Monday, January 10, 2011

Short-a-Day: Helen Schulman's "I Am Seventy-Five"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 96.

So much for discovering the joys of homoeroticism today. She was alive and alone with a mess to clean up, story of her life.

That's the voice of the wonderful seventy-five-year-old Lily Weilerstein, who, after stumbling upon her recently dead husband's secret sex diaries, has decided that she needs to get laid. Schulman spends the first six pages clarifying Lily's life with Walter, and her current loneliness -- all of her children and grandchildren are elsewhere. Though it's a third-person narrative, Schulman, much like Jonathan Franzen, infuses a lot of attitude into the character through the careful selection of actions and adjectives: "She sat down at the kitchen table, knocking the fat brown calico cat, Buster, off his smug little square of sunshine," or "She was searching the high shelves for one of Walter's gray cashmere v-neck sweaters, actually thinking the stupid soft thing might smell like him and give her comfort--what a moron! She had been grieving for him." (Bold emphasis mine.)

It occurs to me that without these first six pages, the story would still work, picking up with this excellent bit: "The morning of Lily's first and last Italian class [at the 92nd Street Y, where she can cruise for sex], she had a wake-up call in the shower. She realized she could hold her candle in the looks department!" But at the same time, Schulman's writing is so rich that I don't mind the additional details: this is how you enrich a story, and while the second half is clearly more action-based, I wonder if it would have had the same effect if I had not already lived inside the slower memories of the first section.

All the foreplay of the story -- rich descriptions of Lily meticulously grooming and dressing herself -- even leads to a decent climax, a surprising one that must have taken Schulman a bit by surprise herself. As she's about to have a panic attack, the ceiling above her bursts: her upstairs neighbor's uncle, Irv Weinstock's water bed had leaked into the plaster and eroded the structure. Nor does Schulman go the easy route with Irv: though she offers sex, she rescinds the invitation after he rambles about how he's from Florida, how he's depressed because he was one of the old people who fumbled the ballot and wound up electing W in 2000. (And there have been undercurrents of politics and retirement in Florida throughout the story, so this isn't entirely out of left field.) Instead, she sleeps with the superintendent, whose name she can't pronounce:

Mr. Ah-me-gush-it-ted having entered her from behind, one hand stroking her clitoris, the other cupped around her breast, Lily had felt the need to cry out: "Oh Walter! How could you have forsaken me!" But he was so gone, Walter. He was so dead. So instead, Lily's cri de coeur came out as a big fat satisfying moan of ecstasy.

Now that's how you end a story!

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