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Authors: Jane Juska

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BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
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As for me, their teacher, I have never been loved by so many for so good a reason.

FREDERICK'S WRITING IS different from the other students'. While almost everyone works on short stories or poems or articles, Frederick is writing a novel. It is about two best friends, Harriet and Evelyn, who spend their days happily in the dressing room of a large department store trying on clothes. Their clothes are the work of a very imaginative writer: they have peplums, ruffles, polka dots mixed with stripes—the women giggle over their daring—and push-up bras that send them laughing so hard the manager comes to call.

During our conference, I ask Frederick what the conflict is in his novel. “Is it the manager?” “Oh, no,” says Frederick, “he gets a real kick out of Harriet especially.” He thinks for a moment. “There isn't no conflict.”

I explain that, to make the story move ahead, a conflict is very helpful, that most novels have conflicts. “Problems?” I ask. “Do Harriet and Evelyn have any problems?”

“No,” he says. “They're having too good a time.”

“What will happen next?”

“They go home to their men and try on their new clothes.”

“Are the men upset with all the money they spent?”

“No, they like their ladies to look good.” He looks into the future. “Then they go out. To dance.”

Next.

THE LAST NIGHT of this class, Reading, Writing and Telling Stories, is devoted to storytelling. This is a major part of their final exam. Each man will tell the class a story that he has written or read or heard. Over the course of the semester, the students and I have developed criteria for good storytelling. They will use these criteria to score the storytelling of their classmates; scores are from 1 (low) to 5 (high). The men have been given opportunities to practice their stories in front of the class. “No way am I going to practice,” says Lionel. “This is gonna be a one-shot deal.” I can't blame him; I practiced telling my story and they gave me a 4. “What do you mean, I got a four!” I exclaim. “I'm the teacher!” “Just being honest with you, that's all.”

I am a nervous wreck. Will they do it? What if they don't? Tonight's guests—a professional storyteller, my two teaching assistants, the director of the education program at the prison— all of them invited with permission of the students—add to the seriousness of the task ahead. The room is full. So is the moon.

Things go well. Lionel tells the story he has written for his son; Willie tells a story of how he learned to read in Jamaica; Barney tells a shaggy-dog story he heard growing up in Minnesota. Steve reads a diatribe against unjust and illegal intimidation, the object of his fury the policeman in
Les Misérables
named Javert. And now it is Frederick's turn.

Tonight Frederick's hair is a burnished gold, no waves, just a bronze cap; his nails shine out beyond his fingertips; we can see that, while his wardrobe is limited to his prison blues like all the rest of the men in the room, he has taken special care for this special night. He sashays up to the front of the room. “Excuse me,” he says in a lisp I hope we have all gotten used to, “I'll be right back.” He leaves the room. Where has he gone? Will he return? He'd better or he'll get shot.

Suddenly, the door flies open and in he comes, pelvic thrusts worthy of Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee, the entire Golden Age of Strippers. To a drumbeat felt only by Frederick, he swivels his hips stage left, stage right, extends his right arm, palm-side up, and beckons to his audience with fiery red nails. “Ooooo,” he says. Center stage now, he leans forward, shaking his little booty, and says, “Hi there, boys and girl!” He puts his fingers to his lips and giggles. “I've got a story for you tonight. But first, I want to get us all in the mood. I want us all to sing a little song. Ready?”

Oh, god. What if somebody can't stand it anymore and just lets Frederick have it? Where is the whistle I'm supposed to use in case of emergency? I peek through my fingers. Every single person in this room is rigid with wonder (let's hope that's what it is). Many of them stare open-mouthed. Frederick takes this as a sign of encouragement and begins to lead us in song. “Eensy, beensy spider went up a water spout,” he sings. With a roll of his hips, he beckons and says, “Come on now, everybody. Sing out.”

The deus ex machina comes in the form of my teaching assistant, Josh, who is a graduate student in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, who deserves to get his Ph.D. now without any further effort on his part, and who will, without question, go to heaven if he so chooses. The men like Josh; Josh begins to sing. Some of the men join in. I join in. Frederick says, “Okay, now, from the top,” and before we know it, we are all singing, sort of. Steve is having trouble making his mouth move, having learned only how to smile, not to sing; Cameron, always afraid a bipolar swing will strike, sings worriedly as only Cameron can; and Willie, in his Jamaican accent and his rolling bass, outdoes us all in volume and enthusiasm. Frederick is having a ball.

At the end of the song, he prances back and forth across the room and says, “And now I'm going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, there were three bears.” In Frederick's version, Mama Bear wears a cute little ruffled apron with navy polka dots, and whenever she talks, especially when she says, “Someone's been . . . ” her little behind sticks out and her hips wiggle back and forth and she giggles up and down the scale. And when Mama Bear says, “Oh, my,” which she does three times, her manicure sparkles as her hands flex and point, flex and point. At the end, Frederick says, “And now I'm going to tell you another story, about three little pigs.”

“Sit down, Fred,” says Marcellus.

“Yeah, quit while you're ahead,” says Cameron.

Frederick takes his seat. He is delighted when the class awards him a 3. He rises from his chair, says, “Thank you all,” and curtsies.

At the end of the previous week's conference, Frederick whispered to me, “I know one thing. When I get out of this place, I'm going straight.”

The miracle of language.

TEN

The New Millennium: In Which I Turn Sixty-Seven

We are never so defenceless against su fering as when we love,
never so forlornly unhappy as when we have lost our
love-object or its love.

—SIGMUND FREUD, in
Civilization and Its Discontents

Spread your legs, sweetie.

—ROBERT

Near the end of my mother's life, confined to her bed by the illness that would kill her, unable to perform her wifely duties, she suggested to my father that he find someone, another woman, who might provide him comfort. He refused. My parents loved each other very much. Neither of them, though they loved me very much, would have understood or accepted or—god forbid—encouraged my search for someone who might provide me comfort. My mother would have been appalled, my father more confused than ever over his daughter's life. They would both think, though they might never say it, You reap what you sow. Or, in contemporary, though less interesting, language, Behavior has consequences. Or, if we turn once more to science, For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And, one of maybe two absolutes I hold to, everyone is 100 percent responsible for what happens to him or her. The exception to this, of course, is children. Well, I knew all that. I knew when I went into this thing that I could get hurt. I knew I could get beaten up every which way, slapped around on both coasts, mugged, assaulted all across the country, suffer injuries from which I would never recover. I could even die. I knew, when I decided to fill my life fully, I could not choose only the good parts. And I did it anyway. I did not begin this adventure seeking a husband, a long-term relationship (what an ugly bunch of sounds), a partner. I liked where I lived and, for the most part, the life I lived there. It just didn't have any touching in it. I would see what would happen. I would act with little consideration for the reaction. I would sow; who knew what I would reap. But I had felt a little dying happening to me for too long. I suppose placing the ad was my way of raging against that. I sure as hell wasn't going to go gentle into that good night. Fuck, fuck against the dying of the light.

Foreplay never entered my mind. True, in my ad in the
New
York Review,
I had offered the possibility of conversation about Trollope as a prelude to sex, but more or less as a courtesy to men who might be shy. For myself, I was ready to hop to it after a bit of touching in all the right places, so I was unprepared for what happened, for the seduction that would come so powerfully in the form of e-mail on my screen and letters in my mailbox; I could not have predicted that Trollope would be so easily forgotten. A warning or an observation, take it for what you will. One ought not to fall in love with someone by way of their writing. One must be especially careful if the writing is good, for then one assumes the writer is good, funny, clever, profound, sensitive, smart, wise, loving, and true. It is unfair to the writer and dangerous to the reader to hold the writer to the standards of his writing, for in his writing, the writer is his best self; in person, he is a person, and we all know what that means. Well, not all of us. If you have been to as many readings as I have where a terribly attractive man, a writer, sits gracefully in a chair, one arm thrown over the back, one corduroyed leg draped gracefully over the other, on occasion so bold as to wear a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbow, you will have found yourself in an audience composed of—need I tell you— women. Oh, here and there some man—is he gay?—listens intently. Don't look at the faces of these women; if you are a woman, you will be embarrassed for your entire sex; if you are a man, you will feel contempt. The questions they ask: Where do you get your ideas? Do you write in the morning? Or my favorite, How important to your writing is your dream life? Jesus. Those aren't even the questions. The real question is, How do I get into your pants? You want mine? Here. Think Tom Stoppard: to die for. Richard Ford: yummy. I don't go to these things anymore; why torture myself? What right do we have to peer at and slather over a man who spends most of his life alone making language the rest of us never even attempt? Read Kafka's “A Hunger Artist.” Go to the zoo; the odds are fairer there. If you have to go to these readings, buy the book. It's the least you can do. Finally, writers and composers and painters and poets are in love with their art, so, while they might foster your illusions of loving and working side by side, they most often remain faithful to what they create, leaving not as much room for you as you deserve. Good luck.

GIVEN THE TERRAIN I was covering, landmines everywhere, it was only a matter of time before I stepped on one. Why did I think I wouldn't? His name was Robert. He was a wonderful writer. I fell in love.

In the beginning, when I was performing triage on all those letters, Robert was a weak
maybe.
On the inside of a notecard in a fine and legible hand he wrote very little to intrigue me. He was seventy-two and, lest I think him, in his words, a couch potato (dorky), he had hiked the Grand Canyon the previous summer (doubtful). However, he was a professor (retired), formerly on the medical faculty at Michigan, and you know what a sucker I am for academic credentials. He had had two marriages, twenty years each, and was divorced. And he had written the magic words “I would like to know you better.” So on a cold and rainy Wednesday in early December 1999, I called the number he had written at the bottom of his note. He didn't remember me (memory gone), then did and seemed pleased (lonely). His voice was thin and wavery.

We talked disjointedly about nothing, and finally, just to get him off the line, I promised to call him in a few days. That's that, I thought, and for the first, but not the last, time wiped my hands clean of him. A week later, he called. “You said you would call,” he said, clearly disappointed. I felt awful. I had promised and I hadn't, I apologized, and we began to talk. He sounded much stronger, not at all old, lonely, and sick, and in the end we exchanged e-mail addresses. I was in for it now.

Who would have thought the old man to have so much e-mail in him? The rollercoaster was about to leave. I hurried aboard. If that goddamn amusement park had had one of those measurement lines kids have to be taller than in order to ride, the one I needed was some kind of line that measured experience and toughness. I wouldn't have come halfway up. Somebody shoulda sent me home. Somebody shoulda told me to come back when I was older. Like one hundred.

Between early December and mid-January, Robert and I will write almost two hundred pages of e-mail to each other. I will stop eating and start drinking. I will lose ten pounds. I will learn the joys of phone sex. He writes,
“If you were to call me at
night, you needn't worry about waking me.”
I call. I wake him up. His voice is warm and slow from sleep. It slides over my body just as his hands will, and from this very beginning I feel wrapped up, soothed, and very, very warm. “What are you wearing?” he whispers. “Just a minute,” I answer, “nothing.” His voice strokes me into orgasm.

From him I will hear, for the first time in my life, “I adore you.” For the first time ever, a man will call me “sweetie.” But I am not completely gone. I send him a warning, Friar Laurence's to Romeo:
“These violent delights have violent ends/And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,/Which, as they kiss, consume. . . . Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;/Too swift arrives as tardy as too
slow.”
We are behaving like teenagers, I tell him. Of course, that's part of the fun of it; for me, I never got to behave like a teenager when I was one; for Robert, I will learn that falling in love with me and the expression of that will become an embarrassment, something he'd prefer to forget, like his adolescence. But I don't know that he is such a grown-up, not yet. So when I worry about the haste with which we are progressing and suggest we keep an eye on how others might see the two of us up all night talking on the phone, at the computer most of the day talking, talking to each other, telling each other things that I, at least, had never told anyone, he writes to me
“. . . last night on television I happened upon an interview with an attractive woman of about 40
who had rowed a boat across the Atlantic twice. I'll bet her mother and
friends would have tried to dissuade her.”
Isn't that elegant? Robert's e-mails were one elegant sentence after another, but do I think I should have listened to the warnings of my dead mother and grandmother and my living, sensible friends? No. Robert describes me thus:
“Your ad presented a woman who knows her mind and
is clear about what she wants and will plunge ahead with a real sense of adventure.”
Yup, that's me. I will row my boat all the way across the United States of America, and more than twice.

By Christmas we are in love. Jesus, I can hardly stand to write that. Even now, as I write with all the hindsight in the world, I'm not sorry. I'm not apologetic, not even embarrassed. A little defensive, maybe, but not in the least regretful. Right off the bat I got what I wanted: “sex with a man I like,” and love from someone who would let me love him back. How could anyone wish any of that had never happened? Falling in love is wonderful, just like the song says. And when the other person falls in love, too, and it's with you, it's beyond compare. How many times have you fallen in love? Three for me, this time being the third. I loved being in the moment of love: I laughed easily, cried easily, tingled all over, danced alone in the moonlight (my neighbors were on sabbatical) to Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” and Croce's “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” with Madonna's “Sooner or Later” for variety. Every so often I felt beautiful. I was lucky. I got the glass that was all the way full. It ranneth over, and, alas, so thirsty was I, I never ever felt the warning waters lapping at my ankles, so I damn near drowned
. “I think I am
falling in love with you,”
he wrote, and then that he had and now that he did. He could have told me also that he had buried several bodies beneath his apartment building, was stewing the corpse of his latest conquest, looked forward to flaying his date for the evening. Would have made no difference to me. I was in love. How young I was then, sixty-six.

“What are your fantasies?” I tell him everything. I tell him of my secret fascination with the beginning of The Story of O, in which O, in the backseat of a taxi along with her lover, does his bidding: “You have too many clothes on,” he says. “Unfasten your stockings . . .” Near their destination, he unbuttons her blouse, “groping for the shoulder straps of her brassiere, which he snips with a small penknife. . . . Now, beneath her blouse which he has buttoned back up, her breasts are naked and free, as is the rest of her body, from waist to knee.” I find that first chapter immensely stimulating. The rest of the book I don't like; as you no doubt know, the lover hands her over to humiliation and despair; in the end, she's supposed to like sadomasochism. Nonsense. But this stuff in the taxi. There was this movie, the first scene in a taxi. Tom Berenger, I think, and a beautiful woman are in the backseat of a taxi and, as I recall, they make love and they don't even know each other. This taxi thing weakens my knees. I send to Robert Elise Paschen's poem “Taxi.” It goes, “Why don't we cruise/Times Square at noon/ enjoy the jam/I'm not immune/to your deft charm/in one stalled car/I'd like to take/you as you are.” He likes it. I tell him I get squishy when I read that chapter in O and when I read his letters. He writes that he loves the taste and smell of squishy, that he could get lost between my legs. Jesus. And he tells me that he will meet me at the airport on January 18 and that we will take a cab home to his apartment.

In Robert's photograph he is not as appealing as he is in his e-mail. He looks kind of like a ferret: close-together, heavy-lidded dark eyes in a broad brow, full upper lip, more teeth than his mouth can hold. Only days after our meeting I will find his face endlessly fascinating, eternally sexy, and sometimes, when he looks at me, full of love. The photograph of me I have sent him is that picture my son took in which the lines in my face don't show, the pouch of my stomach is hidden beneath my sweater, the white of my hair is quite possibly blond. In the picture I am confident. When I emerge from the plane at JFK, I am not, but I have no trouble spotting him. I walk toward him and he looks over my head and behind me at the remaining passengers. “Robert?” I say. Startled, he looks down at me and says, “Oh, hi, sweetie, I didn't recognize you. You don't look at all like your picture.” Does my heart sink? Nah, well, maybe a little, just briefly. In the taxi he takes me in his arms and kisses me. In the rearview mirror, the driver's eyes open wider and wider. New York, New York, a helluva town.

Back in December, on the telephone, he had said, “What would you like to do in New York? You can have anything you want.”

On another morning, he called and said, “I am sitting in front of my computer with the seating chart of the Metropolitan Opera on my screen. Where would you like to sit for
Madame Butterfly
?”

“In your lap.”

He laughed. “Good, that'll save me the price of a ticket.”

And so he would show me New York: the opera, the ballet, the theater, the Frick, the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim. The whole city was mine, a gift from Robert, who, like me, had loved New York his whole life.

Yet I am not entirely trusting either in Robert or in me or in the circumstances that brought us together and would call for us to share his studio apartment. I write to Caroline, my wonderful, beautiful, successful thirty-three-year-old niece, who lives in Midtown. I tell her everything: about the ad, the multiple responses, Robert, my planned trip. She is enchanted, delighted. “Come stay with me if you want to or need to,” she says. She is my backup, my back door, my escape hatch. She is also my friend, whose generosity I will count on in the months to come and whose patience and tolerance I will test to the limits. Not yet, but soon.

BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
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