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by Jordan Ariel © 2001
With the dissolution of my marriage a few years ago, living alone at midlife takes on the pattern of a familiar song, a ditty really, that plays in my head over and over, and over again. This morning, it is a sunny, crisp and windy morning on the streets of San Francisco when a thought floats to the surface of my commute to the office: is there a time in every contemporary woman’s life when she wonders if she is a slut? My commute is a wonderful ten block, urban walk that includes million-dollar views and a sense of order and clarity. Over this past year, I’ve been wearing my skirts shorter and tighter. Today I am cold and distracted. I am a woman of substance and resolve, of history and commitment, a woman with dreams and responsibility. So I ask: who defines ‘slut’ these days? Is it personal prejudice, a matter of degree, or a matter of definition? A long-time gay male friend recently called me a slut, and I think he meant it as a compliment. Sex and sexuality are at the heart of our everyday lives. Sexual expression can be joyous, adventurous, athletic – a primal and spiritual way to connect with your own body and those of other human beings. It is a sacred, erotic and humorous language between souls. And yet, in my late forties, when I figure I could feel lucky to wonder about sluthood, I am also wondering if I am asking the wrong questions. I remember my mother telling me my eighth grade class photo looked slutty. It was the early 60s in a conservative public school in a Southern California beach community. I was wearing a floral-patterned matching skirt and jacket and my necklace, with a small gold cross, hung below my bare collarbone. My shoulder-length hair was carefully tucked behind my ears with a matching headband. I had on large, gold hoop earrings. Black eyeliner framed the adolescent stare in my eyes. I had just survived my parent’s divorce, my father was institutionalized in a mental hospital in the heartland of the country, and my younger brother had started drinking in the bushes. As I tried to navigate the rough waters of a new middle school, I saw that confidence came in different packages: football quarterback, cheerleader, drama queen, class president, jock and slut. Most of us that fell in-between were invisible. Being a slut seemed too high a price at the time. So I worked hard and kept to myself.
Later in high school, being a slut looked more attractive. The school had broken with tradition and elected a slut for homecoming queen. It was 1969 and sex was changing. Everyone was thinking about it, a few were doing it and everyone talked about it. Not me: I wasn’t even dating. I was still on the outskirts trying to survive the ravages of adolescent insecurity. I turned instead to writing poetry and dreaming of the perfect romance, the perfect boyfriend. My walls were filled with magazine collages of romantic interludes. I listened endlessly to ballads of unrequited and lost love. Waiting until college for the perfect boyfriend seemed appropriate. In college, the sexual revolution was in full force. There were no sluts. Virgins, like myself, kept quiet about it. It took me a full hour of heavy petting and hemming-andhawing with the first man I really loved before I could admit I was a virgin. “My God, Anna,” Dan said, sweetly restraining laughter, “I thought maybe you were dying of cancer, and just didn’t know how to tell me.” Dan was a Vietnam Vet, a poet, and an aspiring film critic. He now had a mission: candles surrounded the mattress on the floor of his small bedroom. Rose petals were artfully thrown over clean, white sheets. It was a beautiful invitation. We sweetly ended my long wait into a sexual identity of sorts. I was nineteen. Dan and I split up after a few years because I wanted more. More college, a new city, more of everything. The country moved into the glory of the women’s movement and I found it harder to find emotional peers in my men friends and sexual partners. I found myself attracted to women – our bodies fit, we were warm and comforting. Women’s hearts resounded with acceptance for me and our intellectual rigor took new heights in a very exciting time. I had found family, a village, my own tribe, and it felt like home. Fast-forward twenty years: the village grew so large it was no longer a village. People left the tribe on individual quests. My ten-year marriage to a woman had crumbled. My adopted daughter from an earlier relationship was finishing high school and experiencing her own struggles with her sexuality. I was living alone in a desert of solitude and still, finding strength, wisdom and freedom. The world had changed a lot in my growing up. As I looked around, all things physical aroused me and I wasn’t afraid. I
was only afraid of what people would think. Or was I? And so I began my journey into mid-life slut potential. Early in the year, I attended a weeklong business seminar on a dude ranch in Arizona. There was a good-looking, conflicted man in his mid-forties in the group, a Republican with three kids. After too many tequila shots, he told me he thought he had a sex addiction problem like our then-president Bill. Later, in the hot tub, I entertained being his fix for this business trip but decided against it. We saw the sun rise together and each of us went to our own dwelling. Depth of character is easier to spot as we get older and getting to the point is faster. It turns out, Mr. Conflicted is a beautiful writer and we have shared our own unique loneliness and search for truth over e-mail. We talk about settling for the familiar pattern of our own lives. We talk about getting together when we are in the same city on business. Some months later when I was in Manhattan, again on business, I wrapped my arms around a beautiful young 27-year old man while riding behind him on his motorcycle. We met the previous day on a plane in DC, which had been grounded for three hours during a magnificent lightning storm. As my hair and the light rain blew around me on that glorious Spring Sunday, I could nearly taste the verdant cherry blossoms that filled Central Park. I felt profoundly alive. Our schedules never allowed us to act on a mutual physical interest, but when at home, I found myself wondering what had actually happened. We now flirt a little on e-mail. He has a volleyball tournament here in the Bay Area soon, and I’m wondering if we will see each other. I am wondering if there will be anything to say. Last week I invited a young man to my home for dinner. He is nearly thirty, we work in the same office, and we have had several sexual liaisons over the last few months. Discreet at work, we e-mail on and off – sometimes several a day. Since I don’t really talk about him to anyone, I haven’t had to find the language. Lover is not accurate – we haven’t allowed ourselves that privilege. Sexual partner might work – like dance partner – but the image of getting tapped on the shoulder every few dances makes that one unpalatable. Friend is maybe more accurate, but enduring friendship seems unlikely too. He is eighteen years younger and we share very few mutual interests. What he does to me, though, can’t be explained. There is an athleticism of youth, an illicit lure, a
gender parity, and appreciable distance that is guarded and consequently, romantic – or is it? The ground rules of this adventure mandate romance to be entirely internal, onesided, to guard against falling into another category that neither of us has said we want. The week before, I left him sleeping in my bed when I left for work. He had complained about the sunlight that pours into my bedroom early in the morning. I quietly and carefully hang blankets over the translucent window sheers to keep the light out of his eyes. Over dinner that night, I reminded him of this small friendly gesture. There was a softness that crossed his face I had never seen. His guard had come down momentarily, and then it was gone. It is in that moment I realize the danger of being a mid-life slut. It is that I know more. I know the grand capacity of commitment, the luxury of marriage, the passion of living in intimacy with another. At that moment when his face betrays our false romanticism by being himself, a person I don’t really know and probably wouldn’t, I realize I missed all of it: those deepest of understandings that gratefully seep into a marriage over years; that light-filled wisdom of age and relationship that takes courage and discipline; and the often-taken-for-granted and delightful, emotional room to consummately relax. I missed love. When do you become a slut? As the desire builds and overflows, creating an obvious invitation to all around you? Or maybe following a series of content-less sexual encounters that leave you looking back with shame, and forward with loneliness? Or does being a slut in midlife just mean a blossoming freedom to explore the sensuality and sexuality we never dared allow ourselves when it seemed we had so much to lose? When I arrive at the office that crisp Autumn morning, those e-mails take another perspective for me: basically, fodder for writing fabulous, funny stories while I settle into my own life – the life of a single woman in her mid-life, living out loud, and trying to balance the wisdom of her age with the desires of her heart, body and soul. It is no easy task.
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