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Authors: Alexandra Penney

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BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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We'd just spent a lovely weekend together when Chris had said to me—in the kindest, gentlest way anyone could—“You really need to know more about what a man wants in bed.”

I was shocked—and embarrassed. I thought I was pretty sophisticated and quite adept in the erotic arena but it seemed that I didn't have a clue.

He had been so tender and sweet that I responded, “Well, can you teach me?”

During his next visits, I had quite a few intriguing lessons. Sadly, the long-distance situation, as is so often the case, did not work out and we parted ways a few months later. I missed our daily phone calls and wished I could meet another man with whom I could fall in love, but I certainly never
forgot those tutorials.

“Perfect! Sounds great!” Phyllis said after I threw out the idea. “When can you deliver? I need about two thousand words a week from Friday.”

“I can do it pretty fast,” I assured her, knowing that any stop-the-press deadline is padded with several days to spare for rewrites and gathering illustrations. “But I'm not sure about next Friday; can you give me till tomorrow to think it through? I have a
Times
piece due in two days.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

I interrupted her before she could say more, knowing she would push me to do the work she wanted.

“And line up something else in case I can't do it. I don't want to leave you without something to print.”

She laughed and said, “All right, but it's a fantastic idea and I really want it!”

Phyllis Wilson never minced words. If she didn't like a story idea you knew it straightaway. And she didn't like many stories that she herself hadn't thought of. So I knew it would make a good article, but did I have the time to write it?

My son was spending that evening at his father's, and I thought a great deal about the idea that had rolled off my tongue so easily.

I phoned Phyllis the next day and said I couldn't do the story. I needed more time to think about how to approach it. Some gut instinct told me if I didn't know what a man wanted in bed, there were thousands of other women who didn't know either. My idea could develop into a book—and if it was a book, I could make more money than just writing an article.

I knew I was putting Phyllis in a bind but nonetheless told her I wanted to give the story a try as a book proposal and assured her I'd write a couple of articles for her in the next several months.

“I want your word of honor that
Self
gets first-serial rights,” she said. I remember smiling about the notion of actually writing a book and seeing it excerpted in
Self
magazine as we hung up.

CHAPTER
12
If You Think You Have No Options, Think Again

S
everal people have commented on how ascetically and minimally I lived during the decade I spent downtown. My parents, who still had their house in Darien, Connecticut, deigned to trek to the wilds of SoHo only once. My relationship with them, strained due to their formality and extreme strictness during my teenage and college years, fractured after they refused to attend my wedding for reasons that were never clear to me until many years later when I saw Dr. J, the psychiatrist who played a crucial role in my life. They continued to score low on the essential parental traits of nurturing, but they were caring and loving grandparents and adored their grandchild, wanting to spend as much time as they could with him. My son and I would take the train to Connecticut every few weeks so they could all be
together and enjoy gardening and cooking and museum and zoo-going, activities they'd carefully and thoughtfully planned for his hours there.

On a cool but sunny Saturday in the spring, my parents climbed the flight of steps to my little loft apartment while Pookabee furiously wagged her tail to welcome them. A few hours before their arrival, wanting to show off our little place, I'd biked up to the flower market on Twenty-sixth Street and bought several bunches of sumptuous parrot tulips and arranged them in the silver vases that my mother had given me. I thought the colorful floral counterpoints made the simple room look stylish and contemporary.

After a few minutes of hugging and kissing their wonderful grandchild, my father, who rarely had much to say, asked, “Where is the furniture?” and then added, “I'm surprised I haven't seen any rats.”

Rats? I shuddered and began to feel the same kind of anger that had flooded me at their inexplicable aversion to my ex-husband. I chose to laugh off his comments. I had long ago stopped confronting my parents when they made nasty or inflammatory remarks.

I was a fastidious housekeeper and I had made sure our space was airtight—no rodents of any sort could have intruded—but my father was right that there wasn't much furniture. I hadn't had time for decoration even though my environment has always been of primary importance to me. I try to make my surroundings simple and tasteful and convey a sense of ease and tranquillity. I'm visually oriented and if I walk into a
cluttered or badly designed room, I'm uncomfortable and have a great urge to flee. My decor aesthetics—then and now—were minimalist not only because of budget constraints but because I felt physically more at ease and relaxed without knickknacks and useless objects on tables and walls. I didn't hang my own paintings—and still do not hang my photographs—as I thought it too self-referential to say nothing of self-reverential. To this day I prefer my walls to be bare so I can imagine what beautiful paintings or photographs or drawings might belong there. If a home is “perfect” or “finished” it is, for me, a moribund space. There's no leeway for the exciting possibilities of change or growth.

As long as my son was happy in his room, which was crammed with fire engines and model airplanes and Match-box cars and two-way-radio parts and shelves loaded down with books and souvenirs, I was happy about what I thought of as my own strict Bauhaus surroundings in the rest of our living quarters.

After a year of living in SoHo, two trestle tables and four folding chairs were the only furniture that adorned the small downstairs space. I used them as dining tables and work tables when I was painting or writing. Upstairs was my son's personal domain, with a small alcove that housed a bed and a minuscule closet for me. I didn't need much room for clothes as my usual garb consisted of painting jeans worn with old white shirts, blouses, and jackets purchased at my most favorite store, which happened to be downstairs in my own building. Harriet Love, the eponymous shop owner and my private
fashion consultant, was a pioneer in the vintage clothing craze and became a close friend. On some Saturdays when my son was away, if she needed an extra salesperson to handle the growing traffic, I'd traipse downstairs and pitch in to help with the customers. I loved playing around with the mélange of clothes and accessories that she brought in almost daily.

If I wrote
How to Make Love to a Man
as a book, I reasoned that the extra money would be well spent in making our space a bit homier and both my son and I could finally invite friends to come over. I would have racks built for canvases, and shelves made to hold my painting supplies. I would splurge on an old and gnarled refectory table I'd seen at an antique shop on Thirteenth Street, some interesting chairs to go with it, a sofa—if one could fit into the small room—a couple of good pots so I could begin to cook more seriously again. I might even have enough to buy something to rest my upstairs mattress on. I estimated it would take about seven thousand dollars to give our little place some much-needed stylistic improvements.

I spent a few days writing up the book proposal, then realized I'd need a book agent to sell it. Who do you go to when you need literary advice? Your hairdresser, who else?

My Japanese stylist, Suga, had a high fashion-magazine profile. I knew him from several
Vogue
shoots and we'd become pals. One evening, when the salon had just closed, we chatted over small glass cups of chilled sake and agreed to trade skills. I would try to teach him enough English so he
could more easily communicate his sharp wit and humor. He, in turn, would cut my hair. I clearly had the best of the bargain. During the months that I was his English tutor I also helped him write a book that was published for the opening of his Fifty-seventh Street salon. I figured he could recommend me to his book agent.

Suga was, as I said, a big deal in hairdressing and he was also much in demand for important fashion shoots. He told me a story once while cutting my hair that I've never forgotten, as it taught me a valuable lesson for both my professional and personal life.

Vogue
had flown Suga to Egypt for a shoot at the top of the pyramids. As the crew was climbing to their destination, the editor had a “eureka” moment.

“The look I see here now,” she said, shading her eyes with her hand and peering out on the vastness of the desert broken only by the geometry of the ancient pyramids, “the look must be soft, waving hair streaming into the golden light of the morning.”

During the weeks of planning that went into the shoot, the editor had requested stick-straight hair with right-angled bangs. Accordingly, Suga had been up half the night achieving the requisite glossy and vertical style.

Suga, now on top of a pyramid with a command to create waving curls, was a veteran of many exotic and expensive shoots, and he understood well that there are no such words as “No, I don't think we can do that right now.” This unflappability was one of the things that made him so invaluable in
a tight situation and why he was paid the Very Big Bucks.

To be successful on a magazine shoot, you must possess the ability to prepare for any occurrence that should never happen—but sometimes does. Standing under the cool cobalt sky that lay behind the pyramids, he remembered a tiny pink-colored clay Egyptian oil-burning lamp he'd picked up at a local bazaar and tucked into his chic backpack.

Suga's custom-fitted Goyard case always held a curling iron, and on this trip he had enough styling oil to dress a hundred salads. He had reckoned that it would slick down the models' hair should there be a frizz-making drop of humidity in the desert. He now carefully poured the fluid into the spout of the oil lamp, which, most luckily, had the remains of an old wick inside it, and proceeded to heat the curling iron over the small flame that the lamp had produced.

“What if there hadn't been a wick? What if there hadn't been an oil lamp?” I asked.

“Something would have come to me, it
had
to,” he said, with a very slight smile. “I would have lit anything I could to make that curling iron work!”

The moral of Suga's story that endures with me today is: even if you think you have no options, think again. Unless you've been mummified you have choices and alternatives.

When my mind goes into a gridlock of anxiety, as it has done with great frequency lately, reason deserts me. Everything coagulates and my brain is deadlocked. I can't make a decision; alternatives and options elude me. Sometimes the
one thing that can jolt me into action is to remember Suga straddling a magnificent pyramid, heating a small black-handled curling iron with an ancient pinkish-hued oil lamp.

 

Well, there I was, relaxing in Suga's salon chair with a delicate porcelain cup of steaming green tea, as he precisely clipped my hair lock by lock. I asked him about his book agent, and he wrote down her name and number with a calligraphic pen in his elegant script. I sent the agent, Connie Clausen, my book proposal the next morning.

Two days later she called me and, without a preamble, said that she believed she could get “good money” for my idea. I was thrilled. I let myself dream that it could be as much as ten thousand dollars! She had already contacted several houses that were interested and she wanted to take me for an interview at the one she thought would best publish the book.

Dressed in the most conservative clothing I owned from my long-ago
Glamour
days, a gray Ralph Lauren pantsuit and my only well-worn pair of Manolos, I met Connie, clad entirely in shades of pink, at 2 Park Avenue, the offices of Clarkson Potter, then owned by a grizzled and aged eminence named Nat Wartels.

Mr. Wartels sat in an enormous office behind a stupendous mahogany desk piled high with manuscripts and yellowing copies of
The New York Times.
At least a half dozen ashtrays were filled with mashed cigar and cigarette butts.

He and his team discussed my idea among themselves, asked me a few questions, and then the portly Mr. Wartels rose up, walked over to my chair, placed his hand on the back of it, leaned down over me with fetid breath, and asked, “How do you think you'll be able to handle appearing on television?”

“Television?” I repeated. Television? I hadn't thought about going on television. My parents would not like it. I would be fired from the
Times
for writing this kind of book, and I needed the job.

“I was planning on writing under a pseudonym,” I said.

He returned to his desk and waved us out of his office.

On the street, I told Connie that there was absolutely and positively no way I could write a sex book under my own name. No way on god's little green earth.

Two hours later Connie called me at home.

“Wartels has offered you a truly enormous advance of seventy-five thousand dollars for
How to Make Love to a Man
—” she said.

“Unbelievable!” I interrupted.

“But,” she continued, “you must write it under your own name. You have a classy job and a classy background. They think it is essential for that to come out so the book will have authority and will sell.”

“I just can't do it,” I said. “I just can't. I have a son to think about. I have parents who would freak out.”

We hung up, but not before she convinced me to sleep on it. Oh my good god in heaven!!!! I could not even conceive of what I would do with seventy-five thousand dol
lars—minus, of course, the agent's ten percent fee. I could quit all my jobs and paint. Perhaps I could get a gallery show. Anything seemed possible!

But alas, I thought before falling asleep, I couldn't compromise my name, or embarrass my son, or lose my other jobs by writing a sex book. Even for that kind of money.

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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