. A time of new beginnings (Yom Kippur), starting over (Rosh Hashanah), and laying in acorns against a barren winter (Succoth). When I placed the ad, I had thought of myself as a sophisticate coolly interviewing lovers. But now I was suddenly overcome with panic. I began fantasizing about what sort of creeps, losers, retreads, extortionists, and homicidal maniacs such an ad would attract—and then I got so busy with calls from my ailing parents and pregnant daughter that I forgot all about it.

A few minutes went by. Then suddenly the responses poured out of the Internet like coins out of a slot machine. I was almost afraid to look. After a couple of beats, I couldn't resist. It was like hoping I had won the lottery. The first response showed a scanned Polaroid of an erect penis—a tawny uncircumcised specimen with a drop of dew winking at the tip. Under the photo, on the white border, was scrawled: “Without Viagra.” The accompanying e-mail was concise:

I like your style. Have always risen for assertive women. Send nude shot and measurements.

The next one began like this:

Dear Seeker,

Sometimes we think it's carnality we want when actually we long for Jesus. We discover that if we open our hearts and let Him in, all sorts of satisfaction undreamt of can be ours. Perhaps you think you are seeking Eros, but Thanatos is what you really seek. In Jesus, there is eternal life. He is the lover who never disappoints, the friend who is loyal forever. It would be an honor to meet and counsel you …

A telephone number was proffered: 1-800-JESUS-4U.

I threw all the responses in the virtual garbage can, deleted them, and shut down the computer. I must have been insane to give an authentic e-mail address. That was the end of it, I thought, deluding myself. Another bad idea aborted. I went about my wifelife like an automaton. I had always been impulsive, and impulsive people know how to back away from their impulses. Sex was trouble—at any age. But by sixty—oops, I gave it away—it was a joke. Women were not allowed to have passion at sixty. We were supposed to become grandmothers and retreat into serene sexlessness. Sex was for twenty, thirty, forty, even fifty. Sex at sixty was an embarrassment. Even if you still looked good, you
knew
too much. You knew all the things that could go wrong, all the cons you could set yourself up for, all the dangers of playing with strangers. You knew discretion was a dream. And now my e-mail was out there for all the crazy phishers and pishers!

Besides, I adored my husband, and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt him. I had always known that marrying someone twenty years older put me at risk for spending my sunset years without sex. But he had given me so much else. I'd married him when I was forty-five and he was sixty-five and we'd had a great ride together. He had healed all the old wounds of my earlier marriages. He had been a great stepfather to my daughter. How dare I complain that something was missing in my life? How dare I advertise for Eros?

My parents were dying and I was growing unimaginably older, but was that a reason to pursue what my old friend Isadora Wing had called “the zipless fuck”? You betcha. It was either that or spiritual bliss. Apparently the creators of Zipless.com had ripped off Isadora without paying a penny. The company that bought her movie rights was sold to a company that owned publishing rights, which was sold to a company that exploited digital rights that was sold to a company that exploited well-known tags. Such is the writing life—as savage as the acting life.

Isadora and I had been friends forever. We met over a movie that was never made. We even got sober together. And I could call her for moral support whenever I needed her. I thought of her as my BFF, my alter ego. I really needed her now.

*   *   *

I am going over to my parents' apartment to visit them, and I dread it. They have deteriorated drastically in the last few months. They both spend their days in bed attended by aides and caregivers. They both wear diapers—if we're lucky. Their apartment smells of urine, shit, and medications. The shit is the worst. It's not healthy shit like babies produce. It seems diseased. Its fetid aroma permeates everything—the oriental rugs, the paintings, the Japanese screens. It's impossible to escape—even in the living room.

When I get there, to my great relief, I realize my mother is having a good day. She's her old feisty self. Lying in bed, wearing a lilac satin negligee and wiggling her yellow-nailed toes, she blurts out:

“Who are you going to marry next?”

“I'm married to Asher,” I say. “We've been married for fifteen years. You know that.”

“Are you happy?” my mother asks, looking deep into my eyes.

I debate this unanswerable question. “Yes,” I say. “I'm happy.”

My mother looks at my rings—the gold art nouveau disk, the carnelian signet ring from Greece, the Victorian pierced aquamarine from Italy.

“If you got married again, you could get some more rings,” she says, and laughs uproariously.

My mother is deep into her nineties and her cheerful dementia is studded with piercing insights. She is also much nicer than she was when I was young. Along with the crepey neck, the sagging arms, the bunioned feet has come a sweetness interspersed with a fierce truth telling. Sometimes she thinks I am her sister or her mother. The dead and the living are all alive in her head. But she looks at me with an endless love I wish I could have taken for granted when I was young. My whole life would have been different. Or so I think. The truth is she often terrified me when I was young.

People shouldn't get this old. Sometimes I think my mother's senescence is taking years off my life. I have to force myself to look at her. Her cheeks are sallow and crosshatched with a million wrinkles. Her eyes are rheumy and clotted with buttery blobs. Her feet are gnarled and twisted, and her thick, ridged toenails are a jagged mustard color. Her nightgown keeps opening to reveal her flattened breasts.

I think of all the times I've sat in hospital rooms with my mother in the last few years. I am praying fiercely for her not to die. But aren't I really praying for
myself
? Aren't I really praying not to be the last one standing on the precipice? Aren't I really praying not to have to dig her grave and fall in?

As you get older, the losses around you are staggering. The people in the obits come closer and closer to your own age. Older friends and relatives die, leaving you stunned. Competitors die, leaving you triumphant. Lovers and teachers die, leaving you lost. It gets harder and harder to deny your own death. Do we hold on to our parents, or are we holding on to our status as children who are immune from death? I think we are clinging with ever-increasing desperation to our status as children. In the hospital you see other children—children of fifty, of sixty, of seventy—clinging to their parents of eighty, ninety, one hundred. Is all this clinging
love
? Or is it just the need to be reassured of your own immunity from the contagion of the Moloch ha-moves—the dread Angel of Death? Because we all secretly believe in our own immortality. Since we cannot imagine the loss of individual consciousness, we cannot possibly imagine death. I thought I was searching for love—but it was reincarnation I really sought. I wanted to reverse time and become young again—knowing everything I know now.

BOOK: Fear of Dying
6.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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