The War Room
This is a story about the year I exploded into flames.
Which turns out to be more common than you’d think, among forty- something humans. Yea, we can hold it together in our thirties, with a raft of hair products and semi-tall nonfat half-caf beverages and much brisk walking to a lot of interesting appointments.
Come the forties, though, cracks begin to appear. One staggers suddenly along life’s path; gourmet coffee splats; the wig slips askew.
In other words, my friends, THE WHEELS COME OFF. Whatever vehicle you were so confidently hurtling along in in Act One of your life, that sped you to age twenty-six, thirty-four, thirty-nine . . . even forty- two? Yea, that buggy will skitter sideways into a ditch, flip over, burst into flames; firemen will have to use the Jaws of Life to get you out. And if you do not find another car to climb into, well . . .
“Look at Anna Karenina!” I remember exhorting my female writing students at Marymount College, spreading my arms wide, and expansively. The Rebecca A. Mirman Chair of Creative Writing—this was my Second Act, the sudden forgiving windfall of a plum teaching job, complete with a year’s worth of truly excellent health insurance, and I played it to the hilt, never mind that I was sweating a lot. Even trying to figure out the faculty parking made me sweat. Anyway, I’d been trying to describe the difference between metaphor and metonymy, how Anna Karenina’s little red handbag sitting by the side of the train tracks does not “symbolize” her but actually “is” her, which is to say it STANDS for her, in the manner of a linguistic SIGN . . .
When all at once I heard myself veer off into a tangent about how depressed I am that over and over I read that novel, year after year, and things never turn out better for Anna. By my count, the last time Anna is happy is on page seventy-six out of a five-hundred-page tome. She peaks at the ball, where she dances with Count Vronsky—and it’s not even during the WHOLE ball—it’s not during the waltz, the gavotte, the schottische, or the fox-trot but in particular during . . . the MAZURKA.
That’s how it was for women in those days, it was all about the MAZURKA—
And then, inevitably, the MAZURKA ends and now come four hundred pages of falling action, of dragging tediously around Europe with Vronsky, consuming all those carbs together, putting on weight, particularly around the neck (with a potato-based diet, all the weight for those Russians would certainly fly to the neck). It’s all about overpriced English baby prams and go-nowhere piazza remodeling projects in Italy (It is! Reread it! Feel free to skip the endless Levin/wheat farming parts, I always do), modern plots for women in the post–Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice/Elizabeth Bennet era boiling down to just four words:
Indeed—with sudden inspiration, I turned and wrote, in giant letters on the board:
And then I drew a circle AROUND and a diagonal slash THROUGH Mr. Darcy, as one might on a verboten no fumar sign at the train station of life.
“Portrait of the narrative in the postfeminist age?”
And I felt my Marymount College girls actually shrink, and gasp.
“But that’s what true liberation of the soul means!” I cried out, smacking my chalk triumphantly on the board, like a teeny tiny épée. “It’s not like you put on your ‘Save Darfur’ T-shirt, march . . . and then go home to Mr. Darcy . . .”
At which point we entered a brief conversational snorl in which one of the girls argued that HER Mr. Darcy might well encourage her to march, as long as she went home every night to Mr. Darcy’s estate at Pemberley, which she felt she could live with. Another imagined she could share a tent with HER Mr. Darcy in Darfur, perhaps Mr. Darcy was even the co-organizer of the Save Darfur effort . . . And now imagining the safari wear, the eco-carbon credits, and the tangle of yellow rubber Lance Armstrong bracelets, I was struck with a distinct, dismal Jane-Austen-novel-remade-as-a-summer-cable-TV-movie- starring-Matthew-McConaughey feeling. No!
“What I’m saying is, no matter what you do, at age forty . . . THE WHEELS COME OFF!
A pierced-nose student in a Frida Kahlo muscle T clarified it for her more flighty, foolish sisters: “She means for women, at forty, the TRAINING WHEELS come off—”
“No!” I yelled. My upper lip was beaded with moisture, the room felt so hot. “THE WHEELS OF YOUR CAR! THEY SIMPLY! COME! OFF!”
The tragedy for Anna Karenina, of course, is that she lived in St. Petersburg in the 1870s rather than America in the 2000s. One no longer has to hurl oneself under a train upon turning forty—there is medication for that. No, nowadays forty and all the ages like forty (which apparently can range up to fifty-two or even sixty-one) are a mystical opportunity to begin an inward journey of fabulous wisdoming. (On the back of a tea packet I saw it recently, used as a verb: “Wisdoming.” Even the prose of our herbal tea nowadays is amazing!) No, with proper hormonal and nutritional supplements, and a full tasting menu of Pfizer antidepressants, it’s no longer necessarily a bad thing, this bursting-into-flames, this midlife “transition,” this second adolescence—
(Well, perhaps for the men it is bad, particularly for those who’ve already managed to live THEIR ENTIRE ADULT LIVES in a state of adolescence, and here I am thinking not of Count Vronsky of Russia but of my ex-boyfriend of Culver City, Count Bruce.)
Forty-something women, though—this kicking off of their calcified/ thirty-something/Gail Sheehy/Passages lobster shells is the golden time. By God, they’ve EARNED their raucous “You go, girl!”s, their giddy high-fives with somewhat flabby upper arms (upon which shudder bold temporary tattoos), their raspberry-flavored tequila shots, their “Woo woo!”s gaily Dopplering out
the back of the speeding-off Mustang. Lord love ’em, they deserve escape, these sparkle-eyed, plus-aged women, and makeovers, and perhaps a fashion spree, or at least a mad, buffalo-sized wicker basket of wildflower soaps, raffia twine tumbling everywhere amid a crazy menagerie of rose petals and tiny mad bottles of lotion . . .
AROMATHERAPY LITERALLY UNBOUND.
Yea, these women deserve it all, so long have they plowed in the arid fields of their marriages, with dull oxen husbands, in that ceaseless drumbeat of domestic tedium. Divorce is tragic . . . but becomes a bold new start as, wiping tears, our heroine manages to pack just the one overnight bag and grab the red-eye to Portugal or Bali to live in a thatched-roof beach hut and feel the sand in her toes and wear a sarong and drink sangria and have a hot affair with a poetry-writing swordfisherman named Paolo who helps her shed her puritanical type A ways and teaches her about the tides. Come midnight, they tear off her bra and BURN it, howling, like wine-drunk Santa Fe coyotes, up at the stars!
Or at least that was how the forties were being rapturously described in the book I fell asleep on, my face smashed into the spine, on the night my year of fire began.
The book in question was the lush midlife literary romance 28 Beads. It was an Oprah pick, and supposedly ideal book-to-fall-asleep-by—all the female hosts on all the morning shows were reading it. 28 Beads had inspired new lines of scents, tropical marinades, wraparound sarongs (I had never seen Joy Behar in a sarong—it was quite a revelation). I had been so swept away by the fantasy, I myself had just placed twin swordfish filets on the grill, squeezed on a rhapsodic amount of lemon, hiked up my white caftan pants, and in fact was just preparing to wade into the ocean, Paolo waving at me from beyond, under a giant blue cyclorama with puffy white clouds— (And that should have been the tip-off—that sky was much too blue . . . )
When my eyes popped robotically open in my familiar stiflingly close bedroom, much like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. The time: 2:07 a.m. Damn! Where was MY fab world-traveling divorce? I thought. I have the miles (coach)! But no. Here I was, once again, waking up in the middle of my life . . . adventure-impaired.
Adventure? Me? In my forties? Where would I even start?
I sat up in the darkness, took a sip of warmish, even brackish, water out of a cartoon jelly glass.
I could start with feverishly burning my bra, sure. But that heady act of womyn’s liberation was so much easier in yon freewheelin’ Joni Mitchell days of olde, wasn’t it? For me personally, a braflagration . . . that would take a full week because by now I have so damned many of them. Look at that unsorted pile of laundry, heaped like a dark hunchback on my dresser. Over the years, in a haze of Condé Nast confusion, I’ve bought—what?—“angel bras,” “T-shirt bras,” “Wonderbras,” “Miracle Bras” . . . I have such a flotilla, I could make my own giant bra ball. The triumphant Carole King music would screech to a halt as I literally struggled to rope the bras together.
(I’m also not sure if the Miracle Bra would actually burn—bought in 1998, the Miracle has since disintegrated into a lone plastic strap upon which hang two lumpen cups of strange discolored polymer. It’s Victoria’s most poorly kept Secret.)
Of course, a bigger gravitational force holding me prisoner of
un-Unspontaneity in un-Adventure land (a new un-Ride in un- Disneyland) are my two daughters. They are disproportionately young, ages two and four, because in the wacky postmodern jumble of things, I’ve happened to birth relatively late, like one of those National Geographic turtles who washes up gasping on the beach with her last leathery eggs. At my advanced age, it is all I can do to keep track of all the teeny-tiny slightly unmatched socks that flow past, along with all the pint-sized children with their teeny-tiny unmatched names (Colin, Cole, Corey, Coley, Colby). Which is why I refer to all children now as “Honey.” I even refer to socks as “Honey.”
Adding to that gravitational pull (ciao, Paolo!) is my partner for the past eighteen years—a nice man who is even, unfortunately, soulful. Mike plays guitar, grows tomatoes, bakes bread, and can chat about the tides all day long. A musician, the father of my children has failed to have the sort of heartless if bracingly lucrative career (corporate law, international banking, periodontal surgery) that would now fund defiant whirlwind travels for me in full flaming Condé Nast Traveler style. Picture the soul of Mr. Darcy with the income of Mr. Collins. (If you recall, Mr. Collins’s wealth was in third place, behind Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingham and even behind Mr. Collins’s patroness, the insufferable Lady Catherine de Bourgh.)
In a way, though, these things are all a moot point. I can’t run away to a tropical island, I’m very much needed right where I am, because . . .
Well . . . ?
Okay. Has it ever seemed to you like this planet we live on is a hairsbreadth from utterly exploding out of control? Has it? What’s interesting is, you’re right! And it turns out that hairsbreadth of restraint, that one lone figure with that one saving finger in the dike . . . is me.
And in the dead of night, when everyone else is asleep, that’s when I personally check and re-check that all the burners are off on the world’s stove.
It’s similar to air travel. When I’m on a two-hour flight, I open my airline magazine to our route map and, usually up in the clear space around Alaska? I draw two circles, divide each pie into twelve slices, and carefully shade in each new slice every time another five minutes has gone by. See?
In this way, instead of helplessly “riding along” on the flight, I am actively, energetically “completing” the flight. I also make evenly spaced hash marks along our route and shade those in as well. (If it is available, I listen in to what our pilots are talking about in the cockpit, to ensure that they’re “getting it.”)
On arrival, I carefully replace the magazine in the seat pocket, so the next passenger can fly into a panic, realizing he is flying across the country with crazy people.
So—checking the current state of the entire world—let’s get to it. I put my water glass down, swing my legs out of the bed, and go to work.
If he were awake, of course, Mike would get up and bar my path. Unlike myself, a nervous denizen of the city, Mike, from South Dakota, holds the quaint agrarian belief that the night hours are for sleeping, not angsting. It is Mike who proferred the idea that falling-asleep books should be calming, comforting . . . And, indeed, on his nightstand, which I’m passing right now, the happy moonlight (I picture a Man in the Moon playing a banjo) reveals a veritable boatload of Tom Sawyer–ish cheer. You have books about whaling adventures, bass fishing, how to cook meat, and of course, Popular Mechanics. Have you ever looked inside Popular Mechanics? (I have, in the bathroom—where it belongs.) Popular Mechanics will have a whole article on how an outdoor barbecue works, complete with fussy computer diagrams. Here is a steak! How does it heat? Grill? Convect? What IS convection? Does BACON convect?
That’s why Mike himself bought me the 28 Beads (which I’ve started referring to as 28 Beads and No Pants, what with all the Tantric sex), on sale at Costco. He laid the book down before me and slowly backed away from it, with his hands up, saying: “Apparently it’s a very popular women’s book. For women.” On the word women, he waggled his fingers, as though saying: “These are tampons. It’s a women’s thing. It’s for women.” (Or alternatively: “It’s an Oprah book. Doctors recommend you insert this inspiring-female-journey-from- darkness-to-light into a medicated bath puff. Smear with aloe vera. It’s a women’s thing. For women.”)
Mike wasn’t bothered by the book being an escapist divorce romantic fantasy. Indeed, I can just picture my husband in my pulsing Caribbean dream, under that too-blue cinematic sky, a bit farther down the beach, in shorts and a baseball cap, cheerfully throwing a line into the water. (Like Paolo, Mike is an avid fisherman, although, from the Midwest, Mike likes to catch trout.) Yea, I can see Mike airily waving us on: “Sandra, Paolo, have fun this weekend! Read poetry to each other! Learn the macarena! Compare scents of different massage oils! Do all those girly vacation things you enjoy! While you’re away, I’ll turn these swordfish filets over for you. Although in my opinion, Sandra, you may have over-lemoned. But never mind, it’s your dream—lemon these fish the way you like. However, whatever ELSE you do in bed at two a.m.—” Here Mike’s normally sunny snub-nosed face would darken: “Do not let me find you lying awake ANGSTING!”
From the Hardcover edition.