Elizabeth suggested that instead of being jealous, I might try thinking of her past love affairs as lessons learned about what she wanted and what she didn't want. I saw it otherwise. Nearly every one of those men hurt her deeply, and so she held back from love. She could not fully surrender to it, to me, as I hoped she would. Thus the men in her past not only hurt her, but they hurt me as well.
Like T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth worked in a bank. She produced software documentation for complicated financial programs. About a year into our marriage she couldn't take the suffocating corporate climate anymore and, with my encouragement, became a freelance consultant. She'd sit at the terminal, frowning, cigarette burning in the tray, tapping a rapid staccato. Her fingers were as adroit on a piano, or on the strings of her guitar. But her guitar chord progressions were a bit eccentric. Her brother always complained about her mistakes, as he called them, and tried many times to correct her, but she ignored him.
She got her formidable verbal ability from her father. From her mother she got a sense of order. She kept track of our finances on ledger paper. It was a strange system that seemed chaotic, understandable only to her, yet was accurate down to the penny.
Elizabeth’s first husband, Richard, took a photo of her in the bathtub. In it she has her hands crossed over her breasts and her knees are drawn up. Her eyes are wide and her mouth is set in a grimace. The exposure, she said, was excruciating.
For Christmas one year she wanted to do something for the less fortunate. She called up the shelter. We spent a snowy afternoon in that smelly place, her strumming the guitar and singing "You Made Me Love You," while I, wearing thin plastic gloves, ladled out sliced turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy to shuffling, blank-faced, haunted-eyed souls. The following Christmas she got watches for some retarded teenagers in a foster care home...six of them, Timexes, with luminous green faces.
One of her early letters: "Sometimes when I weigh the happiness I have experienced while 'in love' against the pain, I am stunned by the imbalance. And yet, we persist in seeking mates. OK, OK, so pain & disappointment are all part of the human experience. But why is it so disproportionate?"
When she turned 30 she said she arrived at some semblance of peace with her parents, but they remained capable of making her feel like a rebellious teenager. She told me she had a good friendship with her mother and a sort of non-relationship with the judge. They were never a fighting family, never overtly angry. Everything was always tacit. Tacit! Which engendered in her a fundamental lack of confidence in her instincts, feelings, visceral reactions to things. I—always the expert—told her she should trust what comes from the viscera. It's the ancient part of ourselves that has not yet learned to doubt itself.
When we married I was 52, she was 38. She said she supposed one is always seeking to recreate the parent-child relationship. An attempt to resolve parental issues. N'est-ce pas? Something to chew on as you chew on the rest of life's little issues. She said she understood long ago that most of the men she'd been involved with were like her father and, therefore, highly dissatisfying in the long run. But their age, she insisted, had nothing at all to do with their behavior. A young tyrant becomes an old tyrant. She pointed out that Bobby was four years her junior. He was, however, as aloof, emotionally inaccessible and incapable of displays of caring as her father always was. This was the mistake she hoped never to make again.
When she married Richard, the first photographer in her life, she soon realized that on his hierarchy of values, she was pretty far down the list. She was not a demanding woman in terms of needing attention, but she did think that a most important function of a relationship is to ensure there is at least one person in the world who thinks the other's needs, expectations, preferences are worth meeting.
She nearly went out of her head trying to figure out why her thing with Bobby didn't work out. How could he not love her? She was SO NICE! SO SMART! SO GENEROUS! And on top of it all could bake a dynamite apple pie! Then it dawned on her. Some men don't want a nice, smart, generous woman. Even with the pie.
During the disentanglement with Bobby she did some serious self-examination. That sociopath was just the most recent in an unbroken string of painful, failed relationships. Wasn't she just locked in a self-destructive pattern? Wouldn't it make sense to put an end to it all? In many ways the thought was appealing. But she decided to continue.
Reasons: First, she might be wrong about actually "needing" a relationship with a man to be happy. Second, there were lots of other things that made her happy. For instance, Friday nights when she gets home from work, she knows for 48 whole hours she does not have to think about computer systems or training the barely educable. There is "Turn on the Quiet" on WRTI, while she reads or writes with Buster sprawled across the page or purring in her lap. There is good coffee. There is Lake Eliot & full moon in high summer. There is music, Gershwin, Beethoven, and her own.
Early, early weekend mornings, when she is awake before everyone else, she has her coffee and she finds the ability to write things in her journal she wouldn't think herself capable of at other times. At crimson dawn, before her head and senses become clouded by external racket and worries, she can think and write with more clarity than any other time, of certain memories. Of a warm rainy January night in New York City with a lover she had not seen in six months, walking arm in arm from 52nd street to Washington Square singing songs. Of rowing around the lake with Margaret, talking about the men they craved. Margaret was mad for Paul Simon, she was convinced she would meet and win Bob Dylan. She was only 15.
Of seeing her only child for the first--then shortly thereafter--for the last time. It was painfully sad but unforgettable and, at odd moments comforting, worth living for. Of walking for miles through the Lancashire country side when she was in graduate school, feeling for the first time in her life truly, utterly autonomous, for the first time not feeling a want, not missing something, not feeling half full.
What was she afraid of? Disillusionment? Pain? Disappointment? Dying for loss of love? She said she didn't really know what the cause or source of her fear was. She only knew that when someone gets too close, she withdraws. Into jokes or cynicism or total silence. Or divorce.
In my courtship of Elizabeth I spared nothing. Letters, flowers, phone calls, photos, flattery. I wanted her desperately, and I lavished upon her as much love and tenderness as I could summon. But such an outpouring terrified her. She said she should have been able to achieve warmth and contentment on her own, in her reclaimed autonomy.
It scared her that a MAN like Bobby, the sociopath, sent her into a tailspin of such proportions that she denied herself nourishment, denied her sanity, instincts, needs, desires, self-definition. It scared her that another MAN was now trying so hard to restore it all.
Elizabeth struggled to clarify and more fully define her terror. When I said he would never deliberately hurt her, she knew I meant it. But not ever hurting someone is an impossibility, like flapping your arms and flying to the moon.
She always dreamed of a day when being in love with someone had nothing to do with power or dominance. But deep down she knew that love never is fully balanced. She talked about George and Mary, a couple who had been married twenty three years. George's adoration for his wife was boundless, and it was mutual. If they were apart for 15 minutes they each felt the need to show themselves to the other, to reaffirm their mutual bonded existence, and see the loveflush come to each other's face.
Did she ever want to be that deeply connected to another person? And how did she want it to be for US? What was her fantasy?
Well, we’d find a house to buy. She would own it, I would share it. She would have her dogs and cats and power tools and I would have my darkroom and books and the house would need lots of cosmetic work which would become a years-long project. She'd plant a garden again, better than her rooftop garden in Cambridge, full of flowers and vegetables. And she'd try to grow a peach tree in this cold climate and she might fail. But she would try her hand at roses, too. And she would buy a piano and have a room to keep her instruments and music in, a room to keep her mind in, and room to house other projects of clay and paint and paste and paper--things she had always wanted to do but never did because it was too self-indulgent. She would buy a sewing machine, too. Why? Because she needed to explode all the negative myths about herself as well as expose the positive ones, and a negative myth she always had about herself was that she was hopeless as a seamstress.
She said she wondered what it would be like being with me--really with me--under one roof, with her at her worst, not always at her best. Which raised the question, was she ever anything less than at her best with me? And had she really found the person who would always bring out the best in her? Would being with me prove, to herself, that she really was loving, warm, generous? She told me she would test the truth of all this. When—if—she decided to go with me.
Our relationship always felt provisional, elusive. Rarely explicit. But she came close early on when she told me that in the whirlwind I had created she was incapable of concentrating on her job, was possibly in danger of losing it, because the great mind-work that I'd inspired was taking precedence over all else. What mattered now, she said, was the discovery of self and love and life—three things she had come so close to losing entirely.
But then, in the distance, the echoing howling. She simply did not know how to be happy. It was something that had always escaped her. When I served her coffee in bed in the morning, or when I got her ice cream, or I cleaned the cat box, or I returned an oriental rug that didn't fit the dining room, or I covered her face and her neck and her breasts with kisses, she said she felt it viscerally. And, on an animal, non-academic level, she glowed.
But soon she just had to question the comfort to which she was so unaccustomed.
Bobby, the sociopath. The figure in the darkness, smirking, at the foot of our bed. I insisted she cut him completely out of her life. She said she felt quite capable of resisting any urge to fish that wretch out of his swamp of self-loathing. Why would she want to return to a person who never had anything to say to her? A person who resented and feared her intellect, emotional nerve, her simple, unrefined talents? Why would she want to go back to that when she could, with me, bask in praise, adoration, admiration, affection? When she could wake up to the smell of coffee and know somebody cared enough about her small comforts to bring it to her in her bed? When she knew that if she was ill someone would care for her and bring her aspirin and orange juice and boxes of Kleenex? Someone who would share conversation? Or complete silence, simply sitting in a candle-lit room with a warm cat on her lap?
In her apartment in Drexel Hill one night there were lighted candles and chocolate cake and cups of hot tea. She performed an elaborate improvisation on the guitar, ending with a slow, soft arpeggio. She said she hadn't played her guitar for anyone in ages, years. But just then she felt quite comfortable playing for me. Not self-conscious, she supposed, because she knew I so much liked listening. In this ambiance of acceptance she didn't shy away from certain flights, innovations.
I closed my eyes, dreamed of a life with her.
If it wasn't Richard, it was Bobby. If not Bobby, then Burt. A thousand reminders to me of the men who had abused her. I bitterly complained that in the circumstances (we were lovers, weren’t we?) she ought to focus on me, rather than on all the others.
One afternoon, in exasperation, she asked me, "What can I do to make you feel better about this relationship?"
I smiled. "Do you really want to know?"
"Marry me," I said.