As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, I’m at the threshold of something that I don’t yet feel quite okay about calling “old age.” But what the hell: For the lack of a gentler term, it is old age. (The Social Security system has gotten us accustomed to seeing sixty-five as our exit from “working adult” status in the same way that the Selective Service schooled us to thinking of eighteen as its entry. And, well, I’m over sixty-five, so there you are.)
I see an athletic trainer every week to work on strength and balance and the other stuff you need to live in a body that’s nearing its best-by date. When we were first getting to know each other, he saw me struggling with an exercise, and said sympathetically, “I look at you and I can see that you’re used to being strong and competent, and you’ve always been able to do the things you want to do. And now you can’t, always. That must be really hard for you.” By the time he finished, I was blinking back tears, because yes, goddammit, I am strong and capable, and I usually can do whatever needs doing, and, yes, I hate with the heat of a thousand supernovas the fact that now, sometimes, I can’t.
The shadow of the Grim Reaper passed over me for the first time earlier this year, and now I have a shiny new stent in my crusty old heart.
And my friends my own age have started to die. The first woman with whom I ever fell in love, one year older than me, died last week after a coronary bypass – not her first. Another old friend and play partner is fighting prostate cancer as I write this.
Edward recently started looking into what might be involved in moving to a retirement community. My feelings about this are so mixed that you could drink them as a smoothie.
As I look back over my life, though, I see a pattern: I’ve always been in such a hurry, and I don’t know why. If I were a cop, I’d pull me over and ask, “Hey, lady, where’s the fire?”
I was never much good at being a child. I was one of those pudgy, bookish children who enjoys the company of adults more than that of other kids, because adults talk about more interesting stuff. I have a clear memory from eighth grade of a group of teachers on smoke break calling, “Hey, Janet, come up here and amuse us for a while!” Even then I thought this odd (though flattering); now I consider it downright weird and kind of creepy. But I joined them and amused them for a while, and got a small, desperately desired taste of adulthood.
By high school I was charging forward as fast as my stubby legs would carry me. Of course, a teenager who longs for the trappings of adulthood is pretty much a redundancy – but I look back now and for the life of me I’m not sure what I was trying to accomplish. A lot of it, I think, had to do with sussing out the limits of my ability to control my environment: sexy clothes, for example, give their wearer a kind of power that to a sixteen-year-old is intoxicating.
(At my twentieth high school reunion, I chatted for a while with a man who had been in several of my classes but whom I’d never known well. “I’ve always wanted to ask you something,” he said. “Back then, when you didn’t wear a bra and people could see your nipples through your shirt, did you know what you were doing?”
And I couldn’t answer him. Did I wake up that day and think, “Today is my day to torture a bunch of horny teenaged boys?” No. But did I notice that wearing that shirt got me attention? Yeah, probably. And that’s being a teenaged girl in a nutshell.)
Of course, what I wanted most desperately of all was a boyfriend.
I can’t remember actually ever feeling what I now know to be sexual attraction toward a boy, or for that matter a girl, my own age. I was having near-constant fantasies about spanking and discipline, but they never included genital sex – so I didn’t recognize them as sex fantasies, and thus made no attempt to reconcile those impossible desires with what I thought was “normal” sexuality. Wanting to kiss, to make out, to have intercourse – I don’t think I ever once got turned on by those thoughts, although the desire to do those things was urgent and real.
My major high school crush was an amazing Chinese-American overachiever, who simultaneously maintained the school’s highest GPA, was a starter – at 5’6” – on the basketball team, and played the piano beautifully. I often imagined kissing him, but when I tried to find a turn-on in the fantasy, I came up, well, dry. The crush was real and hopeless and painful, and half a century later I have no idea what it was I wanted so badly.
I can guess, though. In high school I skated between cliques – not pretty (or, let’s face it, normal) enough to be popular, too socially awkward to be a slut (I would have been if anybody had thought to ask, but nobody did), too mouthy to be one of the quiet kids who wander like Hollywood extras through the halls of every high school, not science-y enough to hang out with the geeks, too much of a good girl to be welcome among the stoners. But having such an exemplary boyfriend would have cemented me a place in the social hierarchy. It would have gotten me seen. And god, did I yearn to be seen.
As things stood, though, I had no solid place in the social life of a high school student.
I figured everything would be better once I was in college. So I went to summer school, did some independent study, and graduated a year early.
And there it is again, the huge rush forward. The question is: What wisdom did I miss in my frantic stampede toward my future? Some things people learn in high school – quadratic equations, the Bill of Rights, what a topic sentence is – are easy. But then there’s the harder stuff: How do you take care of yourself? Is altering your consciousness a good idea, and, if so, how do you want to do it, and how often should you do it, and what accommodations should you make to ensure that it causes as little harm as possible to the rest of your life? What kind of adult do you intend to be? Is sex something that you want in and of itself, or are you trying to gain status, build your reputation, avoid teasing or bullying, get a boyfriend or girlfriend, attain power? How will you find friends in an environment where you aren’t seeing the same people five days a week for nine months?
I missed all that, and I paid for it, and still sometimes do.
The detail I’d left out of my headlong rush into the future was that most people go to college to learn things. I think I’d imagined skimming along on a frothy mixture of Cliff’s Notes and bullshit, which had worked fine till then – but the professors at UC Santa Cruz were not so easily dazzled. Much of the campus was accessible only on foot, by bike, or via a system of trams I never really got the hang of. I hated long walks, especially on hills, and hadn’t ridden a bicycle since I was twelve. Hence, I missed more classes than I attended. I also found myself unable to perform many of the functions of adulthood – things like keeping my room in a manageable state (I drove away my roommate and nobody else wanted me, so I had a double room to myself), finding new friends, or managing the small allowance my folks sent me every month.
It’s easier to figure out what I missed from college: everything. I was attending an excellent school at its academic peak. William Everson, Tom Lehrer, Norman O. Brown, Tim Hunter and George Hitchcock were just a few of the brilliant individuals who were teaching at UC Santa Cruz during my tenancy there. I, of course, had nothing to learn from them, or from anyone: I was in college because going to college was what smart people did, and I was quite sure I was too smart to learn anything from anyone else. I wrote reams of mediocre poetry (and ignored any input from instructors or workshop members – I’m not sure I ever wrote a second draft of anything), took a few art classes, barely finished the required courses for humanities majors, moped around, and smoked a lot of weed.
Thinking back to those days makes me want to kick my college self squarely in her perky young ass.
I didn’t actually flunk out, although I should have. But when I realized that more of my energy and social life were going into my part-time job as a movie usher than into all my classes put together, I began to think about better uses of my time.
By that point I’d met Frank and lived with him for a year, so when he moved back to Davis, his hometown, I followed him. I asked him to marry me, and we did, when I was twenty and he was twenty-one.
I was a fucking adult, goddammit, and getting married was what adults did.
I did eventually go back to school, at UC Davis – taking the bare minimum of courses necessary to finish my bachelor’s degree. But then I had a few days when I felt kind of queasy, and then my boobs got tender, and, well, I think you can guess the rest of that story.
It was actually Frank’s and my second pregnancy – the first one had been when we were still at Santa Cruz. But even my desire to race forward toward whatever came next was not enough to convince me that a baby at nineteen was a good idea. With my folks’ help, I’d had an abortion (this was in the days when they were only legal if you could get a doctor to say that it would be dangerous to your mental or physical health to have a baby) and got on with my life.
But two years later I was pregnant again – I guess some people just shouldn’t have IUDs – and by then we were married, so, what the hell, we had Miles, and I was a mom at twenty-two. That’s not all that old by the standards of the generation before mine (my mom had me at twenty), but it’s still pretty damn young.
For most of human history, having a first child in your early twenties meant that there was something wrong with you – that you were too unattractive to get a husband, or that something was stopping you from conceiving. But the world these days is complicated enough that it takes at least a couple of decades to get the hang of it. At twenty-two, I could hold down a minimum-wage job (setting type for the local paper), prepare an edible meal, do laundry as long as nobody was too picky about getting it folded and put away, and keep house well enough that nobody was going to die of toxic fumes or spoiled food. Frank was at about the same level, so between the two of us we maintained a rathole apartment, took care of our pets, and ate something besides ramen and peanut butter.
Having a child, though, required a whole different level of functioning. Miles was the easiest of babies, but even an easy baby is a little tornado of needs requiring everything you have to offer: your boobs and your lap and your sleep and your budget and your tear ducts. But I was determined to live an unchanged life, as women did before concepts like “confinement” entered the language. If I’d been a hunter/gatherer, I told myself, I’d have given birth, gotten up with my newborn baby in my arms, left the placenta for predators, and kept on hunting and gathering.
At six weeks postpartum, my cesarean scar was barely healed. But I was ready to take on hunter/gatherer status, so I loaded Miles in the car and drove to Southern California to see my parents and friends.
On the last night of our visit, my sister and dad and Miles and I went out to dinner with friends, who had us over for a drink afterward. It was a pleasant and relaxed evening and we all felt reluctant to end it, but it was late. And then, headed down the flight of steep wooden stairs that led out of their apartment, I overstepped and, my arms full of baby, couldn’t catch myself with the banister. I had (thank god) enough reflexes to throw him clear of my body – but the descent fractured his skull, and I sustained deep bruising all the way down my front.
The intake form at the hospital read “Mother claims she fell down stairs,” which infuriated me then and still does – but can I honestly claim that my blithe hubris did not qualify me for the title of “abusive parent”? Looking forty-plus years back, I’m not sure I like answering that question.
Frank, terrified and helpless, flew down on the first available plane. We drove back together the next day.
I suppose every new parent feels trapped to some degree – but I wonder whether some of the wisdom I’d blithely avoided acquiring, about being a single woman in a fast-changing world, might have made things a little easier.
When Miles was about three, Frank and I decided to order takeout pizza for dinner, because neither of us had the energy to cook. I picked up my bag and keys to go to the car. “I wanna go!” Miles whined.
“I need some time by myself,” I told him. “I’ll just be gone for a little while.”
His enormous brown eyes welled up. “If you want to be by yourself, why do you have a Miles? Why do you have a Frank?”
That conversation took place more than forty years ago, and it still pierces me to the heart.
By the time I was thirty, I’d figured out that my spanking and discipline fantasies were in fact sex fantasies. (I’m very smart in a lot of ways, but kind of slow in others.) And Miles’s question – “Why do you have a Miles? Why do you have a Frank?” was echoing in my brain, along with its later codicil, “Why do you have a Ben?” And I didn’t have an answer except that I loved them all immeasurably.
But the obvious next step – “How do I get to have a Frank and a Miles and a Ben, but still go out in search of the ecstatic intensity my life is so profoundly lacking?” – was not so simple. I tried it with Frank, but his obvious disinterest was a buzzkill for both of us. I tried it with other guys I’d met through their personal ads, trying to figure out whether sadomasochism was an itch that would heal after a couple of cathartic scratches.
In the end, I lost my Frank but kept my Miles and my Ben. Many newly-minted perverts are not so fortunate.
And now, in my late sixties, I’m being offered the chance to charge forward once again. Although Edward is only five years older than I, his disabilities add a decade or so to his functional age: living in a seniors’ community makes perfect sense for him. Because I want to keep my Edward, it seems I’ll have to figure out how to have it make sense for me, too.
As my trainer aptly noted, I’m used to being strong and competent. But just yesterday, I had to ask Ben to tighten the screws holding down the toilet seat, because my hands were simply not strong enough. The last major household task I performed, installing some new faucets in the bathroom, left me limping pathetically for several days. I may be competent, but I’m not so strong anymore. What’s more, I’ve become fragile – everyday bumps and dings leave big bruises, everyday movements lead to angry tendons and restless muscles, and healing takes weeks or months, not days.
So maybe this move isn’t really rushing forward. Maybe it’s exactly what I need for the next couple of decades. But I need to spend some time thinking about what wisdom I’m leaving behind as I move on.
Which is, I suppose, the purpose of this book.
 Still don’t.
 Although I’m happy to say that we have remained good friends in the intervening years.