BEFORE FEMINISM

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[Author’s note: I’ve been writing this story for what seems like forever. As a factual matter , it hasn’t been forever. I probably began it in 2007 or 2008.  The first version was in the third person, as if it were fiction; the protagonist was named Sophie. It seemed easier to write it that way. Every time I revised it, I would make small changes, but left it Sophie’s story.  It even went into this blog in September 2014 as Sophie’s story, a fiction. (It was called “Sophie Before Feminism.”) Ten readers “liked” it then and four or five commented, favorably. It’s had only sporadic readership over the years since then.  But I’m a stubborn cuss and reluctant just to leave it like that, especially as Sophie is now the name of one of my cats. So I’ve put it into the first person, where it always belonged, to see if it reads better that way.  What’s in it all happened a very long time ago, but it really happened.  If any of you remember the first version, you can tell me if this is an improvement. Or not.]

 

BEFORE FEMINISM

[A true story. With one name changed.]

I was again living with my parents. This was customary back then, if you weren’t yet married. I did have a boyfriend. But Ed was divorced with four children, had alimony and child support obligations. His job as an instructor at USC paid nearly nothing. He was also thirty-one, nine years older than I was. He rented a furnished studio opposite the Paramount lot, drove a broken-down ’37 Plymouth coupe, spent his spare time writing unmarketable novels. The silent parental disapproval was palpable.

Initially, Ed’s tweed jacket and MFA from Yale had been considerable attractions in this cultural wasteland to which my parents had dragged me after college. He’d also taught me quite a lot in his pull-out Murphy bed about what men like.  Still, my parents were right. There was no future in it.  He worked the summer session to make ends meet and spent August in Texas, where his children lived with their mother. All he could provide were modest weekend suppers, which I cooked on his two-burner hotplate, and the diversions to be found in the Murphy, now becoming routine. He wasn’t even apologetic. “We’re made for each other,” he crowed. I could manage only a false smile. I hated scenes, fled from conflict, chose the easy way. Also, there was no one else on the horizon.

I had to admit he’d been useful in one important way. I was now a graduate student at no cost in the USC English Department, thanks to a teaching assistantship I probably owed to his recommendation. I was only a year or so older than some members of the English 101 section I taught; the front row consisted mainly of vets newly returned from Korea. But I made sure to wear elegant suits with narrow skirts, handkerchief linen blouses, nylons with seams marching smartly up the back of my calves, and neat low-heeled pumps from Bonwit Teller – so no one could mistake me for a coed. I also sometimes sat on the desk, legs crossed like Lauren Bacall on Harry Truman’s piano, to appear more sophisticated and at ease than I felt.

My own graduate studies included British History 340 (MWF 2:00-2:50), an unwelcome but necessary undergraduate survey course. No survey course, no graduate English degree. It was surprisingly hard. Moreover, the thirty other students fanned out towards the rear of the auditorium, although mostly male, seemed useless for horizon-broadening purposes. They almost all looked too young. A somewhat older fellow with bad skin, up front on the left, nodded hopefully in my direction each time I slid into my seat up front on the right. I always pretended not to see. Two other older ones, halfway back behind me, sat together on their spines. Returning GIs? Neither paid attention whenever I sailed past.

Last Friday in October: the professor slapped the graded blue books containing our five-week British History exam answers on the first seat in front of the podium. 25% of the final grade right there. Would a B jeopardize my assistantship? The class line snaked towards the diminishing pile. I took a deep breath, flipped through the top ones and recognized my name. On the cover, a large A-minus. New questions quickly trumped relief. Was grading on the curve? Had anyone done better?

A voice with a distinctive crack disputed a grade. The owner of the voice waved his blue book in the air. It was clearly marked with another large A minus. Indignation rose sour in my throat. A-minus wasn’t good enough? He was arguing? As I watched, the professor re-marked his booklet with an A and altered the record of the grade in his grade book. The owner of the new A turned to the room at large with a smile of triumph. I recognized him. The taller of the two who sat on their spines. His achievement clouded my weekend.

How fortunate he was expounding crap as I came down the aisle on Monday. “The Jansenists were right,” I heard. “The world is evil and damned. And I’m evil and damned too. There’s no hope for me. So what can I be but a Jansenist?”

Such an opportunity! Partially turning, the better to show a curved hip and the relative flatness of my girdled stomach, I sweetly inquired: “But why call yourself a Jansenist? This is the twentieth century! If you eliminate God from your Jansenism, you could say you’re an Existentialist. Haven’t you read Sartre?” Sometimes I impressed even myself with the nonsense that emerged from my mouth when needed. His dark eyes had a downward tilt at the outer corners. It gave him an amused look.  “Hm,” he said. “I’ll think about it. Since you say so.”

“Do.” I felt much better about my A minus.

He was lounging against the stairwell banister when I came out after class. As faculty, I had an elevator key. The preliminary repartee was predictable. It got him into the elevator with me. Our trip to the lobby was brief and silent. He looked at me. I looked at him. He was tall, a tough guy – but with a full mouth, pale skin, dark crew cut, and those amused eyes. He needed a shave. He wore a heavy navy blue sweater with a large white ND on it. Too soon the elevator door opened. “Well, thanks,” he said. “It was a pleasure. See you Wednesday.” I so much didn’t want to forget any part of this encounter that I wrote it all down as soon as I got home.

Wednesday: He had shaved. He was very polite. He gestured to the empty seats next to me: “Anyone sitting here?”   I smiled, shaking my head. He left one seat between us. The lecture began almost at once. We both took careful notes. I couldn’t have repeated a single thing I wrote.

We again rode the elevator in silence. Outside he asked if I’d like a cup of coffee. We walked on slabs of sidewalk between wide swaths of late autumn grass. The mid-afternoon sun was shining. It was like being in a movie. He offered to carry my books. No, no, I could manage. He insisted on taking them. No one had ever carried my books before. I knew we were talking about something, but the actual words didn’t count. Another something, very powerful, was pulsing between us. We reached Commons. The other teaching assistants from the English Department were sitting together at two tables and saw him holding my books as well as his own. I suggested we go sit with them but he said no, we should go downstairs. So the other teaching assistants also saw us go down to The Hole, where only undergraduates hung out. What did it matter? My real life was beginning at last.

We found an empty booth. He slid in opposite me. I ordered my coffee black, with saccharin. (I counted calories in those days, so as to look good naked.) He poured lots of cream and sugar in his and put away a big slice of blueberry pie while he told me about himself. I was so preoccupied with leaning my chin on my hand and hanging on every word I forgot to ask his name until he suddenly said he had to go. It was Yates. Like the poet’s, only spelled differently. And his first name was William, also like the poet’s. Will, he said. The middle name was Benedict, not Butler, but at least the initial was B. I loved it that someone who looked so tough had a poet’s name. Well, nearly a poet’s name.

When we went for our second coffee on Friday, a buddy of his caught up with us, so Will sat next to me. Maybe to show the buddy I was his. Although the buddy seemed to know about me already, whatever there was to know. He soon left for a date with a girl who was helping him with his German. After he was gone Will explained it wasn’t a date, exactly. The girl the buddy was meeting was a prostitute from Germany and he had to pay for the sex; only the help with German was free. The idea that I had just met someone who paid women to let him inside their bodies was so astonishing I couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so I just tried to look amused and knowing, and asked instead if he was a really good friend. Then Will hesitated a bit before saying they had only had a couple of classes together. But the buddy, casual acquaintance or no, brought us closer together. For our third and fourth coffees, on the following Monday and Wednesday, we went on sitting side by side. Although I did notice Will was still being very careful no part of him touched any part of me. I wasn’t sure why. Even though going slow was supposed to be a sign of respect, he must know, I thought, that I knew neither of us were playing games.

However, before the third coffee came a weekend. That Friday evening in the pull-out Murphy bed, Ed toiled between my thighs without success. His head conveniently out of sight, I could go on thinking about how Will had grown up in a place in Boston called Southie, which I understood to be a poor neighborhood or maybe even a slum because he’d said he used to hang out with street gangs. He’d enlisted at sixteen by lying about his age. (He was actually only two years older than I was. Perfect!) But the war in Europe was over by the time he’d finished basic training, so they’d shipped him to the Pacific. Fortunately, he missed the bad parts, like Iwo Jima, because MacArthur picked him to be in his Honor Guard instead. (The Honor Guard was all tall white guys, he explained.) After discharge he’d eventually gotten his high school diploma and gone to Notre Dame on the GI Bill. He’d also told me how once, during football practice, he scored the perfect touchdown. It didn’t count, he said, because he was only the third string quarterback, but he didn’t care, because he had done it and he knew he had done it.

Ed looked up at me over my stomach and asked how I was doing. I apologized for taking so long. Then I thought about how Will had finally walked out of Notre Dame one semester before graduation because he’d become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the Church. (Which was the reason he was finishing up his last year out here; he’d started in February and now was nearly done.) That was so principled and brave of him there was no way I was going to be able to come, no matter how long poor Ed kept at it. It didn’t occur to me to fake it. (Expedient fakery would be an acquisition of my thirties.) I encouraged him to forget it and finish up for himself. “I must be catching something,” I explained. On Saturday night, I said my period had arrived unexpectedly. I put the diaphragm back in its case in his bathroom cabinet and we went to the movies instead. By then, I could hardly bear to hold his hand. I wondered if I ought to be feeling guilty, or at least selfish, but all I could feel was glorious anticipation.

Will was unhappy at our Monday coffee. He said he hated his life and especially hated having to work after class selling Hoover vacuum cleaners door-to-door to ladies who already had an okay vacuum cleaner and didn’t need a new one. He really wanted to stay longer in our booth in the Hole. He wished we could stay there forever. On Wednesday he even walked me from Commons to the faculty parking lot and seemed to have difficulty leaving. I considered this a promising development and wondered when he would ask me out. He was certainly taking his time. One thing I did know: absolutely no more weekends in the Murphy bed.

Ed had a late afternoon class on Wednesday. I drove to his studio immediately after leaving campus, let myself in with the key he’d given me, stealthily removed my diaphragm from his bathroom and tiptoed out, locking the door behind me. I’d have to keep the diaphragm case at the bottom of my purse because I couldn’t leave it at home, my mother looked everywhere. But it was a big purse, there was room.

On Friday Will was apologetic. He had to go right after class. He was sorry. So sorry. Coffee would have to wait until Monday. I telephoned Ed to say I was ill, had skipped history class and gone right home. Fever of 103. If I were better on Saturday, I’d let him know, but I felt awful and it didn’t look good. I was sorry. So sorry. I spent the weekend douching in the bathtub to clean every trace of him out of myself. My mother kept asking through the door if anything was wrong. Between baths, I studied British History. It reminded me of Will.

My first Freshman English section met at 9 a.m. on Monday. I was there five minutes early, in suit, pumps and makeup — looking pretty good, I thought. The students drifted in. Just as I was closing the classroom door to begin, Ed’s face, red-eyed and distraught, appeared through the glass panels. The students strained to see what was going on. “You’ve left me,” Ed sobbed, not quietly. I heard a suppressed giggle from somewhere behind me. “Ssh,” I hissed to Ed. “I’m teaching now.” Couldn’t he just slink away and lick his wounds by himself? “You took your diaphragm!” he exclaimed in strangled grief. A freshman football player trying to enter the room around him did a second take and smirked.  “You’ve left me for someone else!”

“And?” I closed the door on him, turned to my class and shrugged. They laughed. I knew I should have handled it better, and managed to not smile back. Then I took attendance, chewing the inside of my mouth to keep the corners from turning up. Everyone was unusually attentive. It was a rewarding class.

I was afraid Ed would reappear at any moment during the rest of the day, but he kept his distance. Now and then I thought how awful he must be feeling, but that made me feel awful myself. I tried to reason myself out of it. Didn’t he understand that we couldn’t have gone on endlessly, with me just providing the sex in his financially constricted life but getting nothing else out of it? Didn’t he have any remorse for his exploitation of my youthful optimism, my good nature? It had to stop. I was entitled to a life, too.

Then I was at last in the Hole again, sitting side by side with Will. His bare right forearm lay on the formica table parallel to and no more than a quarter inch away from my bare left forearm. I looked at the two arms, so close together. The skin on his was paler than the skin on mine, as if he hadn’t been in the sun at all, even last summer. And it had fewer hairs on it than Ed’s or my father’s. It was foreign flesh. Pale muscular foreign flesh, sparsely dark-haired. So different. So exciting.

“I want to go to bed with you,” he said.

I went on looking at our arms. Well of course. Wasn’t that what I wanted, too? How honest he was!  “You have to understand,” I said carefully. “I don’t just do that. With this person and then that person. When I go with someone, it has to mean that we’re together, really together.” I stopped short of mentioning love. I wanted him to say it first.

“I do understand,” he said solemnly.

Now I had to say yes or no. If I said no not yet, would that mean I wasn’t the sophisticated woman he took me for?   I didn’t think I could say no. “All right then,” I agreed. “If you really mean it.”

“ I really mean it. Let’s go.” He started out of the booth.

“Wait! Go where?” This was all happening very fast.

“I’ll find somewhere.” Up the stairs he went, to the public phones on the street level.

His car was a green ’51 Pontiac. He put our books in the trunk, next to some spare Hoover vacuum cleaner parts, and we screeched out of the student parking lot. I asked where we were going. He said he’d called friends in Covina who were willing to take in an early movie. Their key would be under the mat. Then he didn’t say anything else. He just drove, both hands on the wheel, eyes fixed straight ahead — with focus and speed appropriate to the driver of a getaway car. Maybe I was making a mistake.

“Considering what we’re about to do,” I said after a while, “you might be a little friendlier.” The car lurched to the curb, I heard him jerk the hand brake, he grabbed me like a starving man, his mouth opened on mine, my heart dropped, we kissed and kissed, I dissolved next to a hydrant on North Puente, and long afterwards I could still tremble when I remembered.

The rest of the ride was better. Will found a Thrifty Drug, where I bought spermicidal jelly and he bought fortified port wine. After we got back into the car, he took my hand while he drove with the other. “Tell me,” he asked, “do you always carry your diaphragm around with you?”

It was nearly dark when we arrived. There were two rooms. We tiptoed through the first, which had bookshelves, but that’s all I could see, because of course I had my glasses off. The second was the bedroom. He was clumsy at finding my buttons and hooks so I quickly undressed myself while he pulled off his sweater, shirt and pants and kicked off his shoes. Next I went to the bathroom. Sitting on someone else’s toilet squeezing jelly into the rubber cap, I reflected this wasn’t as romantic as I might have liked. But after I emerged protected and we’d drunk some of the port out of the bottle (I took only a few sips because of the calories), the passionate kissing started up again and reflection disappeared. Then his erection got in the way so we went to bed, he climbed on top and came very soon. “That’s okay,” he said, putting his arm around me. “There’s lots more where that came from. Once I came seven times in one night.”

I did like the arm around me.

The second time I managed to get a pillow underneath myself before he mounted; it didn’t help much. I wondered if it was because his penis was rather slender compared to Ed’s, but decided that was probably not it, since it was long enough and hard enough, and certainly energetic enough. More likely, it was just that he seemed not to know what to do with it except come as quickly as possible. He didn’t even seem very concerned that I hadn’t. I would have to give lessons. Very delicately. I forgave him. For now. How could he have learned about lovemaking, given his rough and difficult life? He might have been mostly with whores, like his buddy. Maybe I was his first real girl.

The third time I suggested I get on top – which was apparently such a novelty to him that again he came almost at once. Instead of apologizing, he beamed. Finally, out of desperation, I offered to go down on him, to empty him out a bit.  But just as he was about to come rapidly a fourth time, we heard a key in the lock. All I could remember after that is cowering naked and scared under the sheet while Will pulled on his pants and went to the front door for whispered negotiations. We had ten minutes to wipe up, make the bed and get out of there.

He was hungry. At a drive-in near the university he ordered a double cheeseburger, extra large fries and a malted. I held off, lit a cigarette and tenderly watched him put away his food. Men were really just little boys, weren’t they? But after he’d finished the last crumbs, he remarked only that we’d better be getting back to the faculty lot for my car. Was that all he had to say? I looked away through the side window, so he shouldn’t see my disappointment. He did ask for my phone number, though, and memorized it right there. He didn’t have a phone himself, he said, but he’d find a way to call. He nodded twice when he said it, for emphasis, and repeated the number out loud afterwards, to show that now he really knew it.   He also leaned over and gave me a little kiss on the lips, when we reached my car. The next morning I slipped Ed’s key into an addressed envelope and dropped it in a mailbox on the way to school.

The phone rang Wednesday evening as I was finishing dinner with my parents. It was Will. He had some free time. Could I come out with him in about ten minutes? We did some fooling around in the green Pontiac before he explained that he hadn’t been able to find a place for us to go. Would it be all right if we just had a bite and wandered around? Silly boy. Did he really think it wouldn’t be? He drove to a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard where I watched him put away half a large roast chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, a dish of cooked sliced carrots glazed with honey (he said he liked carrots very much) and two ice-cream-soda-sized glasses of chocolate milk. He spread a pat of butter on each of the two white rolls that came with the chicken and wolfed them both down for dessert. “How can you eat so much and not gain weight?” I asked. “I burn up a lot of energy,” he said. “Can’t you tell?” I guessed I was supposed to giggle at this, so I did.

We strolled out of the restaurant hand in hand and went to Pickwick’s, where we gazed at the shelves in the literature section and I talked about Proust, which I had read most of and he hadn’t, while my curled fingers slid up and down his thumb. His goodnight kiss at my front door seemed almost reverent. I felt we might be together forever.

On Thursday he sauntered into the English Department office and up to the open door of my cubicle unannounced while I was in conference with a Korean War vet from one of my sections who was seeking guidance (he said) with setting up his next semester’s courses. Will and the vet eyed each other suspiciously. It was wonderful. When the conference was over, Will and I went out into the late afternoon. I had a graduate seminar on Dryden and Pope in half-hour but didn’t mention it. We stopped to watch a football practice. The field was walled on the side near the sidewalk so that I couldn’t quite see over, even on tiptoe. Will noticed. He put down my books and lifted me so my head was level with his and we could look together. I had no idea what I was watching or what it meant, but for those few moments that his arms held me up with my feet off the ground, how could I not be happy?

He took me to a studio apartment much like Ed’s but closer to the university. “Whose place is this?” I asked. “Don’t worry,” he responded soothingly. “We can use it all afternoon.” That didn’t answer the question, but I didn’t press it. I had another problem. Now my period really was here. I told him as he was lowering the Murphy bed from the wall. He said it didn’t matter, he didn’t care.

He did care about not making a mess, though. With a thick layer of old newspaper crackling under my naked behind every time I moved, and toilet paper and my last unopened Tampax within reach on the floor next to my side of the bed, the afternoon began to seem more about keeping the bed clean than abandoning myself to the transports of love. Did I dare turn over? Was my ass covered with newsprint? Was now the time to pull the plug and let him in? I groped for the little white string with one hand; it was slippery and wet and impossible to yank. Then I wrapped a thick wad of toilet paper around it and gave mighty tugs with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands until finally out came the used and swollen tampon, hot from my body and soaked dark.

“Wait!” I cried, holding him off with elbow and knee while I wrapped the detritus of my innards in more and more toilet paper until I could see no more seepage. Predictably (and mercifully), he came fast, at which point I could push him off — lovingly, I hoped — in order to insert the last clean Tampax before there was damage to the sheets. That pretty much ended the promise of the afternoon. I wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off at the Pope and Dryden seminar.

His cleanup was thorough. Bed carefully remade and folded away. Roll of remaining toilet paper replaced in the bathroom. Stained newspaper, soiled toilet paper (with its contents), and my three cigarette butts into a garbage bag. Ashtray wiped down. And then out — holding the garbage bag, to dispose of elsewhere — after checking that nothing was left behind. As he locked the outside door, I peered at the name next to the bell. “Yates.”

“Then this is your apartment!”

“No, “ he replied. “But it used to be.” As if that were an answer. He hurried me into the car.

I thought I would see him the next day. But a teaching assistant meeting had been scheduled for two that afternoon, so I had to cut British History. Two cut classes in as many days; my life was going out of control. At the meeting, another teaching assistant who was my best friend in the Department whispered that Ed had called to ask for a date and she had said yes. As I’d broken up with him she thought it would be all right. They were going out Saturday night.

For sure he would try to get her into bed. Not because she was so gorgeous but to get even.  Would she yield? On the first date? She was still a virgin. (Unless she was lying.) But he was very skillful. Should I warn her? Maybe she wanted to be deflowered. Maybe she’d been secretly jealous of me this whole semester. We never know the real truth about anyone, do we? The Department Head was discussing the last composition unit of the fall Freshman English semester. Did he actually believe you could teach anyone to write? Afterwards I walked over to Commons with the best friend to show no hard feelings, and we had coffee with the others who’d been at the meeting and were jabbering about what the Department Head had said. I kept my eyes on the door but never saw Will come in looking for me.

I didn’t hear from him all weekend. I tried not to think about the apartment with his name next to the bell or what he might be doing when he wasn’t in school or selling Hoovers door to door, and thought instead about what Ed and the so-called best friend might be up to.

On Monday, I cornered her. “So? How was it?”

“Fine.”

“Going to see him again?”

“Don’t know yet.” She didn’t look particularly glowing or fulfilled, but maybe she was simply distracted; she had a class in five minutes. What did ‘fulfilled’ look like anyway?

Two o’clock finally arrived. There was no time to ask Will about his weekend. After the lecture, he carried my books again, though. And the sun — I would always remember the sun was still shining and we sat on a bench for a while to enjoy it. “Thank goodness next Thursday is Thanksgiving,” I began. “A four-day break. We’ll have some real time together.” He looked uncomfortable. “Well, no,” he said. “We won’t. I can’t see you then. My mother’s here.”

He’d never mentioned a mother before. Should I suggest he introduce us to each other? No, the thought should come from him.

“You won’t have to spend all that time with her, will you? Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, of course. But all four days?”

He nodded sadly.

“But Will, why? Doesn’t she understand you have a life? I mean, it’s not as if you were married!”

He took a deep breath. “Actually,” he said, “I am.”

His wife was seventeen. He’d knocked her up on the beach at Santa Monica the previous May. She’d been a virgin. Catholic, too. So how could he walk away? The wedding had been in August, before it really showed. Her family was helping them, until he got his degree. In fact he was living with them. I couldn’t process it fast enough. Seventeen? It was those cashmere sweaters, he said. All the coeds in their cashmere sweaters. After Notre Dame it drove him crazy. And she was pretty. Smart, too. She wanted to be an electrical engineer. So once he got her panties off.…

“But if you were married,” I cried, “what did you think you were doing with me?”

He looked down at the ground. After a while he said quietly, “I thought I could have a wife and mistress both.”

Mistress? What did he think this was? Some kind of Victorian novel?

“Can I still go on seeing you?” he asked.

I couldn’t give him up now, just like that. Temporize, I told myself. Play for time. Cry later.

He looked happier when I said yes.

We walked to Commons. His mother really had come for Thanksgiving. She was staying in the apartment with “Yates” on the doorbell; he’d kept it after the wedding as a place to escape to. She was also job-hunting, she might move out from the East, he was her only child. I nodded. And nodded. What could I say? He went on, suddenly a fountain of information. The new Mrs. Yates was called Mary, she’d had to give up school this year because of the baby, she was a good sport ….

Thigh by thigh we sat in the Hole. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute passed and waved. He must have known all along. I felt dirty.

“I wish we could run away to Alaska together,” Will said.

“I wish it had been you I met last May,” he said.

“I wish I were a better person,” he said.  That’s about as contrite as he got.

He called on Thanksgiving, around ten o’clock, from a phone booth on the corner near his in-laws. “I had to get out for some air,” he said. I was ready to meet him, but he had to go back.

We both got A on the History ten-week. I wondered how he’d managed, with so much going on in his life. I really had to study for mine. The week after Thanksgiving break he came to the house to pick me up. A theological student who was out of town had lent him a key to his room. It was a narrow sliver of space containing a single cot with black blanket, a metal desk piled high with religious texts, one folding chair, and a dark prie-dieu. On the disapproving walls were several crucifixes in various sizes. We sat on the austere black blanket and tried to kiss. Then we hung our clothing over the back of the single chair and did what we had come to do. It was all very sad, although Will seemed to be in good working order in spite of our situation.

Afterwards, we lay on top of the black blanket while he stroked my arm. I told him he would love the baby when it was born. It was going to be his baby, a part of him. I thought I ought to say these things to sound wise and warm, and to make him feel better, although I had no idea if they were true. He looked doubtful. “But I don’t want to be married,” he said. “The baby will make everything all right,” I murmured reassuringly, hating Little Miss Pure who couldn’t hang on to her underpants. I was dying for a cigarette. The theological student had no ashtray. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.

We went to Milani’s French Dip on Santa Monica near Highland. Plenty of ashtrays there. Our booth had a little box on it labeled “Swami Says.” For a penny, inserted in the appropriate slot, you could ask Swami any question answerable with yes or no.

“Do we have a future together?” I asked. Swami said no.

I fished another penny from my change purse. “Will we at least see each other until the baby comes?” Swami said no.

I counted out more pennies. “Will we go on being friends?” Swami said no.

“Is there anything we can do to change your mind?” Swami said no.

“All it can say is no!”

Will dropped my last penny into the slot. “Will the baby be a girl?” he asked. Swami said yes. Will smiled.

Then it unraveled. Will began to look for another job for when his classes would be over and had to hurry away after British History to go on interviews. The week before Christmas break, we went a last time to the Hole. He seemed resigned to what would be. I tried to memorize his face. “Time was out of joint for us from the beginning,” I began. “I guess,” he said. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute came by; Will invited him to sit with us. They talked about the baby coming, and the job market, and it was almost as if I weren’t there at all. At the end of the last History class, Will said he had to go. He was still wearing his navy blue sweater. I was getting fond of it, now that I would never see it again. He put his hand out half way, then took it back and gave a little wave goodbye. I nodded and turned quickly, before he did. I wasn’t going to stand there and watch him walk away from me.

He must have taken the final with a different proctor because I didn’t see him in the exam room to which I was assigned. I got an A in the course and assumed he did too. Although what difference did it make, now that he was out of school and about to become a father?

Ed soon re-insinuated himself in my life. The business with the best friend had never gotten off the ground. He forgave me my trespasses. (Although he didn’t forget them.) All was (almost) as before. Except I did hear from Will once more. He phoned from a booth in the hospital one evening in February. The baby was a girl. He was naming her Cordelia, after Lear’s third daughter, so she should always tell the truth. “I had to call,” he said, “to say you were right. As soon as I saw her, I loved her. I wanted you to know.”

The following Christmas he also sent a card without a return address, wishing me the joys of the season and enclosing a snapshot of a ten-month baby girl with dark curls clinging to the bars of a playpen. The line drawing on the front of the card showed a naked showgirl sitting in a giant champagne glass full of bubbly with her legs and arms in the air. I looked at it for a long time, trying to make it feel less hurtful. I couldn’t. At last I tucked it in a file folder discreetly marked WBY, together with my notes of our first meeting and the Thrifty Drug sales slip for spermicidal jelly and port wine from that time we’d driven to Covina.

Eventually Ed’s ex-wife found a new husband, the alimony payments slipped from his shoulders, and he proposed. He should have known better, but didn’t. I was by now nearly twenty-four, only a year from old-maidhood. Fate had already dealt me what I thought of as a tragic blow in the true love department. So it seemed best to put away lingering thoughts of William Benedict Yates and accept what was offered.

Maybe it would work out.

 

GRAN HOTEL REVISITED

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[In July 2015, streaming was relatively new, at least to me. However, the summer was hot and steamy, my darling Bill was not well, and we needed something entertaining for all our indoor hours on the living-room couch. We already had a Netflix red -envelope subscription; it was easy enough to add streaming.  Then a cultured friend with psychiatrist husband recommended a teledrama she described as “the Iberian Downton Abbey.”  Well, why not?

That’s how I discovered “Gran Hotel.”  Fifty-one viewing hours later, I wrote a long post about it. (“Gran Hotel: You’ll Never Want to Leave!”) It turned out to be the all-time most successful post I ever wrote. Even after Netflix at last pulled the teledrama off the United States streaming platform, it went on streaming in other English-speaking countries. Nearly five years later, my post about it was still getting clicks.

Now “Gran Hotel” is back.  And just in time. Netflix knows what to run during those hot and steamy stay-at-home summer days and nights ahead, especially for those of us deemed virus-vulnerable. I’ve therefore resurrected the post. Practically in its entirety. No more digging it out of the 2015 archives.  Read at your peril.]

Gran Hotel (which Netflix has helpfully translated as Grand Hotel) was a television series that originally ran for three years in Spain, from 2011 through 2013. It reached 18.5% of the viewing audience during its first season; by the third season, between two and three million people were watching each episode. Since then, almost every European country, including Russia and the UK, and several in the far East, acquired the rights to run it.  In America, Netflix chopped it into 68 continuous episodes (with great cliff-hangers after each), running 45 minutes apiece.  That’s 51 hours of viewing pleasure.  Give it three or four episodes and, ladies (I’m not sure about the men), you’ll be hooked!  After a while, you may forget meal preparation, eating (unless before the TV set), perhaps basic hygiene, certainly bedtime.  By season three, it was Bill, clutching my hand, who was saying at 12:45 in the morning, “Let’s just see one more….”

It has nearly everything, including a multitude of mysteries and sub-mysteries involving characters, both upstairs and downstairs, who speak beautiful Castilian Spanish, of which I know nothing. (Although I did learn a few useful expressions during my 51 hours glued to the set. People said “I’m sorry,” “excuse me” and “I don’t know” a lot.)  The subtitles are reasonably clear and comprehensive (until the third season when the excitement mounted to a point where the translator began to misspell and omit a few words.) It’s true the costuming isn’t quite as elaborate as in Downton Abbey, but the whole thing runs only a year and a half in story time (with a few flashbacks), so styles and hairdos don’t really need to change. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Gran Hotel takes place in 1906 and 1907 in northern Spain near the fictional town of Cantaloa, at the eponymous and equally fictitious Gran Hotel.  All the outdoor shots were filmed on the grounds of the Palacio de la Magdalena (representing the hotel) and at several points nearby in Santander. The indoor sets — sweeping entrance hall, dining room, ballroom, yards and yards of red-plush wallpapered corridors where guest rooms are located, and more yards of grey-painted corridors of doors to small plain rooms where the staff reside, as well as the rooms themselves — were probably constructed in a Madrid studio.

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CONOCER LA VERDAD CAMBIARA SUS VIDAS: Knowing the truth will change their lives!

The hotel is owned by the Alarcon family, now headed by Dona Teresa, a recent widow, and managed by the suave and suspicious-looking Diego Murquia, who was her deceased husband’s right-hand man. Dona Teresa (Adriana Ozores), will do almost anything to keep control of the hotel. She has three grown children: Sofia, pregnant with her first child and married to Alfredo, a future Marquis, who she hopes her mother will appoint as manager now that her father is dead; Javier, the only son — cute, but a womanizer and an alcoholic; and lovely Alicia, our heroine (Amaia Salamanca), who Diego (Pedro Alonso) wants and will do anything to marry and who our modestly born but literate hero, courageous and handsome Julio Olmeda (Yon Gonzales), loves at first sight.  Julio has come to the hotel in Episode One to find out what happened to his sister Cristina, who was working there as a maid and has stopped writing letters home.  When he learns Cristina disappeared on the night the hotel went from candlelight to electricity, he lies his way in as a waiter to discover what happened to her.

The hired help consists of a staff of waiters and maids, presided over by stern Angela the housekeeper (Concha Velasco), who is the mother of Andres (Llorenz Gonzales), one of the waiters.Andres becomes Julio’s roommate and buddy. (At every parting, of which there are several farther along in the script, they clasp each other fervently to show the strength of their feeling.) A maitre d’ (different each season, for reasons made clearer as the plot thickens) supervises the waiters. One of the maids is Belen, who sleeps with Diego, as Cristina apparently did too, before she disappeared. Andres loves Belen. Angela, his mother, has no apparent husband. There is also a letter — in a large red envelope so viewers can’t miss it while it “secretly” travels from hand to hand during the first season — that apparently would wrest control of the hotel from the Alarcons (and Diego). That’s enough to get you started.

Be advised my friend was wrong in comparing Gran Hotel to Downton Abbey in at least one respect. Downton Abbey is polite. Gran Hotel flames with heightened Spanish drama and emotion. (And is also, perhaps unintentionally, much funnier.) You will find not only the star-crossed lovers Julio and Alicia, but a serial murderer who kills poor young women when the moon is full with a gold carving knife; an unhappy arranged marriage; a troubling mystery concerning when and how Don Carlos (Dona Teresa’s dead husband) died; the what-happened-to-Cristina subplot; the real skinny on Diego, who isn’t Diego at all; a detective Ayala suspiciously like Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot; Agatha Christie herself as a young English hotel guest trying to help Ayala and inhaling ideas for future mystery novels; Houdini performing a water trick at the hotel; a good-looking priest who fornicates with at least two of his parishioners in the confession box, impregnating one of them; an explosion which leaves the main floor of the hotel looking like a war zone; even cholera.  There is jealousy, attempted murder, suicide, seeming suicide, good adultery, bad adultery, revenge!

Expect duplicity nearly everywhere. You will see much listening at doors, hiding behind corners, a hidden room; a fall down the stairs; a miscarriage; bloody childbirth with appropriate groans in the kitchen; kidnapping; an underground dungeon; a duel with pistols at dawn; people who come back from the dead; the slim yet physically tough — but sensitive, quick-witted and always handsome — hero fighting like nobody’s business with his bare hands (“Where I’m from, you fight or starve!”); same handsome hero stripped to the waist a satisfying number of times; the lovely heroine’s beautiful blue eyes welling up with tears just as frequently whenever confronted with her no-win emotional situation; many people slapping someone else’s face on the slightest provocation;  many a stolen kiss (to swelling orchestral music cueing you in that it’s coming), one in the first season winning Spain’s award for Best Television Kiss and one or more nominated (but not winning) in Season Two. [There’s hotter stuff in Season Two.)

Also overlook a lack of realism. Blood never oxidizes but remains bright red on a knife even days after leaving a body. Shirts drenched red with blood can be rinsed clean white in a basin by a good housekeeper. A baby is born looking three months old.  Same baby lies peacefully in his bassinet, never growing as the plot unspools over many months, and can be carried in the arms without movement whenever required by the storyline. A corpse is successfully disposed of in a rolled-up carpet. Another corpse, exhumed long after death, doesn’t smell. Bullets always miss vital organs in good people, and extremely bad wounds that would leave the likes of us lying in bed for at least a month or two heal sufficiently within a day for the victim to be up and about, intent on wrongdoing (if he’s bad) or on saving the heroine (if he’s Julio).  Important documents are burned incompletely so that a  person may find a scrap that leads to clues or permits attempted blackmail.  Other important documents pop up just when needed. Poison and opium lie around where anyone can get at it.  I’m sure I’ve left a lot out, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

And whenever it all becomes too hair-raising, you can rest assured that after 51 hours of watching, the more-or-less good guys, plus Julio and Alicia,  will reach a happy ending, and the others not.  I’d watch it again myself, but I already know the plot.

[Originally posted July 11, 2015]

 

WHO IS “YOU?”

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Don’t tell me about the person on your CV. Or the person you claim to be online in a search for love, or what passes for it. Try not to be selling some version of yourself when you answer. You’re alone in your house or apartment with no buyer in sight. So we’re talking about the real “you” here.

It’s a question that can easily arise during these days of solitary sequestration. What judgments are you making about what your “self” is doing, or not doing, during this time?  Where did those judgments come from? Are they really yours? How much are you still looking at whatever world is left to you within your four walls, including yourself, through someone else’s eyes?  Your goals, your ambitions, your needs, your guilts – were they, are they, really yours?

By telephone, I asked an old friend in Massachusetts — holed up with wife, two sons and a son’s girlfriend, in other words not someone in the ideally solitary situation for consideration of my inquiry.   “If you were an onion,” I said. “And we could peel away all the layers reflecting your reactions and defenses to life experiences, including experiences with other people – what would be at the core?” A bad metaphor to use with this particular friend. At the moment, he’s cooking all the meals for five full-grown people.  No surprise that he parried, “Not much to cook with! I’d need another onion!”

So forget onions.  I still think it’s a good question to ponder though, now that we have the time. Almost like a daily mini-psychotherapy session on your own couch. Or an hour at your desktop with “Clean My Mac X.” And if you arise from couch, or desk chair, somewhat liberated, or cleansed, of layers of self-judgment or other gunk that’s been weighing you down and/or slowing you up, then maybe this coronavirus lockdown thing will turn out to have been good for whoever “you” is, as well as for the rest of us.

 

 

 

ME AND ME

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There’s always been a daytime me and a nighttime me.  Over the years, daytime me has aged appropriately. (More or less.) In her twenties, she may have been emotionally immature and made unwise, self-destructive choices. But thanks to loads and loads of psychotherapy, all paid for by herself, she eventually began presenting to the world as a worthy applicant for the rewards and obligations of life. Now, one year and three months away from her tenth decade of living, she’s frequently even thought wise.

Nighttime me doesn’t know from wise. She didn’t age at all over the decades. Drifts off to sleep with the same erotically romantic fantasies she was having at eighteen and twenty, informed by more biological knowledge than she had then, but driven by the same emotional hungers. Even the fantasy plots are pretty much the same. (How many stories does any writer have in her?)  Nighttime me never has any sense that what’s in her head couldn’t possibly be actualized by the body she currently inhabits.  She simply is.

It’s true that nighttime me has disappeared, sometimes for very long periods of time, leaving daytime me to find other, more conventional, ways of falling asleep.  (Having a beloved male body up against hers always worked.)  But when such options vanish, it’s no surprise to daytime me that nighttime me may return as daylight wanes, a trusty, if embarrassing, lifelong friend. Daytime me doesn’t sweat it, though.  After all, nighttime me has always known her place, which is under the covers when the lights are out, where there’s no possibility of public shame. And when real life becomes too painful or unbearably sad  – that is, when fantasy can’t cut it  — nighttime me bails out. Just when she’s needed, she’s gone. A no show.  What kind of trusty friend is that?

You could certainly call these Covid days painful and unbearably sad. On a personal level, they’re also trying, debilitating, lonely. Daytime me now lives a protectively isolated life in three rooms with two cats and two telephones (plus a desktop) — except for a daily masked and gloved trip to the mail room, where only two sanitized residents are allowed in at a time. And for an elderly person like daytime me, there’s no likely end in sight.  Until a vaccine.  She should live so long.

Yet — paradoxically — just when you’d least expect it,  nighttime me is back. Now daytime me can hardly wait to get under the covers and turn out the lights. In the warm comforting movie of nighttime me’s mind everyone is still eighteen or twenty, each yearning to be wrapped around the other, and the misunderstandings they confront in trying to pass go are nothing compared to sadness or loneliness or fear.  Daytime me knows this is not a mature way to put her aged self to sleep in perilous times, but frankly doesn’t give a damn. And nighttime me is pleased to be again of service.

What’s doing it for you and you?

 

 

WHAT’S THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING?

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That’s an old chestnut of a question.  It comes from some faraway period of my life before real adulthood brought less theoretical problems to think about. Does its reappearance in my consciousness now mean real adulthood is over?

So here’s the story. One of the two periodicals I’ve subscribed to for a long time is The New York Review of Books. (“NYR” for short.) NYR is a large, classy intellectual publication that addresses such subjects as (from the latest issue) the art of Gerhard Richter, includes lengthy reviews of books about how Austrian economists fought the war of ideas and about Greenland’s buried past, and – more accessible, at least to me – a consideration of The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and a detailed account of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s astonishing performance as the nation’s emergency responder in chief in these difficult coronavirus times. In short, some stuff I skip, and some stuff I read. Which means there’s never an automatic yes when it’s time to renew. I have to do cost/benefit analysis.

What almost always tips the scale in favor of renewal is the Personals column on the last or next-to-last page.  During the long period of emotional draught after divorce from the father of my then nearly grown children I sporadically availed myself of its expensive services. (You pay by the word.) The results were interesting although not ultimately successful. But even if you’re not offeror or offeree, the ads are fun to read. Such as (again from the latest issue): “Slim, stunning blonde in her youthful 50s, accomplished, light-hearted, warm, seeks bright, successful gentleman 40s-60 for deeply loving partnership. Let’s laugh until our tummies hurt. Reply with bio/photo in confidence: Phoebe (and an email address).”  Or, from the opposite sex: “Semi-retired professional, slender, athletic man in NYC seeks elegant woman 47-60 with reciprocal qualities to discuss James (Henry), Strauss (Richard) and for cultural events, travel, and the rest. Photograph/note reciprocated. Dicorinemo (and an email address). “

“And the rest?”  “Tummies?” Who are these people? More to the point, who — if anyone — responds? There must be some results for some happy subscribers, else this feature would not have continued to bring in shekels to NYR for more decades than I can recollect.

Last January, NYR offered a contest to its readers. Submit a Personals ad suitable for Valentine’s Day and the winning entry would be published in the Valentine’s Day issue for free! Second and third place finishers could opt to publish at half-price.  It was nearly midnight, a time when – if still up — I can misplace my moral compass and lose my way. I soon dashed off a short submission which pretty much reflected how I was feeling at the moment.

My ad had many flaws as a real-life solicitation. It was silent as to age, geographic location, size or shape, education, tastes or interests of the desired respondent. Nonetheless, it implied literacy, some assets and preparations for the end. So let’s see what happens, I thought. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And if I don’t win, it doesn’t run. A responsive email from a NYR person arrived two weeks later. I had tied for second place. Did I want them to publish what I’d written for $55?

$55 is a bargain for a NYR Personals ad. And I grew up in an era of pen pals.  Even if only one lonely heart in Arizona wrote back, wouldn’t that be worth carrying on with for a while.fullsizeoutput_10e0

Reader, my second-place ad showed up in mailboxes all over the NYR-reading world on or around February 3:  “F to M: Don’t want to go gentle into that good night?  How about we make a big ruckus together and startle all the heirs? NYR Box 68305.” 

Who do you think responded in the two and a half months since then?  What is the sound of one hand clapping? However, NYR forwards responses to its boxes for six months after ad placement. This crazy (old) lady therefore suggests to any crazy (old) man with a free hand that there’s still time.

 

 

           

SMALL PLEASURES

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Sasha in the sun.

You learn a lot cooped up with a cat.  Even when you think there’s nothing to do, she’ll find something for both of you. Like enjoying a shaft of sunlight in the apartment house hall. Or — if you can’t easily get down on the floor — enjoying the sight of her.