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By Bel Kaufman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 Bel Kaufman
All rights reserved.
SO IT HAS COME TO THIS!
They met in his lawyer's office. It was status for his side (the bride's side or the groom's?) that she come to the enemy camp. There they were, sitting next to each other, almost touching, sworn enemies who had once been friends and lovers. The two who had promised to love and cherish each other; who had paced the hospital floor when their son lay bleeding after his tonsillectomy; who had run laughing along the beach to see the sun rise over the ocean; who had carefully chosen the bedroom set, the hall lamp, the drapery fabric; who had lived together for a quarter of a century—and who now, in this sleek, impersonal office of his lawyer, sat so close to each other that she could see his pale scalp showing where his hair grew thin, where she had once rubbed in a special ointment. She steeled herself: how inappropriate to be touched by his balding head. They stared straight ahead while the two lawyers, old friends, old golf buddies, talked as if their clients were not there:
"Will she take four thou a year for herself and the children?"
"Come on, Bill," her lawyer chuckled mirthlessly, "you know no one can live on that—"
* * *
Something not quite right. Edgar? Have him wear a shirt she had once bought him?—No.
Try first person: more urgent.
* * *
We met in his lawyer's office—a tactical disadvantage for me. This tight-lipped, tight-eyed stranger sitting next to me, avoiding my eyes, while my lawyer and his exchange meaningful smirks, this mortal enemy was once the boy I wanted desperately to marry. Once he was my young husband, the father of my children. I suddenly remembered the day Gregory was born, when the nurse said to him: "You may go in to see your baby now, Dr. Webb," how with a quick, nervous gesture he adjusted his tie before facing his son.
Inside him, does he carry the track of his history? Is there anything left of the Edgar I once knew? Is there anything in me of the Isabel he once loved, if he ever did, as I sit here, containing my nausea, waiting for the verdict from our two champions, now openly contemptuous of this neurotic couple caught on their hook? Perhaps (I wouldn't put it past him) he had paid them off, both of them. Possibly the lawyers themselves had prearranged the terms and were here just going through the motions. Perhaps I was doomed, whatever I said.
Now they are whispering to each other in the corner of the large book-lined room, while he, my almost-ex, my young husband, my old lecher, sits cracking his white knuckles and staring grimly at the wall.
When did it start to go bad, when did the end begin? In the secret fumbling, when we were new to each other and to ourselves, mistaking anxiety for love, curiosity for passion, the pattern of future destruction already there?
The abortion, the City Hall wedding, the ferryboat honeymoon voyage. The first bookcase in the first one-room apartment. The first mattress. The first easy chair, turned to face the corner of the room so that he could study for his exams undistracted. My first job in Macy's to help him open his first office. The first baby, the money struggles, the second baby. And then? When did it start? Was it when the marriage was announced, no longer a surreptitious titillation for him? Was it the first time he went off to ski while I stayed home with the children? Was it when he met what's her name? Or the other one? Is it too late now, while the two gladiators are standing there, examining each other's weapons, sharpening their own? Too late to do what? Undo the years? Touch hands? Say to each other: "Look, can't we ..." No. No and no. Never.
Now the lawyers are back in their seats; I try to read their faces. His looks smug, mine—indifferent. My husband, my killer, is sitting there with his knuckles, scared shitless he might have to give up another dollar, another chair or blanket to the wife he wishes dead. If she would only disappear, he is thinking. No, that's what I am thinking. If he would only cease to be. If he would go away and leave me, just as I am, with my apartment, my telephone, my furniture, my children—how good that would be. But we have to sit here and wait to hear what has been decided for us by the two grown-ups, who are smacking their lips over the kill.
"Look, Doc," his lawyer begins, "why don't you offer her five thou a year and promise to educate the kids. The boy, anyhow; the girl doesn't need college. The wife can live in a couple of rooms on that, she's able-bodied and ...
"I don't have five thousand. I just don't have it. I'm driving a rented car, I'm behind in my rent, I had to let my insurance lapse. I just don't have enough for two households. We can't afford a divorce."
"Come off it, Doc," my own gladiator says. "You're a professional man, you see twenty-thirty patients a day, you've got a seven-room office, don't give us that."
"Well, I'm a lousy businessman," my young love says. "I don't have the kind of money she thinks I have. Ask anyone—my nurse—anyone. I carry my patients mostly for nothing."
"The wife says you've got the letter C written down next to your patients," my lawyer continues. "That's for, CASH, isn't it?"
"No, no," Edgar's voice rises in agitation—"Not cash, I don't get paid in cash! The C is for—the C is ..." he cracks his knuckles again—"the C. That's not cash—that stands for Course of treatment. Not cash."
The lawyers exchange glances.
"We want ten grand a year, tax-free, and four each for the children until their majority," my lawyer says. Ten?
Since when did it become ten, when he had assured me: "We've got him over the barrel; we'll take him to the cleaner's. We'll get you half his income, his real income, not what he declares, and we'll make him educate his children, college, graduate school, the works."
"Maybe five and a half taxable a year," says his lawyer. "Maybe you can see your way to five and a half, tax-free to you, Doc? Isn't it worth it to get rid of her, this sick woman who needs a psychiatrist?"
"I can't—I just don't have it. I can manage four and a half, and that's the rock bottom."
Once in Mexico we had gone to the market, he and I, and he warned me in advance: "You've got to bargain with these people, they expect it. Whatever price they mention, you must offer half. Then you raise it a little—not much—they're all out to cheat the rich Americans!" I had learned a word: "Quanto?" "How much?"—then—"Too much!" What was that: "Troppo"? How do you say: "Not enough"?
"Nine thousand," my lawyer is nodding, "and educate the boy." But these were human lives that were being bargained off, not pottery, not rebozos. This is 1963—there are no slave marts: "What am I offered for this woman, college graduate, all her teeth—
I looked at my lawyer—no help there, nor any from his, nor from my husband, with that expression on his face he always gets when he talks about money, and I knew there was no other way but that terrifying one: "litigate."
"Then we'll just have to litigate," my lawyer announces. His nods. Is that what they had decided even before we met? Is it more profitable for them to drag it through court, to drag us through mud? "Court would be suicide for him," one of the lawyers I had consulted told me. "You can't litigate; you're too thin-skinned," another said. "Avoid court at all costs for the sake of the children; it will be carnage!" said the third one, what was his name? I must remember his name, it's very important, it's the way to hold on to sanity. I must think of something, anything outside this room; then go home and scrub myself in a hot shower. Let them do what they will, all three of them, there was no hope from them. Let them finish their bloody work and let me go, let me out of here, quick ...
"Well," says my lawyer, getting up and stretching, "I think we can sew this up in another session. Another meeting, and we'll come to a decision. If it's no go, then we'll litigate, after the summer, when I return to the city. How does that sit with you, Doc?"
My husband shrugs. His lawyer gets up too, extends his hand to me, the sick, neurotic woman who insists on a divorce. "Good to meet you. Thanks for coming."
Somehow, all four of us are crowding at the door. Nothing resolved, then? A whole summer to suffer through, sleeping on the mattress on the living room floor? I can no longer endure it.
My lawyer and I are walking side by side now, out of the elevator, out of the building. (But I forgot to say goodbye to my husband, flashes through my mind—)
"We can get seven and a half, I think," my lawyer is saying, "and you can manage on that, if you go to work, get a job. The kids will get along, scholarships, and so on. But if we go to court, I can promise you at least twice that much. Maybe more. Any judge will ... It will cost, you know, it will cost—my time and court costs, but it may be worth it to you. After all, you've got the rest of your life to think of, and we've got hubby where we want him, we've got the goods on him. Think about it, let me know. My advice is—litigate. We'll try to get you on the court calendar early fall, maybe October. In the meantime, don't discuss money with him. I've got to run now."
He disappears, my gladiator, into a passing taxi. I walk like an automaton down to the subway station.
Then it doesn't end?
Feb. 6, 1978
Here I am again, waving you as an excuse to avoid writing my book. I do try, but "a man cannot jump higher than his head," as Varya says. Nor woman, either. The Russians have a proverb for everything. Yes, I know I promised to tell you about her, and I will, perhaps in my next letter.
In the meantime, my friends are still trotting out men for me. I met a rather attractive one the other night at a dinner party—amusing, cultivated, rich, with silver hair and smoke-colored eyes. Not one of my usual lame ducks, but a weird duck. A bit of a poseur, I think: he speaks too many languages and smiles with too many teeth. I was on my guard with him, burnt child that I am. It looks as if he has skipped town. I doubt that I'll see him again.
Instead, fate brought me Professor Sumner Simms. Besides bearing a euphonious name, he's very strong on masculinity: tweedy, with carefully tailored leather patches on his elbows, and a proper pipe between his teeth. He's a friend of my brother's, who has thrust him upon me a few times in the hope that it would take. How can it, when the man wears on a gold chain on his vest the largest size Phi Beta Kappa key that is made? I almost felt I should wear my own in self-defense, but—
I'm afraid that seeing my key
Might upset his macho psyche!
Anyhow, he called for me last night to escort me to the EGG. You may well ask. The EGG stands for the English Graduate Group—an august society of pedants of which my brother Victor is an honored member.
The EGG was holding its annual Shakespeare Symposium. That's why Professor Simms was at my door.
"Please call me Sumner," he said winningly.
"But Professor Simms seems less formal, somehow." We compromised. He called me Jessica; I called him: "By the way." Not too sure of my Shakespeare, I said: "By the way, I'm going to take notes, so that I will look intelligent."
"You already," he said gallantly, "look intelligent."
That was the beginning of what proved to be a strange evening's entertainment. In the hallowed halls of the Pen & Quill Club, surrounded by books permanently embedded in oak-paneled walls and by huge oil portraits of scholars and founders, some thirty eminent Shakespearean scholars were assembled to discuss Shakespeare. Unfortunately, most of the evening was spent in the chairman's iambic attempt to collect dues. They all had to speak in Shakespeare's words, presumably recognizing the playful references. This delayed the meeting considerably. In fact, it took up the entire meeting. In order to appear scholarly, I took serious notes, some of which I will decipher here for you:
CHAIRMAN: As Mr. Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, so aptly put it: Be pleased, then, to pay that duty which you truly owe. Some members, alas, have been delinquent. You might reply: There lies no penalty in delay; but by my penny of observation, methinks that we should do what custom wills. So please pay up!
SCHOLAR 1: Out of my lean and low ability, I paid last week.
SCHOLAR 2: My poverty, but not my will consents.
SCHOLAR 3: You mean refuses.
SCHOLAR 2: I am not bound to please thee with answers.
SCHOLAR 4: Nothing will come of nothing.
SCHOLAR 5: I have been waiting ...
SCHOLAR 6: Like patience on a monument.
SCHOLAR 5: For the matter of this meeting.
SCHOLAR 7: More matter with less art.
CHAIRMAN: I am no orator as Brutus is. Was.
SCHOLAR 8: My noble friend, chew upon this: I will not pay this tariff.
And so it went, on and on. But before we exeunted, my Simms, my Sumner, delivered himself—with much embarrassed harrumphing—of a story he thought terribly risqué to tell a lady. Nevertheless, here it is: Seems a friend of his, an eminently eminent scholar in Oxford, was asked to attend an all-female performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at a girls' school. At the end of the play, he was asked to say a few words. He got up, thought for a moment, and said: "This is the first time in my life that I was privileged to see a female Bottom!"
To my credit let it be said I had the decency to blush.
I hope that is the end of Sumner Simms—and don't you dare make a pun of his name; it's already a pun.
You speak about my book. What I need is distance, objectivity, to be able to describe my Isabel, and her divorce. Perhaps I can even find some humor in the madness; for madness it is, a kind of temporary insanity. A friend going through a divorce called me the other day to tell me that her estranged husband has suddenly fallen in love with their sheets. "How many sheets do we have?" he keeps asking her. And who would believe the story of my own divorce, and that final day in court?
I've changed it, of course, in my novel. I've toned down, exaggerated, camouflaged reality. I've smudged the line between fact and fiction in describing the grotesque horrors, true and invented: the tapped phones, the photostats, the hamburger her friend sneaked into Isabel's bedroom, where she had barricaded herself, while Edgar stood guard outside. The doorknob she wore on a rope around her neck for days. The detective climbing the wooden ladder in the middle of the night into a stranger's window while she sat huddled in terror in his car.
I keep coming back to the same pain in the same circle: like your Sad Merry-Go-Round, it does not stop.
That pain may be my book. Not that I expect the fantastic success of yours—or maybe I do? So much I can do with the money: a trust fund for Jeremy and Jill ... Oops! There I go again, as self-sacrificing as my mother, who lived for gratitude and died without it. I am not my mother! I have to say that to myself a lot.
Dear Nina—I know: I must stop writing these long letters and get down to work.
Let's change the subject. I see that you're the "technical consultant" for your film, but what does that mean? Do you select actors? Examine carousels? Tell them what your book "really means"? Caught you doing that on TV last Friday—you were great! As for your latest interview in Time, I disagree with you; I thought it was fine. You look beautiful in your photo, even if you are holding your book, title outward, perched on a merry-go-round horse! It's obvious they love you. Me too—
P.S. I suddenly began making entries in my empty 1978 diary. I wonder why.
Excerpted from Love, etc. by Bel Kaufman. Copyright © 2012 Bel Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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