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by Dusty Sklar
Discussed in this essay: Scary Old Sex, by Arlene Heyman. Bloomsbury Press, 2016, 240 pages.
IN HER DEBUT collection of short stories, Scary Old Sex, Arlene Heyman, a 74-year-old writer, has created characters, old and young, who are not the teeniest bit scared of sex. A Manhattan psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Heyman writes fiction in which the world is large, compassionate, and tingling with erotic energy.
She reveals startling observations about the sex lives of older people: the medications, lubricants, aphrodisiacs, and breathing machines necessary to stoke them up, despite sleep apnea, arthritis, acid reflux, dry vagina, and worse. Heyman is brave enough to lift the curtain on scenes that we usually keep to ourselves: an intimate moment with her second husband in which a woman finds herself longing for a deceased first husband; a narrow hospital bed in which a wife contrives to give sexual pleasure to her terminally ill husband.
Heyman’s first story, “The Loves of Her Life,” begins thus:
“Would you like to make love?” Stu called out to Marianne as she entered their apartment. She walked toward his office. It was mid-Saturday afternoon and Stu was still in his purple pajamas at the computer, a mug of coffee on his cluttered desk. He had a little wet mocha-colored stain under his lip on his beard, and his wiry gray hair stood up thinly around his large bald spot. He looked at her shyly for a moment, then looked back at the computer screen.
Marianne goes on to reminisce about the desire she felt for her first husband, who died young.
One love story in the collection that does not feature an elderly couple is “In Love with Murray,” which Heyman dedicates “In memory of Bernard Malamud” — her professor at Bennington, with whom she formed a deep, lifelong friendship. In this story, Leda, a 19-year-old budding artist, falls in love with an accomplished painter who is married, middle-aged, and balding. At the beginning of their affair, before sex, Leda “would lock herself into her bathroom and emerge wearing a hooded white terry cloth bathrobe, as if she were a prizefighter, her hair stuffed into the hood. She would take the robe off only under the covers.”
Philip Davis, in his biography, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, reveals that the 47-year-old Malamud embarked on an affair with a beautiful and intelligent student, Arlene Heyman. Heyman was the model for Fanny Bick in Malamud’s novel, Dubin’s Lives.
“AT THE HAPPY ISLES” sounds a different note. An elderly mother in an assisted living home orders her daughter to push her in her wheelchair from her apartment to the dining room, with disastrous consequences for both women.
“Dancing” takes place on the day of the destruction of the twin towers at the World Trade Center, and shifts from that horrendous scene to a hospital room in which a man is dying. Out his window, he “sees a haze hanging in the downtown sky as if the damaged, disfigured part of the city were being covered with a protective veil.”
In “Nothing Human,” a man and wife are on an infernal cruise in Germany. They have not made love for a couple of weeks — “Not that frequency matters,” the wife observes in the middle of the night,
so long as they care about each other, and making love helps them care about each other, although since they started having to schedule it in, it has become a little like brushing and flossing, something almost hygienic, good for you. Yet there is passion in it, too, it erupts right out of the schedule. You do it with regularity to show you are a human being, that you are alive and civilized and can still become ecstatic. You can still do it. You still want to do it. And it is, after all, a sign of love; and the repetition of it, the making of it into a weekly habit... grafts them to one another, commingles them...
In these and other stories, Heyman shows us, with great intelligence, vigor, and humor, and without sentimentality, what it is to be a human being.
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.