I’ve been thinking lately of a classic (but hardly typical) Betty Draper moment. In a New York City gripped by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the kids spend the night in Don’s hotel room, and Betty has an evening to herself. She’s pregnant, but she wishes she were not. She’s got a lot on her mind.
At a bar, she accepts a drink from a handsome man but declines his company … for a while. Later, she gives him a look as she heads for the restrooms, and the two of them end up having sex in one of them.
Betty Draper has gotten tons of flak for that single act. If I were to do the same thing today, I’d be willing to accept all of it.
But that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was different.
The Cuban Missile Crisis came to a head fifty years ago this week; those days in October of 1962 are still the closest the world has ever come to global nuclear war. It’s hard for those who lived through it to explain the feeling of that time to the rest of us, but when I was with my mother recently, she tried.
“We lived in Africa,” she told me, “and even we were afraid. We were all sure we would wake up not to a world at war, but to no world.”
No world. I remember how imminent that concept seemed, once.
I came of age in the 1980s, when the idea of global nuclear war was almost a product our leaders were selling. The only way not to have it, they said, was to be so “prepared” for it that no one would be fool enough to start it with us. “Prepared” meant having more ways to kill everyone, all at once, than anyone else. We called this idea “mutual assured destruction” (an amazing phrase, when I look at it now), and we made dark little jokes in the face of our collective fate. He who dies with the most toys wins.
But we had twenty years on our parents. We’d grown up with that threat; most of them had not. Their youth was a time when the idea of the world ending in that particular way was as immediately possible as it was new. By the time I was a teenager, the threat was still real, but it was also sort of everyday stuff, part of our background music. Literally: “Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day.” Our parents had feared that, but we danced to it. The end of the world was our jam.
When did I stop feeling sure I’d die in a nuclear holocaust? Twenty years ago? Fifteen? I can’t remember. If you live long enough, it happens: something that has always been there slowly begins to go away, recedes further, then is gone.
In fact, the threat is not really gone; it just feels gone. There is a difference. There is also a difference between the feeling you’ll die, you know, soon, and the feeling that you’ll die tonight.
I think that you can’t look at the split-second decision Betty Draper made in a bar and ignore the world outside that bar. You can’t pretend that the Cuban Missile Crisis was just a story on the news to her.
She didn’t have sex with that guy in that bar because she really wanted to have sex with a guy in a bar. I think she had sex with him because she was still alive — for now. She’d already missed so many chances, to do so many things. Was she really going to die without knowing what casual sex felt like?
It’s the end of the world, Betty Draper. Now or never.