The Viagra Diaries
Van Gogh’s Starry Night blows my mind. God, it’s something, swirling stars, wild emotions, and vibrant colors. Wow, there’s nothing like art.
Anyway, my name is Anny Applebaum. I’m sixty-five and I write a seniors’ lifestyle column for the San Francisco Times. I’m at the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art, taking notes for my next column. I usually write about restaurants, gyms, social events, stuff like that, but I’m hoping a column about art will be more inspiring.
It’s getting late, so I hurry down the flight of stairs, into the huge marble lobby with all these terrific Calders swinging around, and rush outside. It’s raining like crazy and I lost my umbrella so I make a run for it, careful not to fall in my four-inch, leather, high-heel boots. It’s rush hour and people are
opening umbrellas, hurrying onto streetcars. God, the city is beautiful, all these hills surrounding the bay. A native, I never get tired of the city. It’s like living inside one of those little glass balls you shake up.
By now I’m soaked, walking along the sides of the buildings to Union Square, thinking I’ll get the next bus home, but the rain is harder and lightning streaks the sky. I hurry into a café, deciding to stay there until the storm stops.
The café is small and cozy. A few people sit at tables, working on their laptops. I take off my coat and fedora, shaking out the rain, and sit next to the window. I order a cup of coffee, thinking I’ll take notes for tomorrow’s column, but my cell phone rings. It’s my editor, Monica. I’ve been a columnist at the paper for five years and she rarely calls, so I know something must be up. “Hello,” I exuberantly say.
“Bad news,” Monica says quickly, before I get a word in. She’s on speakerphone, and I can picture her smoking a cigarette. “Sales are down big-time at the paper.”
“Tomorrow’s column is going to be great,” I quickly say in my most assuring tone. “I’m writing about van Gogh and that the museum is a place for seniors to—”
“Anny, our seniors are in diapers. They don’t know from van Gogh. There’s no market for seniors. Unless you find some new angle, some controversy, I have to cut the column,” Monica says in her fast voice.
“Seniors write me that they’re tired of ageism and being
put into an age category. Stuff like that,” I say, trying not to sound upset.
“Unless the San Francisco Times is making money, fans mean nothing,” Monica snaps. “Nada. I can’t run ‘Seniors and Politics.’ You mostly talk about your antiwar views and how the world is messed up.”
“I only said that I thought the Iraq war was a waste, and that seniors should protest and get involved.”
“You’re not Christiane Amanpour. If we wanted a political commentator, we’d hire one. I warned you to tone down your opinions. You accused the Happy Convalescent Home of terrible conditions! I’ve received calls from the owner of the paper. And she’s a moron.”
I bite my tongue, fighting the urge to tell Monica that I’m a senior too and that I don’t like the way she’s talking about seniors but warning myself not to burn bridges. “I hate the label senior. I hate all labels: gay, straight, senior citizen.” I argue in my nicest tone. “I’m sixty-five, but I’m not a senior. I’m a person. As soon as you’re fifty, if you don’t like look like one of those drippy housewives of Orange County, you’re relegated to assisted living. I’d like to write about ageism. That’s controversial.”
“Hey, girl. No one wants to read about getting old. Nor do our readers want to read about seniors acting like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Most of our seniors are in wheelchairs, recovering from strokes. If you don’t come up with something hot, and controversial, I have to let you go.”
“Sure. No offense, Monica, but you’re thirty-eight and you don’t suffer from age discrimination. Anyway, I’ll come up with something.”
“Hey, Anny. I believe in you. We’ve worked together going on six years. I like you, but I’m taking orders from Bunny Silverman, who thinks this is the New York Times. So come up with something that evokes a huge response. Gotta go.”
After I hang up I feel panicked, my body shaking. I wish I had my paper bag. When I’m nervous I blow into a paper bag. I hold a paper napkin over my mouth, breathing deeply. Please, God, I can’t lose my column. I need the money. As it is, even with Medicare and Social Security, and occasionally selling my paintings, I can hardly make it. Here I am a sixty-five-year-old, divorced columnist with no money, and sleeping on a sofa bed. But I want fame, fortune, and undying love. I want it all. And I’m sick of everyone saying I’m too old. Age has nothing to do with dreams.
As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer, even imagined myself a famous journalist like Diane Sawyer, standing in the rain in some Godforsaken country, my hair soaked, while the world is crashing behind me, and then rushing to the office to write about it. Sometimes it’s hard to face that so much time has passed and nothing significant has happened.
I order more coffee and watch the cable cars chugging along the hill, remembering the years I spent writing a novel, which I shelved after my marriage, then in my thirties going
to graduate school and finishing my master’s in creative writing. Then after my divorce, writing columns for throwaway papers, about socialites, restaurant reviews, real estate. Things were terrible until five years ago, when I pitched Monica—barged into her office, with lists of ideas about seniors, until she said, “Cool it. You’re hired. I like your ideas.”
I watch the rain slide along the windows, remembering the day Donald told me he wanted a divorce. I had found Viagra in Donald’s suit pocket, and when I confronted him about it, he admitted he was having sex with Conchita, our twenty-year-old housekeeper, and demanded a divorce. Then to top it off, he declared bankruptcy, pleading poverty. I got a small settlement and moved to my current apartment in San Francisco. Right after the divorce, he married Conchita and they had two sons. Talk about devastated. And he has yet to contact our daughter, Emily, who at forty-one still waits for his calls. It’s pathetic. I feel bad for Emily. Donald and I weren’t attentive parents. I was always painting or writing and dreaming of a career. Donald was busy with his law practice and buying properties, and early on Emily was forced into the caregiver role.
It stops raining. I pay my bill, wanting to catch the six-thirty bus home, thinking that later tonight I’ll work on my boxes. I make and paint boxes. I have this thing about boxes. I collect them from construction sites, and in them I create little worlds, tiny tableaux that inspire my paintings. But lately I’ve been in a rut and my work feels dull.
I button my black leather coat and hurry outside, running up the hill to Sutter Street, where I catch my bus.
I push myself onto the crowded bus, trying to grab a seat in the front.
“Hey, old lady. Take it easy,” says a pimple-faced boy wearing a smelly parka, taking the seat. I pause for a moment, taken aback, before pushing to the back of the bus and finally getting a seat next to the window.
As the bus rattles slowly along the hills, passing rows of candy-colored Victorian houses, I catch my reflection in the window, wondering if I look old. There are circles under my eyes and my brown hair hangs limp to my shoulders. Hardly like those girls on shampoo ads, their hair so silky it floats. What is old, anyway? In this country, anything over twenty is old. I close my eyes, remembering last week at Emily’s house. She lives in Berkeley with her partner, Harry, a fifty-year-old architect, and their black Lab, Fred. They were urging me to go on JDate, insisting that it was time I met someone. “Before you get too old, Mom, and end up in a nursing home,” Emily said. But I had protested, saying that I didn’t want to meet anyone online. Emily is always worrying about me, telling me what to do. It drives me crazy.
Since the divorce, outside of seeing my best friends, Janet and Lisa—we talk every night on the phone and tell each other everything—and my neighbor Ryan McNally, I don’t go out much. Ryan is ten years younger, and an award-winning photographer for National Geographic. He lives in
my building, and nine years ago we met in the laundry room. I had just moved in, and we were waiting for the dryers to finish our wash. We started talking and I found myself telling him about my recent divorce. He confided that he was a widower. We became friends, and when he’s not traveling on assignment, we go to films, museums, art openings, and often critique each other’s work. He knows a lot about art, and we both love art. On weekends he stays at his country house in Sebastopol, where he grows flowers.
The bus stops at Broadway and I get off. Dark now, the moon is starting to spread in the sky. I walk the two blocks to my apartment, pause by the roses in front, remembering that two months ago before Ryan left for Holland, he cut pink roses and instructed me how to cut the stems underwater before I put them in a vase.
I rush into the Moorish lobby, past the fake waterfall, and up the crooked, bumpy flight of steps to my apartment, inhaling the sweet aromas of Persian cooking and Chinese takeout floating along the hallways. I pass the empty apartment across the hall from mine, thinking that I don’t want to die alone on my sofa bed like poor Mrs. Nelson, who was carried out in a body bag and with everyone looking.
I open my door, glad to face the night.