If you know me -- pretend you don't. It'll work better.
And if you don't know me, get that smarmy gray-haired guy out of your head. I got some in my beard and yes, I'm middle-aged. No doubting I've gone through a lot of shit you've left to go through and I'm happy for that. Not looking forward to bad hips and aluminum walkers. Who would be?
I have a Corvette but it's no shag-mobile. No gold chains. None of that Austin Powers *hey baby* here. I find that as offensive as you.
Think: he's just some guy. Because I am. I'm just some guy who's been living a "some guy" life they don't write about or make movies about and is eulogized by someone with a stutter.
The other thing I want you to remember is that nobody is older than twenty-five. If you're younger than twenty-five: have no doubt. You will grow older until then, and then it will stop. You'll be thirty and telling your friends, "I still feel like I'm twenty-five." You'll be forty and telling your friends, "My knees are a little shaky, and I have these crow's feet, but inside here I'm still twenty-five."
Take my mom. She's twenty-one years older than me and she says: "When I look in the mirror, I can't believe this old woman is looking out at me."
"You're not old, Mom."
"I'm not twenty-five."
When I read books my own stories come out in the author's voice. I can't stop it. I'm only ever half reading. Sitting in an airplane trying to suspend disbelief, it never works. I'm inventing my own stories and adding pages to the book. None of it is true. But it all is. Though I'm not sure it would hold up in court.
There was a movie with Jacqueline Bisset some years ago. I don't remember much about it other than the opening scene. In a commercial jetliner she meets a total stranger and entices him to have sex in the lavatory as the plane is landing. Do you remember it? I mean, say it's 1977. Who wouldn't go with with Jacqueline Bisset if she was all sexy and coaxing? It would be like Jennifer Aniston old enough to be your friend's mother's younger sister, giving you that "come-here-little-boy" pout and all you've been doing for the past ten hours is read and reread about your life vest being under your seat wondering if in a crash you could get the thing on with one arm and two broken legs.
Have sex in an airplane bathroom in 1977 and you weren't going to have the FBI waiting for you when you landed. There was no homeland security to protect you from an amorous forty-something, nor would the youth of America put up with such malarkey. You'd just go with her. You'd figure it out. You'd just straighten out your clothes and deplane as if you didn't even know each other -- but you'd have a dog ear bookmark in your history that would never smooth out.
Jacqueline Bisset. On a plane. When it was landing and you were supposed to be belted in. Imagine.
I'm not trying to be obtuse. I'm not trying to tell you I had sex with a woman on a plane. Oh God, no. I'm telling a story. It's a twenty-five year old guy we're talking about who was talking to the woman in the seat next to him. And after a eight hours or so, we were still talking and really, who knows what she was saying after that long. My close-quarters persona had ended hours prior. I was onto the idea of a nice round sleeping pill and the backs of my eyelids and then she had to climb over me and I remembered that Jacqueline Bisset movie, for some reason.
Flow with me for a minute. Pretend. Everything is moving too fast and it's all redshifted, spalling away from me in Doppler distortion at the speed of light so it doesn't seem as real anymore. Why not let it happen like you're reading a book? Because it is. Because you are. It's that way to me.
You're wanting to know how two people fit in a 747 toilet and I'm going to tell you I don't know. I don't.
Hang on -- I have a hard time reading someone else's words without thinking of a bunch of my own. I don't know what I'm making up and what's in the akashic record. While I'm sitting in a small commercial jet somewhere over Saint Louis Obispo watching the San Andreas fault slide under me, I get through a few pages and then silence the voice in my head by looking out the window. There are roads and buildings. Occasionally a glint of bright sunlight ricochets to me from a car on route five. I'm wallowing in cognitive dissonance. Only yesterday I was watching glaciers pass, yellow earplugs keeping out the propeller drone.
There was a mighty uninhabited wasteland extending beneath me in all directions. Antarctica. No love. No warmth. No man's land. I was on a flight from polar nowhere to a nowhere town where there are four women who each at some point in my five years of anti-polar deployment tried to become my ice wife.
By the way -- if I was on fire they'd let me burn. Turn down a woman's advances, get lost forever. There are a lot of horses in the sea and they've all dead and drowned. Ever see a stallion swim? They can, but it's not pretty and neither are we after a while. Turn them down and suffer unrecoverable loneliness. Entertain yourself by doodling on empty boxes with sharpie markers. Practice yoga. Stare at the pipes on the ceiling.
I tried sitting with one of my former suitors at the galley and she squirmed and found a reason to get up for coffee and never came back as hard as she could.
I've known her well enough to have had our eyes within an inch of each other and she doesn't want to spend more than fifteen seconds saying "hi," and make me hurt. They deal in a purified form of loneliness down there. Best to have work. Best to be busy, to have friends. Or an ice spouse.
"Ice wife" works this way: you're supposed to believe you might die in Antarctica and so with your remaining breath it's better to love who's within reach, body and soul, than hold out for the theory of survival and commitment to promises you've made back home.
And if you buy that one, I've got a truckload of ice to sell you. Traveling salesmen have been cheating on their wives forever. Turn off the smarmometer before the needle bends off the scale. I'm with you on this one, homie.
But you don't forget these things. At least I don't.
One tried to get me drunk. At a big station party she kept shoving cans of Canterbury Draught into my hand which I obligingly quaffed. They were only a kiwi buck a can, she had a lot of drinking money in her pocket and when the money was gone, she let me see she had the condiments necessary to complete the evening. I got scared. She started hooking her pinkie around mine.
"You're not like other guys here."
"I hope not. Most of these guys wouldn't fit into my clothes."
"You're so -- when you walk into a room, you can feel it."
"...your way of suggesting I need to lose a couple pounds...right?"
Her eyes were glassy. Strands of her hair that escaped her pony tail band fell across her face and she made no attempt to brush them aside. All around us people danced to music pumped out at a thousand watts per channel and I managed to hear her anyway. It's genetic. She became more pretty to me the closer she got.
There are awkward pauses that occur between people who are supposed to cross the space between themselves and kiss. No one sets this up. The universe rotates, inertial frames intersect, the axis go from linear to logarithmic, and your body does what it's supposed to do unless you're breaking it down and graphing the components in a cylindrical coordinate space. No one is supposed to ask for a kiss except in the movies. The real ones happen when it seems something invisible presses you together and you're kissing instead of making small talk.
It had been a while since I'd felt anything like that, so it was easy for me to stand still and analyze the terror inside rather than succumb to the build up of gravity that made her close her eyes and drift toward me with her face turned upward. When we were chest to chest and I wasn't kissing she opened her eyes.
"You are so not like anyone else."
To say I nearly peed myself would ruin the pastiche. I won't remember it. I won't blush anymore.
And then there was the woman in Gallager's where at first three of us sat at a table watching the GA's mating. The GA's are all college fresh-outs dumped onto the seventh continent with a salary, a seemingly unlimited supply of alcohol, and thirty-six free hours a week. What was happening was obvious to anyone with half his mind still hanging from the inside of his skull.
After an hour Ken excused himself and didn't come back. It was too much for the poor guy. The way he nearly leapt from the table with his legs vibrating left no doubt where he was going and what he was going to do. His research partner snickered. I never laugh at lonely people having been one and probably doomed to be one again.
"It's different for girls, isn't it? I mean, aren't there times where your best friend is..." I held up my right palm. "But hell, now I can drink or think of my bills and make it go away."
She smirked. Nodded toward a couple at the bar. "Look-look. He's got his hand on her ass."
"Well, she's letting him do it."
"He was cupping that other one's ass a minute ago."
"He's got a thing for women's asses and they're not objecting."
"That's because he's -- well, if you did it, for instance, you could get away with it, too."
"Oh, I doubt that."
"That's because you would never do something like that. That's what's so sexy about you."
"Not putting my hands all over women is sexy?"
"The idea of it. That you wouldn't even though you could."
"Even though I could? I could just go over and start groping those girls right now -- you're kidding. How come I didn't know that?"
"And it would never cross your mind. That's what I find so attractive."
"Did I ever tell you I was already spoken for?"
"No. How? Who?"
"You know her. The one who's always making me dance. We're like middle-aged ice mates. We lock ourselves in rooms and sit on the bed complaining about everyone else and the lousy selection on TV and we fall asleep before having sex. It's just like being married only we're both already married to other people. So we have practice."
"I could do that better than her. Really. I'll do anything you want. Anything."
They say biting your lip makes you cuter. So I just swallowed a lot of spit.
Why am I thinking about this stuff while I'm trying to stay buried in a book about midlife crises. Trying to get barstool girl out of my mind and remembering what happened after that was an ugly chase scene that would have been great in a movie, but in real life, nobody shouts "cut" and the aftereffects echo off the mountains and blast into outer space to live forever with all the "I Love Lucy" reruns. Nick Hornby is the book author, by the way. A guy at the McMurdo writer's group suggested the beginning of the book was one of the greatest beginnings of all time, so I bought it in Auckland. And it is a great beginning. It's about thirty-somethings having their midlife crises early. Do I need to read this and have my brain propelled into the past?
Here's what I know because I've been seeing someone who talks to me about it. Midlife crises hit at between thirty five and forty five years, but they can onset up to the sixties which makes me want to find the sixty-year old guy who's going into midlife and congratulate him for living to one-hundred twenty. They tend to follow patterns, but only vaguely.
Midlife crises are not limited to the stereotypical male-pattern running off with a woman half your age in a new Porsche. Both men and women go through it. In women, it's called the "biological clock" and tends to occur earlier because God is cruel. We develop at different rates. We age differently. What the hell was he thinking creating humans with so many differences?
I would have at least made simultaneous orgasms the rule, rather than the exception.
The book. I'm on a plane, reading a book. This book is about a couple of later thirty-somethings dealing with life and death and sex and love for the first time as responsible adults with no safe haven. It's about how life gets real like a tornado forming. It tears the roof off your mobile home and leaves you sitting outdoors amid a pile of records and science fiction books that used to be your refuge and nobody's running in to help put it together again. There, let's deal with the literary horror of that simile and get our minds off of women.
I've seen the movie, but figured the book was better and I was right. It keeps bringing me back and there are roads thirty-five thousand feet below me instead of nunataks and blue ice.
Not one bit about Antarctica was about the geography. Adventures always turn out that way. It was always about what we carried there inside ourselves, and what we went home with. That was the catalyst for the everything else. Who I was, what I did. I'd never hit on anyone before, so maybe I tried it. Then ran away. Like the kids who ring my doorbell at midnight on Saturdays. Get there and its like fireworks.
Put on ground. Light fuse. Get away.
Get away. The key to traveling in peace is to bury yourself in a book and not think about the girl with the pierced ears and tongue and labia. I wasn't supposed to know about the labia, but I do. Let's say it happened like this:
"How many of those do you have?"
"Four. Two here--" she touched each earlobe, "One here," stuck out her tongue, "and one other one."
Smile. Grin. Teeth.
"Oh. That must have hurt."
"Not really. This walk was a great idea. I'm cold now. Let's go to your room."
"There's another guy in my room. He's probably sleeping."
"I can be really quiet."
"Sure you wouldn't rather go to the coffee house and have some tea? It's cold out here."
"It's Antarctica. It's cold everywhere. Come on. I'll warm you up. I know what you're thinking. I don't go around propositioning every guy I see. It's just, you're..."
"I know, I'm special."
"You're not like the other guys on station. You're so..."
"I know. Mature."
"I have an inner Woody Allen I could let you see if you wanted. It's really unsexy, all the whining I can do."
"Come on. Tell me you'd rather have tea than a blow job."
"Oh, don't make me say tea. They won't let me back into the United States if I say tea. Wouldn't it be better to do the president? Where's Bill Clinton when you need him?"
One of the most interesting things I learned in Antarctica was that to be good looking, you simply have to act good looking. By that I mean you need to be warm and friendly. Funny when you can be. Caring. But at all times adopt the "there are a lot of fish in the sea" attitude of indifference toward anything more serious than a few laughs. When one woman walks away your world is not disturbed by her absence, but rather, having been enriched by her presence, you move through life with a greater sense of worth.
It drives them crazy.
I don't know how I started doing that, but I did. I'm like the guy in the book, exactly. And on a scale where Brad Pitt is off on the right side and on the left is Michael Duffy in freshman year of high school having not bathed since seventh grade -- I'm in the middle to slightly toward Brad. I'm just a normal guy. Zero sigma, center of the Gaussian. I'd never thought women would find me attractive until the day I realized one of them did. And then it was impossible to stop. I didn't even have to try. They started approaching me.
The choker I picked up in Christchurch made everything worse.
"That thing around your neck..."
"Some kind of Maori protection against disaster. You know. They sell them in CHCH. Doesn't every guy on station wear one? It just looks cool. Is it to attract good luck?"
"I could be your good luck."
It had to come off.
I'm not kidding. This is me we're talking about. Forty-plus years of geekdom right down the drain. Suddenly, women are buying me drinks and asking me to bed. My ego is the size of Montana. I keep thinking that one of these days I'm going to get tired of saying, "no," partly because they keep saying "no" is so attractive, partly because I keep wondering if I can hold out until it stops. And really, my ego doesn't want it to stop. (I wonder if this is how it is for them.)
But it's way too much for me. Not now. Not this year. Last year I could hide. This year, I have nowhere to go but out into it, and I know what happens out there.
"Your ice friend. She's not down here this season, is she?"
"We don't see you around much."
"Don't you want to get out more? Don't be anti-social."
"Thanks, but I'm cool. Really."
"Something wrong? Something's wrong. What?"
"Because we all thought that you two..."
"Yeah, I know." And I do know, we two. She's seven thousand miles north and I feel her ghost everywhere. I have never felt so alone, so abandoned. Redshifted, Dopplered out at the edge of the universe where no one lives. Everything I say -- everything I do becomes a mechanical repetition rather than inspiration. I have no desire for it and so my stomach is a deep well. I sit in my room clenching my teeth, trying to read, trying like a kid having sex to keep his mind on other things to prevent a premature end to his performance, which in my case will be an unattractive torrent of tearful self pity. Send the fire department, there's some guy crying in a biology lab in Crary.
One day, imbued with the spirit of self-destruction I walked up Arrival Heights to where she first took me to the fumaroles and felt like never coming back. I mean -- never -- and that's a new feeling to me. Can't say I like it. When I came back down I got on the shuttle to Scott Base for American Day. I grabbed myself a beer and stood in the corner staring out at the pressure ridge. A woman I'd seen in McMurdo came up to me. She was friendly.
"That's what gay guys say to me when they want to strike up a conversation."
"Are you gay?"
"It would be less complicated, but no."
"I could use a guy like you--you're so--"
"Just a wild-ass guess -- special?"
"Can I have you?"
"I have a single. My roommate is out at camp for another week."
"I used almost used that line once. Know what it got me?"
"Whatever it was, I'm better. I promise."
"About the brokest broken heart you can have and survive without needing nitro. Though, I'm not far from that. I gotta get outta here. I gotta get out before I fall off Hut Point or take off my parka and leap off T-site in condition two.
"Okay, but come do me first."
"Have you ever considered subtlety--maybe a bayberry candle--one of those funny greeting cards with the cartoon bunnies--little mint on the pillow might be romantic?"
"Romantic? This isn't romance. In case you haven't noticed it's a harsh continent out there, sweetie."
She won't talk to me anymore, either.
The guy in the book is miserable and I am too, all the way. All the way bittersweet. All the way sublime. Pick your poetry -- I'm happy for the adventure I can log in my permanent record, happy to be leaving the ice where a big chunk of my heart lies dead and freezing at the transition. It got dislodged during a pistin bully jolt and I didn't notice it was missing until I realized the loss I was feeling was going to drive me over an edge I'd never realized was there. I'm living on borrowed oxygen now and the landing gear is coming down, only about two minutes to landing we cross all the highways I know by inches. I know what it means to come home.
Like you're supposed to forget everything happened. Like it's supposed to be someone else's life. A storybook. A movie. Leave the theater. You go back to the parking lot and make plans to have drinks and dinner. Unsuspend disbelief. Remember a great scene, the one that had you amazed -- then file it under "recommend to others". Get back to what we were doing before we took this minor entertainment break.
I can't forget and it's realer than a book to me. Realer than a movie, but faded and imperfect like someone else's twenty-five-year old memory. Like the twenty-five year old on the last flight. To him, she's Mrs. Robinson. Put on ground. Light fuse.
She said she was a pilot.
But my life is full of dancers.
McM -> CHCH -> AKL -> LAX -> SJC - November 11/12, 2005