Thursday, December 29, 2022

Two Old Maids–When Sex Fails

Joanna Parsons and Esther Pilchman had been friends for over fifty years.  They grew up together, went to grade school and high school together, moved to the same town after college and were inseparable, an example of the durability of friendship. 

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Joanna was the more attractive of the two – her face, despite a longish, Breughel nose, had a pleasant symmetry which only in early middle age began to lose its tenor.  There was a noticeable sag to her eyes, her lips had thinned out to a spinsterish narrowness, and her skin had a sallow touch to it.  She, however, had learned cosmetics from her mother, always carried a travelling make-up kit with her, and was able to put off the inevitable well beyond the expected years.

She had only one serious relationship which ended badly to an engineer from Chillicothe who had tempted her with a sexual interest which she was unused to.  Well into her 40s she had lost all sense of courtship, and took her suitor’s attention for serious love when in fact he was simply looking for wealthy company in an interim period in his life.  He had been married twice before and would undoubtedly marry again, and Joanna was a pleasant, inoffensive stop along the way.  Their relationship lasted two years when he announced hat he had had enough and was off to Atlanta  to complete a liaison which had begun right under Joanna’s nose.  To add insult to injury he had finagled the finances she had entrusted to him and walked off with a good piece of her savings leaving her with only a small pension and a few thousand dollars in inheritance.   Alone again, she regretted her mistake, and sought other recourse.

Esther Pilchman was the daughter of a modestly well-off family from Far Rockaway, Queens which at the time was solidly Jewish.  So Jewish in fact, that only when she went to college did she know any Christians who, despite early attempts to be friendly and inclusive, had this thing about Jews, not anti-Semitism really, but a kind of dismissive stereotypical reaction to her nose, her New York accent, and her huge shock of untamable hair.  Crying and disconsolate after her freshman year, she asked her parents for cosmetic surgery and after a painful but not entirely unpleasant summer at a hospital-cum-spa in Bangor, she returned to school a different girl.  

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The nose of course didn’t change much other than get a few catty remarks from the big men on campus.  It wasn’t the sexual draw she thought it would be, and she spent the rest of her time alone and celibate.  The school, like many other small liberal arts colleges, had a definite liberal tilt, and she found solace and camaraderie in the academic chapter of The Young Socialists of America.  There she was among her own kind – Jewish, New York, and deeply committed to the legacy of Samuel Gompers, unionism, and anti-capitalism.  Of course this was all psychological window dressing.  Socialism was a dalliance, a legacy of her parents’ activism, and what she thought would be a means to an end – boys.  Yet the boys as a lot were unattractive, dull, and uninspiring on all fronts.

She drifted between academic options until Junior year when she declared a Psychology major.  She saw herself as a female Freud, tapping into her Talmudic roots, using menscheit and acquired Christian severity to cure the mentally ill.  She dived into her studies with vigor and enthusiasm and graduated Summa Cum Laude.  She was accepted into graduate school, and her career was launched.

Joanna Parsons had lost touch with Esther during their college years.  Joanna had gone to small, unassuming Catholic college in Maryland while Esther was making her way at one of the East Coast’s premier institutions.  Joanna graduated in the bottom third of her class, untouched by the either the Aquinian logic of her professors or the religious vocation of her classmates.  She was indifferent to religion, and went to St. Anne’s because it was one of the few which accepted her without question.  She drifted intellectually and emotionally, and graduated with little idea of what to do next; took a number of low-paying secretarial and administrative jobs, was taken in by the Chillicothe engineer, left on the curb more desperate than ever, at which time she contacted her old friend, Esther who was delighted to hear from her, invited her to stay with her in New York until the dust settled and she was back on her feet.

Saint Thomas Aquinas - My Catholic Life!

Both girls were delighted with the arrangement.  The rediscovered each other and concluded that if you become friends with someone at the age of twelve, the friendship – established before the set-in of concerns for social status and personal worth – would last a lifetime.

It is here that the real story begins.  The renewed friendship, rather than what ordinarily would have been a relationship peripheral to husband, children, and family, became the be-all and end-all of the young women’s lives.  They were too squeamish to have a lesbian relationship, but by this time they had lost interest in sex, period, and were happy enough to be in a caring, sharing accommodation.

There is something about emotional recourse – in this case the friendship of two women who had been sexually ignored and knocked about – that ends up drawn in caricature.  Joanna and Esther as time went on became old maids,, spinsterish, often bitter women.  They fussed in the apartment, moving tchotchkes and bibelots at a whim without consultation (“My dear, could you please replace that Austrian shepherd?”), listened to Brahmas by the fire, and took high tea every Sunday at four.

Not surprisingly Esther took her spinsterish ways to her clinic (by now she had become an East Side psychologist) and over the years drifted far from the Freudian straight and narrow.  She took out her resentment at ‘the male’ to personal extremes, and treated her patients with condescension and a bit of a dismissive reluctance.  Men kept coming to her, surprisingly, despite what had become an exaggerated self-serving treatment, so her practice did well if not  thrived.

Meanwhile Joanna found a job as a junior editor of a small literary journal based in Greenwich Village. Its readership, although small, was discerning and demanding, and the Editor-in-Chief came to rely on Joanna’s judgment and literary insights.  She felt comfortable in her eyeshade and tube lighted  desk, never complained about her insignificant salary, and was delighted to meet the authors who came to make a personal appeal for publication.  There was no Updike, Mailer, Roth, or Cheever among them, but she had grown accustomed to the genteel mediocrity of these Midwestern hopefuls.  She fussed with her papers, bookends, and office accoutrements just like the curios in her apartment, creating and recreating what she thought was an appropriate literary space.

John Updike on Writing and Death – The Marginalian

People said that Joanna and Esther were beginning to resemble each other the longer they lived together; and it was true that they began to share the same taste in frocks, hairdos, and shoes.  Both wore no jewelry – too forward for two now quite mature women – and seemed to be one thing, not two as they walked down the street.

They both were dutiful aunts, especially Esther who found in her brother’s children just the right surrogate family – easily kept at a distance but showered with candies, cards, and forget-me-nots on holidays. She cared little for the brother who did well at yeshiva but at nothing else, and even less for his dowdy, simpering wife; but family is family after all especially if life has not given you one of your own.

Joanna followed in the same path but had become a bit of a nuisance with her hovering insistence on ‘helping’.  Her cousin’s husband had made it clear that he was getting very tired of her importunity – she had no idea that she was loving a bit too much – but she soon got the picture and spent even more time closeted with Esther who had been read to from the same missal.

The two women spent their final days in a nursing home in Bayside as close as ever, never noticing the absence of visitors or mail.  They ended up as they had lived – alone together, fussy and spinsterish, but happy in a funny kind of way.

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