Falling into Manholes
I had breakfast this morning with my girlfriend Hedy to celebrate my upcoming forty-something birthday. We sat in a gazebo restaurant on a beach in Maui, surrounded by palm trees and soft tropical air, and all we could talk about was aging and face-lifts. Hedy qualifies as my plastic surgery expert, having had her eyes and boobs done in her thirties and a full face-lift in her early forties. She’s fifty-three now and gearing up for her next round of surgery. After inspecting my face, she said, “If you just get your eyes done now, it’s might look like you’ve put a brand-new couch on a worn-out carpet. Wait a few more years until the whole face starts to go and have it done all at once.” She continued, “You’re at the age where it all still looks good, but one day, and one day soon, you are going to look in the mirror and realize that it’s all gone to hell.”
“Happy birthday to me!” I said, and retreated to my macadamia nut pancakes, wondering if she was right and hoping she was wrong.
It never occurred to me to consider plastic surgery until very recently. I was one of those women who took their looks for granted. I assumed I would somehow be exempt from the aging process, wouldn’t care by the time I got there, or would die young. I was always secretly a bit contemptuous of women who had cosmetic surgery, thinking them vain and insecure. It has since come to my attention that whatever I have contempt for, I should just set a place for it at my table, because it’s either already in my life or it’s coming.
When I was a teenager I had contempt for people who drank and used drugs, girls who suffered from eating disorders, and women who lost all their money in connection with “some man.” After seventeen years in recovery from alcoholism and bulimia, and having lost all my money in what I call “my spectacular codependent bottom of 2000” with the help of my gambling addict ex-stockbroker-turned-mattress-salesman boyfriend, it has dawned on me that I can use my contempt, which is really my fear, to predict my future—or better yet, to change it.
A few months ago I broke up with a younger man—let’s call him Brad (since it rhymes with cad) —who lives in L.A. and works in the music business. He was another never-been-married-or-had-a-successful-relationship-forty-year-old-man-boy-who-lies-about-his-age from Hollywood. In retrospect, this should have been all the information I needed to stay away from him—I wanted a mate, not just a date—but he was sexy as hell and I had been in a penis-free zone for too long.
Thinking that this time it would be different, I used all my powers of denial to ignore the red flags and charge ahead. I figured if I moved fast enough, it wouldn’t count as a mistake, like if I eat a chocolate bar fast enough, it won’t have any calories. My favorite definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, and this qualified. Not unlike the movie Groundhog Day, I seem destined to relive the same relationship, over and over, until I’m willing to change my behavior.
My first moment of clarity came during the holiday season, when I was giving Brad a blow job and realized that I didn’t know him well enough to know what to get him for Christmas. I thought this was ironic, but when I told him, he said, “Yes, that is a problem around the holidays, isn’t it?” My girlfriends, on the other hand, understood.
My next clue should have been when we were making love and he whispered, “Women your age can’t really get pregnant can they?”
I thought to myself, “They shoot assholes, don’t they?” but I was still having enough “fun” to overlook his comment.
The last time I saw him was when he casually mentioned, “I want to marry someone exactly like you, only younger.” This is not something that I will ever need to hear more than once, so I said, “Good luck with that,” gathered my belongings, and left.
Brad was like an abbreviated version of my love affair with drinking. At first it was fun, then it was fun with problems, and finally just problems. I stopped drinking years ago, but I still fall into the occasional manhole. At least I usually don’t set up house and furnish them anymore. I was never a serial dater, but I was a serial mater, so after hooking up with the wrong person, I would either marry them or spend years trying to make it work. Now I can usually fall into and climb out of a manhole in about six weeks, tops, Once in a while, I can even walk around one. I call this expiration dating—relationships that last about as long as a carton of refrigerated soymilk.
My married-with-children, mental-health-professional sister Robin describes my dating history as “Wendy’s catch-and-release program,” a term used in sport fishing where the sole objective is to catch the fish, and then return it to the water, relatively unharmed. I used to think this was funny, until I realized that I was guilty of the very thing that I accuse men of doing. The possibility of a man is more interesting to me than the man himself. If I settle on someone, then the possibility is lost. When I drank, I chose men that drank more than I did so that they could be identified as the ones in need of help and I didn’t have to look at my own behavior. This “thinking” has clearly followed me into sobriety. So who’s really on the hook here? What is it that I am really fishing for?
The day after walking away from Brad, my ob-gyn called to tell me that I was in perimenopause. Men-o-pause. The coincidence wasn’t lost on me, but I was startled. How did this happen? What did this mean?
Still, I was somewhat shocked by my reaction. Is the reality of aging that disturbing to me, or am I freaking out about menopause and using the idea of cosmetic surgery as yet another way to avoid truly being, and seeing me? Sometimes it feels as though I’m on a blind date with myself and I’m too shy to look up, or speak. Do I really need to see my beauty reflected in the face of another to feel that I am loved?
My artist friend, Tim, says that the death of an idea for a painting begins with the first brushstroke. By the time the painting is finished, it has become something that may not even resemble the original idea. Having been created, it then becomes a thing on its own, with a life of interpretation independent of the creator. Perhaps my perceptions of men, menopause, and myself are like that, just reflections of the death of my old ideas, and now subject to the interpretation of my observer. The idea that I need a man in my life in order to feel beautiful, the idea of what getting older will mean, and the idea that my value as a woman is dependent upon my looks.
So maybe I’ll get that eye job, and maybe I won’t. But whatever I do, I’ll know that beauty lives in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder that matters—I’m coming to see—is me.
Falling Into Manholes is the story of how I finally managed to reach this hard won conclusion, and so many others, in my decidedly skewed, in-recovery-from-everything, good girl/bad girl (crazy girl) way, as I search for love, sex, sanity, and myself. As you will see, there are many detours. I am by no means perfect, and have spent a good deal of time in a not-so-civil war with myself as I’ve tried to find my way. (Maybe that’s why I love the line from the book, The Phantom Tollbooth, “If you find my way, will you return it?”) You might want to brace yourselves, these are embarrassingly honest tales, some of which I have been reluctant to admit, even to myself, until now. If you are a man reading this, I think you are very brave. If you are a woman, I hope you can relate to some of it, and if not, that you at least get a kick out of it, because, in the end, this menmoir seeks to provide what we all need more of: a good laugh, an easy read, and hope.