In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Tired of seeing the same frowning, haglike face in the mirror every morning? Plastic surgeons have gathered here to discuss the latest in lifting sagging lips, plumping up puny ones, and fixing “witch’s chin.”
— The Arizona Republic
Mariette tells me we still have beautiful legs, both of us, even if our faces have gone to seed. I am fifty. She is fifty-three and not from this country. A few minutes ago, I was driving into town to a friend’s to decorate Easter eggs when I saw Mariette walking along the road. At first, I didn’t recognize her. She was dressed in brown tights, a cherry pink top, and a turquoise headband, and there was clear mountain light all around her. She looked wonderful. I was jealous.
Passing her, I realized who she was. She’s too poor to own a car and she often walks the five miles into town to do her shopping. She had made herself up beautifully, in that subtle way European women have. I beeped. She ignored me. I turned around to get her.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. “You didn’t have to stop.”
“True,” I said.
“I’m glad you did,” she said. “There are lots of assholes on this road.”
“You look wonderful,” I said. “I am so jealous of your legs.”
“Thanks,” she said. And that was when she told me we both have beautiful legs.
“Let me tell you a story,” she says. She cracks open the window, lights a cigarette, and delicately aims the smoke outside. Not once, while she talks, does she turn to look at me.
“I had just turned fifty,” she says quietly. “My daughter in Atlanta had given birth to her third child, and I was helping out. As I walked to the mall to buy some diapers, a truck came up behind me in the parking lot. The driver was going slow and saying dirty things, but his voice was so gentle that he was turning me on. I was wearing tights and one of those big shirts that hide everything but your legs. Finally, he drove past me. He was young and cute, a carpenter maybe, one of those guys. When he saw my face, he gave me this ugly, ugly look and flipped me, you know, the third finger.”
I shake my head.
“Right then,” Mariette says, “I was gone as a woman — gone until the day I die.”
Though Mariette and I both live in the same half-acre collection of cabins, trailers, and sheds a few miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona, we have not talked much until today. We are two of only three women in the place. The third is Darlene, a twenty-eight-year-old Paiute-Chicana who works at Millie’s Cafe and does manicures on the side, unlicensed. Darlene has some interesting views on men and sex. For example, if she’s going to fuck a guy, he’s got to have a car and a job, and if he doesn’t make her come the first time, she just doesn’t answer the phone for a few days. Inevitably, the guy disappears.
“I can tell right away,” Darlene always says. “If they don’t have willpower in the sack, they haven’t got it anywhere else.”
All our other neighbors are men around middle age. On the rare occasions when Mariette, Darlene, and I meet by the community shower house, we compare notes on the lovelies the fellows have over. Once, Mariette and I wanted to bet on the average age difference between guy and girlfriend, but Darlene said it would only make us more bitter to see the truth in round figures: Amy is twenty-three, to Rick’s forty; the redhead is thirty, to Dale’s fifty; and, cruelest of all, Tina Rae is twenty-seven, to the sober doper’s fifty-seven — thirty goddamn years.
“Life on life’s terms,” Darlene calls it. They all talk like that at her self-esteem meetings. It’s a small price to pay for no longer waking up next to strangers and counting the bruises on her round, dark arms.
She once told Mariette and me how bummed she used to get after a breakup. “It felt like sitting on your paralyzed butt, looking down a tunnel, and the light at the end of the tunnel is the Midnight Express . . . coming right for you.”
“It sounds a lot like turning fifty to me,” Mariette said.
“Don’t talk about that!” Darlene said, which is what she always says whenever the topic comes up. “I’m not going to think about being fifty till I get there.”
“You turn around, darling,” Mariette said, in her throaty Latvian or Belgian or who-knows-what accent, “and you are there.”
Mariette leans back and puts her feet up on the dashboard. I open my window. Spring is cooking the sap out of the pine trees. We take deep breaths.
“So foolish, so sentimental,” she says. “When I smell those trees, I could be twelve again. We would go to a tiny lake in the mountains. The summer evenings were so long. We would sit by the lake, my father pretending to fish, my mother doing nothing — just sitting, watching him. Those were the only times I saw her sit still, even when she was an old woman. There was always something in her hands, always something to keep her occupied — but not at the lake.”
“Do you think she worried about losing her looks?” I ask.
Mariette laughs, a cold, ancient sound. “The war came,” she says, “and then we were refugees. And then . . .”
I don’t know what to say. I’m pulling into the shopping center, so I ask, “You going to the supermarket?”
“I’ll get back OK,” she says.
“I didn’t ask if you’d get back OK,” I say. “I asked if you were going to the supermarket.”
“I am. I don’t need much: potatoes, some milk. I can carry everything.”
I park next to a brand-new cherry red Bronco. A blonde swings out of the driver’s seat wearing day-glo aerobics gear, her hair pulled back under a visor. Two cute kids scramble out of the back, and they all bounce into the store.
“No,” I say, “I’ll take you back. I want to talk some more.”
“You have something to do, yes?”
I remember the Easter eggs. “I’ll call my friend,” I say. “I hate Easter anyhow.”
“Yes,” Mariette says vaguely, “it was a witches’ holiday, but it got all turned around.” She lights another cigarette. “Spring, fertility — that is Easter. The bunny is not about cute; it is about fucking.”
I laugh, watching normal life go on outside the truck. I like being in this movie where a gorgeous, silver-haired witch is telling me about holy sex.
“Did you see that mother?” Mariette asks. Her smile is pure European twenties film star. “I used to look just like her, except my breasts were more beautiful.”
Mariette sticks out her chest. Even without a bra, even with what gravity and nursing four kids have done, she is impressive.
“They still are,” I say with a laugh.
She pulls up her shirt. It’s eleven in the morning in the middle of the busiest shopping center in West Flagstaff on Wednesday, the day bonus coupons are in effect. I look at her breasts: ivory bells with dark nipples and silvery stretch marks against pale skin. I think of the moon, how its surface is scarred, yet perfect.
“Mariette,” I say, “they’re beautiful. You should see mine.”
“Go ahead,” she says, “show me.” Her voice is harsh. “No one will bother to notice two old hags.” Her green eyes stare into mine.
I remember once driving the lake road back from my ex-lover’s, when he was still my lover. A young eagle dropped out of the sky and raced alongside my truck, his wings pure light between me and the dawn-dark trees. Somehow I kept the truck on the road while I looked out the window and studied the bird’s cold, bright eye for what felt like hours.
Mariette’s eyes are the same. I look away, at people schlumping along, cars and trucks pulling in and out of spaces, the bag boy gathering a dozen carts. A raven perches on a light pole and screams.
“No,” I say, “I can’t do that.”
“Gone,” she says, “both of us. Every woman our age — disappeared until the day we die.”
“Mariette,” I say, “go buy your groceries. I’ll wait for you.”
“OK,” she says. “Thanks.”
She pulls down her shirt and climbs out. I bend to put a tape in the deck. When I sit up, Mariette is waiting by my door. She taps on my window. I roll it down.
“A hag,” she says, “was once a holy woman.” And she smiles.
I watch her walk away, her perfect dancer’s legs, her straight back, her pewter curls escaping from the knot at the back of her head. If I were a man, I would fall at her feet.
I sit alone in the truck. The raven flops down, scavenges what’s left of a bag of Doritos. I close my eyes. Mariette’s scent lingers: Belgian perfume, expensive; the last gift her last lover gave her. Once a day, just after dawn, she puts one drop at the pulse in her throat.
“For me,” she says. “Otherwise, I will forget.”
In response to John Y. Torres’s letter in the April 1997 issue, in which he asks, “Would [Sojourner] marry a man who was destitute? Would she work to support him?”: I wouldn’t marry anybody. I see marriage as an attempt to freeze time, a way to infantilize both parties. I have loved many men, all but one of them raggedy-ass hippies and anarchists, poets and musicians, Earth First! troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells. I’m deeply proud of that record. I’ve supported more than one lover. More important, many of my lovers and I have shared our poverty equally.
I live in a cabin with no running water and a wood stove for heat, with the astonishing forest at my doorstep. As time goes on, I own less and less. The one quality in a man that absolutely repulses me is wealth. Any man who’s got more than he needs to live on should give it away. That Range Rover, that Rolex, that first, second, or third TV is somebody else’s food, shelter, or medical care.
Women who want rich men get what they deserve. As far as personal loneliness goes, in it I find the fuel for my politics, the heart for my writing. And the men who look past my aging face, who cannot see my fire and beauty — they get what they deserve, as well.
In response to Mary Sojourner’s story “Hag” [November 1996]: I am tired of reading about how unfair it is that men are attracted only to young, beautiful women. It’s absolutely true, of course; a woman’s desirability is determined by her looks. But that tells only one side of the story. A man’s attractiveness is unfairly determined by how much money he has. Both are superficial ways to judge somebody, but that’s life.
Since youth is beauty, and wealth generally comes with age, desirability slowly passes from women to men over our lifetimes. At age thirty-five to forty it probably reaches equilibrium, more or less, but after age forty, women cry, “No fair!”
Sojourner is quick to point out what jerks men are for pursuing a woman based on looks alone, but would she marry a man who was destitute? Would she work to support him?
As I am in early haghood, I very much appreciated Mary Sojourner’s “Hag” [November 1996]. I have had experiences similar to her character’s. It’s always insulting when men are attracted to me from a distance, only to be disappointed on closer view. Generally, however, I am enjoying the relatively new freedom of not giving a damn. Sex appeal of that sort caused me more grief than it was worth.
I met Sojourner about five years ago at a convention of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. The rarefied mountain air at the convention site was frigid, and there was a dusting of snow on the ground, but Sojourner camped out anyway, rather than staying at the inn with the rest of us. She was a big, warm-hearted, beautiful woman with wild, dark hair and a captivating voice. She inspired us, reinforced our commitment to the preservation of the wilderness, and, most of all, showed us how formidable we Great Old Broads can be.