S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Catch & Release,” Park talks about dating.
I responded to my first Personals ad in 1989. It wasn’t something I’d ever imagined myself doing, but (1) I was in my early forties at the time, so still young enough to believe there was a Miss Right in my future and I should be out there looking for her; and (2) I was horny. My friends never introduced me to prospective mates (I could hardly blame them) and I was virtually the only single male I knew in Portland, the city I called “Marriage Land.” (In the Bay Area, where I’d come from, single people abounded and the married ones would be divorced soon enough.)
Plus I was further isolated by growing pot indoors. So I needed a woman as desperate as I was, which pretty much left the Personals. Specifically those in the Willamette Week, a local indie rag. For a few bucks a month you could run a one paragraph ad in the Classifieds. It was the usual stuff (Lithe, empathetic, artistic woman, 35, seeks like man for friendship, possible romance, etc.) and it wasn’t long before I realized the personal descriptions were meaningless. “Short blonde hair” meant a scraggly brunette; “thin” meant twenty years ago; “Rubenesque” meant obese; “well read” meant self-help books. And age? That’s where the real whoppers surfaced: it was nothing to meet mid-fifties women posing as thirty-year-olds.
I never understood how that worked … you’re trying to impress someone by lying to them? It underscored the strong desperation at play, because if you were unattached in Marriage Land you were—by definition—pretty hard up.
So I took what I could get. Like most things in life it would have been easier drunk (we’d normally meet in bars or taverns for that reason), and pot leads to more introspection than sociability, so if I didn’t want to bore myself (much less the poor woman) I had to rely on psychedelic mushrooms. (Fortunately I grew them, too, so had a ready supply.) They weren’t ideal: the secret was limiting your intake to one or two grams, what I call the “Smile Zone.” When I did I’d show up with a shit-eating grin on my face.
Moderation is hardly my long suit, though, so I often ate more than I should (thus succumbing to a rambling, psychedelic mania that would have scared off anyone but a meth freak) or, worse yet, my prospective partner would be so frightening that even heroin wouldn’t have helped. The latter was the usual occurrence in Portland, unfortunately, even though it didn’t stop me from having sex with three of them. (The thinner ones, anyway. Always at their places or on the bench seat of my Ford truck; that way there was less chance of being hunted down afterwards.)
The first woman I actually allowed in my grow house was “Giselle.” (Another manufactured name, of course, but we both agreed it was better than her real one.) She was a tall, attractive masseuse with a limp, a lisp and a fondness for Charles Bukowski. She’d drop by and give me a massage and sex for fifty bucks. I’d double that with her tip and offered to put her on permanent retainer (I loved that she was pale as a vampire), but then she ran off to Tacoma, Washington with a plumber.
Next on the take-home list was a book clerk named Janie. She was well read, so we at least had conversations in-between naked sessions on my futon. I sensed she was withholding something, though, and it wasn’t until I took her to the symphony for her birthday that the truth came out.
It was a Mahler concert, and when the intermission arrived she revealed her fervid crush on Jerry, the orchestra’s bass drummer. He was married, and she was friends with his wife, but that didn’t matter to Janie … she was desperate to get him in the sack.
She was flushed by the time she finished. “I suppose you hate me now,” she murmured.
“Well, no more than before,” I replied. “But how about this: we’ll go to your place afterwards, and you can pretend you’re screwing Jerry. He’s tall like I am … just keep your eyes closed.”
“You’re kidding! You’d do that?”
“Do it? I’d prefer it.”
“And can I … call you ‘Jerry?’ ”
“And his wife told me he likes to strangle her during sex. Would you be up for that, too, so I can see if I like it?”
She liked it all right (way more than I did) and for the next month we rutted as only a homicidal Jerry and Janie could. It went so well, in fact, that the real drummer got wind of it and left his wife for her (soundly rejecting my tag team offer). I never saw Janie again and was celibate for a year before I answered the ad for Lucy, the bisexual masseuse. As I chronicled in The Grass Is Greener we had a strange on-again, off-again relationship for years, cut short when a rubber broke and she had to abort my “weird stoner cartoonist baby.”
In the meanwhile I visited an old Portland friend named Debra Lee one afternoon and, as we were sitting around in her living room, Nicole, one of her upstairs tenants, walked through the front door. She had that cute “elf in Santa’s workshop” look I can’t resist. I was smitten and told Debra Lee as much when Nicole left the room.
She shook her head. “Get over it,” she said. “She’s selfish and cold as ice.”
“You’re just sweetening the pot,” I replied, glancing longingly up the stairs.
“Really? Well, how about this? She calls herself ‘Nicole Diver.’ Does that ring a bell with you?”
I thought about it. “Is that some kind of literary reference?” I asked finally.
“Right. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tender Is the Night.”
“Oh yeah, I remember now. The nut job who’s married to Nick Diver, the central character.”
“Exactly. Well, she’s Nicole’s idea of a hero, so a few years ago she changed her name legally to ‘Nicole Diver.’ She’s actually Glenda Schwartz from Santa Monica.”
Really? Now I was hooked: a woman who’d adopted the name of a mental ward patient in Fitzgerald’s worst book? What could go wrong? I remember hanging around that day in hopes Nicole would reappear but she didn’t. Then I heard she’d moved out of Debra Lee’s house and didn’t think about it again. That Spring I answered a typical Personals ad—I don’t remember the specifics, something like “Cute, red-headed, 40-year-old pianist”—and when I showed up on the appointed street corner there was Nicole Diver.
It had to be Fate. (Though she didn’t remember me and I never let on that I’d met her at Debra Lee’s that day; I wanted to see if she’d reveal her given name herself. Which she didn’t, of course, just as she never admitted she was four years older than her Personals claim.) We were getting along well that first night until I told her I grew pot for a living (like all the women I met in the Personals—much less most of my life—Nicole didn’t do drugs), and at the end of the evening she told me I could call her in a few months if I had to: she was new to the Personals game and thought she could do better than an old alkie stoner.
A woman who’d adopted the name of a mental ward patient in Fitzgerald’s worst book? What could go wrong?
I had to agree (if I were a bargain, I wouldn’t have answered her ad in the first place). So another six months pass, and one night I phone because I’m high on something or another. To my surprise she’s happy to hear from me, claims she’s met nothing but jerks since our date and was hoping I’d call.
After that we spent the better part of a year together. We hiked trails all over Oregon that summer, then cross-country skied at Mt. Hood and Mt. Bachelor when the winter came. In the meanwhile (like most Tauruses) she treated sex as fun and was great in bed.
It was the best part of us, actually, because Nicole was as tortured and unhappy as her namesake otherwise, and I’m hardly the caretaker type. I can pull it off for a while, especially during the infatuation stage, but sooner or later my impatience with victimhood claws to the surface. Plus the only adventurous thing Nicole had ever done was change her name, and now she had some strange, skinny Hunter S. Thompson character for a boyfriend, a guy who could (and would) tell non-stop crazy yarns from morning to night. It’s my worst habit (along with the aforementioned impatience), and it was even worse at that age, but the alternative wasn’t pretty either, i.e. Nicole’s bitter tales of woe: for a woman who hadn’t done anything, she had plenty of blame to pass around.
I stayed for the sex mostly, but my morbid fascination with selfishness was part of it, too. My family has a “generosity gene” that passes through the generations (I see it in my nephew and niece and their kids now), and my brothers and I would give you our last dime without thinking about it. It’s a true blessing, because giving is life’s greatest reward, but Nicole? As best as I could discern the only thing she’d ever dispensed was (bad) advice. (Which made the sex better, of course, like you were stealing forbidden fruit, or slipping inside a repressed Catholic girl.) She worked at the Water Department and when she invited me to her office Christmas party it was much as I expected. Male coworkers would look at me out of the corner of their eyes, then when Nicole wasn’t around—and they’d had a drink or three—they’d sidle up to me.
“So you’re into ball busters, eh?” they’d ask. “Is she a whips chick?” “How about butt plugs?”
Or: “I asked her if she’d please get my report off the printer. It was two feet away from her and she sneered ‘No way, do it yourself.’ What a bitch!”
“We exchanged presents at last year’s party, and she gave me a used Sharpie from her desk. Unwrapped.”
That Christmas, after I showered her with gifts, she gave me a five-dollar donation to a dog shelter. Also unwrapped. As with most things she did I was left shaking my head: she could have been autistic for all the effect irony had on her. In the meanwhile I took her to a party given by friends of mine, and not only did they ask me to leave her home in the future, but Nicole was furious at them for their imagined slights.
In the end I was willing to carry on as a couple—“How about we meet for sex once a month? We wouldn’t have to speak, or even like each other.”—but she wasn’t buying it.
Then a couple years later I called to see how she was doing.
“I went back to school,” she declared. “You won’t believe what I earned my master’s in!”
“What!? Are you stalking me or something? How’d you know that?”
What else would a professional neurotic be interested in? “Oh,” I said, still angling for sex, “it was just a lucky guess.”
Now another twenty years have passed, and before starting this column I looked up Nicole on the Internet. Her last mention placed her in a Portland mental health clinic. As a shrink apparently, not a patient, though it doesn’t seem she lasted long. There were four terse Comments, with a rating system from One to Five. She notched Ones across the board:
“Oh … My … God!”
“I tried to help her!”
“The Doctor is in, and it’s Nasty Nicole Diver.”
“I feel used.”
It got me kind of hot … I wonder if her number’s the same.