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In Heaven There are no Safe Words

“Why are you calling yourself Stella all the time now?” asks Gladys. “Are you ready to be proud of all your writing? Or is this some unique way of hiding?”

Gladys is a ninety-year-old woman who has been like a second mother to Stella since own mother died when she was twenty. Stella is the name she uses when she writes erotica, although she’s come to prefer it, and has begun telling people she meets that it’s her name. When she’s Stella at readings, she wears a long, black velvet dress, a change from the usual slacks, button-down Oxford shirt, and tweed jacket she wears in her everyday role as Del Compagna, the medical journalist. She’s not sure why she wants everyone to call her Stella. Perhaps she needs to become that person to figure out the reason her erotic writing seems to have collapsed against a barrier.

Stella has a hard time writing upbeat erotic stories now that she’s in her sixties because all her ideas seem to have death, something more taboo than sex, coiled within. She’s unable to imagine a happy conclusion to her latest tale about a pair of aging lovers who meet in movie theaters and fuck in the balconies at senior Monday matinees. The rule is, everything must be positive when writing about sex and old people. There can be no serious illness, no vaginal dryness, impotence, or orgasms that take longer than the length of the story to happen. The reality is, Stella and her friends are starting to experience all the above problems, including death. She’s still mourning Phyllis, her last lover, taken by breast cancer a year ago. Recently, a close friend, a seventy-three-year-old jazz musician, passed from a lung infection common to those who have spent their lives playing wind instruments. Now she’s dealing with Gladys, who has decided she doesn’t want to be ninety-one. Caught in that intermediate stage between middle and old age, Stella is beginning to doubt the future.

For years, Gladys has been Stella’s inspiration, feeding her ideas for erotic tales she says she’s too busy living to write down herself. Now Gladys lies in a darkened room, refusing all food and drink, telling everyone she’s ready to go.

“How long do you think it’ll take, Del?” she asks Stella, who might know because long ago she was a nurse who wore a nametag that read Adele Compagna.

“Six weeks, two months, I don’t know how long it takes a healthy person to starve. Dehydration will probably get you quicker,” Stella answers in her best Adele-the-nurse voice. Wearing a white T-shirt with her jeans, she runs her hands through her short brown hair, a nervous gesture Stella the erotica writer would never make.

“An old person,” Gladys reminds Stella, “is by definition not a totally healthy being.”

Gladys is strong for a woman her age, her heart is fine, she has no illnesses except the arthritis in her knees that makes it difficult to walk or kneel. She is doing so well, her doctor has even recommended knee replacement surgery.

Even though Stella is disappointed that Gladys has given up on life, she has become her caretaker, subletting the apartment she shared with Phyllis to move in with Gladys because her own life feels so fractured she can’t think of anything better to do than help her mother’s old friend.

Until a couple of years ago, Gladys lived with a lover named Carl, who had been a friend of her late husband’s, with whom she had enjoyed a long open marriage filled with sexual adventures. She and Carl were together ten years until she threw him out when she came home after a weekend with friends in Carmel to find oatmeal in their bed.

“Oatmeal?” Stella asked.

Gladys sighed. “For someone who writes erotica, you have no imagination at all. Dry oats. They sooth and smooth the skin, making it all slippy slidey. Use it in your bath or spread it dry between the sheets. Of course,” she rolled her eyes, “finely ground oats are best. Oat bran can work, too. That woman had no sense, no class. Steel cut oats. Hah! Must have felt like sandpaper.”

“That woman” was an older woman who lived down the block, someone Gladys had seen Carl talking to, who fluttered her false eyelashes at him while he watched, transfixed.

“The bitch can have the liar,” said Gladys, bitter because while he’d told her she was the only one for him, he’d been screwing other women.

“Maybe he used oats alone,” said Stella, “rubbing them all over himself.”

“Honey, he knows better than to use steel cut,” Gladys replied. “We used quick oats, after whirling them in a blender.”

Of course Carl didn’t move in with the woman down the street; he moved to a senior condo development in San Francisco, where Gladys would occasionally visit him, bringing back tales of the goings on there—the triads, the couple living as brother and sister who were actually lovers, the couple who liked to fuck in the lounge in the middle of the night when no one was there, although they made sure someone always was. There was a problem with these stories, though—they always ended with death.

“They die at a great rate in those places,” Gladys explained. “You know, at our age, when your lover leaves you, it’s really over. No, I’m tired of Carl and his new friends. I’m done with all that.”

Stella should have seen this was the beginning of the end because sex had always been life to Gladys. Now, wearing a lace nightgown, a halo of white curls framing her pale face, she receives final visits from old friends and ex-lovers. They bring chocolates, cakes, and cookies, which Stella leaves out for the guests because Gladys refused all treats. They bring roses and mums, which Stella places in vases around the house, but not in Gladys’s bedroom because she says the scent makes her dizzy.

“Soon I won’t be able to make it to the bathroom, though with any luck I’ll be too dehydrated for it to matter,” she says. “Are you ready for that, Del?”

Gladys has no children of her own, or relatives left, just this parade of elderly compatriots who have their own problems with ill or difficult partners, or children who need financial or emotional help. Some have health conditions far worse than Gladys’s desire for a voluntary exit—cancer, heart disease. They arrive with canes and crutches; Stella has to help get wheelchairs up the front steps.

“There’s no reason for her to do this to herself,” they say with the exasperation only those who have decided to stick with life can feel. Still, they support her right to choose. One woman is willing to donate her stash of Oxycontin for a quicker exit, another offers a bottle of Valium, but Gladys finds that ugly.

“With an overdose, you’d die vomiting, wouldn’t you?” she asks Stella as she reclines on her bed. “You’d die with your eyes open, rolled back in your head, like a drunk. You’d choke to death on your tongue, you’d shit the bed, you’d lose control.”

“Maybe,” Stella answers. “Death is never dignified no matter how you do it. It’s always about losing control.”

“No, I’m going to gently fade out,” Gladys insists. “It might take a month or a year but I’ll just gradually whither away. I hear the hallucinations are great as you starve. Dehydration can lead to ecstasy. Most religions use fasting, you know.”

“Visions can be terrifying if you’re not ready for them,” Stella points out.

Gladys closes her eyes. After a moment, she sits, picks up a hand mirror, fluffs her hair, and puts on some light pink lipstick. “There are many ways of seeing or saying things,” she says.

This makes no sense to Stella, who thinks Gladys might already be hallucinating.

“Nothing lasts forever, my dear,” Gladys continues. “All life is grass, or broken glass, one or the other.”

One day a man calls and says, “How’s the old girl doing? I hear she’s given up.”

He sounds young to Stella, more vigorous than Gladys’s other friends. She’s intrigued because to her knowledge Gladys has never had a younger lover. Her late husband was fifteen years older, dying suddenly of a heart attack at eighty-four. No such sudden death for poor Gladys, struggling with her good health, trying to starve it, dry it out, beat it down.

“When’s a good time to drop by?” this younger man asks.

“Mornings are best,” Stella tells him. “She tends to doze off after two.

“Ah, yes. I remember when naps weren’t about sleep, ” he sighs.

Stella laughs. She thinks this man might do Gladys some good. He says his name is Jim. “Don’t tell her I called,” he adds. “We like to surprise each other.”

The next morning at eleven, having insisted on raising the bedroom shades, Stella is sitting by Gladys’s bed trying to interest her in the morning paper.

“What repetitive nonsense the news is,” Gladys remarks, looking out the window at a Japanese maple whose leaves are just beginning to turn.

When the doorbell rings, Stella jumps up. “Visitors!”

Gladys raises her eyebrows. “Who’s left who hasn’t called? And who could it be to get you so excited?”

Stella is already crossing the living room to the front door, expecting someone much younger and livelier than the thin, white-haired, balding man in a black turtleneck, who clutches his cane with wrinkled hands.

“Jim,” he introduces himself. “And you must be Del, the dyke companion.”

Stella recoils. How does he know her name? Since most of Gladys’s friends call her by her pen name, her other name has started to feel too intimate. She doesn’t mind if they discover she writes erotica, because then she’d find out they read it. Perhaps she more concerned that they’ll find her boring articles in health magazines and medical journals, which people tend to study as they age. What does he think her relationship to Gladys is? She runs a hand through her hair.

“Gladys was a friend of my late mother’s,” she responds.

“I know that, no offense.” He brushes past her. “Happy Bottom! Where the hell are you?” he shouts into the house.

“Good God. Jumbo?” Gladys calls faintly from her bedroom.

“Good God, yes, it’s me,” he says, his cane pounding on the wood floor as he hurries to her side.

Stella follows him.

“It’s been years! You’re but a shadow of yourself.” Gladys raises her head for a kiss. “You always did have a talent for showing up at the most inopportune moments.”

“No kisses yet. Roll over, girl.” He taps her side with his cane. “You should talk about shadows! What you need is a good spanking to get you out of this bed.” He looks around the room. “At least you have the shades up. You could use a vase of flowers in here. Del,” he calls over his shoulder, “I got a bouquet down in my car. The MG in front. The top’s down, just reach in, get the flowers, put ‘em in a vase and bring ‘em in here.”

“Flowers?” Gladys sounds like she’s laughing or choking. Stella hesitates. “I hate flowers. Since when do you bring flowers? I’m not dead yet, you know.”

Jim taps her side with his cane again. “Flowers are for the living. It’s time for desperate measures. And you’re a very bad girl, lying here like this. I’m going to have to do something about that.” He runs the cane gently up and down her side, pausing teasingly at her hip.

“Come on, love, on your stomach,” he urges.

“Wombat!” says Gladys. “No cane, please. I’m not well.”

Stella hovers, reluctant to leave them because she’s not sure what’s happening. Is Wombat another nickname? Is it a safe word? She tries to recall if Gladys has told her anything about this Jim. Is he safe?

He’s tapping all around Gladys’s body, teasing, but not touching. “Nothing wrong with you a good spanking won’t cure,” he says. “And in heaven there are no safe words because you won’t need them. The worst has already happened. There’s nothing to fear, no need to stop, no need to hold back. You’ve hit bottom, so to speak. And I know you’ll enjoy the pain because, unlike this illness you’re giving yourself, pain can save you.”

Slowly he lowers himself onto the bed and lies on top of her, supporting his weight with his elbows. “I’ll be gentle,” he whispers. “I’ve always respected your limits.”

She draws his head close, murmuring in his ear.

Stella decides it’s safe to leave them in this embrace, and bolts out the door. An old-fashioned looking MG sports car, black, with the top down, is parked at a rakish angle in front of the house. Inside is a bouquet of black tulips, deep purple iris, white baby’s breath, and in the center, a large stem of bird of paradise with three blooms on it. This must have cost him, she thinks, as she lifts the bouquet and carefully carries it inside. Iris and tulips in the fall! She’s beginning to admire this Jim. She finds a plain white vase, fills it with water, and carefully arranges the flowers, keeping the bird of paradise high in the center.

She hears a slapping sound from the bedroom, but Gladys’s moans sound happy as far as she can tell. Still, she thinks It’s a good idea to take in these flowers, which Gladys might like. She stops at the door, vase in her hands. Gladys’s face is in her pillow, her white lace nightgown pulled up, her young-looking rosy bottom exposed. Jim sits on the edge of the bed, both hands moving down her back, massaging until he gets to her ass, which he taps softly with one hand and slaps with both hands until it reddens, then squeezes the cheeks, deepening the rosy glow.

Stella has never spanked anyone, or been spanked, although she’s written such stories, so she’s surprised to find this tableau arouses her like a need she never knew she had, a need to be dominated like a child, to have all her desires melt under the hands of someone who can punish and then forgive. She wants to control, too, like Gladys does, whispering, “Harder. No, the other side now. Lighter,” guiding his every move, owning his punishment of her.

Up and down go his hands, and then slap! slap! A quick squeeze and then slap! again and the slow massage up her spine.

When she moans, “Jumbo, so good,” he kisses the back of her neck.

“Life,” he murmurs. “You can grab onto it at any age.”

Neither of them has noticed Stella, who leaves the bouquet on the dresser and flees to the kitchen. She wonders how long Gladys has known Jim. Did she tell him her name was Del years ago, long before she became a writer? Does he know she’s also Stella who writes erotica? She has an unaccountable urge to change from her jeans to her black velvet dress. Does she want to hide Del completely and expose Stella to Jim? Or show him another side of Del? Does she want to find someone who will love both her identities?

Jim comes into the kitchen. “You were right about two o’clock naps,” he says. “She’s gone.”

The phrase startles her because it’s what they say in hospitals when someone dies: Gone. But Jim means sleeping. All he wants now is a cup of black coffee, and a chocolate from one of the ubiquitous boxes lying about.

“My diet includes three pieces a day,” he says to her with a wink. “Good for the heart, you know. I spent too many years as a fat man, so I work to keep off the pounds. Well, I must go, but I’ll be back. See that she eats. I know she’ll wake up hungry, she always does.” He shakes his head. “Happiest bottom in the world. A first class ass. It’s been too long. Nice meeting you at last.” Then he’s out the door, throwing his cane into the back of the MG, and speeding off, screeching around the corner on two wheels.

When Gladys wakes up later, Stella tells her he’s left.

“He’ll come again,” she says, stretching her arms over her head. “He always does. It might be weeks, months, or years, but he always turns up when I need him.”

“When did you tell him about me?” Stella demands.

“I’ve known him so long I don’t really recall,” she says, vaguely. “He knows about all my friends and their kids. I must have told him you were the daughter I didn’t have. I’ve told him about your writing, as Del, as Stella.”

“I like myself as Stella,” she says. Except, she doesn’t add, Stella can’t write a decent erotic story any more.

Gladys rolls her eyes. “I always thought Del was cute. It suited you, even as a little kid. It’s a good name for a journalist, and for an erotica writer. Life’s too short to hide.”

Stella considers Del. Would Del wear a velvet dress? Maybe. Del could be a last name, too. She could change her pseudonym and become Stella Del, halfway real. And the journalist could become Del S. Compagna. Then the pieces of her life might fit.

“I feel like a steak,” says Gladys. “A steak and red wine.”

“That’s kind of a drastic way to break a fast,” says Stella, remembering her long gone nametag. “You might just vomit it all up,” Adele-the-nurse warns.

“Oh, nonsense,” says Gladys, wiggling her bottom. “God, I’m sore, but it’s so good to feel it, so good to be alive. Now go out and get us some steaks and wine, Del.”

That night Gladys eats all her steak and drinks two glasses of wine, falling into a coma-like sleep from which she awakens the next day, asking Stella to bake muffins for breakfast. Another day and she’s out of bed, shaky but dressed. When friends drop by they’re happy to see this recovery.

“I guess I miscalculated,” Gladys explains. “Maybe I’m on for a couple more years.”

Even Carl finally visits, but they argue and he leaves. “I can’t see spending my last years with a boring liar,” she says.

People continue to drop by, but Gladys lives for Jim’s visits, telling Stella she doesn’t give a damn that most of her friends have never approved of him. “They think he’s a dangerous pervert, or that he’s too young and fast for me.” She shakes her head. “He’s but a boy of eighty, which hardly makes a difference at our age. I don’t care what anyone thinks.” She might even consider knee that surgery, she adds, because she’d love to be able to kneel before him again. She shows Stella the carefully placed marks Jim has pinched on her ass, bruises whose beauty Stella is surprised to find she envies.

Having finished her role as Adele-the-nurse, Stella moves back to her own apartment, and tells the editor of a medical journal she writes for regularly that she’s changing her name to Stella del Compagna, which was her father’s family name several generations ago in Italy. Her journalistic style begins to change. She adds more life to her essays, writing about people who, although ill, don’t consider themselves sick. There’s a difference, she decides. If you’re not sick, you’re not a victim, no matter if your life is limited by your condition. She even describes, in discrete and anonymous terms, a woman with terminal cancer who still enjoys sex with her husband. What better way to spend your last days than in bed with a lover? After all, that’s what she and her lover did when Phyllis was dying.

. She’s so elated with her new identity that she submits a story based on Gladys and Jim to an erotic anthology under the same name. In this tale, the man uses his cane to raise delicate bruises on the woman’s ass, and then they suck each other’s necks, leaving little red marks which they enjoy displaying to their conservative friends, who turn out not to be shocked at all, but interested in joining the fun.

So what if readers of medical journals find out she writes both ways? She hopes they get something out of both kinds of writing. She suspects everyone her age or more remembers orgasms, and she hopes her fiction will show that with a little creativity, they can continue to have them. If she can’t find a publisher, she can self-publish. Barriers are falling and anything is possible these days. She plans to change her name legally, and wants her writing to be a memorial for Gladys while she’s alive to enjoy it. If, as a delusional Gladys once said, life is nothing but broken glass, Stella is well on the way to repairing the window.

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