Fear of Flying After Erica Jong

Issue 27 by Loren Stephens

Fear of Flying After Erica Jong

I was thirty-one, a mother with a one-year-old son, and a marriage on the rocks. It would take two more years before we filed for divorce, but in the meantime, I was the sole breadwinner, my husband having taken a flyer on producing Broadway theater when the company he worked for downsized and I was six months pregnant. At some point, I told him he should get a job as a taxicab driver to contribute to the household, but he didn’t take too kindly to that suggestion. No surprise, but I was sufficiently exhausted and angry that I had no filter.

When he argued that I was lucky to be making so much money that our standard of living wasn’t threatened, I had to agree, but that didn’t lessen my disappointment in our disintegrating marriage. I also didn’t feel like I should be obligated to work – I wanted to feel as if I had some agency, that we were in a partnership and that we should mutually decide on our family economics. I should have put on my big girl pants, but it was 1978 and women were still trying to figure out how to act as if they belonged in the executive suite. I was the only female officer where I worked with all the perks that went along with it – a secretary, flying business class, a company credit card, and a beautiful office with a view of Faneuil Hall from my floor-to-ceiling window.

In the midst of my marital meltdown, my boss started flirting with me. It was subtle, and usually took the form of an off-handed joke, an admiring glance, or a compliment about something I was wearing. Certainly nothing that an HR department (if we had one) would have taken seriously. In 1978, I don’t think there was even a term for “sexual harassment,” and if men did step out of line, women took a “boys will be boys” attitude, even while Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinman were manning the barricades, and women were burning their bras at public demonstrations. I considered them fringe feminists, and I was too busy being a breadwinner, mother and wife (in that order) to pay attention or join in the fight even if they were fighting for me!

I confess I was seriously attracted to my boss – and why not? Brad was tall with wavy black hair, mischievous blue eyes, and large, strong hands, which he used to pull ropes on his sailboat, cut and craft a fence around his house in Duxbury, and clip the tip of a Cuban cigar. After twelve years of marriage, he still referred to his Boston-Brahmin wife as “my bride” although she had borne three children and there was a fourth on the way. He displayed her Hallmark cards with their cheesy sentimental greetings on his office credenza and praised her for being an ideal mother, gracious hostess of dinner parties at their elegant, Louisburg Square townhouse, and for her talent decorating the office with Spode china, model sailboats and a brass nautical clock that chimed every half hour. The office was a perfect reflection of a successful mortgage banking firm. It nauseated me the way he felt about her; it also made me jealous. As far as I could tell, he worshipped her. Why didn’t my husband feel that way about me? Was the equilibrium of our marriage so out of whack? Or was I somewhat responsible for his attitude by acting the victim and telling him that I deserved better. On one particularly bitter evening, I took out the vacuum cleaner and ran it while my husband was having a business meeting in the living room with a prospective investor. Looking mortified, he didn’t speak to me for several days, and I never apologized. He was spending most weekdays in New York, and when he came home on the weekends I had a long list of transgressions. When I tried to rekindle a bit of romance, I was rebuffed. We were way past the balm of sexual intimacy.

* * *

Brad and I were flying together from Boston to San Francisco to meet with a client. Sitting in business class next to him I could feel the heat radiating off his body through his immaculately pressed white shirt, and the smell of some after-shave cologne he had picked up in Barbados was intoxicating. Our conversation focused mainly on our financial presentation the next morning for the Board of Mt. Zion Hospital built by prominent Jews who had long since moved out of Haight Asbury but maintained the campus. Somewhere in the middle of the flight, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. We are about to head into some turbulence. We’ll let you know when you can move about the cabin safely.” I could feel my heart beating in my chest and then the plane started to drop and lift, drop and lift. In a panicky moment, I grabbed Brad’s arm, and then quickly removed it, totally mortified. He pretended not to notice. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. The plane is exactly like a sailboat on the water; the air is solid under us. We’ll be through this soon. I find that people who are afraid of flying have control issues.”

“Guilty as charged.”

“It’s charming – challenging, too. Makes a real man want to take care of you. I’m sure your husband feels that way.”

How did this conversation turn personal? “I wouldn’t know. We don’t fly together very much. And we’ve never been on a boat together.”

“Shame. My bride loves to go sailing.” How charming. Just one more thing that he admired about his wife. Wasn’t it tiring to keep her on that pedestal?

Landing at the San Francisco airport at 5 p.m., we headed for the Cliff House overlooking the Pacific and had a leisurely dinner in the sedate dining room. I remember he complimented me for taking on more responsibility at the firm, and I thanked him for giving it to me. I really owed him a lot. The first year I worked for Brad, he gave me a Christmas bonus equal to a year’s salary.

“Why did you do this?”

“Remember when my Mercedes got stuck in a snowbank on the way to the airport, and I couldn’t go to Cleveland?”

“How could I forget. I always wondered how you managed to get connected to the gate to tell me to go without you.”

“That was nothing. You sold the client on our firm and earned us a big fee. You deserve this.” He handed me an envelope with a $25,000 check. I had never seen so much money before. And that was only the beginning.

Brad took out a Monte Cristo over dessert and rolled it around before lighting it. There weren’t too many people in the dining room so no one stopped him. I watched the smoke rise up to the red-draped ceiling. A gray-haired couple at the table in the far corner stared at us. Was it my imagination or did they think that we were lovers instead of business associates? For a split second, a picture of Brad and me standing naked in a shower flashed in front of my eyes. I pushed the thought out of my head and stirred my coffee to distract myself. It wasn’t easy working with a man I was attracted to, especially when I was no longer interested in my husband. He was at this point a shield. Had I been single I’m not sure what I would have done, but I didn’t have to make a choice.

“You want to hear a joke?” Brad asked.

“Sure.” I knew him well enough that I detected he was beginning to drift into his bad boy behavior. One Courvoisier too many. “How can you tell if someone is a smart ass?”

“I don’t know.”

“If they sit down on an ice cream cone and can tell you if the flavor is chocolate or vanilla.”

“I hope you aren’t planning to use that one to break the ice at the board meeting tomorrow morning.”

“No, but if you have a good Jewish joke, let me know.”

“Hmmm, this is an old one. Why did the Jewish patient leave Cedars of Sinai Hospital and check into St. John’s?”

Brad took a puff of his cigar. “Why, little lady?”

I winced. “Well, he couldn’t find anything to complain about.”

“Great. I’ll practice that one.” He stood up. “If you’re done with your coffee, shall we call it a night?” Brad pulled my chair out for me without waiting for an answer.

We rode up in the elevator, and I got off. He continued to the floor above me. I made a call to the au pair to make sure that my baby was asleep. She said, “Your husband called a little while ago. He’s not coming back from New York until tomorrow.”

I forced a smile on my face knowing that my voice would sound more cheerful that way, “Any reason?”

“He said he missed his plane. He gave me his telephone number in case there’s an emergency.”

“I’ll be home tomorrow night. Take good care….” And then I hung up. I was sure that he had no intention of coming home despite having promised me that he’d be home in time to put our son to bed. I didn’t know how much longer I could stay in this sham of a marriage, but I also didn’t know how I could be a single, working mother. Murphy Brown was ten years in the future, and that was a television sitcom. This was real life and at this point there weren’t too many laughs.

I turned on the television, mindlessly flipping the dial until landing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As I remember it, the episode involved Mary refusing to reveal her source for a news story and ending up in jail. Humming along to the theme song (“You’re going to make it after all…”) I heard a knock on my hotel room door. I had taken off my high heels, but I was still in my street clothes, too tired to get undressed and crawl into bed.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Brad.”

I thought, “Oh, shit.” Was this the moment I had been dreading? Where Brad made his move. What could I do that wouldn’t land me in bed with him and risk losing my job when our affair soured – which it certainly would have. I felt dangerously vulnerable and starving for male attention, but I needed this job. After five years working for him, I had earned the title of senior vice president, and I wasn’t about to lose it over what would more than likely be a one-night stand.

I leaned into the mirror over the desk, to make sure that my mascara hadn’t racooned underneath my eyes.

I opened the door and smelled liquor on Brad’s breath. His silk Sulka tie was loosened, but he was still wearing his Brooks Brothers pin-striped suit and a grin on his face that telegraphed trouble.

Cocking his head, he asked, “Can I come in?” I stepped into the hallway to block him from coming into my room. The entire trajectory of our affair flashed in front of my eyes, in the same way that a near-death experience evokes a movie of your life… and the aftermath when the policeman says to your husband, “She stepped off the curb and the car hit her broadside. If it’s any consolation she died instantly.”

I felt like I was talking someone off the ledge before committing suicide. What wasn’t clear was which one of us was I trying to save? Brad had crossed the line from innocuous flirtation to an unambiguous proposition. “Listen, you don’t want to do this, Brad. An office romance – it’s just cheesy.” Appealing to his ego I rushed on, “You’re much too classy for that.”

“You think so? You’re the classy one. I was hoping some of your upbringing might rub off on me. I’m a fake. Most men are. My dad worked for the railroad and I was on scholarship in college. You come from a fancy Jewish family. The Board of the Hospital will just love you. I’m going to be sure and drop your great uncle’s name.”

“I think I can impress them without displaying my so-called pedigree. You taught me well and I’m really grateful to you.”

“So why won’t you let me in? I know you’re attracted to me?”

“It’s got nothing to do with that. Yes, I am attracted to you, but I need to stay in control of my life. I don’t have the luxury of having an affair. And I couldn’t live with myself if I felt I was risking breaking up a marriage – yours and mine.”

“Let me worry about that.”

“Please, do both of us a favor and leave. If you want to have an affair, find someone who doesn’t need a paycheck.”

His eyes narrowed and for a split second he looked as if someone had slapped him in the face. He wasn’t a man used to hearing no. Powerful men usually aren’t, whether it’s from a man or a woman.

Despite whatever he had consumed to get up the nerve to show up at my door, he hesitated. I wrapped my arms around myself. It was so quiet I heard a door whoosh close down the carpeted hallway behind him. “If that’s what you really want. Shall we just forget that I’ve made a real ass of myself?” I wanted to lighten the mood by qualifying what he said by adding “Smart ass?” but the situation was too precarious.

He turned toward the elevator. The bell rang and he stepped in. Holding the door with his hand he waved, “See you at seven a.m. sharp, classy lady.” I quickly stepped back into the safety of my room. The chirpy wrap up music for the Mary Tyler Moore Show was playing as the credits rolled. I turned off the television set, hung up my suit, and slipped between the bed sheets. I felt a powerful wave of desire and wished that I was lying in Brad’s arms, instead of tossing and turning in an empty bed.

Our meeting at the hospital the next morning went well. The Board indicated that we were going to be hired to arrange their financing, which would mean a hefty fee for the firm. To celebrate, Brad proposed a helicopter ride over Alcatraz. He said, “We have a few hours to kill before our flight back to Boston.” And then with a note of irony in his voice he said, “I know how much you like to fly.” The noise of the spinning blades overhead made it impossible to talk about what had happened the night before. I turned toward the window and kept my knees pressed tightly against one another. The helicopter swooped and dived over San Francisco Bay as the pilot narrated the history of the prison. Brad glanced at me. I wondered if this was his idea of a joke, or payback for rejecting him.

A year later, I was let go anyway. Someone saw Brad and me having a benign lunch at a popular business restaurant in downtown Boston and described us laughing flirtatiously with one another. Years later, I found out that his wife said, “It’s either her or me,” and he needed his wife’s money to keep his business afloat. He was in way over his head and couldn’t resist embezzling client funds. He was found out and spent a year in court fighting the charges. He had his securities license revoked for a few years and did “time” getting a degree at the Harvard Divinity School, divorced his wife, moved to Texas, remarried, and started another business. I got no pleasure learning his fate. Brad had been my mentor, my boss for seven years, and my almost lover. And I fantasized that if I had fallen into Brad’s arms, might I have ended up as the second wife? I had been too afraid to find out. Or maybe too smart.

About the Author

Loren Stephens

Website

Loren Stephens work has appeared in the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, MacGuffin, Crack the Spine, Forge, and Jewish Women's Literary Annual among many. "Paris Nights: My Year at the Moulin Rouge," by Cliff Simon with Loren Stephens was named one of the top titles from independent presses by Kirkus Reviews. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.