Artist Date 100: No More Fear of Flying

View from the "Jong Section" of Ravenswood Used Books.
View from the “Jong Section” of Ravenswood Used Books.

Second Jewish confession regarding Artist Dates.

I have never read Fear of Flying.

Some might fret about skipping the classics — Crime and PunishmentSons and LoversA Tale of Two Cities.  But this is my own personal blasphemy.  Isadora Wing.  The Zipless Fuck.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.  Ever since my friend Paul asked me which living writer I admired most.  I didn’t hesitate.  Erica Jong.

“Good,” he said.  “I want you to write Ms. Fear of Flying.  I want you to introduce her to your work.”

Gulp.

I remember being introduced to her work, more than 25 years ago.  I was a freshman in college.  That year, Ms. magazine published a conversation between Jong and radical feminist, Andrea Dworkin.

The spread included several photographs of them sitting on stools, talking.  Dworkin wearing a pair of large overalls, her hair — signature frizzy; Jong in a smart, form-fitting suit and heels.  She is laughing.  They both are.  Dichotomies collide.

I do not remember a single word of the interview.  Only these images, and that this was my first introduction to Jong, to her brand of sexual empowerment and liberal use of fuck and cunt — which, at the time, seemed shockingly like my own.

So today, when Jessica at Ravenswood Used Books asks if she can help me find anything, I do not hesitate.

Fear of Flying.  Artist Date 100.

It is bright inside, which I don’t quite expect.

Jessica leads me past shelves slightly groaning under the weight and familiar musty smell of aging paper.  Past the required bookshop pet, a greyhound in a zip-up vest turned animal parka, lying on a large, plaid dog bed.

All the way to the “Jong section” at the back of the store.

She climbs a ladder and pulls down a stack from the very top shelf — Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones.  Parachutes and KissesHalf-Lives — an early book of poetry.  Hard and soft copies of Fear of Flying.

I gather them into my arms and settle into a chair.

I remember reading How To Save Your Own Life, the follow-up to Fear of Flying, in my 20s while living in San Francisco.  Picking it up at Manzanita Used Books in the Mission, where I loaded up on yellowed copies of Philip Roth novels after my once-upon-a-time boyfriend Jason turned me on to Portnoy’s Complaint.

I remember reading Seducing the Demon: Writing For My Life — which I had picked up at another used bookstore, Powell’s in Portland — more than 20 years later.  Cracking its spine I felt eager to tuck into bed each night, alone, to savor a few juicy pages before passing out.

I had let go of this ritual more than 15 years ago, when my boyfriend, now ex-husband, moved into my apartment.  But unlike writing — which, following a similar hiatus, returned to me a few months after our decision to part ways — reading had eluded me.  Until Jong.

Her words pulled me into the bedroom in the wee hours when I otherwise did not want to be there, did not want to be poignantly reminded of the empty space on my mattress.  Her words allowed me to sleep again.

I decide on Half-Lives, as it is about the point I am at — 45, middle-aged, half-a-life — along with a hard copy of Fear of Flying.  I smirk.

On my way to the register, I pick up Women Who Run With the Wolves, a suggestion from my friend Pam.  She said it changed her life.

I want to change my life.

I am changing it.  I have been for nearly three years.

Returning to Chicago — neatly packing my messy life into cardboard boxes, living alone for the first time ever.  Returning to writing.  To reading.  To traveling alone — to Rwanda. To Ireland, Italy, Belgium and France.

I pull Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull down from the stacks and add them to my pile — talismen.  Protectors of my very recent decision to not renew my lease, but instead move overseas to teach English.

Anecdotal instructions by those who went before me of how to change my own life.  Reminders, like Jong’s second novel, of how to save it.

Seduced By Words

My friend Rachel met Philip Roth when she was a university student.

220px-Portnoy_s_Complaint
The book that started the seduction.

I was wildly envious.  He was my literary idol, inspiring a poem I titled, “Philip Roth Will Save My Life.”

She told me I shouldn’t be.

She said he was coarse, almost mean.  Not at all who she imagined him to be.  She had been seduced by his words.

Me too.  As well as Erica Jong’s, Charles Bukowski’s Anais Nin’s and a long list of other’s.

Most recently, I’ve been seduced by the words of strangers – men looking for love, or something like it, on OKCupid.

Clever words couched in a seemingly shared commonality, ending abruptly when moved from screen to voice.

I should not be entirely surprised.

I’d learned about the chasm between the written word and reality, online and real-time, this past fall when a friend, a man 12 years my junior, told me in no uncertain terms exactly what he would like to do to me.  Exactly.  And while he made good on his promises a few days later, the flirty simpatico we shared on screen was lost in real life.  All hands.  No heart.

I was reminded of this truth once again on Friday – my first, OKCupid coffee date.

We made plans a few weeks out due to Passover and my schedule.  During that time we exchanged several messages, but we never spoke on the phone.

I told him how to make fried matzoh, and made him promise to cover it with real maple syrup.  He told me about a cartoon character his kids like who carries a flask of the stuff.

While I wasn’t convinced this was a romantic connection, he seemed like someone I would want to know.

In person our conversation was clunky, awkward – made worse by bad acoustics and me having to lean in and ask “what?” constantly.

We didn’t talk about his children’s adoption.  Or mine.  Or even about maple syrup, cartoons or writing – which we both do.  We talked about our divorces (Hmm…) and our experiences on OKCupid.  (Mine being rather limited.)

I didn’t go into the date with expectations greater than a cup of Intelligentsia, decaf –as it was after 3.  And yet, I felt sad.

I suppose there is always some level of hope – What if? Perhaps?  Otherwise we would never meet strangers over coffee in the first place.

I miss my ex-husband.

He was solid.  I could trust him.  He showed up.  Period.  Even if it wasn’t always in the way I might hope.

I am also clear about what didn’t work.  Why we divorced.

Two years after separating, I feel like I am finally grieving.

I miss Mr. 700 Miles — my most recent romance — too.  Even though, I couldn’t trust him.  He wasn’t solid.  He couldn’t show up.  I miss the connection that cut straight through the internet, through phone calls, texts and video chats.  The feeling that I could talk to him all night and into tomorrow and we’d never run out of things to say, or ways to delight one another.

I am grieving him too.  Or perhaps the idea of him.  The idea of us.

I get into my car and head north toward Wicker Park, where I will meet my friends in a church basement.  Later we will have dinner at the Birchwood, where I will eat a green salad with warm lentils, squash and bacon and drink hot water with lemon.  I couldn’t be happier.

My mind wanders, thinking about the rest of the weekend.

Dinner with my girlfriends on Saturday night.

A Sunday morning dance class and performance.  And later in the afternoon a salon hosted by my friend Megan – my Artist Date of the week –where her friend Peggy will read from her just-published collection of essays.  In between, I will work on editing my friend Martha’s new novel.

I feel excited about my days.  About my life.  And grateful for it.  Grateful for its juicy-ness, with or without a partner.

I am not certain this is true for all people – looking for love or otherwise.  I feel lucky.

And a little wiser now too.

I know what I read, on the page or on the screen is only part of the story.  I need to listen, to hear it too.

What is being said.  And not said.

The sound of gentleness.  Laughter.  Banter.  Ease.

And my heart – beating just a little more quickly.

Your Honest, Open, Dirty, Loving Ways

My ex-boyfriend J is getting married.

I’ve often said nothing good comes from a sentence that begins, “So I was on Facebook…”

I actually spoke to J twice this summer.  Once from home, the second time from the road -- from the guest room at my aunt and uncle's house.
I actually spoke to J twice this summer. Once from home, the second time from the road — from the guest room at my aunt and uncle’s house. With them here.

That’s how I found out.  His engagement was at the top of my news feed.

My stomach sank to my feet.  Hope dashed.  Fantasy abruptly ended.

I felt sad.  Silly.  Stupid.  Ashamed.

I love J.  I always have.  I knew him the second I saw him.  I’m pretty sure it was the same for him.

We dated in our 20s.  Ours was a sweet, sexy romance – albeit brief.  Our breakup caught me off guard.  Perhaps because he more than one time said, “I know I’m going to marry you.  And we’ll have daughters.  I know we will have daughters.”

I’ve written about this – about him, about us – before.

The last time we saw one another was in California – about 17 or 18 years ago – on Venice Beach.  I was returning my roller skates.  Until I found him on Facebook.  His profile picture was a photograph from childhood.  I wasn’t entirely certain it was him, so I wrote, “Is that you?”

“It is indeed me,” he replied.  “And it is indeed you.”

In the years that followed, we wished one another happy birthdays, occasionally commented on each other’s status, and traded inside jokes – mostly about Philip Roth and liver.  We occasionally had lengthier exchanges.  Like on his birthday in 2012.  I was delayed in Brussels.  He was on his way out for a crab dinner.  I told him I was getting divorced.

This past summer we spoke for the first time since Venice.  After hearing his voice, I remarked, “Oh…that’s what you sound like.”  I had forgotten.

That night he told me why he ended our relationship.  I had asked many times over the years but he had never responded to that particular piece of the conversation.  This time he did.

He said I woke something up in him.  A piece of him that desperately needed healing – healing I couldn’t give him.  That he had to do for himself.

He had been attracted to me.  To our sexual energy.   And that something about my  “honest, open, dirty, loving way” got under his skin.  “In a good way.”  And he ran.

He affirmed that I had been important in his life.  Just not in the way I had hoped to be.

I knew J was in a relationship and had been for many years.  That he always exercised terrific boundaries.

And yet, there was always a little piece of me that held out hope … that maybe one day J and I would find our way back to one another – in that way.  I didn’t live my life maneuvering around it.  Obsessing about it.  But it was there.

And now it isn’t anymore.  It can’t be.

A couple of weeks ago J showed up in my clairvoyant reading and healing.  He had in the previous one too.

The first time he showed up, the clairvoyant saw us holding hands, smiling, and taking a big leap together.  She said we may never connect again romantically, but that we are inextricably bound for life.

I didn’t like that so much – the first part.

The second time he showed up, she simply said, “You just let go of him.”  And that 10 percent of my energy returned to me immediately.

I had no idea.  I hadn’t even tried.  And I didn’t like that so much either.

But perhaps she was right, because this afternoon I did something that surprised me.  I was drafting a personal note to send, but chose to post a comment to his wall instead – just like hundreds of his other friends had done.  Just another Bozo on the bus.  Not claiming any special status.

“Mazel Tov! Wishing you much joy.”

Not even an “XO” – our usual sign off.

It is not untrue.  This is what I wish for him.  In the most honest, open, dirty, loving way.