On one of those long drives up the Northeast Extension toward Stearns Lake, Elizabeth asked, "When you write in your journal, do you tell the truth?"
I laughed. "And why not?"
"I lie a lot," she said.
"I'm afraid of somebody finding me out."
I kept my eyes on the road, left hand at ten and right hand at two. What was she so embarrassed by, and so determined to hide?
All right, before she hooked up with me she had sex with a lot of men. Along the way she had two abortions, and a few years later she refused to have a third and instead gave up her infant daughter for adoption. Sometimes she drank too much. She had an awful cigarette habit. And that was it, in a nutshell. The full extent of her sordid past. And yet it pressed down, squeezed the breath out of her, like the stones heaped upon the accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts.
Much of the time she seemed preoccupied with these thoughts, maybe trying to figure out how to make things right with the old man, her father, or with the many other men she once knew, loved, and left.
Lots of things about her drew me. Her smooth, pale skin that invited the touch of my fingers or my lips. Long, slim, perfectly formed legs. Small breasts, a narrow waist. When we had sex she liked for me to get on with it, “don’t stretch it out,” she said, “just DO me!” And then, before I could even catch my breath, she’d push me off, leap out of bed, and attack a wood working project.
She liked outrageous puns and complex word plays and odd associations. She obsessively memorized the dates of important events, both in and outside her life. Anniversaries of beginnings and endings of relationships. Birthdays, especially. When she was sure she was alone or was sufficiently distracted, she muttered to herself. Snide comments about her boss, for instance. Or some indistinguishable phrase, perhaps in Latin, her favorite dead language.
Often in thought she chewed her lower lip. At night she often tossed about, ground her teeth. The bed moved as she got up, and I listened carefully as she crept down the stairs, into the kitchen to make a cup of herbal tea and to light up a cigarette. I could imagine her sitting alone at the dining room table, blowing smoke, whispering to herself.
"Angst" was among her favorite words.
She had to drag me to Thanksgiving family reunions at her parents’ house up near the lake. But I grew to like them. After the big meal everyone gathered around the piano, and Ma shuffled the music and chose the appropriate song, and then we all lifted our voices. Each of us in turn was expected to sing solo, while the rest did harmony. Ma was very good at sight reading and was an expert in transposing keys to accommodate each of her children’s or in-law's vocal range. The old man’s piece was, appropriately, "Old Man River," which he'd deliver basso profondo in the best Broadway tradition. Elizabeth rarely consented to sing. She'd be off by herself in a corner, reading, or upstairs somewhere.
Countless withering glances from the old man across the dinner table throughout her childhood burned in her a painful shame and self-consciousness. Marge, her boss at the bank, quickly learned how easy it was to turn Elizabeth into a blushing and stuttering mess. Just a sharp look and a few concise critical remarks, that's all it took.
For instance, Marge said during an evaluation that Elizabeth had poor "personal interactive skills." In reply Elizabeth asked the dyke to define just exactly how she wished Elizabeth to behave from now on, in staff meetings and elsewhere. And Marge paused only a beat and said, "If you need to ask, you'll never know."
Elizabeth wrote in her second or third snail-mail letter of our courtship in 1993 that she was picking up some red flags, mostly concerning the eerie and troubling similarities between me and Harry, her sociopathic ex-lover. So, with all the cards on the table she couldn't say she felt very enthusiastic about our correspondence. But then, she said, she may have made some hasty judgments in the first portion of the letter. She truly was trying only to avoid misleading herself--and me.
Anyway, she said, time and the mail will tell.
She was very big on Beethoven, especially Symphony No. 7. She agreed with me about the Russians, Checkhov, Doestoevsky, Tolstoy. It was the powerfully evocative stuff that she liked. Most of Mozart left her cold. Too planned? Too mathematical? Too something. But the Chopin and Liszt nocturnes, all that kind of teary tragic stuff laid her out. She recently tried plowing through "The Charmed Circle," about Gertrude Stein and that crowd in Paris, but it left her cold. She liked the novels of Fitzgerald and some of Hemingway. Thomas Wolfe, too.
But that Paris bunch, they struck her as a horribly dilettantish, overindulged, self-indulgent, snotty. She had a problem with the "Everything for art" notion. She'd read a biography of Dylan Thomas' wife, Caitlin. The most depressing thing she'd read since Bleak House. Caitlin excuses Dylan's positively scurrilous behavior because he was an artist, as though that absolves him from responsibility toward other people.
Elizabeth said that she could not finish writing a novel, or perfect the short story form, or refine the last line of a poem—and she had many boxes of that stuff—because she simply could not buy into the theory that making art was the most important thing in the world. Harrrrumph. Oh, by the way. She never read Ulysses all the way through, nor Finnegans Wake, nor Portrait, nor Dubliners. I replied that she was in really good company. Nora Barnacle never did either.
“I don’t care,” Elizabeth said. “Just don’t ever tell anyone.”