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I LIVE IN YONVILLE
This is going to be a story about marriage. I don't know any others. It's twelve years for me this October, and in that time I can't think of much else that's happened. In the old nineteenth-century tales, the events of the world somehow managed to creep into the domestic cottage; bankers came chasing Balzac's bridegrooms, shouting and pulling out their hair at the fall of the Paris bank rates. But the world hasn't affected us much. We bought a house ten years ago, when the rates were 18 percent. Still, houses were a lot cheaper then. When the rates went down, we refinanced.
I am a reader, so I can tell you that Flaubert knew best when he began the story of Emma Bovary with Charles's school days. Once you know what an idiot Charles was as a boy, you understand much better how she is able to fool him, and why he puts up with her even when he ought to know better. I'm not going to tell you about infidelity here, because as far as I know there isn't any to tell about. But our world is small and provincial like the Bovarys', and if there were secrets here I would probably be the last to know.
As I write this, I am alone. It is that hour of the morning I have to myself. My wife leaves the house at 8:15. She is a medical technician at a hospital twenty miles north of here. My daughter is supposed to leave the house at the same time, but she is a dawdler. She takes her time tying her shoes. I like to have a good bowel movement after the both of them leave; it is the only time I am really fully relaxed. Then I sit at the kitchen table and drink a last cup of coffee and smoke a couple of cigarettes. Two's my limit, usually. I am not due at the office until 9:30.
I mentioned Flaubert before, and that was no idle name-dropping. I barely finished college, but I have kept up. Other men my age, if they read at all, read books by people like Ken Follett and Tom Clancy, while I have been known to come home from the library with a thick copy of Middle-march under my arm. In towns like ours, we use the library. We feel civic-minded and virtuous doing so. It's also a way of saving money, though few besides me will admit it.
As for Flaubert, I am always impressed by the way he has of rooting his stories in the physical space his characters inhabit. Once I was at a party where I didn't know too many people, and some guy came up to me and asked me where I lived. I answered, "I live in Yonville." It was a way of testing how smart he was and also of telling the truth. He didn't get it, but I was proud of myself nonetheless. You can learn a lot about people from just a couple of details like that. I like to know the car a man drives, and how far he has to commute to work. People become dreamy in cars if they have to drive a long way. We put up a great fight against dreaminess by means of car stereos, but I find it's nearly always a losing battle. If I'm talking to someone who has to drive a long way to and from work, I tend to be kinder toward him. I think of this guy surrounded by mountains and fields and the long roads, and I know how you can't help feeling about your life on those long drives. Something creeps into the car with you; it's like the seat beside you doesn't really want to remain empty.
I drive twelve miles to work and twelve back. In the morning there's classical music and in the late afternoon a posh news show in which reporters from the BBC are forever heard shouting over gunfire in places like Baghdad and the West Bank. Last week there was an uprising in Azerbaijan and, sure enough, the BBC was there, shouting. Personally, I couldn't care less what is going on in Azerbaijan, and I don't know anyone who really does. But there seems to be some agreement that at five o'clock, as we all drive home in our cars, we're going to listen to these reports with the attention we reserve for things that matter to us.
The fact is, our world has gotten smaller and smaller, and we've stopped complaining. What's to complain about? I am involved in the local PTO. My wife sends packages of clothes to poor Native American children somewhere in the Southwest. We vote. We cast our nets in the shallows. I write grant proposals for an expensive women's college. Our friends are doctors, tradesmen, local professionals. We are proud of our little world. Though no one would come out and say this outright, we consider ours a model for the way all towns should be. We vote Democratic and don't object too strenuously to a rise in taxes. We think of our children as enlightened.
I know some people who are unmarried, but not many. That fact--along with all the preceding information--might make it sound like my life is totally homogenized, but I don't consider it so. I find great variety in the country of marriage. Always, you have to interpret the world through the subtlest of clues. We are forced to become detectives of each other, a far more interesting proposal, to my mind, than the naked emotionalism of the unattached. Divorce drops like sudden death among us. All the clues were there, but none of us picked up on them, so we have something to discuss for weeks. Who needs to listen to the news when we have the spectacle of Roberta Hawkins, who used to stay home baking tomato cakes for her husband, hitting the bars and bringing around a new boyfriend every week? The BBC would never think of coming here, and that is why we smile--I smile--when we hear the announcer's voice. It's as though he's stuck in an old version of the world. Or perhaps--who knows?--I am.
It's hard to remember exactly, but it seems five or six years ago I stopped thinking beyond my immediate circle. Before then, I suppose I was ambitious. I got this job, at least, which pays me well, though I don't see any real chance that I'll rise. Some other person might want to tell you this story from the inside out, but not me. I look around myself and there I see my story. When I'm alone for even a night away from here, I panic. This house and the car and the job, and, of course, the marriage, are what I've become. I'm not complaining.
Maybe you're a curious person and you want to know what I look like. Let's just say I'm one of those people you see on the beach in summer--we go to Wellfleet, ourselves--and don't wonder too much about. I'm small and slightly built, and my hair won't grow. It's always short. When it does grow, it grows unevenly no matter how it's cut, so I don't fight it, I just keep it short. I've been told I'm not bad-looking, but I don't have what I suppose you'd call a sexual presence. I'm one of those men who might as well be women.
We recognize one another, I think, and make our friendships accordingly. There are certain men I just don't know what to say to. They seem to be savages to me, different entirely. I don't know what they want. You know the sort of men I'm talking about. Maybe you're one of them. If so, write the story of your life please, because I'd like to know it. When I pick up a contemporary novel that promises to lay bare what the cover describes as "the macho heart," I am generally disappointed. I am convinced there are more differences between us than the novelists allow. These "macho heart" novels are most likely written by men like me, men who are only guessing.
My friends are all as soft as marshmallows. We joke about one another's bellies, but no one really cares. None of us plays competitive sports, though we swim and run. We are the ones who failed at high school athletics. We are the ones the girls never liked. We consider ourselves lucky--blessed, even--because we found a girl to like us. We're not the ones you're going to catch sleeping with other women. Sometimes when we're alone in bars (it's rare) we marvel at the fact that all around us men are cheating on their wives. We stare at one another and laugh and ask: Who? It's the same game the virgins used to play in high school. There's a raw world and there's a tame one, and I believe you make the choice early as to which you're going to live in.
I'm on my third cigarette now. I know I shouldn't smoke, but I do. Everyone needs a vice. I don't even masturbate anymore. I think cigarettes prolong time, so I smoke them and look out the window and consider things. Then I get in the car, where the classical-music station is already deeply into Dvorak or Schumann. I cross the mountains some mornings in a state approaching what I remember it felt like to meditate. If you've been here, you know what the light is like. I'm proud to drive a good car, a Volkswagen Scirocco. I bought it new, three years ago.
At work, I joke with the girls. There are two of them. I'm the only man. Sheri does clerical work. Elaine works with me. She's from New York, married and divorced, looking. We eat lunch together. She discusses datelessness and I sympathize. She tells me I'm easy to talk to.
There are moments of the day that are difficult, of course. What day doesn't contain its emptinesses? For me, these moments usually arrive in the afternoon, after lunch, when the light begins to change. The fact is, I don't like the afternoon light here. It has the quality of seeming damp and harsh at once. It's a light like the emptying out of drawers. I am one of those men for whom the most sensual exercise of the day is the imagination of dinner. But at around three P.M. a dismal kind of fear starts up in me. I lose the thread of things. Usually I get a cup of coffee. It's the moment when I know that if I make a call, the person I am calling will not be there.
When our daughter was little, my fear always used to center on her. The day had a built-in drama, since it was never a given that the two of them, mother and child, would make it through the day unscathed. We had only one car then; they would drive me to work in the morning. At my desk, I would practically count the minutes until I could call them, in order to assure myself that they'd negotiated the passage safely. This was especially intense in winter, when there was ice on the roads.
Those days are over. I have ceased worrying for their safety. Something else troubles me now. It makes its appearance always in the form of an ambush. Sometimes it disappears quickly; still, it leaves me unsettled for the day.
Charles Bovary, had he been as bright as I am, would have recognized this feeling, since it was all around him. All he had to do was look up from his medical books. Perhaps he was wise not to. It is nothing so small as adultery, which seems to me now a forgivable thing. He was one with the life of Yonville. He saw nothing he couldn't excuse. But I see, at those moments of the day when the unwelcome light slants through the windows of the Grant Proposal Office, that few of us get away with this life we pretend to be living. Once maybe, but not anymore. On the green lawn of the Unitarian church each week a new inspirational slogan goes up on the announcement board. The quotes are secular, from writers and scientists and thinkers. This week it's "Blessed are the dreamers, for some of their dreams will come true." I forget the author. On Sundays we all smile and nod at one another, as if these are the things we truly believe, these are the truths that will see us through.
My problem, of course, is that I don't believe them. It takes a certain kind of light to force me to acknowledge this. On the drive home, I pass the Unitarian church and wonder for a moment what it would be like to deface the announcement board, or replace it with something like: "We've all been lucky so far, that's all."
At night, the three of us gather around the table and eat what is usually a good dinner. My wife works hard all day, but she manages to find the energy to cook us something original every night. Stir-fried pork and cauliflower, that sort of thing. White pizza with ricotta cheese. She's a beautiful woman, and our daughter is inheriting the shape of her face, her chin and eyes. We've talked about having another child. To tell you the truth, neither of us could probably say why we haven't done it. Sometimes I think it's necessary to see a thing before you can make it happen--we talk about this a lot in the fund-raising business--and I guess we just don't see ourselves as the sort of big jovial family so many people pretend to want. We think we're fine as three. We like our silences, our times alone. We worry about loneliness--our daughter's in particular--but when things are weighed in the balance, we end up doing nothing to change our lot. I suppose I harbor some jealousy against people with large families, but I don't want to be them.
After our daughter goes to sleep, my wife and I have the nights to ourselves. She watches television, and I read. I feel guilty about her having to spend her days with blood and shit and urine; part of me feels I've been deficient in romance, or that I haven't supported her in any of her more ambitious endeavors. She once wanted to be a dancer. The more I talk to people, the more I realize everyone's wife once wanted to be a dancer. Now all these good women are nurses and teachers and therapists, and no one complains. We talk about our romantic youths, but mine was never romantic, and the fear I have is that I've taken some part of my terror of the world and planted it in her. So I write grant proposals all day, and she studies people's evacuations for signs of disease. We have our responsible lives, and at night we stay quietly at home, two good citizens in our little town.
It's only after my wife goes to bed that I start drinking. The day has its fault lines and this is one of them. I can't go to sleep early, but those hours alone in a house with two sleeping women are hard for me. It's like the fear that started up with the afternoon change in light returning in force. Nothing else can assuage it, not TV, not the book I happen to be reading. I drink a little scotch, a little ice, and I wait for sleep.
I remember the night--this was before I started drinking--when I read Turgenev's "First Love." I don't know if you've read it, but there's a passage at the end to break your heart. The young hero grows up and discovers that the beautiful Zinaida, his first love, the girl he jumped from the roof of the greenhouse for, has died. But it is not her death he mourns at the end. Instead, he remembers the death of an old servant who had nothing to live for, but who, in dying, grasps at the remains of life as if her miserable existence had suddenly appeared to her as the most precious, extraordinary thing. The night I read that I started crying. I went into my daughter's room and looked at her face and cried some more. Then I went and sat and watched my wife sleeping, and it was all too much. I thought that night that I was at the very center of my life, as if I'd slid down a long sloping wall that had landed me in this moment and I was facing that wall's opposite, one that instead of sliding down I would have to climb. For all I know, that's when it began. I vowed that night to be good. It was one of those moments.
But I've found that such vows don't amount to much. There's a kind of knowledge that undoes you. Partly, it's knowing that fate has done its share of the work, has landed you where it's landed you, but that after a certain point it's not fate anymore but the particular direction one places one's feet that makes all the difference in the world. For a while you're sliding but then you're walking, and if there's a way to walk and not watch yourself at the same time I don't know it. The feeling of that night, anyway, has numbed over. It's what happens, I guess. My vow was that I would stay and watch them both die, if I had to. But since then I've become too aware, in these moments of solitude, that other choices are available to me. Sometimes, driving home from work in a light that threatens to suffocate, I become aware of the fact that I could continue driving, just go somewhere else and begin all over again. I imagine making a collect call home from a phone in Ohio, or Indiana. What's frightening is the way this imagined moment has a certain ghostly ring to it, like it's already happened.
That would be the clean break, of course. Instead, I'm fooling no one. I smoke these cigarettes, I drink this scotch. I do these things in moderation, but is anyone these days fooled by moderation? I am a timid soul, and I do nothing to excess. I couldn't smoke a pack of cigarettes a day if I tried. I'd puke. And I'd puke if I drank more than three glasses of scotch a night. I wouldn't know how to explain any of this to my wife. She counts on me for the sort of steady, sober behavior that gives our life together stability. She doesn't know I smoke, and the scotch glass, if I neglect to wash it at night before I go to bed, she makes excuses for. Bourgeois males are supposed to drink at night. That's how the thinking goes.
After a point there's really not much sense to locking the door at night. Whatever terrors are out there seem nothing. My brother-in-law tells me about a friend of his, a good husband, an accountant, who feels compelled some nights to get into his Le Mans and drive from Westchester into Harlem. He picks up whores. He throws caution to the wind. A while ago I heard about a guy from around here whose wife was eight and a half months pregnant. Out of the blue, he took a trip to the Himalayas to climb the highest, slipperiest mountain there. In spite of my timid soul, I feel I understand these actions, as I pour my third scotch of the night or light up my fourth cigarette. There is always the hope, the off chance, that life will prove too much for us and we'll get out of this thing with some grace. It is the nature of terror that it not have a distinct visage, and that it not announce itself in daylight hours on the face of its prey, and so you will wonder, as you pass me, or other men like me, in the autumn, and catch a glimpse of us raking our lawns, our sons and daughters at play around us, how such a desirable life can contain such an appetite for its own destruction. But I assure you it's there, for those few of us who are like Emma, who simply cannot sit comfortably in these lives anymore without conjuring a beast staring squarely at us, measuring us and holding out almost tentatively, if beasts can be said to be tentative, the vial of M. Homais's arsenic.
You will, of course, dismiss this, say I'm being melodramatic, and to a degree you will be right. The feeling comes and goes, and there's no predicting its approach or its duration. For the most part, I am a happy man.
It's clear by now I'm going to be late this morning. Not that it matters. There are no appointments on my calendar until Thursday. Until then, I'm just filling time.
I crush my fourth cigarette, but something won't let me head for the door, not yet. This is a good kitchen. We worked hard putting it together, and the method of food preparation here is serious. I like nothing better than to watch my wife cook. On Saturday nights, when we put our daughter to bed early, I pour myself a glass of wine and watch her do something fancy, an orange sauce or chicken mole. At such moments I feel as far from the terror as I ever do. The warmth in the room is tangible, and I can say whatever I want to say. Something will uphold us, suspend us in its net. I haven't told you much about my wife, but I don't want you to get the impression that there isn't a lot to tell. She is stubborn, she is mostly her own woman, and she loves me. There is the sort of intimacy between us that is the reason everyone stays married, and there is the nakedness and shame that makes everyone want to bolt. To tell the story of a marriage, I think you only need to tell one side. In learning about me, you can conjure my opposite, and I'd venture to guess you won't be far off. I never am, at least, when I meet a spouse after getting to know her groom a little bit. You get to know their terrors and their desires, and after a while you come to understand there's only one sort of person who could hold those particular demons at bay. So if you need to imagine my wife, think of that woman you see on the beach sometimes, more beautiful than her husband deserves. To yourself, you think: They married young.
Still, they stay married, so something must be there. Whatever it is, it makes its appearance over our good expensive counter on those Saturday nights, and the reason I can't quite leave this kitchen now is the chance that some part of it might still be in the air, like an old scent the oven fan can't get rid of. We cut a hole out of the air for ourselves. It's no more than that, really, and the reason it doesn't survive is: What is there in the world to support bubbles? That's all that marriages are, really: bubbles. But while they float in the air, they have an enormous attractiveness. If I put this cigarette out and head for the door, it's only because I want to get to the next Saturday night.
I'm on my fifth cigarette now, but I can feel the danger's past. I'm going to go and see Sheri and Elaine and think about how we can shake the Mellon Foundation for a few extra thou. I can feel the energy for this, though I have no idea where it's coming from, just as, later, I will have no idea where it went. At the end of the day, I'll listen to the fighting in provinces of the Soviet Union, the BBC, and I'll try to pay attention, try to place my moments of panic beside my moments of calm, to convince myself that life contains a balance. There will be moments--I can be assured of this--when I'll want to send up a wild howl. But I'll stifle that urge. Light always changes, I'll remind myself. It only stays hard for a while.
It seems to me that life requires us, as time goes on, to become masters of convincing ourselves of the simplest things. To prefer life to death, for one. I have this twelve-mile ride ahead of me this morning. I have Dvorak for consolation, and there are these dips at the side of the road it would be so easy to go over. On Saturday nights, my wife cooks wonderful chicken things. I'll try to remember that.
There. I've put it out. I suppose that means something. Barely smoked. Live or die. They say maturity is not caring so much. I wouldn't know. I have a photograph of my wife I keep in the glove compartment of the car. It helps, I find sometimes, to take it out and look at it out of the corner of my eye as I drive. It's a simple picture, really, taken outside a beach house we rented once. It was a cloudy Sunday. Perhaps you know the way the clouds look on a late summer afternoon on the Cape. She had developed a sty that day, and was wearing sunglasses. In the photograph, she sits on a weathered wooden chair, staring directly into the camera. Her eyes are hidden, but the expression is unmistakable. It's nothing you can put into words. She is a woman in a chair on a late summer afternoon, that's all. Still, I can't look at it without thinking she is asking me to come closer. And in my imagination--at least on days like this, when one thing seems better than another--I do.