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 matter-of-fact 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.
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.