I think of the days in Utila, a small island off of the coast of Honduras, where in 2014 I spent three months. I was in my fifties, still fuckable, but I knew I was on the cusp, recognized that one life was almost over; soon to be over, the life of the rapturous undoing of myself; but the seeking, strong desire that had a grip on me for years was still in full force that summer. In the world of psychoanalysis, it is understood that such a stranglehold of need can be traced back to early maternal deprivation—think of an infant in need, never satisfied, never receiving “enough.” This leads to an adult life of, in my case, the search for more, more and more. I always wanted more love.
I had three lovers in those three months on the island. One guy in his late twenties, who bragged that he was ready to “rock my world.” He had to leave the island at sunrise. When I woke, I found a note and bags and bags of marijuana. He couldn’t take the herb through customs. There was enough marijuana for three more months! There was the Israeli bartender, so tender and world-weary, knowing how to kiss for hours. There was the local guy who picked me up each morning to ferry me in his flat-bottom boat out to an island—a cay— where we would smoke dope, and he’d charm me with is patois and his brown shoulders and calloused hands. He used a machete to break open coconuts and had me drink the thin warm milk. He swam naked with me through the coral canyons around the island.
Then there were the following years when something began to go wrong with me, inside of me. It is hard to know exactly when the wrong began. Maybe three years after my stay on Utila. I was so tired all the time. I went to a personal trainer. I felt worse. I went to a therapist. I didn’t get better. I went to an endocrinologist. I took thyroid pills. I took Estrodial. Nothing stopped the progress of what would turn out to be Multiple Sclerosis. Twice I’d fallen on my way to my classroom. I considered suicide, even signed myself in to an ER because of my depression. I had a sense of doom.
I called my friend in the Berkshires and asked her to rent me a house, to do it right away, any house. The university got a substitute for my classes. I took a leave of absence from the university—where I taught creative writing—and arrived in the Berkshires in the dead of winter.
It was spring when I had what I thought of as my last hoorah. He was much younger and our attraction was intense. I met him a few weeks after I’d arrived in the small college town in the Berkshires. I didn’t see him again until the season of winter was melting into spring. Friends were having a bonfire, and I stopped by and there he was. I grabbed a beer and sat next to him. Over the hours of the evening, I moved my Adirondack chair closer and closer to his; finally, touching his, and even later I moved onto his lap. By the time we looked around, we were all alone with the fire and the sun was rising. We went to my rented house where we saw sunset and then another sun rising together. This would be how things went for a long time.
He was a farmer, and a part-time studio tech in the art department of the college. He helped artists put up exhibits, helped them stretch canvases, hammered when things needed to be hammered. But he didn’t think of himself as arty; he thought of himself as a farmer. The college job was just to make some money in between the fallow season. I didn’tI really understood what that meant. He grew up in a tiny town next to the college town, and I did begin to discern the serious divide between the town and gown. I was a writer and English prof who didn’t yet know I had MS. Doctors were still trying to sort it out. In the meantime, I was seeing myself as playing a part in some sort of movie—where two disparate souls come together and live happily ever after.
Going under, that’s what I felt all year, the year I held the farmer man tightly because I was being swept away, pulled under, by fatigue and fear, sheer panic. I thought maybe I had leukemia. One doctor said thyroid deficiency. Another said anemia.
In the meantime, I loved the man so fiercely that I think I scared the hell out of him. His mother hated me, told him I’d put a sex spell on him. He was quite mad for me. But he’d never been crazy before—at first he was thrilled, then he was frightened. He wanted his old life back—his Lazy-Boy and tv, he explained. His routine.
He left me.
After he’d gone, my calendar filled up with appointments—the endocrinologist, the gynecologist, the psychopharmacologist, the neurologists. Tests and tests were performed on me.
Inside the MRI machines, I’d think of what the long drink of water of a boyfriend had told me over our months together—he said he’d been waiting for me for a long, long time. He said that when he’d be on his tractor, going row by row until the sun went down, that he was willing me to come to him. He hadn’t met me yet, but when he touched me on the night of the bonfire, he knew the wait was over.
A year later this easy-going guy stood on the porch and yelled—He didn’t want to go to art openings or to hear writers read from their works. He said he had to get back home,and do what he’d been doing before he met me; he’d go back to driving the back roads of Vermont and keeping track of the bulls and cows while also tending the fields.
That was that.
After the farmer left me, I got sick with sadness. I wanted to die.
My focus turned inward. I’m not sure if my protracted period of grief was solely over the loss of the man or if I mourned for the loss of who I’d never be again. The lover. Someone who put sex spells on men. The sorrow was stunning. I had to use techniques to stop the brain loop. I’d keep a rubber band on my wrist to give myself a pop to stop the going over the details of the affair, my search for the exact moment the fault line gave in and the man fell from me, leaving an absence that felt as if an appendage had been amputated. I suspect now that it was a combination—a sadness at aging, at the loss of the job I had to retire from because of my disease. Sorrow for the myriad and many losses—for the house in Houston that I loved but had to sell, for the career I’d loved but had to give up.
MS has eaten up my desire. I’m numb—literally numb from my waist down I can’t feel my stomach. You could poke me with a pin, which the neurologists do, and I can’t feel a thing. I can’t feel the top of my thighs or the back of my calves. My balance has been compromised so my dancing days are over.
But the good part is I don’t think about how I look, the outside world is not my mirror,. The whole rigamarole that had made up a good part of my life. It had been fun. Exciting. Dramatic. And very draining. It is not too much to say that becoming “merely Marsha” was in some ways a relief. And in some ways a much more authentic way to live.
Last weekend my friend Gary brought friends into town with him—a married couple from Greece. Molena and Paris—in their forties, I think. She is slim, graceful, and her accent delicious. He had a way of doubling over when he laughed; he’d make a hilarious giggle snort when we made him laugh. You wanted to delight the man, just to get another reaction of his whole face engaged in humor.
I liked them so much. I wanted to feed them. I wanted them to sleep well. I wanted them to feel cared for, taken care of, nurtured and calmed—they’d had a long trip, they were tired.
After they’d left, Gary texted me that Molena said I was beautiful and interesting and that I should be with someone.
I was certain I would never again “be with someone.” I was now someone who enjoyed caring for guests, caring for my friends, caring.
Later I got another text from Gary that said he’s friends proclaimed me to be—pretty, and amazing company, and kind.
They had recognized my hospitality as kindness. I’d given them cream and strong Louisiana coffee; “Sunshine” muffins from Wild Oats; fresh towels and provided handmade—“Relaxing Eucalyptus” soap from the Farmer’s Market on Spring Street. I gave them soft lighting and a tour of my studio.
I realized that yes, yes, I strive to be kind. This is what happened to me when I sat still and let life happen to me instead of trying to make life happen.
I don’t think I’d ever been described before as kind. I thought that there were all those years, those yearning years, those years of make-up, heels, and the art of the seduction—I thought how important it had been to be thought pretty. I feel ridiculous, embarrassed to admit this. But perhaps there is something important in the way I’ve had to come to grips with this disease. I’ve become liberated prematurely from the absolute tyranny of pretty. I want to be kind. And interesting. And good company.
The word “enough” comes to mind. I"d never understood what that was, exactly.. My father would warn us—when my brother and I would act in ways he couldn’t tolerate—the noise and confusion of us being .too wild, too giddy, too silly, too loud would anger him. He would say—”OK. Enough is enough. That’s enough.” I couldn’t understand what this meant. Why I couldn’t be all those things. I’d grow into someone who never ever felt as if enough was enough. There was an engine in my being, and I had my foot on the pedal and I was gunning it,
Then this full-throttled living came to a halt. Over the nine years of my illness, I’ve been surprised that I’ve come to enjoy this still life. Where I paint. Where I ponder. Where I bring in friends and welcome them, treat them with kindness.
It was always a question of what is enough. Why couldn’t I ever get enough? How does one ever know when enough is enough?
I think I know now.