Who knew there was anything left to write about sex that could shock? But then, not many writers have addressed the subject of sex between those in their advancing years. In a world where sexual images are often those of healthy young adults, these compelling short stories by New York psychiatrist Arlene Heyman are refreshingly original, funny and sometimes confronting.
In the opening story ‘The Loves of Her Life’, a sixty-five-year old woman describes in great detail sex with her 70-year-old husband. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Marianne’s sex life but it’s without the spontaneity or romance of sex often portrayed in media – that it’s all rather planned, seems to be her chief complaint. “Would you like to make love?” calls out Marianne’s husband Stu in the first sentence of the book. “Couldn’t he be even a little seductive, instead of asking for sex as if he were asking for a game of tennis?” says Marianne.
Planning is necessary for Marianne and Stu though, because they must time their sex life around their various medications – for her acid reflux meds for digestive issues and for him, the Viagra must kick in before he can get started. Then there’s the aesthetic side of things that Heyman describes with such precise, even humorous, detail. From Marianne’s point of view, both of them are sagging and unsightly. “He came in naked and she remembered again why she did not like to make love in the daytime. She joked sometimes that no one over forty should be allowed to make love in the daytime.”
But perhaps the most interesting element of Marianne’s narrative is that she can’t keep her mind solely on the present – throughout the sexual episode with Stu, she’s frequently distracted by meandering thoughts of her deceased first husband. Fantasising about past loves during sex is no doubt a realistic feature of a long and full life and it’s likely that Heyman’s experience as a psychiatrist has informed some of these fascinating stories.
Despite the title though, not all the stories in Scary Old Sex address sex between seniors and there’s much more to this book than the shock value of graphic sex. There’s the funny – and sad – story of a middle-aged doctor called up by his father’s mistress in the middle of the night. The father (also a doctor) has died suddenly and the bewildered son is forced to fix up the mess. In another story, there’s a married artist in his fifties trying to cope with a relationship with a much younger woman. When he finds her with a man closer to her own age, he devastates them both by quitting the relationship. And the story of a woman dealing with her 99-year-old mother in a nursing home isn’t so much about sex, than about the humiliating betrayal of our bodies and minds.
In the most moving story in this collection, entitled Dancing, a young boy distractedly looks out the window of his Manhattan college as the Twin Towers collapse. Winding his way up the west side to his sick father’s hospital room, he finds the courage to clutch the hand of the girl he has a crush on. The narrative shifts to his mother and father’s story – and some moving scenes of intimacy between a loving wife and her dying husband. Even while her husband suffers the terrible effects of chemotherapy, she describes being consumed with jealousy when one of his attractive old friends pays a visit to his hospital bed:
“Pain. And anger at herself for feeling the pain, the same old pain, whether warranted or not. So she still has energy for jealousy, that waste of emotion, that green-eyed monster… One gets over nothing in this life.”
Arlene Heyman is herself 74-years-old so it’s surprising to hear that this is her debut book, such is the subtle wit and deftness of her short story writing. The book has been receiving rave reviews from critics round the world including a review in The New York Times describing Heyman as “so rueful and funny and observant”. While the UK Independent says, “The punning title of this debut collection of tales nicely sums up its themes: sex can be scary, when it involves emotional intimacy, and the thought of older people having sex often scares younger ones.”
Arlene Heyman is the recipient of Woodrow Wilson, Fulbright, Rockefeller, and Robert Wood Johnson Fellowships. Her short stories have appeared in The New American Review and she won Epoch magazine’s novella contest. She’s been listed twice in the honour rolls of Best American Short Stories. Heyman is a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst practicing in New York City, where she lives with her husband. She is currently at work on a novel.
Scary Old Sex is published in Australia by Bloomsbury in March 2016. To purchase a copy or find our more click here