SOPHIE BEFORE FEMINISM

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[A Story.]

When Sophie was twenty-two and still living at home in Los Angeles, a white elephant named Clark lived there too. Clark actually rented a furnished studio opposite the Paramount lot. But he was nine years older than Sophie, divorced, and had four children, plus alimony and child support obligations. His job as a university instructor  paid nearly nothing. He drove a broken-down ’37 Plymouth coupe and spent all his spare time writing unmarketable novels. The silent parental disapproval was palpable.

On the other hand, he wore a tweed jacket and had an MFA from Yale, initially major attractions for Sophie in this cultural wasteland to which her parents had moved her from the East a year ago. During the time she’d been with him in his pull-out Murphy bed, he’d also taught her quite a lot about what men like.  Still, her parents were probably 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 Sophie 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. She would smile, falsely. She hated scenes, fled from conflict, chose the easy way. Also, there was no one else on the horizon.

And it wasn’t as if that were her only problem. At USC, where she was now a graduate student in the English Department thanks to a teaching assistantship which had come to her through Clark’s recommendation, she was just beginning to feel her way. She made sure to wear elegant suits with narrow skirts, handkerchief linen blouses, nylons with seams marching smartly up the back of her calves, and neat low-heeled pumps from Bonwit Teller – so no one could mistake her for a coed. But was it really all right to be teaching how literature illumined the meaning of life by sitting on the desk with her legs crossed, like Lauren Bacall on Harry Truman’s piano? Should she be reading aloud from The Catcher in the Rye to a Freshman Lit class of tanned eighteen-year-olds, plus a front row of vets newly returned from Korea and nine members of the freshman football team slouched against the back wall? Would someone from the Department come round to check?

Then there was British History 340 (MWF 2:00-2:50), unwelcome but necessary. No undergraduate English History survey course, no graduate English degree. It was surprisingly hard. And the thirty other students, male and fanned out mostly towards the rear of the auditorium, were – for her purposes — useless. They almost all looked too young. A somewhat older fellow with bad skin, up front on the left, nodded hopefully in her direction each time she slid into her seat up front on the right. But she always pretended not to see. There were also two other older ones, halfway back behind her, sitting together on their spines like her freshman football players. Returning GIs? Neither ever paid attention when she sailed past.

At the end of October, the professor concluded the hour by slapping the blue books containing the five-week exam answers on the first seat in front of the podium. 25% of the final grade right there. Sophie was nervous. Would a B jeopardize her assistantship? The class line snaked forward towards the diminishing pile of booklets. She took a deep breath, flipped through the top ones and recognized her name. In the upper corner of 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 Sophie’s throat. A-minus wasn’t good enough? He was arguing? And actually getting an A? As she watched, the professor crossed out the large A-minus, remarked it A, and altered the record of the grade in his grade book. The owner of the new A turned with a smile of triumph to the room at large. She recognized him. The taller of the two who sat on their spines halfway back behind her. His achievement clouded her weekend.

How fortunate he was expounding crap as she came down the aisle on Monday. “I’ve come to the conclusion the Jansenists were right,” she heard as she approached. “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! Sophie turned partially towards the speaker, the better to show the curve of her hip and relative flatness of her girdled stomach, and inquired sweetly: “But why call yourself a Jansenist? This is the twentieth century! If you just eliminate God from your Jansenism, you could say you’re an Existentialist. Haven’t you read Sartre?” Sometimes even she was impressed by the nonsense that could emerge from her mouth when needed. He regarded her with interest. His dark eyes had a downward tilt at the outer corners which gave him an amused look.  “Hm,” he said. “I’ll think about it. Since you say so.”

“Do.” And down the aisle she went, feeling much better about her A minus.

He was lounging against the banister of the stairwell when she came out after class. She had a key to the elevator. The preliminary repartee was predictable. It got him into the elevator with her. Their trip to the lobby was brief and silent. He looked at her. She looked at him. He was tall, with thick rough features, a dark crew cut that was growing out, and those amused eyes. He needed a shave. He wore a heavy purple sweater with a large white HC on it. Bad color for him. Made him too pale. But none of that mattered. Too soon the elevator door opened. “Well, thanks,” he said. “It was a pleasure. See you Wednesday.” Sophie so much didn’t want to forget any part of this encounter that she wrote it all down as soon as she got home.

On Wednesday he had shaved. He was very polite. He gestured to the empty seats next to her: “Anyone sitting here?”   She smiled, shaking her head. He left one seat between them. The lecture began almost at once. They both took very careful notes. Sophie couldn’t have repeated a single thing she wrote.

They rode the elevator in silence again. Outside he asked if she would like a cup of coffee. They walked on slabs of sidewalk between borders of grass. It was as if she were in a movie. Although early November, the mid-afternoon sun was shining. He offered to carry her books. No, no she said, she could manage. He insisted on taking them anyway. No one had ever carried her books before. She knew they were talking about something, but the actual words didn’t count. Another something, very powerful, was pulsing between them. They reached Commons. The other teaching assistants from the English Department were sitting together at two tables and saw him carrying her books. She suggested they go sit with them but he said no, they should go downstairs. So the other teaching assistants also saw them go down to The Hole, where only undergraduates hung out. But what did it matter? Sophie’s real life was beginning at last.

They found an empty booth. He slid in opposite her. She ordered her coffee black with saccharin. (She was counting 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 her about himself. She was so preoccupied with leaning her chin on her hand and hanging on every word she 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. She loved it that someone who looked so tough had a poet’s name. Well, nearly a poet’s name.

On Friday, when they went for their second coffee, a buddy of his caught up with them, so Will sat next to Sophie. Maybe to show the buddy she was his. Although the buddy seemed to know about her 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 that 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 she had just met someone who paid women to let him inside their bodies was so astonishing to Sophie she couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so she 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 them closer together. For their third and fourth coffees, on the following Monday and Wednesday, they went on sitting side by side. Although Sophie did notice that Will was still being very careful no part of him touched any part of her. She wasn’t sure why. Even though going slow was supposed to be a sign of respect, he must know, she thought, that she knew neither of them were playing games.

However, before the third coffee came a weekend. That Friday evening in the pull-out Murphy bed, Clark toiled without success between Sophie’s thighs. His head conveniently out of sight, she could go on thinking about how Will had grown up in a place in Boston called Southie, which she understood to be a poor neighborhood or maybe even a slum because he’d said he used to hang out with street gangs. He had enlisted at sixteen by lying about his age. (He was actually only two years older than she 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.) And after discharge he’d eventually gotten his high school diploma and gone to the Cross on the GI Bill. (She would have to find out what, and where, the Cross was.) He’d also told her how once, during football practice, he scored the perfect touchdown. It didn’t count, he said, because he was only the third string quarterback and the Cross was mainly a basketball school anyway, but he didn’t care, because he had done it and he knew he had done it.

Clark looked up at Sophie over her stomach and asked how she was doing. She apologized for taking so long. Then she thought about how Will had finally walked out of the Cross 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 just no way she was going to be able to come, no matter how long poor Clark kept at it. It didn’t occur to her to fake it. (Expedient fakery would be an acquisition of her thirties.) And in fact she was getting sore. So she encouraged him to forget it and finish up for himself. “I must be catching something,” she explained. On Saturday night, she said her period had arrived unexpectedly. She put the diaphragm back in its case in his bathroom cabinet, and they went to the movies instead. By then, Sophie could hardly bear to hold Clark’s hand. She wondered if she should try to feel guilty, or at least selfish, but all she really felt was glorious anticipation.

Will was unhappy at their 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 their booth in the Hole. He wished they could stay there forever. On Wednesday he even walked Sophie from Commons to the faculty parking lot and seemed to have difficulty leaving. She considered this a promising development and wondered when he would ask her out. He was certainly taking his time. One thing she did know: absolutely no more weekends in the Murphy bed.

Clark had a late afternoon class on Wednesday. Sophie drove to his studio immediately after leaving campus, let herself in with the key he’d given her, stealthily removed her diaphragm from his bathroom and tiptoed out, locking the door behind her. She would have to keep the diaphragm case at the bottom of her purse because she couldn’t leave it at home, her 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. She telephoned Clark to say she was ill, had skipped history class and gone right home. Fever of 103. If she were better on Saturday, she’d let him know, but she felt awful and it didn’t look good. She was sorry. So sorry. She spent the weekend douching in the bathtub to clean every trace of him out of herself. Her mother kept asking through the door if anything was wrong. Between baths, she studied British History because it reminded her of Will.

Sophie’s first Freshman English section met at 9 a.m. on Monday. She was there five minutes early, in suit, pumps and makeup — looking pretty good, she thought.   The students drifted in. Just as she was closing the classroom door to begin, Clark’s face, red-eyed and distraught, appeared through the glass panels. The students strained to see what was going on. “You’ve left me,” Clark sobbed, not quietly. She heard a suppressed giggle from somewhere behind her. “Ssh,” she hissed to Clark. “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?” Sophie closed the door on him, turned to her class and shrugged. They laughed. She knew she should have handled it better, and managed not to smile back. Then she took attendance, still chewing the inside of her mouth to keep the corners from turning up. Everyone was unusually attentive. It was a rewarding class.

She was afraid Clark would reappear at any moment during the rest of the day, but he kept his distance. Now and then she thought how awful he must be feeling, but that made her feel awful herself. She tried to reason herself out of it. Didn’t he understand that they couldn’t have gone on endlessly, with her 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 her youthful optimism, her good nature? It had to stop. She was entitled to a life, too.

Then she 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 her bare left forearm. Sophie looked at the two arms, so close together. The skin on his was paler than the skin on hers, as if he hadn’t been in the sun at all, even last summer. And it had fewer hairs on it than Clark’s or her 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.

She went on looking at their arms. Well, of course. Wasn’t that what she wanted, too? How honest he was!  “You have to understand,” she 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.” She stopped short of mentioning love. She wanted him to say it first.

“I do understand,” he said solemnly.

Now she had to say yes or no. If she said no not yet, would that mean she wasn’t the sophisticated woman he took her for?   She didn’t think she could say no. “All right then,” she 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 their books in the trunk, next to some spare Hoover vacuum cleaner parts, and they screeched out of the student parking lot. Sophie had to ask where they 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 she was making a mistake.

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

The rest of the ride was better. Will found a Thrifty Drug, where Sophie bought spermicidal jelly and he bought fortified port wine. After they got back into the car, he took her 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 they arrived. There were two rooms. They tiptoed through the first, which had bookshelves, but that’s all Sophie could see, because of course she had her glasses off. The second was the bedroom. He was clumsy at finding her buttons and hooks so she quickly undressed herself while he pulled off his sweater, shirt and pants and kicked off his shoes. Next she went to the bathroom. Sitting on someone else’s toilet squeezing jelly into the rubber cap, she reflected that this wasn’t as romantic as she might have liked. But it was much too soon for babies. After she emerged they drank some of the port out of the bottle (Sophie took only a sip because of the calories), and kissed again. Then his erection got in the way of more really close kissing so they went to bed, he climbed on top of her and came very soon. “That’s okay,” he said, putting his arm around her. “There’s lots more where that came from. Once I came seven times in one night.” She did like the arm around her.

The second time she managed to get a pillow underneath herself before he mounted, but it didn’t help much. She wondered if it was because his penis was rather slender, compared to Clark’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 she hadn’t. She would have to give lessons. Very delicately. Generously, she forgave him. How could he have learned about lovemaking given his rough and difficult life? He might have been mostly with whores, like his buddy. Maybe she was his first real girl.

The third time Sophie suggested she 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, she offered to go down on him, to try to empty him out a bit.  But just as he was about to come rapidly a fourth time, there was the sound of a key in the lock. All she 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 some whispered negotiations. They 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. Sophie 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 had finished the last crumbs, he remarked only that they’d better be getting back to the faculty lot for her car. Was that all he had to say? She looked away through the side window, so he shouldn’t see her disappointment. He did ask for her 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 her number out loud afterwards, to show that now he really knew it.   He also leaned over and gave her a little kiss, on the lips, when they reached her car. The next morning she slipped Clark’s key into an addressed envelope and dropped it in a mailbox on the way to school.

The phone rang Wednesday evening as Sophie was finishing dinner with her parents. It was Will. He had some free time. Could she come out with him in about ten minutes? They did some fooling around in the green Pontiac before he explained that he hadn’t been able to find a place for them to go. Would it be all right if they 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 she 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?” she asked. “I use a lot of energy,” he said. “Can’t you tell?” She guessed she was supposed to giggle at this, so she did.

They strolled out of the restaurant hand in hand and went to Pickwick’s, where they gazed at the shelves in the literature section and Sophie talked about Proust, which she had read most of and he hadn’t, while her curled fingers slid up and down his thumb. His good night kiss at her front door seemed almost reverent. She felt they were going to be together forever.

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

He took her to a studio apartment much like Clark’s but closer to the university. “Whose place is this?” she asked. “Don’t worry,” he responded soothingly. “We can use it all afternoon.” That didn’t answer the question, but she didn’t press it. She had another problem. Now her period really was here. She 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 her naked behind every time she moved, and toilet paper and her last unopened Tampax within reach on the floor next to her side of the bed, the afternoon began to seem more about keeping the bed clean than abandoning herself to the transports of love. Did she dare turn over? Was her ass covered with newsprint? Was now the time to pull the plug and let him in? Sophie groped for the little white string with one hand, but it was slippery and wet and impossible to yank. Then she 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 her body and soaked dark. “Wait!” she cried, holding him off with elbow and knee while she wrapped the detritus of her innards in more and more toilet paper until she could see no more seepage. Predictably (and mercifully), he came fast, at which point she pushed him off — lovingly, she hoped — so she could insert the last clean Tampax before there was damage to the sheets. That pretty much ended the promise of the afternoon for her. She wondered if she 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 Sophie’s 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, she peered at the name next to the bell. “Yates.”

“Then this is your apartment!” she said.  “No, “ he replied. “But it used to be.” As if that were an answer. He hurried her into the car.

She thought she would see him the next day, but when she arrived at the English Department Friday morning she discovered a teaching assistant meeting had been scheduled for two that afternoon, so she had to cut History. Two cut classes in as many days; her life was going out of control. At the meeting, another teaching assistant who was her best friend in the Department whispered that Clark had called to ask for a date and she had said yes. Since Sophie had broken up with him she thought it would be all right. They were going out Saturday night. Sophie knew 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 Sophie warn her? Maybe she wanted to be deflowered. Maybe she’d been secretly jealous of Sophie 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 Sophie walked over to Commons with the best friend to show no hard feelings, and they had coffee with the others who’d been at the meeting and were jabbering about what the Department Head had said. She kept her eyes on the door but never saw Will come in looking for her.

She didn’t hear from him all weekend. She 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 Clark and the so-called best friend might be up to.

On Monday, Sophie 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 her books again, though. And the sun — she would always remember the sun was still shining and they sat on a bench for a while to enjoy it. “Thank goodness next Thursday is Thanksgiving,” she 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 she suggest he introduce them 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. Sophie couldn’t process it fast enough. Seventeen? It was those cashmere sweaters, he said. All the coeds in their cashmere sweaters. After the Cross, 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,” Sophie 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? Hadn’t he understood what she’d been offering? What did he think this was? Some kind of Victorian novel?

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

She couldn’t give him up now, just like that. Temporize, she told herself. Play for time. Cry later.

He looked happier when she said yes.

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

They sat thigh by thigh in the Hole. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute passed their booth and waved. He must have known all along. Sophie 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. She was ready to meet him, but he had to go back. They both got A on the History ten-week. She wondered how he’d managed, with so much going on in his life. She’d had to really study for hers. The week after Thanksgiving break he came to the house to pick her 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. They sat on the austere black blanket and tried to kiss. Then they hung their clothing over the back of the single chair and did what they had come to do. It was all very sad, although Will seemed to be in good working order in spite of their situation. Afterwards, they lay on top of the black blanket while he stroked Sophie’s arm. She told him he would love the baby when it was born. It was going to be his baby, a part of him. She thought she ought to say these things to sound wise and warm, and to make him feel better, although she had no idea if they were going to be true. He looked doubtful. “But I don’t want to be married,” he said. “The baby will make everything all right,” she murmured reassuringly, hating Little Miss Pure who couldn’t hang on to her underpants. She was dying for a cigarette. The theological student had no ashtray. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

They went to Milani’s French Dip on Santa Monica near Highland. Plenty of ashtrays there. Their 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?” Sophie asked Swami. Swami said no.

She fished another penny out of her change purse. “Will we at least see each other until the baby comes?” Swami said no.

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

And then it simply unraveled. Will began to look for another job for when his classes would be over and had to hurry away after History to go on interviews. The week before Christmas vacation, they went a last time to the Hole. He seemed resigned to what would be. Sophie tried to memorize his face. “Time was just out of joint for us from the beginning,” she said. “I guess,” he said. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute came by and Will invited him to sit with us. They talked about the baby coming, and the job market, and it was almost as if Sophie weren’t there at all. At the end of the last History class, Will said he had to go. He was still wearing his purple sweater. Sophie was getting fond of it, now that she would probably never see it again. He put out his hand half way and then took it back and gave a little wave goodbye instead. She nodded and turned quickly, before he did. She wasn’t going to stand there and watch him walk away from her. He must have taken the final with a different proctor because she didn’t see him in the exam room to which she was assigned. She got an A in the course and assumed Will did too. Although what difference did it make, now that he was out of school and about to become a father?

Clark soon re-insinuated himself into her life. The business with the best friend had never gotten off the ground. He forgave Sophie her trespasses. (Although he didn’t forget them.) All was (almost) as before. Except she 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 Miranda, after Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest, because he wanted to protect her from the corrupt and evil world. “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 her the joys of the season and enclosing a snapshot of a 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. Sophie sat looking at it for a long time, trying to make it feel less hurtful. But she couldn’t. At last she tucked it in a file folder discreetly marked WBY, together with her notes of their first meeting and the Thrifty Drug sales slip for spermicidal jelly and port wine from that time they had driven to Covina.

Eventually Clark’s ex-wife found a new husband, the alimony payments slipped from his shoulders, and he proposed. He should have known better, but apparently he didn’t. For her part, Sophie was by now nearly twenty-four, only a year from old-maidhood. Fate had already dealt her what she 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.

AT ROSCOE

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[A story.]

In the summer of 1937, Anna and her mother and father went away to a place in the Catskills called Roscoe. It was during the two weeks her father didn’t have to work. Anna was six. There was a big main building with rooms for guests and a dining room where everyone had meals and also a lounge where grownups played cards, checkers and chess, and listened to the radio and talked after dinner. The swimming pool was on the lawn behind the main building; it had a shallow end for children, and all around it were places to sit and lie in the sun. There were also two much smaller buildings down a slope on the right called Annex A and Annex B; they had only guest rooms in them. Anna and her parents were in a room in Annex A because it was a little cheaper than the rooms in the main building, which each had a private bathroom. The two Annexes had only one bathroom to a floor. But each room in an Annex had its own little sink for light washing up, so sharing a bathroom wasn’t so bad, said Anna’s mother.

The Pool

If you got tired of swimming and sunning at Roscoe, you could go for a stroll to the village in the late afternoon, when it was cooler. In the village was a little store with a wooden floor where Anna’s mother and father would have iced coffee and buy Anna an ice cream cone. But most of the time they stayed beside the pool, where her mother put lotion on herself so as to tan instead of burn, and chatted a bit with other ladies. Her father didn’t use lotion; he sat under an umbrella and had lively conversations with other husbands.

After Anna came out of the children’s end of the pool, she would spread her towel on the grass to hear what was going on. Usually she settled near her mother, because she didn’t understand what the men talked about, like how President Roosevelt had saved us and the bad things that were going on in Germany. But sometimes she found a shady spot near her father’s chair, and that felt better than getting sweaty in the sun where her mother was, even if she couldn’t follow the conversation.

Soon she began to notice that not all the ladies stayed in the sun. When her father was talking, a few of them always moved over to listen. “Your father is such a wonderful raconteur,” said one of these ladies to Anna. “What a lucky little girl you are!”

 Divorcee

The guests at Roscoe were all married to each other except for one lady who wasn’t married any more, although once upon a time she had been. Anna was sorry for her at first because she was the only one without a husband, but the other ladies seemed not to like her. They especially disliked the way her bathing suits showed off the tops of her big boobies, which didn’t droop even a little bit. She also wore makeup all the time, even to the pool. And when she walked, her behind wiggled from side to side. Whenever this lady went to sit under a pool umbrella where the men were, the ladies who stayed behind in the sun near Anna’s mother would talk about her — in soft voices, so she wouldn’t hear.

 Luck

A man sitting by the pool said to Anna’s father that nothing was like it used to be and nowadays you sure needed luck to get by. Anna’s father said, “I’ve got news for you, mister. You always needed luck.” Then he told a story about coming to America with Anna’s mother.

The story took place a long time ago, before Anna was born. Her father and mother were in a big city called Constantinople, in a country called Turkey. They had arrived there on a ship from Russia. Then they needed special papers from the United States in order to get to New York on another ship. But there was a problem. A very powerful third country called England wanted to keep ships from coming in or going out of Constantinople because Constantinople was the only way in or out of Russia by water, and England didn’t like what was happening in Russia. (What was happening was that it wasn’t Russia any more; it had recently become the Soviet Union.) England had many warships, and could do what it wanted, said Anna’s father.   So Anna’s father and mother needed to get those papers very fast, before England decided to act.

“Anyway,” said Anna’s father, “the United States had an office in Constantinople where doctors gave health inspections to anyone wanting to come to America. If you were healthy you could come, but if even a little something was wrong — then you couldn’t, until you went to another doctor and were treated for whatever was wrong with you. Which of course took time. And money.”

“Why was that?” asked a lady who was listening intently. “If it was just a little something?” It was the lady with the big boobies, who had no husband.

“Well,” said Anna’s father, who seemed not to mind being interrupted. “Those doctors in Constantinople weren’t American doctors, who can fix you up one, two, three. No siree! They were Turkish doctors. Out for all they could get!”

Anna’s father went on with his story. He and Anna’s mother arrived at the health inspection office early so he could look around. At the front of the nearly empty waiting room he saw a chair and a small writing table that held two saucers filled with colored buttons — red buttons in one, black in the other. Behind the table he also saw several open medical examination rooms. He didn’t know what the buttons were for, but he put a few of each color in his pockets.

Soon the waiting room filled up and an official-looking person arrived, carrying a big leather-bound book. This person settled himself at the table with the buttons, took out two rubber stamps and a stamp pad, and began to call names from his big book for the health inspections: man’s name, woman’s name, man’s name, woman’s name. Anna’s father heard his name and then her mother’s. The person at the table motioned Anna’s mother into one of the examination rooms and her father into the other. “As soon as my examination was over — and it was very quick, let me tell you,” said Anna’s father, ” the doctor gave me a black button and said I could leave. But when Masha came out of her examination room, she had a red button in her hand! What did that mean? Which color meant yes? Which color meant no?” Anna’s father paused for dramatic effect. “How could I know? What I did know was that — red or black — we should stay together. So I took away Masha’s red button and gave her a black one from my pocket. Then we went together to the official with the rubber stamps. He looked at our black buttons and stamped our papers: ‘Approved.’ We made it onto the last boat out of Constantinople.”

“Oh, that was luck!” said the lady with the big boobies. “Except why did they give Masha a red button?”

“Masha still had long hair,” explained Anna’s father. “They told her she had lice. Of course she didn’t. It was a scam. I later heard that they said that to every woman with long hair. The treatment by another doctor would then cost fifty dollars, which the two Turkish doctors would split.”

On the way back to their room in Annex A, Anna told her mother what she had just heard about the red and black buttons. Suppose her father had guessed wrong? Would he have come to the United States alone? Would her mother have had to go back to Russia?

“Don’t think about that story,” said Anna’s mother.

“Why not?” asked Anna. “It was a lucky guess about the buttons, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said her mother. But she wouldn’t explain what she meant.

 In Annex A

Anna’s father liked to play chess. So did some of the other men at Roscoe.   Mostly they played after dinner in the evenings, but one afternoon after lunch (which you could eat in a bathing suit with just a shirt or robe over it), Anna’s father said it was too hot for him by the pool and he was going to look for a chess game in the lounge. Anna’s mother went back to her blanket and towels on the grass where the women she was friendly with usually sat, and Anna jumped back into the pool. But she had drunk a lot of water and lemonade at lunch, and soon she needed to go. What a bother! It would have been so easy to do it in the pool; no one could see if you stood in water up to your waist. That was wrong though, Anna’s mother had said, because other people used the pool too, and some of the other children even swallowed the water by accident. So Anna dutifully pulled herself up out of the shallow end, told her mother she was going to the bathroom, and hurried along the path to Annex A.

The Annex was dark and still. The maids did the vacuuming and made the beds in the morning; Anna thought now she might be the only one in the building. She and her parents had one of the two front guest rooms on the second floor. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she could. The bathroom on that floor was at the other end of the hall, between the two back guest rooms. She squeezed her thighs together so as not to have an accident. And then — oh dear! — the bathroom door wouldn’t open.

“Hello,” she called, rattling the doorknob. “Is someone in there?”

No answer. How quiet it was. She could hear herself breathing.  “Please? Will you be out soon?”

Nothing. Not a sound.  It wasn’t right. Shouldn’t the person inside answer? At least say, “Just a minute, little girl?”

She tried again. “I really have to go.”  Did she hear a sigh from the bathroom?

The door stayed shut. She clutched herself between her legs and looked around for help. Someone. Anyone. That’s when she saw the door of the back guest room on the right was partly open and the lady with big boobies was sitting at a dressing table inside, combing her dark hair in the mirror and keeping her gaze fixed on the reflection in front of her as if Anna didn’t exist. Hadn’t she heard Anna talking to the person in the bathroom?

The lady was wearing nothing but a slip. It was peach-colored and satiny, with creamy open lace at the edges; you could see the outline of the tips of her big boobies through the satin. Even though the maids had made all the beds in the morning, this lady’s bed was messed up, with the sheets and bedspread thrown back every which way and the pillows tossed around. And even though this lady didn’t have a husband any more, there was something black thrown on a corner of her bed over the tangled sheets that looked like a man’s bathing trunks. They were the kind of black knitted bathing trunks Anna’s father wore.

Then Anna knew she shouldn’t wait any longer for the bathroom door to open. She turned, ran downstairs, out of the Annex, up the path towards the main building, and reached the children’s end of the pool just in time.  Her mother noticed she was back and sat up on her blanket. “Everything all right?” she called.

The sun was in Anna’s eyes. Waist deep in water, she squinted in the direction of her mother.

“Anna? Are you all right?”

That was a different question. Anna nodded yes, she was all right.

           

BATHROOM

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna had to make a wee, but the bathroom door was closed. Although the knob was above her head, she could reach it on tiptoe — a glass knob, with little smears of white paint on it. She turned it and pushed the door halfway open.

The toilet was right behind the door. Her naked father stood in profile, holding some part of himself over the bowl. She never saw his face. She never saw what he was holding. As soon as the door opened, he slammed it shut again, just missing her. His voice was a roar: “DON’T YOU EVER COME INTO THE BATHROOM WHEN I’M IN IT!” Why was he so angry when she hadn’t known he was there?

And she had to go so badly! She burst into tears. Her mother came running. Now her father was yelling at her mother. Her mother spoke through the door, saying calm-sounding things in the foreign language they used with each other sometimes. Then she took Anna away to the kitchen, where she taught her to sit on a saucepan on the floor whenever she had to make a wee or a stinky and her father was in the bathroom. The saucepan dug a circle in her hiney. It hurt.

“Sometimes I have to use a pan, too,” her mother confided.

Grown-up Anna occasionally looks at the height of doorknobs, trying to estimate how old she could have been when this happened. Certainly not more than three.

 

 

STUPID ME

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I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.

Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer.  He is, he is!  But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at.  What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow.  On the first go-round anyway.

Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are.  And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.

Examples:

19.  In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I.  We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well.  Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.

******

27.  At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.

******

39.  If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family.  In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.

******

40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.

******

45.  Rules are ways of imagining what to do.  Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’  Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.

******

Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t.  Monogamy is not prescriptive.  It’s not expository.  As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject.  What the French call apercus.  There are only 121 of them.  Lots of white space on each page.  Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next.  (Except perhaps out of curiosity.)  You can open the book anywhere.  Put it down anywhere.  Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.

But let’s back up.  Who is Adam Phillips?  If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him.  Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review.  (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.

Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst.  He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.)  After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill.  He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.

As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.”  He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.”  He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”

As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s  been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”

[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]

It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy.  I picked it because it was short and sounded easy.  (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list.  There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month.  His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]

  • On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:  Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
  • On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
  • Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
  • The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • On Kindness
  • On Balance
  • Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake.  Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper.  Here’s some more.  Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.

28.  There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk.  The language won’t let us mix them up.  We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  We are not mixed up enough.  In other words, we still have bodies and souls.

******

58.   The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish.  It is a risk masquerading as a promise.  The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?

Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.

******

60.     Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame.  I am always true to myself, that is the problem.  Who else could I be true to?

When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting.  I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.

******

64.     It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.

To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.

******

65.  No one gets the relationship they deserve.  For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.

******

69.   There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.  This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.

******

121.   Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.

******

51.   Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.

******

53.   The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.

So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?

******

And how do I stop quoting?  [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.]  By reminding myself you can always get your own copy.  Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above).  That one is essays.  Essays I can do.  Apercus?   I’m still working on my French.

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART II)

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IMG_0531[Continued from previous post:  “….My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman). I say this as if it were all fact, but much of it is inference. As you will see.”]

PLACE OF BIRTH.  I say my mother was born in (or near) Vilna because that’s what she said, on more than one occasion. And because my father never contradicted her.  The business about being born in Baku set forth on her “Declaration of Alien About to Depart for the United States” [see previous post] must have been a lie of convenience. It was a dodgy time in which to live.  She was traveling with my father and his brother out of a country recently occupied by the Red Army, and the Communist Party had come to power.  Baku was their place of residence at the time they left and therefore their point of embarkation for Constantinople. They had permits for travel from Baku to Constantinople, but no documentation of travel to Baku from points of birth and/or earlier residence, which would have been essential had they identified a birthplace and/or prior residence other than Baku. Notably, my mother was not alone in her “misstatement.” Both my father and uncle also declared on all their emigration papers that they were born in Baku — although in fact they had been born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), in the Ukraine.

I therefore believe Vilna. Whenever she would mention it, in response to my questions, she also always added that Vilna was “now” part of Poland — a transfer of sovereignty which had occurred in 1920, and which she would not have been particularly aware of had she been born elsewhere. I may have first heard this from her prior to 1939 or 1940, while Vilna actually was still part of Poland. But if so, I must have been quite young, because I was only eight or nine when the Soviets took Vilna back from Poland. But after she came to America in 1922, my mother lost interest in events across the ocean. She was here, Vilna was there, and whatever was currently going on there didn’t matter any more. Although Vilna was captured and occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then after the war became Vilnius, part of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, her birthplace remained “Vilna, now part of Poland” for the rest of her life.

When I was a little girl myself and curious about my mother’s own childhood in Vilna, she told me her father had a “yeast refinery.” I think she meant a processing or manufacturing facility for yeast. Her English, though reasonably fluent, was not entirely precise. I also recall her mentioning her father had money and that she and her parents lived on an estate which had at one time belonged to a landowner with serfs. (If true, this ownership of serfs would have been prior to the 1860’s, when serfdom was abolished.) She seemed proud of this heritage, although she never made clear whether her father owned or leased the estate, and the subsequent history of the Vainschtains leaves this point murky. She added that the descendants of the serfs, most of whom had stayed on the land after being freed, worked in the “refinery.”

My mother was ten when she left Vilna, so I don’t know how trustworthy is her story. But there must have been something to it. She once recalled she had had a nurse.  A nanny or governess?   That does suggest money. I am sure, though, that her point in telling me about the estate and the descendants of serfs was to make clear that she did not come from a ghetto. (Having money would also have helped in this respect.)

There was indeed a ghetto in the town of Vilna. (You can see old photos of it on the Web.) However, my mother explained quite clearly on several occasions — which means it was important to her — that about ten percent of Russian Jews were permitted to live among the general population. These were the doctors, lawyers, and others who contributed something of value to the Russian economy. Evidently, she wanted me to know that her father, my grandfather, was one of the valued ten percent. Once I asked how those descendants of serfs felt about working for a Jew. She assured me that her father was very good to them. “They earned a decent living, why should they complain?”

Setting aside hypothetical problems of labor relations, about which she could not have known much one way or the other, but assuming a kernel of truth in the “estate” and the “refinery” (whether or not my grandfather owned the former), I therefore infer that my mother’s parents lived – and lived well — in the neighborhood of Vilna, but not in the town itself.

MY MATERNAL GRANDPARENTS’ NAMES.  At no time did my mother explicitly tell me her father’s name. She never mentioned her mother’s name at all. Could it be because the names were so “Jewish?” Despite the protections of money and the yeast refinery and the nurse, she had to have learned early on that “Jewish” was not a good thing to be. Even while she was still in or near Vilna, there had been that ghetto in town, about which she surely must have heard. She must also have overheard whispered parental discussions about the pogroms that swept through Russia in 1905 and 1906, when she was a baby. Her mother’s brother – whom she may not have remembered but would have heard of – had even left for good in 1908, to make a more secure life in America.   However, she did tell me, several times, there were separate schools for Jewish girls and for Russian girls, and only a few places for Jewish girls in those schools for Russian girls, hotly sought after and hard to obtain.

“How did anyone know you were Jewish if you didn’t tell?” I asked when still a little girl myself, innocent of the implications of names.

“It was on your papers,” she said.

Papers? What papers?  “Everyone had to have papers,” she said.

[An aside:  In her late forties, answering a question about her maiden name on a department store employment application in New York City,  she translated “Weinstein” — which is what “Vainschtain” had become on Ellis Island — into what she thought was the Russian equivalent: she put down “Vinogradova” in the appropriate blank.  She was actually proud of this deception, and told me about it when I came home from college during Thanksgiving.  For the record, she was wrong; “vino” may have meant “wine,” but in Russian “grad” means “city.”  However, she would have shrugged if I’d pointed this out to her.  She had managed not to put down a “Jewish” maiden name — a name she thought might have prevented her from getting the job.]

Or perhaps the actual names of my grandparents just never came up. My mother never reminisced, without being asked, about an early life in which she had experienced much unhappiness. But if I had asked, she would have answered. Why didn’t I? I never asked about my grandparents on my father’s side either. They were over there, aging and dying behind an Iron Curtain, and by the time I started to think about them – too late, too late – they were dead, and even my father, the more voluble of the two, had ceased to speak about his youth and lost parents.

What my mother did tell me (when asked) was her patronymic. I wanted a middle name. Everyone else in school had one; why not me? Well, actually I did, she said. They just hadn’t put it on my birth certificate. That’s when she explained that in Russia all middle names were formed from the father’s first name. If you were a boy, you added “-vitch” to it, if a girl, “-ovna.” My father’s name was Michael – Mikhail in Russian. So my middle name was Mikhailovna. Accent on the “k-h-a-i-l.” Pronounced to rhyme with “heil.” (As in “Heil Hitler.”) I was Nina Mikhailovna.

I didn’t care for it, not one bit. And what was her middle name? Maybe I would like that one better and could borrow it. “Vladimirovna,” she told me. Accent on the “d-i-m.” Pronounced “deem.” That was even harder to pronounce. And just as hard to spell. So she made me a list of girl’s names starting with “M” – Miranda, Marianne, Mabel, Melinda, and so forth. I chose Melissa, although I abandoned it several months later because it didn’t seem right to pick your own middle name in the kitchen.

But from then on I knew my grandfather’s first name. Vladimir. And of course his last name was the same as that maiden name set forth on all her papers of transit — Vainschtain, Vainschtain, Vainschtain — and also on the Fabre steamship line manifest of passengers traveling to America in November 1922. (The name she would later try to hide.) What I don’t know – and never will – is his patronymic, although she must have known it and could have told me, if I asked. Nor do I know when he was born, or where, or to whom, or how he came into his yeast “refinery.” He is simply Vladimir Vainschtain, who lived outside the ghetto on an estate and had money.

About my mother’s mother – my grandmother — I heard a little more while I was growing up, but not much. She was my grandfather’s second wife. I always used to assume he was a widower when he married her, although my mother never specifically said so. Now that I think about it, I was probably right.  I don’t know how difficult it was to divorce in Czarist Russia, but I suspect it wasn’t easy.  Moreover, there was no animosity between the children of my grandfather’s first marriage and my grandmother, which suggests that their own mother had passed on before their father married again.

My mother once told me that this was also a second marriage for my grandmother. She only mentioned it once, when I was asking if her mother was Jewish, too.   Not always, said my mother.  A somewhat unusual answer.  It seems Berta Isaakovna had converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to marry her first husband, who was gentile. So for a while she wasn’t Jewish any more.  But then she became Jewish again in order to marry Vladimir Vainschtain!

Nothing more was ever said about this gentile first husband who demanded a conversion from his bride near the end of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Did he die? Did they divorce? Was the marriage annulled because of some defect in the conversion? (Is that last supposition my own romantic speculation about the unknown?) Since my mother never mentioned half-brothers or half-sisters through her mother, any such marriage must have been without issue, and probably relatively short.  My grandmother was still young enough at the time she became Mrs. Vainschtain to bear two children, five years apart.  [An aside:  My father left in his desk when he died in 1986 a list of birthdays and dates of death known to him; he estimated that Berta Isaakovna, my mother’s mother, was about sixty-six when she died in 1942. That would put her date of birth in 1876. If this is correct, she was twenty-eight when my mother was born.]  

Two conversions within, say, six or seven years? Or, more likely, a conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, later deemed null and void? (Once a Jew, always a Jew?) Or could my mother have made the whole thing up, in order to claim some wisp of connection with non-Jewishness?  Romantic though her dreams may have been, I find it hard to believe she would actually lie to me.   Omit or elide past unpleasantnesses? Yes, that she would do.  But spin out fantasy as actual fact to a listening little daughter?  No, that was not my mother.

If her story was true, then I had a grandmother who was both assimilated and pragmatic. Yet my mother never mentioned the name of the resilient heroine of this gossamer tale of two marriages. I discovered my grandmother’s first name and patronymic – Berta Isaakovna — in translations made for me in the mid-1990’s of letters to my father from his family written many years previously, in which they mention several visits my mother’s mother paid to them. And I have extrapolated her maiden name from her brother’s signed statement that he would take responsibility for his niece, my mother, upon her entry into the United States; he signed himself David Shulman.

At any rate, and irrespective of their putative prior marital histories, Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Shulman (whatever her first married name may have been) were married early in the twentieth century.  And on or about July 16, 1904, somewhere in or near Vilna, they became parents of a baby girl.

They named her Meera.  [To be continued….]

 

 

 

WHY I DON’T CHECK A BOX

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People sometimes ask me — or ask us, but usually it’s some other woman asking just me — why Bill and I don’t get married.  We’ve lived under the same roof and shared all expenses for the past thirteen years.  So what’s holding us back?

There are several answers to this question.

  • Rude:  “None of your damn business.”
  • Smartass:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  • Legal:  Since neither of us will leave an estate substantial enough to benefit from the tax code if we were married when the first of us dies, marriage offers no financial advantage over not being married.
  • Religious:  Bill considers himself a Secular Humanist.  I consider myself a-religious, although if it makes anyone more comfortable to classify people ethnically or religiously, I suppose you could call me a white Caucasian woman of Jewish parentage with no particular sense of obligation to be married before living with a man.
  • Societal:  We are too old to have children together, and therefore the legitimacy or illegitimacy of offspring — if anyone cares about that anymore — is a non-issue.
  • Truthful:  Having both been married twice before, with notable lack of success, we are probably each somewhat gun-shy.  Of what?  We live like man and wife.  We say we’re married.  We register at hospitals and doctors’ offices as husband and wife.  As far as other people are concerned, only our lawyer, accountant, children, grandchildren and a few close friends know for sure to the contrary.  Although we will in all likelihood be together when the first of us dies, not being married gives me, at least, a sense that I could fly the coop if I ever wanted to, that I am not a “wife” in all the unpleasant senses I have experienced in my two previous marriages, that I still have free choice, every day — even if I never exercise it.

Of course, that is all quite foolish.  Every other year or so, one or the other of us raises the issue again.  The one who might possibly be leaning in favor, of course.  Which is always the time when the other would prefer not to.  And so we are never, even hypothetically, in sync.

Nonetheless, Bill did once give me a Valentine’s Day card that asked, in French, if I would marry him.  It had the two boxes you see above, one of which the recipient was to check.  If I tell you the French word for “no” is “non,” you can see that the card didn’t offer much choice.  I keep the card — unchecked — on our mantel, though.  Because it’s nice to know you’re wanted.  And also to remind him the question’s still out there, and not yet answered, and that there’s only one way to answer it, short of throwing the card away — just in case he were to change his mind.

Equally pertinent to this loopy discourse is a copy of a statuette from The Art Institute of Chicago  which is also on our mantel. We gave it to ourselves as a present one Christmas. (Even though we’re both “Jewish.”)  It looks good from every angle, no matter which way you turn it, which may suggest to you what I’m getting at.

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I happen to like best the top and bottom versions (which are similar), perhaps because I think the female figure shows best from that angle and you can best see the alignment of the bodies.  But it doesn’t really matter how they stand on the mantel.  As long as we feel like that about each other, at least most of the time — and can also make each other laugh — who cares whether or not I check a box on the card?

JOB’S WIFE

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[This is the first in a series of four pieces arising from my recent, and in some ways still ongoing, experience with an obscure and distressing skin affliction apparently extremely rare in adults. They will not be just about skin, though. Is anything ever really only about what it first appears to be?]

When I announced that I would be absent from The Getting Old Blog for a while because I had come down with what was initially diagnosed as eczema but then turned out to be something else entirely, I described it like this:  “It’s a scalp-to-toe proposition, front and back … and makes you feel like Job.  (In my case, female version.  Was there a Mrs. Job?)”

That last bit about Mrs. Job was a throwaway line, to lighten things up.  The only time I had looked at the Book of Job — and “looked” is the appropriate word here — was for a class in Classical and Christian Civilization sixty-five years ago.  And all I retained of that long-ago cursory flipping of the pages was that the God of the Old Testament had put good and pious Job through many painful trials, including boils, to test his faith.  I didn’t even remember how it came out in the end.

Fortunately, I have at least one better-informed reader, who stepped up to the plate at once.  ShimonZ replied:  “Yes, there was a Mrs. Job…and her story was what first turned me against the entire tale, though it is reputedly written by Moses himself.  She died just to make Job unhappy…and after he’d proven how faithful and innocent he was, she was replaced!”

However, by the time Shimon’s comment reached me, my head was spinning with medication side effects, and I was unable to process anything about this new information other than that the loss of his wife was simply one more punishment God imposed on Job to determine how steadfast was his faith. That didn’t seem exactly fair to the wife, but I had other more skin-specific things on my muddled mind just then, and if I had to think about fairness to anyone, what about me?  (It usually all comes down to that in the end, doesn’t it?)

But once my brain had cleared, I looked into the matter further  — online, of course — and see that there is much confusion and controversy concerning the significance of this wife, of whom I had not known, during the course of God’s testing of Job’s faith.  She shows up in the Book of Job only once, after her husband has lost his wealth, his flocks, his seven sons and three daughters (who were also her seven sons and three daughters), and has been afflicted with loathsome disease. At this point, she asks him a question. Then she tells him what to do, irrespective of the cost.  He remonstrates with her. (No, no, bad wife.) And then she disappears.  That’s all there is:  one sentence, over and out.

Where there’s so little textual data, there’s plenty of wiggle room to go where you will with the story, and both Christians and Jews have had at it with vigor over the intervening centuries.  But why would this interest me — a person freshly risen from her sickbed who is not religious in any formal, or even informal, sense and has never engaged in textual, much less Biblical, exegesis either professionally or in some search for inner truth?

Because, put simply, I ask questions too.  When unforeseeably bad things happen, I am not docile. In the end, I may have to accept them.  But not before trying to find out why. And so, without knowing more, I was at once on nameless Mrs. Job’s side.  In her circumstances, I would have done and said exactly the same thing.  More specifically, an unforeseeably bad thing had just happened to me, and I was asking some questions and trying to decide what to do about preventing the next unforeseen bad thing.  No more blind faith in Dr. Dermatologist for me!

Guess what?  Asking big questions about blind faith has been a big no-no for a long time, and even more so if you’re “just” a woman.  Here’s one relatively recent take on the matter — both misogynist and repugnant — from http://www.biblegateway.com.

Job’s Wife: The Woman Who Urged Her Husband to Commit Suicide

Strange, is it not, that … we do not have the name of [Job’s] wife who remained at his side all through his trials and tribulations?  She is identified by only ten words which she uttered to her husband as she saw him suffering from so much bodily pain and discomfort.  ‘Dost thou still retain thine integrity?  Curse God, and die,’ or ‘Curse God and die by your own hand.  End your suffering by taking your own life.’  She urged him to commit suicide and thus relieve himself of further anguish.

Actually, this alternative reading — ‘die by your own hand’ — appears to be the commentator’s interpretation of ‘and die.’  I myself would have assumed that cursing God in the Old Testament World would have brought a punitive death at God’s hand –which is, I suppose, a sort of suicide, but not exactly where the commentator seems to be going here:

There was also the diabolical suggestion that [Job] should relinquish his faith in God, seeing He was permitting him to endure such terrible physical torment and material loss.  It is because she allowed Satan to use her as an instrument to grieve rather than comfort her husband, that commentators have spoken ill of her character.  Augustine referred to her as ‘The Devil’s Accomplice’ and Calvin wrote of her as ‘An Instrument of Satan’ and as a ‘Diabolical Fury.’ The little she said to her husband whose heart was at breaking point was enough to crush him altogether.  The one closer to him than all others should have encouraged him and offered him human sympathy.  Job’s wife, however, was the female foe in his household and reminds us that ‘the worst trial of all is when those nearest us, instead of strengthening our hand in God and confirming our faith, conspire to destroy it.’ (Micah 7:6; Matthew 10:36)

What does biblegateway suggest that Mrs. J. should have said or done when confronted with the pitiable sufferings of her ravaged husband (not to mention what must have been her own)?

…..Job was determined not to sin with his lips as his thoughtless wife had done….Because God has given woman an affectionate heart, and a large capacity for sympathy and compassion, it is incumbent upon women…. to ….persist in encouraging [their husbands] in times of great trial and tragedy.  It is only thus that a woman functions as God meant her to, as an ‘helpmeet.’ © 1988 Zondervan. All Rights Reserved.

Woman as mindless helpmeet. Heavy stuff. Enough to turn the most ardent believer into a feminist.  If this was the male mindset in Job’s day, can you blame Mrs. J. for disappearing from the text?  Luckily, there is another way of construing the Job family situation:

Wife of Job: Bible  by Ilana Pardes

[from the Jewish Women’s Archive, http://jwa.org.]

In the well known biblical story dealing with the problem of undeserved suffering, Job loses his [ten] children, his possessions, and his health.  Job’s nameless wife turns up after the final blow, after Job has been struck with boils.  Seeing her husband sitting in the dust, scraping his sores silently, she bursts out, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity?  Curse God, and die.’ (2:9)  She cannot bear her husband’s blind acceptance of the tragedies that befall them.  Indeed, the attention to Job’s suffering usually ignores the fact that she too, after all, is a victim of these divine tests in addition to being pained by exposure to his afflictions. (19:17) To cling to a model of perfect devotion to a supposedly perfect God when reality is so far from perfection seems to Job’s wife to be not exemplary strength, but an act of cowardice.  Such ‘integrity,’ she seems to be saying, lacks a deeper value.  What Job must do is to challenge the God who has afflicted him so, even if the consequence is death.

Much has been written about the unusual challenge the Book of Job offers in its audacious questioning of the ways of God, but one never hears of the contribution of Job’s wife to the antidogmatic bent of the text. …She opens the possibility of suspending belief, of speaking against God.  Job’s initial response to his wife’s provocative suggestion is harsh: ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak.  Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?’ (2:10)  When the dialogues begin, however, Job comes close to doing what his wife had suggested.  He does not curse God directly, but by cursing his birth he implicitly curses the creator who gave him life.  Much like Eve, Job’s wife spurs her husband to doubt God’s use of divine powers.  In doing so she does him much good, for this turns out to be the royal road to deepening one’s knowledge, to opening one’s eyes.

Job’s wife disappears after her bold statement…. [She] is conspicuously absent from the happy ending in which Job’s world is restored. Job’s dead children spring back to life, as it were, because he ends up having, as in the beginning, seven sons and three daughters.  Yet his wife, who actually escaped death, is excluded from this scene of family bliss.

But that’s okay, because it’s the family bliss of an Old Testament world, where ten new children by a second wife [Dinah, daughter of Jacob] can replace ten dead children, and a wife, similarly replaceable, is a mere extension of her husband. Not really something you or I would want for ourselves or our families.  You see, there’s more, only it’s not in the Bible.  According to the apocryphal Testament of Job, Job’s wife did have a name.  It was Sitis, or Sitidos, and she was, in a way, an outsider:  a woman of Arab descent. So what I would like to think is that she went away and made a whole new life for herself as Sitidos, a woman with a mind — far from undeserved suffering inflicted on her to test her husband’s faith.

This piece may have seemed like a wandering through the wilderness.  It wasn’t.  What began as an idle posting reference to Job, or Mrs. Job if there was one, turned out to be useful and fortifying in thinking for myself about my own recent “ailment.”  Although my immediate response to unforeseen misfortune may be to hurl myself on the nearest mattress, sob, shake my fist at the plaster ceiling and cry out, “Why me, oh God? — eventually, as in the words of the song, I do pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. Which is what I did when the worst of my recent affliction began to resolve itself.  But where and how to start?  Learning about Sitidos taught me something:  If the status quo fails you, curse it and look elsewhere.  You probably won’t die.  She didn’t.