Dec 26, 2008

She and my wife see each other once a week. Every other month we go to their house for dinner. We used to go back and forth but they haven’t come to see us in more than a year, not since her husband was badly injured in a head-on collision. The accident happened on the Golden Gate Bridge, in a terrible fog late at night. As a result he suffers from relentless headaches and hallucinations and rarely leaves his wheelchair. He spends a lot of time in his chair, out in his garden, all bundled up. A few weeks ago he wheeled himself out after dinner and literally spent the whole night outside. His wife fell asleep and forgot that he couldn't get back in the house by himself. When she found him at first light he was still asleep. She woke him up. "I've been with angels," he said. "I have. I've seen them."

This couple lives in Sausalito, above Richardson Bay, in a 70-year-old wooden house covered over in Navy blue bougainvillea, and with a crow’s nest view of Angel Island. Off to the right, Alcatraz. This is the metaphor for the woman’s life. She lives alternately on the summit of Angel Island and in ‘the hole’ at Alcatraz. She’s always felt that, her life is either high or low. And after her husband’s collision she felt she’d been thrown permanently in the hole.

His care has been intensive and expensive. They had no proper insurance. They talked about it, they looked into it, but they never signed on a dotted line. Now, it's too late. And then after thee crash on the bridge there was the crash on Wall Street. All their investments “calved”, as her husband put it, thinking of the times they used to take the inland cruise up to Glacier Bay to watch glaciers sheer.

And now, as often happens in this situation, the rotting undercarriage of their marriage is exposed. For example, after the accident she suddenly felt the dead weight of his presence. For years he had belittled her in public or ignored her in private, or talked about how 'we' had done this or that, referring to their finances, when actually she had done those things. She had always excused these things, hadn't seen them against the camouflage of endless activity. Now all of a sudden she sees every- thing and she's become openly bitter. When she looks into his face and sees his jaw agape — that look older men get when they see death coming and turn into children — she can't help but turn away and pull away. It's not only seeing his fear but feeling her own. And she knows that, and she compensates for it. She's very wise. But a starving heart, no matter how wise, can’t exist on humanity, alone.

A few months ago she took a lover. Two of her friends, including my wife, encouraged her. Absolutely, they said, just what the doctor ordered. Get laid, you’ll feel great, it’ll be much easier to deal with your husband and we won’t have to feel sorry for you. Off you go.

But it wasn’t so easy. This woman is still a sexpot, everybody would tell you that, but she hadn’t had sex in 10 years. You assume she must have been exaggerating, but apparently not. And you’re thinking, ‘you mean she couldn’t even please herself?' Apparently not. Even in the imaginarium all God’s creation had become extinct. Or so she claimed.

The other problem was that despite appearances this city has a low inventory of qualified heterosexual lovers, married or not. This was not always true but it is now. Actually, I think it was always true, but the standards have always been low What’s left is elderly runners, neuters, men in their 30s who want you to tell them bedtime stories, museum guides, bar hoppers from the Spanish American war, psychologists — and their patients and those devilish little dervishes who call themselves realtors, not to mention an army of men who prefer virtual women to the real thing.

So it took some time. Also, our friend didn’t want to go with a stranger. She didn’t want to go to bars. She was deathly afraid of disease. Her two confidantes told her it was probably best to find a married man, for a lot of reasons, but they weren’t willing to volunteer their own husbands even for a night and they didn’t seem to mind if this meant undermining some other family.

She thought of handy men but there were no handy men. Just ‘mental men’. She didn’t want a professional, but she was also reluctant to go off with an ‘artist.’ She wanted to have conversations she’d never had before. She was introduced to a book seller and for a moment that seemed promising but he was not that interesting phsycially and finally she didn’t like his book store or the people, largely from Berkeley, who came to the poetry readings he organized. She wanted someone who was both different but also grounded and earthy.

Suddenly, out of the sky fell a stunt pilot. That’s how she described him initially, but upon further inspection he turned out to be a Navy washout, from the Vietnam era. After the war he got work as a crop-duster for an agro-business down in the Central Valley and may have done some barnstorming and once he claimed he put the plane on auto and went out on the wing and sat in a chair. Somehow, he got the money to start a little flight school up in the wine country. This was in the 1980s. He’s been a one-man band ever since. Then he got his hands on some old gliders. On weekends, he gets engineers from Silicon Valley up in the gliders and he stuffs matrons and their children into an old bi-plane and buzzes the mud baths.

And that’s how they met. Her husband suggested they go up beyond the vineyards for a mud bath and then after lunch they saw a glider being pulled down the runway at a small grass field. "You’ve got to do that," he told her. She was reluctant. He insisted, and so while he sat way down there in the parking lot, looking up from his wheelchair, she went riding off in the thermals.


By the way, her husband is a painter. He does those abstract paintings you find in corporate conference rooms and outside the bathrooms in banks and insurance companies. For years he did commissions for Wells Fargo. He also has some paintings hanging in the corridors of Goldman Sachs, in New York.

“A lot of money to throw around in those days,” I said to him the other night after one those spectacular drops in the market. “And look what they did with it
.” Then it occurred to me that might sound like a criticism of his work. “That lifestyle those people lead,” I added.

“The money was good.”

“I’ll bet.”

“It was all another time, wasn’t it? Just living. So much fun and didn’t everything seem prettier to you?”

The man’s mind is gone. What do you say?

“What do you think of Ms. Palin, speaking of pretty”?

“Isn’t she the best? I love her.” He can’t enough of Sarah Palin.

“But doesn’t it bother you that she for example she’d never heard of the Bush doctrine.”

“I don’t know what that is.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I couldn’t answer that question. But you have other people for that. But don’t you think she’s sexy? She’s really sexy.”

I suppose.

“I’d like to spend the night with her.”

He was far too sincere and seemed oblivious to his wife right next to him cutting up a roast.

“But what’s the sexy part?” I asked. “She doesn’t seem that smart.”

“She looks a lot like my first wife,” he said and went on to describe his first wife in far too much detail.

His second wife stopped cutting and just let the knife rest deep in the meat. “Well, I think we can get her back,” she said, “but isn’t she in a nursing home somewhere?”
“She’d take better of me that you ever did.”

“Really? Really. Well you haven’t seen anything yet.” And now she was eviscerating the roast.


So here is a woman who after ten years is having sex again. She’s back on Angel Island. But what good is it doing? She used to be the kindest, most thoughtful woman you ever met. Do anything for you, do anything for her husband. Never a mistaken word. Now, she’s like a puppy. All she can talk about is the stunt flyer’s stunts. They’ve become ‘The Insatiables.” Three times in a ‘session.’ And now he’s trying to get her to do it in the bi-plane. She says her nipples are always hard. Thank god she doesn’t have children to take care of. Thank God for long afternoons, particularly when her husband’s Swedish nurse comes.

And this is the pillow talk the have. "Did you hear that Sharon Stone was going to have her son’s feet be filled with botox to stop foot odor? Amazing, isn’t it?" They laugh and laugh and then he’s spreading her legs all over again. Later, they talk about McCain and Obama and how Palin is such an idiot. And she’s delighted to hear he thinks Palin is homely. Then out of one conversation into each other and then into another conversation and out of each other. Over and over. She cannot believe the pleasure. It’s as though they were children all over again. It’s as though she’s no longer tied to earth. It's as though the material world, this house where once she wanted to finish out her life, is all now absolutely nothing. Even as her husband sits by one of his paintings, his hand gnarled, his eyes fixed, panting, as though it were a hot day. (to be continued)