February 20, 2009

Adultery

When my daughter turned thirty-five—a beautiful startling woman whose mind is full of wonder—she suggested that I look for a man I might have known when I was single: either before I married her father or between my marriages, before I married D. “You never know,” she said, “who might still be single or divorced or widowed.”

That day I counted the months. My daughter was born in February, my sister’s birth month. January, when my mother died in 1990. March, when I turned 63. June, when my sister died in 1993. She was 53.

I am discovering what it is not only to age but to live a decade longer than my older sibling. My sister would have helped through heartbreak. She knew it well. That knowing I have now learned is a gift.

My daughter is a philosopher. For this reason and others, I find her advice worth sleeping on.

I dreamt that I’d taken my first Philosophy class with Jacques Derrida. My daughter is an expert in this philosopher who died in 2004. I was taking the final exam and could not answer a single question. The test was full of quotes from philosophers I should have read but had not and from some I had read but still did not recognize what they had said. The key was to match the quotes with the names, no list of names provided. Others taking the exam seemed to be finishing but I left every question blank with the exception of one guess: Nietzsche, who said, It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.

I am learning the meaning of that sentence and perhaps more important the meaning of heartbreak.

Perhaps I should call j., a man I’d “dated”—I thought he was single—after my first husband and I divorced. I dated D. during this time as well—he was single. And I did call j.

Then I slept and dreamt: His eyes in the dream were cloud-white blue, the color of D.’s eyes. When I woke I knew that that my memory of who he was or might have been was a vision of him but not him.

J.’s eyes are brown. I’d describe those eyes that once electrified me if I could see him in real life, but he had never been totally real. He was not possible. I’d met him before I married D. and fallen madly for him only to discover later to my horror that j. was married. The serial adulterer I’d often write about in my stories, the man I’d always believed had broken my heart before I knew what breaks a heart. That I learned from D., the man I would always love even if I could never be with him again, even if I could never sleep with him again—all the things I was certain of and this from a woman who is certain of only one thing: the meaning of an open heart. And this term “open heart” is one I can’t define. So even that certainty is surrounded by uncertainty.

Definitions are not my strong suit.

In the dream j., an attorney, was on trial and I had inexplicably been chosen to be his attorney. But I had not been to law school. I was patently unqualified but there was no way out. He had been accused of stealing cigarettes kept in cartons in the office of his closet, kept under lock and key so that no one in the office could smoke them. J. used to be a chain smoker and a self-claimed alcoholic (I never believed that he drank enough to be one, but he had a coin in his pocket, a five-year coin he’d shown me that alcoholics carry after being sober for that long). We were in the courtroom. I was trying to figure out how to solve the case. I decided, perhaps because of too much television, that lawyers must be detectives, at least criminal lawyers did. I was only interested in crimes of passion and anger. Crimes of need fell into categories that covered the global realm of the human psyche while crimes of passion and anger were primal. Or so I thought. I was not certain of this or anything but the open heart.

I concluded he was innocent of the crime of stealing the cigarettes because that crime was not one of need—not for him anyway. It had to be a crime of anger or passion against him. I knew he was having an affair with an Asian beauty, a young attorney in his office.

I had learned this while awake—a phone call, a drink with j., the man I thought I’d once loved. And of course he was still married but told me he’d left his wife. Left his wife for someone other than me? How could he?

But, as in the dream, I would defend him.

Open heart, open heart, open heart.

His wife is a beauty in her own right, a beauty whom he said he didn’t love. But what did he know of love? This I was concluding about myself so I say it about him. Most people come to such conclusions through their own clouded lenses that lack the clarity of cloud-white blue.

Nietzsche says, He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.

J. had not joined the Asian attorney though he was still sleeping with her: “The sex is amazing.” That’s what he said when we met for the drink. That was the sort of thing he said out loud while I drank red wine and he drank water, the sort of thing he should say only to the woman he was having sex with, the sort of thing that made me see that he’d not been the one to break my heart, that there is a difference between disappointment and rejection and that irreparable break in the beating organ at the center of our chests and minds and souls—the metaphor for who we are: human and alive: open heart, open heart, open heart.

February 15, 2009

Bliss

I find the professor through a three-day foray on PerfectMatch.com. I write him. The correspondence that follows over less than four months from the last week in January to April 2007 fills 227 pages [I am not making this up] of almost totally his words while I am in Missouri and he, in Baltimore. Yes, I meet him. We become lovers ever so briefly.

He loves the phrase “aesthetic bliss.”

He refers to Nabokov’s use of the phrase though he never identified the exact source: “an essay,” he said. But I know that the phrase comes from Nabokov’s afterword for Lolita: “There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s [Nabokov’s fictional writer of the foreword to the novel] assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only in so far as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

In “On Involuntary Bliss,” Nietzsche closes with this: Zarathustra laughed to his heart, and said mockingly: “Happiness runs after me. That is because I do not run after women. For happiness is a woman.”

Nietzsche also loves the word bliss. He uses it twenty-six times in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

On the first day and evening in early 2007 when I “virtually” met the professor, he wrote me ten e-mails that filled twenty-eight single-spaced pages. Yes, I saved them all.

Read this excerpt from one: “When you actually read my profile, you’ll see that you are exactly what I’m looking for, because the core of what I’m looking for, beyond being able to share ‘aesthetic bliss’ with her is this: ‘If you’re the one, I want an evolving (i.e., lifelong, unending), deepening conversation with you in which we use all the verbal and physical resources we have, to know and be known--the good, the bad, and the fabulous. We could also use a shared joke, a simpatico sense of humor and irony about life, and us.’ Yeah, I know, we haven’t gotten to the in the flesh physical yet (though I was building a pretty good mental image of that too as we were talking! And I printed out the largest image of your picture I could get from Perfectmatch, which I’m keeping beside my computer now to remind me every day of how good-looking you truly are). But otherwise, I experienced everything I’m talking about here in the profile in our conversation tonight. (By the way, I don’t even have a ‘cut’ option when I go to my Match profile. So I’ve printed it, so I can snail mail it to you. Please give me your Columbia address: it’s safe! I’m a thousand miles away! And I do want you to read the profile, because you will see in black and white how perfect you are for me, as I know you felt you obviously were in our conversation tonight.)”

As you might guess, he was not perfect for me.

Do we really believe in the phrase “perfect for me?”

He was a deluge.

What follows is an actual description of my condo in DC on the night soon after I rejected the professor, a night in May or June, when I roasted a chicken.

I refer to myself in the third person. Is that more or less solipsistic?

More.

She had to find the key to the windows. She didn’t know that windows on the seventh floor needed keys. She had only opened one when she moved in during winter. These gizmos prevent the windows from being opened with a protrusion of metal that the key fits into. Turn it one way and the window won’t open; turn it the other and the window will. She kept getting on and off the ladder to stick the key into a window, open it, jump back on the ladder and continue fanning the smoke alarm.

She still doesn’t know what makes the sprinkler system actually go off. But she also knows that yelling help in her hallway while her smoke alarm is screaming bloody murder does not raise a soul on a Thursday night! It was Thursday for god’s sake. Wasn’t anyone home?

When it was all over and the chicken was sitting majestically crispy on the counter and ready to eat and she had sprinkled the chopped thyme into the juices and done the only basting Thomas Keller requires—at the very end while the chicken is resting—she by the way needed to lie down—she knew that she could take care of herself. She had after all saved a twelve story building from burning or being evacuated and cooked a chicken that was hot damn good for a man she was smitten with. And boy was she smitten.

But not with the professor by the time I move back from Missouri and into my condo in DC.

When I reject the professor, he first excoriates me. He asserts that he gets me. How I dare I reject him.

Then he analyzes me. And perhaps he is right. Here is his analysis:

“After all you’d been through, you naturally needed a ‘fever dream,’ an escape into passion on all levels, from chocolate-covered strawberries on [I sent him these on Valentine’s Day]. But your psyche was always aware of the danger of drowning in the flood, and eventually you therefore ‘woke up’ from the dream, and realized, like Marianne in S&S [he refers to Marianne in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility] and Don Quixote, after their emblematic fevers, that you have to come to terms with reality.”

Here is Thomas Keller’s recipe at www.epicurious.com under Mon Poulet Rôti:

Ingredients

One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)

Unsalted butter
Dijon mustard

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it's a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken—I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone—I don't baste it, I don't add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don't want. Roast it until it's done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I'm cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook's rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be super-elegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You'll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.


A roast chicken prepared in one hour, tender, remarkable. Safe from fire. No alarm: Aesthetic bliss.

Nietzsche says, With rope-ladders I have learned to climb to many a window; with swift legs, I climbed high masts; and to sit on high masts of knowledge seemed to me no small bliss [sometimes translated as happiness]: to flicker like small flames on high masts—a small light only and yet great comfort for shipwrecked sailors and castaways.