Love in the Time of Viagra

Scary Old Sex: Stories
By Arlene Heyman
Bloomsbury USA, 240 pages, $26

In this era of energetically aging baby boomers and gauzy Viagra advertisements, discussing postmenopausal sex is not quite the taboo-shattering enterprise of yesteryear. But that fact doesn’t render Arlene Heyman’s debut short-story collection any less powerful or engaging.

Heyman’s characters use sex to connect, but also to avoid or replace other forms of connection. In thrall to the past, to departed spouses and missed opportunities, they nevertheless plunge forward, more hopeful than despairing. As much as they can, they live boldly and vividly in the imperfect present, comforted by dreams, fantasies and memories glazed and softened by time.

Heyman’s own backstory is intriguing: The 73-year-old author of “Scary Old Sex” is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Manhattan. Before attending medical school, she studied with Bernard Malamud at Bennington College and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Syracuse University before publishing award-winning short stories. This collection — so rich in canny eroticism, late-life regrets and intimations of mortality — has been marinating for years.

Of special note is Heyman’s relationship with Malamud. According to Malamud’s British biographer, Philip Davis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (“The Fixer,” “The Natural”) and short-story writer was not just Heyman’s mentor, but also her lover and cherished friend.

Heyman makes no secret of the association. In her acknowledgments, she borrows from W.H. Auden’s famous 1939 poem, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” to describe Malamud as “a climate to me — his jokes, his Jewish atheism, his aliveness, his loving-kindness, his feeling for art and for me, his total immersion in literature, and, above all, his writing.”

Heyman dedicates her story “In Love With Murray” about an affair between a married, middle-aged artist and a much younger woman, to Malamud’s memory. Though some details (one wonders which) are doubtless different, the emotional contours and texture of the story, as with much of Heyman’s writing, seem ripped from life.

Nineteen-year-old Leda, “a budding artist,” encounters Murray Blumgarten at the Whitney Museum, where he is standing near one of his works and eavesdropping on visitors’ reactions. “He wasn’t handsome,” Heyman writes, channeling Leda, “but his quality of attentiveness, so full-on, so direct, stood out like an erection.”

The two end up in bed in her slovenly apartment, and eventually they paint for a while in the same studio. As a lover she is unexpectedly shy, but more experienced than he. Blumgarten, we’re told, married early and not unhappily. But his passion for his scholar wife (and hers for him) has ebbed — to the point where he hopes that she, too, has found a lover.

With Leda, he feels tenderness and the joy of “watching her bite into the brave new world, sour as it sometimes seemed to him.” As one might expect, he finds her “an antidote to middle age.” Thoroughly smitten, she describes him as “the background music of her life, and the foreground music….”

Heyman moves easily back and forth between her protagonists’ perspectives. But Leda, in Blumgarten’s shadow, struggles with her own art — and can’t resist exploring sex with well-muscled younger lovers. Will this tale conclude in tragedy or in farce? Both, it turns out.

Most of Heyman’s characters have lived long, complicated lives and feel ambivalence toward their latest partners. In one sexually explicit story, “The Loves of Her Life,” Marianne, 70-year-old Stu’s 65-year-old fourth wife, loves him, but also resents him. He isn’t a big earner, he dresses badly, and he buys her printer cartridges and flash drives in lieu of flowers. His nude, wrinkled body resembles a Lucian Freud painting, and he requests sex “as if he were asking for a game of tennis….”

On the other hand, spontaneity is out of the question: To make the sex work, she must use Vagifem, an estrogen tablet, and he Viagra; she also has to avoid acid reflux, and he the perils of premature ejaculation. So, “for them, making love was like running a war: plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed and coordinated meticulously….” For arousal, she leans on memories of her first husband. The story concludes with a twist only a psychoanalyst would conjure.

For Heyman, families are often battlegrounds. “At the Happy Isles” details a conflicted mother-daughter relationship unfurling at an assisted-living facility, where the daughter, a doctor, still fears her churlish 99-year-old mother’s disapproval. In “Night Call,” an obstetrician finds himself confronting, and helping to cover up, his adulterous father’s death at a lover’s home.

In “Artifact,” a workaholic scientist takes her experiment out of the laboratory, to disastrous effect. The couple in the equally disturbing “Nothing Human,” adrift on a river cruise, quarrel bitterly, pettily and in counterpoint to the persistent Holocaust denial among their German tour guides.

“Dancing,” told from shifting points of view, describes a family forced to grapple with both the aftermath of 9/11 and the husband’s struggles with leukemia. Even in the shadow of disease, the couple’s sexual bond endures, and the appearance of an old lover sparks jealousy. “One gets over nothing in this life,” Heyman writes — a psychoanalytic truism perhaps, but also an apt thematic summary of this lovely book.

Julia M. Klein is a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein

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