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Alix Kates Shulman (b. 1932) is the celebrated author of fourteen books, including the New York Times bestselling novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), which established her as a primary figure in feminism’s second wave. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Shulman studied philosophy at Columbia University and received an MA at New York University. She became a political activist, joining the Congress of Racial Equality in 1961 and the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1967. Her other novels include Burning Questions (1978), On the Stroll (1981), In Every Woman’s Life . . . (1987), and Ménage (2012). She has also written the memoirs Drinking the Rain (1995), A Good Enough Daughter (1999), and To Love What Is (2008);a biography of Emma Goldman entitled To the Barricades (1971); and A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays: Four Decades of Feminist Writing (2012). Shulman lives in Manhattan and continues to speak frequently on issues such as writing, feminism, and reproductive choice.
As the Orient Express lumbered into the subfreezing Munich Hauptbahnhof (and I fresh from Madrid!) to spew me onto the platform into the arms of my waiting husband, I was mistress of no grand schemes. I knew only that I had slightly under two minutes in which to bundle myself up, gather my dictionaries and belongings, fish out my ticket, and find the precise and perfect English words with which to shed my spouse. I knew he would be waiting, smiling, at the end of the platform, just one step beyond the ticket puncher, perhaps already holding out to me one of those sausages for which the Munich station was so famous and which—damn him—he knew I loved. There wouldn't be a moment to experiment with attitude or wording. By then I knew that to wait and see would be to hesitate, and to hesitate would be to lose. I had already in my four long years of marriage to Frank wasted too many chances of getting free by taking aim at him. This time I had to get him square between the eyes on the first shot or he would get me.
The letdown of getting settled into a pair of glum furnished rooms in that dreary northern European city that lacked even the distinction of being a capital had catapulted me south. Frank had his work; I had my nothing. Munich was certainly no place to spend a winter cooped up with a possessive husband in one of those postwar windowless houses six blocks beyond the last stop of the streetcar line; a house with endless locks and keys, a spying landlady, and no telephone. Only Fulbrights for friends in a foreign land. A waste of my youth!
"All right, go on to Spain, then," he had said when I pestered him for my ticket. "I'll use the time you're away to polish my piece on the German Question now that Intersection has shown some interest."
I had been careful not to show my delight. He was clearly ambivalent about my traveling.
"I'll try to bring some books for you from the library. Maybe you can pick up a little Spanish while you're there. Enjoy yourself; get it out of your system."
But obviously if I had really enjoyed myself, how could I ever get it out of my system? I had enjoyed myself too much to answer the letters he sent me in care of every American Express office south of Munich. I would have had to answer them with lies, and I wanted to live open and clean.
Well, my chance to prove my honesty was coming up fast. If he would only give me half the money I'd clear out of his life. He could keep the apartment and the furniture, no alimony, finish out the year here, and wait till New York for the lawyers. Simply reroute. I would go to ... Rome. Let him decide what to tell our friends; let him think of a story for the family. Let him save his face any way he could. Mine would take care of itself.
As the train screeched slowly to a stop, I took a final look in my mirror. Not bad, not good. I was losing my power to judge, now that I was twenty-four. I smoothed the bangs above my eyes, fluffed up my hair at the crown, flexed my smile. Looking good made everything easier. But I felt old—twenty-four and married and old; a has-been like last year's Miss America. Please God, I prayed, let me be beautiful at least until after my money runs out.
The rosy-cheeked clergyman with whom I had shared the compartment was saying "Auf wiedersehen, Fräulein" and extending his pudgy hand. Those handshaking Germans.
"Bye-bye," I said. They loved to hear you say bye-bye. His chattering away at me in German since just past Nancy had chased the Spanish rhythms from my ears and made me postpone my preparations until the last possible moment. And now he was insisting that I leave the compartment first, when I needed every extra second.
"Bitte," he said, holding the door for me and waiting.
"Danke," I said. And abandoning the last possibility of flight, I walked onto the platform into the lion's lair.
There was the lion himself, just as I had expected him, a step beyond the ticket puncher, grinning once he spotted me, and carrying an armful of anemones. As though I were returning from a short trip exactly on schedule.
Get him! But my words were not ready.
Achtung! Achtung! blasted the loudspeaker, as Frank glided up to me and gained the advantage by speaking first. Well, let him, I thought. I'll have the last word: bye-bye.
"Hi, baby. Welcome back. Did you have a good time?" All smiles, he held out the flowers to me. Flowers! They were the first flowers he had ever bought me; he was pulling something. Once when we were both students he had gathered a fistful of buttercups to turn our chins yellow. But that was different. These flowers were premeditated. How hateful of him to bring anemones that I loved, that open and close and grow taller so gaudily right before your eyes, like a time-lapse film. It was as though he knew ... But suddenly it struck me that of course he didn't know. At that moment I knew everything and Professor knew nothing. It was I who intended to act, I who had the advantage. I was ready to exert all my power—the only kind of power a woman has. Until the night before when I had wired him about my imminent arrival on the Orient Express, he had surely considered me one of the missing or departed; but now he thought me his wife come home from a little trip. He didn't even suspect that I intended to leave him forever. He thought I would let him correct my spelling and teach me German, that I would cook him weisswurst and entertain his friends and explore Bavarian churches while he did his work, and be flattered to belong to him. He didn't even suspect the truth. I avoided his kiss by thrusting my suitcase at him. He put it down. With one arm around my back he squeezed my shoulders and placed a husbandly kiss on my cheek. "Welcome home," he said tenderly with the joy of possession, each syllable visible as a puff of steam in the freezing air of the station.
His words were visible objects in the air. And where were my words?
It was all I could do to keep my knees from trembling. Could he not have noticed how rotten I looked? It should have been so easy for me simply to blurt out the truth. Then why did it seem to be such a dirty business instead? Maybe because I knew Frank believed exactly what he wanted to believe, no more, no less. His cup of tea did not include the dregs, though the dregs are the tea. His brew was nothing but vapor.
"God, I missed you. Why didn't you write?" he asked. But of course he couldn't allow me to answer such a dangerous question. Quickly he asked instead, "What happened to you?" switching me over from active to passive.
How I wished I could tell him that nothing happens to me, that it is I who happen to them, true or not. How I wished I could tell him ... "A lot happened," I said. Now. Tell him now. But the loudspeaker interrupted with its Achtungs and I lost my nerve.
"I was worried about you. Didn't you get my letters? I wrote you everywhere I could think of. Well. Now you've traveled. I hope that's finished! I hope it's all out of your system. Now that you're back, I'll never let you out of my sight again. God, I missed you." A train starting up drowned him out. He squeezed my arm and yelled, "Come on. Let's get some sausages and you can tell me about your adventure. Here, take these." He succeeded finally in handing me the flowers; then he picked up my suitcase.
Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty? Now he was going to try to stall off my revelations with sausages, buy my silence with anemones. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him bouncing too jovially along through the station carrying my bag, his long legs rushing ahead of him as though they had some place important to take him, and I knew it was only a matter of moments until the right words would come to me, the words with which to tell him the truth. I would use his words, his vaporous vocabulary.
"Frank. Wait. Before we go for sausages there's something I have to tell you."
"What?" he asked smiling at me. Always smiling. He didn't even put down my suitcase or slow his walking to hear what I had to say. He didn't seem to remember that all the while I was away I hadn't written him a single letter.
"I was unfaithful to you, Frank." Casually I brushed the bangs out of my eyes. "In Madrid."
He didn't move a muscle, not even to drop the smile. But I knew I had struck him. I could proceed, knowing the words would come easily. How much better to tell the truth than to try to hide it. After that I was sure only the formalities could keep me here and for only a little while, like waiting around after a funeral, and then I would be free to go.
But I took no chances. Solemnly, officially, I said, "I know how you feel about it. I know that's the end of us." His turn now.
Yes, he heard me. He began slowing down. Finally he stopped walking entirely. He stood looking at me, picking up my suitcase and putting it down again, like a twitch. His mouth hung open a little, letting the truth seep in. He wiped a hand on his overcoat. Then out he came with it, his simple, automatic response: "No!" Softly at first, then increasing in volume in minute increments of decibels. "No! No! No!" I knew him well enough to recognize each one of them. What a variety of no's, relieved now and then by a synonym or a paraphrase: "You didn't," "I don't believe you," "It isn't true," "You couldn't have." A barrage of negatives. The no's allowed me for another instant to hate him. Listen to him! I said to myself triumphantly, justifying. But there was really no time for that, and besides, justifying would be a trap. No, I needed simply to press my advantage and be gone.
"Yes," I whispered to him, unsure of its effect. "Yes," I repeated softly between bites at the station sausage stand, gently, trying to suppress the note of triumph. But there it was on the counter between us, gaudy as the anemones, our basic matrimonial dispute: "No!" "Yes!" "I won't let you!" "I shall!" "It's a lie!" "It's the truth!" "You didn't!" "I did!"
Unfaithful. It was a word he could understand, a concept he could manipulate, a clean, abstract, intelligible word, implying order. Order violated, but order all the same. Though he held his face in his hands while I finished my last bite of sausage, I knew he would be all right when I left. He would wring his hands and say to our friends, "She was unfaithful," and he would believe, in my corruption and his purity, and then he would get himself another wife.
"You leave me no choice at all. That's it, you know," he threatened.
"I know," I said, accepting the gambit.
He looked at me hard, frowning and biting his lower lip the way he did when he was working, and then he risked asking, "Don't you care?"
Desperate question. What could I say to him? Poor guy, but it was him or me. "I guess I don't love you any more. I don't belong to you any more." Well, at least it was the truth. I looked down into my beer. After a suitable number of seconds had elapsed I took a swallow. (Any sooner and he would have said, Put down your mug and listen to me!)
"Haven't I allowed you everything? How could you do this to me? Why?"
To him. I shrugged.
"Why did you feel you had to do it?"
Do it. He was as slippery as sperm. No, no—I refused to defend! "I didn't have to do it. I felt like it."
"I don't know, I guess because there wasn't any reason not to."
"I'm the reason not to. Because you're married to me. Because you made a commitment. You promised me you wouldn't," he said puffing up. Puff. Puff.
Technically I had promised. But under protest. Now he would lose me on a technicality. I had promised only because he had insisted. To calm him. Lies.
"But I didn't have to tell you about Madrid, did I?" I said. "So the promise wasn't really a reason not to do it, was it? It was only a reason not to tell you."
"Quite right. Yes. You promised at least not to tell me. But now you've told me. And now it's too late. Why did you have to tell me? I wish we could wipe it out and forget about it." Again, he held his face in his hands.
Would it have been unkind of me to point out to him how often he had read over my shoulder my letters to and from my friends, trying to find out? Did he want to know or didn't he? Generously, I pointed out nothing.
"I told you because I know it will happen again. Because you won't let me breathe. It will happen again and you'll find out. I hate lies!"
He blew his nose, snorting loudly. I was embarrassed. It would make red veins on his nostrils and blue veins on his neck. Was he going to carry on in the railroad station? On the radio someone was singing a Dietrich song:
Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt
Und das ist meine Welt, und sonst gar nichts.
"If it's okay with you I'd like to go home now," I said, getting out my mirror. "I have a lot to do. I feel as though I haven't had a bath in a month. I'll try to be out of here in a day or two, three at the most. That sound all right to you?" I looked worse than I should; I had to see a doctor. I put away the mirror and stood up.
"We'll need to talk a bit first," he said, trying to compose himself.
"Okay. We can talk if you want." It was the least I could offer.
He gazed through to the back of my head, out of focus, saying nothing. I started to walk toward the exit. I knew he would follow me. He left some money on the counter and caught up, lugging my suitcase with one hand, the anemones, which I had forgotten, in the other. He slid up in time to hand me back the flowers and open the door. At the curb he took my elbow commandingly and guided me through the insane Munich traffic to the narrow island where the trolleys stopped. Never forgot his place or mine. Oh, well, I was too weary to mind; I would let him protect me from the traffic, Munich was such a cold and hostile city.
On the island Frank gathered up his wits. "You don't look changed," he mustered with a faint smile.
"Please. Let's not talk about how I look. I've been sick. One of the things I have to do before I leave is see a good German doctor."
"What's the matter?"
"I don't really know. I saw a doctor in Madrid, but he didn't help. These Catholic doctors ..."
"What did he say?"
"Something about hormones. And he gave me some pills. I took them for a while, but now I'm afraid to take any more. I think it's crazy to play around with hormones, don't you? I just hope I'm not pregnant," I said laughing and pushing my hair off my forehead.
"Pregnant?" He blinked.
"It's really very unlikely; I always used my diaphragm. It's just that I missed my last period. But that could be for a lot of reasons."
He looked around to see if anyone was listening to our conversation. "How could you?" he whispered. As if anyone there could understand us or would care. All the people squeezed onto the narrow concrete island were straining to see what number trolley was approaching or trying to keep the wind out of their faces. No one paid the slightest attention to us.
A number-five trolley pulled up behind a number-six and stopped, bells clanging. Frank put down my suitcase and got out a sufficient number of pfennigs. The conductor punched two tickets methodically in several secret places and waved us on, giving the suitcase a shove.
Settled in the back of the car, Frank looked hard at me. "You planned it," he said.
"You took your diaphragm with you. You planned to be unfaithful."
Oh Christ. "I did not."
"Of course you did. Don't lie."
I refused to answer. I was still saving my last word. It was not true that I "planned" it in the way that he meant. But when you came right down to it, what difference did it make whether I left him two months before or was leaving him then? Poor Professor, out of focus, worrying the wrong question.
"I never go anywhere without it—like you and your spare glasses. We all have to look out for ourselves. But that's not planning anything."
He didn't answer. Perhaps he didn't even hear me.
Excerpted from Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen by Alix Kates Shulman. Copyright © 1985 Alix Kates Shulman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted June 17, 2012
Posted August 27, 2000
I can only imagine what this book must have meant for women 25 years ago, being the first of its kind that they could turn to. Amazing that although I am a child of a 'liberated' America, Sasha and I still face some of the same conflicts and questions. A must read
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