Four decades ago, Erica Jong revolutionized the way we look at love, marriage and sex. Her world-wide bestseller, FEAR OF FLYING opened the doors for writers from Jennifer Weiner to Lena Dunham. Now she does it again by giving us powerful, new perspective on the next phase of women's lives. Full of the sly humor, deep wisdom and poignancy we know from her poetry, fiction and essays, she delivers the novel women everywhere have been waiting for...
FEAR OF DYING
As the afternoon of life looms over Vanessa Wonderman, she watches her parents age, attends doctor appointments with her pregnant daughter, and sits by the hospital bed of her husband, Asher, fifteen years her senior. With her best years as an actress behind her, she's discovering that beginnings are easy, but endings can be hard.
Could her fountain of youth fantasies be fulfilled on zipless.com? A site inspired by the writings of her best friend, Isadora Wing, it promises "no strings attached" encounters-and Vanessa is so restless that she's willing to try anything.
Fear of Dying is a daring and delightful look at what it really takes to be human and female in the 21st century. Wildly funny and searingly honest, it is a story for everyone who has ever been shaken and changed by love.
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About the Author
ERICA JONG is a poet, novelist, and essayist, best known for her eight New York Times bestselling novels, including Fear of Flying (which has sold twenty-seven million copies in forty languages) and Fear of Fifty. Ms. Jong is also the author of seven award-winning collections of poetry. Her latest, Love Comes First, was released by Tarcher-Penguin in January 2009. In addition, Jong has written several nonfiction books. Her work has appeared all over the world.
Read an Excerpt
Fear of Dying
By Erica Jong
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Erica Mann Jong
All rights reserved.
Happily Married Woman, or Is There Sex After Death?
I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.
— Mae West (stealing from Oscar Wilde)
I used to love the power I had over men. Walking down the street, my mandolin-shaped ass swaying and swinging to their backward eyes. How strange that I only completely knew this power when it was gone — or transferred to my daughter, all male eyes on her nubile twentyish body, promising babies. I missed this power. It seemed that the things that had come to replace it — marriage, maternity, the wisdom of the mature woman (ugh, I hate that phrase) — weren't worth the candle. Ah, the candle! Standing up. Burning for me. Full of sound and fury signifying everything. I know I should fade away like a good old girl and spare my daughter the embarrassments of my passions, but I can't any more than I can conveniently die. Life is passion. But now I know what passion costs, so it's hard to be quite so carefree anymore.
But was I ever carefree? Was anyone? Wasn't love always an exploding cigar? Didn't Gypsy Rose Lee say, "God is love, but get it in writing"? And didn't Fanny Brice say, "Love is like a card trick — once you know how it works, it's no fun anymore"? Those old broads knew a thing or two. And did they give up? Never!
I'm not going to tell you — yet — how old I am or how many times I've been married. (I have decided never to get any older than fifty.) My husband and I read the obituaries together more often than we have sex. I'm only going to say that when all the troubles of my family of origin engulfed me and I realized that my marriage could not save me, I reached a point where I was just unhinged enough to put the following ad on Zipless.com, a sex site on the Internet:
Happily married woman with extra erotic energy seeks happily married man to share same. Come celebrate Eros one afternoon per week. Discretion guaranteed by playful, pretty, imaginative, witty woman. Send e-mail and recent picture. New York area.
Talk about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown! It was autumn in New York — season of mellow mists, Jewish holidays, and five-thousand-dollar-a-plate benefits for chic diseases. A time of new beginnings (Yom Kippur), starting over (Rosh Hashanah), and laying in acorns against a barren winter (Succoth). When I placed the ad, I had thought of myself as a sophisticate coolly interviewing lovers. But now I was suddenly overcome with panic. I began fantasizing about what sort of creeps, losers, retreads, extortionists, and homicidal maniacs such an ad would attract — and then I got so busy with calls from my ailing parents and pregnant daughter that I forgot all about it.
A few minutes went by. Then suddenly the responses poured out of the Internet like coins out of a slot machine. I was almost afraid to look. After a couple of beats, I couldn't resist. It was like hoping I had won the lottery. The first response showed a scanned Polaroid of an erect penis — a tawny uncircumcised specimen with a drop of dew winking at the tip. Under the photo, on the white border, was scrawled: "Without Viagra." The accompanying e-mail was concise:
I like your style. Have always risen for assertive women. Send nude shot and measurements.
The next one began like this:
Sometimes we think it's carnality we want when actually we long for Jesus. We discover that if we open our hearts and let Him in, all sorts of satisfaction undreamt of can be ours. Perhaps you think you are seeking Eros, but Thanatos is what you really seek. In Jesus, there is eternal life. He is the lover who never disappoints, the friend who is loyal forever. It would be an honor to meet and counsel you ...
A telephone number was proffered: 1-800-JESUS-4U.
I threw all the responses in the virtual garbage can, deleted them, and shut down the computer. I must have been insane to give an authentic e-mail address. That was the end of it, I thought, deluding myself. Another bad idea aborted. I went about my wifelife like an automaton. I had always been impulsive, and impulsive people know how to back away from their impulses. Sex was trouble — at any age. But by sixty — oops, I gave it away — it was a joke. Women were not allowed to have passion at sixty. We were supposed to become grandmothers and retreat into serene sexlessness. Sex was for twenty, thirty, forty, even fifty. Sex at sixty was an embarrassment. Even if you still looked good, you knew too much. You knew all the things that could go wrong, all the cons you could set yourself up for, all the dangers of playing with strangers. You knew discretion was a dream. And now my e-mail was out there for all the crazy phishers and pishers!
Besides, I adored my husband, and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt him. I had always known that marrying someone twenty years older put me at risk for spending my sunset years without sex. But he had given me so much else. I'd married him when I was forty-five and he was sixty-five and we'd had a great ride together. He had healed all the old wounds of my earlier marriages. He had been a great stepfather to my daughter. How dare I complain that something was missing in my life? How dare I advertise for Eros?
My parents were dying and I was growing unimaginably older, but was that a reason to pursue what my old friend Isadora Wing had called "the zipless fuck"? You betcha. It was either that or spiritual bliss. Apparently the creators of Zipless.com had ripped off Isadora without paying a penny. The company that bought her movie rights was sold to a company that owned publishing rights, which was sold to a company that exploited digital rights that was sold to a company that exploited well-known tags. Such is the writing life — as savage as the acting life.
Isadora and I had been friends forever. We met over a movie that was never made. We even got sober together. And I could call her for moral support whenever I needed her. I thought of her as my BFF, my alter ego. I really needed her now.
* * *
I am going over to my parents' apartment to visit them, and I dread it. They have deteriorated drastically in the last few months. They both spend their days in bed attended by aides and caregivers. They both wear diapers — if we're lucky. Their apartment smells of urine, shit, and medications. The shit is the worst. It's not healthy shit like babies produce. It seems diseased. Its fetid aroma permeates everything — the oriental rugs, the paintings, the Japanese screens. It's impossible to escape — even in the living room.
When I get there, to my great relief, I realize my mother is having a good day. She's her old feisty self. Lying in bed, wearing a lilac satin negligee and wiggling her yellow-nailed toes, she blurts out:
"Who are you going to marry next?"
"I'm married to Asher," I say. "We've been married for fifteen years. You know that."
"Are you happy?" my mother asks, looking deep into my eyes.
I debate this unanswerable question. "Yes," I say. "I'm happy."
My mother looks at my rings — the gold art nouveau disk, the carnelian signet ring from Greece, the Victorian pierced aquamarine from Italy.
"If you got married again, you could get some more rings," she says, and laughs uproariously.
My mother is deep into her nineties and her cheerful dementia is studded with piercing insights. She is also much nicer than she was when I was young. Along with the crepey neck, the sagging arms, the bunioned feet has come a sweetness interspersed with a fierce truth telling. Sometimes she thinks I am her sister or her mother. The dead and the living are all alive in her head. But she looks at me with an endless love I wish I could have taken for granted when I was young. My whole life would have been different. Or so I think. The truth is she often terrified me when I was young.
People shouldn't get this old. Sometimes I think my mother's senescence is taking years off my life. I have to force myself to look at her. Her cheeks are sallow and crosshatched with a million wrinkles. Her eyes are rheumy and clotted with buttery blobs. Her feet are gnarled and twisted, and her thick, ridged toenails are a jagged mustard color. Her nightgown keeps opening to reveal her flattened breasts.
I think of all the times I've sat in hospital rooms with my mother in the last few years. I am praying fiercely for her not to die. But aren't I really praying for myself? Aren't I really praying not to be the last one standing on the precipice? Aren't I really praying not to have to dig her grave and fall in?
As you get older, the losses around you are staggering. The people in the obits come closer and closer to your own age. Older friends and relatives die, leaving you stunned. Competitors die, leaving you triumphant. Lovers and teachers die, leaving you lost. It gets harder and harder to deny your own death. Do we hold on to our parents, or are we holding on to our status as children who are immune from death? I think we are clinging with ever-increasing desperation to our status as children. In the hospital you see other children — children of fifty, of sixty, of seventy — clinging to their parents of eighty, ninety, one hundred. Is all this clinging love? Or is it just the need to be reassured of your own immunity from the contagion of the Moloch ha-moves — the dread Angel of Death? Because we all secretly believe in our own immortality. Since we cannot imagine the loss of individual consciousness, we cannot possibly imagine death. I thought I was searching for love — but it was reincarnation I really sought. I wanted to reverse time and become young again — knowing everything I know now.
"What are you thinking about?" my mother asks.
"Nothing," I say.
"You're thinking you never want to get as old as I am," she says. "I know you."
My father is sleeping through all this. His wasted body takes up remarkably little space under the blankets. With his hearing aid turned off, he cannot follow our conversation and he doesn't want to. He prefers to spend the day sleeping. Just six months ago, before his cancer surgery, he was a different man. My sisters and I used to start the day with threatening missives from him, often in verse.
What do you do when your days open with this messily penned screed from your ninety-three-year-old father?
I feel like King Lear.
I have three daughters
beautiful and dear,
clever and cute,
already in dispute.
Who gets more?
Who gets less?
What a terrible mess
For an aging Lear
In geriatric stress.
So much for poetry. At the bottom of the page he has scrawled in a shaky hand: "Read it again and again — no disputes!"
How did our father go from Brownsville to Shakespearean tragedy?
Here's his version: "All my father ever said to me was 'Get a job.' I wanted to go to Juilliard. My father said: 'You're already making money playing the drums — why do you need it?' He threw away my admission letter. That was why I was determined that the three of you should get degrees."
My father said this in my mother's studio overlooking the Hudson. She was lying in bed like Queen Lear, nodding. (Was there a Queen Lear?)
The sisters Lear were sitting around their mother's bed. Their mother had just had stomach surgery and she was making the most of it. Occasionally she moaned.
"Your mother has Crohn's disease, coronary artery disease, a fractured vertebra at the base of the spine, two hip replacements, two knee replacements. I cannot continue my job as 'U.S. male nurse'" — my father's pathetic phrase for his status in the family. "If you three don't come here every day, there will be some changes made in my will."
"Don't you dare threaten me," my older sister, Antonia, said. "When we were living in Belfast at the height of the Troubles" — of course Antonia had to marry a poetic Irishman — "pulling the piano in front of the door to keep the paramilitaries out, shopping for bread during the early-morning hours before the shooting started, covering the windows with furniture so that your grandchildren wouldn't get hit by shrapnel — where were you? We were going through a genuine holocaust and nobody came to rescue us. I'll never forgive any of you for that!"
Queen Lear suddenly revived: "What do you mean? We sent you money!"
"You sent us a measly twenty-five thousand dollars! What was I going to do with twenty-five thousand dollars with four children and a war going on?"
"Nobody ever sent me twenty-five thousand dollars," my younger sister, Emilia, said.
"No, your husband got the whole business. That's why you didn't need twenty-five thousand dollars!" Toni shrieked.
"Your husband didn't want the business! Nobody wanted it! We got stuck with it! You were both away gallivanting around the world and we were here, taking care of everybody! And Bibliomania — the shop itself. When Grandmama died, I was alone with her! The parents took off for Europe. Where were you two? I never got to go anywhere."
"That's not quite true," I said.
"Girls, girls, girls," my mother said.
"Nobody has any sympathy for me!" Emmy howled. "I felt I had to be the good daughter and stay home. I sacrificed my poor schnook of a husband on the altar of the family bookstore!"
"That poor schnook got everything! And so did you! We got nothing!" Toni wailed. "Some sacrifice!"
"I would have made that sacrifice."
"No way! You never would have done it. Your husband never would have done it!" This is Emmy, who shouted just as loud.
"Can't you try to see each other's point of view?" I asked.
"Not as long as she's a dishonest liar!" Toni yelled.
"My blood pressure's going up — I have to get out of here!" Emmy ran to the door. I dashed to her and coaxed her not to leave.
"Why shouldn't I leave? This is going to kill me! My heart's pounding!"
By then my father, the old King Lear, had gone to the piano and was playing "Begin the Beguine" by Cole Porter and singing along to drown out the roar in the other room.
I was where I always was — the meat in the sandwich, the designated peacemaker, the diplomat, the clown, the middle sister.
My sisters went into the kitchen to continue their altercation without a mediator. I went into my mother's room, where I found her leaning back on her pillows and moaning: "Why are they fighting?"
"You know perfectly well why," I said. "Daddy set it up that way."
"Your father would never do a thing like that," my mother said.
"Then make him undo it."
"I can't make him do anything," she said. And then she clutched her chest. "I feel faint," she said, rolling her head to the side. She moaned loudly.
My sisters ran in.
"Call the ambulance!" Emmy ordered me.
"I don't need an ambulance," my mother said, wailing.
My sisters looked at each other. Who would be the irresponsible one who neglected to call the ambulance on the ultimate day? Nobody wanted that onus.
"I really think it's unnecessary," I said, but my sisters' panic was beginning to stir the old anxiety in me. What if it was not a false alarm this time?
Before long there was an ambulance downstairs and we were in it, bending over Queen Lear on a stretcher in the back. Our father was in the front seat with the driver, prepared to flash his big-donor card when we arrived at the hospital. We careened around corners, screeching our way to Mount Sinai. On one abrupt turn the mattress from the gurney went slithering into the attendant sitting behind the driver.
"Oops," he said.
"Be careful! That's the only mother I've got!" I said.
"She's my mother too!" said Emmy — always pissed off no matter what the occasion.
Our father sat by our mother's side as long as she was hospitalized, and when she came home, he began threatening us with being disinherited unless we came to visit her every day.
Now, only months later, he is too exhausted to threaten us and I yearn for his old truculence. Ever since the surgery for the blockage in his colon, he has been a shade of his former self. I sit on the edge of the bed, watch him sleep, and remember the conversation we had in the hospital the night before the operation that saved yet also ended his life.
"Do you know Spanish?" my father asked me that night.
I nodded. "A little."
"La vida es un sueño," he said. "Life is a dream. I look forward to that deep sleep." And then he went under and never quite came back. Three days after the surgery he was babbling gibberish and clawing the air. Six days after the surgery he was in the ICU with a tube down his throat. When he was diagnosed with pneumonia, I stood at his side in the ICU and sang "I gave my love a cherry" while his eyelids fluttered. We never thought that he would emerge from that hospitalization. But he did. And now he and my mother spend their days sleeping side by side in their apartment but never touching or speaking. Round-the-clock shifts of aides and daughters attend them. Every day they sleep more and wake less.
Excerpted from Fear of Dying by Erica Jong. Copyright © 2015 Erica Mann Jong. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Fall,
1. Happily Married Woman, or Is There Sex After Death?,
2. My Father (Boy Wanted),
3. Wondermans Rampant,
Part II: Winter,
5. Money Is the Root,
6. A Human Being,
7. Loving Mr. Bones,
8. Grief, Loss, Ex-wives, Dogs,
9. Age Rage,
10. Old Dogs,
11. More, More, More,
Part III: Spring,
14. A Language Beyond Language,
15. Tender the Dead,
Part IV: Summer,
16. Bollywood in Goa,
About the Author,
Also by Erica Jong,