A long time ago, when I was very young and thin and blond and broke—poor, actually—I had a disastrous love affair with a married diplomat, a consul, from a Fascist country. And, thinking back, I am not sure which aspect of this description gives me the most remorse: his marriage or his politics. His wife, was, of course, allowed to hear all about it and eventually suffered some sort of breakdown, also, his oil-rich country has got much worse—more Fascist.
In those days I had three small children, girls, a little alimony and child support, and a demanding, senseless job in a nursery school, which paid for the girls’ tuition; it did not occur to me that a better job would have done the same, with possibly some left over. Besides, in a general way I don’t much like children, and I was always catching their colds.
My affair with Henry did not improve my life (having gone to school in England, he had become a passionate Anglophile, and had anglicized his Middle Eastern name)—although while it lasted I felt myself irradiated, even enobled with the grandeur of our passion. And I really believed that we would divorce his wife, as he said he would, and that we would return to his country and together would work for the underground.
We met at a large party to which I had gone in a borrowed black chiffon dress—a dress doubly deceptive: first, in not being mine, and second, in being so bare that I did not know what to wear under it and so wore nothing, a thing not generally done at that time, and no doubt making me look both more provocative and more available than in fact I was.
And I fell in love with Henry at least partly because that night at dinner he said something very funny. (Thus, from the beginning, we were operating on false premises: I never wore the dress again, having returned it to its owner, a friend—and Henry was not truly a wit.) What Henry said was on the subject of marriage; he said, “The first time I married, it was all arranged by our parents, and it was terrible. The second time we began by being madly in love, and it became much worse.” Instead of laughing and falling in love, I should have listened, and I also might have paid attention to the fact that he was still involved in that terrible second marriage, which had recently given him his third son. (Why should he leave for a mother of daughters?)
Henry was dark and handsome, with a romantic, Charles Boyer voice, but also short—about my height—and fat. In fact, one of his most romantic remarks, I thought at the time, was his declaration, “I feel that your body was exactly formed for mine.” Looking back it seems likely that he was saying that if I too had been fat we would have been out of luck.
The practical difficulties in our connection were enormous, as is so often the case in these affairs. If I had called in sick, sending the girls off to school with a neighbor (making the bed with clean sheets, bathing and perfuming myself and preparing a festive lunch), it would turn out that Henry could not come that day. (“My darling, it is not possible that I arrive. I will do everything to come tonight.”) Or, at night, there was always the problem of getting the children to sleep, so that we could make love.
And for me the relationship was expensive. For Henry’s sake, I kept good Scotch around and imported delicacies for midnight snacks. Henry thought all this wonderful of me; propped up in bed, after love, he relished the smoked salmon, the Caerphilly or Camembert, and he praised my thoughtfulness, but it would not have occurred to him to buy and bring those things himself. I do not think that he was a stingy person; he simply could not imagine a lack of money, especially in someone he loved—a failure seemingly indigenous to the very rich. And I myself was a little nutty about money at that time—or rather, it now seems, ridiculously high-minded: on the infrequent occasions when we went out, I refused to let him pay the babysitter, and once, when he had borrowed a ten-dollar bill, which was literally all I had, to pay for a taxi that he had carelessly kept waiting, I would have died rather than remind him to repay me, which he of course forgot to do.
And so we went on for a year or so, exquisite intensity alternating with much longer days of dullness, of dark dull longing to be together.
Then it was over. On a black day in January, after a week of silent separation, Henry came over to say that, finally, he would not leave his wife: she had been making scenes, she had such a temper, how could he leave his children—his sons— with such a woman? And besides she might kill herself. He also said that he was leaving our city for a post in South America in April.
I suffered desperately, wrackingly, seemingly without end. I neglected my children and cried a lot and was unable to eat. But surely too much has been said about that variety of pain? At last I recovered; to say that I got over Henry is inaccurate: how can one “get over” a person, or over a great love?
I was greatly helped by the kind friends who would listen to my daily lamentations. And by the change of weather, from winter to a lovely new spring. By the time Henry left, in May, not April—he seemed constitutionally unable to carry out a promise—I was my old self, whoever that was, more or less.
And then, startlingly, I was offered a very good job as the manager of a bookstore that a friend had recently bought as a tax shelter. The generous salary almost forced me to accept, although I knew enough about bookstores, being a devotee, to be terrified; I knew that working in one would involve a great deal more than pleasantly bookish conversations with super-literate people. It turned out to be even harder and more demanding than I had thought; largely out of panic I worked incredibly hard, I became good at the work, I earned my salary. And it was nice to be solvent, even comfortable, with the girls all settled in schools I could afford and all of us wearing new clothes.
I must, though, in a way, still have borne wounds from Henry (quite possibly I bear them still) because the next man who entered my life was a sort of combined imitation-rebellion-revenge—of, from, and upon Henry, In fact, I have noticed this pattern in myself and in the affairs of some of my friends, that a major love affair will be followed by a minor one, the two being related to each other. Once, mortally scarred by a man named Richard, I found another Richard, quite uninteresting in himself, but he gave me the excruciating pleasure-pain of repeating that dangerous name,
Henry’s replacement, then, was a man named Lester Baine, who had in common with Henry only the fact of being married.(Perhaps that is partly what drew me? I would prefer not to think so; still, there it is. In any case that is something that I would never again do to another woman, having since suffered some of that painful indignity myself, from Richard.)
Lester wandered in off the street, shyly looking for a book— a book that I too liked, but now I cannot remember its title, so minor was Lester’s final imprint on my life. He was as American as his name, trim and blue-eyed, curly brown hair—not my type, but as handsome as a basketball star. His manner was mild and hesitant, a little sad. He played a lot of tennis, he said, and was involved in the Little League, with his son. It sounded a little silly to me, but at the same time endearing, perhaps a relief from Henry and his fat Fascist Middle-Eastern intensity. Lester said, somewhat sadly, that his wife owned and ran a chain of restaurants, and that she earned more money than he did—Lester had an art gallery, up the street. He also mentioned that she had put on some weight; at the time I did not know he meant 200 pounds—she was a sitcom whale of a wife.
Lester took to dropping in at the store, and we became mild friends, talking about books, His reading habits were gluttonous, actually, he read everything—but if he was somewhat indiscriminate in his taste, he was also retentive. I was truly startled when, one afternoon, he announced that he was madly in love with me—he could not live without me. I must admit that I was also cheered; I had thought that after Henry I would not be loved again.
So, soon enough, Lester and I were engaged in a love affair, of sorts, although from the start I was in a sense braced against him. Not, however, in any way that he could have suspected: my behavior was impassioned, suggesting a violent love—how could he have known that I was imitating myself, myself with Henry? I also consciously imitated certain scenes that had taken place with Henry: I insisted on a picnic in a secluded corner of our city park, insisted on making love among some willows, in full view of a group of ducks (probably the same ones.) We had dinner in the same out-of-the-way restaurants.
Lester was, as the phrase goes “good in bed,” not in the frantic, desperate style of Henry’s lovemaking, but in his own warm and patient way he was nice. Another surprise: I had been sure that after Henry I would be frigid.
There was one bizarre fact about Lester, however, which was at first inexplicable: after we had made love, in the region where Lester’s upper torso had been, I would discover peculiar dark brown stains on my pale blue sheets (sheets bought in the old days, for Henry.) Lester was visibly an extremely clean person—this made no sense. But at last, scrutinizing his exposed body in the harsh makeup lamp on my dressing table, I discovered that he had dyed the hair on his chest—a fact that I was unable not to mention. Henry could have turned my sheets purple, or black, before I would have said a word, but now—”Lester, you’ve dyed your chest!” I cried out.”Well yes,” he not-quite-sheepishly admitted.”It was getting sort of grey, and Rosie thought”—Fat Rosie, at home in the suburbs, whom Lester had begun to mention divorcing—it was all her fault.
I was, in fact, so alert to Lester’s deficiencies that I more or less passed over his obvious virtues; his gentleness, intelligence and learning, his exceptionally well-formed and well-kept-in-shape body.
And, at last, I sent him a note that ended it all, our silly affair, to which I added this postscript: “The last time we went out for dinner you borrowed five dollars from me.”
That was the last of Lester for the moment. And he was the last married man in my life, as Henry was the last (and only) Fascist. And, after those rather trying years, everything seemed to improve for me. Strangely, for one who had been so prudish about money, I discovered in myself a talent for business—for the book business, anyway: I was soon managing another, larger store, in a more promising part of town, away from Lester and his gallery. The girls grew older and nicer and more interesting, less demanding. I settled down with an on-the-whole exceptionally nice man.
Then, a year or so ago, I found that I was working too hard, spending too much time at the store, and so I advertised for part-time help. And I hired the first young woman who applied.
Susanna West, about ten years younger than I—dark and somewhat wispy, nearly beautiful. A little tired, but clear-eyed, honest, unusually forthright.”I’m not actually very literary,” she said, “I haven’t read too much. I’m a painter, and I’ve been busy at that. But I can learn most things.”
She did learn; she was quick and serious and efficient. I felt some protectiveness toward her, which no doubt arose from my habit of being a mother to daughters—and it was quite unnecessary, she being fully as competent, as equipped for life as I.
Generally, on the days that I was there, we shared sandwiches and instant coffee. And we talked. Becoming friends.
“I really liked working with books,” one day Susanna said. “I used to work in an art gallery, and that didn’t work out at all. For several reasons.”
Since this is a small city, of course, it turned out that Susanna had worked in Lester Baine’s gallery. I said that I knew him, had worked near there, and we exchanged various mildly critical remarks about Lester. Susanna mentioned his deep necessity to be liked, which led him to make impossible promises to artists. This talk went back and forth, until Susanna said, with a lift of her small chin, “As a matter of fact I had an affair with him. Really stupid. It went on for about a year.”
And before I could stop myself I said, “So did I.”
We looked at each other for a minute before we both laughed, and Susanna said, “Well!”
I added quickly, “That was a long time ago, and it didn’t last long. I’m sure it wasn’t important for Lester either.”
In her serious way, which made me sorry I had sounded unserious, Susanna said, “Well, it was sort of important to me. He said he was going to leave Rosie—remember poor fat Rosie? and I believed him. I think she has some sort of heart condition, and once he said he hoped she’d die. He said it so intensely that I believed him. Didn’t you?” She gave me a steady dark-eyed look.
“I was more or less inoculated,” I told her, and I explained about Henry. She listened with sympathetic interest and concern. A few laughs.”After Henry I never believe what people say they are going to do until it’s done,” I told her.
“After Lester I’d never have anything to do with a married man,” Susanna said.”I wouldn’t do that to another woman, not even Rosie.”
(So much for Lester’s unwitting contribution to feminism.)
I went home that night full of angry anti-Lester thoughts. How could he have so lied and wasted the time of an extraordinary girl? I had seen some of Susanna’s paintings; she was indeed extraordinary. And he was such an ordinary man. At some point it occurred to me that what Susanna had experienced was possibly still remarkable, despite Lester—beauty being in the eye, after all, not necessarily in its object. But this, although interesting as a concept, and very likely true, was not much comfort. What concerned me were Susanna’s feelings, How, after all, would I have felt if someone had told me that Henry had been for her a minor love, an interim affair?
And so I approached the next conversation about Lester, which, of course, took place the next time I saw Susanna, in an apologetic way—apologetic both for Lester and myself.
“You know,” I said, from my ten years’ superior wisdom, “Lester probably meant it, in part of his mind, about leaving Rosie for you. He probably could see himself married to a thin talented woman, but he finally just wasn’t up to leaving her.”
She considered this. “You could be right,” she said. “But wouldn’t that be true of Henry too? He could imagine living dangerously with you, leading a resistance movement?”
Is this what unconsciously I had meant? In any case my heart leapt forward gratefully, old wounds having been to some degree soothed.”Maybe,” I said, meaning Yes.
“Anyway,” Susanna said, “I really wasn’t all that serious about Lester. It was more a stupid feeling that it was time for me to get married—and there he was, saying that’s what he wanted too. In fact,” she went on, “he was sort of a preparation for David—David was the man I really cared about.”
And she told me something about David, who although unmarried (and not a fascist—in fact, a civil rights lawyer) had been in his effect as devastating as Henry had been for me,
“Well, Lester the way-station. Just a sex object,” I said at last, and we both laughed.
Then Susanna said, “Lucky for me I never met Henry, right?”
“But you wouldn’t have believed him, you would have spotted a fake right away.” Saying this I knew it to be absolutely true.
We both pondered this melange of wisdom, insight, and gossip, and then, surprisingly, Susanna laughed.”At least I got Lester to stop dying the hair on his chest,” she said.”Was he doing that when you knew him? Lord, what a mess! I told him I couldn’t afford the laundry bills.”