“I am my longing.” Jon Fosse, Melancholy
MISTER AND MISSUS
Long ago, in the gloomy and chaotic years of the Great Depression, Betty and Al saw one another in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and fell in love. Once they leaned on each other for their dreams. I have this straight from that enemy of romantic love, Betty herself.
The genome of my body is from Betty and Al, and so is the genome of my romantic sensibility.
I don’t remember when Betty’s stories began, but her stock scenes revolved in a loop, like the previews you’re condemned to watch every time you go to the movie theater before the new show. For Betty, the new show never started; there was no need for one.
So after my sister ran away with Harold Millington, he was handsome but no good, your granddad said she was dead to us, and my mother cried. She sent me to find my sister. And my sister was bleeding, she was pregnant again, and I ran all the way home, I was scared. Daddy said we could bring her back home, she’d be his daughter again, he’d raise this child Jewish. And she had the baby, your cousin, and then what did she do?” I’d heard the story a hundred times, but always waited patiently for what I knew was coming: “She went back to Harold Millington after she had that baby, that’s what she did. Took the baby and went back to that man! It broke Daddy’s heart!” A vigorous shake of the head: That Harold Millington, he was very handsome, Betty said, as if that explained everything, which it probably did. I knew he was a villain because he was never called by less than his full name. I thought it was a wonderful name, something out of the novels I was just beginning to read. This tale, which I could recite word for word if I’d ever been required to, was one of my introductions to the perils of romantic love. I was as familiar with this story as I was with Cinderella. And it had the same moral as Beauty and the Beast: It’s not looks, girls, it’s character that counts.
The tale of how my parents met and married was not quite Tristan and Isolde, but it was the grand narrative that framed my childhood: “When I met your father, I thought he was a genius,” Betty told me — repeatedly — over tea and a bit of carbohydrate to fortify us, at our chipped formica kitchen table. “I was in love,” she would add with a snort: “Love!” I may not have known what romance consisted of, exactly, but I registered the contempt in her voice. “Young and stupid,” she would sigh, fixing me with her dark eyes, “and look what it got me.” I had no idea what that meant, but there was no space to ask questions. When Betty talked, it wasn’t a conversation, certainly not a discussion. It was a monologue, repeated like a sacred chant. You listened to the rhythms, the waves of emotion and the rise and fall of drama, not explored its content. Wordsworth accused modern culture of murdering to dissect; to dissect Betty’s stories was to murder their point.
The grand narrative of her own love story was always the same, a tragic opera in three acts, which could have been entitled Betty’s Downfall:
Act I: BETTY: A Dark Beauty (idealistic, strong-willed enough as a young woman of 18 or 20 to emigrate to New York against her father’s wishes, but easily duped, due to her youth and purity) could have had any man…but foolishly fell into the booby-trap of romance with AL: Tall (even I could see this was fictional), Good-looking (I frankly found that dubious too), Great Talker, Dreamer, and most of all, Overlooked Towering Talent, destined to become something.
SHE was so innocent she had never seen a naked man, had no idea what people did in bed. HE not only turned out to be an unrepentant skirt-chaser, but — possibly worse — had no “drive,” as she always put it, meaning a kind of essential Nietzschean will to power that would lead to success, a profession, if not riches. Betty had dreamed of playing the supportive wife to a hero out of Ayn Rand (not that she knew that name), a strong and ambitious man on his way up from the bottom through sheer force of character and a display of undiscovered aptitude. Instead she was going to be yoked to a husband who put more energy into finding whatever pleasure he could at the bottom than sacrificing for his family to rise to the top.
Act II: But what could Little Betty (as she called herself, referring to her diminutive height) do? Romance was a bust, or worse, a dupe, a snare into which even a clever and very attractive rabbit could unwittingly fall. She fell.
Act III: And so Little Betty found herself a Missus to his Mister. Eventually three baby rabbits emerged, and the rest was unfortunate.
Yet in this Scheherazade-like tale, the undeserved trials of Little Betty the Horse were perfectly matched by her triumphant competence at running the family. Somehow she made enough money, in spite of minimal education, so we didn’t starve to death, as we surely would if left to the devices of our genius-level but infuriatingly unambitious father.
The first day of Al’s last and only good job, as an electrical inspector for the city of New York after many hateful years working the tunnels of the subway, he came home and wonderingly told a story of his own, for once: an administrator at the hospital he’d inspected had offered him money for a good report, just as they’d always done with previous inspectors. “How much?” asked Betty immediately. Al’s pale blue eyes opened wide. He admitted he hadn’t taken the bribe, he couldn’t think of taking it, he was not only dismayed but amazed those people would expect him to. She was furious: Don’t tell me you turned it down. What about us? Did you think about us?
Betty had two boys and wanted a girl. (I got pregnant when he put his shoes under the bed, so I just stopped using my diaphragm and didn’t tell him. She always said this as though I would admire her cleverness.) It worked: she managed to bear a girl, a relentlessly screaming infant, unfortunately, but it was a girl.
Like Betty, Al never embraced or kissed me, and there were no verbal declarations of affection I recall. Instead: I am sitting proudly on his knee at six or seven as he admires my long brown hair, loosed from its braids, caresses my head, and murmurs “Beautiful, beautiful!” This is what it is to be adored. The pleasure of walking by his side, holding his big calloused hand, the architecture for the promise of deep joy I had ever after when I was in love. This is how I came to recognize what I was feeling.
Reading was the only occupation, aside from talking, that I could see my mother enjoyed. On the hard, repellant sofa, a fat novel in hand, she would settle when she had a bit of time, legs up and crossed at the ankles. There was no talking to me or anyone then. But I would sometimes put my head in her lap, catching the occasional absent-minded touch of her hand on my head like drops of new rain in a drought. For the sake of that randomly bestowed caress, I would endure the smell of her apron, an unholy blend of potato peel and cigarette smoke. Betty (like her mother before her, she often said), did not kiss or cuddle: she called it “lecking and shmecking” (I’ve never been one for lecking and shmecking, that’s just the way I am. Y’see, I’m like my mother), the very thing that I most craved withheld, though I know she didn’t see this as a withholding. Perhaps it was a conserving of resources: an emotional hoarding that felt as necessary as economic hoarding for survival.
I am sitting opposite Betty at that cheap white formica kitchen table in the afternoon after school, just the two of us drinking dark tea made light with milk. She is talking…and talking and talking, rapidly and with intense energy, while I am the ignored but necessary listener. I did not interrupt, except to make appreciative noises. When we were going out together, your father found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk one day. That was a lot of money in those days and he wasn’t working because of the Depression, but I took the twenty from him and bought myself a nice coat with a fur collar. Twenty dollars! He hadn’t seen twenty dollars in a long time, and he didn’t say a thing! That was what romantic love could do; he was powerless before her then. Romantic feeling, when someone needed you, weighted the scales of power in your direction, but made you weak when you were the needy one.
Like all fables, Betty’s memories imparted their universal wisdom through specifics: her troubles and struggles, but especially the almost insurmountable obstacles thrust in her way at every turn. There was Mel’s terrible asthma and the midnight trips to the hospital emergency room, the danger of crossing Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway in the dark while frantically pushing him in his sister’s baby carriage; Eric’s tantrums as a young child, so bad she had to lock him out of the apartment, howling and kicking the door (the marks at the bottom of the door were still there when he showed his daughter where we’d lived). I knew about my own incessant crying as an infant, with a temperament already inconsolably sorrowful and demanding of what I should not be asking for. The only way she could sew the piecework she did at home was to shake my crib back and forth with one hand while she manipulated the cloth with the other and worked the treadle with her foot. She was the victim or heroine or both at once: Betty of the many limbs like some Indian goddess, including the hand that rocked the cradle and the hand that shut my unhappy brother out of the house, the near-magical feet that could work a treadle and fly over the dark streets to Coney Island Hospital to save the life of her wheezing child!
The stories told over the kitchen table were the most connected I felt to her or anyone, yet they were entirely one-way. My role was listener, not teller — after all, at ten or twelve or sixteen, what did I have to say that would be as interesting anyway? And I was glad to fill that position, even when it made me feel bad in some way I couldn’t explain (On my wedding night I was so innocent that when I saw your father naked, I screamed, I didn’t let him near me for three days. No one had told me, not my mother, not any of my sisters, that a man looked like that. I never did like sex, anyway.). This was because I knew I was a crucial part of the ritual of recitation. The humblest vessel in a sacred rite is transformed by its necessity to the whole.
Betty was a great storyteller and liar (“Not a liar,” my brother Eric objects, “Say a fabulist. A fantasist”). Embellishment carried no implication at all for her of moral turpitude; she expected everyone to do it. Betty collected stories for appropriate occasions the way others might collect outfits, and could easily retro-fit the story to the purpose.
As those who pray commit themselves to an invisible world, the shifting boundary of reality in Betty’s tales allowed her to shape truth as an artist does, reforming the unacceptable dullness or complexity of merely what happened to the far superior what might happen or should happen. The seed of romance: If anything could be not-true, couldn’t anything be true?
Something is missing; there is an absence, the silent ghost of what I could not name. There was no lack of strong emotions, but not those you’d want to live with.
Al was often mild and cheerful, but when something went wrong he could easily be bitter, usually about his “rotten bad luck.” When he felt victimized by fate, he would cry out against this “stinkin’, lousy, rotten bad luck,” or for particularly bad occasions, “my goddamn, stinkin’, lousy, rotten bad luck.” He had a strong sense of justice in the universe that was continually and outrageously violated. No wonder I’m a glass-half-empty kind of person whose motto is “Nothing ventured, nothing lost,” given that Al felt his full glass was always being emptied, and Betty that she had to squeeze every drop into that slippery, easily-shattered glass by herself.
Betty, on the other hand, was bitter by default, sometimes exploding into rage at Al. When Betty was angry, Al defended himself by shouting just as loudly as she did, his tone deepening as he grew more enraged while hers grew more shrill, till the high-feminine and low-masculine voices screamed over each other and no one was listening, except us kids, who didn’t want to. The family was a kind of hydraulic system in which steam was let off periodically so it could go on.
Once, at age nine or ten, I had a little burst of courage and outright asked my mother if she loved me. She looked up sharply from her book and said this was a silly question.
I persisted, out of my ordinary character, determined to hear the words this one time, to get a definitive answer: “Okay, but do you?”
“Why would you ask me that?” She looked annoyed.
“I don’t know.” I said. “But do you?”
“I never heard such a question in my life,” said Betty impatiently, which was probably true: I doubt she’d have thought of asking anything so pointless of her own parents. Yet I was ready to stay with it for once. So I asked still one more time, which gave me this: “You’re my daughter, why wouldn’t I love you?”
I hadn’t expected that, and I wanted to cry, but knew how that would go. Instead I asked urgently: “But Mommy, would you love me if I weren’t your daughter?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Betty growled, and went back to reading her novel, which never asked a stupid question of her when she was tired, exhausted from doing everything, being the man as well as the woman, the father and the mother both, as she often said.
I knew I was vanquished. If I were someone else’s daughter, she wouldn’t love me, or maybe even like me. And if some other girl were her daughter, she’d love her instead. This cracked open an entirely new view of love. The one who was supposed to love you best for your whole life did not really love you for yourself. It was a matter of casual fate that you happened to be born in this or that family, out of this or that body. This was nearly unbearable.
My faith was in words, a whole genre of language entwined with emotion that seemed my natural home. This susceptibility grew like a plant asymmetrically adding cells to its membrane as it leans toward the light. And that growing bent towards love through language was also the pathway to my innermost life, with its secret, half-ashamed store of hope for the future.
Before I was an adolescent, I knew that what made me unlovable had to be hidden; a rapacious need to be cared for, attended to, listened to. These desires could be filled at once, though in oblique, even labyrinthine ways, through reading.
The push of the narrative towards a meaningful conclusion: all that happens, good or bad, means something, meant it all along, was going somewhere that felt right. And if life could turn out so swell, why not for me too? The just universe of children’s stories evolved into fictions of romance, where virtue was rewarded by getting what you most want. I was hoping to be virtuous as hell.
Frankie was a dark-eyed three-year-old boy down the block, whose parents fussed over the birth of their only child at this wondrous event called a party. After that I became Frankie in my bedtime imaginings, cannibalizing his little sweet persona to remake myself as a much-loved, indulged, happy little Italian boy.
My childhood pretend play was not about happy families, fathers who earned princely salaries that made their wives smile, mothers whose laps were warm and welcoming, children covered with kisses. Imagining daring adventures in strange lands, I had only one plot: hardy, resolute groups of families with few resources travel over perilous landscapes in search of a new life. Rather than dream of being safe where I was, I longed to be brave…somewhere else.
Childhood play is total immersion. There’s no irony, no criticism of yourself, not even humor, which is a kind of looking down at oneself and the world. You swim to some subterranean cave of joy, where you can breathe for a time.
There was a dark corner of the house, a small enclosed area behind a three-tiered end table adorned with assorted cheap figures. It was my preferred space because it was both private yet also open at one end, a cavern. I could play there all day, gloriously alone but surrounded by family, an island with a drawbridge. That sort of being alone was freedom. In this corner, pursuing this play, the realm of dream and fantasy was weighed against reality, and reality was found wanting. This too is romance.
Reading was not my only interest: I also watched a lot of TV, switched on daily for the early evening news and switched off when the last adult went to bed. My first love story was a film, One Touch of Venus, old-fashioned even then. Sitting on the floor as close as possible to the TV cabinet, I gawked at the vivid beauty of Ava Gardner, intensely desired by the hero. I was young enough to wonder what made her so special.
My mother and I were in the cheapest possible cabin at the bottom of an ocean liner on our way to see her elderly, ailing parents in England. Now I am ten. Drowsy, lying in the top bunk after Betty turned out the light, I conjured the scene in Little Women in which Meg’s suitor, John, proposes marriage to her. Afterward I enacted the scene in my head, again and again, with dialogue of my own, a form of fan fiction. I did not identify with Jo, or wish to be a boy. John’s eagerness for Meg to accept his hand, his pining for her, the hope of a delightful future together, a story I didn’t yet name as romance, had fallen one after the other into place together, the way the bolts of a lock shift with a satisfying Thunk! when you turn the key.
Not a single fantasy of mine ever centered on adventure after that. I felt too old at 10 or 11 for marbles, plastic soldiers, or chalkboard maps as stand-ins for parts of my own psyche. All this faded almost overnight, there on the Queen Mary pitching in the dark.
Suddenly I began to notice the figure of the adored girl everywhere. Why did romantic novels appeal to me and not at all to my brothers? Daddy’s murmuring with wonder, “Beautiful, so beautiful…” — you are gazed upon singly, the focus. If you are adored, you will not be dismissed or abused, and they will not leave. Love is not meant to work this way for boys, who dream of other kinds of adoration, perhaps.
Romantic desiring entwined with fear, emotion fraught with being a sexual female: gratification, mistreatment, power, censure, debasement. Fiction expresses hidden desires, limits and molds, simulates and stimulates. Romance makes them real by being realer-than-real.
I had been Peter Pan, flying on the power of a wish, barely registering that silly housekeeping Wendy in my reading. From then on, in my daydreams, and also in those gentle moments before sleep when the world recedes and the dream-world changes places with the real, I imagined only romance, including a secret fantasy that Peter was in love with Wendy. And I had transformed into Wendy.
Betty caught me once with my pajama pants around my thighs under the covers, when she unexpectedly came to tuck her baby in. She said nothing and I said nothing but I could tell she knew. I hated masturbation after that but did it anyway, once along with the girl next door who proposed that the first one finished should knock on the thin wall separating our bathrooms. I forget who won the race. Neither of us knew there was a name for what we did. The one playdate that Betty ever arranged turned out to be a sex date. The other girl, from a “nicer” family than mine, had a big house and later attended Wellesley. She showed me how she secretly rubbed herself against the curved piano leg in the study. I hadn’t known all this was possible: some people have two bathrooms, you could have a room just for a piano, what you could do with the leg of a piano.
Desire was something that had no name and you couldn’t help. It took you over like a pleasurable disease, made you do something about it, or for it, like it or not. When I was young, I was lonely while my mother worked long hours at a summer resort, my father working in the city, and no children to play with. A guest, a middle-aged man, played with me once. I am on a sofa with him in a deserted room of the Main House, the one with the grand old fireplace whose stones were pathways for my fictional adventures. He is hugging me while we talk, and it’s very nice to be held that way. Then we are lying down on the sofa together. He is sweet and warm, we are holding each other. There’s a desire that’s like when I touch myself, what I can’t say or manage, and I stealthily put my toes between his legs. He stops speaking, but I can hear his breathing. Then I’m frightened, walking outside to sit on the porch alone. He comes out to sit quietly beside me. Will I anger him by running away when he might just want to chat? Does he know what I’d wanted, when I didn’t know myself?
Suddenly his hand jumps deep in my shorts, rough on the cotton crotch of my panties, and fear exceeds desire. I run inside, I don’t want to find Mommy, I tell a waitress instead. She says to go back to our cabin, she’ll tell my mother, he’ll be “thrown out.” I am relieved but ashamed that he got in trouble because I went too far.
My mother never mentions it, I never mention it, it is not mentionable. What is not mentionable barely exists. But the scene makes flashy, lurid appearances, joining other scenes like it both before and after this one. Their unpredictable flash-visits punish me when I least expect it, like Betty’s slap on my cheek when I wanted what I shouldn’t have.
I know this never, ever happens in romance, not in fairy tales, not in Little Women, where girls are loved, where women are adored, where men sit at their feet, and stay there.
Sex and romance divide into two warring camps, occupying the same disputed territory. There is real life, unpleasant and deficient, sometimes frightening, and dream life, buried like a treasure box in a wreck, beautifully, perfectly wrought. Sex is in real life and romance is a dream. But sex could be dreamy if two were in love, and romance was dream you could make real.
I fell in love for the first time the same year I read Little Women. Romantic love is an alternate home with a door I can open at any time. It is a ferry rushing toward the wide expanse of If Only.
From fifth grade on, the presence every school day of the one boy my heart had fixed on was comforting and stimulating at once. Adventure, drama, pleasure were now located in a bodied human. This quite ordinary boy was sealed off from everyday life, though his appeal was exactly that he belonged to the real rather than to fiction, that he had a life of his own that could intersect with mine.
I’m going to call this boy A, because he was the first. A, a dark-haired Italian boy in my fifth-grade class, often smiling, more cute than good-looking, was by some grace in my class every year from fifth grade on, his presence a reliable beacon of the City on the Hill. Barring catastrophe, such as his occasional absence from school, that uniquely pleasure-giving face, would be somewhere across the room or in the hall. I didn’t want much from A — a word, a look, a smile, just as the young Dante insists that all he wants from Beatrice is a greeting. At most some sort of hazily romantic scene, the details as impossible to imagine as the precise nature of God’s presence in heaven for the pious. The rest, I felt, would take of itself.
Beginning with A, I was always passionately, fixedly in love. Yet no matter how long the romantic feeling had endured, as soon as A and his replacements B, C, and D were ousted from the kingdom of romance, what had been a pointed arrow of desire instantly became a flaccid rubber band on a slingshot.
MY LOVE STORY
I did not yet have a story of my own. There were my mother’s stories, and there were my books. Books were imaginary but some books could be true; Betty’s stories were neither true nor not-true, they expressed truth as myth does, as the imagination does, in the no-man’s land between the verifiable and the not-impossible.
In children’s books, the good were rewarded with exactly what they deserved, and the bad dispatched. Betty’s tales presented an ongoing struggle against a mostly unjust fate that never ceased to plague mortals until you died.
Books were short visits to a far country you could come home from. And so I shuttled between the reality I couldn’t help and a visionary place of the If Only, whose natural laws are in harmony with one’s feelings and hopes, where hope is one with the known and expected. Like my father, I chose pleasure.
Novels open to the light the mystery in real life: the inner self of others, their secret thoughts. Happy-ending romance says the one you love really feels about you exactly as you’d like him to; appearances to the contrary, you are of the most value to the most valuable. That is your secret power: you are in love with one of your selves, the one that exists in the mind of the man who desires you.
In the face of Betty’s dark cautions about men and romance, I came to believe, simply because I wanted to, that the next years were going to be the most important chapter of my tale, the climax. On the precipice of adolescence, I readied to plunge. Those phantoms, myself and the man I loved, each of us naturally and simultaneously feeling the same way, to the same degree, for all time, were waiting only to be called into life, a Frankenstein of two merged beings.
Betty and Al, children of immigrants, emigres in their turn, found new life, if not riches, in Brighton Beach. I too was a pilgrim from a lost place, hurtling through the darkness like so many migrants, toward a high-stakes, risky, sometimes hostile land: the province of Love.