WE ALWAYS LOOKED GOOD AT airports. We had style and our luggage was suitably battered. Even after air travel became cheaper, democratizing the quality of passengers, we still wore killer heels and tight jeans with silk tops. For us, airports were among those places -- cafe's, chalets, cabarets -- where we felt required to perform. We saw such environments as opportunities for expanding our experiences or improving our situations. At the very least, they were launch pads for adventures.
We used to fear flying, but that changed. Afterward, we trotted through airline terminals, transmitting our messages via the coded clickings of our high heels on the granite or marble floors. These sophisticated signals could be picked up and decoded only by special agents -- men with sufficient imagination to perceive and participate in the little dramas we felt compelled to stage. Deciphering our code required affluence and a keen familiarity with most of America's serious films and novels. (This is not to say that wimps and nerds did not attach themselves to us. They did. We were usually gracious in our dismissal of them, unless, of course, we had time to kill over a couple of drinks and saw no special agents around.)
We liked to visit hot countries and consort with men who wore white suits. Although terrified of customs officials, we tried to act like travelers, never tourists. We liked to believe that once we arrived somewhere, we were just there. We loved photogenic islands replete with reptiles and exotic flowers. Unaware of any cancer danger, we tanned as much of ourselves as feasible for as long a time as possible. We were always keen to discuss the Common Market, disarmament and revolutions in South America.
We slept with strangers whenever we felt like it -- or when we deemed it necessary due to insomnia, intoxication, an old grudge or an inability to say no. At certain periods, we were highly prone to panic attacks -- an ethic disorder common to Type A's such as ourselves. Sleeping with strangers was one of our homeopathic cures for anxiety. Unfamiliar hotel rooms provided a focus for our formless fears. D URING THE '50s, because we couldn't think of anything else to do, we married, and fervently embraced the institution that allowed us to abuse ourselves, antagonize our husbands, indulge our lovers and spoil our children. None of us married for money. Except Madeleine. She did twice. We never wondered why -- only how she managed it. Since we prefer to live hand to mouth rather than 9 to 5, most of us didn't think about money when we chose our mates. This was strange because we'd always heard it's just as easy to love a rich man as a poor one. When Steffie returned home with a half-carat, emerald-cut diamond engagement ring, her mother looked at it and said, "May none of your troubles be bigger."
Marriage was the theater into which we introduced the various versions of our selves. We designed the sets, cast the characters, wrote the scripts, directed the actors and oversaw the productions. When our first marriages ended, it was like being flung off Broadway in the middle of a long-running play.
Most of our husbands eventually ended up in Who's Who, but we were seldom mentioned, except as: "He is married to the former blah-blah and has three children." The fact is that none of us have accomplished half of what we were capable of doing. We squandered our expensive educations, took volunteer or part-time jobs and toyed with our talents.
As a group, we are proficient at making scenes in public and have developed quite a repertoire. Indeed, we were the ones who developed the anguished dialogue so accurately transcribed by Joan Didion, Renata Adler and Ann Beattie. Sukie, who writes quite successful novels, keeps a wonderful file of such scenes. She has them alphabetized in manila folders marked "Breaking Up" or "Wild Parties" or "Fabulous Fights in Public Places." We channel her a lot of material.
Over the years, we have had our share of illegal abortions. Carol leads with eight. She had one in Cuba before the revolution and one after. During the '50s some of us paid as much as $2,500 for an abortion. Donna was given general anesthesia but later discovered she had not been aborted after all. She named the baby after herself and then gave her away for adoption. Some of us died from sloppy procedures. Nowadays we accompany our daughters downtown to "pre-term" clinics, then take them out for a special lunch.
We took the births of our babies casually. We had them before there were natural childbirth classes geared to husband participation. For us, there were no trendy home deliveries with 20-year-old midwives playing folk songs on home-strung guitars while we counted contractions among colorful pillows on our marriage beds. When we gave birth we were simply taken into labor rooms, shaved, given enemas and allowed to expel our babies.
None of us had a lot of children. Three were plenty. Four was our limit unless you counted stepchildren. Shamefully, we prayed for sons instead of daughters. Few of our marriages lasted long enough to create large families, although some of them occurred early enough to turn us into grandmothers at 40.
After we had our babies, we went to beaches a lot. Even before they went to kindergarten, our children learned reading from T-shirts. When it wasn't summer, we took random jobs, worked for unsuccessful political candidates, wrote sporadically, read prodigiously, smoked, drank and did drugs. While most of our children turned out amazingly well, our first marriages usually failed. We struggled with our first husbands (our "biological" husbands, we called them, since we are blood related to them -- through our children), never very clear about the subject of our quarrels. Compulsive grievance collectors, we marred our marriages with melodrama. Invariably, our husbands felt that our trial separations worked out fine. After our first divorces, we began to marry each other's former husbands because there weren't any more fresh special agents hanging around.
We learned a lot from our lovers. We learned to speak authoritatively about the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, the PGA, the USLTA and even the WBA or the WBC. We learned how to duck under the swinging mast of a sailboat, when to pull the ripcord on a parachute and how to handicap horses. You name it; we could fake it. Some of us became proficient athletes. We played a lot of tennis in hot climates and went water-skiing, mountain climbing, trekking, jogging, body surfing, deep-sea fishing and hang gliding. We crossed oceans and mountains in jets as well as in single-engine planes. We swam at beaches all around the world and drove along dangerous roads in strange countries with drunken drivers during stormy weather to isolated places for obscure reasons. We attended bullfights in Mexico and came home through customs carrying bloodstained souvenir bandarillos in our hands and amphetamines in the hollowed-out heels of our summer sandals.
We have read and written lots of books about people like us and the way we live now.
In retrospect, most of our favorite writers turn out to have been fervent feminists. We love Colette (and also her second husband, who locked her in a room each day until she wrote a certain number of pages) and Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf (and also her suicide -- the way she walked into the river justlikethat). We like novels such as My Old Sweetheart and Play It as It Lays and Speedboat and Sleepless Nights.
"We don't need husbands," Cynthia once said. "What we need are editors." She neglected to mention that we could also have used road managers, salad chefs, certified accountants, fashion consultants, private auto mechanics and other support staff. It was Cynthia who also said that the only staff she ever had was the infectious kind.
Since most of the books we love are about women like us, many of us began writing fiction. We found this career quite suitable since writing didn't tie us down, didn't require attendance at an office, and could be conducted off-season during off-hours in an offhand sort of way. At the very least, writing could be used as an answer when someone asked: "And what do you do?" ("About what?" Alice used to reply before becoming an author.)
Unfortunately, narratives are difficult for us because our extravagant escapades are dramatic but essentially episodic. Since art is supposed to imitate reality -- and our lives don't have much structure -- most of our books are weak in the plot department. Our novels never have a neat progression of events that conclude in an appropriate crisis followed by a denouement.
All of us want our novels to be superior to those obviously contrived, superpower spy thrillers that invariably become best sellers. Actually, we just want to know about each other's lives right now and how we're doing at the moment. Since we seldom communicate with each other by mail, we publish novels or write magazine articles about our current circumstances so as to stay in touch.
Unfortunately, most of our spiritual lives are stagnant. Although some of us believe in Liberation Theology, and Charlotte is a leader in the Sanctuary Movement, most of us just use our religions as metaphors in our fiction. Judaism became a joke, Catholicism a crutch, the Anglican church a conceit, and some evangelical sect a required chapter in any southern or black novels we produced.
Politically, we were -- and still are -- on the far left. Each of us can remember what she was doing on the day the Rosenbergs were executed. We all believed in nationalist revolutions, in the impeding of imperial powers and in the integrity of the individual. Period. End of political report. On the other hand, although we often turned up with different men, we went every four years to Democratic national conventions. We were all Democrats unless, of course, there was some reform ticket on the ballot.
During some periods we devoted ourselves to protest or poverty groups housed in ramshackle buildings on the wrong sides of towns. Lavish with our time and energies, we would spend several furiously active years working for one of those doomed projects that always fizzled out long before we would have abandoned it. Sometimes in later years, we panicked about our left-wing pasts when coming home from abroad. We always feared our names would be listed in that big black loose-leaf "look-out" passport control notebook.
We weren't a clique or a crowd. We were a generation -- although we didn't think that way. Some of us can be identified by the permanent silver bracelets we wear around our wrists, pale raised keloid scars of unsuccessful suicide attempts. The words meditation and medication sound almost exactly alike; we preferred pills -- such as Valium, Librium and Percodan. A good number of us have been shrunk, and then stretched out again. Our hearts and minds and faces have been lifted in various ways. Such improvements have produced a certain elasticity and cockiness. We believed ourselves to be the best and the brightest women of our times.
WE WERE BORN in the 1930s to parents who named most of us Barbara, Judith, Joan or Sharon. Later, when they became affluent, they spoiled us rotten because we were their Depression babies. Most of us lived in middle-sized cities; only a minority were from New York or rural areas.
Regardless of where we were born, we eventually gravitated toward New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. We thought there were only five zip -- and maybe seven area -- codes worth memorizing in the entire country and that suburbs were like Indian reservations for our culturally deprived parents.
Most of us had seductive fathers who became rich and powerful and bought Buicks after World War II. Our mothers were housewives who were emphatically conventional. They belonged to Ladies Auxiliaries, mah-jongg groups, PTAs and canasta or country clubs; every year they collected for the March of Dimes. We inherited a lot of their energy, but little of their reticence. Both our older and younger sisters married before we did and our brothers went to law school.
As grown-up Depression Babies, we suffered from a) moodiness, and b) financial insecurity. We were mildly depressed all of our lives and felt deprived regardless of what we achieved. Although tutored to expect entitlement, we were never quite certain what was rightfully ours. An obsolete, but indelible, depressed currency exchange was forever engraved in our minds. We always felt that a dollar was real money; $10,000 sounded like lira to us.
Some of us became successful, but -- like a mentholated cigarette -- success failed to satisfy. Failure felt more familiar -- intense, evocative and engrossing. Success seemed limited and finite. Anyway, it usually arrived so late that the proceeds went directly to some bursar's office for our kids' college tuition.
We are a generation of Type A females who disregard all risks and use birth control pills, cigarettes and alcohol at the same time. Plus diet pills. We were never slim enough. We wanted there to be a space to see through between our thighs when we stood on sandy beaches. There seldom was, and our weight fluctuations tormented us. We gained and lost the same 10 pounds decade after decade.
Over the years we have belonged to local chapters of the National Society for the Survivors of Suicides, the Sierra Club, AA, ADA, the AMA, ABA, ACLU, AAUP, YSPL, SDA, NAACP, WIW, SNCC, Amnesty International, Weight Watchers, Displaced Homemakers, Smokenders and NOW. When we attend international conferences, it's always as NGOs. Eventually we'll join the Older Women's League (OWL) and the Gray Panthers.
We were such good friends. Really. We still are.
We gathered for the funerals of our loved ones as well as weddings, divorces, separations, births, miscarriages, graduations, breakdowns, hysterectomies and publishing parties. We came early and stayed late to help each other. We loved to stay up all night, drinking wine and smoking, telling each other the same old stories about ourselves over and over again.
In the mornings, we liked to sit in each other's kitchens so we'd be near the coffeepot, the liquor, the food and the telephone while we talked about what we were going to be. Oh, how many times have we sat around a beat-up wooden table, covered with crumbs and half-filled coffee cups, struggling for some kind of life-clarifying illumination? How many times have we felt the affluence of early-morning sunlight warming our faces, settling a crust upon the cream in its blue chipped pitcher and softening butter in its pudgy white dish, while we talked and talked and talked? How many times have we looked at a flowered sugar bowl, jeweled with fallen granules sparkling around its neck, and wondered why our lives seemed disappointing, why friends faded, lovers paled, and dreams dimmed?
But also on many mornings we felt ourselves grow high with hope and swell with excitement about the future and our still-inarticulated dreams. When we sat in Bethany's old kitchen with its scarred linoleum floor and scratched steel cabinets, we always felt that we could write a perfect novel, paint a perfect picture or cure a dread disease. High on coffee and hope, we came to believe that our families would flourish and that our loves would last. But often, when we tried to separate ourselves from that sweet kitchen intimacy, it would be hard to leave. We would want to stay right there forever. And when we finally returned home, to small apartments filled with the stale smell of our own absence, the rich sense of power would often evaporate and, once again, we would feel unable to create the things we dreamed about.
Although we still discuss what we want to be, what we're going to be is 50 by the end of the '80s. Half of us get hot flashes already. At the moment we're all doing fairly well. Although our nests have been depopulated, they are not completely empty. We still have our kids' old dogs growing incontinent on our worn-out carpeting. We are not the sort who go gently into that dark night and besides we have not yet finished the ironing. When we die there will still be three thrice-dampened cotton shirts waiting in their yellow plastic laundry basket.
Since we've long had the middle-class habit of giving our old party dresses to our cleaning ladies, at the last possible moment we will probably donate some of our used organs to the nearest hospital. One thing is perfectly clear: We have all decided upon closed-coffin funerals. If for any reason the coffins must be open, we want to be buried with our sunglasses on.