The New Sun Newspaper

Excerpt from Fear of Fifty, by Erica Jong
From Chapter: How to Get Married

The real marriage of true minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humour or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glance at any subject cross like interarching searchlights.
-Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

But I had been in love pretty often and I didn't think it stood the wear and tear.
-Enid Bagnold, Autobiography

I met my husband on a street corner, nearly running him down with my car. I was picking him up for a blind date (arranged by a mutual friend who is a humorist) and I certainly knew I didn't want to be trapped in a blind date's car.

At dinner, he inhaled his food in less than two minutes flat, and talked at the same time. I was trying to remember the Heimlich maneuver--though perhaps he would have preferred another maneuver. I must have liked him because I let him monologue all night. Usually I monologue.

At that point I still had various snake-hipped studs on various continents, and I didn't think I needed a husband, though I certainly needed a friend. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I married him five months later. We sailed the Mediterranean for our honeymoon. Then we got to know each other. I now recommend longer courtships.

Even now, we have laryngitis from screaming at each other: the dirty little secret of a durable marriage.

I'll never divorce him--how can I, he's a divorce lawyer--but I may just shoot him. This is the way two people know they're mated.

He seems to want the best for me (and I for him). His prison record cannot be found in any computer. He has--gasp--"good character," as my mother might have said if she'd ever said such thing. I hate to write anything good about this marriage, because it's a known rule of life that just as a "happy couples" piece in any magazine causes immediate divorce, writing good things about your mate in a book causes marital problems. (So does writing bad things.)

Somehow, after our first date, Ken and I found ourselves talking to each other wherever in the world we were. I went to California to see my agent, who was living there briefly, and without really meaning to, I called Ken. I went to Italy, supposedly to attend an Umbrian cooking school, but really to see an unavailable lover who moved heaven and earth not to see me for more than one night--and I called Ken. I waited for the unreliable Umbrian phone to ring and it was always Ken. I debated about going to Venice to see the other one and instead made a date in Paris with Ken. My clever husband-to-be had actually wired me a ticket to Paris, whereupon I amazed myself by flying to meet an available man when I had an unavailable man waiting in Italy. Something must have changed in my tiny masochistic mind, or else I was--horrors!--in love.

But I didn't want to be in love. I only wanted to be in like. Love had never proved anything but trouble. As Enid Bagnold said, it didn't stand the wear and tear. So when I met Ken, I decided I was through with love. In the past, I had usually gotten married with my fingers crossed.

The first night I met Ken, I was just back from that wedding in St. Moritz where my best (male) friend, the beautiful Roman, had married a clever, beautiful blonde princess--with the von and zu to prove it. She was twentysomething. I was fortysomething. He was thirtysomething. Somehow that made me happy to meet a man my own age. And I liked the way Ken looked: like a bear stumbling into a campsite in Yellowstone.

A big, tall, disheveled-looking man with a black mustache and beard, a full head of black hair (going silver at the edges), and a three-piece suit with a red bow-tie, Ken had the feel of a friendly animal sniffing the air. His eyes were brown and warm. He seemed to have to collapse his legs (like folding umbrella spines) in order to get into my car. He turned and smiled at me like a cat staring at a saucer of cream.

"Helllllo," he said, clearly relieved. Was he expecting Vampira or Boadicea or a spear-carrying Amazon queen with one breast?

My friend the humorist, Lewis Frumkes, had told me he was about my age. And smart. And nice. "A rare combination," Lewis said. "Usually they're smart or nice, but not both."

"He's not, I hope, an eligible single man?"
Lewis was baffled by this phrase--as well he might be. How could he know I hated "eligible single men"--who usually proved to be work-addicted and sexophobic and wanted you to settle the pre-nup on the first date? I long ago decided that faithless Italians, unemployed actors, underaged WASP heirs, and married men were sexier.

My analyst analyzed this as an allergy to marriage--which was really an Oedipal crush on my adoring father. She was big on advice though she always protested she gave none. It was clear whom she approved of and whom she did not.

"Where is he now? " she always said when you made a reference to a man who was rich or famous, or both, whom you'd dated, even briefly, in the past. Her ears perked up like those of an Edith Wharton matron.

She looked at me as if my itinerant actors and straying husbands were trayfe.

She wanted me married, and getting credit card rather than dispensing them. She thought I flung myself like pearls before pigs. She thought I valued myself too little. Maybe I did. But I liked sex, and most of the so-called eligible men were scared to death of it.

"If I were single, would I be eligible?" Lewis asked.
"Definitely not ," I said, laughing.
He looked perplexed, not knowing whether this was an insult or a compliment.

"I told Lewis I didn't want to meet a celebrity," Ken said. "But then he said: 'She's not like that.'"
"You mean you were judging me before you met me?"
"Everyone's always judging everyone," he said, pushing the car seat back and extending his legs. "Every time I negotiate with other lawyers, it's a cock-measuring contest. You know that. Your books are all about that."
"So why were you reluctant to meet me?"
"Probably fear. I thought you'd be a man-eater. It's clear you're not."

Was this an insult or compliment? Who could say? I knew at once he was honest and extremely nervous. He couldn't sit still. Like Tigger, he seemed bigger because of the bounces.

I parked the car in a garage off lower Fifth Avenue and we walked to a horrendously overpriced downtown restaurant--about to be a casualty of the late-eighties bust.

He refused the first table, and the second. We sat down at the third. A native New Yorker, I figured.

"No--Great Neck," he said, "but Central Park West when I was a baby. I remember throwing ration coupons--red points--out the window, or they remember it. I was a wartime baby."

So was I, I thought. Should I say it? Or was I expected to lie about my age? In my forties I still hadn't made up my mind. My analyst believed in not telling. I disagreed. Who am I if not a person born in the middle of World War II? My age is part of who I am. But women, even desirable women, are always afraid of seeming undesirable. Honesty takes a long time. Undecided about how honest to be, I let him talk. I didn't do my usual rambunctious audition piece, nor did I sing for my supper. Our first date had no trace of the New York verbal duel of Can you top this?

* * *

Copyright © 1994 by Erica Jong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins, Inc.

Erica Jong's books include:

Fear of Flying
How to Save Your Own Life
Parachutes & Kisses
Shylock's Daughter (Serenissima)
Any Woman's Blues
Becoming Light: Poems New & Selected
Fear of Fifty
Megan's Two Houses

Her newest book will be out in June, 1997:
Inventing Memory