TELEPHONE CALL

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The man to whom I was married for twenty-six years telephoned the other day. This is not a common occurrence; I hear from him only rarely. He told me his older brother, aged 93, had just died. He wanted me to hear first, he said, because I had known the brother longer than anyone still alive.

The brother’s wife, 87 or 88 herself, had called to tell him. The brother and his wife were childless, but she was Dutch and had a daughter by a previous marriage living in Holland; they had moved there two or three years ago to be near this daughter in their extreme old age.

My former husband said he knew it might be coming. His brother had been failing since early June and his sister-in-law had been keeping him posted. It was an infection of the kidneys that didn’t respond to antibiotics and couldn’t be scanned because of a prior hip replacement. The brother died at home, “full of tubes,” after several days of extreme stress. Per their prior agreement in America, his wife finally authorized termination of life support.

The brothers had shared a bedroom all the time they were growing up. Even as adults, the younger looked up to and admired the older one. But after the older brother married forty-six years ago, there was some alienation I won’t go into that didn’t resolve until relatively late in life. Only more recently, as they became the remaining two of their generation of a large family left alive, did they seem to have overlooked their differences, and began to stay in touch regularly.

The voice on the telephone was audibly shaky. “It’s so final,” I heard. I had come to dislike the older brother; he had treated us shabbily and then completely turned his back on us when we were going through hard times. But I was sorry all the same, and said so. Certainly sorry for my former husband’s loss, and also sorry to hear of anyone’s death.

Later, however, what struck me most about this relatively short telephone conversation was something else. Apparently when she called with the final news, the sister-in-law was so overcome she could hardly speak. “I hadn’t realized they were so close,” said the man I lived with so long about two very old people who had been together forty-six years. He said it three times before we hung up.

I’m not sure whether he may have not been somewhat envious of their feelings for one another. I am sure his inability to realize people married nearly half a century would feel so close to one another explains yet again, more than anything else that happened to us while we were a couple — why we no longer are.

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FIRST HUSBAND (II of II)

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[A story continued from previous post.]

Inertia won out. It was easier, and at least marginally more interesting, for Millie to resume her thrice-weekly meetings with Richard when he returned a divorced man than not to. Another thing: she had begun to miss the sex. While he was gone, she found herself leaning forward with spread-apart thighs and rubbing herself back and forth on the Chevrolet seat at red lights.

It was less easy to fool her mother.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“With whom?”

“Friends.”

“What friends? April?”

“Other friends.”

“So what time will you be back?”

“Late. Don’t wait up.”

At least she always made sure to drag herself out of the Murphy bed by one o’clock or so, pull on her clothes and drive home, so that she should be in her own bed when her mother got up to bring in the morning paper. Which was something. (And not easy.) But not enough of a something to warm up the chill that was enveloping the parental breakfast table and the many dinners a week she still ate at home.

For his part, Richard objected to her not spending the night. He thought she should rent a furnished studio apartment of her own. She could afford it now that she was a copywriter, he said. It would also solve her mother problem. Why was a grown woman  — was that what she was, a “grown woman?” — still living with her parents? Dutifully, she found a vacancy in a decent-looking building and put down a $55 payment for March. The apartment was just like his, Murphy bed and all. But whenever she thought of living by herself in that gloomy, ill-lit and transient accommodation, soon to be hers, she felt only fear.

February inched along. She made no preparations for the move or for explaining her imminent departure to the two people who cared about her so much. Just before the end of the month, she summoned up courage to confess. Her hitherto gentle and forbearing mother spoke sternly. Millie was on the verge of an irrevocably awful act. There were only two reasons an unmarried girl left her parents’ home: Either she was going to do something very bad she had to hide from her family — here her mother paused meaningfully — or else she was such an unpleasant and difficult person even her own flesh and blood could no longer bear to live with her!

Head pounding with tension and guilt, Millie knew this was both nonsense and true. Did she really want to move out? Of course not. She just wanted everything to be all right. She began to cry. Her mother soothed her. In the end, she told Richard she couldn’t bring herself to hurt her mother, which was a kind of lie but not entirely.

“So there goes $55,” said Richard.

Why should he care? She was the one who had lost it. What a failure she was!  One day when she knew he had morning classes, she let herself into his studio with the key he had given her and called in sick at work. Then she sobbed aloud, hugging herself on the shabby green sofa against the grimy window. There was very little comfort in the apartment when Richard wasn’t in it. After a while, she got up, locked the door, and drove to a doughnut shop, where she bought six jumbo doughnuts with yellow custard filling and chocolate icing, plus a quart carton of milk. Parked in a neighborhood several miles away where no one could possibly recognize her, she methodically munched her way through all six doughnuts, washing them down at intervals with gulps of milk from the waxy triangular opening in the carton.

When she was done, she felt very full and slightly nauseous, but not enough to throw up. She unbuttoned the waistband of her skirt, stuffed the debris back into the empty bag, which she left under her car before pulling away from the curb, and drove home. She told her mother she had felt ill at work and needed to lie down. Drugged with starch, she fell asleep at once. Next morning she had a terrible taste in her mouth, but it passed.

“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” said April.

“Oh, April,” Millie exclaimed. “You’re my only friend. What would I do without you?” Actually, Millie didn’t have a very high opinion of April. No gumption, no ambition. Ironing her cotton blouses night after night. What did she know about life?

But it soon began to look as if April might be right.

Millie’s mother decided to look for a job herself. She made it known at the breakfast table. Now that Millie’s father had a broker’s license and was selling real estate days, evenings, weekends, and Millie was working and (she added darkly) doing who knew what else — what was there for her at home all alone? Back in New York, she had once sold gloves at Lord & Taylor during the Christmas season. Maybe she could find something like that downtown.

“Good, that’s good, Bubi,” said Millie’s father, turning a page of the newspaper and getting butter on it. “It doesn’t hurt to look.”

Her Russian accent and good taste in dress put Millie’s mother on the floor of the Arts and Gifts Department of Robinson’s within a week. She reported back proudly to Millie and Millie’s father that Mr. Wonderly, the buyer, had told her she was charming and that customers were going to love her. After that, she rose before dawn every morning to take the curlers out of her hair, carefully apply makeup, and leave breakfast on the table for Millie’s father before she ran for the downtown bus. (She wanted to get in early to help Mr. Wonderly arrange the floor and make sure her sales book was in order before the store opened.) At night, she was tired. Millie could count on an announcement to that effect as soon as she walked in the door, always later than Millie herself. (Well of course, thought Millie; what did she expect, standing on her feet all day?) Then she would hurry to change out of her good clothes into a housedress and get some food on the table — sometimes a warmed-up casserole she had prepared the previous Sunday but more and more often something she had recently discovered in Ralph’s called a “TV dinner,” which you could defrost in the oven and eat right out of its own aluminum tray and which meant very little washing up.

Millie’s father was not entirely pleased with these developments. There was occasionally some parental bickering about Millie’s mother’s new life. But the mournful looks and sighs Millie’s mother had previously lavished upon Millie disappeared. Her head was now full of Mr. Wonderly and the sometimes famous clients who sought her assistance in selecting exclusive gifts for friends and dear ones. One afternoon she helped Rita Hayworth choose a vase. She was so gracious, said Millie’s mother. Millie knew she should be relieved, but she sometimes missed the days, not so long ago, when her mother was always worrying about her. It often seemed as if no one cared what she was doing anymore. Except Richard.

Richard definitely cared. He thought she shouldn’t be wasting her talents writing about navy rayon crepe dresses. (“Navy’s in town!”) Or little fur capelets. (“Take a stole to heart!”) He told her about teaching assistantships. She hadn’t even known they existed. Why, if she got one it would pay enough for her to go to graduate school, maybe even go far away. He also generously offered to write a letter of recommendation. As her instructor, of course. So it was really lucky she hadn’t been able to give him up. And wouldn’t her going back East for a doctorate be the perfect bittersweet ending for what they had had together!

Beach weather arrived. Every weekend, they drove out to Santa Monica, or sometimes Venice, and spent whole glorious days walking up and down in the surf and splashing in the sparkling water. She tanned easily and smoothly; her hair bleached in the sun and salt until she was almost a California blonde. Richard taught her how to get far enough out to turn her back and jump up just as a big wave was about to break so that she could ride it almost back to shore. The other thing she loved was to stand with Richard where the water came up to his chest, put her arms around his neck and wrap her legs around him. The water helped him support her bottom, so they could kiss like that for a long time, their bodies rubbing wet against each other, their mouths salty and their eyes laughing at each other.  Sometimes other people in the water looked at them, even though they couldn’t really see what was going on beneath the surface. Millie liked that, too.

After the beach, they would come back to the studio apartment and shower. Then she would make supper on his two-burner hotplate. She had it down to a science. A skirt steak in the frying pan on one burner, frozen vegetables (usually string beans) in the sauce pan on the other burner. And for dessert, farmer cheese mashed with diet grape jelly (so that it tasted like cheese cake without crust) and then patted into little custard cups. He thought she was a wonderful cook. When they had finished eating, she would wash up in the bathroom sink, because the alcove holding the hotplate and mini-refrigerator had no running water. That was kind of a pain but wasn’t forever, she kept reminding herself. And in bed, after they had finished with the sex part, he would tell her stories about his more unusual erotic adventures before he had met her. Rather like Scheherezade in reverse, she thought.

“And you liked that?” she would ask, incredulous but feeling at the same time quite worldly as she heard about these secret, somewhat slimy practices. (Although she certainly would have refused to do such things herself. Thank goodness he never suggested it.)

“Well, yes,” admitted Richard. He curled around her, nestling her back against his chest. We’re like spoons, she thought. That must be why they used to call it ‘spooning.’ She pressed her naked rear more firmly against his naked crotch. This was the coziest thing about being with Richard. She would miss it a lot when she went away to graduate school.

For his birthday in August, Millie bought him a charcoal grey flannel Ivy League-style suit at Bullocks. Being out of season, it was on sale. She might be going away to school soon — by now she was almost sure of it — but he deserved something better than the two terrible polyester suits he had. (They were his entire wardrobe if you didn’t count the worn tweed jacket.) Even on sale, the suit was $75. Millie was making $50 a week, paying a one-third share of the expenses at home, and trying to save at least a little bit, to build up her bank account again. So she knew she shouldn’t have spent this much money on Richard. But she did want him to look nice. And his eyes became wet when he saw what was in the gift-wrapped box. Millie had never seen a man cry. She hugged him. Richard said no one had ever been so kind to him before. After Millie dragged him back to the Bullocks’ tailor to get the cuffs to hang just right — alterations were free — he looked so wonderful in his new suit she also bought him two button-down cotton oxford shirts and a silk rep tie to go with it.

Fat envelopes came in the mail for Millie. She’d been accepted into the English Department doctoral programs at Radcliffe, Columbia, Cornell and the southern California university where Richard taught, to which she’d applied as a back-up. But there was only one offer of a teaching assistantship. From the back-up, where Richard’s recommendation had counted for something. Richard was very pleased for her. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” said April.

“I’ll be right here, in L.A.,” said Millie. “We can still go to movies.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said April. “Enjoy your life.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, April!” exclaimed Millie. “You’d think we’re never going to see each other!”

But April was right again. There were no more movies. Although they exchanged a few phone calls over the course of the next year, they never managed to get together. It wasn’t until much later when Millie was back in New York with Richard that she realized it. Afterwards, whenever she saw someone wearing a freshly ironed cotton blouse she thought of April, and wondered what had become of her, and if April was wondering the same about her. But by then, there was too much that Millie couldn’t talk about. So she never made a transcontinental call, or wrote.

For a while Patsy and Elena filled April’s place in Millie’s life. Both were also teaching assistants in the university’s English Department. Patsy lived in Pasadena with her parents, the last child in the nest; her two older brothers were married and living elsewhere in California. She had a low sexy voice; it was too bad she still dressed like a high school girl in socks, loafers, pleated skirts and white peter pan dickeys under her slightly pilled lambswool sweaters. Elena was one of two daughters of a Greek magnate with a chain of movie theatres all over Mexico; she spoke Greek, Spanish and fluent English with a very slight lisp. She also wore beautiful slender suits from I. Magnin with handkerchief linen blouses and David Evins pumps. Elena was at first reticent about where she lived but eventually let it be known she was staying with an older sister in a one-bedroom apartment her father had rented for them in a new luxury high-rise. “He wants us to be safe. It’s very secure there,” she explained.

Elena’s family lived in Guadalajara.  “Will you go back there, afterwards?” asked Millie.

“Quien sabe?” Elena said. “Anything can happen.”

“Like what?” asked Millie, fascinated.

Elena clarified. “My father really wants us to return to Greece. The King and Queen are back, but he is very cautious. He says he will wait and see.”  Millie didn’t know that Greece still had a king and queen. She was too busy to follow everything in the world. She just nodded wisely. Patsy nodded, too.

During her first year at the university Millie was also too busy even to think where she might be headed with Richard, or whether she should be headed anywhere at all with a man who had four children. He was just part of her life every Friday and Saturday night. (They had dropped Wednesdays, because of her teaching load. She was also taking five graduate courses for her degree.)

“Do you ever think abut getting married?” she asked the other two near the end of the second year.

“Of course,” said Patsy.

“Not really,” said Elena.

“You’re kidding!”

“I don’t have to think about it,” said Elena. “If I don’t find a good husband on my own by the time I’m twenty-five, my father will find someone.”

“And that’s okay with you?” asked Millie.

“She comes from another culture,” said Patsy.

“It’s not like in India,” explained Elena. “Where you never see the man before the wedding. My father would introduce me to a number of suitable Greek men who had already indicated interest. Perhaps he would host a series of parties. Then they would each take me out. Once or more often, depending. Afterwards my father and I would discuss my preferences. All very civilized. What’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, thought Millie, if the men were young and attractive and rich. It might be nice to have a powerful father like that. To take care of everything.

“And if I didn’t like any of them,” added Elena, “my father would introduce me to more men. My father knows a lot of people.”

Millie was already almost twenty-four. Her father wasn’t going to introduce her to anyone. And there was no one on the horizon even remotely possible. At twenty-five, she would be an old maid.

Richard’s former wife suddenly remarried and moved to Canada with her new husband. She had said nothing about these developments until after the fact. No more alimony!  Richard at once produced an ugly little ring with a tiny ruby that had been his mother’s. What could she do but let him put it on her finger?  If it doesn’t work out, she wrote in her journal the evening before their marriage, we can always divorce in two years.

She finished her course work, took the written and oral exams for the doctoral degree and they moved to New York — where she wrote advertising instead of a dissertation, thereby earning their living, while he wrote unpublishable novels. In the end, it took six years to disentangle herself. Nine years of Richard all together. By then, her twenties were over.

“What a mistake he was,” exclaimed her third husband more than half a century later.

“I was just a baby,” she said. “Didn’t have a clue. You didn’t make mistakes?”  Besides, she thought, that was then. And now is now. And everything is different than it used to be.

It always is.

FIRST HUSBAND (I of II)

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[A story.]

 Richard was thirty and Millie had just turned twenty-one when they met in an introductory television production class he was teaching nights at a large Southern California university. Millie was taking it to be ready when a better job opened up at the television station where she was currently typing stencils of soap opera scripts in the mimeograph department. Only two other women were in the class. One looked to be in her late forties; the other wore a head scarf and came from a Middle Eastern country.

At the end of the first session Richard came over to Millie, asked where she lived and if she had transportation. She said West Hollywood and that she was taking the bus. He offered to drive her home. By the time he pulled up at her front door in his 1937 Plymouth, she knew he was from New York, had been at Harvard, directed university little theater and wanted to write and direct plays on Broadway. He knew she’d come to California with her parents after graduating from Vassar a few months before, was not seeing anyone (“anymore,” she added), missed the East Coast and was unhappy with her job. They’d promised it would be a stepping-stone to editorial work, but she didn’t think she could stand the dreary typing much longer. “We’ll have to find you something more suitable,” he said. Then he asked her out.

She liked his height — important, since she was tall herself. Also his worn tweed jacket and his take-charge attitude about her wretched job. His hands on the steering wheel looked competent. His being the instructor of the class didn’t hurt, either. At college, she’d spent a whole year mooning fruitlessly over a Shakespeare professor who was sending signals he might be interested but never did anything about it. Of course, television production wasn’t Shakespeare, but still…. Richard’s hair and eyes were dark, which was good. Blond blue-eyed men made her think of Gestapo officers in movies. She said yes.

He picked her up after dinner on an evening when he had no class and took her, with apologies, to a prizefight. It was the only live thing on that night, he said, and he hated movies; they got made, went into a can and then you sat in a dark room, long after the actors had gone on to something else, watching dead film stored in a reel and projected on a screen. She herself loved movies, but when he explained that the fight tickets had been free, she allowed herself to be led to a seat, sliding past noisy blue-collar fight fans sloshing beer all over themselves. Unattractive and sweaty small men were slamming each other around in the ring. To her relief, they left before it was over. He parked a block from her house, turned smiling towards her and kissed her over the stick shift.

Oh, he was a wonderful kisser. And it had been so long. She felt herself slipping into bonelessness. His hand moved to her nipple, burning through her sweater. Moisture seeped into the crotch of her panty girdle. He whispered softly in her ear, “Do you mind the back seat?” She pushed him away and sat up straight, flushed and startled. Should she be insulted? “Um, yes, I do.” Did that need explanation? “I’m not as experienced as you think,” she added.

He seemed not to understand this. “Are you a lesbian?” he asked.

Why should he think that?  “I just haven’t had a lot of sexual experience.”

He looked at her in disbelief.  “Experience with intercourse,” she added.

“You’re not a virgin, are you?”

Ah, did she have to answer?   “It’ s complicated,” she offered. “I no longer have my –”  What should she call it? All the words seemed so Victorian. “But my college boyfriend and I, we never …. So I don’t know. How do you define virginity?”

He digested this attempted explanation in silence.

“He was being kind,” she went on. “After he, um, got in, he asked if it hurt when he moved and when I nodded, he said we could wait until next time. Then he, uh, withdrew without, you know….”

I shouldn’t need to tell him this, she thought. But she had already begun and couldn’t leave it there. “Afterwards we were together only one other time, in a hotel. He lost it there because I was nervous and laughed. That’s when we broke up. He said something was wrong with me. I think he was wrong about that, though.”  This was not entirely true. She was certain he would have had less trouble with another more spontaneous girl. “It was his first time, too. So he probably just didn’t know how.”

“All this was when?” asked Richard thoughtfully.

“About two years ago.”

“And after that?”

“Vassar’s just for girls.” She didn’t mention the Shakespeare professor.

“I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, patting her hand. “We’d better forget about the back seat, though.”

She felt soiled by her disclosure. But the following week in class, he winked at her while she was sprinkling Ivory Snow in front of a photograph of an Alpine village being filmed by another student. And afterwards, he drove her home again to the same place a block from where she lived, where he again kissed her enthusiastically. She was so relieved they seemed to be back on track that she giggled and said flirtatiously, “Oh, Richard, here we are kissing madly away and I don’t know the first thing about you. Why, you could be married with three children!”

To which he responded gravely: “Actually, I am married. And I have four.

And all Millie could think when she heard that – she who had been described by the Shakespeare professor in his final report as having “a mind like a steel trap” — all she could think was, “Well, he’s done it at least four times. He will know how.”

He did know how. He demonstrated his knowledge in a studio apartment opposite Paramount Studios that rented for $50 a month. Millie dipped into her small savings account to give him the first month’s rent — but only because he explained that Winifred was going back to Texas for a divorce in a few weeks, as soon as the baby was old enough to travel. Then he could stop paying rent on the house they were all living in and take over the rent of the studio. Besides, she thought of the $50 as an investment in her own sexual education.

She brought new sheets and pillowcases to their assignation in the apartment. He brought a couple of bottles of Schlitz, a package of Trojans and a tube of K-Y jelly. He asked if she wanted a drink before they went to bed. To loosen up. She said, truthfully, she didn’t like beer. (It gave her gas. This information she kept to herself.) So they pulled the Murphy bed down from the wall, made it up with her new sheets and cases, took off their clothes and climbed in without the beer. Not exactly the “first time” she had dreamed of. But this was real life and she had to stop dreaming. Besides, once she had learned everything he had to teach, she was going to leave him for someone more suitable.

Afterwards, she had very little memory of what transpired their first evening in the studio other than that he accomplished what they both had wanted, it had hurt some but not too much, and there had been no blinding explosion of joy. But she did like the kissing, touching and finger work. And he assured her that in a week or so, it wouldn’t feel tight or sore.

He was good as his word about the soreness, and also the rent. After the Murphy bed had come down from the wall a few more times, it didn’t hurt at all. And Winifred soon packed up their children and belongings and drove away to San Antonio, whereupon he moved into the studio with his clothes, papers and typewriter, and took over the monthly $50.

Blinding joy, however, remained elusive. He propped her on pillows. He stroked, slavered, and pumped away — dripping perspiration all over her. She would have faked it, if only to bring his moist exertions to an end (she did not enjoy the drops of sweat), except she didn’t know what to fake. Then he said getting rid of the rubbers might help, and got her the name of a gynecologist who reputedly had no objection to supplying unmarried girls with diaphragms. It was an embarrassing visit; when actually face to face with the doctor she had colored the truth by claiming to be engaged. But she came away equipped with a rimmed rubber barrier to conception nestled in a pretty blue plastic case, instructions for insertion and removal while sitting on the toilet, and the doctor’s congratulations on her engagement. She kept the diaphragm, spermicidal jelly, and a container of baby powder to dust it off with afterwards in Richard’s bathroom medicine cabinet, lest her mother discover any of these objects at home.

Still nothing doing in the joy department.

He found her another job, writing advertising copy for misses’ fashions at The Broadway Department Store, which paid more than typing stencils and came with a 20% employee discount. Then he found another 1937 Plymouth in which she could drive to work. Priced at $125 it was a steal, he said.

“Who is this man?” asked her mother the first time she parked noisily at the curb. Millie tried to explain, leaving out the sex part, but Harvard did not help and Richard not being Jewish was the least of it. “How many children?” asked her father. She began driving to meet Richard instead of having him pick her up. Whenever she left the house in the evening, her mother looked stricken and sighed mournfully.

Millie sent a jolly birthday card to her old college boyfriend in New York, whom she had not seen since their hotel debacle — including an upbeat report on her new job, car and man. He wrote back with gratifying promptitude that it was great to hear from her and she should get her ass back to New York right away because he was sure Richard, age thirty, was not the man for her. He was jealous! But what was he proposing? On closer scrutiny of his letter, not much. So what would she do in New York? Where would she stay? With what would she buy a ticket (perhaps, to be safe, a round-trip ticket), now that her spare cash had gone towards her own sexual education and the Plymouth? While she was reflecting on these problematic matters, the old college boyfriend wrote again to announce he was marrying a certain Celia, also from Vassar but several years older than Millie (meaning more sexually with it, thought Millie) and — a final humiliation! — they would love to see Millie at the wedding.

She was defective. She was sure if her sexual organs had worked the way they were supposed to, so she and the college boyfriend could have climaxed together, as in her thumb-eared copy of Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage, he wouldn’t now be marrying this smirking older woman and leaving her to seek crumbs of comfort in a squeaky Murphy bed where she might never dissolve in ecstasy.

God helps those who help themselves, Millie told herself sternly. A few nights later, she bought a pint of cheap wine at Thrifty Drug on the way home from work, stuffed it into her capacious handbag and hid it under her pillow until it was time for bed.

It took forty-five minutes of rubbing herself with spit (she checked her bedside clock when she had finished) — growing so hot that whatever she was feeling could hardly be called pleasure — until she finally managed with the underside of her stiffened left index finger to trigger a small deep centered thrill beneath the heat, a delicious little thrill that mounted and mounted in intensity until she couldn’t hold it back, it came on in spite of her, like a huge wave rising, rising and o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h…. So that was how it was! What else could it be? She had done it! She had brought herself off! She was so elated she wanted to send a telegram: Stop the wedding!

She wasn’t that crazy, though. And once she knew what was supposed to happen, she did feel more confident when she visited Richard, even if she could never describe for him exactly the location of the spot where the small deep thrill lay waiting because it seemed to keep moving around. However, she eagerly stretched her legs apart, this way and that, to reach for it, that tiny marvelously quivering core of unbelievable pleasure, and began to enjoy herself in bed.

But did she love him? She asked her sometime journal that very question. She also tried calling him “my darling” within the privacy of its pages. It looked wrong when she read it back. He wasn’t her darling. Celia had her darling — well, her former darling. Richard was just her experienced married lover, who had hardly any money because he was sending almost all of it to Texas, and a rotten wardrobe except for the worn tweed jacket, and — as she was beginning to discover — a somewhat elastic conception of truth.

For instance: When he’d said he was from New York, he meant Syracuse, New York. When he’d said he was at Harvard, he meant after his marriage and only for one year, as a graduate student. Then he’d transferred out; his degree was from somewhere in the midwest. (And his undergraduate degree was from Clark, wherever that was.) He hadn’t written a play since graduate school. What he seemed to be working on now was a novel about his boyhood love of baseball that she, the literature major, thought so sloppy in its writing as to be hopeless. She offered to edit it for him, but after she had laboriously marked up the first chapter, he snapped at her that if she was going to take a schoolmarm approach to a work of genius he didn’t need her help thank you very much.

As for his looks, well, yes, he was considered handsome. (Her supervisor at The Broadway, a snippy unmarried woman who had to be at least thirty-five, actually cooed over his photograph.) However, stripped of his clothing…. Ah, that was another matter. His shoulders were narrow.  He had a large mole in the center of his back that she disliked. (She tried to keep her fingers away from it when she had to clasp his damp body to her.) Worst of all was the uncircumcised penis, which she hadn’t noticed as different in any way when it was ready for business but featured an excess of unpleasant foreskin when not, so that going down on him was like mouthing a quantity of crumpled rag.

At the end of the semester, Richard gave her an A plus in the television production course even though she’d stopped coming to class after leaving the television station job. Then he went away to attend the divorce hearing in San Antonio and help Winifred find a permanent place to live. (She and the children had been staying “here and there,” he said.) He’d be gone a month, until the spring term began. Millie was glad. When her mother noticed she wasn’t going out evenings, she announced she had given him up. Her mother told her father. With the advice and assistance of his mechanic, her father bought her a nice blue 1946 Chevrolet sedan previously owned by a little old lady in Pasadena who only drove it to church on Sundays. Then he helped sell her noisy Plymouth “as is” for $75. The Plymouth barely made it up a hill into the buyer’s driveway. She and her father made their getaway in his 1952 Pontiac before the buyer returned from work.

It’s not as if Millie didn’t know right from wrong, smart from stupid. But the month without Richard was so boring. She would come home from work in the Chevrolet for dinner with her parents and have to hear her father tell, between mouthfuls, what had been in the headlines that day. His jaws moved vigorously as he chewed; she could see the bones of his skull roll beneath the sides of his forehead. After he had finished his one scoop of coffee ice milk (her mother was trying to keep him on a diet), Millie would help put away the leftover pot roast or broiled chicken and dry the dishes. “Thank you, Ludmilochka,” her mother would say. “Now maybe I can relax a little with the paper myself.” Then Millie would go to her room to lie down on her bed and turn pages of public library books the contents of which she had trouble remembering even while she was still reading them. Saturdays she spent with April, the other junior copywriter, with whom she shared a small office. April was Millie’s age, a recent UCLA graduate who also lived at home, although with her mother and grandmother. You couldn’t discuss books with April — she spent her evenings ironing blouses — but she was someone to go to movies with. Once Millie made the mistake of staying at April’s house for dinner after driving her home; they had to watch The Arthur Godfrey Show with April’s mother and grandmother afterwards.

April didn’t see why Millie should give up seeing Richard before someone better came along. “Believe me, it’s no fun having no one in your life,” she said.

“Even though I told my mother it’s over?” Millie asked.

April shrugged. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, will it?”

[To be concluded in next post.]

THOSE WERE THE DAYS

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[A story.]

 I’m quite certain Paul came with me to Andre de Renski’s housewarming party in October 1960 because back then I never went anywhere, except to work, without Paul. Although I have no specific recollection of whether or not he gave me a hard time about putting on his grey flannel suit (which I had bought for him back in our honeymoon days) in order to attend this event, he would have eventually agreed to come – preliminary objections or no — so as not to jeopardize my paycheck, which was, in a manner of speaking, our paycheck.

I do remember that it was Frauke, Andre’s nineteen-year-old German secretary and showroom receptionist, who came to the penthouse door to greet us when we stepped out of the elevator. She was looking delectable in an emerald green taffeta cocktail dress and high heels; the dress swished as she clicked her way across the polished wood parquet floor. She apparently had gone home to change after work; in the showroom, she always wore a slim skirt and cashmere sweater, with a string of pearls.

As we entered the living room, I introduced her to Paul; she then introduced us to her escort, who was sitting in a yellow brocade wing chair. A polite, neatly combed man in a dark suit. His name was Matthew Holmes (as he reminded me when we met again sometime afterwards). I found out later Frauke had already been living with him for at least a couple of months, although they were not officially a couple and gave no indication that his accompanying her to Andre’s party was anything other than a social accommodation. I probably offered him a civil smile. Then Andre hurried over and swept us away.

Andre was a new client of Pagel & Cohen, the ad agency where I had recently been hired to write copy. He had come from Paris in August to introduce a French silver company to the American market. Why he had invited me and Stan Epstein, the art director who was designing his advertising program, to his housewarming was not clear. Stan thought it might be only an outburst of youthful good spirits. However, Norm Pagel and Herb Cohen, who ran their eponymous agency together, decided it made good business sense for us go.

So there I was in my one really good dress, a black cashmere knit bought at a small intimidating shop on Madison Avenue during the previous post-Christmas sale. When I was well girdled, as now, it was very becoming; I felt chic and ready for anything. Unfortunately, Paul and I spent the whole evening talking to Stan. The other guests were all French businessmen and two Frenchwomen who did something for Vogue, a seemingly self-contained francophone group I didn’t feel sufficiently secure in spoken French to approach.

We left early. Paul and I hadn’t been getting along for some time, and I ‘d been looking forward to this Friday evening housewarming as a way to delay the onset of the weekend’s bickering. But there was just so much Stan and I could say to each other that we hadn’t already said in the office, and Paul wasn’t helping. As we stepped into the elevator, Andre rushed over again, this time clutching a bottle of Pommard, which he thrust into my hand. He said he was tellement desole, so very sorry, that we were leaving before we’d had a chance to chat, and that he wanted us to have something to enjoy over the weekend. He may not have meant both of us; the word you is singular as well as plural in English. He gave me what could have been a deeply sorrowful look. Although French, he had Slavic eyes. I didn’t thrust the bottle back, a serious mistake. The invitation to the housewarming had already sent up Paul’s antenna. We argued about what the Pommard meant, or didn’t mean, all the way home on the crosstown bus.

The Pommard may have meant what Paul suspected. During a meeting with Herb, Norm and Stan the following week, Andre pulled me to one side of the conference room on the pretext of showing me some ideas he had roughed out for future ads. “We must have lunch,” he whispered urgently.

“Didn’t you forget something?” I whispered back. “I’m married.”

His eyes looked tragic. “You can’t even have lunch?”

I consulted the Hungarian about this whispered invitation during my next visit to his office on East 86th Street. I had been seeing him two evenings a week for over a year.   He did have a proper name, clotted with linked consonants and therefore difficult to pronounce, but I found myself unable to use it except when writing out checks in payment for treatment. Naming him might have turned him into a regular human being who used branded toothpaste and wore pajamas and maybe even yelled at his wife now and then. If compelled to bring him into a conversation, as when explaining to Paul why I might be late getting home after work, I always sidestepped the linked consonants by referencing his nationality. And when I was by myself, he needed no name. Where in the Old Testament do you find the name of God?

The Hungarian did not disapprove of lunch with Andre, if it stayed lunch. However, he did believe the patient should make no major familial changes during treatment. He may also have had some reservations about the veracity of my accounts of unhappy married life; after all, it was Paul who had initially obtained his name from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and insisted I go see him, to find out why I was evading my marital responsibilities by taking too many naps on weekend afternoons.

Ma, honeybunch,” he said to me now. The ma was not actually a Hungarian word. It had become part of his permanent vocabulary in Italy, after he climbed over an Alp to escape the Soviets when they invaded Hungary. (He had a romantic past.) “A little flirtation is not so terrible. It might cheer you up. Make your husband more attentive.”

My husband was attentive enough, actually. Although he refused to fritter away his creative years by earning a living (at thirty-eight he was still waiting to be discovered as a great playwright), I had no complaints about Paul’s horizontal skills. When we darkened the room so that I could pretend he was someone else, he brought me off regularly. Of course, I wished I didn’t have to pretend.

“More than lunch is not an issue,” I said, sidestepping further discussion of Paul’s amatory style with what I hoped was charm. “You think I’d risk losing my job by messing around with a client? Then I wouldn’t be able to pay you!”

My preparations for the approved lunch consisted of cashing a birthday check from my father and buying a fitted black wool boucle suit at Henri Bendel. Paul knew nothing about the check because it had been mailed to the office. He’d been without paid employment since we’d come to New York three years before, and my father was no dummy. I had never worn anything so expensive. Just buttoning the jacket cheered me up. Paul didn’t even notice the new suit.

Andre was double-parked in a bright red Alfa Romeo convertible in front of the building on Madison Avenue where Pagel & Cohen had its offices. There was a Longchamps in the lobby, but chain restaurants did not figure in Andre’s universe. Top down, we drove six blocks to The Brasserie, where he double-parked again.

“Won’t you get a ticket?” I asked.

With a delightful Gallic smile he opened the door on my side. “C’est la vie!” Then we dodged oncoming cars and circled the Alfa Romeo to the pavement. He took my arm to descend The Brasserie’s stairs. “Beautiful suit,” he said.

We had Beaujolais and steak tartare (a first for me), which the waiter prepared tableside with many flourishes.   Desultory chitchat about the silver campaign soon segued into more personal matters. He was twenty-seven (he said), divorced, a father; his little girl was in France with her mother. His English, underlaid with the merest soupcon of delicious French accent, was from England, where he had gone to school. He was delighted to learn my parents were Russian; he himself, though born in Paris, was the grandson of Polish aristocrats, ousted from their castles during some late nineteenth-century Polish brouhaha. We were therefore both of Slavic blood. I said my parents considered themselves Jewish. Aha! he exclaimed. We were more alike than I knew. He had a Jewish grandmother. He leaned towards me. “I find you fascinating,” he said softly. “Tell me who are you. I want to know everything.”

Tell me who are you. It had been such a long time since anyone wanted to know. I wasn’t used to wine at lunch. Whatever slid out of me, about myself and my ill-advised marriage, it must have been too much.

“You poor darling,” he murmured gently when our tiny espresso cups were empty. “You deserve so much better. I want to make it up to you.”

How does one respond to that?

He paid the bill. Outside in the bright fall sunshine, the Alfa Romeo sported a ticket on its jaunty windshield. I said I would walk back to the office. (I needed to cool my cheeks.) He nodded, deftly removed the offending ticket from view, and slid into the driver’s seat. “Be warned,” he said. “I am going to court you as no one has ever courted you.”

“Andre! Don’t be silly!”   I started to giggle.

He signaled and began to pull out into traffic. “Yes, and I will never know how many other men are courting you.” He looked back at me, we stared at each other for a moment and he added, “Of course, you will never know how many other women I am courting. It will be so-o-o exciting!”

I think he blew me a kiss, but it’s hard to be sure. My head was throbbing with wine and compliments and the noise of traffic. Then the little red Alfa Romeo was gone.

What nonsense, I thought as I wobbled the six blocks back to work. Who wants to be one of a gaggle of women being courted at once? Divorced or not divorced, I thought, he must not know anything about real life. All the same, it had certainly been fun. My life needed some fun. How I wished I were free to play!

Alas, I was not. Back at my desk and sober again, I did risk/benefit analysis. Andre was young — two and a half years younger than me — and probably undependable. He pleased; he diverted; he inspired no real desire. Then there was Paul’s temper. What if he found out? Would he hit me? Divorce me? Adultery was grounds in New York. Would I also lose the Hungarian if Norm and Herb found out and fired me? I didn’t have even emergency cash of my own. I was walking around with five dollars in my wallet for weekly subway money; all the rest of my pay went to Paul. Where would I be without a job and, worse, without the Hungarian?

The upshot of these ruminations was to table thoughts of Andre for now and do what I could safely do. The following Friday I used twenty-five dollars of the contents of my pay envelope to open a savings account in a bank near the office. I explained the shortfall in net salary to Paul as an increase in social security withholding. He didn’t like it, but since he didn’t get paid himself anymore he had no basis for questioning it. In the wrong things he trusted me. Although I no longer thought that marriage, especially a bad one, was necessarily forever, I wasn’t actually planning to leave him, especially given the Hungarian’s ground rules. On the other hand, how could it hurt to build myself a private little nest egg, just in case? After all I was the one who was doing the earning. I kept the bankbook deep in the zippered inner compartment of my handbag, below a thick wad of Kleenex.

It took what seemed a long time for my secret account to grow. In the meanwhile, I went on — more or less uncomplainingly — with my domestic weekend routine: cleaning our two-room apartment near Needle Park, dragging a shopping cart five blocks down Broadway to the A & P and then back again, cooking a week’s worth of the indigestible meals that Paul remembered from his mother’s kitchen and loved so well. (Kartoffelglossen was a particular favorite.) Paul did most of the talking when we were in the apartment together. If I ventured to disagree about something, his response was always, “I am King in this house!” That would have made me Queen, I guess. But if I had dared mention it, he would certainly have stalked, aggrieved, into the other room. On such occasions, I did fall back on pleasant reveries of Andre. He might not have been appropriate second husband material. But why not a sort of stepping stone to the next part of my permanent life? These were, of course, just reveries and could comfortably co-exist with making no major familial change. Understandably, I didn’t waste expensive therapeutic time discussing them with the Hungarian.

In any event Andre’s promised courtship was not really getting off the ground. His social recreation seemed for now to consist mainly of successful pursuit of the Four Hundred. You could read in Cholly Knickerbocker’s column about his many evenings out with young ladies bearing last names associated with banks, railroads and manufacturing empires owned by their fathers and uncles. Once he even showed up in Walter Winchell’s column as “that dashing young Frenchman who’s taking Café Society by storm.”

Nonetheless, it soon became apparent to Herb and Norm that he preferred dealing with them through me. When he didn’t pay his bill on time, which was more and more often, they began sending me over to the showroom to collect. “Hello, hello,” sunny blonde Frauke would sing out from under her impeccable beehive of hair as I stepped from the elevator. “How nice to see you!” She sat alone at a glass-topped reception desk, looking both friendly and gorgeous. Andre’s office was in the back. I never saw a customer at any time I was there, and sometimes wondered what the two of them might be up to by themselves all day long. I even chaffed Andre about it once, while he was writing out a long overdue check for three thousand dollars to Cohen & Nagel.

“With Frauke? That’s nonsense. She’s just a child.” He tore the signed check out of the ledger and handed it to me. “Besides,” he added, “she has a perfectly nice American boyfriend. Matthew I think his name is. He does law, doesn’t he? Why would I want to interfere with that?” Then he walked me to the door, his arm around my waist. “But how are you?” he asked. “Still with that awful husband, yes? You must come to a party anyway. Next week, without him.”

I knew from Frauke that Andre had begun to give many parties now that he had his penthouse tastefully decorated. So I didn’t take this invitation as a particularly personal gesture; he was simply being hospitable. But I decided to go anyway, if only to show I was still his friend despite his laissez faire attitude towards invoices. I told Paul that Herb and Norm wanted me there because it was good for client relations. Although Herb and Norm knew nothing about Andre’s invitation I was sure that if they had known, they would have wanted me to accept. Paul was not happy to dine alone on leftover sauerbraten, but if you’re going to set yourself up as King of the House, you deserve a certain amount of payback. Besides, it would be lovely to put on my good dress again and get out of the apartment for an evening.

There seemed fewer francophones in attendance at this party. Then I saw across the room, in the middle of the gold brocade sofa, a lady having her hand kissed by several gentlemen. I cornered Frauke, in some respects a fountain of information, and inquired. Frauke explained. The lady was a princesse de France. But France was a republic, wasn’t it?   “Oh, she lives in New York just like the rest of us,” added Frauke, who was in possession of the addresses and phone numbers of every guest. “It’s only her blood that’s royal. Two-hundred year old blood.” She was leaning against the mantelpiece, on which there were now two neat stacks of parking tickets. “Don’t laugh,” she cautioned. “Andre’s careful not to offend.”

Andre himself introduced me to the other guests: I was his lovely and brilliant copywriter, he said, and a very good friend.   I met a stout balding Zenith executive who told me, in slightly German-accented English, that I was extremely charming and he would like to do something for me if I would let him. I met the quite attractive personnel director of Equitable Life who put both his hands on my upper arms while confessing that his third marriage, to a French countess, was on the rocks but as he couldn’t afford to do anything about it they were chained together for eternity. I met an editor of Modern Bride, fortyish and redheaded, who said she was over the moon for Andre and wanted to know all about him; she seemed to think I was an authority. I went to an empty space near the drinks cart for a breather.

“Hello again,” said Matthew Holmes, who was standing there.

I must have looked blank.   “The housewarming? Frauke’s friend? I see I made a great impression.”

Ah, the polite male escort. “Yes of course! Please do forgive me.”

“Forgiven.” We exchanged names a second time. His gaze turned towards Frauke’s blonde beehive as it made its way from one group of Andre’s guests to another. Then he asked where Paul was. My own eyes were following slender graceful Andre as he glided here and there, bestowing and receiving cheek kisses; I wished he would glide in our direction. “Paul hates these things,” I said, finally. Matthew Holmes glanced back at me. “So do I.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Looking out for my interests.”

“Your interest looks as if she can take care of herself.”

“I’m sure she can. That’s what worries me.”

“Oh?”

He changed the subject. “Why are you?”

“Why am I what?”

“Here.”

“Work.” (The easiest answer.)

“This is work?”

“Norman Pagel thinks so.”

“Then I guess you could call it that.” He had a pleasantly normal sort of voice. I thought he was probably a native New Yorker. Like me.

“Tell me,” I asked suddenly. “Do some of these people strike you as weird? As if they’re living in some other world?”

“Ah, you’ve noticed.” Now he turned back in my direction.

“I don’t understand what Andre sees in them.”

“If Andre’s your client, I can’t tell you.”

“Andre’s Norm’s client.”

He shrugged. “Same difference.” After a moment’s thought he relented somewhat. “You see that?” He pointed to a small gold-framed photo of a young woman taken outdoors against a cloudless blue sky; it was on the end of the mantelpiece closest to us, away from the parking tickets.

“You mean his sister?” I said.

“Is that what Andre told you? He told Frauke she was his cousin, who died several years ago. Half an hour ago I heard him tell that redhead” — he lifted his chin in the direction of the editor of Modern Bride — “that she’s a married woman in France with whom he’s hopelessly in love.”

I didn’t like this information. Or that Andre was not coming over to the drinks cart. Didn’t he realize I couldn’t wait till the end of the party for him to have some time for me? My watch said 10:00. “I have to go,” I said. “There’s work tomorrow. Nice talking to you.”

“My pleasure.” He made no move to walk me to the door, and I didn’t expect him to. By the time the elevator reached the building lobby, I had stopped thinking about him. The woman in the gold-framed photo was another matter.

The next time I was sent to the showroom with an unpaid invoice, I tackled the question head on.

“Andre, do you really have a sister?”

He was having trouble finding the company checkbook ledger among all the papers on his desk. “A sister? Yes, of course. Why?”

“And a pretty cousin, who died?”

This question seemed to surprise him. “People talk too much.” Was he annoyed? He began pulling out drawers and rummaging in them briskly. Then he slammed them all shut without replying yes or no. “Listen, darling,” he said. “This is a bad time. How about you come back tomorrow and we take care of the tiresome money then?” He rose to walk me out without waiting for an answer — depriving me of an opening to inquire, coquettishly of course, if he were by any chance hopelessly in love. No great loss. I already suspected what I would hear: “Only with you, darling, only with you.”

The agency was going easy on Andre’s increasingly delinquent payment history. They had just nabbed a big new account which was occupying all their attention: a German beer about to invade the United States and Canada with a huge advertising budget. I wondered why two New Jersey guys named Cohen and Nagel who had been at least in their thirties during the height of the Third Reich and by now were certainly aware of what had gone on there, were so eager to do business with citizens of the German Republic who were once probably Nazi officers. But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Providentially, Herb decided he would do all the beer copy himself; he said he wanted to keep me free for “soft” products, of interest to women.

Then the Hungarian bought a house for his family (they had been renting in the Bronx) and moved his practice to an office with a separate entrance at the back of the house. The house and office, he said, were bullet-proof; they had been built by the Mafia. I never did understand his pride in this feature of the purchase, unless it had to do with his early days in Hungary during the war. All the same, I followed him without hesitation to his new fortress in Forest Hills. It meant riding the E or F train there and back, and not getting home again until well after 9 p.m. That was okay with me — it meant less time with Paul, more time to daydream on the long return ride two evenings a week.

It was not okay with Paul. He declared I had had enough therapy and raised a rolled newspaper at me. As if I were a bad dog, I thought. The following week, his frustration with my reluctance to give up the Hungarian took the form of shaking me very hard as I stood with my back to a kitchen wall. A can opener was mounted directly behind my head. He narrowly missed slamming me against it. What would come next? Slaps? Blows? That’s all I needed, I thought. This was real and it was happening to me. Whatever the Hungarian’s views on familial life changes during treatment, if I was ever going to get out and start over, I had better do it while I was still unbattered and had all my teeth.

I confided in Stan, the art director. He called his lawyer. I was soon in possession of the name of another lawyer, who specialized in divorce and was cheap. I.M. Reddy, Esq. Was the odd name of this person an omen? Heart in mouth, I telephoned for a lunch hour appointment. The address turned out to be a questionable-looking office up a tall flight of narrow musty stairs on West 42nd Street.

Attorney Reddy, by contrast, turned out to be astonishingly short. “Call me Irma,” she said reassuringly, extending her hand slightly upward to reach mine as I gasped for breath at her door. Despite her unimpressive appearance, Irma Reddy was masterful. After I had given her a hundred dollar retainer, prudently withdrawn in advance from my secret account, and then explained the facts of my domestic situation, she knew exactly how to proceed.

**************

You want to know what happened next, don’t you? Of course you do. Let me be brief: Seven months later, I was a genuine divorcee, thanks to a decree from Tijuana, Mexico, typed in two languages and embossed with two red wax seals, from which dangled two glossy red ribbons. Irma was subsequently reluctant to let me go; she proposed dinner and who knew what else afterwards, but I demurred, so what could she do?

Paul, my now former husband, borrowed some money from his mother in Rochester, New York, to pay Columbia University for accrediting him as a New York City high school teacher, after which he vanished into gainful employment in the bowels of Queens.

Andre was let go by his silver company before his promised courtship of me came to fruition but somehow talked himself into a much more exciting job for Philip Graham as a Washington Post correspondent covering events in French Indo-China (not yet Vietnam), perhaps because he was bilingual. He came back to New York briefly a year later. He had become deaf in one ear. (From gunfire?) He pronounced me a “pure” woman and proposed marriage in the subjunctive, conditional on my understanding he could never be faithful. This did not seem like a good idea. He agreed it was probably not in my best interests, and thereupon disappeared from my life forever, although he is apparently still alive as I write this, and can be found on Wikipedia, with photograph. He appears to have kept most of his hair but has lost two and a half years since we knew each other. He is now five years younger than I am.

It may come as no surprise that as soon as Frauke found herself a deeper pocket and moved out of Matthew’s apartment, he called me up. I’d like to tell you we had a happy ending together, but there were only about three dates before it went south.

Actually, we were all pretty much nuts, when you think about it. Except maybe the Hungarian. But he took early retirement about fifteen years later and moved to Clearwater Beach, Florida. His widow still lives there.

NO PAINKILLER AVAILABLE

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Not every ache or pain is age related. And not every pain can be numbed, even by prescription. Here are three paragraphs about pain not numbed in someone not yet old. I call the three paragraphs a story, although the beginning of the story precedes the three paragraphs and the story has no end. Which I suppose is the point.  There is no end.

I didn’t write it.  I wish I had.  To me it says everything there is to say about what it’s about. Which (I think) makes it impressive, if unconventional, writing.  Yes, it’s by Lydia Davis again. [From The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador paperback edition, pp. 170-171.]  I know some of you found her hard to take when I posted about her before. But this piece really got to me, so I thought I’d try again.  It’s not very long. See how you feel about it.

Wife One in Country 

Wife one calls to speak to son.  Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.  Wife one wonders: is she herself perhaps another raging woman, constant caller?  No, raging woman but not constant caller.  Though, for wife two, also troublesome woman.

After speaking to son, much disturbance in wife one.  Wife one misses son, thinks how some years ago she, too, answered phone and talked to husband’s raging sister, constant caller, protecting husband from troublesome woman.  Now wife two protects husband from troublesome sister, constant caller, and also from wife one, raging woman.  Wife one sees this and imagines future wife three protecting husband not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two, as well as constantly calling sister.

After speaking to son, wife one, often raging though now quiet woman, eats dinner alone though in company of large television.  Wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again.  Watches intently ad about easy to clean stove: mother who is not real mother flips fried egg onto hot burner, then fries second egg and gives cheerful young son who is not real son loving kiss as spaniel who is not real family dog steals second fried egg off plate of son who is not real son.  Pain increases in wife one, wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again, swallows pain again, swallows food again.

P.S.  If “Wife One” is at all to your taste, you may enjoy some of the quiet musings of one of the WordPress bloggers I follow.  She identifies herself as JMPod, and her blog is Original Pea.  I don’t know if she’s read Lydia Davis, but some of her short pieces remind me of Davis. What she writes is often not upbeat. Although she does say she writes mainly for her own pleasure, it would be great if more people found her.  Some things can’t be fixed. But it helps when you can write about them and other people read what you write.

WHEN X LED TO Y LED TO Z

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X.

A long time ago, a girl met a boy a month before they both left home for college.  The girl and boy lived in the same city, but their two colleges were far apart.  So they had to correspond furiously all that year, because they were not able to be together except on school vacations, at which time they made up for lost time with prolonged kissing and strenuous battle over each separate item of the girl’s clothing.

By the end of the following summer, the boy had managed to remove the girl’s upper garments during kissing sessions and was fingering the outer rim of her panties.  By Christmas, the panties were off.  By the end of Easter break of the second year, they had agreed to lie to their respective parents about when break was over and spend the last evening of it together in an inexpensive hotel.  To prepare, the girl bought a twenty-five-cent gold-colored wedding ring at Woolworth’s.  The boy bought a package of Trojans.

Their hotel was in a commercial part of town. The room they were given was on the third floor and looked down on the street.  It had two single beds which could not be pushed together because they were in diagonally opposite corners of the room. However, the boy didn’t ask for another room because they were only going to use one bed.  There was no shade on the window either, but that wasn’t a problem because there was no building across the way. Just a blinking red neon sign advertising a storage facility.  The girl later remembered that it said, “Store your valuables.”

Although they had each read books of advice, neither of them had done anything like this before. They assumed everything would just happen naturally. After they had taken off their clothes in the dark and the girl got into one of the beds,  the boy opened the package of Trojans and tried to put one on in the weak red light of the blinking sign. The girl watched.  She felt tense and overexcited and wished he would start already, so as to get the first part over with, that was supposed to hurt so much.

How funny he looked, hunched over himself trying to see what he was doing without his glasses. The girl giggled.  It was nervousness. Really it was.  Suddenly, the boy straightened, looked at her as if she had stabbed him, and flung the Trojan away. Then he stalked off to the other bed.

“What’s the matter?” the girl ventured. She was so innocent.

“Forget it!” the boy growled, from under the covers. He had never growled at her before.

“Why are you over there?” She still didn’t get it.

“Why did you have to laugh?” he asked.

The girl got out of her bed and into his, to comfort him. The boy sent her back to her own.  He said coldly they’d sleep better apart. She heard him start to snore, or pretend to snore.  Then it was the next morning.

The boy didn’t say much in the morning, except about train schedules.  He took an early train to his college, she took another train to hers, and they never gave themselves a chance to try again. That summer the girl went to Europe on a student bicycling tour and the boy went to Woods Hole on an unpaid marine biology internship.  While there he may have picked up some much needed experience.  Or may not have. The girl didn’t know. While on her bicycle, she thought mainly about him.

In the fall, the boy sulked, and stayed away, and came back, but only to go to the movies. They broke up on New Year’s Eve, after the girl agreed to a tepid date with someone else because she hadn’t heard from the boy in four weeks and then he called at the last minute.

Even when the girl finally understood what had happened, she usually felt it had been her fault.  Why did she have to giggle just then? Why hadn’t she been more sensitive to his state of mind?  But sometimes another part of her would ask why hadn’t he been able to soldier through?  Why hadn’t he known she wasn’t criticizing, she was just nervous, she had been counting on him to know what to do?

Y.

The girl finished college a year and a half later. During that time, she dated a few other boys, but none of them seemed worth seeing more than once or twice.  They were all too boyish.  After graduation, she moved away from the city where she and the boy had lived and settled in another city where reliance on public transportation was a pain and one really needed a car.  Although she had taken driving lessons and had a license, she did not yet have a car.

One might add that she could now be called a young woman instead of a girl.  She was also gainfully employed in a behind-the-scenes job in television and had decided to take a night course in television production at a local university to see if that might speed her way up the career ladder. It was a long ride on two buses to get from the television station to the university.

There were just three women in the course, but she was clearly the youngest.  The instructor came over to give her special help. She was only shaking an open box of Ivory Snow in front of a photograph of the Swiss Alps while another student trained a camera on the soap falling in sprinkles on the Alps. Who could possibly need help with that? But even if the “help” was a ruse, that was all right, because the instructor was quite a nice looking man.  And he wore a tweed jacket similar to the kind of jacket the boy used to wear when the young woman was still a girl and was  laying her cheek against the boy’s lapel after they kissed.

The man asked where the young woman lived, and then whether she had a car.  When she indicated that she did not have a car, he drove her home in his ’37 Plymouth sedan.

Long story short, there were two dates, during which the young woman found out the following about the man.  He was thirty.  He came from New York.  He had a degree from Yale.  He did some acting, but also wrote plays and was working on the first draft of a novel.  Teaching television production was just a way to put extra bread on the table until the writing began to bring in real money.  He was tall, he was slim, he had a very nice smile.  And he had that jacket.

On the first date, the man’s kiss was chaste and respectful. On the second date, the kisses were less chaste.  The young woman enjoyed them thoroughly.  It seemed a long time since kisses like that.  She sat back to catch her breath. “Oh my,” she giggled. (This time the giggle was purposeful.).  “Look what you’re making me do!  And I don’t know the first thing about you.  Why, you might be married! With three children!”

The man also sat back. He regarded her gravely. “As a matter of fact,” he said slowly, “I am married. And I have four children.”

After a pause, he added, “Do you mind?”  Can you guess the first thing the young woman thought when she heard what the man had said?  We should note that this was a young woman who as a girl had been described by some of her college professors as having “a mind like a steel trap.”

The young woman with the mind like a steel trap thought, “Oh, he’s done it at least four times. He will know what to do.”

The man did know what to do.  Unfortunately, there was nowhere to do it because he couldn’t bring her home where his wife and four children were living, and she couldn’t bring him home because she was living with her parents. The man pointed to the rear of the ’37 Plymouth. “Do you mind the back seat?”

The young woman did mind.  “I’m not as experienced as you may think,” she said.

“Do you mean you’re a lesbian?” the man asked.

The young woman was taken aback.  “Why should you think that?”

The man said that she was twenty-one, and how could she be “not experienced” with men at twenty-one unless she’d only been with other women?

So then the young woman had to explain about the boy, the blinking red light, the giggle and the disastrous result.  She felt as if she were being unfaithful to the boy in telling someone else about what had happened.  But she didn’t want to lose the man at this critical juncture.  The man became kind.  He said some unpleasant things about the boy, but didn’t blame the young woman.  He was even soothing.

That weekend, the young woman rented a furnished one-room studio with a pull-out Murphy bed for $50 a month.  She justified this expense to herself as educational.  Once the man had taught her what she needed to know, she could move on with confidence to someone else more suitable.  She didn’t want to go to a cheesy motel room, and she knew the man wouldn’t be able to afford studio rent, since he had five other mouths to feed and instructors don’t make much. But she had savings.  And God helps those who help themselves, doesn’t he?

Z.

In the months that followed, the man showed the young woman everything he knew, which was more than she had ever read about.  The young woman also learned that the man stretched the truth.  He was from New York, but upstate New York.  His degree was from Yale, but it was his graduate degree;  his undergraduate degree was from the University of Rochester.  He had never acted for money (although he had once recorded a public service announcement for a radio station); his plays had been written as an undergraduate and never produced, even at Rochester; and he wasn’t really working on the novel.  In the fullness of time, he got a divorce, but alimony and child support gobbled up almost all the bread he earned as an instructor.  He wasn’t even on the tenure track.

He was nine years older than she was. There were religious differences as well. When she broke a silence of three years to write to the boy about how her life was going, he wrote back at once that it was great to hear from her, that he was pretty sure the man wasn’t the right man for her, and that she should get her ass on a plane and come back to the city where he was still living.  But she didn’t have money for the plane, or a job or place to live when she got there, and by the time she wrote back that she wouldn’t be able to come right away, he had written again — their letters crossing in the mail — that he was getting married, and he’d love it if she came to the wedding.

The young woman broke up with the man for a younger man, but the younger man turned out also to be married and to be expecting a first child in a few months.  The younger man explained that he was married only because he had knocked up a seventeen-year-old girl on the beach the previous spring, and she had been a virgin, and they were both Catholic, and what else could he do but marry her?  Also he was just starting out in life, economically speaking, and had even less money than the man with the four children.  He said he wished it had been the young woman he had met on the beach the previous spring.  But what good did that do her?

The young woman eventually went back to the man with the four children because — in spite of all the problems her mind like a steel trap could foresee  — there was no one else on the horizon, and she did like what went on in the Murphy bed. Then the man’s wife remarried, he didn’t have to pay alimony any more, and he proposed.  The young woman was already twenty-four, in another year she would be an old maid, and the boy was married to someone else. She asked her father what she should do.

Her father thought about her question, inquired if this was the divorced gentile man she was asking about, and then said it was time she got away from her mother.  He later denied he had said this, but the young woman wouldn’t have got married if he had said not to.  She had so many misgivings of her own that all she had needed was a push in the other direction not to go through with it.

She didn’t really love the man with the four children.  He was just okay.  But by now she was used to him.  All the same, she promised herself the night before their city hall wedding, for which she wore a grey linen dress from the year before, that if it didn’t work out in two years she would get divorced.

It should come as no surprise that in the end, the young woman did divorce the man with four children. But it took her six years, not two.  By that time, her twenties were over.

 X leads to Y leads to Z.  One way or another, it seems to happen a lot.  And before you know it, you’re thirty.