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.