Each year at the end of summer a dawn arrives when tiny gold and yellow lights hang in the morning breeze.
You do not notice them at first over your cup of coffee and morning papers.
But then something always happens; a lonely bird cries high above in the misty skies, kids call each other’s names on their way to school, neighbour’s dog barks, and you stop reading news about cyclones and rise in house prices and Isis and clowns running for presidents, and look about you.
Suddenly it is there.
Your hands are cold around now empty cup of coffee. Breeze rattled your papers and is blowing them across the balcony. You tighten your gown around you and go inside.
Put the “Best of Bach” on.
Boil the kettle for cup of tea.
On one such morning I received small parcel of books from my usual online retailer.
Inside, separated by nothing more than a tissue paper; two very different looking books: Anne Enright’s “The Green Road’’ and Jane Juska’s “A Round-Heeled Woman”.
A solitary tree growing from the stony earth against vast skies adorns the cover of Ann’s book. Ann writes Ireland in the best tradition of Edna O’Brien and other fine Irish writers. Her stories are delicate, authoritative, scary, fractured. “The Green Road” promises to be all that and more. The blurb tells me that it is “a story of fracture and family, selfishness and compassion – a book about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them”. Indeed.
On the cover of Jane’s book tiny red hearts posing as rose-petals are arranged into a bigger heart shape. Subtitle reads: “My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance’.
I only heard of Jane Juska’s ‘A Round-Heeled Woman’ couple of months ago when a friend of mine suggested I should read it. I did not ask why she thinks that or what the book is about. Title failed to make any impression on me. I never heard expression ‘a round-heeled woman’ and did not know what it means. But I ordered it anyway.
Later, on my way to the beach to court whatever still remains of summer, I took the volume with me.
On page five I read: ‘My heels are very round. I’m an easy lay. An easy sixty-seven-years-old lay. “Twas not always so. As these pages will show.’
And I smiled. That small, foolish smile of those who think they are in the know.
Jane will soon see to that.
At the end of the first chapter the text of the add Jane is about to place in ‘The New York Review of Books’ emerges:
‘Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.’
It was the moment of no return.
For Jane as she lived it.
And for me as I read it – utterly captivated.
At the age of 66, Jane – a respectable, retired English teacher from California, divorced for 30 years, and ‘except for a few skirmishes with men that ended sadly’ celibate – because ‘celibacy was better than humiliation’ – decided, on her way home from watching ‘Autumn Tale’ to do just that – to write an add. The following day she did.
The book I was reading in the shade of a tree on a sunny beach in Wellington while babies, kids, teenagers, and their entourages passed, skipped and giggled by – is the report of what happened after the add was placed.
And what happened could be summoned in two words – life happened; messy, sticky, witty, heart-breaking, funny, moving … real.
Jane is neither prude nor superficial. Her descriptions of sexual encounters while explicit are told with taste.
Her add receives many responses, and the joy she feels while reading them is palpable. She did not have a date in three decades while raising her only child alone and working as a full-time teacher. Her son has since grown up and Jane has retired from full-time teaching, spent a year in psychoanalytical therapy, and has lost more than 100 pounds in the process.
Reading the letters she received Jane sorts them into three piles; ‘no’, ‘yes’, ‘maybe’ and then sets to meet some of the men on ‘yes’ list in person.
Interesting arrays of characters emerges – men whose fantasises far outweigh their resources both; emotional and physical, those who enjoy interesting and stimulating intellectual conversations as long as no meeting in a flash is required, those emotionally unavailable, those suffering from old-age’s worse malady – absence of curiosity and the resulting incapacity for surprise.
And yet through all of it – Jane soldiers on with honesty, good humour and impeccable wit even when heartbroken, or despite of it. I learn that, falling in love at 67 and being rejected hurts just as much as it does at say – 17 or 37 or any other “number” that comes to mind.
Because despite marketing herself as an “easy lay” Jane is actually looking for love. Preferably with a sexy man who is also smart and available. Oh dear me! (this is me taking to myself on an almost empty beach).
Tucked inside the report on encounters with men, is the story of life Jane has lived as a young woman – both unprepared and unaware of the pain ahead. Pain of childhood abuse, unhappy marriage, and loneliness that ensued and which was inevitably of the kind that only inhabits lives of those whose capacity for love far exceeds realities of their lives. They often turn to art. Writing in particular.
Slowly I pack the book into my beach bag and make my way towards the city.
On my way home and before the pale dusk settled over the rooftops, I remembered Ann’s book and realize how wrong I was to think it very different from Jane’s.
In their own way they both seek to fill the “gaps in human heart”.