I had a lot common with Elizabeth. I understood her. Or I thought I did. I told her many times she had the soul and temperament of an artist. But in the three years of our marriage I never saw her make a serious commitment to her writing, or even to her music. She wrote regularly in her journals, but only short, impatient scrawls. She superficially examined her string of failed relationships. Like for instance with Bob.
Why, she asked herself, was she was unable to see he was a sociopath? For an entire year he’d been the perfect lover. His care, attention, genuine kindness and thoughtfulness made her fall deeply and permanently in love with him. And then out of the blue he announced that he’d just decided to move into a more “open” kind of relationship. Like, uh, polygamy. In fact, he was currently seeing Nancy and Louise. And, as a delegate at the upcoming Anarchist slash Political Activist Convention in Paris, he will be sleeping with Nicole, an aristocratic intellectual. It was all arranged. And if Elizabeth didn’t like it, he said perfectly calmly, she could just get the fuck out. She scribbled: “How could I have been so blind?” And that’s where she left it. An unanswered question.
Neil, her first true love, was an accomplished artist, yet she never wrote in her journal or spoke about what kind of paintings he made. After Neil she married Richard, a freelance photographer. Yet she never talked with me about art, nor did she ever show an interest to go with me to a gallery or a museum.
We had one recurring discussion, though. She often quoted Richard’s belief that fashion photography—the slick stuff you see in Vogue and Elle—was art. Each time I told her no, that wasn’t true. It was, rather, improper art, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in Portrait defines it. Proper art arrests one in the moment, like a gorgeous sunset. Improper art moves one to some action or desire. Like propaganda, or pornography.
Elizabeth was cold to what I said, and I wondered if it was because she disliked wordy pedantry, or because she didn't like to see her ex-husband—heretofore the photographic expert—so easily refuted.
In her journal she made lists of the men she’d been involved with, and noted who in the end dumped whom. With the exception of Bob, she was the master at dumping. As soon as a man made too many emotional demands, she threw him out.
When I raised hell about feeling lonely during our honeymoon at the lake, she tried to reassure me. She said she really loved me. “Oh, don’t worry, John, I just get in dark moods when the moon’s full, you know?”
On New Year’s Eve, 1992, after my reading aloud "The Dead" from Dubliners, she led me to her bedroom and we had prolonged raunchy sex, until we finally collapsed. When we awoke I said something about how happy I was being back in a relationship, and she said whoa. Hold it right there, buddy.
Her message was blunt, and cold: “You may have given me oral sex last night, and all that, but don't think for a second it means you have any claim on me, or that I have any obligation to you.”
But I wanted to have a claim on her, and I desperately wanted her to want me too. Given her history I knew this wasn’t likely to happen, but I jumped in anyway. I figured it was worth a shot. Just like going to Vegas. You know you’re going to lose, but then on the other hand you just MAY get lucky.
Inevitably, she added me to her long list of rejects. I had to smile. Each man thinks he is “…first, last, only and alone,” but that’s just a cosmic joke.
Could it be that Wild Bill, her father, had something to do with her neurotic inability to connect with me or anyone else? (Maybe I should do a Google search on “father issues,” or maybe go to the Popular Psychology Magazine’s website for some insight.)
When Elizabeth and I arrived at her parents’ house one Thanksgiving she and Wild Bill didn’t hug or kiss in greeting. No, they shook hands in faux formality. It was supposed to look like irony, a breezy little joke. But it wasn’t really, because they never exchanged physical affection of any kind. Ever. Their ridiculous handshake was what passed for a father/daughter relationship. She didn’t understand why I took great offense when she started to shake MY hand. “I’m your husband, for Christ’s sake,” I said.
At the dinner table with the turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes and mince meat pie, Elizabeth was chattering away, until the old man gave her a hard stare. She and mom and the others fell silent, they knew what was coming. “You’ve got it all backwards, Liz,” Wild Bill said. “Your nose runs and your feet smell.” He quickly grinned. Just a friendly little joke, ha ha ha.
* * *
Toward the end of our last summer together she was morose. It was for her an important anniversary. I quizzed her about it. She didn’t like to talk of those days. Better I should just read what she’d written. It was a long letter to her daughter, Elizabeth. The one she’d given up for adoption. She’d printed it out using pica type, single spaced.
Here it is:
Mr. Quigley called the paperwork “relinquishment.” Release. Part with a possession or right. Surrender. Yield to the control of another. Waive. Do without or cease to hold or adhere to. Foreswear. Turn away from. Give up. Let go of. Release. As from one’s tight white-knuckled grip.
Mr. Quigley gave me a pen. A banal Bic. Didn’t the occasion warrant a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Le Grand with a platinum inlaid 14K gold nib?
No. Just a ball point, cheap transparent plastic, see the thin black rod? My dark evil blood.
I labored to check boxes and scribble out answers to endless questions. I felt no strength in my hand, my fingers. I trembled. Can such shaky handwriting and all those illegible signatures actually be legally binding? Could they be evidence of emotional coercion, and grounds for a later appeal?
Mr. Quigley, the consummate bureaucrat, displayed no pity, no sympathy. You know what they say. He was just doing his job.
He pushed the forms across the desk, one after another. Educational history. Hobbies. My general health. Allergies. Previous surgeries. Your father’s, too. Detailed physical descriptions of both of us, so that you could be matched comfortably with your adoptive parents.
I’m an ectomorph. Your father is a mesomorph.
Dr. William H. Sheldon’s theory of somatypes. I’m fragile, thin, relatively flat chested, delicately built, have a young appearance, am tall, lightly muscled, sometimes stoop-shouldered (when I’m depressed, which is often), and, thank God, have a large brain. My eyes are deep dark brown.
Neil, your father, is athletic. He has a hard, muscular body, looks mature (even though he isn’t at all), has an upright posture and thick skin (he never feels any of my complaints). His eyes are blue. Women of all ages and classes instantly fall in love with him. He can’t stop flirting, even when he’s beside me. No, he is not in Mr. Quigley’s office to help me with the relinquishment. He’s out in the parking lot in his white pickup truck. It smells of oil and pot. He’s taking a nap.
I prefer that you be adopted by a Protestant family because I was raised a Methodist. Your father doesn’t care for religion, organized or otherwise. His gods are dope and sex. And he has a great talent for oil painting, which he picked up when he was in the Navy in Vietnam. He lives with his parents, until he can get on his feet. There is nothing in my refrigerator. Sometimes he brings me sandwiches. Hot dogs.
Friday, August 27, 2115 hours EDT. Your father and I are on a narrow bed. I am eating a Hershey’s chocolate bar with almonds, watching “The Planet of the Apes.” Your father is snoring. The contractions begin.
After being admitted, I am wheeled on a gurney into a dim room. “Here, honey,” the nurse says, handing me two pills and a paper cup of water. But an hour later I’m still awake, the pain is too great. I repeatedly push the button at the end of the cord. The nurse comes in. Did she give me two more pills? I don’t remember.
When light comes in through the window I have been awake for 24 hours, no food or drink. Not permitted for women in labor. I tell the resident—or was he an intern?—that the pain is driving me crazy. He gives me Demerol. I prefer to call it meperidine, me PER i deen. I expect oceanic warmth and peace, but soon I’m disoriented and nauseated.
Saturday, August 28, 1700 hours EDT. I have been awake 30 hours. I’m dilated 9 cm. My contractions accelerate in frequency and strength. Every two minutes, lasting a minute and a half.
In the middle of this I get a crazy, dangerous, exciting idea. Like a glimmer that doesn’t disappear, but becomes brighter.
If I’m lubricated and slick and slippery I can provide you an easier passage. I know it’s taboo, and even perverse. It has to be. But I think of sex with your father, early on, when it was so good. I feel you suddenly move downward inside me. Involuntarily I pinch my clit, and I’m surprised that the burning sensation is relieved. I feel a delicious spreading apart of my muscles and bones and soul.
A voluptuous penetration. A burning pain! But I pinch my clit again. O. Then caress it. O. O. O.
A spiraling ascent. My oiled slick vulva. You. There. Mine.
I breathe deep and fast and harder and harder, and I float. Adrenaline. Oxytocin, a torrent of hormones. My nipples are erect. My uterus contracts, I thrust and thrust, as if up against him.
Finally you slide out. A long, slick spiraling umbilical slithers out too. The blood on my thighs and on the sheet is as dark and thick as your father’s crimson oil paint.
Someone cuts the cord. The nurse uses a big blue rubber ball syringe to clear your throat and flared nostrils. You cough, then wail. They clean you, wrap you in a fuzzy blanket, and lay you on my tummy. I hold you. Gaze into your eyes. Brown. Mine. Not your father’s, as I somehow had expected. You are beautiful. I open the blanket, count your toes, your fingers. Breathe in your sweet smell.
The nurse takes you away.
Wednesday, the sixth of October, 1976, is the last day I am permitted to visit you at St. Joseph’s. I ask your father to drive, because I can’t. His ’65 Ford pickup has a clutch and a stick shift. I don’t know how. He sighs. This visiting is not a good idea, he says. I ignore him. We find a spot in the parking lot. Again, he won’t go in with me. He’ll wait there in the truck.
Mr. Quigley’s office. I sit down. We wait. He rustles his paperwork. He staples some pages together. He looks in a desk drawer. Slams it shut. Mr. Quigley is a jowly tub of lard. An endomorph.
A nun in full black robed and white starched linen regalia enters with a yellow bundle, hands it over to me. She’s smiling, I don’t know why.
You’re wearing a yellow dress and white socks with a frill of lace. You have your father’s light blonde curly hair and your features from forehead to the tip of your nose are his as well, but then the little cleft beneath your nose and your small silky chin are mine.
You begin to cry loudly. It’s Mr. Quigley’s tensor lamp, shining harshly into your eyes. I reach over, angrily push it aside. He looks annoyed. I don’t care.
My tears seem to distract you for a moment, but you resume your wailing. I know it isn’t the lamp that angers you. It’s really because I am holding you gingerly, like a mere visitor, and soon-to-be stranger.
Why are you doing this to me, mommie?
You reach out and take hold of my hair. Your tiny dimpled fist is surprisingly strong.
Mr. Quigley glances at the clock. It’s time. The nun takes you out of the room.
It’s the last time I saw you.
Now, twenty years later, my sweet Ellizabeth, I have just a few observations.
One, my remorse is chronic. Permanent. At my core is a black void that sucks in and obliterates all matter, energy, and time. But I never speak or write about this because words are laughable. Let’s write or talk about something entirely more manageable, like uh…The Kentucky Derby! Ma always comes to visit me on Derby Day, no matter where I’m living, and we watch the race on TV. It’s our ritual, which we’ve unfailingly observed each year. Ma knows about her grand-daughter Elizabeth, but only because my sister told her, not too long afterward. We don’t ever speak of those days.
Two, I might have spared myself two decades of constant torment—and whatever anguish you may have endured learning of my abandonment—if I had followed through on plans for an abortion. When the time came to go with my friend Sally to New York, I said forget it. It wasn’t on religious grounds or because I believed an embryo was the same as a walking, breathing person. But rather because getting the procedure would be an acknowledgement that I was pregnant. I was in profound denial, and I intended to stay that way. Big mistake. But then don’t get the idea that I now wish my daughter was dead. I don’t. I never have, never will.
I have nothing but loathing and contempt for these right-wing bible thumpers, these mostly male politicians, who claim to know what’s RIGHT for a woman. They don’t have a clue. I’m certain that I would have gotten over the traumas of an abortion. An embryo feels, remembers nothing.
Listen, take all the Prozac, Valium or Percocet you want. Get stoned or drunk every night. Screw any man in a bar who can make you laugh just ONCE. Go shopping, run up a huge credit card debt. Take long vacations. But nothing helps. Nothing.
Shrinks? Well, men shrinks have never done a thing for me because I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that to them my “problem” was but a two-line entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V, which they had to hurriedly look up so as to appear to know what the hell I was talking about.
There are hardly any women shrinks who have themselves given up a baby for adoption. Because you can’t get through medical school and a psychiatric residence if you’re as emotionally fucked up as I am.
Boyfriends? Husbands? You can’t bring up the subject with them. There’s no man alive who can bear to hear about it. On the Discovery Channel I saw a male lion murder a lioness’s cubs so that she’d be free to get a dose of HIS sperm. Men are hard wired this way.
I startle when the phone rings, because I think maybe it’s you. But I don’t believe you’ll ever forgive me, nor do I think if you did I’d feel any better. I have never stopped thinking of you, Elizabeth. I will love you until I die. Which I hope is soon.
* * *
Toward the end of our marriage I was at the closet, undressing. I turned and saw the look of revulsion on her face. It was the swell of my belly, my thin arms and bony knees, and pointy feet. Nothing at all like the magnificent body of her beloved sociopath, Bob. The Adonis with washboard abs, narrow waist, a perpetually erect cock. The more she saw of me, the less she liked.
And then the next morning E. was upset. She was overwhelmed with stuff at work, overwhelmed with stuff at home. We had an argument. She wept. She was just sick of my anger, my sarcasm, my elaborate verbal feints and jabs. My defensiveness. My condescension. My treating her like a child. Her having to be the one who makes all the decisions. Yard work. Painting the storm windows.
I realized how far from her ideal I am. She wanted someone who can take much better care of her, one who would relieve her of all the worrying about everything. Especially concerning the house, and getting it ready to put on the market, so we can get the hell out of Philadelphia.
“So much needs to be done around here,” she said. “It's so perfectly clear, and yet I have to point out to you what to do first, second, and third, and I do this reluctantly knowing that you will become angry and snap my head off, or you’ll get sullen and punish me with your puerile silence. Just like my father. You and he are exactly alike. Both of you are perfect embodiments of the tyranny of the easily offended.”
She insisted that I should not show my anger, because it gives her a cringe response. Also I should not employ convoluted rhetoric and verbal gymnastics to humiliate her, as her father does. I may not point out the illogic or unfairness of her making me guess exactly what she wants of me. When I guess wrong I must just sit there like a dummy, accept her condemnation, and say nothing.
Yes, my personality is repugnant to her. I can imagine how she feels because I’m as disgusted with myself as she is. She’s perfectly right. My condescension, my sarcasm, my affected mannerisms, my pretensions, are all truly sickening.
Elizabeth yearns for something more than her father ever gave her, but then finally she's convincing herself it isn’t worth the heartache. Forget all that romantic shit, she says to herself. She'd rather be alone, with Buster, her black long-haired cat, and a bottle of wine or two, a carton of smokes, and a dozen good true crime novels. By herself, up at the cottage at the lake. No, she says impatiently, I don’t want you to come along. Just stay here. Do what you have to do.
So then I think of packing up, moving out, taking a small apartment. With shelves on all the walls to hold my books. A new computer, scanner, printer. All my photo gear. I could improvise a darkroom in the bathroom. I could return to the solitary life I lived after my separation and divorce from Barbara.
Only this time I don’t think I’ll try to find another woman. I’ve had enough of these alleged relationships. Women. They’re not worth the fucking trouble.