Excerpt 41

THEN AND NOW

 

Thirty, forty, fifty? It doesn’t matter how old you are, only how old you look….” begins an eye-catching cosmetics ad.

Jane Fonda, in retrospect, said, “Turning thirty was scary as hell.” Louise in Honoré de Balzac’s Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (The Two Young Brides) wasn’t too thrilled about her thirtieth birthday either: “I shall soon be thirty, and at that age woman embarks upon dreadful inner lamentations. If I am still beautiful, I shall perceive the limits of feminine life; afterwards, what will become of me?” In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart found the approach of her thirtieth birthday to be more than she could bear.

            I wish I were immortal Athena living in the rent-free Parthenon. Instead, I’m thirty years old today, doubting my wisdom and inhabiting a New York City apartment that costs too much.

In work and in love, I find myself lurching forward and backward. The romantic and the realist continually joust on the playing fields of my heart and my mind. My résumé covers a lot of territory; in schools and summer camps I’ve taught children how to read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, to perform water ballet to the music of Ferrante and Teicher, and to jump horses over post-and-rail fences. I’ve been the administrative assistant to the president of a men’s clothing company and a production planner of mattress ticking (for jailbirds’ cots and cheap-motel beds) for a Fortune 100 textile corporation—the most horrendous job! Additionally, I’m a volunteer for an organization that helps autistic children and for a nonprofit group that promotes preventive medicine.

Now I’m gainfully employed as the assistant editor at a medical magazine on Manhattan’s East 60th Street.

On a pleasant summer day nine years ago on Bayswater Road in London, I met a swarthy Athenian—the kind you’re supposed to have a vacation romance with, but never marry. In rapid succession, Michael, the Greek, became my lover, my husband, my ex-spouse. I married Michael because he looked like a young Omar Sharif and spoke the little English he knew with a seductive accent and toss of the head. We shared zero history. I sought connubial bliss liberated from all traditional restraints. I got exactly what I wanted…for a while. That idyllic summer we communicated by drawing simple pictures, as we indolently reclined on green canvas chairs in Hyde Park. He was exotic, tempestuous, fiery, emotional. Everything I  (exceptionally reserved WASP from bucolic Germantown, Tennessee) was not.

As husband and wife we traveled through the splendiferous Greek islands. The fragrance of white jasmine permeated the air as we nibbled fresh figs for breakfast on the tranquil island of Kos. We rode docile donkeys to the top of a steep hill on Lindos, Rhodes, for a breathtaking view of the blue Mediterranean. The countless cicadas hummed on Crete as we merrily wandered through the picturesque farms dotted with whirling windmills. Michael enthusiastically guided me on an unforgettable Hellenic sojourn. I will always be grateful for having been sucked into the vortex of Greek culture.

I’m passionate about all kinds of literature. It reveals the multifarious ways there are to think, to live. Biographies and autobiographies of writers also intrigue me, especially books limning the dark side of women and men considered to be artistic giants. Some rotten people have created great art.

Discovering what I am about is the main thing—an illusion as good as any other. I’m a promiscuous reader, a dilettante, an autodidact. Creative agitation in women of thirty or thereabouts is not uncommon. Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden, a collection of short stories and novelettes, and Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Americans—their first literary achievements—were written when the authors were twenty-nine and thirty-one, respectively.

Physically, I’m in better shape than I was in at twenty. A low-sodium, low-cholesterol, high-fiber diet, and low-impact aerobics are integral parts of my ritualistic health routine.

The rapid changes in women’s roles during the past decade have left me wobbly and straddled uncomfortably on the cutting edge of a social revolution. I don’t want to be defined by a job or lack of one. Evaluate my character, not my income!

In truth, sometimes I fear I’m a latent Southern belle, an inchoate Blanche DuBois who prefers Wild Turkey to Colombian Gold, unmistakably more of a Jean Rhys woman than an Ann Beattie character.

My idiosyncrasies are growing more pronounced. As Evelyn Waugh did, I detest the telephone and even prefer confirming appointments by mail. Always walking on the shady side of the street, always wearing sunglasses to prevent (I hope) the development of cataracts, never browsing in department stores, shopping for just about everything from mail-order catalogs, are among my myriad eccentricities.

Until a year ago, keeping a diary seemed a waste of time, but now maintaining meticulous records of impressions, literature gobbled or savored, is as crucial as wearing mascara, lipstick, and perfume. Constructing chronological tables as I read is automatic. I want to know how old the women, whether real or fictional, were when they graduated, married, had children, gave birth to novels, had their first extramarital affair, divorced, murdered, committed suicide. I want to know the same about the men.

My hypochondria is as evident as H. L. Mencken’s condition was, positively due to our mutual birthday. I am star struck by worry; Virgo is culpable. By working for a magazine where I have unlimited access to medical journals and textbooks, I’m relieved of the urge to move to an apartment within whispering distance of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Between three and three-thirty in the morning, I frequently wake sweating, with heart palpitating. My milestone birthday ended one passage and began another. I agonize: This is it. No more mistakes allowed. Finality. Horror. No more living in the future. There is only now.

According to recent National Institutes of Health statistics, the average life span of a thirty-year-old Caucasian female is eighty years. As a borderline optimist, I rationalize that I still have approximately ten years to go before tripping over the halfway marker.

Please, dear Fate, now that I’m old enough to be a senator, I suggest your letting me live as long as the nonagenarian Georgia O’Keeffe.

I bid a fond farewell to my twenties.

 

 

Forty-nine! Wow! How did that happen! I am firmly entrenched in glorious prime time!

Physically, emotionally, and psychologically I’ve changed during the past nineteen years. Geographically, I moved nine miles—from midtown Manhattan to a small community just across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Thankfully…I’ve become more adaptable, flexible, resilient; whatever life slaps me with, I have grown confident enough to handle it with equanimity.

My marital status changed, too.  At age thirty-two I married a native New Yorker, the firstborn son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. My articulate husband and I share a love of Shavian plays, Mozart sonatas, and Verdi operas.

Warm and loving, my spouse has taught me a lot about the redemptive powers of unconditional love and affection.  When I withdraw into seemingly impenetrable silence, my customary but unproductive way to deal with anger, he instinctively knows how to gently take the defensive wall down, brick by metaphorical brick.

When I changed husbands, holiday customs were also altered. Instead of feasting at Easter on roasted lamb and mageiritsa (traditional soup made of sheep’s entrails), I politely swallow matzo  and gefilte fish at Passover.

I wear the same size dress as I did a decade ago and have no new cavities. My hair—once the color of undiluted espresso—is heavily and naturally streaked with silver. I’m not going to dye it. The trichological transformation that I see in the mirror forces me to come to terms with aging. That’s meant in a positive way—acceptance of living, with more joy and more dignity, as a mature woman, never again to be called a pretty girl.

The late Alfred Charles Kinsey, founder of the Institute for Sex Research, said that a woman reaches her sexual peak around age thirty-eight. (I say between thirty-eight and forty-eight; two years ago I had to replace my All-Flex arcing spring diaphragm.)

Marrying for the second time and learning to drive a car (in effect, for the second time) coincided. Both require a lot of patience and a certain tolerance for risk. The year I left Tennessee, when I was seventeen, I had stopped driving after a near-fatal collision with a tractor-trailer on a major highway. Many years later, a girlfriend who owned a gleaming BMW persuaded me to sidle into the driver’s seat. I’ve been driving (unfortunately not BMWs) ever since.

My forties are better than my thirties. I sleep peacefully through the night. I know and accept that I’ll make lots of mistakes as long as I live; neurotic perfectionism is no longer part of the package. Living in the present is second nature to me now, like counting calories and the dollars in my mutual funds. I’ve grown more tolerant of my weaknesses and adamantly refuse to desert my most fantastic dreams. As Yogi Berra said: “It’s not over till it’s over.”

Always searching for an illusive frontier, I still don’t really feel settled.  Deep down in my heart, I’m the worldly Somerset Maugham, the peripatetic Graham Greene, the restless Paul Theroux waiting for the next train. I look forward to change, to the next destination. I want to live in motion in a continually changing landscape with a changing cast of characters. Disliking quotidian routine, I want to be able to distinguish every day from all other days. I want to live fully in a rich phantasmagoria.

Evolving and learning give me the greatest pleasure. In my imaginary perfect world, based on my criteria for adventure, next year I would become a race-car driver and five years later—a commercial airline pilot; I’d fly 747s to Hong Kong, Sydney, Cairo, and Berlin. My altruistic side would head a foundation that keeps every library in the United States open seven days a week, twelve hours a day.

The unknown with both its disappointments and surprises enriches me. Being a quiet maverick of sorts, I suspect I’ve become somewhat addicted to those adrenaline rushes that invariably accompany the excitement of the unfamiliar.

In Passages, Gail Sheehy writes, “We are becoming accustomed to the idea of serial marriages. It will be progress when we come to think of serial careers, not as signifying failure, but as a realistic way to prolong vitality.”

However, I cling to my past eccentricities like white napkin fuzz to a black wool skirt, and I’ve generously added a few more. (Although occasionally now, I will amble into a department store when the inviting newspaper ad proclaims “40 percent off all merchandise.”) I can tell whether I like someone by the way she removes a paper lid from a jar or the way she organizes bills in her wallet. I’m critical of my own behavior as well…if I have more than ten items to buy, I never sneak into the express line at the supermarket. Anachronistic, chatty letters or e-mail (I LOVE E-MAIL!!!) are always preferable to disruptive telephone calls. And the other day I took my innocuous beige cloth coat to a tailor; per my request, he lined it in blazing-red satin: the anthropomorphic me.

When standing in motionless movie lines, I inconspicuously eavesdrop. Women and men in Manhattan, it seems, habitually talk hyperbolically about money and jobs. I prefer to go to films alone, to sit on the aisle, and to be totally absorbed in the celluloid drama in front of me. As an intense observer, I don’t want anyone to break the spell immediately afterward.

Modern life is too frenetic for my taste. Abandoning raucous aerobics, I spend more time these days practicing laid-back yoga. And I need more time alone.  In Gift from the Sea, a collection of poetic essays about the conflicts and challenges facing women, Anne Morrow Lindbergh felicitously wrote about the importance of solitude to a woman’s mental and spiritual well-being. Lindbergh said, “Woman must come of age by herself. This is the essence of ‘coming of age’—to learn how to stand alone. She must learn not to depend on another, nor to feel she must prove her strength by competing with another. In the past, she has swung between these two opposite poles of dependence and competition, of Victorianism and Feminism. Both extremes throw her off balance; neither is the center, the true center of being a whole woman. She must find her true center alone. She must become whole. She must, it seems to me, as a prelude to any ‘two solitudes’ relationship, follow the advice of the poet to become ‘world to oneself for another’s sake.’ ”

I strongly identify with Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. “The search,” Binx says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

Despair stalked me in my early years…but no more. I have what I want: not an easy life, but an interesting one.

There are infinite paths of possibility. Pulitzer Prize–winning Robert Frost said it best:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt 40

MOM

“Do you love your mother?” I asked Alex.

“She’s dead. I had her cremated. I loved her and hated her,” Alex answered.

Alex was a 43-year-old woman. I wondered why her mother gave her a man’s name.

Alex and I met while working as freelance copy editors at an upscale women’s magazine on Madison Avenue and 60th Street. We spent hours together under a hot Halogen lamp in a tiny, windowless room with holes in the walls. Our space was a converted storage room for art supplies.

She was a bona fide abstract expressionist artist from Chicago. Once a year she had a show of her vibrant, violent paintings at a gallery on Mercer Street. I was a poet manqué and an essayist from a bucolic town in southwestern Tennessee, just five minutes from the Mississippi line.

We had great conversations about men, mothers, sex, and literature. They were all closely related.

Recently married for the third time, Alex would cry sometimes when she talked about her fights with her husband. They regularly went to a marriage counselor, and Alex saw a psychiatrist on the side—for her emotional needs, not sexual.

She grew up on rice and beans and slaps from her Mom, who collected stray cats and food stamps. Her mental condition permitting, she worked part-time selling bras in the intimate apparel department of a fine selected store.

Alex’s older sister ran away from home to save herself when she was 16. That was the end of all contact. Dad was long gone.

Alice Miller, the Swiss psychologist, says that rotten childhoods can be somewhat redeemed if the young victim of bad parents is fortunate enough to be cherished by a sensitive, nurturing adult.

Alex was saved by  an adoring, feisty aunt who taught her about goodness, love, and hope. But she couldn’t teach Alex about jealousy.

Most of Alex’s fights with her husband were about his looking at other women. Not touching, just looking. Alex ended her second marriage immediately when she found out about her husband’s affair. They lived in a big house in Bergen County, New Jersey, but he had to spend a lot of time in California for business. When he was in the Garden State, they made love every day. That astounded me. She was so lucky. My first husband was a native Athenian (Greece, not Georgia). We made love about three times a day before we got married. That’s when we lived together in the Earl’s Court section of London. Most of the people who lived in that section were Indian. Taki liked to go out for lamb curry at midnight. He liked for me to walk ahead of him and smile at the men standing around. He liked for me to pretend that I was a whore. When a man would  approach me, Taki would rush to my side. That excited him very much. Then he couldn’t wait to go to bed with me. We were in our early 20s. Taki lost all sexual interest in me shortly after we married. I think a lot of married couples never have sex.

Anyway, When Alex found the key to her second husband’s secret post office box, she knew that he was having an affair. She had been looking for “Love” stamps when she rifled through his desk drawer. He had a good job and was generous. When he got a small inheritance, he put everything in joint names: Joint tenants with right of survivorship.

During the day she was free to paint and to bake all-natural banana-nut bread. She had had a good deal.

When she discovered her husband’s infidelity, she catapulted herself into a hysterical rage. I told her she should have kept quiet and kept on painting. “Kill him in a painting,” I suggested.

“Why didn’t you keep quiet?” I asked.

“Impossible,” she answered.

Alex was impulsive. Emotional outbursts were alien to me. They were very bad manners where I came from. “If you lose control, the other guy wins” was my motto.

But Alex’s emotions matched her clothes and artwork. She wore Keds that were hot pink, orange, or purple. Some of her paintings of people and things looked like sunsets in Santa Fe, even though she never painted landscapes.

When she divorced the second husband, she got alimony. Several lawyers told her that she wouldn’t get anything because she was healthy, childless, and thirtysomething. But she shopped and shopped until she found a pit bull for a lawyer.

After her divorce and financial settlement, she went to the Greek island of Kos, rode old bicycles without hand gears, and ate fresh figs for breakfast until her money ran out.

 

Alex and I sure were different. That’s probably why I liked her so much. She always told me how well-bred and self-contained I was. I liked her spontaneity and shocking tactless remarks. She crunched cold, hard carrots all day and never apologized for the irritating sound. Several times a day she talked on the phone with her third husband. “I love you,” she whispered over and over, except when she cried and said, “We’ll talk about this later.”

I liked our intense conversations. We dispensed with the small talk pretty quickly.

As a child, Alex slept with one leg hanging over the edge of the bed so that she could jump out when her mother started beating her.

As a child, I slept on my back with my hands on the sides of the narrow bed. My parents didn’t get along, so my mother slept in my bedroom before we moved to a bigger house. Sleep was very important to her. If I accidentally woke her up, she’d start screaming and slapping me across the face. So, even when I had chills and fever, I’d try real hard not to shake.

She made me wear pajamas with feet and plastic soles after she found me lying with my nightgown above my waist.

“The rats are going to get you,” she said.

When I slept with a man for the first time, I was almost 21. My lover was a Jewish dental student at New York University. We did it on a water bed in a closed wing of Bellevue Hospital.

Alex’s first experience was with a 30-year-old when she was 16. He became her mentor and encouraged her to go to art school.

So Alex married him, and they moved to New York. He was very sweet, but Alex didn’t love him, so after she got her degree from Cooper Union, she divorced him and went back to Chicago for a while.

Both Alex and I are childless by choice. Thank God for Mary McCarthy and diaphragms. Someone said McCarthy did for diaphragms what Melville did for whales.

When we were in our teens, we made the decision not to become mothers. Our mothers had branded us with pain.

I said, “Having children is an act of cruelty. Why bring someone into the world to suffer?”

“Yeah, I agree,” Alex replied.

“But I don’t want to die now,” I said. “I have hope for the future. But if I had to choose between exactly repeating my 39 years—with everything the same, not being able to change anything—or death, I’d take death. What would you do?”

“I don’t know. I know I don’t want to die yet. After all, we have squatters’ rights,” was Alex’s opinion.

I looked at the light-blond rectangle she had dyed on top of her dark-blond hair. Her earrings, bright purple ladders made from pipe cleaners, hung like spaghetti al dente. I never wore earrings except at parties or when I went out with small groups of people, which wasn’t very often.

“Time to work,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess so,” replied Alex.

I was reading a story titled, “The Seductive Mother.” It was about a woman who slept with her son.

Alex was working on a piece about a woman who just returned home from the hospital after a mastectomy. It described her ordeal of shopping for a nightgown and sleeping with her husband for the first time after her operation.

We studiously read the repugnant material under the Halogen heat.

Five days later in the mail, I got an invitation to a show of Alex’s paintings at a gallery in the Village.

All of her paintings were exhibited on one floor. Each painting had a number. By the entrance, the guests picked up the sheets that listed the artwork. Alex picked incredible titles. Her paintings blazed on the white walls.

The food was great. Penne primavera, pasta and broccoli, tuna salad. Her husband, who liked to read magazines about guns, had made everything. He was Jewish, cute, funny and a self-employed caterer. Alex was Irish and had married three Jews. I was a Southern Wasp, divorced from a Greek and married to a Jew, a real mensch. Even in Tennessee I had heard women say that Jewish men made the best husbands.

After my divorce from the Greek, who had a bad case of satyriasis with other women, I only went out with Jewish men. They’re so funny! They really have a unique sense of humor. Must be genetic. I went out with lots of Jewish men. It didn’t matter whether they were married or not. The Jewish stockbroker I dated said facetiously, “I think the Ku Klux Klan sent you here to fuck all the Jews to death.”

At the party I met some of the people who worked with Alex at the Metropolitan Museum, where she freelanced sometimes on their catalogs.

Slowly, I walked from painting to painting. The largest and most magnetic was a Kandinskylike composition of red and gray. A bloody-looking configuration in the shape of an enlarged uterus had been superficially dusted with her mother’s gray ashes.

The painting was titled “MOM,” and it was for sale.

 

 

 

Excerpt 39

Why was I traveling by bicycle? I hadn’t driven a car since I was 17, after having an almost fatal encounter with a Mack truck on a major east-west thoroughfare in Memphis.

When I went to Thorncliff College and lived in a dorm for four years in Westchester County, I didn’t need a car because I could take the train that runs alongside the scenic Hudson River to Grand Central Station.

Don’t know if she believed me or not, but the nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment–drugs and/or therapy–would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.

He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy… what a cool bus ride they had together.

Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.

He drugged Douglas and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door.

After his door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated every room of that hospital.

Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek. Much of the attack is now just a blurry nightmare in my head. I was assigned to a bedroom only three doors away from his.

My skinny roommate, Melanie, sat on her bed with her knees clasped to her chin.

She looked like a praying mantis cut in two.

“Why are you here?” the frail, depressed girl asked.

 

Excerpt 38

“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke

My mother’s wedding night was a threesome:  My mother, father, and Joe,  an Episcopal priest, who was my father’s favorite lover. They were in Fairhope, Alabama, an artsy town on the Gulf in 1949.

No family members attended.

My mother told me this when I was twelve years old. We were having dinner at Britling’s, the local cafeteria, in Memphis. I really liked their shredded carrots with raisins.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

—Isak Dinesen

Excerpt 37

The psychiatric male nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him.

Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle?

Another Frances Farmer?

I have never been so scared in my whole life.

Excerpt 36

The other connection with my father’s mysterious past were letters I discovered while cleaning out my mother’s house after her move to an assisted- living apartment.

There were beautiful letters meticulously typed on light-blue paper that expressed shock and dismay, but with great wit and affection, about my father’s sudden wedding.

The correspondent was  a former male lover, who, at that time, was taking courses at Columbia University and living in Greenwich Village.

The depths of my father’s secret life were unfathomable. Layers upon layers upon layers.

 

And my mother’s…the mysterious calling cards from South American men…her frequent references to the Salvation Army, where she had to spend a few Christmases alone because her tyrannical, controlling father, the prominent, respected surgeon,  wanted her to be the dutiful daughter and stay home and take care of her aging parents.

Dutiful was a word not to be included in Nancy’s vocabulary.

She rebelled and fled from her small Pennsylvania town  to New York City. She was too manic-depressive to hold a job for more than a few weeks; I am fairly certain that she also learned to depend on and survived because of…the kindness of strangers (that would be Men).

It would explain much of her Rage. Very similar to mine, actually, but for some inexplicable reason, I was always able to repress/suppress my Rage and channel it into productive activity—especially after I stopped drinking.

(My mother never stopped drinking.)

And what about all the notes and business cards from the South American romeos who pursued my very pretty mother [after her divorce from the Greenwich, Connecticut, banker] when she was ensconced on an Argentine ranch with her married former college roommate ?

Who were these people?

My parents? !

What incalculable strangers!

 

Excerpt 35

It wore a red leather collar with a silver, engraved name tag: Theodore II.

Its seven feet  took up substantial real estate in our spacious den for forty-three years.

Its tail curled in an innocuous U,  as its beady, marble eyes searched the room.

Its mouth remained  ferociously open with serrated teeth.

Theodore II was a stuffed alligator, who had accompanied my mother home from her extended stay in Argentina long ago.

Excerpt 34

1957 

I remember the first and only time my father expressed physical affection toward me.

Nancy had gone out one night. He put me to bed, something which my mother never did. He read Sleeping Beauty to me from a worn-out book that I treasured. It was a strange shape—rectangular with a very long length and short width, the binding was gone, the pages were faded.

When he finished the story, he gently caressed my forehead and softly sang, “Good night, Ladies, Good night, Gentlemen, we’re going to leave you now.”

It was one of the best nights of my childhood. To this day, if a man gently caresses my forehead and hair, I begin to feel as though I were melting and experience emotional stirring.

Excerpt 33

I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted- living facility.

When I entered her house– with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)– I was horrified.

The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned.

Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied.

The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.

Excerpt 32

1967

Then the car crash, the close personal encounter with an enormous Mack

truck,  weeks in the hospital,  treatment for internal injuries, and a return to public school.

In the ambulance ride to the hospital, I prayed:  “Dear God, please let me die. Dear God, please let me die.”

He refused to listen.

My survival was a miracle; the Vista Cruiser station wagon was completely demolished.

My parents stopped by daily at the hospital  for about ten minutes on their way to  their restaurant dinner.

The nurse yelled at my mother:  “You are a terrible mother!  You brought nothing from home that your daughter needs—her own pajamas, robe, toothbrush, hairbrush, some books—anything to make her feel better!”

My mother refused my opportunity to speak with a psychiatrist.  She was afraid that I would reveal some of the family secrets.

The gossip. The rumors. My boyfriend dumped me because he wanted to date other girls. My horse died from colic.

My defeat was complete.

My seventeenth year was HELL, and it took its toll on me.

 

1966

 Nancy never told me anything about boys or sex.

Without any explanation, one night she dropped off a classmate  and me in front of a movie theater….

Albert Finney in the role of  Tom Jones cinematically introduced me to carnal pleasures.

###

Come to think of it…just about everything I knew about life as a young girl, I learned at the movies.

Excerpt 31

1977

Returned to New York yesterday with Thomas. Feel like I’m still on his Bertram yacht named Baby Max, christened after his son was born.

My equilibrium is off balance. Didn’t get seasick. Enjoyed the trip and could easily become addicted to that standard of living.

Didn’t really realize how wealthy Thomas was until lunch at Turnberry Isle with some other businessmen. Thomas is written up in The London Times as “the aging whiz kid.”

He’s a multimillionaire who pays low taxes, hunts for big game in Botswana, maintains homes in London; Buckinghamshire (country estate); Hamilton (Bermuda)—for tax reasons—and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

And he’s completely infatuated with me.

He sent his wife on a tour of China with his cousin while we “bummed around” Chubb Cay, Joulter’s Cay, Paradise Island, Nassau, Cat Island, and Bimini (where we visited a Hemingway drinking hangout).

The winds were strong the first day out, so Thomas sent the crew and boat ahead to Chubb Cay. He didn’t want to risk my getting seasick, so he chartered a Piper Cub from Red Aircraft in Ft. Lauderdale and we flew to Chubb. We didn’t sleep on the boat, even though it had three very comfortable bedrooms, but spent nights in the luxury rooms of private yacht clubs on our stopovers.

Last month, Thomas caught an enormous marlin near Chubb. This week, he caught an iridescent dolphin fish and an eight-foot sailfish.

The sports fishing techniques are interesting to watch, but the sight of bludgeoning the fish to death while blood sprays like waves against the bow was disgusting.

Learned about the designs of Haltars, Strykers, Hatterases, and Bertrams, and the dangers of the Gulf Stream, as well as voracious  pirates looking for cash and/or drugs.

Three loaded rifles were kept under the banquettes at all times.

 

 

Excerpt 30

My father always reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited.

 His aloofness, detachment, even the extended trip to Central America to sketch

and paint the Mayan architecture and coastal landscapes.

My father had his blond Sebastian, too, but it was a fully realized passionate, lengthy homosexual union. Even a cold, cruel father was in the picture. My Arkansas grandfather, the gruff, unhappy cotton farmer, the son of an alcoholic, relentlessly exerted his destructive influence over the emotional component of my father’s personality.

Robert seldom mentioned his childhood, but on one rare occasion—the only time he ever visited me alone in New York, he was en route to London to meet a client—he stated matter-of-factly, “My father did everything possible to destroy my self- confidence.”

It was the only personal conversation that we ever had. We were sitting in Mme. Romaine de Lyon’s restaurant and eating asparagus omelettes by a window with white lace curtains.

Was he aware that he and my mother flawlessly performed the same act upon me?

He also described a recurring dream that he had: He and my mother were standing in the yard of his childhood home in Cotton Fields, Arkansas.

“We’ve killed someone,” he calmly stated to my mother.

I guess he felt guilty about his treatment of me, or rather his infinite indifference. It was his way to apologize, the best that he could do, under his steely emotional armor.

My father made the decision—from the beginning—to sacrifice me, in order to save himself.

There was a truly pagan element of masochism, sadism, and self-destruction to the family dance of the Smiths.

This model gave me an uncanny ability to adapt to all the selfish monsters that would confront me, want to maintain a relationship with me, or exploit me.

Another time, in August, Robert pretended to crack the ice in the backyard birdbath, as my mother watched from a window. He wanted her to take him to a psychiatric hospital.

But it was all a trick; he wanted to get her into the looney bin! They never made it there. On the way to the hospital, she grabbed the steering wheel and wrecked the car.

So my father retreated once again into his basement office with the sawhorses, pigeon holes for blueprints, and shelves lined with art books and Gore Vidal novels. He began planning his next extended escape to Monhegan island, off the coast of Maine.