FAKING IT

Standard

Even as a young girl eagerly devouring the “ladies” magazines my mother brought home from the corner newsstand, I thought the advice I found there about keeping a husband’s interest after marriage quite unfair. Especially the part about hurrying to the bathroom to apply makeup before he woke up and caught you with a nakedly unadorned face.  Although privately agreeing with the magazine beauty columnists that one looked much better enhanced by the sorcery of cosmetics than not, I did wonder how come the man didn’t have to do anything special to keep the marriage going.  Of course this was a long time ago, when in most marriages — as I realized long before I had finished high school — the man earned all or almost all the money and the woman’s job, if you could call it that, was to make sure he wanted to go on supporting her.

Whether a heavily made-up face was what a man fantasized about in the privacy of his side of the double bed is another question entirely, and not within the purview of this piece, wherever you thought its headline was leading.  But even if the magazine editors didn’t quite get the male psyche, they were right on the button with the then-economic interests of their readers. Keep yourself attractive, by whatever standards then obtained. Whether “attractiveness” also included faking pleasure between the sheets even where there really was none was probably determined privately by the woman on a case-by-case basis. In any event, back in those long-ago days when I was still living under my parents’ roof, I thought both parties simply exploded simultaneously with some kind of as yet unimaginable joy upon vaginal entry,  which meant that kind of fakery was not an issue.

When at last old enough actually to share a double bed with another, I never was able to force myself to reach for the cosmetic case before he opened his eyes.  However, time had marched on and that was no longer key.  What you were supposed to be was thin, or thinnish (even if “thin” didn’t come naturally); you also had to wear a panty girdle or girdle even if you were thin so nothing at all could possibly jiggle, so your behind was one unbifurcated cheek (preferably perky), and also so any bumps at the top of your thighs, however slender, wouldn’t show in a sheath dress or skirt. That was just to get to first base with a man — long before the necessity of having to keep his mind on you after marriage.

Ideally, you also had to be able to manage your hair, do without glasses in social situations, be a lady in the living room and a whore in the bedroom.  Of course plenty of women did get to first base without some or all of these qualities (myself certainly included), but most of us nevertheless hated one or more parts of our bodies because they didn’t look the way they were “supposed” to look and therefore struggled with as many fakeries as we could afford. (Hot rollers, padded bras, stilettos that improved the ankles but were killers to walk in, dieting in public but raiding the fridge once the girdle was off for the night; I’m sure every female reader of a certain age has her own list.)  I remember asking both a journal when I kept one, and a psychotherapist when I could pay one, “Why can’t I be loved just for me?”

Indeed, who doesn’t want to be loved just for being who they really are?  And yet long after marriage — or multiple marriages — most of us continue to play games with the truth. If we’re lucky, not so much on the domestic front as we and our men grow older and more realistic about what is important, and lovable. But almost always in the outside world, in order to survive. Although I haven’t worked for pay for over ten years,  I still keep a moralizing magnet on my refrigerator acquired during all those decades of having to market myself to successive employers, latterly at an age which on paper might have looked like the kiss of death: “Good clothes open all doors.”  They do, and they did.  Of course, once the door opens and you walk in, the clothes aren’t enough.  You’ve got to be up to scratch on all the multiple facets of the work you’re applying to do.  But you never get to that if the door never opens.

Bottom line: some form of fakery is probably necessary in a market economy for almost every kind of success.   For instance, as a new late-life lawyer in a large firm I soon learned my professional survival would likely depend on keeping to myself all real opinions about the value of what we were doing on behalf of our huge corporate clients.  Do I therefore owe my legal career, and consequent ability to achieve a modest retirement  before death, to the fact that I had little yellow stickies on my computer and inside my front desk drawer reminding me all day long to KYMS?  (My personal acronym for “Keep Your Mouth Shut.”) Not entirely. Good work was also involved.  But KYMS was an excellent start.

Which brings me to yet another example:  selling residential real estate, where the fakery is known in the trade as “staging.”  I learned all about staging in 2005 while selling the first property I had ever owned only in my own name: a two-bedroom, one-bath walk-up apartment on the second floor of a a semi-historic building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The building may have been old, but it did have charm and a good address, and the floor-through apartment had “good bones.”  Moreover, I was basically neat, and didn’t own a lot of crap because I had left most of it in the marital home when I moved out six years before buying the Cambridge apartment.

Then I met Bill.  I had bought the apartment  without foreseeing a second occupant, especially one who collected “stuff.”  Bill brought his smaller possessions with him.  (The larger ones, I learned later, were in storage.) Where to put them?  There was one sizable locker unit two floors down in the basement of the building, but it was already fairly full of beloved old grade school math notebooks and incomplete sets of Clue and Monopoly belonging to my two adult but as yet unmarried sons.  Besides, Bill didn’t really want to be rummaging around in a dark basement locker every time he wanted something.  So any available surfaces of my previously uncluttered home began to look like this:

fullsizeoutput_a0c

Cambridge 2005: End table in den (aka second bedroom). Formerly holding only lamp.

fullsizeoutput_a0b

Cambridge 2005: Other table in den. (Formerly holding only lamp. Big pictures mine; small pictures his.)

Since I wasn’t blogging in those days, I have no photographs of his side of the bed with its cluttered bureau top and piles of books on the floor, or of the single bathroom after it had acquired his toiletries and nutritional supplements as well as mine. However I’m sure you can imagine. (Having the two photos above was dumb luck.) “Great apartment,” said the friendly realtor. “But you’ll have to clear all this stuff away.”

“Where shall I hide it?” I asked plaintively.

“Wherever.” She waved her hand blithely.  “I’m sure you’ll find a place.”

[To be concluded in next post.]

 

 

 

 

TELEPHONE CALL

Standard

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.

DREAMING TRUE

Standard

I’m not talking daydreaming here. By its very nature, a daydream isn’t true. Or isn’t true yet. It’s what you wish would happen. Or think you wish would happen. (Have you ever thought of what it would really be like to live twenty-four seven with the man of your dreams – buff and studly and always with only you you you on his mind. Spare me!) All right, two weeks in Paris, five-star hotel, three-star eating, all expenses paid, with a somewhat less buff and studly guy, maybe even your own husband – yes, that would be lovely. But is that what you really daydream about?

Dreams when asleep are another matter. You might think they aren’t true either. But you could be wrong. I once had a colleague whose husband had awful nightmares about his second wife at least twice a week and sometimes more often. My colleague’s view was that her husband’s unconscious apparently went on hating this wife even twenty years after their acrimonious divorce, although he never saw her again after the court hearing. On the other hand, maybe dreaming about wife two was a metaphorical way of letting himself know how he really felt about wife three, who was my colleague. So perhaps the husband had been dreaming true, in a poetic manner of speaking.

Now if I had been the colleague, I don’t think I would have told me. A husband’s repeated nightmares about one’s predecessor could certainly suggest to others that one wasn’t really on top of things, wife-wise. She tried to make a joke of it: “When I married him, I didn’t think she’d be in the bed, too!” I laughed, to be polite. All the same, I would have kept it to myself.

I only dreamed about a spouse once. It wasn’t really a nightmare, although it was unexpected and therefore somewhat scary suddenly to see through the windshield of a car I was driving in the dream that the nose of the car had my second husband’s head on it in profile – rather like the three ships that used to adorn the nose of Plymouth automobiles when I was a little girl. We’d been divorced for at least seven years by the time his profile, featuring a large nose of his own, showed up on the car. So I don’t understand this dream at all. It couldn’t have meant I thought he was still trying to lead me around, because I was the one doing the driving in the dream, not him. By then I was entirely independent of him in real life anyway. And it couldn’t have meant I thought he was an ornament. He was all right in the looks department, but not particularly ornamental. Whatever my unconscious was trying to tell me, it failed.

I also once had a scary dream which might have qualified as a nightmare: an unknown masked man rang the doorbell where I was living with my mother, pointed a gun at me when I opened the door, and pulled the trigger three times. I heard the pop, pop, pop – but nothing happened. The man had shot blanks. I didn’t fall down dead or dying. (And no, it wasn’t about unsatisfactory sex – even though that could have been truthfully said about real life with my first husband, with whom I was still living at the time.) But I was in therapy when I had this dream. The therapist thought the unknown man was my father, and that my unconscious was telling me not to be afraid of him anymore because he was harmless. The therapist was probably right, as I had already figured out that my father was mostly bark and no bite. So that was another instance of perhaps dreaming true. But if I already knew what the dream was telling me, what did I need the dream for? I decided I had dreamed it to be able to tell the therapist about it. Then we could stop talking about my father and move on to my mother – a conundrum of a woman if ever there was one.

But mostly I don’t dream much when I sleep, or don’t remember the dreams, even in fleeting fragments. Although not so long ago I did have one amazingly real-seeming dream I remember very clearly. It was about another stranger, younger than me and definitely not my father, a strong and sensitive man who was making wonderful love to me. He knew exactly what to do and where and how to do it. Unfortunately, just after the preliminaries and his entry (if I may put it that way), Sophie – our younger cat – decided to pay my stomach one of her nocturnal visits with her paws and woke me up. Pouf! The delicious stranger was gone! It may not have been an instance of dreaming true, but I wanted him back so badly.

Which illustrates the most important difference between daydreams and dreams when you’re sleeping. (Unless you’re a shrink treating a patient, in which case content is always important, day or night.) The ones when you sleep seem so real. Really real. As if they’re happening.

That’s why for several months when I was fourteen, I was entranced by a late nineteenth-century novel in which the heroine taught the hero, whose life was not happy, a thing or two about dreaming. They had loved each other as children, and met again as adults after she had been married off to another, thereby becoming the beauteous Duchess of Towers, and had also had a son. Alas, they were parted for life when he accidentally killed his guardian in self-defense and was condemned to life imprisonment. The book is Peter Ibbetson, the first of three novels by George du Maurier, who was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, which was made into a Hollywood movie for Joan Fontaine to star in when I was a girl.

George du Maurier’s most famous novel was Trilby, but Trilby didn’t do it for me. It was Peter Ibbetson — sentimental, anti-Semitic, and turgidly written that grabbed me. (You can safely deduce from the three adjectives that you shouldn’t go running off to read it. Or if you do, don’t say you weren’t warned.) One night  before he gets to prison, Peter has a dream more real than reality in which he meets and speaks with the Duchess of Towers and in which she teaches him how to “dream true.” (Yes, the expression is du Maurier’s, not mine.) From then on, he is able to return to his happier childhood past in dreams.

At a subsequent meeting in real life, the Duchess reveals she has had the same childhood dream as he — and at the same time! They had been in the same dream together! However, she forbids their meeting in further dreams because she feels bound to her husband. Stern mistress!  But after he is condemned to prison for life, he dreams the Duchess appears to tell him her husband and child are now dead, so that although separated by prison walls, they can be together by “dreaming true” again. Thus, for twenty-five years Peter lives willingly in his prison, each night rejoining the Duchess, whose given name is Mary, in their beautiful childhood home. The years of their joy pass swiftly by. The lovers get so good at dreaming true they can travel into past centuries together, visiting the forebears from whom they descended.

You’d think so much nightly happiness might be enough. But wait, there’s more! Mary dies. Unable to reach her in his dreams anymore, Peter goes mad with grief and is confined to an asylum. While he’s there, she finds a way to come back to his dreams to give him hope that one day they may be together again. Naturally, he gets well immediately and is released from the asylum to live out his days in prison. There he continues to dream true, returning in sleep to the childhood scenes he still loves, where sometimes Mary manages to come back from death to join him.

In 1935, Gary Cooper made a movie version of Peter Ibbetson. (Ann Harding played Mary.)  I was four at the time and therefore didn’t see it. But ten years later I discovered the book. What a wonderful concept! There were so many people – not surprisingly, all male – with whom I wanted to dream true:

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, for starters. If he could come back from the dead in a dream, why not?  I was afraid of meeting Byron, and Keats was too tubercular, but I did think Shelley might like me. (Older and wiser now, I’m sure I was wrong.)
  • Thomas Wolfe. I would take a class with him in our dream, come up to his desk when the hour was over, standing very close in a snug cashmere sweater, and then the ball would be in his court. I knew he wouldn’t fumble.
  •  Leonard Bernstein (when in his twenties). He would discover me, a sudden orphan, selling records after school in a music store; enchanted, he would adopt me and wait willingly until I grew up, when we could enjoy even greater bliss together.
  • Gerard Philippe. My high school French was getting better every day.  Even if he didn’t know English, we could therefore redo “Diable Au Corps” (“Devil In the Flesh”) together every night by dreaming it true without that milksop of a French actress who had also been in the movie.

Reader, I tried so hard. How I concentrated after I had turned out the lights! What bargains I made with whatever entity out there might be running things! I even ventured into formal prayer. Nothing doing. “Dreaming true” was just not for me.

So what brings it to mind again after almost a lifetime? In a word, death. So many people I used to know are gone. Often it’s hard to grasp they’re not still here – at the other end of a telephone line or a quick email. It’s easier to believe in “dreaming true” than that I won’t ever see them again.

Which suggests that perhaps I’m not wholly a skeptic, even now. “Dreaming true” may not have worked for me. But if you decide to give it a whirl, do let me know how you do.

STUPID ME

Standard

IMG_0808

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.

 

HOTEL DU LAC: SHOULD EDITH HAVE MARRIED PHILIP?

Standard

Edith Hope is the main character (I hesitate to call her the heroine) of Anita Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac,” a book which one of my book groups decided to read during the time I was sick last month.  I was unable to attend the discussion, so don’t know what the other group members thought of it.  I will therefore put it to you!

But let’s start with Brookner.  Now in her mid-eighties, she was an international authority on eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, in 1968 became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University, and then for twenty-five years taught at the Courtauld Institute of Arts in London.  She is reported by her students as having been a superlative and dedicated teacher.  In one of her rare interviews, she herself declared that she loved art and loved teaching students how to look at it.

However, at some point in her early fifties, she began to write a short novel during each of her summer breaks from teaching, and after retirement continued with the novel writing.  She has now written, I believe, close to thirty of these shortish novels, although none for the past couple of years.  “Hotel du Lac” was the third, and probably the most successful in sales; there was also a movie, starring Anna Massey, based on the book.

For quite a few years, I used to read Brookner’s books as they came out, but eventually stopped because after “Hotel du Lac,”  they began with very few exceptions to seem essentially more or less the same, except that the protagonists grew older as the years went by. They were almost always about a lonely woman (although sometimes a man), living in London on somewhat limited but not uncomfortably limited means, often with ties to an elderly and dreary European relative (or relatives) still alive or recently dead. This protagonist took long solitary walks in all weathers in London’s parks while considering her (or his) situation, which never seemed to resolve in any way that seemed to me satisfactory, much less happy. The books were certainly instructive about how to pass time if you were lonely, which I often was when I first began to read them. But after a while, enough was enough for me.  I also used to wonder what Brookner’s own life must have been like for her to focus so exclusively on short fiction about lonely single people growing older from book to book.

However, since I had to read “Hotel du Lac” again last month at the behest of the reading group, afterwards I went online — a resource not available to me back in the days when it won the 1984 Booker Prize and I first read it. That is how I found the most recent of her rare interviews, given when she was eighty — in which, among other topics, she considers the ending of “Hotel du Lac,” written so many years before, when she was considerably younger.

Here is the book’s plot, in brief.  Edith Hope, a thirty-nine year old unmarried writer of very romantic novels with names like “Beneath the Visiting Moon” and “The Sun at Midnight,”  has come to spend two weeks out of season at an out-of-the-way old-fashioned hotel in Switzerland, just before it closes for winter, because she is in disgrace for having decided not to show up at the church for her wedding to Geoffrey, a dullish sort of bachelor recently bereft of his mother. She had been “fixed up” with Geoffrey by her one female friend, Penelope — a flirtatious sort who doesn’t marry but has plenty of fun.  Edith has not had plenty of fun.  Instead, she has a secret:  David, a married lover who has been the delight of her life during twice-a-month visits for the past five years.  David has children and will not divorce.  For all Edith knows, he may be unfaithful to his wife elsewhere than with her.  But it is apparently glorious to be in bed with him when he is there, and he adores her cooking of fattening comfort foods denied to him by his wife.  She gives him up for social standing as the wife of Geoffrey — “Are you sure?” David sobs into her neck during his final visit — but then cannot go through with the wedding.  She is sent off to exile in Switzerland while the oprobrium dies down.  (Even her cleaning lady leaves her because of the scandal!)

At the Hotel du Lac, there are very few other guests:  an old French lady parked there by her son and daughter-in-law to get her out of the way; a very slender and beautiful Englishwoman with a little dog and an eating problem who has been sent there by her husband to get in shape to have children (or he will divorce her); a lovely older woman (who turns out to be 79) and plump pretty daughter (who turns out to be 39) with plenty of money; they apparently come to Switzerland once a year to shop extravagantly and eat pastries.  There is also an immaculately dressed and somewhat mysterious Englishman in his fifties named Philip Neville who arrives for a few days.  Edith spends her time observing the others, trying to engage them in polite conversation, going for long walks around the lake and to the village, trying to finish writing “Beneath the Visiting Moon” for her publisher, and composing long, coyly amusing letters to “darling David,” who never once during the time she is there writes back.

About halfway through her intended stay, Edith accepts an invitation to lunch across the lake from Mr. Neville (Philip), during which he proposes to her. He has been watching her during his time at the hotel, and it is an extraordinary and (I think) intriguing proposal.  [I’ve shortened it somewhat, in the interests of blog-post length.]  He makes it on the boat that takes them back from the lunch:

Tilted back in his chair, Mr Neville watched her face. ‘Let me see,’ he said mildly. ‘Let me see if I can imagine what your life is like.  You live in London.  You have a comfortable income. You go to drinks parties and dinner parties and publishers’ parties. You do not really enjoy any of this. Although people are glad to see you, you lack companions of first resort. You come home alone.  You are fussy about your house.You have had lovers, but not half as many as your friends have had; they, of course, credit you with none at all and worry about you rather ostentatiously. You are aware of this.  And yet you have a secret life, Edith.  Although only too obviously incorruptible, you are not what you seem.’

Edith sat very still.

…’Of course you would say that this is none of my business. I would say, simply, that it does not concern me. Any more than my diversions need concern you. Whatever arrangements we may come to must leave these considerations scrupulously unexamined.’

‘Arrangements?’ echoed Edith.

…’I think you should marry me, Edith,’ he said….’I am not a romantic youth.  I am in fact extremely discriminating.  I have a small estate and a very fine house, Regency Gothic, a really beautiful example….I have a lot of business overseas,’ he went on…’And I like to entertain.  I am away a certain amount of the time.  But I dislike having to come back to a house only occupied by the couple who live in it when I am not there.  You would fit perfectly into that setting.’

A terrible silence installed itself between them. ‘You make it sound like a job specification,’ she said. ‘And I have not applied for the job.’

‘Edith, what else will you do?  Will you too go back to an empty house?…You see,’ he went on, ‘I cannot afford another scandal.  My wife’s adventure made me look a laughing stock.  I thought I could sit it out with dignity, but dignity doesn’t help. Rather the opposite.  People seem to want you to break down.  However, that’s all in the past.  I need a wife, and I need a wife whom I can trust. It has not been easy for me.’

‘And you are not making it easy for me,’ she said.

‘I am making it easier for you.  I have watched you, trying to talk to those women.  You are desolate.  And without the sort of self-love which I have been urging on you, you are never going to learn the rules, or you are going to learn them too late and become bitter.  And when you think you are alone, your expression is full of sorrow.  You face a life of exile of one sort or another.’

‘But why should you think me such a hopeless case?’

‘You are a lady, Edith.  They are rather out of fashion these days, as you may have noticed.  As my wife, you will do very well.  Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.’

‘And what will I do in your fine house, when you are away?’ she asked.  And when you are not away, she thought, but kept the thought to herself.

‘Whatever you do now, only better. You may write, if you want to.  In fact, you may begin to write rather better than you ever thought you could.  Edith Neville is a fine name for an author.  You will have a social position, which you need. You will gain confidence, sophistication. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing me credit….’

‘Again you are paying me the tremendous compliment of assuming that no one else will want me, ever.’

‘I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you know the difference between flirtation and fidelity.  I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you will never indulge in the sort of gossipy indiscretions that so discredit a man.  I am paying you the compliment of believing that you will not shame me, will not ridicule me, will not hurt my feelings.  Do you realize how hard it is for a man to own up to being hurt in that way?…. I am not asking you to lose all for love.  I am asking you to recognize your own true self-interest.  I am simply telling you what you may already have begun to suspect: that modesty and merit are very poor cards to hold.  I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind.  A partnership based on esteem, if you like.  Also out of fashion, by the way.  If you wish to take a lover, that is your concern, so long as you arrange it in a civilized manner.’

‘And if you…’

‘The same applies, of course. For me, now, that would always be a trivial matter. You would not hear of it nor need you care about it. The union between us would be one of shared interests, of truthful discourse.  Of companionship. To me, now, those are the important things. And for you they should be important. Think, Edith.  Have you not, at some time in your well-behaved life, desired vindication?  Are you not tired of being polite to rude people?’

Edith bowed her head.

‘You will be able to entertain your friends, of course.  And you will find that they treat you quite differently.  This comes back to what I was saying before.  You will find that you can behave as badly as you like.  As badly as everybody else likes, too.  That is the way of the world.  And you will be respected for it. People will at last feel comfortable with you. You are lonely, Edith.’…..

‘I don’t love you.  Does that bother you?’

‘No, it reassures me. I do not want the burden of your feelings.  All this can be managed without romantic expectations.”….

‘And you don’t love me?’

He smiled, this time sadly and without ambiguity. ‘No, I don’t love you.  But you have got under my guard.  You have moved and touched me, in a way in which I no longer care to be moved and touched.  You are like a nerve that I had managed to deaden, and I am annoyed to find it coming to life….

‘I may have to think about this,’ she said eventually.

‘Not too long, I hope.  I do not intend to make a habit of proposing to you.  You will have to get your skates on, if we are to leave by the weekend.’..

‘May I ask one more question?’ she said.

‘Of course.’

‘Why me?’

This time his smile was ambiguous again, ironic, courteous.

‘Perhaps because you are harder to catch than the others,’ he replied.

Edith gets back to her room, has her bath, thinks, sits, thinks some more, then writes a letter to “dearest David,” telling him she is going to marry Philip Neville, a man she met at the hotel, and does not think she will ever see him (David) again.  She tells him (David) he is the breath of life to her, that she doesn’t love Mr. Neville nor he her, but that he has made her see what she will become if she persists in loving him (David) as she does. She says there is no point in giving him her new address.  She recognizes she was always more willing than he was, and sends him her love, always.

She awakens in the middle of the night after a bad dream and decides to go down to the desk to get a stamp for her letter.  As she opens her door, she sees Philip Neville making a discreet exit, in his dressing gown, from the room of the plump rich thirty-nine year old daughter of the rich seventy-nine year old lovely mother.  She then retreats to her room again, tears her letter in half, drops it in the wastebasket, goes downstairs, tells the night porter to get her a ticket on the next plane to London and sends a telegram to London.  First, she writes, “Coming home.”  Then she realizes that is not entirely accurate.  She crosses out “Coming home” and writes simply, “Returning.”

When I first read this book, I thought the ending felt warm and brave.  Now I think Edith was a damn fool.  Perhaps she need not have married Neville — although the older I get, the less objectionable his proposition begins to appear — but she certainly should not have “returned” to the life she had had.

This is what Anita Brookner had to say at eighty when asked by an interviewer about marriage and the ending of “Hotel du Lac.”  First she observed that she herself had never married not because there had been no opportunity, but because she had always been interested in the wrong sort of man and the wrong sort of man had been interested in her. She then remarked that her books had always seemed to write themselves, and that this book had been no different:  at the time she wrote it, the ending simply came out of her.  But after it had been published (when she was well into her fifties, and not thirty-nine as Edith Hope had been), she began to think she had been wrong.  And now, living alone at eighty, she was certain that if she were to do it again, Edith would have married Neville.

It isn’t good to be alone, she said, when you grow old.

So I ask you, friends:  What do you think?  If you were in my book group, what would you have said?

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 3

Standard

[…continued from previous two posts…]

Suddenly Sarah had less than a month to get ready.  A tiny island.  That meant beaches.  And a bathing suit.  She had not bought, or worn, a bathing suit since her sons were still coming home for the summer.  She could not face her aging white thighs in a Saks or Neiman mirror and ordered one black “tankini,” whatever that was, from the Lands End catalog.  One, she calculated, should be enough.  She still owned an ancient polka-dot cotton suit she could bring in case the “tankini” didn’t dry overnight.

Jake caught her trying on the tankini in the seclusion of the bedroom. “Whatcha doing, sweetie pie?”  he asked.

“Shoo!” She pushed him gently back out the bedroom door with one hand while clutching a pillow against her lower half with the other.  “Don’t look! It’s supposed to be a surprise!” One of the good things about living alone, she thought as she leaned against the closed door, was that you could do body and wardrobe maintenance in privacy.  Why did Jake always need so much togetherness?  The following week, she hurried to Saks on a lunch hour for tanning spray.  Old thighs looked better brown than white.

Jake inspected Sarah’s suitcases in the basement and pronounced them too big.

“You don’t want to bring too much stuff,” Jake said.

“Nobody’s going to help you get your luggage on and off those Greek boats,” Jake said.

“You need a new bag,” Jake said.

“I’ll come with you,” Jake said.

They went to Luggage World, where she bought a red Victorinex roll-on not much smaller than the ones she already had and not cheap either.  She was pretty sure she could have managed without this purchase.  But Jake, as she was beginning to be aware, enjoyed shopping.  While they were there, he bought two small black leather bags for himself. They were the size of toiletry kits.

“What do you need those for?” asked Sarah.

“Nothing at the moment,” he said.  “I just like bags.  And you never can tell when an extra one will come in handy.”

Odd.  But then Sarah’s mother had been a collector of boxes.  After they got Sarah’s new red Victorinex home, Jake decided he liked it so much he went back to the store by himself the next day and bought a slightly smaller grey one exactly like it.  He also bought two black leather luggage tags.

The two Victorinexes — bigger red and smaller grey — stood against the bedroom wall with their tags on, waiting to be packed.

“They look good side by side together, ” Jake said.

“Just like us,” Jake said.

He hugged her.  Maybe it really would be a honeymoon.

Sarah made packing lists and folded her clothing into neat piles.  She spread towels on the duvet to protect it and opened the two Victorinexes  on the bed — grey on Jake’s side, red on hers.  Jake laid two changes of underwear and socks, two clean shirts, a pair of sandals, three black swim briefs, and an extra pair of jeans on the towel next to the grey Victorinex.

“That’s all you’re taking?  For three weeks?”

“It’s very casual on those islands,” he said. “Besides, we can wash things out.  Or buy stuff.” He added two t-shirts to the clothes on the bed and began zipping smallish hard objects into little black bags, which he zipped into slightly bigger black bags.

I’m not doing laundry on vacation.”  Sarah counted out eleven pairs of panties.  (Who would know if she wore underwear for two days?  Plus she would have a pair on for traveling.)  The panties were full-size cotton briefs. (Sarah didn’t buy bikini panties any more; they cut a line you could see through her clothes in the rear view mirror.) Together with four bras (two black, two white), all those panties made quite a bundle.  And the pear shape of the Victorinex was not as accommodating as a rectangular bag.  Why had they left the packing till the final evening?  Why was he distracting her by rushing back and forth between the second bedroom, which she had given over to him as a study, and the master bedroom?   She needed to concentrate, or she would leave something out.  Correction.  She would have to leave something out.  The red Victorinex wouldn’t close.  Even when she sat on it.

“How many dresses for dinner?” she asked.

“None. You don’t have to dress.”

“And what about a sweater?”

“In Greece?  In August?”

“Just asking.”

“You gotta be kidding.”

“Don’t get nasty.”  She stared at his side of the bed.  He had built a heap of bulging zipped-up black bags and books next to the grey Victorinex.  “What is all that stuff?”

“Things I’ll need.”

“Like what?”

“Like a short-wave.  My camera.  Extra pairs of glasses.  First-aid kit.  Notebooks. Clothesline. Reading material. Other things.”

“What other things?”

“Never mind.  You’ll find out when we get there.  Maybe.”

“You won’t fit it all in.”

“So I’ll bring a second bag.”

At midnight, they brought up some of Sarah’s old luggage from the basement.  At one o’clock, four bags stood fully packed by the front door.  At two, Sarah got out of bed to check that their passports and tickets and insurance papers were all in her handbag.  “Did you bring enough money?” she whispered into his good ear after she had slid back under the duvet. “Mmmmmm,” he said.  She wasn’t sure he’d heard. Hopefully, there would be ATMs on this tiny island they had found.

[End of chapter one.]

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

[The island was real.  Its name was Lipsi — Lipsoi or Lipsos, if you want to be Greek about it.  Sometimes I miss it, although it was never really our island.  We were just renters.  Even in the novella, where I was going to call it Mythos, it would turn out not to be Jake and Sarah’s island. They would learn by the end of the novella that the island of their own they had set out to find was the island of two they were making together. And that at their age, they were stuck there — whether they liked it or not — for richer or poorer, till death did them part, and had better make the best of it.  But that’s too dark for a chick lit novella.  And also not so fun to write.

So you’ve reached the end of Jake and Sarah.  However, we may take some day tours of Lipsi, you and I together.  Maybe this spring.  Or summer.  If spring and summer ever come.]

 

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 2

Standard

[…continued from yesterday…]

Getting away for three weeks was no problem for Jake; he simply informed his patients that he would be gone in August and then found another shrink to cover for him in emergencies.  Sarah had to make more elaborate and extensive preparations.  Although the lawyers at her firm were supposed to take four weeks off every year (“We work hard but play hard,” was the mantra intoned for the benefit of incoming associates) — taking the four weeks, or even three weeks, all together was just not done.  (Suppose a client needed you!)  The customary modus operandi was a week here, two weeks there — as each lawyer’s practice, and annualized billable hours, permitted.

Sarah began announcing her vacation plans in May.  She announced them more frequently — at the coffee station, in the womens’ john — in June.  She made sure none of her cases was headed for trial over the summer and found colleagues to handle what needed to be done while she was away (thereby incurring several heavy IOUs).  In July she stopped taking on new matters and began to emphasize, at firm lunches, how difficult this tiny island was to get to. (She didn’t mention Turkey.) She explained that Greece was seven hours ahead of Boston, that she didn’t know if there was a telephone available to her on the island anyway, and that she understood from Jake mail could take as long as six weeks to arrive  — much of that period consumed between the time it got to Athens and arrived at its final destination — so that she would, as a practical matter, be unreachable during the time she was away.  “You’re so lucky!” exclaimed Mabel, the lawyer in the office adjoining hers.  “I always have too much on my plate for more than a week in Chatham!”

Sarah considered this comment to be less about three weeks away from the office in Greece than about the arrival of Jake in her life.  Mabel was eighteen years younger than Sarah, in the process of a drawn-out divorce, and frantically looking for a replacement husband. To her, Sarah’s near-miraculous acquisition of a new man represented a major triumph over the adversities of life for the older woman, and Sarah saw no reason to disabuse her.  Maybe Jake wasn’t absolutely perfect, she told herself, but she was pretty lucky.  How many women of seventy were going off to a small Greek island for a romantic tryst?

Privately, however, as August grew closer, she became less sure she was doing the right thing. Could three weeks away be a professional mistake?  She needed this job. If only she could just quit — and play the piano, travel, cook, maybe write, not always be hurrying to make deadlines, attend meetings, defend depositions.  The practice of law took a lot out of you. Even with a four-day work week, she always felt tired, and usually spent most of Friday just resting up.

But if she quit, what would she live on? Sarah had come late to the law, after marriages to two impecunious husbands who had nothing to share at divorce time. Social Security would barely cover her monthly mortgage and condo association payments. And she certainly couldn’t count on Jake’s contribution as a basis for retirement when — if she were honest with herself — they didn’t really know each other that well.  Not the way she knew her husbands by the time they had parted.

Then it became too late to cancel without losing a lot of money. And Jake would never forgive her if she put the firm before him. (“The firm?” she could hear him saying.) She would just have to apply herself seriously when she came back, and people would soon forget she’d been away for nearly a month, and then everything would be all right.

“So.   How does it feel to go away for three weeks with this man?” asked Feldman, long, thin and wrinkled. She had been seeing Feldman before work on Wednesdays for fifteen years. No one who knew about this could understand why she was still forking out good money for talk therapy now that she was long divorced.

“I don’t fork out anymore,” she would say.  “It’s Medicare’s turn.”  Or: “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I have a husband.”  Or (sometimes): “You know how Catholics go to confession once a week and feel better afterwards?  Well, here’s a place where I can go once a week and say absolutely anything and it’s okay.  I can just unload.  Where else in the world can you do that?”

That didn’t mean Feldman wasn’t often annoying.  His reluctance to say anything substantive, for instance.  (Was he just going to sit there?  “Of course,” he always replied.)  And his questions  — straight out of some How To Be A Shrink book. (“How does that make you feel?”)  Once, during the long lonely period preceding the arrival of Jake in her life, she had begun a session by exclaiming, without being asked, that she felt like shit.  He regarded her impassively.  “How does it feel to say that?” he asked.

“How does it feel to say I feel like shit? Come on, Feldman!”

“How does it feel?”  (Without even a smile.)

And now he was at it again.  “Jake,” she said.  “His name is Jake.  Why are you calling him ‘this man?'”

“There have been other men, no?  The two husbands?  Two old boyfriends, recycled? So when I ask today, my question is about this man.”

But Sarah already knew Feldman couldn’t admit he might be wrong.  “It feels fine to go away with Jake for three weeks, thank you for asking.”

“You have been very picky about your previous suitors,” he persisted.  “You go fishing for a new man from time to time, reel him into the boat, inspect him as he dangles at the end of your line, then flip him back into the sea. How is this one different?”

Suitors?  What suitors?  Those few pitiful specimens who had answered her previous ads?  The one seeking a woman willing to encase herself in soft rubber garments at bedtime?  The one whose wife had mid-stage Alzheimers, but was safely out of the way on Gardiners’ Island under the care of a round-the-clock nurse’s aide?  The one with an ileostomy bag and an adult daughter in a state psychiatric hospital?

“Oh, Feldman,” said Sarah, “stop already.  If there’s any problem, it’s not with the man, it’s with the three weeks away from the office.”

Feldman took her mention of “three weeks” as an opportunity to change the subject.  “You understand the time you will be taking off, the three hours we will not meet during your weeks away — those are your hours, and you will be responsible for them,” he said.  He meant that he expected her to pay for the three sessions she would miss.  They had had this conversation every year she had gone on vacation.  Usually, it had been for only a week at a time; needy, and therefore in a weak bargaining position, she had always paid.  The two Greek tours had taken longer, and each of those years she had paid for two missed sessions, resentfully but without any sense that arguing would do any good.  This time she dug her heels in.  She was on a tight budget for the vacation as it was.

“How come you don’t give me make-up sessions when you go away on vacation?” she demanded.

He looked surprised.  “That is a separate issue entirely,” he said.  “When I go away, you are of course free to go away yourself.”

Now there’s a dumb argument, she thought.  “It isn’t a separate issue at all.  If you’re entitled to a vacation from me, with the result that I lose out on therapy, then I’m entitled to a vacation from you, even though you lose out on income.  Fair is fair, Feldman.”

“Are you saying you won’t pay?”  His voice quavered a little.

“I don’t pay anyway,” said Sarah.  “Not any more.  Maybe Medicare can pay for the missed sessions.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Feldman.  “Medicare pays for treatment, not absence from treatment.”

“Then why should I pay for missed sessions if Medicare won’t? Tell you what, Feldman.” She had him now, she was sure of it. “Let’s leave it up to you, not me.  If, as you say, the missed hours are ‘mine,’ I won’t rat on you if you bill Medicare for them.  And if you decide you’re not entitled to Medicare payments for treatment you didn’t provide, that’s obviously okay with me, too.”

Aha!  He was slowly nodding agreement. Had she just connived in an act of insurance fraud?  Not really, she decided.  Not by merely making the suggestion.  After all, she didn’t know what he was actually going to do.

“Of course he’s going to bill for his time!” said Jake that night at dinner.  A piece of eggplant from the ratatouille they were eating fell on the tablemat as he waved his fork in the air for emphasis.  Jake’s table manners had deteriorated since he had begun to feel at home in her condo.

Sarah reached over to pick up the eggplant  — she hated mess — and put it in her mouth.  The mat now had a stain.  She sighed. Neither of her husbands had been neat eaters either.  “How do you know that?  Why can’t you admit he might do the right thing?”

“He needs the money.”

“He can’t be that hard up,” said Sarah.  “He’s one of the two best psychiatrists in all of New England!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jake.

“No, really.  I asked around before I started with him.  And I can never change the time of the appointment.  He’s always full up.”

Jake laid his dirty knife on the mat to explain.   “I don’t care how busy he is. Psychiatrists aren’t like orthopedists or dermatologists.  Those guys have a revolving door: patient in, patient out, new patient in, etcetera.  But Feldman sees a fixed number of patients for years, including you.  He can’t start with someone new for the three weeks you’re away, because when you return he has to give you back your hour.  And then what’s he supposed to do with the extra patient?  So a loss of income when you’re on vacation is just that.  A dead loss.”

Sarah hated not to win arguments.  “He shouldn’t count on it then.  Why can’t he assume each of his patients will be away a certain amount of time and average his income over the year, instead of anticipating a specific accounts receivable every month?”

“Why didn’t you ask him that?” said Jake.  “While you were at it, you might also have explained to the poor bastard what he was supposed to do about his monthly checks to her?”  He jabbed his finger in the direction of the floor.

(The ex-Mrs. Feldman lived beneath Sarah.  They did not get on.  She objected repeatedly to Sarah playing the phonograph.  She complained loudly about Sarah practicing the piano in the evening. They had eventually worked out their differences with the help of the condo trustees, but accidental meetings in the stairwell or the laundry room remained chilly.   Such being the case, Sarah welcomed those occasional instances when the mailman mixed up their mail, thus affording her the opportunity to inspect the outside of the ex-Mrs. Feldman’s correspondence.  In the days before Medicare began paying for her therapy, she had once even found in her mailbox an envelope addressed to Linda Feldman in the familiar, and highly idiosyncratic, handwriting which appeared on her monthly invoices for professional services rendered by Martin Feldman, M.D.  She couldn’t resist holding it up to the light before putting it on the ledge below the mailbox labeled Ms. Linda Feldman.  There was a check inside.  Alimony!  Her money was leaving the building only to come right back again.  She was personally supporting that odious woman.  She couldn’t read the amount of the check, though.)

“Ah yes, that,” said Sarah.

“He’ll be working till she drops,” said Jake.  “Or he does.  How old is she?  How old is he?  Over seventy-five?”

“Why are you so sympathetic to him all of a sudden?” asked Sarah.  “I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t not like him,” said Jake.  “I just don’t like his method.  This silent Freudian business.  Besides, what do you need him for, now you have me?”

Sarah did not want to go there.  “Must we discuss Feldman’s financial difficulties?” She pushed her chair back to clear the table.  His place mat would have to go to the cleaners.  She should probably get the kind you could just wipe down.   “Dessert is frozen yogurt or grapes.  Which?”

[…to be concluded tomorrow….]