I have lived to middle age, long enough to know life will not anoint me with hard gems of truth, only with a raw assemblage of inklings, some stronger than others. One of my strongest is that we aren’t here to understand ourselves; we are here to misapprehend others then gradually learn how wrong we were. This is not as altruistic a process as it sounds. It includes, but is not limited to, swaggering mistakes, shameful judgments, gullibility, nightmares, conceits, accidents that might have been prevented, cursing, righteousness, drug use, petty insensitivities, sleepless nights, somnambular days, and a slow, slinking recognition of our folly. That recognition may come close to what we know as grace. Getting there is anything but graceful.
Thirty-some years after my adolescence, I’ve only begun to realize the shallowness of my youthful thinking, which then prized tragedy and sophistication, two states that don’t naturally coexist except in reference to the Kennedys. My first love Davey Seidman and I made sport of laughing derisively at his father, owner of one of the most lucrative pancake houses on the West Coast. His occupation was not why we laughed at him. We laughed because he came home each night and even before he removed his tie or snapped on the TV, sat at the base of the stairs with a brown miniature poodle, aptly named Brownie, and spoke to the dog for at least half an hour as if they were college chums.
“Brownie ol’boy, how ya doin’? Long time, no see. You’re lookin’ good, pal, lookin’ real good. So, what exciting happened in your day, anything? Any little fluffy French ladies look your way, if you know what I mean, Brownie, you devil you? I know what goes on in your head. You can’t fool me. You can’t pull the fur over my eyes, pardon the expression. I may be gone all day, but I know a few things…” on and on he went with the unanswered riffs of camaraderie. Sitting in the family room, Davey and I pretended to be looking through magazines, that our laughter was connected to what we saw in them. His mother observed us daily from her kitchen encampment and when she finally caught on to our ruse, yanked us aside.
“Don’t you dare laugh at your father,” she hissed, “after all the work he does for you. Don’t you dare begrudge him his peace and enjoyment.”
So we went out in the back yard and laughed derisively at her for championing a man who kissed her hello only after the dog left his side for a nap or a drink of water.
Now when I think of Mr. and Mrs. Seidman, my heart swells like a frog’s throat, and I fill with a love for them I never imagined possible back when my convictions outran my experience.
I suspect that tenderness for those once disdained is a milestone of middle age, suspicion being an inkling matured a season or two.
I’ve also remembered the end of my parents’ marriage and an insight my mother tried to share with me but I initially took as further testimony to her mental illness, especially since she was past the roughest stages of menopause. (I discussed such distant conditions in my college women’s studies class, essentially a prolonged reading of Our Bodies Ourselves. I had yet to learn that womanhood was much, much more than pride in our natural bodies.) There I am one afternoon, home for Easter vacation, mooning over the creative writing instructor who has forgotten me and my talents almost as swiftly as he noticed them, and my mother beckons me into her room.
“Rialta,” she hollers. “Please come here…you have got to see this.”
I peer in her door and she stands like a game show assistant, arm introducing my father’s closet.
“What?” I say. I do not see anything unusual, like motorcycle boots or an arsenal, and I don’t know what she’s talking about. All I see are clothes.
“His shirts,” she says. Her eyebrows pull toward her hairline. “He has 78 shirts—I counted them!” Her chin begins to vibrate and I know she is going to hiccup herself into a full-blown sob.
“Mom, what are you getting at? Is that an unusual number?”
“Too many!” she weeps. “I’ve never had so many shirts in my life. Have you?”
“I don’t know, Mom. Haven’t counted. Maybe they’re old. Maybe he needs to clean his closet out or something.”
She shakes her head. “Half of them are new, some still with store tags.” She slams the closet shut then flings open a dresser drawer. “And look at these little items—bikini underwear. Colors and paisley print! When on earth did he start to wear these?”
The discussion is becoming far too detailed for me. My father’s shirts are one concern, but his preference in underwear? “Wouldn’t have the vaguest idea, Mom. Besides, it’s just clothing. Why can’t he wear what he wants to wear, without all this, I don’t know, fuss about it?”
“But Ree, it’s not just clothing. The fuss isn’t about clothing, don’t you understand?” She waits, wild-eyed in time, for my answer.
I didn’t understand then, but I do now. Then, I went back to school after spring break and regaled my American Studies group with the story of how my mother gave an anti-performance of Daisy Buchanan swooning over Gatsby’s shirt collection. I whined my mother’s bits of dialogue and exaggerated the quivering of her chin, the gasping sobs. I got some laughs. Now, I know she was panicked and desperate because the clues pointed to my father’s having an affair, and she had no rational way to articulate this.
There is a line in a Van Morrison song, “All the girls walk by dressed up for each other.” Men, though, do not dress for each other. Men spruce up for the same reason a peacock spreads his fan and struts the gravel. I have seen more than one man rub cologne around his groin.
Of course, I’d be hard-pressed as my mother was to prove the portentousness of the grooming habits of the heterosexual married male. Call it another inkling, one I could have used when my ex-husband suddenly changed shaving lotions instead of relying on me to select the fragrance, as he had always done before. After twenty years of bay rum or Old Spice, he came out of the bathroom one morning reeking of Calvin Klein’s Eternity. “I liked it so I bought it,” he said. “I was in Robinson’s May and one of those ladies in white coats sprayed some on me.” He shrugged nonchalantly as he said this, and the shrug achieved its intended effect. I thought, Well, why shouldn’t he buy his own aftershave?
There were other clues that evaded me because, after two and a half decades of marriage, I’d fallen into the habit of believing my husband. Tim began to take showers immediately after he came home from work. “Phone call today on a default,” he said. “Half an hour of some poor old gramps begging me for a third mortgage. Guilty B.O.” Yes, his body odor probably was guilty, but not precisely for that reason. Or, “I had to walk a property with the appraiser today—what a pit, fleas crawling up my socks, you name it.” Or, “Office air conditioning on the fritz again.” Pretty soon the showers became de rigueur and he was no longer moved to explain them. He needn’t have bothered with the showers, really; I probably wouldn’t have smelled another woman on him through the esters of Eternity.
And there were the obligatory late nights at work, the shutting of his study door, the persistent hang-up phone calls, the cell phone bills suddenly being sent to his office, the infrequent lovemaking sessions when before he was all over me like grass on parks. I did ask about that development, wondering aloud if I had gained too much weight or should dye my greying hair. He replied, “Darlin’, I’m on the well-lit side of 50, don’t forget. It’s not you—you’ll always be my special angel.” This was an allusion to the song we chose to dance to at our wedding. What warm-blooded woman wouldn’t be mollified by such sentiment?
Geraldine the Therapist. I have urged her to have this painted on the side of a van and drive it through suburban neighborhoods like the Good Humor truck of my childhood, making stops when people run out of their homes yelling, “Wait! Hold on! Wait for me!” Before and during my divorce, she was the counselor I saw who said, “Denial’s an army that protects and destroys.” I partly agreed with her, but my official theory was that I was born after my time, and in a previous era denial was called trust.
I did, I trusted my husband. We had raised a son and a daughter to young adulthood, and although they held the Baby Boomer generation responsible for all things evil and off-kilter, they seemed to love us as much as their strong opinions allowed. Tim and I had our own identities and occupations, he as a mortgage broker and I as a journalist for a local paper. We had lots of equity in our home and lovely friends and occasionally we had lovely parties or attended them. I never noticed flirtatiousness or butt patting at these get-togethers. I saw a few women bat their lashes at him, but I’d seen that since college. He is a tall, attractive man, scarred by teenage acne, whose long deliberate strides announce a hard-won confidence. I had loved and been bolstered by that confidence as though it were a contagion.
But I was cured permanently when I left the Las Rosettas annual fundraiser for at-risk children. (Part of my Searchlight beat was to cover charity galas). The benefit, featuring Paul Anka as its guest speaker, ended abruptly, before the well-preserved Mr. Anka took the podium. One of the founding matrons, Gladys de Shazo, suffered dizziness from an allergy medication she took to shield herself from the mix of designer perfumes that also attended these gatherings. She fell face flat into her goat cheese and mesclun salad. It’s likely that the world as we know it will be brought down as Gladys was—not from our afflictions but from our remedies. I wouldn’t have written that inkling into my column, but I surely would’ve mentioned the goat cheese and mesclun.
After a doctor present at the event resuscitated the woman, she was packed into an ambulance bound for the UCI ICU (an acronym and palindrome all in one university care unit—in the long state of California, we cover a lot of territory fast). The Rosettas’ rattled historian asked me please not to write up my piece out of respect for their dear Gladys who’d be mortified to know she disrupted the party. I dropped my notebook in my satchel and went home, never having heard Anka sing “(You’re) Having my Baby.” The parentheses in that song title are a source of vexation to me for what should be obvious reasons.
Tim had drawn a disappointed face when I left for the evening; I envisioned his surprise and delight at my early return. Surprised he was. I sneaked into the family room through the garage entry and across the carpet toward the kitchen where he stood at the sink washing his hands. At least, it seemed he was washing his hands, though the motion of his arms didn’t precisely suggest washing, his back appeared to be heaving, and, oh my all-witnessing deities, it then became clear to me he was masturbating into the sink. As I said, he is a tall man.
Out of politeness, although I still do not fully understand why I chose that moment to invoke courtesy, I waited for him to finish, inching toward him slowly, taking in the details of the scene as I moved closer. There was a digitally reproduced photograph of a buxom woman, naked except for a dog collar around her neck and a laced-up leather G-string around her forward-thrust pubic area. Her nipples were taupe and large as jar lids. Platinum hair cascaded in unruly vines around her face and, with apologies to all blonde women who’ve suffered stereotyping about the natural or unnatural color of their locks, this woman looked vicious and trampy, and the look was intentional.
Next to her photo, which Tim had propped in my cookbook holder, was a printed page, a letter of some sort. His neck arched, he shuddered, his head fell to his chest and he hoarsely whispered, “I dedicate this orgasm to you, my holy mistress.”
“Hi honey, I’m home.” I moved into his peripheral view and plucked the letter gingerly, like a rag soaked in kerosene.
He lifted his head from his chest and looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance. “Where’d you come from?” he said. Now he actually was washing his hands.
“You mean originally, or just now?”
“You know what I mean, Ree. And it’s not what it seems—nothing happened.”
My inklings were flying around the room like Pandora’s liberated evils. I said, “Actually, something did happen. I mean, I thought it was something. It certainly looked like you were doing something there. And speaking of nothing, how long has it been going on?”
Tim zipped his fly. He put one hand on the sink and one on his hip. “In person or cyber?”
On this night he confirmed an inkling I’d had for quite some time: guilty people often exhibit blustering indignation, as if the discovery of their crimes were also an act of considerable lowliness. Tim’s carriage and tone of voice were stiff with umbrage. Like certain red-blooded, caught-in-the-act American males (read: men who will copulate with any real or virtual female if she looks good or talks dirty. Or both.), he would not admit to any more than had been witnessed, and was heroic in his effort to pretend even that was subject to interpretation. So I turned to the letter.
For Slave Timothy
I am so pleased u visited my Web Site. But I am sorry to inform u that u will never be 1 of my chosen 1’s that were selected yrs ago at the time of my berth. And just to tempt u I will give u some info that is not on my Web Site which is mostly just pictures as u probably noticed. I am 31 yrs young 135 lbs and five foot six. I am clean shaven where it counts and luv sex indoors, outdoors anywhere u can think of and some places u can’t. I have a waiting list u will never live long enough to be on.
But I am a Merciful Being and so I will give u the opportunity to carry out my instructions. I want u to Jack Off someplace u haven’t Jacked Off before. At the end when u cum I want u to dedicate your orgasm to Me, your Holy Mistress. Then I want u to write Me a story about it. I will read it to my friends for entertainment.
Can’t wait to here from u!
“Well,” I said, folding the paper into a tight triangle. “Spelling is not her gift. But she sounds kind of perky.”
“If you’re angry at me, Rialta, why don’t you just tell me? Spare the sarcasm. I’m too tired for it.”
“Yes, okay, I’m angry, but are you too tired to write your story? I could help you with it—I was an observer. You could get another angle on it, so to speak.”
“Fuck you, Ree. This is exactly why I need other women. You never let up, and you never let down. I’m going to bed.”
I had several dozen biting quips swarming in my head. I wanted to yell after him on his tight-fisted way up the stairs, but I didn’t, and though I’d just watched Tim masturbate into the sink we soaked our strawberries in, I was the one who lay awake, shivering and distraught, thankful, nonetheless, that our son was away with friends on a surf weekend.
“There is much humor in the ways we are let down,” said Geraldine the Therapist.
“And you mean…?” I said, reaching for the box of Kleenex, faithfully perched on the arm of her sofa.
“I mean you have just told me of the most egregious violation in a marriage, that of trust, and you were so adept at underscoring the ironies. Making light of the dark human details. It’s as if a sense of humor shields you from the pain. Actually, shields everyone from the pain.
“You know, I heard a Hopi comedian speak on NPR about the nature of comedy—he said clowns serve penance for the people. They act out our folly, and we laugh at it all, and laughter heals. Maybe you are serving penance for your husband, who seems incapable of seeing why he should do it himself.”
“Are you saying there’s not anything funny in that?” I could feel her nudging me toward an area of self-inquiry I’d resisted, and though that’s what I paid her to do, it made me snappish.
She smiled down at her hands. “No. What I’m saying is you need to ask yourself, ‘Is this really funny? And if so, why? And if not, why am I portraying it that way?’”
“Just a few quick questions, eh?”
“Questions asked of oneself aren’t usually answered quickly.”
I am now and then put off by her competency. If she were a smug, authoritarian, stick-up-the-butt, blanket-solution therapist like the denizens who have their own radio talk shows, she would be easy to dismiss.
Dogs all over the world howl forlornly in unison. I have heard them here in Southern California, in Central and Northern California, in Washington State, Western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, suburban Boston, in Italy across the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside and in Nayarit, Mexico. This is not precisely all over the world, but it will do for me.
The phenomenon begins with one dog’s howl, provoked by nothing human senses perceive, then another dog barks at the howler, and other dogs join in the bark fest, and somewhere along this chain of canine communication, the barks transform into howls. Even dogs who’ve clearly never howled before attempt to join in the chorus by chewing the endnotes of a bark. For about a minute the howling continues, then it ceases all at once.
I laugh whenever I hear the dogs inciting each other to howl. The initial lone howl, the awkward attempts of novice howlers, the sudden cessation of noise—these components strike me as amusing. But lately I asked myself, what’s funny about this? Why do I laugh when dogs separated by streets, pastures, fences, walls, miles and oceans decide to join together to make mournful sounds? What are they saying to themselves and each other? What are they saying to us? What if, as humankind’s best friends, they are signaling the end of the world, some mega-quake or eruption of disease coiling for the strike? Why do I find their melancholy music funny?
The mind, beset with the sorrow of a breakup, naturally claws for anything remotely cheerful, and I experienced a good deal of humor during my separation and divorce, which took over two years to enact. Throughout the divvying of our jointly-owned belongings, and in between weeks and months where we did not speak to each other except through our attorneys, Tim and I laughed a little. I ceremoniously bequeathed him the turquoise leather couch and loveseat I’d always loathed, and he did the same with an armoire he called The Genghis Khan Memorial Closet. We sorted through funny old photos of our parents and grandparents, taken when people were just becoming accustomed to smiling at the camera. After we unearthed our most God-awful wedding present-an angular, awkward, heavy crystal vase—we took turns smashing it with a hammer on the garage floor, cackling like naughty children. It reached a high, hysteric pitch when we nearly pulled apart the frame of a watercolor of Ponte Vecchio. The painting wasn’t valuable or unique; enterprising amateurs sell such work all along the Arno. We yanked at the painting for sentimental reasons, sentiments we still had for each other. I was the one to let go of the frame first. “And you want this so much because…?”
“Because it reminds me of our trip through Italy.” He held the painting in front of him, regarding it with the concentrated affection I till then hadn’t realized I’d missed. “That was the trip of a lifetime, Rialta. Doesn’t get much better than that.”
I agreed, and it struck me that we fought as if we wanted sole ownership of memories belonging to both of us. I looked at him in bewilderment over this love that remains even when people can’t stand each other, and he looked just as befuddled as I did. What was there to do but laugh so hard that my deltoids went into spasm?
I let him have the painting, by the way.
My third date with Tim was a camping trip in the 70’s, pre-HIV, when we drove his sputtering VW van to Yosemite, nabbing one of the last sites left for the weekend. The campground was blue-dark except for the light of stars that broached the trees. Eager to undress each other, but needing to get the taste of the road from our mouths, we stood at the back of the van with a beer can we’d filled with water, and brushed our teeth, handing the can back and forth to rinse. This was an incredibly intimate moment, more intimate than the lovemaking that was to follow. I was so shaken by the domesticity and familiarity of it, I smacked my shin on the trailer hitch, and we both began to laugh, first lightly, then harder and harder until we were bent double.
At the end of our marriage—perhaps the last night he spent at home—we stood at our twin sinks in the beige master bathroom and brushed our teeth, staring in the large mirror before us. I looked at Tim’s reflection and he looked at mine; it was easier for us to regard each other in facsimile. There was no noise but the chuff of conversation between our two toothbrushes, and once again, we began to laugh.
Laughter and tooth-brushing: the parentheses of our duration together, set in place, at the opening and the close, by the surprising pain of intimacy. I take some comfort in this, that the messiest of human affairs, when viewed in retrospect, achieve a kind of spare, shining order no amount of planning can promise, nor residual love and its sadness deny.
And I question the wisdom of self-help books, especially those of the intelligent-women-dumb-choices ilk. I have another inkling that the amount of trouble we bring on ourselves is proportional to our intelligence. Epiphanies, after all, do not come of bliss: if they did, we wouldn’t notice. We are teaching ourselves and each other, like dogs howling forlornly across the planet.