The Middle Aged and the Restless
Sunday found me lying on my parents' couch UpIsland, watching reruns of "Diff'rent Strokes," while noting Mr. Drummond's glaring eligibility — a fact lost on me when the later episodes originally aired in 1984. I was 6 — and how I'm now old enough to marry Mr. Drummond and become stepmother to Arnold, Willis, and Kimberly. I Googled his age at the time of filming — 61, the same age of my ex-fiance — when my mom walked in to ask if I was ready.
It was my dad's 80th birthday, and my brothers and I had come home to celebrate at the Red Lobster in Mineola. We don't live in Mineola but make the drive from Dix Hills for all of our birthdays, as it's the only restaurant my parents trust. "Who knows what you're gonna get at a non-chain?"
We weren't there five minutes before Mom, fishing, asked if I was dating. I listed the week's prospects: A 27-year-old landscaper called Cat Daddy whom I met at the Eleanor Whitmore Center Barn Dance at Kilmore Farm and a philanthropic senior (80?) my married friend Marianna met in physical therapy. Mom unhooked the catches — baby shark and catfish — and threw them back. "Too young and too old. You need to find someone in the middle."
I'd been loitering around the Whitmore silent auction when I met Cat Daddy along with five of his friends, one of whom was called Suds. "I wash my truck a lot. I like it to be really clean," Suds said, before inviting me for a drink at Townline BBQ, half a block away.
They were already doing shots by the time I walked in. "Bubbly water with cranberry," said I, before the five scrambled to tell the bartender. They passed the glass from one to the other, before the last one passed it to me, watching with the curiosity of an alien race making first contact.
"You've never read 'Harry Potter?' " Suds exclaimed. Then Suds nudged Cat Daddy and asked if I'd have dinner with him at the American Hotel. The boys looked at me mischievously, and I felt like I was in junior high again. Cat Daddy likes you! Do you like Cat Daddy?
"Why doesn't he ask me himself?"
"He's shy," said Suds.
Cat Daddy looked bashful, then gave me a piece of paper to write down my number.
"We're all going to come and sit at the next table for moral support. Unless you have some single friends you could bring?"
I shrugged. "All my friends are married or widowed."
Suds: "How old are you?"
By Tuesday I was back East, having dinner at Pierre's in Bridghampton with my best friend, the novelist Frederic Tuten, who happens to be 81, when a 50ish woman at the next table whose party had just left interrupted us: "Is that your grandfather?" Before I could answer she said she used to go to dinner with her grandfather once a week and was touched to see us. "The elderly have so much to teach us," she finished 15 minutes later, still ignoring Fred who was pretending to gum his food.
When she was gone Fred and I resumed our conversation: About the frustrations of Henri Rousseau who, unable to secure a gallery, had mounted a show of his paintings at a furniture store. "No one came because he forgot to include the address on the flier. I love Picasso because Picasso loved Rousseau when no one else did. At a dinner they both attended, Rousseau made a toast, declaring he and Picasso the greatest artists of their age, 'He in the modern style, Picasso in the Egyptian,' said Rousseau, who was 37 years Picasso's senior." We'd been reminded of Rousseau by the recent death of a mutual friend, Malcolm Morley (86), who was due to have a show at the Parrish this summer, and whose paintings we agreed shared an affinity.
The next morning, I drove Fred to the Jitney in Southampton. I was walking away from the Manhattan bound Ambassador when an ex-boyfriend, now a lawyer, strode up to wait for the following bus. We broke up 15 years ago, when I was 25 and he 26, but for three years before that we'd come out every weekend and stay at his parents' house on Ocean Avenue, and go to nightclubs like Jet East or M-80 or else get wasted on the vast lawns of his friend's parents. They'd set up a golf tee at the edge of the patio and, standing with legs apart and hands in red pants pockets, take turns launching the balls out into the dark.
A mid-island girl in a crowd of Upper East Siders who'd "prepped" and summered "out east" — when asked how we met, I'd say it was at the gas station in the Valley of Ashes a la "Gatsby," likening myself to Tom Buchanan's mistress Myrtle Wilson — I felt misfit and was always concocting excuses to stay back in my hot and loud apartment over the Midtown Tunnel where it was at least impossible for me to say the wrong thing.
When we weren't partying with his friends in those days, we partied with his parents' friends, sitting for long poolside lunches while servants buzzed around, holding platters to my right so I might serve myself with tongs. Unsure of my table manners, I did my best not to call attention to myself, failing spectacularly when I began choking on a piece of chicken because I'd been too afraid to risk "reaching" and too shy to ask for more water.
I hadn't seen him since last fall when he and his parents invited me to a Hamptons International Film Festival screening of a documentary about Itzhak Perlman, a family friend.
"Are you out?" he said, asking of my summer plans. He wouldn't be this weekend, he explained. "Spencer's getting married," he said, as if marriage were the most far-fetched thing, as if we were all still just out of college.
"I got engaged," I blurted. "Then disengaged, so I'm back to normal now."
"That's good," he said, referring to my engagement, "It makes you seem less weird. What else is new?"
I waved to Fred as the Ambassador pulled away. "I'm writing a column for The Star."
"Everyone reads The Star," I recalled his mother telling me over a bowl of cherries next to the pool 17 years ago, "crime blotter first." She read aloud from the humiliations, as I leaned back into the whicker and watched my boyfriend throw a Frisbee to his dog.
"I didn't see it when I stopped by my parents' this weekend" — he has his own place now in Noyac — "though admittedly, I only looked to see when 'DeadPool 2' was playing."
Back at my rental in Amagansett, I fielded an email from Marianna's older man: A list of contemporary book recommendations published by The New Yorker. F.Y.I., never give reviews of contemporary writers to other writers, unless they're scathing. To do otherwise is like sending a profile of one movie starlet to another, asking her to appreciate how the former's enigmatic beauty fills the screen, while in person her small pixie-like frame surprised this journalist as he quizzed her on her diet of nuts and seeds. It's true, as they say, that novelists like to play god. I'm not the first to declare, "Thou shalt have no other!"
Instead, I declared, "Thanks. What are you going to read this summer?"
Minutes later, he sent a long list of books he wasn't going to read but would like to. Wrong! Correct Answer: YOURS. Then he emailed again, asking if I'd like to meet for a one-on-one dinner prior to our foursome on Wednesday. I emailed Marianna, "We're having dinner on Wednesday?"
"They're either too young or too old," I hummed, feeling like Bette Davis in the World War II film "Thank Your Lucky Stars." (She was 35 when it shot in 1943.)
Opting to stay home, I made myself an omelette for dinner and thought about Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein. Stein's cook was always preparing omelettes, unless she didn't like Stein's guests, then she'd fry the eggs over easy. "It doesn't look like her," people said of the painting when they came to Stein's Paris salon and found her sitting beneath it. "It will," said Picasso through a mouthful of omelette, according to the "Autobiography of Alice B Toklas," which was penned by Stein but attributed to Toklas, in order that she might have someone besides herself call her a genius. (Did I mention Frederic Tuten is coming out with an autobiography?)
Brushing my teeth, I studied my own portrait in the mirror, noting how it too did not look at all like me. "It will," I spit and went to bed.
In the morning, I cruised the #waybackwednesdays on Instagram, R.S.V.P.ed to Guild Hall's Guitar Masters kickoff party at Dick Cavett's Montauk estate Tick Hall, and by noon was walking into the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton for a lecture, "Women Secret Agents" in World War II.
Close-cropped white hair decorated the room while walkers here and there flanked the 70-odd chairs, most of them filled. "How many of you have seen 'Dunkirk?' " the lecturer, Patricia Del Giorno, asked. All hands but mine went up. "I see we're all the same age here," Ms. Del Giorno went on, "so when I do this historical review, I know you'll all know to what I'm referring."
But before that, Penelope Wright, the program's curator told us a war story about her parents, members of this country's Greatest Generation, and expressed her regret at not having asked them more questions when they were alive to answer. It was the 74th anniversary of D-Day, she noted, a day too way back for #waybackwednesday to reach; on Instagram I had seen no hints. I did not know.
Other things I did not know:
Facing the Nazi threat, Churchill had formed the S.O.E., the Special Operations Executive, nicknamed "the ministry of ungentlemanly warfare," a guerilla unit so secret even Parliament did not know it existed.
Its mission: To infiltrate occupied countries, organize and support resistance, provide arms and equipment, subvert and destroy enemy operations (blow up trains, etc.) — "Set Europe ablaze!" Moreover, it was the first agency to recruit women for combat roles. Who were these brave women? Journalists, clerks, teachers, housewives, an Indian princess, a Polish countess — all believers who, no matter how great the risk, knew the Nazis must be stopped.
The risks: There was a 50-percent mortality rate among agents, a six-week life span for radio operatives, agents were given cyanide pills to swallow if caught and facing torture, and faced deportment to German camps under operation "Nacht und Nebel," a.k.a. "Night and Fog," so called for Hitler's order that those captured should disappear as if into night and fog, with no record kept, without a trace.
The S.O.E. was the subject of Ms. Del Giorno's (82) master's thesis she told me after. After retiring from a career in nursing, she took a masters degree in English literature at Stony Brook University. "The lecture was fascinating," Jola Marcario attested, having also rushed the podium following its conclusion. An East Hamptonite, Ms. Marcario regularly ventures west for the library's lectures accompanied by her two friends, Daughters of the American Revolution Harriet Edwards and Mary Ella Moeller. "It's for adults, not seniors," Jola told me pointedly. "Our generation is not satisfied with Bingo. We worked! We're interested!"
The three handed me fliers for upcoming events. "On Sunday we have a concert series. You should come to that."
The library circular is broken into two parts: programs for kids and programs for adults. With Facebook and Smart TV tutorials scheduled at noon, the adult programming is clearly aimed at the distinguished set. There are no library programs for those in their prime, for they're busy doing shots at Townline or teeing up golf balls and aiming for the abyss. The true marker of youth is not how well you invest it, but how carelessly you piss it away. Rich with time, the young can afford to lose a lot of it, to waste and get wasted. I do not begrudge them. We were all aristocrats once.
"So you have five adult children and a Porsche," said Marianna, reviewing what the older man had so far told us about himself. Marianna's husband, Harper, looked out at the yachts, secreting so many rich men's mistresses, we speculated, that flanked Le Bilboquet on Sag Harbor's Long Wharf. I was the last to unfold my napkin ("Whoever unfolds their napkin last loses!" my ex had instructed me 17 years ago.), as the older man invited the younger waitress (25?) to taste his wine. I took a deep breath and relaxed in my chair, as he asked her all the usual first date questions.
"Today is the 74th anniversary of D-Day," he said when she left. "I've just been to Normandy; the beaches are fantastic."
An alert on my phone. "Excuse me." Someone had commented on my Instragram photo of the World War II lecture: "Born at the wrong time?"
Over desert, the conversation turned toward reading and how it's a shame no one reads anymore (though more and more people write). "My daughter wrote a preteen book blog for BookHampton some years back and wants to do something for The Star," said Marianna, before the older man asked our waiter where the waitress had gone — "The one with the red lipstick" — and Harper and I debated the merits of authors neither of us had read.
"I haven't read it but people whose opinion I trust said its great."
"I haven't read it either, but people whose opinion I distrust said it's great."
The older man walked me to my car. I reciprocated by giving him a lift back to his BMW — "My other BMW's in the shop." — at the other end of the dock. Climbing into my parents' Hyundai he said, "What's this?" and picked up a roll of toilet paper my parents had left in the car to use as tissue. Embarrassed, I scrambled for an acceptable excuse. "In case I go to the bathroom by the side of the road. I'm not an animal."
When I got home I opened my email. The older man: "Thanks for coming to dinner," along with a link to an obituary of a writer he'd not read. There is no wrong or right time, there is only now.
I put on my pajamas and got into bed with a book, "The Age of Innocence," then opened my computer to watch "Dynasty" reruns on Amazon instead, pausing now and then to Google the actors' ages at the time of filming. I am the same age as Crystle, 40, when she married Blake Carrington, 65, after her affair with Mathew Blaisdel, 39, whose widow Claudia, 30, is now married to Blake's son Steven, 23. "Whatchu talkin bout, Willis?"