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Love in the Second Act

Narrow no more

Yesterday, while being fitted for a good pair of (expensive) shoes to wear while traveling between approaching book events, I discovered (to my horror) that (unbeknown to me) I’ve been wearing the wrong size along with the wrong width of shoe for a very long time. OMG! At one time: my foot was so narrow, my mother couldn’t find shoes to fit me. Once: I could walk (and swim) any distance without tiring or grimacing. But: in recent years, my feet begin to ache after a slog. A well-dressed shoe salesman (who resembled Don Draper in Mad Men) likened such a lavish expense to a car needing new tires. Think of yourself as a car. You’d buy new tires for your car, wouldn’t you?

He leaned over and guided my shoeless right foot onto a shiny aluminum Brannock Device (yes, that’s it’s name) and then the left foot. His smell of Calvin Klein’s CK improved my mood. After measuring length, width, shape two times, he unbent, sat up. Our eyes met – his dark brown eyes locked to my even darker eyes. I inquired, What size? He gave me numbers, added that R was half a size smaller than L. Width? I wondered, though I imagined I already knew. Wide! he replied. Wide? Impossible! He slipped my foot back into the device, adjusted the sliding width-measurer. Indeed my feet had become w*i*d*e, flat-ish, bumpy. Well I’ll be damned, I said out loud. A Patsy Cline song comes to mind:

I’ve been so wrong forrrrrrrr so long!

Along the way, as with my shoe width, I’ve swallowed many spiders in order to catch various flies. Sometimes I’ve had success; sometimes not. For no reason at all I’m reminded of an incident from my book Love in the Second Act  set in Act II, Scene VI:

At some moment midway on a flight to Paris, there is a sudden rolling and a surging. I grip the armrests in fear; the woolly-haired (with the face of a crocodile) man next to me, who’s been squeezing slices of lime into his drinks, reacts with merriment. We’ve been discussing favorite films from our youths— Splendor in the Grass, Elmer Gantry, Last Picture Show, Annie Hall, The Sting. He tells me that the very favorite film of his adolescence had once been Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.
“Did you ever see it? You might be a little too young.“
“I saw it.”
“Do you remember the part when the Swedish doctor looks at the clock?”
“I’m not sure.”
“It’s a large clock, a clock in the center of a town. He’s walking through the town, looks at the clock and sees that the clock has no hands.”
“Vaguely.”
“I hadn’t seen it in years. A few weeks ago I rented it and watched it with my daughter who’s in high school.”
“Did she like it?”
“She said she thought it was cool.”
“Did you like it?”
“Not in the same way I liked it when I first saw it.”
“Was it dated?”
“Not really. It was awfully slow. The doctor’s daughter is very stiff. And the doctor …” he laughs. “I remembered him as an old man. But, seeing it now, I saw that he wasn’t old at all. He was about the same age as me. In many ways it seemed like a movie I’d never seen. It was as if I was seeing it for the very first time. Eventually the turbulence calms and I doze. Though most of the shades are drawn in order for people to sleep or watch the film being shown, ours hasn’t been completely pulled, and when I wake I can see the milky light in the sky that means it’s morning in Paris. I open the book of poems by Philip Larkin that I’ve brought to read. Just after they announce the beginning of our descent into Charles de Gaulle Airport, I read and mark a poem called “Faith Healing.”

In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.

I plan to begin my coming book event by discussing Larkin’s poem, but, as it turns out, I don’t.

Walking down Park Avenue South in my expensive new shoes, my balance is better, my feet begin to sing. Calvin Klein’s scent lingers in the happy limbic lobe of my brain. I’m delighted that Don Draper has guided my feet into a new foundation. Now I’ll be able to tie my spine to the center of the earth.

May 18th, a triple blessing

FC0E3CD0-0740-4B89-8FB2-C59BF0CF0074Three people who are precious to me will celebrate their birthdays on May 18th.

First: My beloved sister Nancy (photo left, standing in front of our old Junior High School during a recent trip down memory lane) who owns and runs the beguiling Arbor B & B in High Falls, New York, less than two hours from the city, smack in the center of the alluring beauty of the countryside. Remember the waterfalls into which Natalie Wood flings herself in ‘Splendor in the Grass’? That’s High Falls; the dramatic falls a two minute walk from the Arbor – its gardens, it’s crisp sheets, it’s enfolding duvets and squeaky swing on front porch. Marc Chagal spent the war years in High Falls after barely escaping from the grasping fingers of Hitler’s goons. And, until you’ve tasted Nancy’s breakfast of Herbed Eggs, you  haven’t lived, as I hadn’t, until I did. We know and love each other longer than anyone else in both our lives who remains alive. How lucky I am!

Second: My dear friend Marianne Ihlen. Here’a a photo of Marianne only a few weeks before her recent sudden death, dancing with our young friend, Zoe, during a visit to Oslo.

IMG_2662In the fifties/sixties, ‘almost young,’ poor and unknown Leonard Cohen (a Canadian), met also ‘almost young’ also poor, very beautiful and abandoned, Marianne (a Norwegian) and her young son, Axel, on the rough and dreamy Isle of Hydra in Greece in Greece. They lived together there, traveled and loved each other. Many songs that still reverberate their romance resulted – ‘So Long Marianne‘ ‘Bird on a Wire‘ – among others. We also met on Hydra, in the 70s, and remained friends throughout the years. At one point, breaking a precedent at the time, Marianne agreed to an interview for my book ‘Love In the Second Act, True Stories of Romance, Midlife and Beyond.’ Since then, Marianne has become the subject of a memoir – ‘So Long Marianne‘ – written by Kari Hesthamer and edited, also translated, by Helle Goldman.

Third:  Solly Ganor, originally from Lithuania, friend and author of ‘Light One CandleAttachment-1.gif-74and several sequel autobiographies. He lives in Israel with his wife Pola. I met Solly through historian Eric Saul in Los Angeles years ago and was bowled over by the fiber of the man as well as the unbearable nature of his youthful history. He became a willing subject in two of my Holocaust-related books – ‘A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara, Hero of the Holocaust‘ and ‘Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, Europe 1939-1945.’ If you read nothing else about the Shoah during your lifetime, I suggest you read Solly’s Light One Candle. It says it all and will stay with you evermore.

Writing this I realize the extent of my riches – these loved ones, this sister, those friends, those infinitely deep and complex beings who have enhanced and flavored my life tenfold. Indeed ‘ … friendship is the breathing rose, with sweets in every fold‘ (Oliver Wendell Holmes). I breathe those loved ones in to mark the date of their birth; and in, and in and never cease being nourished by each of their aromatic souls. 

Happy Birthday dear ones !!!

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Song – On May Morning

by

John Milton

Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,

Comes dancing from the east, and leads with her

The flowery May, who from her green lap throws

The yellow cowslip, and the pale primrose.

Hail, bounteous May, that doth inspire Mirth, and youth,

and warm desire; Woods and groves are of thy dressing,

Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing,

Thus we salute thee with our early song,

And welcome thee, and wish thee long.

 

Page 100 – Love in the Second Act

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I feel like a virgin” 

In Greece, I travel to a house on a small island I’ve visited again and again through the years.The light beguiles. On my way back from a swim—yes, the  swimming  goes on into  December sometimes—I pass a man and a woman  I’ve casually known for many years—Maggie Martin, a former dancer originally from Jamaica, and Stathe Dekavallas, a retired Greek architect. They’re known on the island  for their operatic relationship.  They have their arms snaking around each other, swaying slightly from side to side as they walk in the direction of their seafront villa. They hail me, explaining that they’ve had too much wine at lunch because they’re celebrating.

“l feel so strange,” Maggie comments, after kissing me on both cheeks in a queenly gesture.”l feel like a virgin.”

I do a double take. I know that Maggie has been married at least two times before, has a grown daughter and grandchildren, and that Stathe has two children past university age.

“A virgin?”

“Something like that. You see, Stathe got his divorce last week. From the time he got his divorce, Alison, I express to you I haven’t made love to him. It’s so strange to be with a man who doesn’t belong to someone else. After sixteen years of being the other woman, I’m with a man who’s free. I feel shy like a virgin.”

I am so struck by this comment that I ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. They agree and we make an appointment. Still entwined, they stagger on. I hope they’ll remember our appointment. They do. A few days later, I join them in their living room facing the spangled sea at sunset. The spectacle is over, the sun has sunk below the hills and the last lights from it—yellows, pinks,  the palest blue—are draining away. On the walls are wonderful paintings, mostly landscapes, done by local artists. Maggie places a teak tray of drinks, teas and biscuits before us. I bring up the comment that had intrigued me so, while Stathe lights a fire in the stone hearth. The temperature is dropping now that the sun’s gone.

“The other day you told me that you felt like a virgin. Can you explain this?”

There is a long pause. She sips from a tall glass of something that looks like iced tea but, knowing Maggie, probably holds a shot or two of vodka as well. She’s thin as a rake, ageless. Her ochre sibyl’s eyes draw mine.

‘Tm finally living with a man that’s not married .”

She chuckles, sips from her glass.

“It’s easy when you’re living with a man that’s married and you can be a little diva … a devil. Right now I have to face our reality and—it was really crazy—I had toput him away and then retake him as a single man. It’s not logical. It’s only sentimental. It isn’t that I’m a virgin. I want tofeel like a virgin again, like an innocent girl just beginning her journey. I think it’s only me who would react this way.”

This makes more sense.

“Why?” I ask Stathe.” Why divorce after all this time?”

“As we are growing older and older, so we have to put this reality of ours into practicality.”

“You always look so happy when I run into you. So in love.”

He’s compact and wily, has dark, unruly hair, sad eyes.

“We are happy. Bitterly happy,” he replies. “I’ve lived with Maggie now for sixteen years without being married. But it took a long, long time to get my divorce. We came together in 1988. I must tell you, I’m very much to the exotic. I’m bored with the white color and have a penchant to an erotic wife, to have attention to people who have another color. I saw her …”

“Where?”

“In a beauty salon. I said, ‘Wow!’ We didn’t talk, we just.. .”

“…we nodded.” Maggie finishes the sentence, Stathe starts a new one. “Then about ten years later, I would say, we met again at  a taverna. I had just decided to separate from my wife, to resign from my job. Yes. I was really tired and bored. I’d already realized that I’m playing my life like a role in the theater. Not living it. I decided just to change everything at any cost. Maggie was at the same stage for her own reason. She had just walked away from …”

“… everything had collapsed under me.”

“I saw her and wanted to catch her. Or to die, at least. But Maggie was at the end of something …”

She interrupts, “I had to be careful. My eight-year relationship  with a German was not quite finished. So I was careful. We took off to other places. We went to the island of Aegina. We made mad rendezvous in the island of Spetsei and like places. Finally he was forced to tell his wife about us.”

“My wife asked me, ‘I heard from my friend that you are with Maggie. Is it something serious?’ I said yes.”

She challenges him with her musical, yet steely tone of voice. “I didn’t believe it was that serious.”

“For me it was.”

To Maggie: “What did you think it was, a lighthearted interlude or …?”

“No. We shared wonderful evenings. He didn’t speak English, I was teaching him English. I really didn’t know how I felt until I knew that I’d finished with my last husband. Then I knew that this was it.”

I ask for a little background. Stathe explains that he came from a family that was created between two refugees from Smyrna who were thrown out by the Turks in 1922. The family came to Greece penniless, with nothing.

Maggie adds, “They walked here.”

“We were an immigrant family that flourished. I studied architecture and then worked in the civil aviation with aerodromes. After twenty-five years, I wanted to change the totality of my life.”

Maggie was a young girl when Jamaica got its independence in 1963. Her parents took her away to England, where her father was secretary to the ambassador.

“My father was a great bon vivant. He got into debt. By the way, my mother’s family is still in Jamaica. I grew up and finished school in England, at Chelsea High School, living in Redcliff Gardens. My father was a great man. In England he changed 380 degrees, stopped being a bon vivant, became a family man, took care of us. I was studying dance at the London Academy of Dance. Classical dance, ballet, until I was chosen to be part of an exchange with Alvin Ailey. Alvin Ailey got interested in me and so I joined a group. I was taught primitive dancing for the first time. I was seventeen. A few of us formed a group and went to Switzerland. There were seven teen in the group. Five boys, twelve girls. I was seen by a modeling agency and, though I continued dancing, I began modeling.”

She explains that at that time she got pregnant and had her daughter, whom she named Simone.

“The modeling agency got into deep shit. I had some money so I took over the agency. When Simone was three and a half years old her father reappeared and we married.”

Talking about the past causes her to tear up. “Oh boy, this is hard. At the time, I was number one as the little colored girl in Geneva.”

She’s quite emotional. I ask Stathe, “So here we are, a few years later. Let me ask you, Stathe, I heard you had some health problems a few years ago.”

“I think it was a depression. It happened in ’96 and it happened for the reason that, I think, it was the first time I started thinking about making another change in my life, to get the divorce. I talked to my wife and she put down her conditions. Also there were some financial fears. Then I had a very, very hard attack of a disc. I got an operation in July of ’96. I was not feeling strong.”

“Papa, the physical healing was so fast. It was what happened mentally after.”

“Okay. It was. The operation made my body feel not so strong. I’d been an athlete. I’d been a very powerful being.”

He tears up.

“From ’89 on I was giving three quarters of my income to my wife and daughter. My son was already at university with a scholarship. I was brought up by my parents to be … ha, ha …. responsible and . . . ha, ha . . . guilty. I’m still like that. My depression lasted four, maybe five months. Then I got out of it.”

“Did you ever seek help?”

“I went to a psychiatrist.”

“Do you know what got you out of it?”

“I know but it doesn’t matter.”

Maggie disagrees. “It does. It’s that I had been watching you pacing, not eating, not sleeping, losing a kilo every day. He didn’t talk to me. We were sleeping together, he never touched me, we just slept. Then one day I realized I couldn’t live in the situation. I told him, ‘You know what. I’m going away.’ He said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I pulled off a belt and I beat him. I beat him and I beat him very gently, and the next day we talked: I said, ‘Now that I’ve given you the spanking for what you did to me, are you going totell me what is wrong?’ He said to me, ‘I can’t stand being rent … living in the house of someone else in Athens.’ ”

Me, bemused: “Renting?” ….

[Love in the Second Act,

True Stories of Romance, Midlife and Beyond,

available as book or kindle on Amazon]

A nocturnal visitor

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I received an impromptu visit from my great friend Corinne Trang last night. She’s formidable, beautiful, simpatico, highly accomplished in every one of her many areas of expertise. Truth be told, she’s become our third sister. (She was also a subject I interviewed for my book Love in the Second Act, True Stories of Romance, Midlife and Beyond, Section: ACT TWO, SCENE FOUR – COMFORT AND STABILITY – “I tried everything else.” – though it happened to be her then husband, not Corinne, who had reached ‘midlife’ at the time. She was about 30 then.)

When Corinne’s surprise call came, I took off my pajamas and put my day clothes back on though I needn’t have. Once inside she tossed off her shoes and seated herself on my rust-colored rug. While we caught up on news, she removed two tiny ever-ready white porcelain teacups along with a tiny tea pot from a cloth carrier. From a silver flask, she filled the tea pot. After briefly letting the pot sit, she poured a thimbleful of deep golden, maybe amber-colored tea into each cup.

So mesmerized by the graceful way she had of pouring thin streams of liquid gold, I referred to her as a ‘master’  and the tiny cups and pot as a ‘tea set’.   She quickly corrected me:

CT: My pot is called ‘gaiwan’ in China. the cups are traditional small, like espresso cups, if not smaller. You shoot back the tea in three sips.  And … I prefer being called a tea professional not a master. I don’t like the idea of being a master…

ALG: Would you call yourself a tea purveyor perhaps?

CT: Yeah, that’s more like it. A purveyor, an enthusiast … I love tea for its meditative qualities.

We were on either side of my deco table with its cobalt blue glass (cracked) top, she sitting on the floor, me on my couch. I took a sip – tasted a mellow, slightly perfumed, appealing flavor.

ALG:  What are we drinking?

CT: Jin Jun Mei from Fujian in China.

ALG:  It’s very smooth.

CT: Yes, it’s excellent. … a sweet, floral flavor, like honey nectar on your tongue …

ALG: Exactly!

I wish I could have described it as well. The light in the room is dim, there’s not much street noise. The ESB is lit up in two shades of blue for reasons I can’t fathom. She’s right, the atmosphere has become meditative. Corinne pours. We sip. We pause, then she pours some more. I lose count.

CT:  We’re into our seventh tea soup ….

I ask if she means that she’s poured seven cups.

CT: Yes, it’s a sign of clean, balanced, high quality tea served in multiple infusions … or ‘soups’ … an excellent tea.

Soon we’ve heated more hot water, drunk ten soups each.

CT: In Asian culture tea is always offered at home. Ten soups of tea – a sign of an excellent visit.

ALG: An excellent friendship too.

We drink to that and discuss this years approaching Thanksgiving. It’s not too far away at this point and Corinne and her beautiful daughter Colette, part of our family, will be with us once more.img_0356

A little background: Corinne is an award-winning author of nine cookbooks, a chef and expert on Asian cuisines, a certified holistic health and nutrition counselor, and yoga and meditation instructor over 20 years in personal practice. Born in France’s Loire Valley of a French mother and a Cambodian-Chinese father, Corinne Trang was raised in Phnom Penh, Paris, and New York. Here’s how she describes her interest in tea on her new LiquidGoldTea.com website:

It was only a matter of time until tea started flowing through my lips. Tea came to me at an early age, though it wasn’t until much later in life that I started truly appreciating this elegant beverage of humble beginnings.

As a child, I remember my parents always offering tea to guests, and being offered tea when visiting friends and family. In Asian culture, tea is a way of life, and no greeting, no visit, personal or professional, is complete without a cup of tea. I have come to love it so much that a few years ago I started incorporating tea drinking into my daily spiritual practice. I have spent long hours contemplating the leaves, learning about them with the guidance of wonderful tea masters. I am fascinated still…

How is it that a single plant, camellia sinensis, and the caring hands that come in contact with it from harvest to technique, have brought to life dozens of tea varieties over many centuries?

Big or small, twisted, curled, or rolled, smooth or fuzzy, the colorful leaves are truly beautiful. The way they unfurl before your eyes as they undergo several steeps, the varied textures and flavors, some with a thick buttery mouthfeel that lingers, awakening the senses while salivating.

The characteristics of tea are many from delicate to robust, savory to sweet, buttery to grassy, and so much more. Like music, there are crescendos, peaks, overtones, undertones, and I become more curious as I select the teas you will find here. Out of roughly 100 varieties I have recently tasted, you will only find 20 or so on my menu. Quality over quantity is my motto. I look for top quality leaves that are beautiful when dry and equally so when wet. To please the eyes is essential. I expect multiple steeps, at least 5 and often experience 9 or more with every tea you see here. The “soup” should always be crystal clear, whether yellow, green, orange or red (depending on the type of tea). I also look for a flavor that is balanced and clean. The cha qi (tea’s energy) will reveal itself gradually and when it does there will be a certain “ah ha” moment. We love a fragrant bouquet (nose) but sometimes, like wine, the flavor and aroma surprise you. I promise that my teas will surprise you in the most wonderful ways over and over again. Last but not least, because I want to keep it interesting and fun, I only acquire small quantities from select farmers. When the tea is gone, it is gone; a practice in non-attachment. To appreciate the taste in the present moment and be able to let go and move on is a gift. Tea facilitates this practice. The yearning may be there for a little while, but curiosity grows and makes it possible for us to try something new.

When I sip tea, I am transported to a different place and time. Indeed, tea is filled with secrets revealed over time and time we all have. 

As it happens, a workshop is scheduled on October 23rd from 3 pm – 6 pm in Chinatown. For details, see: LiquidGoldTea.com  

 

 

 

 

 

Marianne, adieu

Born in Norway, Marianne died in Norway yesterday at 15:11 taking a piece of my heart with her when she went as Marianne and I walked many of the same roads during the past almost fifty years.

[Photo below: Marianne, her Norwegian husband. Jan, and me, recently at a taverna in Greece late at night. Laughing, of course.]

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Following, an interview I did with Marianne a few years ago in Greece (our common denominator) for my book Love in the Second Act – True Stories of Romance Midlife and Beyond.

____________
“We’re the same and we change”
______________________________________________________

I am sitting at a kitchen table in the small house in Greece with Marianne Christine Ihlen; Marianne is a sweet Norwegian woman with a round face, an opulent body, platinum white hair. I read from Jane Juska’s book about sex rediscovered, A Round Heeled Woman.

“A long time later, months later, when I was able to think about Jonah and me without cringing,without crying, I considered the matter of age and passion and desire. Jonah, I’d bet anything, wondered if he still could; I was a way of finding out. More than that, like me, he was looking for a place for his passion. The world has little use for us; we are old, what business have we with passion? So we found each other and who would know? Who would care? Old people, they should be dry. But we weren’t.”

I watch her face for a response . She neither smiles nor frowns. Finally she speaks.
“I believe our sexuality never dies.”
“Does sex still matter to you? Still interest you?”
“Yes! In many ways it is the most important energy we have. As a young woman with a young body, everything has to do with what the body looks like. Later we ask what the body feels like and wants. And thanks to my body work and meditation I come into contact with my sexuality/energy. I’m old. I have an old body. I’m seventy soon. What I see around is people who can’t walk, can’t do this and that anymore. I can still fly like a goat.”

Marianne was born in Oslo, but grew up at her grandmother’s house by the sea during the war.
“I was happy when I lived with Grandmother. I really do believe that she allowed me to live, to dream. We had a walk-in doll house, and she would visit me. We had dried green leaves for bread, stones for meatballs and potatoes. We drank water out of tiny little cups. She would walk out and say, ‘Thank you for a delicious meal.’ We slept in the same bed. Early in the morning, in winter, she put all my clothes under her body to make them warm. She died when I was eighteen. She once said to me, ‘I know you will meet a man who speaks with a tongue of gold.’ She was right .”

The men in the first act of Marianne’s life were writers, painters and poets. For these men —especially the two long-term relationships with men she refers to as “husbands”– she took on the role of Muse. The first husband was a well-known Norwegian novelist  Axel Jensen with whom she had her only child, also named Axel.

“Big Axel and I left Norway in 1958—he wanted to see the Oracle of Delphi. The first time I had the idea of myself as a Muse was when he sat in an Arab djelaba in front of his Remington typewriter and I went to the village to shop for green beans and potatoes. I got them going on the one burner so he had one meal a day. I would wash clothes and read all that he wrote. I was happy with that. I would sit with him, and he’d talk about Goethe and Jung and the universe. He was way out for the time. I had read Gurdjieff, Nietzche, Ovspensky from page one to two hundred fifty.”

The man Marianne calls her second husband, though they were never legally married, was the Canadian poet and performer Leonard Cohen. He wrote the following about Marianne for one of his album jacket notes: “Marianne gave me many songs, and she has given songs to others too. She is a Muse. A lot of people I know think that there is nothing more important than making a song.” During an interview, Cohen expounded further on how Marianne’s creative spirit inspired him: “It was really a great privilege to live in a house with her. It wasn’t just that she was the Muse shining in front of the poet, she understood that it was a good idea to get me to my desk.”

Marianne and Leonard lived together on and off during the sixties in a stone house on a Greek island. In still another interview, Cohen said of this time: “I found that my standard of living went down very sharply after I started to make money and become known. Before I had money I lived in a lovely white house on a Greek island. With the advent of money I found myself spending more and more time in taxis and airplanes and other unpleasant circumstances.”

I ask Marianne, “The song that he wrote about you that is so well-known with the chorus — “Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began, to laugh and cry and laugh about it all again” — what do you think about that?”

“It’s a beautiful song, but the title originally was ‘Come On Marianne .’  ‘Bird on the Wire’ is really my song. That’s when I got Leonard back to his desk again.”

I serve her a glass of wine, then I bring a plate of feta cheese and black olives to the table.
“Have an olive.”
“No, thank you,” Marianne says as she stuffs two olives into her mouth, making us both crack up.
“You’re like me. You have no willpower.”
“Yes.”
“You were speaking about the song ‘So Long, Marianne.’ “
“The many other songs that were written to me, no one else would know because they don’t have my name on them. l’ve kept that time private. I’ve been approached by journalists, by magazines, by radio, and by television. I’ve never appeared, never accepted anything, never answered their questions.”
“Good for you.”
“Until today. There are things written about me but I had no part in it. I’m rather proud of my silence, of course. I was part of Leonard’s secret life. I knew better than to have babies with him.”
“Why?”
“I couldn’t give him Jewish babies. After Greece I went to New York. l got mugged in a doorway, faced a knife this size, on the Lower East Side, on Clinton Street. My son Axel went to P.S. 27. Leonard and I were drifting apart. He was starting to get very famous at the time. He was being pulled into quite another world. I didn’t go there with him. He saw me, he saw me …”
“He discovered you? Created you ?”
“No, no. I mean he saw me. He saw my value.”I drizzle olive oil onto the chunk of feta and sprinkle a bit of fresh oregano over it, then refill Marianne’s glass.
“During these Muse decades, I lived in Greece, New York, Mexico and Norway. There were many men beside Axel and Leonard. I was a lonely mother. I wanted someone to share …”

She doesn’t finish the sentence. We’re quiet for a moment, listening to the island’s sounds of crowing roosters, braying donkeys, of birds, the soft putt-putt of small fishing boats. After twenty years abroad, Marianne returned home to Oslo. As it turned out, she didn’t bring her Muse’s identity with her.
“Had you tired of being a muse? Were you looking for some thing different in love? Partnership perhaps?”
“I had no job. No money. I wanted to be independent. Yeah, I really mean it. I still want to be independent. At the time my son, Axel, was sixteen, seventeen, going to gymnasium. I was middle aged. I had to find a job. After all these days in dreamy places … when you live in a dream … when you run around for twenty years sitting at the poet’s feet, to be a secretary in an oil-drilling company with engineers building platforms in the North Sea … that’s where I ended up. At first, my new identity became secretary at an oil-drilling company and then wife and mother.”
She laughs gayly.
“It’s not to be laughed at.”
“You’re right. It’s honorable work, an honorable life. We have to wake up, pay the rent. After all those years of travel, I knew nobody. My friends from the past lived such different lives, so it was hard. They had cars, garages and diamond rings, or they were already divorced three times. I was very lost when I first came back. Very lost. Very lost.”

She spears a chunk of feta with a fork.

“In the midst of all these engineers, I saw this tall, dark and handsome man named Jan. There was something about him. I was fascinated by the intricate, technical drawings, that he could transform them into a drilling platform. He invited me to dinner. We went out with his friends. We went back to Jan’s flat. And I never left. I left the next morning to go to work of course but—metaphorically— I never left. His marriage was over two years before I met him. There were three daughters, the youngest was nine and lived with the mother. Jan is an engineer with a strong spiritual longing. A pillar, I tell you.”
“This falling in love with Jan, did you have a sense of destiny about him like you had about the others—the men with tongues of gold?”
“Destiny. Destiny, what does it really mean? I was back home in Norway and I couldn’t find a better man, a better companion, a better partner. My mother loved him, kept saying, ‘Why didn’t you marry him to begin with? This is the man.’ He was there for everybody and my son Axel too. A load was taken off my shoulders. We had a wonderful time together, lots to share. We got married.
“I think part of it was that we had so much to talk about. He had a tough life, a fantastic life, and I had had a life he didn’t know existed. Thinking back, there never was a dull moment.”

Marianne and Jan have been married for twenty-three years.
“When I first returned home after my youthful years of travel, when the glitter of my life abroad dissipated, I experienced some emotional rawness. At one point I tried therapy, but realized it wasn’t for me. Then I met Jes Bertelsen and his wife, Hanne Kizach, who started Vaekstcentret—the Center of Work, Growth and Meditation—in Denmark. They gave me the ‘tools’ through working, among other things, with body therapy, breathing exercises and meditation.”
“Oh!”
“I had a lot to sort out to get to the core of myself. It gave me strength to help my son Axel, who unfortunately at the age of fifteen, during his first meeting with his father, was given LSD and got very sick. What had we done to these sensitive children in those early years of drugs and alcohol?”

Marianne pours herself another glass of wine. Someone in the neighborhood is listening to bouzouki music a little too loudly.
“Do you feel that you’ve been a muse to Jan?”
“Not in the way I once was. We have supported each other, have met somehow with our individual ‘luggage’ and grown with every difficulty solved.”
“And love in this second part of your life? Sex?”
“Love somehow gets deeper the more you work with yourself. And sex in all forms will grow.”

I read a quote from a book titled Leonard Cohen—In His Own Words“At the age of 50 all you feel is a certain kind of strength, just the strength to go on, deeply. The heart becomes truly passionate as you get older and it gives you the deepest kind of appetite for everything.”

The features of her face soften.
“He’s still my favorite poet, him and Seferis, the Greek. I love short poems, Japanese haiku. Knut Hamsun started me off. If you read German you should read Hamsun in German. In love, though, I don’t think it has anything to do with a man all the time. I think it has something to do with knowing yourself, being able to stand your own company, being at home with yourself. I have a way to go but I don’t have to change partners anymore. I think it’s much more interesting to work it out. Can’t we change love to compassion? For the last twenty years I’ve walked in the Dalai Lama’s footsteps. If the world were Buddhist, we would have compassion and not kill.”
“You’ve stuck together, you and Jan. Do you love him as much as you did?”
“That changes too … love. In Norwegian—it doesn’t translate into English well—we have a word that means too much in love when you meet. It’s forelsket—too much love. Then after some time that is transformed into love.”

“You mean lower the flame? Is that a good image?”
“]a. You learn to accept and forgive. We’re the same and we change. I had been back in Greece many times and have met Leonard many times. Some years ago when I was in Greece, Leonard invited me to his—our—house for dinner. He had just returned from India. It was pouring rain, and I looked like a drowned cat when I arrived. We shared a little meal that his maid had prepared .”
She gestures gracefully with her arms and hands.
“I watched him moving. I keep saying when people ask me ‘What is Buddhism?’—lt’s a way of life, not a religion. Seeing Leonard move … slow, he’s so into everything he does … was like a meditation. He walked over, and he was doing the dishes, and I was sitting there looking at what had once been my little kitchen. Nothing was changed in the house we’d lived in together for so long. There was the same box with a young woman blindfolded playing a harp without any strings. The lid is so tight because it’s rusted, you can’t get it up. On the back a short poem I have forgotten. I saw that the Christ that someone had given him was gone. It was a beautiful wooden Christ, old and rotten. Christ had hardly any hands, the cross was rotten, no feet.”

She touches my hand.

“But the church bell was still there, the one I’d brought with me when I moved in. He didn’t remember how I came by it. I did. He asked me to tell him the story. This is the story: I was working on a private yacht in between my two marriages, and we anchored up in Santorini. When we visited the volcano at the edge of the crater, I sacrificed an old Egyptian scarab that my first husband had given me. Then we ended being invited to a local wedding in the village. In those days, a wedding lasted at least three days. Late at night I slipped away into the forest to pee. I looked down and something caught my eye. I used my sandal to pull away some grass and earth, and there was an old church bell. On one side was an imprint of the Madonna and the Child. First I’d sacrificed something from my first husband, and then I find a Greek Orthodox bell.”

Suddenly the bouzouki music stops. There’s silence until we hear the sound of a small owl.

“When I moved into Leonard’s house many years later, I brought it with me. When I left, I left the bell. After I reminded him, Leonard said, ‘I’m happy that you told me the story because I’d forgotten about the bell.’ He walked over to the sink and finished the dishes, and I was sitting there still looking around my little kitchen in which nothing had been changed. I felt so calm and so relieved. I had no wish to go back in time. It was a very, very beautiful meeting. Next morning we met for coffee at Tassos coffee shop on the port.”
The sun begins to pour into the kitchen in an uncomfortable way so I get up and close the yellow shutters.

“Earlier I had come back to Greece with the Swedish author named Goran Tunstrom and his wife, the painter Lena Cronqvist. Swedish TV was making a documentary about Goran’s life and work. We all stayed at Leonard’s house. I knew Goran from way back when he first came to Greece in 1959. One night they filmed during dinner at Old Duskos taverna. I will send you a copy of this documentary. Goran appears with his grilled fish and cats at his feet. You zoom down, there are fifteen cats at his feet. The camera zooms down at the cats and then back at the table where you see us and hear me saying, ‘Before I sat at the poet’s feet. Now I sit at the poet’s table.'” 
She takes a mouthful of wine.
“That’s where the thing has changed. In act one I sat at the poet’s feet, now I sit at his table … I sit at your table.”

Marianne takes another olive.
I ask, “Do you look like your father or your mother?”
“My mother. She had a sort of Mongol face. That’s why I’ve always looked down because I thought my face was too round. My first boyfriend used to say, ‘Have you lost something, Marianne?’ My father was fifty-seven when he died. He was a poet at heart. My mother was scared and spoiled and came out rough and tough just to survive, always finding something wrong with me, with my hair, with my way of dressing. She thought I lived in a sleeping bag in Greece. But before she died she had to ‘let go’ and thanked me for visiting her and bringing wine and fruit.”
Our glasses are empty.
“Jan and I were with her the night she died in September. She would have been ninety-four in April and she spent the eleven last years in an old woman’s home. She didn’t enjoy the first six years. On the night she was dying, I could find no peace in bed. I got dressed and asked Jan to take me there, just as my mobile rang and the message was: ‘I think our mother is going.”’

l ask if she’d like more wine; she shakes her head no.

“l was grateful to find a doctor who knew my mother, to tell him to help her, that I didn’t want her to have any pain. ‘Guaranteed!’ he said. He saw her first. Then we went in. This was about one-thirty at night. She died about six in the morning. Through the night we talked to her and, together, we read poems and laughed. She was conscious but could not speak. I thanked her and we talked about all the fun and all the good dinners she had made for us. I thanked her for being so strong through life. We held her hands and wet her mouth. I opened the window and told her to fly out. Thank God we knew that hearing is the last that goes, that dies. Now I am the oldest one in the family. Nobody should die in pain; nobody should have to die alone. If possible, we should all die in our own bed at home.”

She begins to gather her things to leave.

“I found a beautiful picture of my mother as a little girl with curly hair set in a golden frame. When I look at the picture l know, even my mother was once a little girl. We have all been little girls with curls. I can forgive my mother, I can forgive myself. Acceptance and forgiveness. Acceptance and forgiveness.

If music be
the food of love,
play on.”

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[Top photo: Marianne with Zoe in Oslo, a few weeks ago. Laughing and clowning. Of course. Photo by Helle V. Goldman. Bottom Photo: Biography of Marianne: A Love Story by Kari Hesthamar translated by Helle V. Goldman]

Page 1 – Love in the Second Act

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*****Page 1 – Love in the Second Act *****

While waiting in line to buy tickets at the Loews movie theater on Broadway at Nineteenth Street, my friend Barbara asks if I’m in the mood to be fixed up. “Fixed up?”
     “Fixed up! You know, fixed up on a date. I know a Jewish folk singer that’s divorced. I also know a magazine editor who liked your last book.”
     If a heart can be likened to a violin, now that my last relationship is over and the beautiful music has stopped, I can’t imagine that music will ever again resonate from these strings.
     “You must be kidding,” I respond, giving her a fishy look.
     The line inches forward.
     “I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” Barbara says combatively. “You’re not getting any younger.”
     I bristle. “Where were you when F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives?”
     “I guess I was having one. Where were you when Oscar Wilde, or maybe it was Samuel Johnson, said that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience?”
     Barbara’s posture is faultless; her voice has an air of soft aridity. She squeezes my arm. “In back of my addled brain, I seem to remember something about how life begins at forty. Or is it fifty? Look at me. I didn’t get together with Warren until I was pushing fifty. As you well know, at that point I’d been around the block more than a few times.”
     Today—the first cold blowy day of autumn—I’m wearing a new wool coat with the collar turned up. There’s dampness in the lambent air. Shaggy clouds dangle in the sky. Barbara’s not much older than Madonna. She always brightens whatever she wears with some arresting splash of color. Today she’s wrapped a mango-colored scarf smartly around her throat. Her cheeks are pink and warm to my lips when I kiss her hello or good-bye. We’ve been friends for nearly twenty years.
     “Fitzgerald was no fool,” I add in a steely tone.
     “At least ungird your loins!” she suggests. “I’m living proof that Fitzgerald was an idiot. You should hear my friend Beatrix White kvell. In the middle of her life, after about a million failed relation ships, when she was about ready to throw in the towel, Bea found Mark. Or Mark found Bea. Indecorous exteriors be damned!”
     “Okay. Okay. Okay, ” I say to shut her up. And that’s where the traveling symposium that has become this book began.

I’d been licking my wounds after the breakup of a relationship. Looking for some bulwark in life, I’d come back to New York after twenty years out west. New York—the city where I grew up—is Tara. Though I didn’t feel prepared for the rigors of city life, I’d come home. Shortly after my conversation with Barbara, through a set of coincidences, I met Charlotte, a career woman who married for the first time at sixty. When she showed me the wedding announcement that had appeared in the New York Times, I noticed in it the mention of a biographical update she’d sent to her alumni newsletter that said: No trips taken in years; no children; obviously no grandchildren, no husband .
     Then, she went on a two-week Smithsonian-sponsored trip to Ireland. That first morning on the tour bus she sat next to Mike Chamberlain, a retired radio announcer from San Francisco. They began to talk. One thing led to another and –

          On January 23, they were married in the creaky wood-paneled chapel of the Convent of the Sacred Heart on Fifth Avenue… Like the actress Katharine Hepburn, Charlotte Mary Cassidy is partly regal, partly tomboyish. Now 60 and a learning specialist at the Trinity School in New York, Miss Cassidy wears her long gray hair in a Hepburnesque bun and loves fresh air so much she opens the windows even in winter.
        …Like her many roommates, Miss Cassidy also expected to marry young, but instead she remained single. “I wasn’t surprised that she never married,” Gabriella Befani Canfield, a friend, said. “Some of us, of our generation, are what I call women in between. We are much too independent and outspoken to be the right women for men of our generation.”
          …When Charlotte left for Ireland last summer, she told friends she hoped to bring back some pretty dish towel. Instead she brought back the towels and a new love. “What are the chances of this happening at our age?” Maudie Davis, a guest at her wedding, said. “A friend of mine died last week of cancer. Here is one contemporary who has died and the other is getting married . In your sixties , it can go either way.”

My ponderings percolated to the point that I took up Barbara’s challenge. I began instigating conversations with people (like Charlotte and myself) who’d reached, or passed through, that juncture of midlife when the knack for self-deception has weakened and the face in the mirror is no longer quite our own.

I’d had my moment in the mirror one hazy afternoon, when I caught a glimpse of myself in a window of Gristede’s supermarket on Eighth Avenue and did a double take because the visage returning my look was not quite the one that had always been there. In my case the sensation was a little like being aboard an airplane that encounters turbulence and realizing that I’m helpless to stop it. That feeling, along with my move east, my breakup, and the dismal state of the world, were the catalysts that got me to begin to muse on my life, my career, and the stasis I was in.
     After publishing five books relating to World War II and the Holocaust, I realized that the time had come for me to write about life not death, romance or comedy if possible, rather than savagery and evil, love not hate.           Since I was responding to love stories both bitter and sweet, I also began clipping wedding announcements and bits and pieces that I chanced on. I labeled a file folder “Into the Good Night,” and slid all the clippings inside.
In the interviews with lovers that I was conducting, I was turning into a latter-day Kinsey. Surprisingly often, those I questioned became enthusiastic and offered to relate their own experience or one that belonged to someone they knew. Over the course of what became a stormy and snowy fall and winter, while traveling or at home, while eating and drinking, I took part in an extremely engaging, often surprising, series of dialogues on love and age.
     Although sex and romance among those who are middle-aged or older is often viewed with gooey eyes through an offensive Golden Pond-like lens, the experiences that were described to me were passionate, mad, tempestuous, complex, and bittersweet. The people in these interviews had all, in one way or another, moved beyond that moment in the mirror and decided to go on and search for, or open themselves, to love. (Or, in the case that love isn’t an opening-out but a closing-in, to close themselves around love.) To “rage against the dying of the light.” The age range in this collection goes from forty-three through ninety-seven; the younger subjects are children of the fifties and boomers in midlife, the older are lively octogenarians and nonagenarians nearing their final curtain. Though many had experienced disappointments and failures, they are vital folk who hospitably invited me into their private lives. And this is what struck me the most as I began to assemble twenty five of these interviews and various other materials: In the second act, love and partnering is not only possible, but can be hot and delicious, life-giving and hope-giving. Both passion and heartbreak are as profound at fifty as they were at twenty.

From the sociological side, we’re well aware that life expectancy has lengthened considerably and, as Eva S. Moskowitz writes in In Therapy We Trust about this moment in time, happiness [has become the] ultimate goal, and psychological healing is the means. We’ve entered an era of changed possibilities demanded by older, more active, more vigorous, physically fit, sexually empowered women and men. If being who and what you are isn’t enough, for men who choose to give nature a little assistance, there’s Viagra, Levitra, Cialis ( tempting men with what Robin Williams, in a comedy act on turning fifty, laughingly called “the dick from hell”) and for women there’s testosterone, HRT, synthetic pheromones and more.
     A suitcase full of life-enhancing pharmaceuticals is available: There are memory enhancers, hormone replacements, bone boosters, serotonin elevators, wrinkle creams, stress and depression relievers, and various rejuvenators. There’s also surgical help to offset the physical ravages of time: makeovers, renovations, augmentations. Perhaps these artificial enhancers have influenced our expectations of what post-midlife should offer? Perhaps they are false hopes? They can be embraced or not, the choice is there. The limits of childbearing or adopting have expanded; gay as well as transgender communities have joined the mainstream; celebrities retain their glamour and sexuality as they trudge toward the sunset. (Actor Helen Mirren: “I was never gorgeous. Ever. When you’re young you want more than anything to be beautiful, but as you get older, you don’t have that desperate need and it’s a great feeling.” Jack Nicholson to Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give: “I’m sixty three years old and in love for the first time in my life.”)
     Post-feminist sexuality prizes boldness. Sex and the City was one of many examples. Mating practices have changed; resources that provide romantic connections are a growth industry that includes online dating services, matchmakers, personals columns, speed dating, mixers and so on. Learning, traveling and sharpening the mind are de rigueur for the retired. The model for love from the Middle Ages through to this century is young love: Dante and Beatrice, Romeo and Juliet, the romantics who mostly died young, rebel without a cause, too fast to live, too young to die, and so on. This long-established model has been breaking down. Take Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Ha Jin’s Waiting and Kundera’s Immortality. Finally, there are romantic role models older than Dante and Beatrice, older than Romeo and Juliet, who are more like Antony and Cleopatra.
     That is the real revolution!
     Approaching a “big” birthday, Paul Theroux, the novelist and travel writer, returned to Africa where he had spent his young manhood. He writes in Dark Star Safari :

What all older people know, what had taken me almost sixty years to learn, is that an aged face is misleading. I did not want to be the classic bore, the reminiscing geezer, yet I now knew: the old are not as frail as you think, and they are insulted to be regarded as feeble. They are full of ideas, hidden powers, even sexual energy. Don’t be fooled by the thin hair and battered features and skepticism. The older traveler knows it best: in our hearts we are youthful , and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and streetwise. Old age is Strength.

Over the course of my search, certain similarities and themes rise like steam over our coffees and conversations. Although each story is unique, I’ve organized this offering into nine sections in an attempt to highlight significant patterns—each encapsulating a few of the themes my interlocutors have underscored in relation to their coupledom.

IN LOVE WITH LOVE: No matter how much heartbreak or grief women and men have endured in past relationships, they’ll usually have another go at love.

LIBIDO: Human beings never stop being sexual. Getting older doesn’t have to mean getting colder.

180-DEGREE TURNS: It’s possible to radically change career and house and ambition and lifestyle in the second act.

COMFORT AND STABILITY: Degrees of intimacy and steadiness not accessible earlier in life may be achieved in the second act.

BLIND LOVE: Some couples, who’ve remained together through both acts, through many changes, experience love as immutable.

SECOND VIRGINITY: Certain subjects discovered that they were wrong when they thought there would only be one “first time.” Love keeps changing and there are always new firsts.

HOMECOMING: Sometimes there’s an experience of returning to an earlier self in later life.

DETERMINATION: Certain subjects demonstrated that almost any one who truly wants love and sex, if willing to work at it, can find it. In other words, if act one has been screwed up, or if fate has been unkind, perseverance pays off.

TIME IS ON YOUR SIDE : My subjects demonstrated that no matter how old, shopworn, tainted, dogged by disappointment one is, it’s never too late. There’s time. Ironically, many of these couplings would not have been thinkable in the same way a generation back.

Making these trips and having these conversations became a pleasure indeed. I was entertained and charmed by these human targets into which the beautiful naked blind winged boy with the bow has been shooting his sharp arrows. In a few cases, either by request or because I thought it best, the names of the subjects have been changed and identifying facts blurred. For those of us who are in the wings garnering the willingness to step onto the stage, I’ll say this: If a lonely heart can be likened to a violin whose music has stopped, in these many interviews, I heard the sound of music resonate again and again from its strings.

[Love in the Second Act is available on Amazon as a paperback or was a kindle]

 

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Turning the page

10418873_1111252938906146_9100533790150500887_nI’m turning the page on: winter, work project, “House of Cards,” furry jacket, a major possession, the clock, and more. During this past week (in some sense), the end of a tunnel was reached. Have stepped into milky, silver-ish light. Is Act III (IV?, V?) about to begin?  Following, an excerpt from the recently re-released (TMI Press thank you) nonfiction Love in the Second Act, True Stories of Love, Midlife and Beyond from

Chapter: Second Virginity:

At some moment midway on a flight to Paris, there is a sudden rolling and a surging. I grip the armrests in fear; the woolly-haired (with the face of a crocodile) man next to me, who’s been squeezing slices of lime into his drinks, reacts with merriment. We’ve been discussing favorite films from our youths— Splendor in the Grass, Elmer Gantry, Last Picture Show, Annie Hall, The Sting. He tells me that the very favorite film of his adolescence had once been Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

“Did you ever see it? You might be a little too young.”

“I saw it.”

“Do you remember the part when the Swedish doctor looks at the clock?”

“I’m not sure.”

“It’s a large clock, a clock in the center of a town. He’s walking through the town, looks at the clock and sees that the clock has no hands.”

“Vaguely.”

“I hadn’t seen it in years. A few weeks ago I rented it and watched it with my daughter who’s in high school.”

“Did she like it?”

“She said she thought it was cool.”

“Did you like it?”

“Not in the same way I liked it when I first saw it.”

“Was it dated ?”

“Not really. It was awfully slow. The doctor’s daughter is very stiff. And the doctor …” he laughs.

“I remembered him as an old man. But, seeing it now, I saw that he wasn’t old at all. He was about the same age as me. In many ways it seemed like a movie I’d never seen. It was as if I was seeing it for the very first time.”

Eventually the turbulence calms and I doze. Though most of the shades are drawn in order for people to sleep or watch the film being shown, ours hasn’t been completely pulled, and when I wake I can see the milky light in the sky that means it’s morning in Paris. I open the book of poems by Philip Larkin that I’ve brought to read. Just after they announce the beginning of our descent into Charles de Gaulle Airport, I read and mark a poem called “Faith Healing.”

In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved .

I plan to begin my next interview by discussing Larkin’s poem, but, as it turns out, I don’t.

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On the horizon

photo-2With my little jewel Not Not a Jew recently launched by TMI Press, only one reissue (of five previously published works) remains. Soon it too will be released with a new Author’s Note to blow freely in the wind. The following piece on Georgia O’Keeffe’s last love, written during a snowy winter, is from this nonfiction work – Love in the Second Act, Act Two, Scene Nine, “Time is on your side“-

The wind is howling and raging outside, snow blows willy-nilly, spinning and whirling. I can see nothing from my window, it’s a kind of whiteout. Several fire trucks race down the avenue, their gross sirens always unsettling. These heart-stopping dissonances that augur danger and emergency are the downside of being back in New York. Of being anywhere at all. The upside has been the long, bracing winter, the elation I feel every morning when I go downstairs and buy a container of coffee (“Light, no sugar!”) from the vendor at my corner, Mohammed, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt. What seemed like a still-standing, cold heart early on in my return to New York, no longer does. Something inescapable, uneffaceable, has been weathered.

Between dozing and eating chocolates, I read a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. It couldn’t be cozier. At times like this, storms and all, I feel as if I’ve got the best life in the world. As I read, I’m struck by how O’Keeffe was a woman for whom age did not dictate her actions, who seemed to fall in love as deeply at ninety as she did at thirty. Alongside the reputation for overt sexuality in her work (her large-scale flower paintings evoke genitals of both sexes), she’s known for an austere (some might say “severe”) lifestyle: The tight knot at the nape of her neck remained unchanged through out her life; she slept in a single, rather narrow, bed; ate her spare dinner at five-thirty in the afternoon and woke in time to see the dawn. (“You mustn’t miss the dawn, it will never be just like this again,” she said often.)

Her relationship with the young man Juan Hamilton suggests that even at the approach of senectitude, the pleasures that she experienced remained keen. O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, was born in 1864. Juan Hamilton was born in 1946, the year Stieglitz died. Both Stieglitz and Hamilton were dark, sensual men of talent with full mustaches. She was twenty-seven years younger than Stieglitz and fifty-nine years older than Hamilton. When she met Hamilton at the age of eighty-six and they began to live together, Stieglitz had been dead for twenty-seven years. Quickly her liaison with Juan became a source of concern to her heirs; he was accused of being a gigolo, an opportunist who was coercing an old woman for his selfish gain.

O’Keeffe’s plan to live to be one hundred years old fell short by two years. Until she died in 1986, in her ninety-eighth year, the bond between O’Keeffe and Hamilton held. Her capacity to sustain and maintain a deep attachment with another seems to have lasted to the end of her life. Near the end, when she recognized almost no one, she still knew Juan and, according to witnesses, thought every man was Juan. When she called out, it was Juan whose name was uttered. Though only Juan and Georgia knew the truth of their liaison, Juan gave Georgia the best years of his youth, and Georgia gave Juan … well … everything. As per her wish, her cremated remains were scattered by Juan’s hand onto the dry desert where, as Georgia had often said, “the sun burns through your bones.” Her ashes joined with the desert sands to be blown by winds into drifts of mauve, blood-red, lemon-yellow layers that resembled the shapes in Juan’s sculpture and the lines and colors in her painting. She’d had enough time for it all and more.

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It’s gotten dark. The storm’s petered out. The new sliver of moon hangs alongside the golden crown at the top of the fifty-story Metropolitan Life building, about a mile distant from my window. The crown looks like a jewel floating in the sky. Below it, the clock’s face is lit up in ivory splendor, projecting a translucent, floating sphere that renders the hands of the clock invisible from where I stand.

We were shocked how much we loved it

Here’s another excerpt from my soon to be reissued (by TMI Press, with new material) book Love in the Second Act. This interview is taken from the section Act Two, Scene Three – 180 – Degree Turns. This section includes stories of people who have radically changed in some way in the second part of their lives. Straight in Act I, gay in Act II. Drunk in Act I, sober in Act II. A nun in Act I, and … wait, why explain, here’s Sister Cheryl Donahue’s story in her own words:

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For many years, if you asked my family what was their saddest day they’d say, ‘The day Cheryl left home for the convent to become Sister Cheryl Donahue.'”

“Do you mean that you weren’t able to see your family?”

“It’s kind of funny because as time went on and the rules got lax, I was able to see my family more regularly. I loved the different places I lived while I was with the sisters.”

Cheryl lived in upstate New York for three years; then, in Georgia, she was the director of religious education and adult education. At that point, she had gone back to school and gotten a master’s degree in adult education; she taught elementary school for a while, doing vocational work with young women who showed an interest in wanting to become sisters.

“Was it a strict order?”

“It’s certainly not cloistered. After Vatican Two they started to lighten up a bit, the church became more a part of the world around, not ju st tied up with itself.”

Cheryl Kane joined the order of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception when she was nineteen. She stayed with them for twenty-three years. While she was a nun she began to work in a homeless shelter run by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. She went to nursing school to get a degree in nursing when she was forty-three. Today, more than ten years later, she’s part of an outreach team for that same organization. Night and day, winter and summer, you can find Cheryl, either alone or with one or more members of her team, somewhere out on the streets of Boston.

“l have the best job in the whole world. It’s something that totally feeds my soul. I work with homeless men and women who for whatever reason – won’t come into the shelter. So I visit them on the street. I work in a multidisciplinary team. It’s made up of a doctor, a physician’s assistant, a psychologist, and a social worker. There are other outreach teams from some of the neighboring agencies. They aren’t medical, so if they run across someone with a medical problem, they’ll page me or someone on our team, and we’ll go out onto the street to find and try to assess the person.”

I ask for a description of some of what she does.

“Sometimes I might take out sutures. Today I cleaned a wound, dressed it. It might mean taking someone to detox. It might mean 911’ing someone to the hospital. I never know. Someone might be having some psychological issue. During the day we go on foot all over Boston. At night there’s a van that combs the city. They provide blankets and sandwiches, and someone from our medical team usually rides on the van as well. Sometimes it’s me.”

“Does this mean that you get to know a lot of the same people for years?”

“Oh, absolutely. We really do. It’s critical critical critical that we establish a relationship with these people. Our patients are so much on the fringe of society and have really broken a lot of their human bridges. They’re very nontrusting and many of them have mental illness as well. Until we can establish a bond of trust, it’s really not until that happens, that we can begin to do our work. When somebody trusts us enough to tell us their stories and strug gles, then they’ll usually tell us some of their medical needs. Their lives are so chaotic that very often taking care of medical concerns is the last thing on the list. It’s like, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight? Where am l going to eat today?'”

“ls there a way for someone in a crisis to search you out?”

“It’s kind of funny. The community on the street is very, very strong. Lots of times when I’m out walking someone will say to me, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s been sick all night. You’d better go and find him.’ At which point I will. Last week I got a page from one of our patients saying she was really, really sick. She didn’t know what to do, and could I meet her at one of the parks.”

“Do you have much of a success rate getting people off the streets or is that not really a goal? Or, do you just try to keep people as well as you can?”

“If somebody completes a whole regime of antibiotics, that’s a huge success. There’s a guy we’ve been trying for weeks to get to go to the shelter. Today he agreed. We were so excited about that. We also have a twenty-four-hour medical-care respite program – the Barbara Mcinnis House – for homeless men and women who are too sick for the shelter, but not sick enough for the hospital.”

“What sorts of illnesses?”

“It could be somebody dually diagnosed with diabetes or cardiac issues, someone having asthma that’s out of line, a woman with a high-risk pregnancy, someone with a broken limb; during winter people who have frostbite or the flu. Recently, we’ve been pondering end-of-life care for our homeless patients who have no family or support. Here in Boston if you’re staying in a shelter you have to be out by seven A.M. If you have any of the things I just mentioned, it’s hard to be hanging out on the street all day.”

“Let’s turn to when you decided to end your life as a nun. Was that the happiest day for your family, the day you came out?”

She pauses, then replies, “It was a hard decision. I loved the sisters. I loved the work but by my early forties I wanted to work with the homeless in a fuller way, meaning that I wouldn’t have to be tied down to the structure that the sisters expected, like being home on time, which was an important part of our lives.”

“Did it take a long time to decide?”

“Yeah. It took a very long time. I needed help to realize that I wasn’t breaking my relationship and commitment to God, that I was just changing the way I was going to live it out. Once I got that out of my head and into my heart, it was okay.”

“So it was gradual?”

“Very gradual.”

All the while she was mulling over her decision, she had been speaking to someone who was supposed to help with the process, who was more objective.

“While I was doing this vocation work, I had several other counterparts who did the same work. One of the people I worked with was a Jesuit priest.”

“His name?”

“Jim. Father Jim Kane. We became really good friends.”

Jim Kane was working with candidates who wanted to join religious orders. When it came time for Cheryl to make her decision, she talked to Jim quite a lot.

“Making this decision was a huge struggle. He was very helpful. He helped me process my thoughts. Unbeknownst to me, this was a struggle that he too had been having for many, many years, on whether or not to leave the Jesuits. He didn’t tell me at the time. The year I left the Franciscans was also the year Jim left the Jesuits. The next year his mother was sick, he went down to Connecticut to care for her. After she died, he came back to Boston.”

I’ve been speaking to Cheryl on the telephone. At this point in our talk, I’ve warmed to her.

“When Jim left the Jesuits, I was just starting nursing school at Boston College. When he came back to town, he started working at Boston College and we began to have dinner together . . . as lay people. We used to joke with each other saying, ‘Oh, my God, if you hear me tell you I’m getting married, shoot me.’ Neither of us wanted to be tied down. We became really, really good friends. Nothing romantic. We saw each other all the time. We’d have dinner together. Then we started realizing what a real comfort it was . . . to talk . . . to be together. Our backgrounds were so similar even though he was older than I was by seven years. And then we married .”

“Did that surprise your family?”

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“Yeah. The year before we got married, they could see how happy we were, how much we enjoyed each other.”

“Tell me about your married life.”

“We both just loved being married. We were shocked how much we loved it. We were crazy about each other. We’d been married about one and a half years when one day I picked up the telephone, and it was Jim saying he had a terrible headache. As he spoke he began repeating himself, seemed to be forgetting names of people he knew intimately. I could tell that something was very wrong. I asked if he knew my name. He said, ‘No. But I know you’re my wife.'”

My heart clenches; l hadn’t expected her story to take such a turn.

“Before I could get to him, he had a massive seizure. An ambulance took him to a hospital. Very quickly he was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor. l was in my last year of nursing school when he was diagnosed. Jim had been a very, very healthy man throughout his life; it was almost impossible to believe.”

“Were you angry?”

“We had both found what we wanted to do . . . found each other. Of course l accused God. Of course l was angry. We’d had so little time together, he was a young man in his early fifties. How could this have happened? Though his type of tumor is deadly, the doctors decided to do brain surgery. To our amazement, after a lengthy post-op convalescence, very gradually, Jim began to get well. It seemed like a miracle. He was a runner who’d run ten marathons and had put his running shoes back on. He began to train for the marathon that would take place in spring. Of course l thanked God.”

Things began to seem normal all summer, all fall. Winter came. It seemed like it would be a joyful Christmas, but when Jim went for a routine MRI, the news was bleak.

“Not only had the tumor reappeared but it was rapidly growing, was inoperable. We both knew what that meant. Again my faith in God crumbled.”

Once Jim was terminal, Cheryl took a leave from her job so she could be with him night and day – as nurse, as wife – for whatever time he had left.

“Very quickly I knew that I couldn’t be angry at God and ask him for strength at the same time. I realized how much l needed God . . . much more than God needed me. Suffice to say, I’d had a lifetime of trust in God. My faith hadn’t deserted me. I knew Jim’s hadn’t either when he began having visions of angels. He saw them as very beautiful, as very loving. They were in the room with us near the end.”

Her voice thickens.

“Those last months together were the most intimate of our marriage. I think of it as sacred. Of course he wouldn’t be running in the Boston Marathon, but many of his friends did and, still wearing running clothes, came to visit Jim after the race, told him all about the race. They brought the excitement of the marathon into the room, surrounded Jim with it. A few hours later he died. It was as if he’d laced on his running shoes and run off toward God . . . had his own race to finish.”

Again there’s silence, then she changes the subject, speaks about a woman she’s run into today who’d lived on the streets for fifteen years. The woman was on her way to speak at a conference on the homeless in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t know what it is . . . what gives you the inner strength to be able to follow through with something you need to do. Whatever it was for her, that’s the thing I can relate to. Something happens inside that moves you in a direction.”

“Fate?”

She doesn’t respond to my question, instead returns to the subject of Jim’s death.

“After Jim died, the only thing that kept me going was my work with the homeless. If I hadn’t had my work, I don’t know how I would have gotten through those first months, first years. He died in April of 1998. It was my need to be of help to people who needed help that had attracted me to the work of the Franciscan Sisters early on, it was that same need to help people that ended up helping me to survive. It wasn’t until I was over forty that I knew what it was to fall in love with a man. It happened.”

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A few months later I speak on the phone with Cheryl Kane again to catch up on her news. She tells me:

“I’m selling my big house in Milton and moving to Dorchester to the old Baker Chocolate Factory. Recently I began going to a Friday evening dance near where I live. I like to dance. Jim’s been dead for over seven years now. You know how crazy I was about him. Just crazy. But . . . I’ve been dancing with a man who goes there, we enjoy each other’s company. We’ve begun to date. Mind you, he’s one hundred percent different than Jim. But he’s a terrific man. His name is Russell. He’s a barber and we like dancing together.”

Two halves of the same whole, reunited

 

Because the launching of my new novel Not Not a Jew has been delayed (briefly), I’ve been proofing my nonfiction compilation of twenty-five stores of love rediscovered later in life – Love in the Second Act – soon to be re-issued with a new foreword by TMI Press. And, because I’m here in Greece, I’ve chosen one interview set here to excerpt (from ACT TWO, SCENE SEVEN- HOMECOMING) by way of an introduction to this upbeat book that will soon join the other reissues:

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The days are getting shorter, the weather uncertain. Because every swim might be the last, there’s poignancy in each. The light is captivating against the dappled Peloponnesian hills every time I swim out into the salty sea. Because the Aegean is so buoyant, it is a pleasant place to bob and converse. The local jokester, Jorgos, whose eyes are black as olives, swims over and asks, “What are you writing these days? Another book about misery and war?”

I tell him.

“Ah! Sex and the elderly. I’ve got a story for you: Mr. Popidopolous hits seventy, and decides he wants to live a long time. He starts to diet and exercise, and gives up smoking. He loses his gut, his body firms up, and, to make the picture complete, he buys a toupee to cover his bald scalp. Then he walks out in the street and is hit by the first car that comes along. As he lies dying, he calls, ‘God, how could you do this to me?’ God answers, ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t recognize you.’ ”

“That’s not exactly what I’m looking for.”

I notice a friend swimming my way. He’s Pandias Scaramangas, an eighty-year-old Greek. Three years ago his wife Ileana died. Last year he married Lila, with whom he had had a secret relationship for at least twenty-seven years. I wave.

“Apropos of Pandias, here’s one,” Jorgos gleefully says, pulling another joke from his quiver: “A woman in her late eighties goes to a doctor to complain about her husband’s impotence. The doctor hears her out and asks, ‘How old is your husband ?’ ‘Eighty-eight.’ ‘When did you first notice his waning enthusiasm and inability to perform?’ ‘Well, the first time was last night, and again this morning.’ ”

Jorgos breaks up over his own joke. He’s succeeded in getting me to crack a smile with this one. Pandias is beside us smiling his broad, ingratiating smile.

Pandias drolly says, “What’s this?”

Jorgos tells Pandias, “She’s writing about old age and sex.”

We three tread water.

“And love?” asks Pandias.

Me: “Yes. And love.”

I notice that, as time has passed, Pandias hasn’t changed much physically.

“What does it all add up to?” he asks thoughtfully. “Love? Sex? Do you know that no one taught me anything about sex. One Italian woman I slept with said, ‘Do this. Don’t do that.’ But no one ever taught me. If I am reincarnated, I’m going immediately to a sex school to learn techniques.”

Jorgos raises an eyebrow.

“I have much to say about love,” Pandias tells me, so we make a date. Then I swim toward shore and leave him with Yannis, who’s already starting another barrage of bad jokes.

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One night there’s a wild storm with Beaufort 8 winds – gale force – and pounding rains flailing the bougainvillea and the geraniums on the terrace. Twenty-four more hours of punishing winds and rains follow. Raging rivers flood down the stone steps from the mountains, walls wash away, cisterns overflow. It seems like the end of the world. Late Saturday night, the storm finally dies. The air is suddenly clear. Stars glint. On Sunday morning, as usual, I hear the sound of roosters and I can once again see the faraway red light of the morning hydrofoil coming out of the darkness, blinking its way across the horizon.

Morning is fresh and beautiful, I, as well as everyone else, must begin cleaning up the mess left by the storm. I’m moved to notice among the trashed geraniums in their flooded pots, that – out of nowhere, unexpectedly, from twisting threadlike vines – periwinkle-blue morning glories have opened. They lift my spirits. They last the entire morning. By the time I’m due at my appointment, the petals have curled up.

Pandias and I sit in the study of his stone house. His new wife Lila is a patrician woman with the face of a Byzantine icon. Lila shuts the door behind her after bringing us a tray with coffee.

“I have the reputation of being a womanizer,” Pandias confesses.

I already know this because I’ve known him a long time. He may be a bit of a rogue but he’s got a good heart and a long and intriguing amorous history. Doubtless there’s much he has to say about love. We became acquainted a number of decades before at a wedding at which I’d been the maid of honor, and he’d been the best man. He had, in fact, provided the bridegroom with the suit he wore. In the intervening years, both of these friends – Anthony and Christina – had died hard deaths. For many years, when our paths crossed, because of the death of these friends, Pandias and I could hardly bear to speak to each other. When encountering each other we’d usually just shake our heads sadly. After the death of Pandias’s wife, for some reason, we resumed our friendship.

He offers the platter of pastries. “Shall I give you a general outlook of my ideas on love?”

I shake my head yes.

“Both love and the development of the human brain go by waves, like the waves on the shore. One wave does not wait for the other to subside. One wave climbs over the other one while the other one is going away. Sometimes they synchronize well. You have one wave, one goes back, then you have the second. Very often, one wave falls onto another. And so you have turmoil, like in a mixer.”

I’m listening.

“Sex is something that has to do with the lower layers of the brain. You have what they call the urge. Sex is like what reptiles do. They either attack or they withdraw. If they see something moving in a certain way, or smelling a certain way, they go toward it and want to unite with it. They want to become one. They want to embrace or be embraced by it.”

His dark eyes twinkle with teasing and earnestness. He’s about the same height as me, with the face of a friendly fox terrier. In spite of the show he makes of his chauvinism, he’s beguiling and has always been generous to everyone.

“A higher part of the brain is mammalian. Mammals, say cats, they have urges, yes, but also instincts. When they have little babies they become tender, but if the gland secretes something else by mistake, this cat will eat her own kittens. Sex you get from the reptilian part of the brain. The second layer is love in a mammalian way, the mammalian part of the brain . . . affection, tenderness. The third layer of the brain is the neocortex, which means you think and calculate, so you marry a rich woman and get a dowry. These three layers of the brain very often do not mix harmoniously so you have someone who goes for sex to prostitutes, even though he loves his wife and children. Sometimes the three layers combine and you have someone who has good sex with his wife, he is tender with her, he thinks it’s good socially, she’s a nice person to go about with. But very often these things do not combine well and one is stronger than the other or fights it and drives you this way or that and makes you miserable. I like women more than men. I think most women are crazy and I think men are stupid and dull. I prefer crazy women to stupid men. I know that I’m stupid. That’s the only thing I have in common with Socrates.”

“You remarried recently. Looking at your life, this womanizing, what does love mean to you at this time?”

“Let me speak about sex first. The truth is that I never really liked sex very much nor felt skilled at it. For me sex was a way of approaching another person, getting to know. The best moment for me was afterward, when we smoked a cigarette and I’d ask her to tell me about her life, her first love and other stories.”

I can’t always tell when he’s serious and when he’s not.

“Sex – I considered even then, more so now – is a very stupid kind of motion. Going forward, backward, like an engine with a piston. Look at cats. Look at dogs. They all get a very stupid face while having sex. I had the urge for sex, so I wanted to do it and finish with it. To show off about it and get rid of the urge. I kept sex separate from other feelings. I would go to prostitutes. Often it was not a pleasant need but I had to do it. I love people but this is not sex. When I was young, I used to need it quite often. I know that wherever I go – you can parachute me into China – I’d find a woman who’ll cook for me, who’ll bring me coffee, or rather tea, and make love with me.”

His eyes twinkle with naughtiness.

“How long were you married ?” I ask.

His face saddens, tears fill his eyes. “I was married for fifty years and I loved Ileana. I loved her. She was somehow my child. At the same time she kept me going because she had a lot of humor. She was very funny and extremely brave and very intelligent. More than me. I didn’t know that until a friend heard me say that Ileana was stupid. He said, ‘Be careful. She is more intelligent than you.’ She was very, very special – half Greek, half Romanian.”

He hands me a photo of a child about two years old. “That’s my granddaughter.”

“What’s her name?”

“Sophia.”

It seems strange to me that a man who’d womanized throughout his married life would be so devastated by the death of his wife. It seemed like a contradiction. Perhaps because he’s of another culture, of another generation, this grief is not a contradiction? It’s something I can’t explain, but so what. There is no doubt that his sad state is sincere and deep. He hands me another photo. This one is of himself with his arm around a beautiful woman, who looks like Louise Brooks. It’s his wife, Ileana. He continues weeping.

“I knew when it was taken that it would be our last photograph together. I knew that l was going to die or she was. You can see it in the photo . . . we both felt it. What I imagined was dying first . . . me first.”

A wash of tears rolls down his cheeks.

“We had two beds like this, facing each other, two separate rooms but we could see each other. I saw the trees moving with the air . . . the wind blowing the trees. l could see Ileana. l don’t believe in afterlife. I don’t believe in souls. Yet I know very often what’s going to happen. I had an intuition that my and Ileana’s son, Peter, would not live out his life, but I didn’t worry about it because I figured by then they’ll have the medicine he’d need. But Peter died of a brain tumor seventeen years ago. It happened, but without the medicine I hoped for.”

“You went on, you continued living.”

“Ah, yes.”

“Did you think of suicide?”

“I want to commit suicide not for personal things but as a protest to this stupid universe that governs us, or rather for a cause that I cannot foresee yet. But I won’t do it as it will anyway happen.”

“Age? How do you feel about being eighty years old?”

“Awful. I didn’t think it would happen to me. First of all, it’s a shame to be old. It’s a degradation. But you can’t help it.”

“I’ve known you for a long time. You look almost the same.”

“Yes. But I looked like an old man when I was young. I’ve caught up with my face. I feel okay. It’s just the shame of it. You feel you are disintegrating, every day a little more. You don’t remember this or that. Every time I have to mention a name I have to wait five minutes to try to pry it up.”

“Has your philosophy of life changed? Or are you the same as you were sixty years ago?”

“I’ve changed a lot. I’ve learned a lot of things. I wouldn’t do the same mistakes. All my life has been a mistake. The only thing I haven’t regretted is marrying Ileana and having Peter, even though he didn’t stay long with us. Now I have Alexander, whom I had with Mireille.”

Pandias and Mireille, a French woman, had had a long, tempestuous affair.

“She had a way of driving me crazy. I don’t know if you can call it love. I became another person, aggressive, bad, crazy. I would say, ‘Mireille, stop it! Stop it! I’m going to drive the car into the wall,’ and she’d continue. Once I went full speed into a tree. We ended up in the hospital with broken limbs. Can you call that love?”

“The emotions were certainly strong.”

“I said never again. I didn’t know jealousy existed before that. Mammalian love is full of tenderness and looking after. But when jealousy enters . . . I think cats and dogs are very jealous. If you pet one the other will come.”

He stands up, brushes crumbs off his shirt.

“Now we must go upstairs. Lila will get upset if I stay away much longer.”

We walk up the stone stairway to the sitting/ dining room of his two hundred-year-old house.

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The walls are decorated with large paintings, many of which he won at poker. Lila has set the table for lunch. She serves roast chicken with lemon sauce, roast potatoes and scoops of cool lemon sorbet afterward. When the plates are removed, she spreads out a few photographs of their wedding on the table.

She tells me, “We were married one year ago in May . . .”

Pandias finishes the sentence, “. . . in Athens, a friend of mine was best man. A huge church in Kolonaki. The church was decorated with flowers as you see, but for another wedding.”

Lila laughs and points out the various photos.

“We used their decorations. Lovely pink flowers. That’s the priest. Those are Dutch people who had entered the church just to see it. They were happy to watch us get married, so they congratulated us.”

Pandias puts his hand on Lila’s shoulder. “Zeus cut the original human in half and we’re all looking to find the other half in order to become complete. The thing I like the most and agree with on human love is in Plato. Wait a minute.”

He goes to his bookshelf and pulls out a dog-eared copy of Plato’s Symposium. It’s in Greek with English translation on alternating pages. “I want to find the place where Aristophanes tells Socrates . . . ah. . . .”

He reads: . . . the shape of each human being was a rounded whole, with back and sides forming a circle. Each one had four hands and the same number of legs and two identical faces on a circular neck. They had one head for both the faces, which were turned in opposite directions, four ears, two sets of genitals.

I have to laugh. Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes to mind.

He explains: “You see Zeus found these beings overly strong and ambitious, too much competition to the gods. They were becoming too dangerous, too obnoxious. Zeus wondered, Should we kill them? Should we get rid of them? Instead, he said, ‘Let’s weaken them.’ ”

He again reads: ” ‘Zeus . . . cut humans into two, as people cut sorb-apples in half before they preserve them or as they cut hard-boiled eggs with hairs. As he cut each one, he told Apollo to tum the face and the half-neck attached to it towards the gash. Zeus took pity on them and came up with another plan: he moved their genitals round to the front.’ Perhaps Lila and I are two halves of the same whole, reunited?”

He smiles his devilish smile. Lila rolls her eyes, then brings a homemade cake from the kitchen and cuts it.

“Delicious,” I comment, not lying, and ask Lila, “Where did you learn to cook?”

“I taught her,” Pandias brags.

Lila nods her head. “I didn’t even have a cooker in the house nothing – when I met him. I couldn’t even fry an egg. We’d always have lunch in restaurants.”

“I bought her a book. The best investment I ever made.”

“I learned for you. The first thing I did was a souffle.”

Me: “Was it a success?”

“Yes. But it was very well explained.”

“You started then to cook for Pandias?”

“Yeah.”

“When I met her she had never tasted fish.”

“I didn’t like it. But now I do.”

To Lila: “What else did he teach you ?”

Pandias answers for her, “Patience.”

Lila answers for herself: “Many things.”

To Lila: “What have you taught him?”

“To diet. To be healthy.”

To Lila: “Do you depend on him?”

Pandias replies in her place: “She doesn’t depend on me, I depend on her.”

To Pandias: “Are you romantic?”

Pandias: “Not at all.”

Lila: “You are.”

We finish our cake and drink coffee.

“Years ago, I had another house on the island,” Pandias explains. “I used to wake up early in the morning before the sun rose. I’d sit on the wall over there and wait for the sun to come up. I’d see the sunrise, would smoke my cigarette, read a little. I didn’t know then that I was sitting beside the arch under what would one day be my house. One day I noticed the arch and thought, This is the house for me. It belonged to a German. He was desperate to sell it. He was selling it for one third of its price. Why? I asked him. He replied, ‘Because next year I’m going to be fifty and I won’t be able anymore to go up the hill.’ I’m eighty,” he chortles, “I go slowly, use a stick . . .”

Lila finishes his sentence, “. . . but he goes up and down the hill every day!”

 

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A few mornings later, again, are newborn periwinkle-blue morning glories, their thin, curling vines wrapping themselves around the geranium stalks. What had been the surprise of a few morning glories that lived for one day only on the day after the big storm became a few more the next day. These also died. The day after that there were none. Then, four. Every day I’d been given the gift of these heart-stopping blue petals and then the letdown when they died. Today there are ten dewy morning glories newly burst from their buds.

In the water I swim over to Lila and Pandias. We tread water and – I don’t know why – the subject of death comes up.

Lila tells us: “Once I woke up, had hemorrhaged during the night. There I was, both me and my bedding soaked with blood.”

I gasp. Pandias gapes at her as if he’d never heard the story. Her description of the bloody scene becomes more vivid. She describes the bright red stains on the sheets, on her nightdress. She concludes by saying, “But, do you know what? I felt an enormous sense of well-being. I’m not afraid of death, nor would I suicide for any reason.”

Pandias agrees: “I doubt I’ll ever commit suicide but if one chooses to die by one’s own hand, I’ve been told one must eat a large quantity of good foie gras. Then one must drink a bottle of good champagne, wait one half an hour. Then . . . go into the sea. Either you’ll drown or not.”

Shortly after they bob off, and I go ashore to read. Before I open my book, I look up to see them bobbing across the horizon. They are indistinguishable, one from the other. One is wearing a white sun visor. But which one? I can’t tell. I finish reading and gather up my things from the stony beach. I’m about to walk off and start packing my suitcase, when Jorgos – mask atop his head and a snorkle in hand – stops me in my tracks with an other of his jokes:

“An elderly man was enjoying dinner at a small taverna in the countryside with an elderly woman he’d just begun to date. He remembers the romantic taverna as the place he’d once brought young girls for seduction dinners long, long ago. When the moment would come, he remembers he’d take them behind this taverna, where he’d cozy up to the back fence, pull the girl close and begin to make love.

” ‘How about taking a stroll outside into the back with me?’ he invites his date.

“‘That sounds like a good idea,’ she answers.

“There’s a policeman sitting in the next booth listening to all this, and having a chuckle to himself because he knows that out back is where seductions take place.

“‘I’ve got to see these two old-timers trying to have sex,’ he thinks, and follows them outside as they walk haltingly along, leaning on each other for support, aided by walking sticks.

“Finally they get to the back of the taverna that’s full of flowers and trees and make their way to the fence. The old man presses the woman against the fence, puts his arms around her and kisses her deeply. Then he drops his trousers, lifts her skirt and pulls down her panties. Suddenly they erupt into the must furious sex that the watching policeman has ever seen. They are bucking and jumping like eighteen-year-olds. This goes on for about forty minutes! Finally, they both collapse against each other panting. The police man is utterly amazed.

“It takes them about half an hour to recover. Finally the old couple puts their clothes back on. The policeman thinks that what he’s seen was truly amazing; they were going like a speeding train. When the old woman goes off to find the ladies’ room to tidy up, he decides to ask the old man what his secret is.

“‘That was something else!’ he states, and asks, ‘Did you know that’s where all lovers go to make love?’

” ‘Yes,’ he answers, ‘but I haven’t been back here since I was a young man.’

“The policeman gushes, ‘I’m amazed. You must have been having sex for about forty minutes. Tell me please, was there some sort of secret you learned all those years ago?’

“The old man replies, ‘Fifty years ago that wasn’t an electric fence.’ ”

I tell Jorgos I’ll be expecting a new quiver full of jokes when next we meet.

“A little classier, please,” I beg, and climb the stone steps.

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