Please welcome Robert to S/tick! Feel free to drop him a line, and watch for another creativity-inspiring post here on Wednesday as we prepare to release issue 2.1, “Managing,” on March 21st!
On Being a Woman
“What do you do, Mr. Chatterjee?”
“Evidently I produce prostatic cancer cells at an alarming rate.”
The doctor suppressed a smile. “I mean professionally.”
"Until my illness, I was a museum director."
"Very interesting. I’d like to return to it in some fashion."
Now Dr. Blair did smile. 40s. Pretty. Thin. Impressive long nose. Excellent posture. Beautiful clothes. “That’s our objective. We develop an effective treatment plan, and you survive for many years.”
"But you don’t treat me yourself."
"I advise some patients who come to our group and treat others who have been advised by one of my colleagues. That way you receive a quick second opinion. Or you can get your second opinion elsewhere. So," she continued, leaning forward, her fine black hair drifting toward her jawline, "tell me more about yourself."
Henry understood that Dr. Blair worked with the whole person, but Henry wasn’t interested in the whole Henry. He was focused on the cancerous Henry and after a brief autobiographical recitation turned the conversation in that direction:
"I am fifty-six, a tad overweight, but cancer aside, I’m fine. My mother is a Hudson who endowed me with my first and middle name, Henry Hudson. My father, surnamed Chatterjee, was a London-trained Bengali proctologist who practiced here in New York. I have degrees from Choate, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia. Initially I planned to obscure myself as a classicist, but I was drawn into sociology by Professor Michael Sudbury who became Senator Michael Sudbury. So…politics, of which fifteen years proved a surfeit. I then moved into the directorship of the American Museum of Folklife and Social History and was happy there until last January when I had my prostate gland removed because my Gleason score was seven. But unfortunately the subsequent velocity of my PSA readings suggested there had been a jail break; the cancer had tunneled out of the prostate capsule. Now I’m told we ought to radiate the prostatic bed. Then we ought to retest my PSA levels. If they continue upward, we go after the vagrant prostatic cancer cells before they get into the lymphatic system one of two ways: either we suppress my testosterone production through hormones because testosterone has a nourishing effect on prostate cancer cells, or we—I say ‘we’ with reservations—chemically or physically castrate me.”
Dr. Blair had a long look at the olive-skinned Henry Hudson Chatterjee. He was a short, paunchy, highly intelligent, witty man who deserved old age.
“Has someone been going through all this with you?”
“Senator Sudbury’s former wife, Patricia, is a dear friend of mine.”
“She lives here in New York?”
“I’ve left Washington and taken refuge with her. May I add that I don’t think any of this is going to work?”
“Oh, but we’re far down the road in treating prostate cancer,” Dr. Blair protested.
“I’m afraid my prostate cancer is far down the road, too. I picture it having a cup of coffee somewhere along the Route 66 that courses through my troubled body. Let’s think of it as a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel out there, up to no good.”
Dr. Blair couldn’t help laughing. “Okay, given your skepticism, what are your thoughts?”
Henry’s voice tightened as he struggled to retain his sense of irony. “My principal thought is that women don’t die of prostate cancer.”
“No, women don’t have prostate glands.”
“Nor testicles. Nor testosterone.”
“Meaning I foresee a period in my life that is dramatically miserable and prematurely terminal. I already have ceased to function as a man.”
“You’ve only had your prostatectomy seven months ago.”
“I know it’s early, but in the midst of my likely hormonal treatments, radiation, and chemotherapy, I fear I shall have a sick, discouraged Henry Hudson Chatterjee on my hands. It therefore occurs to me that if the idea is to prevent my masculinity from killing me, I might rather experience my final years not as a eunuch but as a woman. Don’t just castrate me. Commit to that antiseptic phrase I’ve come upon: reassign my gender. Give me the Tiresias experience so that I, too, will experience life from both sides, male and female.”
Dr. Blair had never heard anyone say what Henry had just said. “Are you homosexual?”
“I am not.”
“Have you felt you should have been born a woman?”
“I have not.”
“Those are prerequisites for what you’re suggesting. Gender reassignment isn’t an accepted treatment for prostate cancer.”
"This may be true, but if I end up merely castrated, I’ll be a selfless self. By going further, I’ll be a woman. Is that such a hideous fate?"
Once again, Dr. Blair had to laugh, “I haven’t found it so.”
But Henry knew he’d have to push hard. “I won’t say I’m indifferent to sex as a man, but I will say that I’m a cerebral/aesthetic sort, and as I think of all the women I’ve known, with the exception of my ex-wife, I have sensed that being male isn’t necessarily the better lot in life. Woman take things in that men miss. If this were a Kafka story and I woke up tomorrow morning not as an insect but as a woman, I think it would be interesting.”
It had been a long time since Wellesley, but Dr. Blair had read Kafka’s story, “The Metamorphosis.” She also knew that the prophet Tiresias had come upon two copulating snakes, struck them, irritated the goddess Hera, and as a consequence been transformed into a woman. For the next seven years, Tiresias had been a notorious prostitute. At this point she came upon another pair of copulating snakes and either struck them again or passed them by. Whatever she did was sufficient to release her from her femininity and make Tiresias a man again. This qualified him to settle an argument Zeus and Hera had about who enjoyed sex the most: men or women. Tiresias said women.
But Dr. Blair stuck to medicine. “Again, gender reassignment is not a prostate cancer treatment.”
Henry smoothed the thighs of his gray flannel trousers. The two of them were talking in the doctor’s office, not an examining room, and he was a master of one-on-one negotiations that didn’t involve digital rectal examinations.
“Perhaps not yet, but as I see it, step one is a simple procedure. I am castrated, an outpatient operation. Voila! I instantly stop producing the testosterone that will hasten my death. Naturally most men don’t like this option, but why stop there? Why not make the balance of my life an adventure? I’ve found no evidence that someone who has had a gender reassignment has lost her personal memories, legal status as an American citizen, access to her bank and investment accounts, or acuity of mind.”
“Mr. Chatterjee, women are different from men,” Dr. Blair objected. “If you had a vagina and a clitoris and amplified breasts and buttocks and altered facial features and possibly an altered voice, none of that would matter as much as the female hormones you’d receive. They’d change the psychic ground upon which your existence rests.”
“You put that beautifully. I shall remember your phrasing.”
“What do you want from me, Mr. Chatterjee?”
“I want you to refer me to a sex change physician with a ‘please expedite’ sticker on my forehead.”
She wanted to say that would be unethical, but was it? “You’d have trouble getting any insurance company to pay for this.”
“In the valley of the shadow of death, money isn’t an issue.”
“All I can say is that you’ll have to let me think about this.”
“Okay, but please remember our friend is going to finish his cup of coffee any minute, and as in a McCarthy novel, he may be hard to track.”
Patricia had seen him in her study with piles of Greek and Latin books from his days at Choate and Penn. He was fixated on Tiresias. There was the story of Tiresias being both a man and a woman. Then there was Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, reluctantly revealing that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus wasn’t pleased. Tiresias was thrown out of the palace. Along the way he’d also become blind, some said as retribution for having spotted Athena naked while she was bathing. But his mother, the nymph Chariclo, persuaded Athena to wash out his ears (the blinding being irreversible) so he was able to understand birdsong, enhancing his prophetic gifts (birds know what’s up in the world). And then there was Tiresias in Antigone, where he told Creon, the king of Thebes, that the city was sick because of him. Tiresias apparently had a habit of annoying gods, goddesses and kings on a fairly regular basis.
Patricia loved Henry for many reasons, one of which was that he reminded her of the restlessly inquisitive Michael Sudbury. They cared about things; they wanted to understand. Tiresias for instance.
“So many things happened to him that he’s obviously a composite, more than just a prophet, almost a prophecy in himself,” Henry said. “Isn’t he, in fact, an emblem of mankind’s quest for total knowledge?”
“What are you getting at?”
“I’m considering dealing with my testosterone-fueled prostate cancer by becoming a woman.”
Patricia sometimes said she lived to be bowled over. Michael had bowled her over. She knew New York’s best writers, publishers, artists, lawyers, bankers, and architects. They bowled her over all the time. No one, however, had bowled her over like this. She couldn’t help her reaction.
“But what about us!”
“You have never had relations with a woman?”
She’d had a crush on a girl in boarding school. They did each other’s hair. Sometimes they looked at one another sternly in the morning (they were roommates) and said, almost at the same time, “Now I’m going to kiss you so you have a great start to your day.” And they would kiss, but no tongues, and part with protracted secret looks binding them eye-to-eye.
“Not really. Have you with a man?”
“Mason suggested it in college. I declined, but we’re still best friends.”
“It’s different. Mason is gay. You wouldn’t be gay.”
“No, I’d be embodying the Tiresian prophecy in a way that goes beyond gay.” Henry was looking at her with Euripides’s Bacchae—in which Tiresias cross-dresses to have an intimate encounter with the Theban women—open in his lap. “As things stand, I have ceased to be a man and soon may cease to be a human being. Alternatively, I might live and explore dimensions of life that hitherto have been walled off from me.”
Patricia involuntarily plumped down on a hassock. She was reeling. “Henry, you could do anything you wanted at the museum, but this isn’t curating an exhibition.”
“No, we’re definitely not talking about exhibitions, we’re talking about life. What would I be like as a woman? Can you picture me?”
“What I can picture is that we might not have any sex at all.”
“Presently the case.”
“It could change.”
“Not as things are going. I wish I’d had SAT scores as high as my PSA scores. Would have made Harvard.”
“What if you became a woman and fell in love with a man instead of me?”
Henry said he would always love her; they had been secret soulmates from the beginning. “You know that. And I mean holding you, kissing you, being yours.”
Patricia wasn’t sure she’d like being held and kissed by a woman, even if the woman were Henry. She said this softly, supposing he must be in incredible pain despite his frightening composure. To think such a thing! But he went on thinking it:
“Ask yourself, is it better to be dead than to be a woman? Wouldn’t Tiresias look around him now and see his prophetic example fulfillable? Be a man, be a woman, have it all? If I can kill myself, which I don’t want to do, why can’t I become a woman? How could I possibly become so disagreeable as a woman that you would want nothing to do with me?”
“You may lose your view of things, your personality, your irony, which I hope is on display at the moment.”
“Or I may fascinate you with new insights. I may take us places where we’ve never been. I may write a book that is dual in its gender perspective, or I may just keep poking at Tiresias, returning to my undergraduate studies in the classics.”
She tried to imagine Henry’s body transformed. Who hadn’t looked at cross-dressers and marveled at their ability to appear what they were not? But this would go further. “A sex change operation wouldn’t give you the sense of what it is to have been a woman all your life, the memories and disappointments and hopes and resignation…and what about giving birth?”
“Don’t you see, I would be giving birth precisely because I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want you to die, either.”
“Or live as a eunuch.”
“Castration isn’t inevitable.”
“Perhaps not, but the fact remains that my testicles are killing me. Everything that will be done to me over the next few years will be aimed at neutralizing their effects.”
Patricia didn’t know how you went from Tiresias to reshaping a penis into labia, a clitoris, and a vagina. Henry wouldn’t be Henry, but how could she stop loving him for that?
Dr. Blair discussed Henry’s case with Dr. Hart, a gender reassignment specialist. Dr. Hart first wanted to know whether this really would deal with Henry’s prostate cancer. Dr. Blair said that his body scans were clean; the issue was confined to the prostatic bed.
“Which, yes, I would remove in a sex-change operation,” Dr. Hart said. “But here’s the problem: he’s not proposing this because he’s convinced he’s a woman in a man’s body.”
“Apparently not. I talked to his urologist and his internist, though. They said what is obvious: he’s bright, clear-headed, and quite rational.”
“Were they surprised to hear he’d come up with this idea?”
“The urologist, yes, but the internist laughed. In any case he’s definitely a normal heterosexual male. He has a female lover, Michael Sudbury’s ex-wife. He went into the prostatectomy eager to maintain his relationship with her. Instead, he ended up with more cancer.”
“How long would he last absent this radical measure?”
“Two years, three?”
“But this way?”
“How can I say? This has never been done before.”
Michael Sudbury had vowed to get back to New York from California to see Patricia every two months. Didn’t happen. The demise of their marriage provoked him to invent an odious new word: it peripheralized Patricia while centering him in his new West Coast life, not the easiest of transitions. People in California thought of the Atlantic seaboard as though it were somewhere under the national bed, littered with dust bunnies, porn magazines, and long lost slippers. Michael had to scramble, network like crazy, spend more weekends on elaborate patios and in overdecorated hunting lodges than he wanted to, and learn not to annoy people in Seattle by talking about the people he knew in L.A. Everything was the future, and the future had an irresistible honeyed taste accompanied by relationships with women who had a lot more money than he did, but at seventy-three, he was choosy and often fouled things up with memories going all the way back to Nixon. So what if Michael had worked for him? No one cared. People hadn’t read Michael’s books, either. This made him wonder if he should write a new one. He hadn’t done so in fifteen years, but then he’d had Henry’s help. And now? My God, news of Henry’s operations—plural—motivated him eastward. He sat in business class brooding about whether he always knew Henry coveted Patricia. Further, he asked himself what his reasons for leaving her were. In short, he couldn’t bear what she obviously had come to think of him. Once upon a time he was a gorgeous academic steed, then politics turned him into a sway-backed nag who never stopped casting his eyes around for the next bag of oats, or, if you will, donors. He raised money until he wanted to scream. When he entered the senate he had to raise $5,000 a week. When he left, $100,000 a week. Every week for six years. She didn’t like the man he became; he didn’t like the man he became, and the peripheralization set in. He had transferred his erotic energies from his wife to other people’s wallets. That’s where he wanted to put his prick…plus the occasional fling…but this…this…
He sipped his bourbon and remembered both Patricia and Henry when they were young. He used to say Patricia was so slender you could slip her into a cigar tube. He used to say that Henry had the most uselessly interesting mind on the planet. And Patricia was more fun than anyone else in New York City, certainly in Columbia faculty circles. Who pulled off pot luck dinners with that stuffy crowd? Patricia. Who arranged picnics for thirty people in Central Park? Patricia. Skating parties? Patricia.
He had to get back to New York and see her, though he was leery of seeing Henry.
"What does he call himself?” he’d asked on the phone. “Etta, you say? Henrietta Chatterjee, is that it? Listen to me: I can say it without stuttering. I’ve been shocked into a cure. What’s he look like? This is real, not just cross-dressing?"
He listened to Patricia describe Etta’s weight loss, her surgically sculpted figure, the miracle of cosmetic surgery on her face that shrank her nose, gave her brown Indian eyes greater play, strengthened her weak chin (inherited from old Chatterjee, the proctologist) and then the vocal chord modification. She still had a deep voice, but it was a mature woman’s voice, and her hair was jet black. If Henry had a sister, this would have been her. Henrietta Hudson Chatterjee.
“Isn’t this sort of thing supposed to happen in California, where I’m six steps behind all the time, and not New York? I’m not sure I want to see her.”
"You won’t have a choice. She’s left the museum. She lives with me."
“And you two…how do I ask this?”
“If it’s none of your business, don’t ask it.”
He got nowhere. You are married to someone for so long and then realize your relationship has dwindled to an encounter at a high school reunion. But he missed her. She was so real, so consistent, so grounded. All those years while he was politicking around New York, she’d escaped to estate sales, barns and basements and attics, buying and shipping curiously intriguing artifacts to her own little warehouse in Brooklyn. Why? Pure love, fascination, simply to escape from Michael’s endless barbecues, clam bakes and pig roasts, but now, by God, she’d used her scavengings of signs, furniture, picture frames, andirons, glassware, doors, mantlepieces and so forth to jump-start an interior design business that mattered to her…and the buildings and neighborhoods where she worked meant something to him, too. She was deeply involved in the city where he was born and he wasn’t. That hurt.
He twisted his big body around to retrieve his smart phone and look at the picture Patricia sent him—an elegant South Asian woman with Henry’s restrained, knowing smile only smaller, Mona Lisa-like. You would not think this was once a man.
A chill passed through him. The little woman scared him. What must she know given what she already knew before she did this to herself? Was that Tiresias stuff Patricia had relayed to him real? And during all those years the three of them had spent together, Henry the ingenious diplomat had been his aide-in-chief while Henry the folkloristic sociologist had been Patricia’s stoutest moral support and admirer. That hurt, too.
Patricia had come through spectacularly when Henry had his prostatectomy. More spectacular still was her love seeing Etta through her sex-change operations. When her penis was inverted and reconfigured, Etta found herself in turmoil; for quite some time she couldn’t look, dreading the mass of red swollen tissue between her legs. Meanwhile Patricia sat with her and read aloud the new Fagles translation of the Odyssey. The Oxycontin made Etta woozy; she’d drop off repeatedly. Nonetheless, when she wakened, she found Patricia still reading, holding the book with one hand and Etta’s hand with the other.
At last the hormones began to comfort her as much as the painkillers. She developed a new sense of self, kindred to birth or having given birth, she wasn’t certain which, but a new beginning. She asked if there wasn’t something she could do that would help Patricia in her business. Patricia said of course she could; she let Etta examine her financial statements and marketing schemes and project plans. As an interior designer, Patricia was, in a sense, just like Etta: a make-over artist. They joked about that. One day a dreary apartment or townhouse became a new one without losing its connection to the past.
Patricia was out when Etta had her first look at her groin. She sat on the closed toilet seat deploying a little pocketbook mirror. Her nethers remained swollen and confused; she could barely touch them to wipe—only pat—but the fundamental statement was clear: no penis, no scrotum. Was there, in fact, something beyond her puffy labia, as Dr. Hart promised? Would she use it? There could only be one reason—sex—but she was so feeble that the thought of sex wasn’t much of a thought. She pushed her knees farther apart and used her fingers to expose her new clitoris. It was swollen into a kind of tiny tulip bulb.
What about her breasts? The nipples and areolae were darker than they’d been, larger than they’d been, angled somewhat downward and away from her breastbone. She thought of her bosomy mother and her scrawny father, who’d lost weight year by year as he aged. Mixed physical role models at best, who had a pact that when Henry was ten, they would separate and when he was twelve they would divorce. Henry would live with his mother, and they would live well because his father was affluent and his mother got a ton of his money and first dibs on the estate if his father died first, which he conveniently did.
The work on her face wasn’t terribly painful, but any operation saps you. The human body rushes its phalanxes of recuperative powers to the site of what doctors sometimes called “the insult.” What part of her hadn’t been insulted? She went back to Dr. Blair for an assessment. Dr. Blair couldn’t find a speck of prostate cancer anywhere.
“So your idea apparently worked,” she said.
Etta was dressed in clothing Patricia had bought her, a white cashmere sweater and a black skirt with an interesting weave. Not too girlie. She hadn’t had her vocal chords adjusted yet, so her voice was exactly the voice Dr. Blair had heard the first time they met.
“And now I shall live, you see.”
The two women contemplated one another, seemingly inquiring what the other might consider living to be, what being a woman meant.
Dr. Blair asked, “What will you do with your life?”
“I’m helping Patricia with her interior design business at the moment. Eventually I may do some museum consulting.”
Dr. Blair asked if she would consider writing about her experiences.
Etta didn’t know. “I don’t have enough perspective yet. You’ll recall Tiresias became a notorious whore during his period of femininity, but frankly, I’m feeling rather timid. Dr. Hart didn’t give me a literal hymen, but I’m a virgin, wouldn’t you agree?”
Dr. Blair agreed. Who knew where this demure Indian-American’s new anatomy and hormones would take her? Beyond that, when Dr. Blair took the trouble to look into the Tiresias myth, one thing struck her: his gnomic utterances were consistently rejected, just like Cassandra’s, the prophetess doomed to be always right and never paid heed.
Patricia observed Etta’s transformation with wonder. Etta walked, sat, talked, minced celery, chided herself for forgetting something, and held her tongue like a woman…a certain kind of woman, a very good kind of woman. She retained her exceptional mind and knowledge, yet managed to probe her own thoughts and observations with even more discrimination than before. She confessed she was wary of men not only because she feared the moment of discovery but because, like many women, she found men could be awkwardly disruptive or mulishly reserved. In other words, they forced their opinions on you or played dumber than they were.
Michael fell into the disruptive category as both Patricia and Etta knew.
“I think you ought to see him alone, without me,” Etta said before his visit. “I could go to Boston for the weekend and get out of the way.”
Patricia said, “No, if he’s going to see me, he’s going to see you. We’re a pair.”
“He won’t like me,” Etta said.
“Have you considered that it might be you who doesn’t want to see him?”
“But I do want to see him. I’m curious about what he’s like not being in academe or politics anymore.”
“Do you think that’s a factor?”
Patricia said, “With men you never know. Some hang around in a state of formaldehyde-like preservation from their sixties to their eighties, and then, zip, they die. Others wizen to the point you can scarcely believe they are who they were. Women generally fight the aging process. Men either are lucky to escape it or give up without knowing that’s what they’ve done.”
When Michael reached the apartment he and Patricia had shared for twenty-two years, he was the same tall, silver-haired, red-cheeked, haughty Michael.
Right off he teased Etta, “I am pleased to meet you, Ms. Chatterjee. Don’t think we’ve met before, have we?”
He said this quickly, defensively, wanted it on the record that he didn’t know what he was dealing with. Etta clearly didn’t take what he said especially well, having worked with him through her doctoral dissertation and most of his three terms in the senate.
“I wanted to live,” she said to him quietly. “That’s all.”
“Of course, of course,” Michael said, sitting down and asking for a bourbon, which Patricia already was pouring. “Of course,” he said a third time, at a loss.
The facial reconstruction had made Etta look at least ten years younger; her voice now was that of a woman. Her hair, surely it was dyed, was as black as a Bengali’s, and it appeared to be hers, not a wig. So much for looks, which Michael could barely take in, stopping somewhere around her throat.
“But let’s not talk about me,” Etta said. “Let’s hear about you.”
Then came the questions about his life, what he did at the Rand Corporation, his visiting lectureship at Stanford, his board membership at Microsoft, and how he found the West—the kinds of questions an old female friend might put to him and he might half-answer or fend off with a chuckle or turn into a disquisition on the effects of immigration on California (immigration was his scholarly speciality), ignoring the fact that the woman with whom he was speaking wasn’t interested. But Etta was Henry, and Henry was Etta, and there wasn’t anything Michael could say, however detailed or abstruse, that Henrietta couldn’t follow.
Indeed, now this pretty woman took him to task for criticizing California’s high personal income tax rates.
“So I’m rich and want to get richer,” Michael laughed. “The people I know constantly put me on the spot to repay their hospitality, and I don’t have their kind of private palaces and have to do it commercially—fancy restaurants, that sort of thing. The whole bloody West Coast costs a goddamn fortune.”
“New York doesn’t?” Patricia asked.
Michael appeared ready to continue his eruption on tax policy but suddenly stopped. “Okay, filibuster’s over,” he said seriously. “When last I saw you two, you were heading toward coupledom. Does that remain the case? Which of you, if either, is gay? I mean…”
“We know what you mean,” Patricia said.
“Well, for Christ’s sake, Patricia, what do you want me to say? We were married a long time. Henry was my right hand man for a long time. Henry, I mean, Etta, were you gay then? Is that why your marriage didn’t work out?”
Etta had married a redheaded folklorist from Kentucky who was fierce, smart, and thought Michael Sudbury was a big-time phony for whom Henry shouldn’t work. Her name was Bernice. She thought even worse of Henry’s mother and father. In fact, the punishing attitude she took toward Henry’s entire life mystified and repelled everyone except Henry, and there was general relief when she marched back to Louisville.
Now Etta said she wasn’t gay as a man but might be as a woman. Michael said not even in California had he heard someone say something so screwy. Etta said she had been told she was more unique than screwy. Michael said she could assume her uniqueness to be a fact until proven otherwise.
Just like that, they were fighting. Patricia remembered them fighting all the time during the senate years, and then afterward, once Michael got Henry the museum and foisted a big political donor onto his board, but this was unmistakably a sexually tinged fight. Patricia saw that despite himself Michael found Etta attractive.
She was attractive. Initially at night they began lying side by side, Etta under the sheets, Patricia on top of the sheets, so that Patricia didn’t disrupt things too much getting up and down to give Etta her pills, a sip of water, even help her turn over. Eventually she said, “Etta, we’ve been under the sheets together a hundred times, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be there again. We’ll both sleep better, won’t we?” Sleep? People sleep together precisely when they are not sleeping. But again, given Etta’s condition, they actually did sleep at the outset. Then came a point when her condition no longer mandated regular assistance and the old soulfulness between them drew them together for a true embrace, an unrestrained kiss, an explicit movement of hands. Patricia told herself, “Well, I’m not getting any sex with men, am I?” Etta spoke to herself a bit differently, “My dear Patricia,” she would think, over and over again, remembering her so well and yet experiencing her so differently.
The fight between Michael and Etta continued. Patricia could see that Etta, too, was stirred. Michael was best when he was nettled; his brain cells crackled; his eyes grew fiery; he still had some Pegasus in him. To put a stop to this curious flirtation, she fed them the kind of dinner they had shared so often when Etta was Henry and Michael was Patricia’s husband. Then there were after-dinner drinks. More calm, some chuckling, a kind of normalization and acceptance. Inevitably, though, Michael began to grow restless. He had his luggage with him, but would he spend the night? If he spent the night, where would he sleep? In the guest room? In his old study, now the focal point of Patricia’s interior design business? Did he think, had he thought, that Patricia would let him sleep with her?
He surprised both Patricia and Etta by talking frankly about sex. He admitted he used to be a fiend, but now he had the devil’s own time escaping California’s numerous divorcées, some of them half his age. He wasn’t bragging, or only a little bit. In fact he said he was lonely, he had no one out west with whom he could be candid. Saying these things in front of Etta—they’d never discussed sexual matters, Henry had just overlooked Michael’s philandering as did Patricia—embarrassed Michael a wee bit, but not enough to stop him from saying that he had always wanted what he wanted and still doubted he understood what a woman wanted.
“What is it like being a woman?” he asked Etta. “Maybe you can tell me that in a way that a—what should we say, ‘a woman of origin’?— might not. Speak, Tiresia. Tell Hera and Zeus your tale.”
Etta looked at him like a woman who understood the rule of secrecy that bound her to her femininity from within, but she forced herself to speak. “As a latecomer to the club, there’s only one thing I really know about women, and it’s not whether they enjoy sex more than men. That’s a stupid question.”
“Is it really?” Michael asked.
“Then what is it that you’ve discovered that’s more important?”
“I think no woman would ever do what I did for the reason I did it. No woman would become a man to escape death. We’d rather die, we’d rather accept death and let it have its way than become you.”
“Is that an indictment of men?”
“I think it’s simply sense we have, perhaps because women give birth, that life will go on without us. In that regard we’re much more alive while we live than men. Death is not our enemy. We are more free than men, and having learned that, I’d never go back.”
Michael listened as carefully as he’d done many times when Henry was his aide—that’s why Henry had been his aide for so long—but never on a subject like this.
“I hear you speaking from somewhere beyond my ken,” he said. “I suppose I’d say that as a man I’m on this earth to wrestle my troubles to the ground. And if I succeed, I go looking for some new set of troubles. It’s in my nature, it’s who I am.”
Patricia said, “Then you’ve certainly been true to your nature. Now where do you plan to sleep? Here or in a hotel?”
Michael said he thought he’d spend the night there, with them. “Is the guest room free?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And you two will…?”
“Don’t worry about us,” Patricia said. “We’ll work things out.”
The three of them shared in the cleaning up, and then there was the sound of doors opening and closing on bedrooms and bathrooms and water sluicing through sinks and toilets and the rustling of bedspreads and sheets and the soft background wash of New York’s nocturnal tides—elevators whining up and down their shafts, street traffic mildly cranky ten floors below, rooftop HVAC systems hissing, and the cries and moans of people sleeping together who weren’t asleep.
Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.