October 6, 1958
I hope your writing is going well.
I hope you do not mind me interrupting your solitude with a letter, but I turned my novel in today and wanted to tell someone who would understand that particular achievement. I am thoroughly sick of it, but I’m not sure that the people who now have it will be able to do anything to make it better. Now that the initial surprise and excitement of having a book contract have worn off, fear of the ineptness of my new editor has set in. She has recently used the word irregardless in a letter to my agent.
The henhouse has turned gothic. Some of the sorority girls are now bitter. “You’ll do anything for a steak,” I heard one of them say last week at dinner, “but then that’s not all they want you to eat, the steak.” So there is the suggestion that they are now choking the men down along with the steak; that both delicacies, steak and sex, have become repulsive. Then there is Regina. She is studying to be an actress and is working as a secretary. She’s from Brooklyn. She has three sweaters and three skirts, she told me, which she bought to combine in six different ways. And a good black wool dress, she said, for when she has to go somewhere nice. She offered to loan me the dress once when I mentioned I had to go to a dinner for work, but I’m not keen on treating my closet like a lending library, so I said that I would prefer not to wear something that had a Dewey decimal number sewn into it. She did not laugh. It seems that several girls have gone in on that dress, but Regina paid the most, so it hangs in her closet. One night at dinner she leaned over to me and said: “Do you see that girl?” It was a girl across the room; she was talking and eating, nothing out of the ordinary. “She got in trouble,” Regina said, “for using too many condiments at dinner.” Then she says: “That girl and I moved here at the same time. We used to eat together, but she found those girls” — I looked at those girls, and they did seem a little more shampooed than Regina, who is bohemian manqué, like Marjorie Morningstar, only Italian, Catholic, and with an acoustic guitar — “and then that was the end of that.” Regina kept looking at the girls. I kept eating. “You see the girls here turn,” she said. “You see them fall prey to New York. Their hair is different, the clothes get showier, they’re talking all high class where they used to talk regular, and suddenly they’re not sitting with you at dinner. They’re going out with men.” Abruptly Regina went sour: “You just see them turn.” I decided not to sit with Regina anymore, and now I have the uneasy feeling that she is going to find some other girl to turn to, then locate me in the dining room, point me out, and tell this new girl that I hoard dinner rolls and silverware. Or she may come after me with one of the dull dinner knives, scratched out of its luster by endless runs in the dishwasher, and serrate me to death in my sleep.
Then there is a woman reading her way to Christian Scientism. Her name is Sarah. From Ohio. She is overweight. I’ve gone to visit her room and seen a few family photographs, so I know she was once slender. You can see how she might have been a pretty chorus-girl type — sweetheart face, big eyes, blond Veronica Lake waves, rosebud lips. Her eyes are the eyes of a girl who knows she believes lies but can’t do anything other than believe them. She moved in ten years ago — she wanted to sing in musicals — and she has never left. She never did really sing onstage — “Now I never will, I guess,” she says, referring to her weight — but she helps run the kitchen in return for room and board. If anyone is hoarding dinner rolls, it’s Sarah. She says she thanks the Lord for making this room available to her. She says she feels now that the Lord meant for her to sit quietly and figure out his mysteries through her reading, and she wouldn’t exchange that opportunity for anything. Her room is full of books by people who have radio hours. It’s the gospel according to Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and Aimee Semple McPherson — American dynamism gilded into a platform for individual redemption. It’s religion as detergent. I thank God I was born Catholic. At least our fairy tales involve eyes being put out and women being stretched out on racks — suggesting there is no evasion of pain and suffering. That there is no redemption without suffering, and that suffering is sometimes the point.
Where was I? Forgive me. Sarah haunts me. I think I see Ann in her. Ann isn’t in the sorority girls; I was mistaken. Ann is in Sarah. They have the same eyes. Right before I left home, Ann and I had a fight. Did I tell you about this when you came? Earlier last year, my sister met a man at a dance. He was, she said, a men’s-clothing buyer for Wanamaker’s, and after that dance they spent a few evenings together. She fell for him. He was an Italian, handsome and traveled, and of course he dressed very, very well. He came for dinner. He was not overly ingratiating. He had manners. He asked my father about his job. He asked me what Iowa was like — he had family out there farming and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place like that. But I watched him with Ann and there was an air of the waiting room about him — I got the sense that she was not a specific person to him, just someone pretty he had started chatting with while waiting to be called in for his annual. As someone who often cannot bear to be around even those people she loves, I will never understand this kind of personality — the just-dropping-by-out-of-boredom. I didn’t think it was manners that kept him from looking at her with desire or with the kind of adoration that is subdued because it is in public but still obvious nevertheless. I don’t know anything about romance, but I have my ideas about how people should show that they prefer each other over the vast horde. My father thought he seemed like enough of a gentleman, and to that I said yes, enough to come into a middle-class house and share a meal with strangers, but not so much that he’s going to carry Ann out of here on some steed the way she wants. My father said nothing, and for a moment I regretted saying what I’d said. My father reveres romance — he thinks he and my mother had a great one — and he wants that for Ann the way he wants success for me. The problem is that Ann suspects she’s beautiful but doesn’t truly know it. If she did, she could be dumb and scheming like Undine Spragg and we wouldn’t worry about her.
Some weeks later, this gentleman got a job in Baltimore. She wrote him. After a few letters, though, he stopped writing back. But she kept it up. She wrote a letter a month for six months. When I saw her on the sixth letter — yes, I kept count — I couldn’t take it anymore. “Stop it!” I said to Ann as she sat in the kitchen writing another one. “Ann, he is never going to write back! If he’s not dead, you are dead to him!”
She stood up. She looked at me in a way I had never seen her look at me — as if I were dead to her. Then she walked out to the living room, took her coat, and went for a walk. We didn’t talk for a week after that.
The faith that sent Ann to her pen is the same faith that had her lighting candles for me and my book.
And I haven’t even told you about the girl I saw putting paraffin on her teeth in the bathroom one Saturday night. I asked her what she was doing — this seemed like something out of a courtesan’s toilette circa Versailles — and she said it covered the discoloration and crookedness of her teeth. Or the old lady who’s been here for twenty years, who wears a tiny, violet-colored, violet-sprigged hat with a veil to dinner and an inordinate amount of face powder — you can see the face powder on her smart little jackets — and reportedly has papered every inch of her room with pages from movie magazines.
I think I need to move out of here. I’m five helpings of mashed potatoes away from turning into a matronly mountain that will move nowhere toward its goal.
October 18, 1958
I am getting you out of that nunnery! Mark, a friend of mine who has been living in New York, is moving to New Hampshire to live deliberately. This leaves his apartment vacant. I spoke to him about you and he said he’d tell his landlord that he should give the apartment to you. If all goes well you can have his room — it’s in the West Village, there’s a Murphy bed in the wall — as of November 15. Call the school at St. Frances Xavier on Sixteenth Street — or Fifteenth Street, I forget which — and ask for Mark Fitzgerald.
PS. I got asked to leave the farm; I’ll tell you about it later.
Write me in Boston when you write next.
October 30, 1958
Thank you. Thank you. I called Mark and went over and met with his landlord and I will be moving in with my books and percolator on November 15. This was the only time in my life that I was glad of being the weaker sex — I think my new Italian landlord is relieved to have what he imagines to be a proper lady occupying that room, and he gave me the place on the spot. A proper Catholic lady — I shamelessly asked Mr. Bellegia where I should go to Mass because I thought this might make him look favorably upon me. And I was right. It was just after this that he said the place was mine. I hope the Lord doesn’t mind that I took his name in gain. I’d like to believe that the Lord thought I was being wise as serpents. Mmm. Probably not.
I like this neighborhood very much. I like the river, I like the gray and brick, I like the tumult of people on the crosshatching of narrow streets.
Your very grateful friend,
PS. What did you do?!
November 10, 1958
Now you are a real New Yorker, cushioned no longer by mashed potatoes and the muy loco in loco parentis of the Barbizon. I salute you! Those winds off the Hudson are strong. Be warned. Will they blow you up my way? I wonder.
I am enclosing the proofs of your story. It should be in the spring issue. I am allowing you ten corrections in total. It’s my policy: everyone gets up to ten corrections; more than that and the piece is pulled. I am imagining everyone as correction-mad as myself. This is why my book has taken this long to come out. I was on my fourth set of proofs when I saw you this summer. John Percy, my editor, has said that between the third and the fourth, the production department made a Wanted poster out of my author photo. I look forward to seeing this.
I have to come to New York in the next few weeks — am dropping off my pages. I can’t wait for those winds to blow me your way — may I visit?
What happened at the farm is that they caught me and the novelist — the novelist was a girl — swimming without suits in the pond at night. The girl didn’t mean anything to me, but they could not quite believe that. The girl was a little crazy; she had these huge eyes and was terribly thin, and whenever I looked at her I always felt she was trembling, but that was only an optical illusion brought on by the fact that she was talking incessantly, so much it made my teeth chatter, about being a vegetarian and Tolstoy and Gandhi and celibacy and a Russian professor of hers who was married and who kept writing her at the farm. “He is married,” she kept saying while giving me a look that I was supposed to understand meant that he’d slept with her, or was trying to, and I could too, if I wanted to. I didn’t do much to convince them I most certainly did not want to. The girl wanted to stay because she was broke and had nowhere else to go, and I think they’re going to keep her on, to take care of their daughter. Michael is probably a much better Christian than me — if I were as godly, I would not have decided to celebrate my last week of summer by swimming naked at night, but have you ever seen the moon waxing crescent, hanging low and white in the sky, and heard the breeze blow through the bushes and trees? You feel as ripening and shining as the night you are in, and it’s excruciating to stand there enduring nature — God’s instantiation, God’s invitation — as a spectator when you can plunge yourself in the middle of it. That felt sinful, to not plunge myself in the middle of it. It made me think of Augustine:
God, then, the most wise Creator and most just Ordainer of all natures, who placed the human race upon earth as its greatest ornament, imparted to men some good things adapted to this life, to wit, temporal peace, such as we can enjoy in this life from health and safety and human fellowship, and all things needful for the preservation and recovery of this peace, such as the objects which are accommodated to our outward senses, light, night, the air, and waters suitable for us, and everything the body requires to sustain, shelter, heal, or beautify it: and all under this most equitable condition, that every man who made a good use of these advantages suited to the peace of this mortal condition, should receive ampler and better blessings, namely, the peace of immortality, accompanied by glory and honor in an endless life made fit for the enjoyment of God and of one another in God —
Light, night, the air, and waters suitable for us. That was what was in front of me, and I felt that I should make good use of them.
I quoted this passage to Michael as explanation, but he said I was perverting the text. That I was out of my mind to think that the passage legitimized my pagan gesture. I quoted Paul to him — you know, if you want to eat meat, eat meat; if you don’t, don’t, etc. — and then he said that my concept of sin was too precious and he quoted Paul back to me by reminding me that I was living according to the flesh, that I was too alive to sin and too dead to Christ. (Yes, the girl added luster to the evening, and I’ll confess to you that maybe I liked that there was something Edenic about the two of us in the water, and it occurred to me that I was indeed too alive to sin in that moment, but I was not interested in making anything more of our nakedness than a picture in my mind.) Michael and I went on for an hour, quoting scripture back and forth to each other, voices getting louder, which brought Eliza to the shed. She entered the room like Yul Brynner inspecting the slaves’ quarters or some such in The Ten Commandments (now I’m infected with your disdain, goddamn you) and put her hand on my arm, and while her touch was just a touch, just four fingers on my forearm, it put silence into me, because she was also looking at me with cold iron-gray-blue eyes, and then she said: “I think you are too great a disturbance to this house,” and asked me to leave. Ted thinks she got her moral authority purely from the fact that she’d thought I’d harassed a girl, not because I’d sinned. I laughed, but I think he’s wrong. Mostly.
Do you know we have now been writing to each other for just over a year?