Had They Learned about Jayne Mansfield?

I couldn’t go to a movie with a friend because I had to go to my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter’s wedding. The movie was about a serial killer but it was French so I knew it would be okay, unlike another serial killer movie I had seen, Felicia’s Journey.  When I told my friend why I couldn’t go, she said, “Why do people get married anyway?” I didn’t know.

Felicia’s Journey was before I understood I couldn’t watch violence and during the time when I was still going to men’s movies. I hadn’t yet analyzed the fact that wives went to Memento and The Blues Brothers, but husbands didn’t go to wedding movies like Pride and Prejudice or to other films that take place after the wedding. Men’s selfishness in movie choices was like the rest of life in which wives went to football games but husbands didn’t attend the deep-thinking plays their wives wanted to see, even though every Sunday magazine survey showed that men liked being married more than women and should therefore be more willing to compromise. But, no matter how many times they printed the surveys, the results were always new to the young women like the bride-to-be who didn’t believe the surveys were true.

Soon after I realized I couldn’t watch violence, I was watching Pulp Fiction with my boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend, the mother of the bride-to-be. She had suggested a movie and in a burst of friendliness, I had agreed but shortly after the movie started, I heard music that meant bloodshed. Stumbling over my boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend, I ran down the stairs to the lobby. Because I couldn’t watch violence, I was willing to leave them together to watch what men thought was an exciting movie and what therefore might be an aphrodisiac for my boyfriend, leading to the possibility that he and his ex-girlfriend might get together again, but I didn’t care.

Since Pulp Fiction, I carry a New Yorker in a correct-sized purse so I can stay in the lobby and read because, more and more, such scenes of violence have to be avoided. Sometimes, the lobby is freezing and to stay warm I pace back and forth on the dirty carpet with its popcorn-infested smell. Sometimes I go to another movie in the same megaplex. It doesn’t matter if I come in late because the movies are predictable and I can guess what went on before.  Sometimes, a movie shows an uninteresting story and tries to make it interesting by telling it backward or repeating the same scene again and again. Memento was such a movie, popular especially with men, no doubt because of the continuous thuggery. A low life kills someone, forgets what he did, drives around, kills, forgets again, drives, kills. This was supposed to be interesting because it combined both questionable techniques – repeating the scene and telling the story backwards.

My boyfriend can watch such inferior movies no matter how many times the same murder was committed by the same person. Our male ancestors must have scanned the horizon for moving images and the scanning genes are showing up in this way only now. When I met my boyfriend, I thought he had intellectual rigor and understood he couldn’t afford to spend his time in non-worthwhile movies or repeats of Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes. It doesn’t matter, he says, the setting, camera angles, color, there’s always something to see. It is this that will make him wake up one day in five years and ask where his life has gone. The human race is lucky that moving images weren’t invented until the late nineteenth century, after other important items had been discovered, such as Bach cantatas, coffee, reading glasses, embalming, and romantic love. For centuries, this last had been classified as an illness for which it was thought that marriage was a remedy.

You would think that being invited to a wedding was preferable to a movie about  serial killers and I was glad the bride’s mother had invited me, although I knew she had invited me only because of my boyfriend. Living in a large city, I wasn’t part of any real community and I was grateful to be invited to be part of a fake community for a day. I had attended only a few weddings in my life, perhaps because I don’t have a community or maybe because my friends were smart enough not to marry. The first wedding was that of an eighteen year old friend. A year after the marriage, I met her and her husband for lunch at a café on the Mississippi River during the time when you could order only herbal tea, before my generation realized we couldn’t live on love and needed caffeine to rush to work and earn money, as well as to prevent migraines. The three of us ate avocado and sprout sandwiches on whole grain with soy mayonnaise, which was all the dressing that was allowed. The wanton divulging of unwanted information on Oprah wasn’t in fashion yet – also feminism was in a superb bloom –  so I was shocked when her husband said, “I think my wife should emulate the Virgin Mary.” Who was his model? He didn’t say. What would come of a marriage where the man saw the Virgin as a model for his wife. What became of that marriage was, a few years later, the husband married his wife’s friend’s ex-husband.

At the second wedding a beautiful twenty-two year old friend married her college sweetheart. It was a short-lived commitment but our friendship didn’t last either. The last time we talked, she wanted tips on how to talk to her now ex-boyfriend but what could you say when someone asked how to talk to a man? And her boyfriend was even worse about television than mine. I have called, sent letters and birthday cards, but she’s avoided me – it could be said to be more than “avoided” since we haven’t talked in eight years. Had I offended her by being honest? I said I had no idea how to talk to her boyfriend. Or maybe we simply had nothing to talk about anymore. My doctor said her friends don’t talk about work or kids or mates, only about The New Yorker. Knowing my doctor was up to date on her New Yorkers, I considered what that meant for my medical care but if my friend read The New Yorker, maybe she wouldn’t be a former friend.

Even though evidence for short-lived marriages was everywhere, the young knew about marriage only as a gay issue. This was one of the differences between now and when I went to college. The others include pants hanging past the butt crack, global warming, carpal tunnel from overuse of the internet, florescent lights that cause cataracts, and migration from sensible midwestern places to the California playground where the dry light causes cataracts as well as skin cancer, jitteriness, and addiction to new age philosophies as an antidote to jitteriness.  Did my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter and her fiancée know about the oppression of women and the patriarchal legal structure? When they heard about the Defense of Marriage Act, didn’t they think, “I don’t want anything the federal government defends”? But they didn’t know because schools didn’t teach those things.

“The younger generation commits to each other,” the bride’s mother said.  “We married to get presents or because someone was too stoned to say no.”

I referred her to Virginia Woolf. Nine out of ten people on the street, Woolf wrote, would say they wanted love, nothing but love, but, once married, women would say “This is not what we want; there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this; yet it is also beautiful and necessary.” Here were two conflicting ideas that could give you a headache and had probably given one to Virginia Woolf. I hoped the bride’s mother had told her daughter what to do when marriage went bad and your dopamine receptors meshed with your mate’s and you couldn’t leave without a huge downer. Would my boyfriend’s ex secure the necessary dopamine and inject it so that the daughter’s endorphins didn’t die?

I had attended only a handful of weddings in thirty years. Now there had been ten in the last four. Also many movies about serial killers. What did serial killers and weddings have in common? Maybe it was suspense about what came next. One event was so rosy and promising; the other wretched and hopeless. I wanted to know what parents and siblings thought. Many novels said how parents felt about their daughters’ weddings but no one explained what a mother and father thought about a serial killer son. This was something to wonder about. It was also hard to find out what parents of Nazis felt when their children turned into thugs.

It wasn’t long enough ago that I was addicted to Law & Order SVU, following the plot while I pretended to read War & Peace, reaching only p. 36 before the book was due for the second time at the library. As I pretended to read, I wondered if the victim on L&O SVU would live and, if so, would rape ruin her life? I made up back stories for the lowlife on SVU. How did the rapist get that way? What about the feral teenagers who raped the handicapped thirteen year old? It seemed to me that no amount of therapy or substance abuse treatment was going to help, even though at one point in my life I had worked with sexual perpetrators, most of whom had been married. That job taught me something about these people and their back stories that L&O never explained.

The back story of Mariska Hargitay, the female detective on SVU, is that she’s the daughter of Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay. Growing up, I read Movie Screen Magazine and systematically examined Jayne Mansfield in her floor-length, sequined skin-tight sheathes. Her IQ was 168 and she had been a classical pianist. Jayne Mansfield wore low-cut gowns that she let slip when she was out to dinner so her nipples exposed themselves and she got more exposure, too. In sixth grade, I saw that looking like her would mean a life unlike the boring one that seemed inevitable for me, even though I too was a classically trained pianist. Maybe if I hadn’t considered Jayne Mansfield second rate compared to Elizabeth Taylor, I would have tried to be more like her. Then I would have had a fuller life, married three times, and wanted to spend my time with friends at weddings instead of seeing a movie about a serial killer, although Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car accident at thirty-four so maybe I would be dead. I didn’t know then that three year old Mariska Hargitay, in the back seat when the car was hit, would grow up to star on Law & Order SVU and that I’d watch Jayne Mansfield’s genes for half of my waking life.

These were the things I mulled over while my boyfriend watched television. “Let me watch This Old House,” he always said. “You already know about building houses, ” I said. What could you think about while you were watching the house builders? These wholesome men never had a back story like Mickey Hargitay. House builders or serial killers – some nights that was the only choice.

It was like Nazi Germany, also a time of wedding, propagating and serial killing when German newspapers detailed gory details of the killings and artists painted murdered prostitutes. I realized I had to be vigilant and not only in movies. I would have to close my eyes in museums, especially in Vienna, where many of these paintings hung. The Nazis called these artists degenerate. Normally I disagreed with the Nazis but, in this case, I wasn’t sure. Still, I didn’t live in pre-Nazi Germany. Why were there so many serial murder shows now?  And weddings? I didn’t know.

Before I was invited to my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter’s wedding, another friend’s daughter told me she was having a pirate wedding. Rape and pillaging, I thought. This was because I hadn’t seen any Johnny Depp movies nor attended a theme wedding. I knew of a wedding where the guests had to wear white and of one with no dress code but where the guests had to fly to Mexico City, then drive three hours to a remote village. Where did the money come from? This was something else that had changed since I was in college.

I invited the future pirate bride to lunch in a restaurant called a roadhouse, but it was nothing like the roadhouses of my childhood when families stopped between small towns on Saturday evening for chicken with mushroom soup on top. This restaurant served Ahi tuna sandwiches with aioli on sourdough bread, another reason to ask where the money came from although I knew the money for this lunch was coming from me.

“Why a pirate wedding?” I asked over seared fish. “It’s symbolic,” she said. “People wouldn’t ask if this were a Renaissance wedding.” This showed others, too, had been puzzled. When I read the wedding invitation, “Pirate dress expected. Thank you for the love, magic and collaboration you’ve shown us,” I knew the bride and I lacked a common language so I did as I was told for that wedding and rented a cleavage-revealing gown in the pirate-wench theme. But my own offerings, unlike Jayne Mansfield’s, went unnoticed. This was because of the cleavage the young revealed, which could have supported love, collaboration, and also pewter platters.

The good thing about my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter’s wedding was that it wasn’t in Hawaii or Brazil and we could wear whatever we wanted; the bad thing was it was the daughter of my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, My boyfriend is close to his many exes. One invites him to her modern dance performances, one offers her house in Provence, another knits him scarves in a village where everyone is an artist or grows Gravenstein apples, although she has never brought us any. All these ex-girlfriends are annoying and his ex-wife is especially annoying. I had kept my balance in the middle of my boyfriend’s friendship with the ex-girlfriends by figuring we were roughly equal in the looks department but then my brother met the mother of the bride-to-be. “She’s gorgeous,” he exclaimed. This was demoralizing. I had always believed my mother who always said, “Just be yourself and boys will like you.” How wrong she was.

Before we could go to that wedding, we had to go to one in Portland, Oregon. So that we could preserve good will towards each other, we listened to Pride and Prejudice in the car. This put us in a romantic but realistic mood, which helped when I ran into my boyfriend’s ex-wife.

“Hi,” I said, “it’s me,” and then my name.

“Do I know you?” she said.

She must have learned this sense of humor when she became trained in Laughter Yoga, a discipline that brings oxygen to the body and brain as I found on the website. I noticed there was a laughing club near my apartment. It could be a way to counter the sadness and depression that any thinking person must feel in the face of rampant capitalism, famine in Africa, and cell phone use while driving, not to mention the failure of marriage as a cure for the disease of romantic love and the bad choices on late night TV.

A few weeks later our car twisted up the switchbacks to my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter’s wedding in the brown California hills. I calculated how far we were from a corner store if the couple didn’t provide chocolate and I needed to charge up my endorphins. If I needed to cry because my life hadn’t worked out as well as the young couple imagined theirs would, I couldn’t very well excuse myself by telling the groom, “I’m sorry, I need to get away so I can stop being bitter because my boyfriend likes bad movies and I never went to live in France and now it’s too late.”

As soon as we stepped out of the car into the 95 degree heat, I saw that wearing the long, pleated red scarf had been a mistake. Under an oak tree, the groom and bride, more beautiful and elegant than Jayne Mansfield, picked from a wicker basket scraps of paper on which they had written vows. When the couple began to read the paper scraps, I was glad for the scarf. “I will make you laugh when you’re down, I will support you in your work and your hobbies and all that you do, I will help you play, I will listen always.” The problem with self-written vows was no training in poetry, which was now composed by typing on the computer, then separating words into lines according to commas. There were entire classes taught in how to determine line division in poetry but the young didn’t know this. They hadn’t read Elements of Style by Strunk and White: Rule #17, “Omit Needless Words.” The old vows were short and to the point, you had only to adjust them slightly to eliminate the non-feminist aspects.

Even though the couple was young and didn’t have cataracts, the hand-written vows were hard to read and many were repeated. Wouldn’t it have been better to type them in the best font for reading, 16 point Tahoma? I took the scarf off my neck, opened its pleats, wrapped it around my head and let it fall over my face, implying it was protecting me from the 100 degree sun. This way, I could sleep through the vows that were repeated.

Among the young people at the wedding, everyone was a singer, writer,  performance artist or computer expert. The computer experts had the money and I had to hope they were marrying the singers and artists. What would happen to California with only computer experts and artists? Who would write the wedding vows – the computer experts or the artists? I didn’t know which to wish for. This bride was an art curator, but she must not know that the most stable of all five marriage types was the breadwinner man and homemaker mom or it would have worried her.

After the vows were finished and the Universalist Life Minister pronounced them wed, the guests began the toasts. “We’ve learned so much from you,” their best friend said. The next friend repeated this, then five others did, too. I was puzzled. How much could they have learned from people who were twenty-five years old? Had they learned about Jayne Mansfield? Did they know about Abraham and Isaac and that our generation would send their generation to war? Had they learned what not to say when they got mad at their spouse? They were too young to have learned about lust fading.

Why was learning so important at a wedding? Maybe their parents hadn’t taught them enough. They hadn’t taught them about poetry or economy of language, that was true – that had been left to schools with disastrous results. They hadn’t learned about modesty in dress. Maybe, like many young people, they thought their parents hadn’t taught them anything. They had a point.

What had the couple taught their friends? Had they taught them about love? If so, how had they done it? I needed to learn more about love, and tolerance, too. Maybe I could get in on the learning but then I would have to ignore that generation’s shamelessness in dress and deficiencies in language. Why were weddings so earnest? Couldn’t they just be a good party? The couple should hope for kids, good sex for a while, and two incomes to support aging parents.

The mother cried at the wedding. She was a romantic – she hoped for a bright future and forgot the sad parts. Or maybe she cried because, like me, she compared her life to the happy couple’s and found it lacking. Of course, there was also the teary relief of getting a child off your hands.



After the wedding I went to the French movie which wasn’t, in fact, about serial killers although it had nearly as many murders – it was about parents who murdered to defend their children, another result of marriage. The movie makers must have thought that the words “serial killer” in advertisements would make people want to see the movie, although only six people were watching that night.

After the movie, a young friend and I walked up a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“Are you going to get married,” I asked.

“I’m not categorically against it,” she said.

She was my hope for the future, neither an artist nor a computer expert but a researcher on women’s reproductive health, who knew about economy of language.

“It offers security,” she said. “Like a weight watchers’ contract. Just having the contract makes it harder to divorce because of the legal hassle.”

I didn’t say anything. Maybe she was right. I’d never been married, but I doubted her reasoning, although the comparison of marriage with a weight watchers’ contract showed levity, which was good because leaving your spouse today wasn’t the same as when Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina left theirs. You might see him and his new wife when you and your new same sex partner went to a gluten-free wine-tasting party, whereas Madame Bovary had to kill herself, although if she had owned real estate, she probably could have lived.

I told my friend, if you do marry, I don’t care if you stay married, and if it doesn’t work out, I hope you don’t cry too much. But as we walked up the hill with the setting sun peeping out from the fog to reflect on the steps tiled with flowers, fish, birds and sun, every one, a marriage symbol, I knew that if she didn’t cry about that, there would be something else. I cry when the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro sings, “Dove sono.” “Where are the lovely moments of sweetness and pleasure? Why, despite tears and pain, has my love for him not vanished?” The melody is tight. Five notes next to each other, like soft crying, capture the anguish of faded love. The Countess’s song is heart rending. She was old enough to know that her husband was a sex addict but she could still be disappointed and she could still make me cry.

  1. carolyn scott on

    Norah Ephram’s spirit is alive and well.

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