I was riding shotgun in an antique Buick the other night when I finally named a persistent, quirky sensation I've been experiencing for the past few years. I'm astonished to realize that it's unrelated to menopause.
It was about 7 p.m. and I was rolling north through the Pacific Coast redwoods with Steve, my occasional significant other. My left hand was squeezing Steve's right thigh. His right hand was squeezing my left thigh. Up ahead, through the sepia-toned windshield, I could see a buttery Northern California sunset. Inside, the car smelled like old shoes, old whiskey, the driver's cologne and my own L'Air du Temps perfume. I was wearing my usual weekend uniform -- tight black stretch pants, boots with stacked heels and a leather jacket. Steve wore old Levi's with the imprint of a can of Bull Durham on the butt pocket and a T-shirt with the name "Southern California Racing Association." We were riding in frowning, concentrated silence.
The feeling began this time just before I told Steve to pull over. I think I said something like, "It's really low, baby. Why don't you stop and have a look?" Steve wheeled onto the shoulder, slipped the gear into neutral, set the brake, got out and slid under the car on his back. I moved over into his seat and gunned the engine. Then he got back in and we resumed our drive. The feeling was very strong now. Steve said, "It's a hole in the muffler," or words to that effect. I said I thought it was the muffler because the sound was too low to be in the engine. Then the sensation really took over, and then, suddenly, I named it. I'm in the wrong movie.
Ever since I turned 45, I've felt an intermittent, dizzying vertigo, as if cameras have suddenly begun to roll on a scene I never rehearsed. And no wonder. I'm supposed to be playing the part of a middle-aged American female. I should be wearing an apron. My cheeks should be plump, my bosom ample, my lap comfortable. I should not be riding around on a Saturday evening in my 49th year, wearing high heels with stretch pants, diagnosing car trouble and squeezing thighs with my date. I should be married to Sammy Osborn from the 10th grade, the boy who aspired to be the weatherman on TV. Sammy would have proposed to me on the front seat of his father's DeSoto, after taking my hand and pointing out cumulus clouds. I would have been married in an indoor ceremony where everyone wore shoes, and our children would spend their summers in New Jersey with their grandparents, eating unhealthy food. I would have a friend named Marjory who sold Tupperware to bring in a few supplemental dollars. As the sun set, Sammy and I would join other couples at the theater or, at worst, the bowling alley. We would have sex on alternate Saturday nights.
Instead, I'm on Take 195 of the epic production "They're Either Married, Gay or Nuts." I stumble through sex and love scenes no middle-aged woman before me has ever faced. Personal ads, tummy tucks, safe sadomasochism techniques for people with arthritis, penile implants and nude weddings. If I should want to meet a guy, I might look for him at the 12-step meeting where my fellow baby boomers gather to reveal our addictions and our histories of molestation and abuse. I belong to a New Age women's spiritual community where I can attend a workshop on masturbation on Saturday afternoon after I see my therapist, where I talk about Steve's efforts to avoid cohabiting with me. No wonder I keep fumbling my lines.
I often get wrong-movie vertigo with Steve. Steve is a construction worker who wears a hunting knife on his belt and races motorcycles on Sunday. He comes from the Irish-Scandinavian-Beach Boys bloodline you see so often in California -- the heritage that produces shaggy coppery hair, high cheekbones, white teeth and commitment phobia. He left high school in the 10th grade and he can pull apart and reassemble my car armed only with a toothpick and a flashlight. I am a college-educated, urban-bred New Englander of Russian descent. Steve spends two nights a week with me -- Mondays and Fridays. We share fast food, raucous sex and the television. He keeps one pair of white jockey shorts, one pair of wool socks and a towel at my house, a migration of belongings that has taken four years. He came in last Friday after work carrying a medium combination pizza in a cardboard box. I was wearing my bathrobe and slippers and I was still warm and damp from a visit with Luanne from the office.
"Hey, baby," he said. "You just get in? What've you been up to?"
"Oh, God, it was perfect," I said, toweling my hair. "Luanne and I were both wiped out after the board meeting. It went on forever. So afterward we went over to her place, got in the hot tub out on her deck and talked shop."
"Did she have a good look at your clam?"
(I glanced around wildly for the cue cards.) "She isn't interested in my clam -- I mean, my vagina. Jesus, Steve. Just because we were naked doesn't mean we, you know, did anything."
"Didn't you tell me Luanne is a dyke?"
"She is a dyke. Don't use that word. She is gay. But that doesn't mean she wants to hit on me. Do you check out every woman you see just because you're heterosexual and they're women?"
And there it is again. The lights come up. The cameras whir. I'm in the spotlight, inhaling to speak a few domestic lines, and suddenly my boyfriend thinks I'm a lesbian and I'm starring in a scene for which I never auditioned. I sink down onto the futon with my head spinning. Steve stalks off to watch ESPN. He probably thinks I'm in the throes of post-coital exhaustion.
When she was the age I am now, my mother, Sheila, wore bifocals. Her hair was gray and she had been married to my father, Morrie, for two unbroken decades. In her role as a heterosexual, middle-aged female, Mom could borrow my grandmother's props and scripts, slightly altered but recognizable. In fact, when it comes to sex and love, each woman before me as far back as the Stone Age could learn her lines and stage presence from the woman before her. Maybe my grandmother at age 49 feared that Grandpop might slip the leash to play out an X-rated scene opposite another woman some night after he wrapped things up at the butcher shop. She would have looked to my great-grandmother Svetlana, who would have told her to bake more strudel. The strudel recipe would have been handed down over 65 years. Grandmom did not have the option of a staple in her tummy or surgery on her eyelids to ensure the nightly return of my grandfather. My mother would have a heart attack if I broached the subject of liposuction to make my thighs more attractive so that Steve might propose to me in the Buick. I can't imagine that she would survive a conversation about sex itself.
"Mom, I'm really confused right now."
"Oh, sweetie, what's wrong?"
"Well, I read this article where they say those ripples in the really good condoms, the ones that can make multiple orgasms, really aren't that good after all, and Steve thinks the chocolate-flavored kind smell funny ..."
I can just hear the ambulance sirens in the distance.
Now that I've named the sensation, I see that I'm not alone. When it comes to sex and love, I'm surrounded by a casting call of single, female baby boomers, many thousands of us, and every one of us is intermittently in the wrong movie. Our basic plots haven't changed. We're still producing the same themes: attraction, pursuit, jealousy, betrayal, conquest, loss, justification, resilience. We're all lusting and cheating and making promises we can't keep, and believing in promises that will never come true, and producing babies just as we have since we wore mastodon skins. But our edges are aerobically sharpened on purpose. If we have the comfortable laps of the women before us, we obsess over how to rid ourselves of them. Dianna, who didn't have a comfortable bosom, got one and now her breast implants keep migrating down her rib cage. Evelyn, who broke character as a 10th-generation Catholic, went on a singles vision quest and ended up with hepatitis from bathing nude in bad river water.
Carolina and Bernice ran afoul of the Internet, that most treacherous of wrong-movie props. Carolina's significant other ran off with an airhead bimbo aerobics instructor with Fu Manchu fingernails and a heroin problem. Now she is alone and lonely. In the right movie, a benevolent character would show up with good intentions. A matchmaker, or at least a yenta, to look narrow-eyed upon potential suitors and ask, What was his mother's maiden name? Carolina's entire community would know about any new liaisons. But of course there were no matrimonial agents in Carolina's movie, so she fired up Match.com and next thing she knew, there she was up in Alaska, hip-deep in rifles and gin. Glassy-eyed moose heads stared down at her from the wall of a log cabin 600 miles out in the tundra. The Alaska man she met online, the one who said he raced huskies in the Iditarod, turned out to be the guy who hosed out the kennels. Carolina came back OK, on a red-eye out of Fairbanks, but she was lucky. In these new movies, you can drop off the map on the trail of an Internet sweetheart and all you'll leave behind is an e-mail address in Chugiak.
Bernice, whose fiancé died in Vietnam in 1969, is dating a computer technician these days. One night he asked her if he could try on those luscious peach lace thongs he spied in her underwear drawer. Like Carolina, she needed to play the next scene opposite someone wiser than herself. The cameras weren't going to pan in on her as she padded barefoot down the path to the ancient woman in the thatched hut and asked, "Oh, holy one, please tell me: Is it transvestites who do weird things with sheep, or is that something else?" Without tribal elders, or any facsimile, Bernice headed for her PC. She found no end of sex chat rooms where she could find out about transvestites, transgenders, transspecies and props she never imagined. Now she keeps getting e-mails from a dominatrix in Barstow who thinks she has even more to learn.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
When I got home from my drive with Steve, I briefly thought of rolling backward to my teens and resurfacing in the right movie. I'd keep my hair in a ponytail and exchange chaste kisses with Sammy at the drive-in. I would never, at age 49, have to worry about my butt sliding down the backs of my legs or listen to a woman half my age, wearing a spandex bodysuit, cry, "Work those abs, work those glutes, feel those quadriceps burrrrrrn!" But the phone rang before I could go up to the attic for my bell-bottoms. It was Alan, whose sex and love scene is the most stable and enduring of all of my friends'. He and Jonathan have been together since 1989 and they're remodeling a gorgeous old Victorian in the Castro District of San Francisco. Alan talked about Jonathan's new scheme to bring in a few supplemental dollars by marketing kinky bus cruises. He's going to call the business Queen Lines and he's talking to a travel agent who can book threesome accommodations, round trip down Highway 1 to Carmel and back with stops at leather shops and nude beaches.
I chatted from the kitchen chair, where I could sit with my head down between my knees to keep that wrong-movie dizziness at bay. I noticed in my reflection that my hair looked dull and my roots were showing. By the time we hung up I realized that I would need to postpone the return to my vestigial script. I headed for the sink and Clairol, to cover my gray before Steve's arrival from the Happy Noodle Chinese takeout.
A half-hour later I was shiny and rootless, and as I watched the last of the Warm Auburn Glow swirl down the drain from somewhere in the distance I thought I heard a small, tinny voice. I thought I heard it say, "Cut! Aaaaaaand print!"