December 17, 2008

First kiss

I must find the way through all the screens on the stage that slide one in front of the other. I want to shout, “Fire.” Like the clown in the theatre who called out to the laughing crowd while the coulisses burned, while the crowd applauded, disbelieving. I slide the scenery panels of my life through the backstage grooves while they burned and no one sees the fire.

In Charade, when Reggie/Audrey says to Sylvie, “I admit I came to Paris to escape American traditional, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for French Provincial,” she has just told Sylvie she is going to get a divorce because she does not love Charles. “That’s no reason to get a divorce,” Sylvie counters. “With this years’ clothes … .” On that mountain in the Alps, Reggie has no idea where Charles is. I had no idea where or who D. was.

Do you remember when Michelle Obama wowed Paris shortly after Barack took office, when she kissed Sarkozy while Barack tried to figure out the ‘bise’ with both Carla Bruni and a young girl in a crowd? Barack demurred I read in Britain’s The Daily Mail: “Mr. Obama … apparently pointed out that his wife, Michelle, was watching. Finally Sarkozy persuaded him to allow himself to receive the traditional French greeting.

And didn’t we all wonder what Carla and Michelle had for lunch? Or am I the only one, a thin woman, with an obsession over what everyone is eating and who is cooking?

D. had no problem with the kissing of other women in front of me—I who cooked like a mad woman in search of the perfect recipe, in search of the joining of family, in search of the belovéd. MFK Fisher says, “…I still think the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few … .”

Two years before we separated, he kissed the first woman at Cloud in Dupont Circle, at the bar. I walked home alone at half past midnight, a lipstick in my pocket (no keys, no money) and waited for them, D. and S., a woman I had begun chatting with at Firefly down the street on New Hampshire Avenue. We had been eating dinner at the bar.

Firefly: In the dusk and then the dark, fireflies flash their tails. Male fireflies control this flash of light to signal their desire; females flash their willingness. It’s a cold light, no heat, the result of a chemical inside them: Luciferin. Their taste to predators is bitter. Some say that frogs who eat too many of them may also glow. I’ve wondered how the frogs consume the bitter taste. Why aren’t they warned off with the first bite?

I watched them, D. and S., with a bitter taste in my mouth.

I walked home and waited for them on the stoop of our four-story one-hundred-year-old Victorian that we were renovating in Adams Morgan. Actually, D. renovated the old lady, relentlessly, for seven years. I wanted all the men out of my house so that I could write: I worked in the fourth floor attic. That night I ended up putting S. to bed in the third floor guest room. When the two finally left Cloud, S. was smashed. Her Mercedes was parked somewhere in a garage nearby. A homeless man helped D. get her into a cab after she fell, hit her chin on the curb—I learned, as I cared for her with an ice bag and a cup of Chamomile tea, that she had just had a facelift and the bleeding on her chin was a slit in the work of the artist: the plastic surgeon.

In the morning, I met them at the long granite island in my chef’s kitchen. D. had made S. a cappuccino from our Miele built-into-the-wall espresso machine.

You’re thinking? It was quite a kitchen. Okay so maybe you are not thinking that but you must know that this kitchen had a place for everything and everything in its place. This part of the renovation I had a hand in. Thus, my obsession with the refrigerator and its metaphor: I’m getting to it. But for now: Get this: I had three SubZeros: the refrigerator and freezer and the two refrigerator drawers in the island for fresh fruits and vegetables and meat and fish.

I ask the two: “So you want to tell me what was going on last night?”

S. looks truly bemused. D. does not. I tell them that they were … Well, you get the picture. D. has nothing to say. S. tells me—and I believe her—that she doesn’t remember, that she doesn’t know D. from anywhere except last night, that she’s divorced with one child and that if we could take her home, she’d be most grateful. We do (I vomit in her bathroom. I am overwhelmed with loss and throwing up my food seems the exact right response. I think this after I clean her toilet, wipe her sink and beg to be returned to our Old Lady of a house.).

When we are home, D. gives the explanation that turns out later to actually make quite a bit of sense even if it did not at the time: “I don’t know what I am doing.” You’ve got to admire this kind of honesty (Have I said that before?).

After all, I love him. After all, we are all flawed human beings. After all, we are all in search of the belovéd.

Later, I focused on what Michelle and Barack might be having for dinner in Paris and Barack’s confrontation with ‘the bise.’

The only doughs I haven’t made are puff pastry and brioche. I wrote this line and I wondered if it should have been the first line of this story. But clearly it was not as I had then become the woman who never cooked.

Here’s a Talmudic question I have puzzled over—the one about the two men in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man should drink it. And so I considered after D. left me if I should cook anymore. After all, my mother died in 1990, my sister three years later at 53, and my father hard on her heels.

I thought of the pie I’d made that would not congeal— the lemon meringue pie, the dessert I’d thought was my father’s favorite. But I knew I couldn’t make Martha Stewart’s recipe for mile-high lemon meringue pie with the twelve egg whites atop the filling that would not set no matter how long I stirred the yellow lemon and butter and sugar mixture on the stove, no matter how long I kept the mixture in the refrigerator to cool, congeal, coalesce. Something must have been missing from the recipe. I made this pie three times: for Thanksgiving, for Father’s Day, for my father’s birthday. My mother and father and sister had laughed—and so had I—when I cut into the beautiful pie with its perfect meringue, the pie that sat on my glass pedestal, when we watched the filling run down the glass plate, around the rim, wind its sweet yellow ribbon on the pedestal, on the base, onto the fine linen cloth I had laid on the table. The last time I made the pie, while I was laughing, I shouted, “I’ll never make your favorite dessert, Daddy. I give up.” “But my favorite,” he said, “is cherry.”

While he was still alive and stricken with Parkinson’s disease, a broken hip froze him after repair in the shape of a W—the first letter, a living metaphor, of the question I asked: What do I deserve? There I stood with my father who was about to die—my mother and sister, gone. I believed I had all the water. Would I drink it?

No, I thought, because suddenly I knew what was missing from the recipe, from the yellow ribbon of lemon that would not congeal. I knew that the water must go in the pie, mixed first with a bit of cornstarch for the sweetness to hold firm. I did not know what I deserved or what was just. I knew only that I would make the pie, that it would be hard to make and that it would be my favorite.

That’s what I thought before my father died. And then he died. And then D. kissed S.

And then and then and then. Bad transition, but seems to fit here.

On that day after the night of the kiss, I no longer believed I would make the pie.

I did believe in The Princess and the Frog. My hair is shoulder length—and snow white. I am no virgin princess, but I sure want the fairy tale. I want to go to sleep and be awakened by my prince.

But how do we know who is who? We are in the game of Charades.

October 05, 2008

Like a coin

A story I made up while sleeping: a woman, dark-haired, young like me when I was young, is with a man she likes, a stocky, hairy man who takes her hand when they walk along the water. I don’t know where they are. He takes her into a rehearsal hall. Now they are on Coney Island at the Yiddish Russian restaurant there. The boardwalk is cold and windy. It is winter. We eat borscht and peroshki, shots of vodka. We are tired from the windy walk, from the vodka shots. He takes me to a room with a bed and we lie down, not to make love but to rest. He takes off his shirt and pants because they are cold, damp from the sea air. We get under the covers and I lay my head on his hairy chest. D. has a hairless chest with a swatch of now grey hair where the sternum makes its dip between his pecs. I find this man comfortable and sleep, my legs wrapped around one of his.

I no longer know the meaning of betrayal. It is like a coin, two-sided.

October 01, 2008

Let the Rom-Coms roll

I turn to the Rom-Com for answers. Don't be quick to discount: Wisdom comes where you look.

I have watched Hitch more times than I can count. I’m obsessed with this movie and many others—Four Weddings and a Funeral, for another (You don’t want to know how many times I have watched and wept over that one.)

Here’s how the best ones work: Hitch, the first example: Two cynics meet, neither believes love works, one or both have been hurt or been screwed by believing that the open heart is a good thing. So one, or in this case both, have closed off that option: closed heart, closed heart.

Open heart, open heart lying behind the little box we carry in our chests. Who’s got the key to the box?

I think, LOVE? Doesn’t exist. I’ve got the key to my box. I can shoot hoops (double entendre: look it up) while I wait, but I can look and look I do.

On JDate I meet m., real-estate developer: let us call him m. I come home from Oz to my condo with all its boxes to meet him. He’s my age, a bit overweight, a widower, who reminds me of D. Not the body—D.’s body, slim and hard and tight—but m.’s height, the blue eyes, the open face draw me. He has two teenage girls, a newly built house he and his wife had bought and designed before she fell ill with a pernicious form of breast cancer. She died three months after diagnosis.

We meet at Oya in downtown D.C. near my condo, and we have dinner at a hard-to-get good table he has finagled. He orders good wine and we both order good au courant Asian-French tapas. We talk about grief. I tell about the losses of my mother, my sister, three years apart, and then the loss of my father, slowly—all the deaths were slow and painful, my mother and sister over my youth and adulthood and my father over the ten years I was finally doing what I had waited my whole life to do, as Elisabeth Bishop says in “One Art,”

…the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


M. comes back to my condo and we talk sitting on my pale white leather wrap-around couch. He tells me that, after his wife died, he quit his job to take care of his girls, works as a consultant so that he has flexible hours. He tells me he bought in Paris a Sean Sculley painting I love and have seen at The Phillips Gallery. He had bought it before Sculley hit hot in the US. He met Sculley’s agent in Paris and then reneged on the deal with the good-hearted agent who understood m. needed the money back—some $100,000 for a painting that is now worth six times that—to take care of his girls. He tells me he’d been a bit reckless when he bought the art he still adores and has lost.

M. is looking for a job as his girls find their way through grief that comes on them like tidal waves he can’t handle. But he has a shrink and she is helping him find his way. He is not in typical mourning because what his girls may or may not know is that he and his wife were about to separate before she fell ill, that they were wending their way toward what would have probably been the result of the counseling they were joined in before she fell ill. He married late. He screwed around, many short-term relationships before he finally married. He tells me he understands now that he has trouble with commitment, that he has trouble with intimacy, that his childhood laid the foundation, as all our childhoods make us who we are. He tells me that we must find our own way through to discover who we are to become.

A lot revealed on a first date and we wrap-around each other in understanding. I am not good at being the cynic and tell him about the loss of D. He listens. He is quiet and reserved but full of heart—and reckless for art.

He asks, “Do I need to take care of you?” He has come over in the afternoon the day after the first date. He tells me he has a girlfriend, but that relationship is ending. He wants to make love. So do I, I think. He’s one of the good guys, I think (and still do.)

I have the key to my box. I can do this. “I can take care of myself,” I answer, and we make love.

He comes over the next afternoon. He is tired. We lie down on my bed, clothed, and we both sleep—relaxed, safe, intimate.

And then I go to Williamstown to visit my daughter and son-in-law for New Year’s. I have told Sarah and her husband Ryan about m. Before I board the plane, I sit at BWI and talk to m. on the phone before he is to be interviewed by the boarding school, very near Williamstown, where his oldest daughter hopes to go to prep school. I give advice about what he should say: Open heart, be concrete, I say from my cell phone to his: He’d called me.

Ryan meets me at the Albany airport. When Ryan sees me he says I am flushed. “Did you do it with m.?” he asks. I demure, but Ryan knows. Sarah and Ryan look at his profile on JDate. He is not Jewish but likes Jewish women. His wife was Jewish. Sarah cooks a gourmet dinner and we go to the Williamstown Theater to see the only thing playing, Holiday, writer-director Nancy Myers (Something’s Gotta Give—my daughter and I saw that one together in New York—and Baby Boom that Myers did when she was still married to her partner). Sarah says about Jude Law and Cameron Diaz, “This is going to happen to you, is happening. I want this for you. I want you happy again. Maybe he’s the one.” Sarah loves the Rom-Coms, too.

Sarah, after all was said and done with m., and more tries that came after (yes, I will tell), doesn’t think I write the story I’m telling you with enough irony. She thinks I am sentimental. “You need to be more ironized,” she advises. I think, Is that really a word? as I see myself on the board and the iron of life rolling over me. I think of all the ways that life betrays the living. I think of Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing,” the short story in Tell Me a Riddle. Tell me a riddle, please.

M. doesn’t call. I return to D.C. and then late in January to Missouri to finish out the second semester of my visiting writer job. I wait like a school-girl for the phone to ring. And finally, after more than a month, I send an e-mail: How are you? I ask. He replies, and signs his, “Warm regards.”

And then one night about another month later, he calls me at 11:30 at night and explains that he had trouble finding my number. He accuses me of being cool when I answer (not in the sense we meant that word when we were young in the fifties and still believed in love—or thought we did). He woke me. I am not good near midnight. Too much hope. Too much Cinderella: The Grimm Brothers tell us, Cinderella had jumped quickly down from the pigeon house (where she had been hiding after she had danced with and run from the prince) and had run to the little hazel-tree, and there she had taken off her beautiful clothes and laid them on the grave… .

I write this e-mail:

Dear m.,

I have hidden my profile on JDate. I have needed time to think about what I am about in all this, how much I need to be loved sincerely and wholly. And I need to search for that with the knowledge that passionate, joyous intimate love is rare and hard to find.

I did not mean to be cool last night, but I was quite tired. And I did not know how to express what I am saying here without appearing to blame you. I do not blame you. I did what I did with you because I wanted to. I do think now that I was reckless. That is what you were hearing last night when I made the comment about the lateness of your call.

I am glad that you called. But I do think that it is probably no accident that my number was not in your address book. I was not on your center stage, so to speak. You were on mine for a brief and lovely respite in my life.

Whether or not we might recapture that is to be seen.

Best,

Mary

PS: I sign my note “best” and you signed yours “warm regards.” One must wonder if I did indeed have the “zipless fuck” with you. I don’t think that’s what happened. But it is how it felt in the aftermath.

He calls in the morning and tells me he has met a woman in New York and that he thinks this one is for real.

You’ve got to admire the honesty.

And the break in my heart that is not his fault, widened. But I was ironized. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I find this on the Internet:

HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHO TO MARRY? (written by kids)
You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming. -- Alan, age 10

No person really decides before they grow up who they're going to marry. God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you're stuck with. -- Kristen, age 10

WHAT IS THE RIGHT AGE TO GET MARRIED?
Twenty-three is the best age because you know the person FOREVER by then. -- Camille, age 10

HOW CAN A STRANGER TELL IF TWO PEOPLE ARE MARRIED?
You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids. -- Derrick, age 8

WHAT DO YOU THINK YOUR MOM AND DAD HAVE IN COMMON?
Both don’t want any more kids. -- Lori, age 8

WHAT DO MOST PEOPLE DO ON A DATE?
Dates are for having fun, and people should use them to get to know each other. Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough. -- Lynnette, age 8 (isn”t she a treasure?)

On the first date, they just tell each other lies and that usually gets them interested enough to go for a second date. -- Martin, age 10

WHAT WOULD YOU DO ON A FIRST DATE THAT WAS TURNING SOUR?
I’d run home and play dead. The next day I would call all the newspapers and make sure they wrote about me in all the dead columns. -- Craig, age 9

WHEN IS IT OKAY TO KISS SOMEONE?
When they’re rich. -- Pam, age 7

The law says you have to be eighteen, so I wouldn't want to mess with that. -- Curt, age 7

The rule goes like this: If you kiss someone, then you should marry them and have kids with them. It’s the right thing to do. -- Howard, age 8

IS IT BETTER TO BE SINGLE OR MARRIED?
It’s better for girls to be single but not for boys. Boys need someone to clean up after them.-- Anita, age 9 (Bless you child.)

HOW WOULD THE WORLD BE DIFFERENT IF PEOPLE DIDN'T GET MARRIED?
There sure would be a lot of kids to explain, wouldn’t there? -- Kelvin, age 8

And the #1 Favorite is........
HOW WOULD YOU MAKE A MARRIAGE WORK?
Tell your wife that she looks pretty, even if she looks like a truck. -- Ricky age 10

These children are too young for the Rom-Com. Most of these films are rated R because of partial nudity: Sex is a key part of romance and of comedy. I ask, What is the most ridiculous position two people get in? Think about how it looks, not in the movies but, horrors, from a mirror in the ceiling.

In Hitch, as in most good romantic comedies—after all they are comedies—a misperception or unfortunate coincidence takes over the film before one or both cynics can see LOVE for what it might actually be: inexorable, indomitable, irrefutable, life-changing.

One could argue that coincidence drives the ending of Romeo and Juliet. I argue that the world of propriety could not bear their love.

Read any love stories in the news lately? Except for Michelle and Barack?

Love, actually: (Also another Rom-Com) Does it exist? Or do we all need to be ironized?

September 20, 2008

Oz

In Missouri, I fantasize: I am free. I can date. I join JDate, but keep my address as DC. I can “date” safely? at a distance. I believe in fairy tales.

The prince and princess in the white house have a Portuguese Water dog. The dog’s name is Bo because Sasha and Malia’s cousins have a cat named Bo and because Mrs. Obama’s father was nicknamed Diddley, as in Bo Diddleyas in Bo Diddley, who died June 2, 2008. My sister died on that date in 1993, three years after our mother. I wish for them both.

My family has been broken.

The Obama's children are beautiful, perfect and happy. They are the dream. But are they real? Or better: Is what we see real? There is a scrim across their lives. There is a scrim across our view of them.

The Grimm brothers told many stories, some of them barely known. “The Frog-Prince” we all know. And don’t we all wish for a time when wishes did some good. Here is the beginning of “Brother and Sister”:

Little brother took his little sister by the hand and said, “Since our mother died we have had no happiness. Our stepmother beats us every day, and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot. Our meals are hard bread crusts that are leftover and the little dog under the table is better off, for she often throws it a choice morsel. God pity us. If our mother only knew! Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.”

They walked the whole day over meadows, fields, and stony places. And when it rained the little sister said, “Heaven and our hearts are crying together.” . . . Then the brother said, “Sister, I am thirsty. If I knew of a little brook I would go and get a drink. I think I hear one running.” The brother got up and took the little sister by the hand and they set off to try to find the brook.


My son Ben gave me my wish in December 2006 as I was going on semester break from my visiting writer’s job at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Would you like to come to Oz?” he asked.

“Some day, sure,” I answer. I don’t have a signed separation agreement yet. I am worried about alimony and health care. A vacation? Not possible. I have borrowed money from him to pay my attorney.

D. when he learned this paid Ben back. But the fear revealed by the loan was real even if the fear of D.’s reprisals was not.

Ben bought me a round-trip, business-class ticket to Oz. My son imports and produces serious, ambitious wines from Australia. Before I opened the ticket, he told me not to look at the price. “You are my mother,” he said. I did look: $10,000. I did not have the funds to fly to Australia coach, let alone, the funds to fly in comfort.

I met on this trip almost all the winemakers he imports. I lived for two weeks on his vineyard: wild and craggy, rough-hewn beauty with a view of the sea.

What did he say to me when I wasn’t on my computer looking for dates with men in DC? He said, “You are strong. Don’t disappoint me. Move on. It’s time. It’s way overtime.”

I am making dinner at the vineyard one evening and open the refrigerator that is full of wines I cannot afford. I go outside: It is summer in Australia in December when I am there. I ask which white wine I may choose. “Any that suits you,” he answers.

And later that night when he is a bit drunk, he howls at me over the fire he has built in the pit on his veranda. The evenings are crisp and cool unlike the heat of the summer day. “I have seen you ask D. for permission too many times. You are free of him. You are free. Don’t f_ _king ever ask again for permission to drink a wine in my house. Do you understand me? You are free now. Be strong. Choose, woman!”

In the morning, he asks if he has been cruel. I reassure that he has not. “Good advice,” I say and we move on—though my heart still breaks for D.

Ben I part at the airport in Adelaide with tears withheld but visible inside his eyes, the way a lake holds back the sea’s surge as a storm pushes its force from afar. He puts on his shades. I get on the plane.

Ben is not speaking to D. (a great difficulty for me who has two children. I talked to both of them too much and inappropriately when D. left me. They are not in full agreement on this point. I suspect my daughter has worked out this trouble with me to some extent but not fully. They both feel “jerked around,” as Ben has put it. And rightly so. Who was I, their mother, to turn to them like the weepy school girl?)

This difficulty, somewhat shared by the two, should not be placed in a parentheses but there I place it with this from e.e. cummings’ poem that begins,

since feeling is first …

and that ends:

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis


What my son does not know is that the return flight was the beginning of my virtual dating and my fantasies about sex after sixty. What he does not know is that what happened on the flight from San Francisco to DC could never have happened if I had flown in coach.

My flight was delayed five hours in San Francisco, so long that the crew changed while most of us stayed on the plane, thinking it would take off soon. It did not. I had already been traveling some twenty or more hours to get from Adelaide to Sidney and Sidney to San Francisco and to the plane that would take me home. I was jet-lagged and I slept through the five-hour delay. Before I fell asleep, I saw a tall, slim elegant older man, a young seventy was my guess, wearing a blue suede sport jacket—strikingly beautiful and an unusual choice for what looked to me like a forceful man. He walked the aisles and flipped open his cell phone with purpose—determined I suspected to get another flight.

The CEO.

I sleep and write this dream down when I wake:

I have been watching a college baseball game. Men are playing. Ryan, my son-in-law, is hitting and fielding and I am wondering why he would choose this school when he could have gone somewhere so much better (of course I wake to remember that he played baseball at Dartmouth) but in the dream he attends a no-name school I also attend. There is a point in the game where I can see the ball coming, know just where it should be struck and have the desire to enter the field, to pick up the bat, to hit it so that the wood cracks with the precision of a well-hit ball, with the sound of wood against leather that is the right-spot sound. The bat does not break.

Then I am crossing the street, leaving the field and the wind is blowing so hard against me that I can see myself as the arc of the letter C trying to cross the street. Someone says, "She may be blown away, she’s light, a feather against it," but I hold true. I am wearing a pale taupe coat like the coats Audrey Hepburn wore in Charade. I am wearing low heels, pumps like hers. I make it across the street. I make it through the wind. I make it.

How absurd: old woman dreams herself young, like her beautiful daughter who is married to Ryan: my daughter Sarah, the knock-out with brains.

When I woke, I took my quart bag (post 9-11: all liquids must fit in such a bag) and walked toward the restroom to try to repair my face and the CEO met me in the space between the door and the flight attendant station: the galley. I went into the restroom, rattled by the fact that he had made eye-contact with me. He was standing there when I came out, by the way without my quart bag and it was never to be found. He handed me a slip of paper with his e-mail address on it and these words, “Looking is an over-rated feminine attribute.” But I had misread the note. I later learned that he had written “Cooking” instead of “Looking.” He talked to me briefly; I had been chatting with the woman and her husband behind me; she had been out in the airport and bought some wine she’d shared with him. I had told her something about my book. He and she had talked.

I was too rattled to recall what he said to me in the galley or on the Dulles transport that took us to baggage claim.

When home and after a good long sleep, I wrote him a note with my e-mail address and quoted his line about “looking.”

He replied:

Dear Mary,

Just back a few hours ago from DC and still a bit punchy from the flight, accumulated mail etc.

The napkin your “fellow traveler” gave me had your name and as I recall, a line about your book. My scrawled note was intended to say "Cooking is an over-rated feminine attribute...” meant in jest of course in reaction to The Woman Who Never Cooked. Your themes struck me as a fascinating combination that I’d not ordinarily (perhaps never) associate. Fascinating, to the extent I’d like to know how you connected them. I’ll order a copy tomorrow.

I enjoyed our ultra-brief intersection.

From the opposite coast...(Saratoga CA)

And signed with his full name (he is highly googleable). Here he shall be d.

And I replied with this babble:

Dear d.,

And, me, after actually some 34 hours traveling from Australia, at that point wearing no make-up and carrying around that mass of curly hair that I usually wear more elegantly... Well, here's what happened to me after you actually spoke to me: I lost my quart bag (that security requirement for lipstick, etc.), because I became flustered—more below on this state of mind. The quart bag had in it my perfume (Opium, BTW) and other quite expensive little bits of female trivia, considered essential by this female to cover the flaws. No steward could then find the little bag—the super pretty one who looked like Nicole Kidman and was quite aware of our bit of intrigue—had an observant eye, apparently—tried her best to help me find it but failed. I was thus unable to do any repair work—so you have seen the bare truth of the matter.

I am now about to sound like a character out of a Victorian novel here—but what happened is that I “swooned” when you came over to me in the galley—or in today's vernacular, lost my cool, assuming I ever had any of that.

Mary

His next subject line is: Can this be???

Dear Mary,

I've ordered “The Woman...” and look forward to it, wondering the extent to which it was shaped by personal experience, the experiences of others you knew...and/or a vivid imagination. All three? I paint watercolors to exercise the right brain, but I've long felt that “writing” (especially fiction) ranks at the top of creative endeavors.

I confess to no little amazement about our “instant connection” since objectively we've interacted in person for exactly 47 seconds. Even with our e-mails it has been ultra-brief. (With glances etc it becomes more reasonable wouldn’t you say? ) As a writer you must have something to say about the chemistry of spontaneous mutual personal attraction, no?

Your description of your bag of feminine accoutrements provoked smiles and may I remind you that my remark when you said something about not being at your best was along the lines of :You cannot hide good looks,” something I believe. Naturally it was also intended to put you at ease. Good looks and intellect are a marvelous combination!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was on my way to spend New Year’s eve with a woman I met on a cruise last year. After what seems like endless months of dealing with loss, I impulsively signed onto a cruise aboard a small ship and made a new friend. I seem to be on an uncertain path...ping-ponging between monasticism and tentative engagement. Best I stop here, lest I tell you more than you’d like.

When I’ve read your book I’d like to confer, knowing in advance that it will be stimulating, thought-provoking and perhaps a glimpse of MLT beyond that on UAL 782.

d.

And he does read my book, and he does write again. And once again I swoon:

Dear Sleeping Beauty,

“Sleeping Beauty” is as I first remember you in Seat 7C across two aisles, supine and lovely. The last indelible image is of you turning away with your luggage in tow at Dulles to connect with your driver to take you home in Washington. Your departure seemed abrupt and yet I didn't know how it could have been otherwise at that stage.

I refuse to say how many times I looked across the aisle, somewhat amazed that you were engaged in animated conversation with the young woman sitting next. (You must have been running on pure adrenalin.). Had you two been in opposite seats you’d have been aware of my glances, so perhaps just as well.

Funny thought as I hiked local hills this afternoon....What do you suppose might have transpired had we been in adjacent seats on 782? My guess is that at some point a cabin attendant might have suggested “more decorum” to put it politely.

d.

It is three years later and I have not met him. We corresponded via e-mail for two of those years and he called me two or three times this past year—the last time, I did not answer and he did not leave a message. At one point, the woman in Washington fell quite ill, a brain tumor and lung cancer. He told me about her trials. I hope she recovered. I viewed him loyal and true to her.

I value loyalty as does my son. But unlike my son, I value imperfection.

Virtual dating had begun. My son had made it possible. Wishing had begun.

I dream: I am in Australia with Ben and his winemakers, their wives, boyfriends (one female winemaker; unusual in Australia). We are on one of his winemaker friend’s boats that is in the harbor. The winemaker and all his workers and family and friends are going to prepare us dinner. Beforehand we have been at another meeting, a business meeting where there was among others an Italian man who looked, kept looking. While I am on the boat, the man begins to text message me, over and over again. But I know only how to listen: my phone speaks the text message. I don’t know how to answer. He is quite smitten.

And then we are standing by the rail looking at the sea. The sea is beautiful and I think that I might want to live here in Australia. I wonder if the millipedes would make this too hard for me. Ben battles them daily. He sweeps them up and so do I each morning and tosses the dead ones into the garden. I tell the winemaker the story I have heard that Russell Crowe was in a movie on a vineyard in Italy. And each morning he was confronted with the millipedes. I don’t know the name of the movie. But perhaps the millipedes were introduced into southern Australia by the influx of Italian immigrants who brought old vines, extraordinary cuisine and espresso to Barosa and McClaren Vale, to all of South Australia.

And then a first wave breaks over the railing. The bottom of my hair is fringed with spray and my hair begins to curl. And then I walk away from the group and a large wave rises in the sea. I see it coming, don’t know what to do but hold an inside rail along the wall of the boat. The wave rides large and full and I float with it, my head barely above it, still holding on. And it does not break. It rides over the entire boat and, in the dream, out to sea, though this is not possible as we are at harbor. If this were not a dream, the wave would have hit the shore, but it did not. The sea was before and behind us. Behind me.

I have two children who went through a hard time with me after D. “needed to be alone” and all the wreckage that came with that decision. They both heard things from a mother that even grown children, both over thirty, should not have heard: I spoke hard and sad about D. I did not know what I was doing. I worried them. I was weak and broken. I was romantic, silly, and searching.

I worry about what I did to my children. I worry about two strikes … Yes, this is my second marriage that has broken. I am learning about repair.

But I also know what wishing can do. In the grim Grimm story, the sister knows that if her brother drinks from the spring, he will become bewitched. She saves him from the fate of becoming a tiger who would tear her to pieces and of becoming a wolf who would eat her. She cannot save him from the fate of drinking finally from the brook that will turn him into a young roebuck.

Instead, here is what she does:

Now the sister cried over her poor bewitched brother, and the little roe wept also, sitting sorrowfully near to her.

But at last the girl said, “Be quiet, dear little roe. I will never, never leave you.”

Then she untied her golden garter and put it around the roebuck’s neck, and she plucked rushes and wove them into a soft cord. This she tied to the little animal and led it on, walking deeper and deeper into the forest.

And when they had gone a very long way they came at last to a little house, and the girl looked in, and as it was empty, she thought, “We can stay here and live.” Then she sought for leaves and moss to make a soft bed for the roe, and every morning she went out and gathered roots and berries, and nuts for herself, and brought tender grass for the roe, who ate out of her hand, and was content and played round her. In the evening, when the sister was tired and had said her prayer, she laid her head on the roe’s back: that was her pillow, and she slept softly on it. And if only the brother had had his human form, it would have been a delightful life.


Or, I ask, would it? For do we really know what wish has been fulfilled?

August 27, 2008

She should have known better

I went to Missouri with a long mane of white hair.


Hair and its length in women indicates sexual availability. Think about all the women you’ve known who cut their hair after they have a child. Oh sure, they say they cut it because they don’t have time anymore and there is truth to that assertion: They don’t! or think about religious traditions including mine that require hair to be cut off or covered once a woman has married.

I now see that I knew long before D. left that something in the marriage was amiss because on November 15, 2002, I decided to let my hair grow. I’d worn a buzz cut, a short spiky 'do since I married D. It was wash-and-go, tamed my curly hair and gave me the freedom I thought I needed.

I quit my job where I met D. and married him—see the photo, me pencil in hand—and went back to graduate school in 1996.


I never would have quit that job—or now I realize—cut my hair if I’d thought for a minute that he would leave me. He and I made equal salaries, his a bit more than mine even though I was perhaps more successful at my job than he at his. I know what you are thinking: Female emasculates male. She should have known better.

When I let my hair grow, it became wild, frizzy, untamed. D. one morning in the fourth month of this “trial of the hair” took my picture with my hands over my face. I look in that photo like Einstein. I tolerated this untamed hair for what I hoped would come. I despaired but still I hoped. I tried gels and conditioners but nothing worked. I looked like the wild woman of Borneo. I had grown up during the age of big rollers and carry-on hood hair driers. What did I know about this hair? What did I know of the meaning of this hair rebellion? I got off a plane to visit my daughter and her boyfriend, students in graduate school at the University of Chicago, and met my daughter’s alarm and unflinching honesty. She pulls no punches: “Your hair looks awful! What are you doing?” And then, her solution in the form of a rhetorical question: “Haven’t you ever heard of a curling iron?”

The French Fry Cutter salesman raises his voice on the commercial in my head: “But wait, there’s more.”

She sat me down on the toilet seat in her tiny bathroom in her miniscule Hyde Park apartment and strand by strand straightened my hair, tamed the hair follicle, lightened its touch to glimmer and shine. I am too old to look like the goddess that Michelle Obama is, but my hair moved the way hers did that night the prince and princess won the throne: it shone, it “swang” the way Michelle “swings.” We all know that she is not tamed. We know that the night Obama won the election men sat in front of their televisions mesmerized by her narrow dress, her delicate hands, her flat stomach and the curve of her hips and all of that started at the top her head with that 'do. She “swang.”

And so did I that night in Chicago. I tossed my hair that, once it had met the curling iron, now lay down in a silver sheen, curled under at the edge of my chin.

I was reborn.

In 1931, the year my mother was nineteen years old, a documentary entitled The Wild Women of Borneo hit the screen. It was black and white, made in the UK. At the website www.phrases.org.uk, I find this attempt at definition of the source of the phrase, “… [T]his comes from the Victorian circus habit of calling their black show people ‘wild’ and often attributing their origin to ‘Borneo’. They were often displayed wearing only a loin cloth, or similar tropical coverings, wielding a spear, or similar. The crowds were attracted with the call: ‘Roll up, roll up, see the wild man of Borneo.’ The ‘wild man of Borneo’ was well established as a concept in the UK before WW2, and possibly earlier. The ‘woman’ version is merely an extension.”

The New York Times tells me this about the film, comment attributed to Hal Erickson: “To say the least, the title of this 68-minute documentary is misleading. For one thing, we don't see any women until the last few minutes. For another, most of the film was shot in Mexico, which was not then nor is not now anywhere near Borneo. Only after the narrator comments on the natural beauties of the Island of Guadeloupe does the action shift to Borneo, and even then precious few human beings are seen. By the time the "wild women" show up, they are so obscured by trees and shrubbery that no one can get a decent look. … .”

When my mother was seventy years old, shortly before her stroke, I was applying her make-up for her birthday. She and I were looking in the mirror at her aged face. She said, “I still see the nineteen-year-old girl.” She was a natural beauty: long dark thick hair, fair skin, hazel eyes, delicate hands. She was obscured by the shrubbery of age. We could both see her through the trees of time. There was no noise while the nineteen year-old girl slid behind the trees.

There was no noise while my hair grew. There was no noise while my daughter tamed the hair follicle with a curling iron.

There was no noise when the avalanche hit in Chamonix, France.

August 26, 2008

The Princess and her house

But first, we sell our house—against my wishes—and I buy a condo in the Penn Quarter of DC.

I live a short walk from the White House—my route to my teaching job at George Washington University. As I write this and look back to 2006 when my life fell apart, Michelle and Barak Obama live in the House. Go here http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/michelle-obama-gardens-47022002
to see a picture of the beautiful princess Michelle in her garden on the south lawn of the White House . A princess should live in a white house. She says, “Every single person from Prince Charles on down was excited we are planting a garden.”

I live in the condo I bought when D. and I sold the old lady of a house in Adams Morgan. But I was not there for the leaving of the house. I took a cab to the airport and flew to Columbia, Missouri, for a visiting writer's job. On the curb stood my daughter Sarah and her husband Ryan and my husband D. In the trunk was the big suitcase with as many clothes and books I could fit. In another truck owned by Town and Country Movers—the moving company that moved us into the house and would move us apart—were all my files, my computer, the chair I sit in now to write at the computer and one stuffed chair from my attic study. I was moving to what I thought was a furnished house.

D. would move the furniture and dishes and paintings and photos we had into our two separate condos two and a half blocks apart. But I would not live in mine for one academic year.

And what an education that year was.

In olden times, when wishing still did some good, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, who, indeed, has seen so much, marveled every time it shone upon her face. In the vicinity of the king's castle there was a large, dark forest, and in this forest, beneath an old linden tree, there was a well. In the heat of the day the princess would go out into the forest and sit on the edge of the cool well.

And so The Frog-King begins, and, yes, this is the same story as The Frog Prince.

We are in the game of Charades. Two different versions of the same tale: when wishing still did some good …

In June 2006, two months before I moved to Missouri to teach, two months before the actual physical separation, when our house in Adams Morgan was sold and I moved out of town, I made up a vignette:

Dreamlike.

In this less-than-perfect perfect town where the husbands take their bikes to the train or their wives pick them up in cars, where the storefronts have signs that say things like Simply Good or Hats Galore or Pink and Blue, the dream of adultery understood unfolds: Lily is having an affair with Gordon, her best friend’s husband. During a party that this friend, Skilly, is having, Lilly sits on Gordon’s lap. The adulterous pair Gordon and Lilly become entwined rapidly whenever they are together. They hide, skulk—a word Lilly heard in a British romantic comedy that describes what they must do to be together. But at the party Skilly can be seen more often than usual with Fergus who is married to Lilly. When Lily leaves the bathroom, she sees Fergus with Skilly, his hand in hers.

Suddenly Lilly knows they are all free.

She tells Gordon, “Skilly and Fergus. Yes, I know you don’t believe it, but yes, Skilly and Fergus.”

Gordon will ride his bike to the train in the morning but what will he do about Skilly when it is Lilly’s vulva that he craves?

Nietzsche says, But thought is one thing, the deed is another, and the image of the deed still another: the wheel of causality does not roll between them.

I knew when I made up the vignette that my husband did not want me—or so I thought. I created a fantasy that we would each find other partners and simply exchange.

Do Sa Do. Change partners.

Here is what Dorothy Parker had to say:

General Review of the Sex Situation

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman’s moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it.
What earthly good can come of it?

I prefer D. H. Lawrence:

But firm at the centre
My heart was found
My own to her perfect
Heartbeat bound,
Like a magnet's keeper
Closing the round.

Do Sa Do. Change houses.

Here is what I found in August 2006 in Missouri. Consider this a letter I wrote you after I’d arrived:

The furnished house I rented sight unseen turns out to be a pit owned by a tenured English professor and her poet husband—both writers. The first thing I had to do was buy a bed as they were sleeping on a 20-year-old futon and I woke the first night thinking I must be the princess and the pea as a stone is clearly sticking into my hip bone. But it was the futon that is hardened over the years into a substance not unlike cement.

Did you know that when you are desperate and have no car—am getting to that—you can order a bed over the phone? The kitchen did not have a working oven for three weeks. The owners didn’t want to fix it—but eventually came around—so as of today I do have an oven, only three of the four burners on the stove work, and the cabinets have virtually no glassware or dishes and every spoon is bent. They didn’t even leave me a can opener that works. But they did leave me the trash can in the kitchen—a metal outdoor can that is some twenty years old and filthy. The house is basically unfurnished and I brought with me only my books, my computer, an old stuffed chair and a small table that I was grateful for as I had a table for the lamp I brought—no side tables—no nothing.

They also left me their car as a gift: It had a flat tire when I arrived and did not have a rearview mirror on the driver’s side. It was filthy dirty, with no gas in the tank and a non-working muffler (I couldn’t hear if someone beeped; the radio was on but I couldn’t hear it except as some sort of odd additional noise and it wouldn’t turn off; only the window on the driver’s side operated. It cost me $125 to get it in some sort of order so that I could buy a few groceries. I then bought a used car by having the salesman drive to my house with whatever he had—desperate woman gives salesman the $5,000 she has saved in an envelope over 11 years of teaching and hoarding bits of cash (couple hundred bucks for my daughter, slipped in her palm, when she needed it, that sort of money)—and I gave him the car. The second day I drove the car, the air-conditioning died, but the salesman who actually stopped and bought me milk and orange juice when I asked came back and had it fixed (I hoped—not really) after I had signed the paper releasing him of all warranty and declaring the car I had just bought was a junker—a Missouri law. I am not making this up.

Then I drove to school: The university would not declare me as present and working without showing the strange fiscal officer for the English Department (everyone tells me she is OCD) my actual Social Security card. It did not matter to her that I know my number. She wouldn’t accept my passport or driver’s license. I had to come back to DC for settlement on the house in Adams Morgan and was able to locate my card, which I obtained when I began working at age 16—you do the math—and no one has ever asked me for and I have been working since age 16. As a result, I will now be paid eventually but I do not have the all-essential employee id number which would allow me to get paid and get an id card and use the library. Perhaps in a few weeks, I will have that number.

And G-d knows when I will get paid because I appear not to exist.

That is, I fear, a partial story, but here is the good news: I have held up, have only “hit the wall” so to speak once (cried all day the day I had no food, no car, and no way to get food—and that was one week after the initial move). But I love to teach and taught my first class this past Monday, and, as I said, I have a condo in the Penn Quarter (so does D; it is all very weird, I know) to which I will return as often as I can and permanently in mid-May.

But I love to teach and teaching began this Monday. I am writing this on Saturday morning as I wait for the cable guy for whom I waited last week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and who did not show up—no t.v. reception where I live without cable.

And the professor/writer Marly Swick has befriended me, read my collection and loves it, especially the story “Sine Die,” which everyone hates and I think is the best in the series of stories about one woman one day who could no longer cook. Marly has asked me to come speak to both her undergrad and grad writing students the first or second week of classes about that story and my book. I think I’ve made a true friend. (I did.)

And Missouri is unusually gentle: Yesterday, my mail lady rang my bell. She said, “I have been worried about you—the car was here but the mail was piling up. Are you okay?” I told her I had been briefly away, that I had been having a bit of a hard time here, but that she reassures me about the goodness in the world.

Nietzsche and the Brothers Grimm are not so different. This I am learning. I do wonder if Nietzsche is the reality check on wishes and dreams. I refuse to believe this while I consider the possibility.

August 25, 2008

I need to live alone

I love romantic comedies: weep over them, quote their dialogue without attribution in conversation as when I am with a man who says he wants to be friends with me, “You actually believe that men and women can be friends?”

When Harry Met Sally: Harry: “What I’m saying is—and this is not a come-on in any way, shape, or form—is that men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.”

I collect music scores of Rom-Coms, buy the DVDs and watch them over and over again. Now sure, the appeal to me and others is this: girl meets boy and LOVE results, inexorable, indomitable, irrefutable, life-changing LOVE.

I was sixty years old when my husband—let’s refer to him as D.—dumped me—old story, I know. But wait, as the commercials for fancy French Fry cutters say.

I begin writing about my separation from D. on August 25, my parents’ anniversary. They were married fifty-four years. Can you believe it? I am alone and reading The New York Times in my condo where I live now. I find this: AP report, dateline: Chamonix, France (Isn’t that where Cary meets Audrey in Charade’s first scene? “Can’t he do something constructive like start an avalanche or something?” Reggie, played by Audrey Hepburn asks Silvie after young Jean Louis shoots her in the face with his water gun. Jean Louis shoots Peter, played by Cary Grant, as well.) The AP reports on an avalanche that “swept down a major summit in the French Alps before dawn on Sunday, leaving eight climbers missing and presumed dead along a trail often used to reach Mont Blanc … . One survivor, Marco Delfini, an Italian guide, said he saw ‘a wall of ice coming towards us, and then we were carried 200 meters.’ An injured survivor Nicholas Duquesnes, told Agence France-Presse, ‘There was absolutely no noise; it was very disturbing. We only had time to swerve to the right before being mowed down.’ ”

I had been married twenty-one years when D. announced, “I need to live alone.” Oh so Greta Garbo. There was absolutely no noise. I was sixty years old and had been chasing him around the bedroom—to no avail—for ten years. Bill Maher in a comedy routine on HBO not so long after he had been dumped by ABC only to arise again with Politically Incorrect, said in a joke about older women, “menopause.” Get it? Men A Pause. Yeah, I got it.

The French Fry Cutter salesman raises his voice on the commercial in my head: “But wait, there’s more”: I decide to date. I want a man who believes that men and women in love must be friends. But Harry is right that the sex part matters.

The hell with Bill Maher.