“I had felt it coming for days: I had been crouching inside the walls of my consciousness terrified to move too far or too violently in case they collapsed and left me looking at the wild beasts. In the pre-crisis days I feel like someone living in a paper house surrounded by predatory creatures. They believe the house is solid so they don't attack, but if I were to move they would see the walls flutter and collapse and they would be on to me in no time.” Margaret Drabble, A Summer Bird-Cage
The house was made of cement blocks, painted dingy white, and there was plastic covering all the windows. Behind the house was a sagging chicken house, surrounded by giant azalea bushes and woods with branches tangled with wisteria vines. I first went there on a beautiful fall day, the sunlight dropping through the dusty air and settling on the wild flowers and weeds that had taken over the back yard. The house was in the city, and the woods backed onto a major artery clogged with strip malls, but there was a remnant of the country feel from what had been a farm before urban sprawl swallowed it up. The neighborhood was iffy. Some of the houses were substantial enough but there were lots of tacky little cracker boxes that had been squeezed into the bare spaces between them. The house next door was the original farmhouse, and on the other side another small wood separated us from a quaint little cottage. I looked for every glimmer of beauty I could find and tried to forget the adult bookstore we had passed just a couple of blocks away.
My children ran around, getting burrs stuck on their clothes; “ beggars' lice” is what we called them when I was a kid. Bob wanted the house for the chicken coop. It had no water or electricity, but it was a large empty space, and he could make it into a studio. The house was a filthy mess inside, and I made the kids keep their shoes on and not touch anything in the kitchen, where the red linoleum counter was black with ancient grease and worn bare in places. That would be the first thing to go—after all the plastic that covered the windows for insulation. Every room was painted the same horrid green, the floors were linoleum over concrete, and the only heat source was an old oil burner in what became Bob's and my bedroom. The boys shared a room, and Saskia had her own room at the front of the house, where it was always cold. I spent the first weeks and months making the place habitable. Bob went off to teach and I painted, scrubbed, laid a new kitchen floor, put up wallpaper in all the bedrooms, and gradually added pieces of furniture found at flea markets and consignment shops.
Graduate school proved to be my salvation and the proximate cause of my divorce from Bob. The first year in Greensboro was not too bad. We joined the Unitarian Universalist church where we made friends and I became less lonely. It was good to feel a sense of belonging and to see my children making friends. There was no dogma to reject, no demands for any particular belief, and the company of intelligent people who were mostly, like me, refugees from more traditional religion was immensely comforting. But what had seemed so promising came to an abrupt end when Bob lost his job at G.C. Yet again, he had alienated his colleagues with his superior attitude and contempt for students he deemed unserious.
It was a stunning setback, and Bob's drinking increased as our financial situation became more precarious. I had taught high school for two years back in Greencastle before we moved to Canada, and I still had nightmares about it. I simply couldn't face the prospect of going back to that, and I was determined not to take on anything that would keep me away from the children for long hours. I was not about to put Saskia into one of the daycare centers that seemed to occupy every other block. These centers looked to me like prisons with their sun-baked playgrounds and regimentation. We applied to the pre-school at UNCG and were accepted, probably because we provided diversity with our mixed-race family. I applied to graduate school at the same time and began the long slog toward what would eventually result in a PhD in English.
I was excited but scared too. The course was contemporary American literature, something I was interested in and felt some competence in already. I had done well on the GRE and been awarded an assistantship; it wasn't a lot of money, but it would at least keep my family fed while Bob tried to sell his paintings. I sat in the middle of the front row, as I figured that's where eager students sit, and I was more than eager, especially when our professor entered the room and introduced the class. C. was about my age and gorgeous, tall, lanky, and bearded. I'd heard he'd been a basketball coach before getting a PhD and getting into college teaching, and he certainly didn't project the image of the typical effete English professor. Instead, he was a Hemingway character come to life, athletic, manly, and brilliant. I was gobsmacked, as the Irish like to say.
By the end of the first class I had a massive headache. When I learned everything we would have to do--write a 20-page term paper, give a 45 -minute oral presentation, take a mid-term and a comprehensive final—I thought, No way can I do all that. How can I possibly say anything new when there's a whole library filled with literary studies by other people far more learned and experienced than I? And yet, that's what we were told we would have to do. And how on earth would I ever be able to manage a 45-minute presentation on anything whatsoever? When I got home from that first night class, Bob was waiting at the door. I told him about the class, and he said, “Well, if it's going to make you sick, you should just quit.”
Ever since returning from France, I'd suffered from migraines, especially when under stress. The day I took the GRE I had a memorable one. In fact, many of my memories are anchored by those headaches. I remember them the way I remember the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion, with every surrounding detail crystal clear. I would not quit. I was afraid, but I knew I wanted to do this. I'd missed out on graduate school when David was born. Now I was older and ready to get serious in a way I hadn't been in my early twenties. It was a relief to go to school and think only about that, not whether I was going to have a date that weekend or all the distractions of undergrad life. Now I could focus and learn. I'd never dreamed I'd go to grad school, despite my father's constant urging. I liked being at home with the kids and writing short stories. I liked being free to read what I liked when I liked, not according to someone else's agenda, but I also wanted to know more, and I knew grad school was the place to find what I was looking for.
After that first class, I moved out of the front row. I needed a little distance from C’s intensity. He was as passionate about literature as I was and talked about it with the fervor of a Baptist preacher touched with fire. His classes were like a religious experience for me, and I would take more courses with him, be his teaching assistant for a semester, and have him on my dissertation committee, but that was still years away. I was nervous about getting back the first mid-term. I had written a lot and felt good about it, but I had no idea what to expect. When C stopped by my desk, my heart jumped. “Do you mind if I read your exam to the class?” he asked. And he did.
That evening changed everything for me. I'd done well. I'd done really well, and no one was more surprised than I was. Maybe I'd found something I could do with some competence after all. I hadn't been enthusiastic about being a copy editor, and I'd found teaching high school exhausting and frustrating, but I loved writing. That first A was like a shot of vitamin B12 to my intellectual system. I had succeeded on my own, not as my parents' daughter or my husband's wife or my children's mother but as myself. I was known for the work I did, my ideas, my writing, and best of all I was rewarded for those things. It was astounding.
I had always been able to compartmentalize my life. The fact that I was David's mother was the most salient fact about me, but I kept it completely separate. When I taught high school, I was one person at school, quite another at home with Bob and Tanner. I felt the strain of living a double life, but I'd done it for so long I didn't have to think much about it. I had my life at school, studying, getting to know my professors, absorbing knowledge that enlarged my soul, and I had my life at home, which was becoming more and more difficult. Money was tight, but that wasn't the worst of it.
I had class two nights a week and got home around 10:00. I was taking a writing workshop, and the class had a tradition of going to a local bar for a beer and conversation afterwards, but I couldn't go. Not once in two years of taking those workshops did I ever get to join that group of ambitious young writers. I felt left out and resentful, because it was Bob who prevented me from going. Every time I returned home, there he was, standing in the doorway, and if I was five minutes late he'd ask where I'd been. School became my escape, the place where I could be myself and be free for the hours I spent there. Bob sat in the dark in the bedroom, drinking one beer after another in an endless succession of pops every time he opened another can. The more pops, the more tricky I knew the night would be. If I was lucky, Bob would be asleep by the time I got to bed after tucking the children in; if he was still awake there was a 50-50 chance he would start an argument and I'd lose a night's sleep to silent tears and the anguish of being called a slut, a whore, an unsupportive and unloving wife. His words washed over me like scalding water, and how could I defend myself? It was all true; I had slept with someone else (albeit before I met Bob); I had given birth to a child that wasn't his. And he hated me for it. We read Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie one semester, and I saw myself in this bleak novel about the reverse rise and fall of a poor girl and her protector. As her fortunes improve, his decline into ruin. Who says literature is not life?
I bought a swing and set it up in the back yard, facing the chicken coop and the woods. If I hadn't been able to hear the traffic over on High Point Road I might have been lost in nature. In the spring the wisteria dropped heavy purple blooms from the trees and scented the air. The overgrown azaleas blazed against the weathered boards of the coop, and a gnarled crab apple tree sported pink and white blossoms. Spring and fall were the best times to sit in the swing, rocking and thinking, looking for peace that was too often elusive. I've always loved an early summer evening, when the day hovers near its end, the wind drops into stillness, and the birds settle down for the night. Dinner was over, the kids were inside watching TV, and I sat alone in the gathering dusk and tried to assess my life as a single mother with next to no money. Exhaustion and fear were my two companions, but for a few peaceful moments I could suspend myself in time. I'd borrowed enough money to get us through the summer. I knew I'd have to pay it back eventually, but for now I had the security of a fridge full of food and the promise of teaching in the fall. My children were safe, or so I believed, I had friends, I loved my work, but the future was a total blank.
I had once found a refuge in a small private high school in Ithaca, and now I had found another in this mid-sized southern university. I basked in my professors' regard and found my feet as a teacher. Teaching college students was so different from teaching younger kids. At first I was still young enough to feel closer to my students than to their parents, and being a parent myself made me more tolerant of their immaturity. Being a mother made me a better teacher, and in later years, when I was old enough to be my students' mother and then grandmother, I found an outlet for my maternal impulses in the classroom. My mother, consummate teacher that she was, always said you couldn't be a good teacher if you didn't love the kids. I didn't love my eighth-graders, but I came to love many of my college students and took a maternal pride in their achievements. Children never fully realize how much their parents love them, and students never understand just how much they mean to their teachers. The best student-teacher relationship is based on love, certainly not on fear.
Having a baby opens you up like nothing else. We now know that a mother and her fetus exchange cells during pregnancy, cells that replicate and form a literal physical connection. When you have a baby, part of your physical being goes with him, and the emotional connection is equally real. When I was pregnant with each of my children, they created a space in me that no one but they could fill. I've lost both parents; I've divorced two husbands; I've parted from close friends and while I miss them all, I am no less whole because of their absence. Losing David made me less whole and left a space that nothing else and no one else could ever fill, though I would try repeatedly in my relationships with men. Tanner and Saskia created new, unique spaces in me that fit only them, but the emptiness where David should have been persisted. I thought, though at an unconscious level, that adopting Dabbs would fill that space, but Dabbs came to me, not from me. I loved him with the same muscles with which I loved my husbands, lovers, or friends, but not with the same muscles I exercised with Tanner and Saskia. I was so hungry for love.
My second husband was initially my professor, my dissertation director, in fact. Here was the quintessential English professor with the beard and leather patches on the sleeves. All he needed was a pipe to complete the look. A marvelous lecturer, a charming dinner companion, and a lover of women, M had his own demons in the form of a difficult wife and two sons who tested their parents' every nerve. M’s mother died of tuberculosis very soon after he was born prematurely. It's doubtful she ever even saw him. He was raised by his father and aunt until his father remarried and had two more sons. When he was 14 his father died, and his stepmother soon decided to ship him off to elderly relatives in the North Carolina mountains. So M grew up without a mother, never really wanted, an inconvenience to be passed along to whoever would be willing to take him. He was a needy, weak man who masked his deficiencies beneath a mask of bonhomie and brilliance. His appeal was to a certain kind of woman who was intelligent, romantic, and motherly, and he was notorious for having affairs. He preferred married women, because, as he put it, there was less likelihood of complications.
Once the word spread in the English department that I was separated, he invited me to lunch. I was flattered and told him that wasn't necessary, but he insisted. He knew me as a student, now he made an effort to know me in other ways. He was fifteen years older than I, and I was more than a little in awe of him. When he lectured, he sounded not unlike Morgan Freeman, with a drawl that was more aristocratic than southern. The lunch was pleasant. He asked me to address him by his first name and invited me to have dinner with him the next week, as his wife would be out of town. As I drove to meet him that night, I knew I was going to begin an affair with him. It was a deliberate decision, not a surge of desire. I was so fucking lonely, so scared, so tired of coping that an affair with a distinguished older man seemed an escape of a kind. I didn't want to introduce a step-father into my children's lives. Dabbs was a challenge I couldn't expect any man to take on, and a very private relationship met my needs of the moment.
It began with the appearance of innocence. We went in my car to a park near my house, where we shared a picnic lunch. I wanted to get out and sit on the grass, but M wanted to stay in the car, so we did. He had brought along a small book of poetry, Philip Larkin, I believe it was, and he read me some of his favorite poems. Larkin is a favorite of mine; I love his despairing realism. He writes beautiful poems about sorrowful things, making the tragedies of life, large and small, into something bearable. Being in M’s company, I felt alive in ways I had all but forgotten, as if a film I'd been watching had suddenly shifted into 3-D. In the beginning, the effervescence lasted from one meeting to the next, but it wasn't long before the weight of absence began to outweigh the delirium of his presence. The two cancelled each other out, so that I only felt alive and whole when I was with him. I no longer inhabited my own life and mind and instead needed him, it seemed, even to breathe. This, I thought, is true love. It was passion, for sure, but as for love? I'm no longer sure. Surely real love grows with time and makes a place where breath comes easy and trust replaces anxiety.
I had six wonderful years with M before he left his wife. We'd go out to dinner and go away for the weekend when his wife was away. We even managed a trip to England once. He was solicitous, a brilliant conversationalist, and I learned so much from him. I'd had a pretty decent education in art history from Bob, and now I had my own personal resource for my passion, English literature. Once again, I was in the position of adoring acolyte, the younger woman absorbed in her man and his interests, only this time his interests were the same as mine. M didn't know as much about art as I did, but he knew more about music and literature, and I soaked up everything he could teach me.
I tried to keep my affair secret, especially from my children, but I failed miserably. In no time at all Dabbs and Saskia figured out what was up, and I assume Tanner did as well. Still, we all persisted as if nothing were going on at all. My entire life was a lie. I had a child and my children had a brother, and no one knew. I was in love with a man who wasn't free, who was in fact off limits in all sorts of ways. It was a continuation of the duplicity I'd been living with since I was pregnant with David. I was steeped in subterfuge. I hated it, but I could see no other way.
M’s wife often went to France for several weeks in the summer, and one summer M and I took a week to fly out to Missouri to revisit his aunt's farm and the small town where he'd grown up and his father had owned a sawmill. It was a bleak little place with a main street that might have been prosperous in the 1930s but was now run-down and empty. It was obvious that the Burger King and McDonald's on the edge of town was where the action was. M was in his sixties when we made this trip, and now that I am approaching seventy, I understand his need to revisit the past, to reorient himself in relation to the boy he'd been, to solidify his sense of himself. I became his audience, his witness. Here was where the old sawmill stood and here the house his father built, the biggest in town for many years. There was his aunt's farm, the house missing the front porch he remembered but the old barn still standing.
We visited the old swimming hole, now a fish hatchery, and while we were there M stumbled and fell on the gravel path. He hurt his arm badly and was sure it was broken, so I drove him in our rental car to the local hospital emergency room. M was quite shaken and insisted I stay with him while he had his arm X-rayed. He seemed that day not like the robust bon vivant I'd fallen in love with but like a little lost boy. If I had truly loved him, I would have been happy to gather him up and soothe him with attention. I was kind enough, but his weakness frightened me. I would realize later than this weakness was more than a passing wobble; it lay at the core of his character, and it would be the ruin of us. A few years later, after we were married, I had to have cataract surgery. He drove me to the surgical center but refused to come in with me. A nurse assured me my husband was welcome to remain with me during the preliminaries, but he stayed outside in the parking lot, and I made his excuses. His neurotic fear of doctors was stronger than his concern for me, and I never really forgave him for it.
That day in the park, I had felt poised at the edge of a great adventure. I believed fulfilment was to be mine after all, and I would possess something rare and precious, something lesser spirits could never know. And so began the years of delusion. I had my life of children, work, house, visits with family, anxiety about money and uncertainty about the future. That was real. And I had brief spurts of passion on hot summer afternoons when my kids were at the pool or chance weekends out of town, where a motel bed could seem to contain everything I could ever want. I lived in an unreal place, and like a drug addict who knows he's destroying himself and those he loves, I couldn't bear my own existential solitude. I couldn't sit alone, peacefully, with my own thoughts. I had no peace, only the emotional high of attraction that, if not more real than the bulk of my days, gave me at least the illusion of meaningful connection.
Sometimes I tormented myself by imagining that I'd found a job in another city and had to move away. How could I ever bring myself to get in my car with my belongings in a U-Haul truck and my children in the back seat and pull out of my driveway for the last time? I knew I couldn't do it. I wanted a true home, with my love and my life in the same abode, and so after six years of stolen weekends and a secret trip to England, I told M I was going to marry another man, an Israeli stockbroker I'd been seeing who wanted to marry me and rescue me from poverty, insecurity, and loneliness. He was a nice man, and I really thought I would marry him. I was so unhappy and desperate that marriage to a man I didn't love seemed a reasonable solution. It was very doubtful that M would ever leave his wife. I decided to jump ship and make for shore, not believing for a moment that he would make any effort to follow me. But he did.
After 30 years of an unhappy marriage, punctuated by horrific fights that dismayed their neighbors and no doubt scarred their sons, M left his wife and his big house and his place in his social world to move in with me and my fifteen-year old daughter. Two weeks later, I knew I had made a terrible mistake, but it would take me six more years to rectify it.
M had told me about a Spanish dish that was baked with an egg on top of each serving. Everything was supposed to cook through, but the yolk of the egg was meant to remain runny. I carefully followed the recipe, threw together a green salad, opened a bottle of wine and called everyone to the table. M sat at the head with Saskia on his right and me on his left. He lifted his fork and stuck it into the steaming dish. The yolk was hard. He slammed the fork down and pounded his two fists on the table, making the cutlery jump. Saskia and I stared at each other in silence. M told me his wife had said he preferred things to people, and now I believed her.
Life for M was a series of performances, and he demanded a particular backdrop. It required his worn leather couch and chair, a library full of books, reproductions of dark English landscapes, and a rack of pipes on his over-sized desk. M knew all about the accoutrements of a gracious life; what he lacked was the capacity to inhabit his own soul without the scaffolding of a strong woman to hold him up. He was a wonderful man to have an affair with, but as a husband he was a cipher.
Between us we managed to transform my house into something that more closely resembled the aesthetic retreat M required. We built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in what had been the garage, put in carpet over the oil-stained cement, and replaced the broken garage door with a wall and a French door. We did the work ourselves, taking a year and a half of weekends and holidays to accomplish it. When I had threatened to marry my stockbroker—with every intention of following through—M promised me a whole list of life-changing things, including a new house in a better neighborhood. Perhaps if we had moved, and I had not felt imprisoned with no chance of reprieve in that house of Bob's choosing, we might have managed to stay together. He might not have spent his last years alone in that dreadful house or suffered a chill, when the power went out in a winter storm, that hastened his death. I feel responsible for that. I can't help identifying with Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch (incidentally M’s favorite character in all literature) and her escape from Casaubon. My identification with literary heroines, Hester Prynne being another, is probably what led me to think life could be a dramatic plot and my pursuit of the seminal event, the fatal moment, the intensity of what can only be fleeting, a genuine modus vivendi.
As it turned out, M didn't have the comfortable income his former life in his old neighborhood had indicated. He was, in fact, far more deeply in debt than I ever knew until after our divorce and his death. There would be no new house, no trips abroad, no money for my daughter's education. He could put a complete set of Wedgewood china, a new couch, materials for the study, and a bust of Verdi on a credit card, but I continued paying the mortgage and the utilities and bought our food. Mac was always very generous with the extras; it was with the basics where he fell short.
If I had truly loved my first two husbands, I believe I would have accepted the alcoholism and the congenital weakness as a burden to be shared. As it was, I withdrew into a self-protective shell. I could go through the motions; I was adept at that. But once I admitted the truth to myself, that these men were not who they claimed to be, that like the Great Oz they hid behind a curtain of pretense, I could no longer admire and therefore could no longer love. Even Bob had recognized that admiration has to precede love, and when I lost respect for my second husband, I once again had to amend my life.
What does it mean to act selfishly? How can we be sure our actions are justified? Is making excuses to ourselves the best we can do? I tried to act unselfishly when I relinquished David, a decision I have always bitterly regretted. Had I been more selfish would our lives have been better, less damaged? I acted selfishly when I took M away from his family. I told myself at the time that I was rescuing him from decades of unhappiness and a shrewish wife, whom he stayed with because he was too weak to leave. I think he didn't want to die with her, which would be to die essentially alone. He was getting older, prematurely older, and he wasn't confident of finding another woman to console him. That had been so easy for him in his youth. Now here I was, the last of a long line of adoring women who tried to love him enough to fill his emptiness, to prop up his weakness. He told me he wanted to die in my arms, and I felt as if he were trying to pull me into the grave with him. I had to get away while there was still time, before he had a stroke or heart attack and I was stuck for years nursing a man who had lied to me, spent money frivolously on things we couldn't afford—the marble bust of Verdi from Italy being one example—and failed to get me out of a house I hated. Now, after five years of marriage, I was about to leave him to his own devices. I had acted selfishly when I took up with him and I acted selfishly when I left him. In both cases I felt close to spiritual death, so I saved myself. I couldn't save Bob, and I couldn't save M, but should marriage be a matter of rescue? Perhaps what frightened me about these two men was recognition, not of their weakness but of my own.