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By PHILLIP LOPATE
Copyright © 2008
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Chapter One MAY 14
I would like to record here, in this brand-new notebook of twenty-two lines per page, with my new Rollerball pen, the story of my marriage as it unfolds. Why? Because a good marriage deserves to be examined as well as commemorated, it requires alertness, vigilance. All unhappy marriages are actually alike (pace Tolstoy), the two partners endlessly miserable because they fail to communicate, and the wellsprings of mutual affection dried up, replaced by petty malice. But each happy marriage is at once a miracle and a complex mechanism, like a Swiss clock whose successful inner workings, once analyzed, could conceivably offer hope to conjugal sufferers everywhere.
Of course it may be that there is nothing to analyze, I am simply lucky, having stumbled upon a paragon for a wife. Rita is a jewel, a tired metaphor, I admit, but clichés become so only because they convey a grain of truth (itself a cliché), and by comparing my wife to a jewel, I simply mean she is radiant, beautiful, kind, affectionate, skillful, exciting, and many-faceted. If I dote on her good points, so be it; of all possible flaws, uxoriousness is the one I most cheerfully own. What is the point of laboring to find imperfections in a woman where none exist? Just to reassure the jaded literary palate that mistakenly assumes you must mix in some bad with good to draw a credible portrait? But supposing there is no bad? I would rather take the risk of boring my readers, or inviting their disbelief, than to calumniate my wife by ascribing to her imaginary flaws.
Myself, I have faults aplenty, enough to sustain the interest of any narrative. I am insecure, timid, either too lazy or perfectionist to accomplish anything with my modest intellectual gifts, overly sensitive and quick to take offense, surprisingly cruel on occasion, a procrastinator, selfish, petulant, introverted, melancholic, and now, on top of all that, thanks to my newfound marital happiness, complacent. How to avoid the spiritual sloth of self-satisfaction? That is a new problem for me. Will it placate the reader somewhat if I confess I have known little joy in life, before this uncharacteristic plunge into bliss? I will go further: I have always regarded myself as having a stunted capacity for happiness. Just for that reason, I have cultivated resignation in the face of what seemed inevitable disappointment, hence my attraction to Stoicism. But that ancient philosophy and my study of Stoicism are matters too convoluted to talk about here just yet, especially in a marriage manual! Besides, I hear Rita coming in downstairs, so I will put this journal away until tomorrow.
I was not able to get to this diary the last two days, because of errands, domestic details, and whatnot, and besides, I told you I was lazy. Happiness alone eats up much of my time, saps my will to communicate with others, even future readers of this diary. Yesterday I was looking over at Rita as she sat beside me on the couch, sewing. She was wearing a red cotton skirt with a white lotus pattern, and a white blouse with red ribbon that bunched or cinched at the neck, and she had a camellia in her hair. I should mention Rita is from the Philippines, and has gorgeous straight black hair reaching almost to the small of her back. Her Philippine background offers a fascinating blend, for me, of the familiar and the exotic. Since both my parents were born in Spain (Salamanca, to be precise, where my father was a professor of law at that famous university), even though I grew up in Brooklyn, I find we have much in common: Philippine culture also has a strong Spanish Catholic base, the rituals are similar, the people very family-oriented. And yet there is an Asian tinge in Filipino women, their almond eyes, slender curvaceous figures, which I find irresistibly attractive. Morally, though one shouldn't generalize, of course, Spaniards tend to be overwhelmed with guilt, especially in carnal matters, while Filipinos have a more easygoing, free-flowing approach to sex, which I think of as the South Pacific sea-breeze influence. Another "Asian" quality in Rita is her self-sufficiency, her delicacy, her unhurried equanimity, if I may be permitted to indulge a little longer this lamentable stereotyping, which, however, as I said earlier about clichés, may contain a grain of truth, unless that is simply another rationalization for lazy thinking. In any case, I was looking over at Rita on the couch yesterday, in the late afternoon, and I was so amazed at her beauty that I thought, this can't be my wife! How did I merit the love of this unaffected, sweet, astonishingly pretty, naturally elegant woman, with such round yet chiseled cheekbones, and with that adorable dimpled smile? For a second I even wondered if she were a laser projection, so unrealistic did my good fortune seem to me. You will smile when I tell you that I actually placed my hand on her ankle, just to make sure she was real. She gave me a tender look and returned to her sewing. Then I squeezed her foot to make doubly sure. Yes, she was real all right, unless laser technology has made amazing strides and now includes a tactile dimension, for when I squeezed her foot, she let out an owl, which no laser projection could do, although there are those dolls, come to think of it, that make a similar moan when you bend them at the waist. Now here is the part I find peculiar: in the midst of exulting at my good luck, I suddenly felt heavyhearted, disconsolate, don't ask me why. Maybe my feeling of laser estrangement came from doubting not her reality but my own. What was I doing in this picture, I, clumsy Gordon, with my roly-poly belly and thinning, wiry hair and inky beard and glasses? How can such a goddess be my wife?
I think it would be helpful to recount the stages by which we got to this point, Rita and I, the origins of our affection, our courtship, and our marriage. It is a delightful story, one I love to review in minutest detail, though it does have its painful aspects, since Rita came into my life at about the same time my mother departed from it. These two images, Mother on her deathbed and Rita's miraculous arrival, are linked in my brain, much as horse and man combine to make a centaur, to use a ridiculous analogy.
Let me back up a bit. I need to explain that I am an only child. My mother doted on me, as did my teachers, the nuns, everyone, heaven knows why. I am one of those who grew from a brilliant boy into a commonplace man, the old story of the wunderkind who discovers as soon as he leaves childhood's protected circumstances for the larger world that he is in fact nothing special. Not only did I lack an original perspective, I also lacked the "fire in the belly," to use that abominable phrase applied to politicians and artists, which might have allowed me to impose my will on the world regardless of limited talents. A disappointment, I suspect, to my parents, I was on the whole a good son. After my father passed away, I tried to ease my mother's sorrow by looking in on her as much as possible, especially after she became ill. She had been the best of all mothers when I was a boy, a sacrificing angel, but in her old age she became, why not admit it, quarrelsome, demanding, and difficult. She refused to be relocated to a nursing home or even an assisted-living community, which I can understand, but since she was patently unable to take care of herself, and kept falling down and breaking her hip, or forgetting that she had left something on the stove, I had to move back into my mother's house, the same house where I had been raised, to take care of her. Here I was, a bachelor in my late forties, approaching fifty, once again living with my mother. I felt myself to be an object of condescension, and the implication I saw (or imagined, let us be fair) in people's eyes was that I was an overgrown mama's boy or closeted homosexual, as many people assume all aging bachelors to be. Of course, people are free to think what they choose. But if you were in my shoes, loving your incapacitated elderly mother, you might very well have done the same thing I did. It is a sad commentary on our age that taking filial responsibility for one's infirm parent should be seen as neurotic.
To make matters worse, I myself felt that by moving back home I was in some sense regressing, so that any faint smirk I detected on others' faces was matched by my own inner smirk. Let me note in passing that all my life I've sensed I was being laughed at. I don't speak here in a paranoid manner; I simply mean that people tend to regard me as an amusing distraction, not to be taken absolutely seriously. It has something to do with my being pudgy, I believe, not fat exactly, but chunky (which is how I got the childhood nickname Gordo), and American culture equates being overweight with being clownish. Any ability to project myself as a romantic lead has been compromised by my belly: most of the pretty women I pursued quickly decided I was not infatuation material. I would never be the love of their life, so why blame them for their giving me the gate? Those women who were crazy about me (there have been a few) saw me as a kind of huggy bear, and I could not recognize my gloomy self in their adorable-panda misperceptions. Foolishly, perhaps, I felt suffocated by their undifferentiated approval, as if it was evidence of not being taken seriously enough. My mother, of course, took me very seriously, I was her only child-too seriously, you might say. Now Rita, my wife, takes me seriously, but not too seriously, she is able to laugh at me-I wonder if a part of her wasn't always laughing at me, which is fine, all the better, I would not hold it against her if she was laughing at me, since we are all ridiculous, myself more than most. What I like is that she is affectionate but does not smother me with gush. She has a restraint, a reserve, an instinct for privacy, which suits me. I often sense I am approaching her diagonally, that is, I am facing her head-on and she is turned to the side. I am reminded when I look at her of that Gauguin painting where the woman is holding the slice of watermelon. A good deal of her charm lies in the graceful way her shoulders and neck carry her beautiful head. She lifts her head like a doe, and as you approach her, you see one eye, not both. I am speaking metaphorically, of course. I often see both her eyes at once, but there remains this impression of a one-eyed doe, I don't know how to explain it any better, forgive me.
Partly I like to approach her from the side or from behind, because I am crazy about her skin. She has amazingly smooth, unblemished brown skin, a glowing cocoa color, with a cinnamon tinge. The underside of her arm is white and smooth. And her smell! I could write pages just about that smell, with its hint of jasmine and coconut, and the sheen on her skin, its suppleness to the touch. The other day she had on an orange shift, very simple, gathered at the waist, that stopped just above her ankles (she was wearing some high-heeled sandals with sage-leaf decorations), that left her shoulders bare. The combination of that tangerine color against her light brown skin was delicious-all the more so because I would never have predicted those two shades would go well together.
I see, reading over my last entry, that I did not get very far in recounting the circumstances of our courtship. I am going to have to be more disciplined in bringing these entries to a narrative point. The problem is, I am torn between shaping this diary as a publishable account, which means throwing in all sorts of tiresome background information I already know but readers won't, and exploring for just my own amusement those day-to-day enchantments of life with Rita that lead me into a thicket of digression or, worse, inane nonsense, such as that comparison of her to a one-eyed doe. Really! No wonder I never accomplished much with my previous literary efforts, those contrived sestinas, poems in Latin, and abandoned Chekhovian short stories of my youth.
When Mother started failing, after her last chemotherapy treatment for bone marrow cancer, I bought her a special adjustable bed, the kind they use in hospitals, and stocked her room with a portable commode, a wheelchair, mountains of flesh sheets, pillows, and towels, and a bell. I also set about finding a team of nurses who could administer round-the-clock palliative care. One of the nurses at St. Barnabas, the hospital where Mother had gone for treatment, was a sharp Filipino woman named Gloria, who ran her own little business on the side, a sort of medical booking agency supplying at-home professional care. These nurses brought their brisk buoyant manner into our home, and mostly Mother loathed them, she disparaged them constantly. The pillows were an especial source of grievance, because the sicker she became, the fussier, and they had to be arranged just so, which sometimes took all morning. I kept trying to humor Mother, while feeling sorry for these women, who struck me as doing a decent job, maybe not perfect, but competent. On top of all that, you can't imagine how costly such a nursing staff turned out to be! I'm not saying we didn't have the money, but I was growing alarmed by these staggering monthly bills, thinking that if Mother was to endure, at this level of care, for several more years, it might bankrupt us.
The compromise I arrived at with Gloria was that we would employ a combination of nurses and less expensive, unlicensed attendants. As it happened, the one helper Mother could stand was a pretty attendant named (you guessed it) Rita. She was newly arrived in America, on a tourist visa, and she still had that island way of walking, that sensual sashay of the hips from side to side that conveyed an unhurried pace, in other words, the lower half of her body had not yet grown numb to her, as happens in advanced capitalist societies. She had straight, shiny black hair almost down to her waist, with an enticingly voluptuous figure (the Filipino costumes she wore outlined her body with startling accuracy), long thin shapely legs like a model's, and a composed, harmoniously symmetrical face, smoldering brown eyes, full lips which would most charmingly and unexpectedly break into a playful, dimpled smile.... I see I am rapidly descending into mush, as often happens when the average person with no literary flair attempts to describe, feature by feature, a beauty's beauty. Let me try again. Here is what I noticed: her face was at once youthful and wise, she looked at first to be only in her mid-twenties (I later learned she was thirty-six), but clearly was no stranger to hardship, poverty, some species of trouble, which she had absorbed with equanimity, like a palm tree buffeted but not broken by tropical storms. (Ugh! Ridiculous.)
My mother, as I say, liked her. "Get me Rita," she would moan when someone else was on call. She refused to let anyone else bathe her, or comb her hair, or help with the niceties of toilette that women, even at death's door, insist upon. Rita would tease her with made-up stories, the way one might a child. They would invent gossip about the doctor or the mailman, and I would sometimes come upon them giggling like two sisters, in their own little world. You can't imagine what a relief it was to see my mother lighthearted, even for five minutes a day. This attendant, this Rita, had the gift of a tranquil spirit: she brought happiness and cheer to everyone, with her dazzling smile.
As she ministered to my mother, I could not help being aware of her alluring presence. I was, in spite of myself, aroused. I would follow her with my eyes, inadvertently, and sometimes she would catch me looking at her and smile almost as though giving me permission to admire her. As though she knew I was having erections just by looking at her. Let us be honest, sickrooms attract an erotic current. All that interminable waiting, that grim attention to the invalid's body despair, provokes a perverse counter-response, a will to thrive and embrace beauty. We, the healthy, form a stronger bond, even if we were but strangers a day ago, than is possible between the one entering death's black waters and those of us watching on the shore. Our complicit glances make us akin to criminal accomplices, or else it is that we share guilt from not being able to alter the inevitable. In any case, sitting in my chair beside the sickbed, holding my mother's liver-spotted, bony hand, I began to have remarkably vivid fantasies of taking this young woman in my arms and ravishing her, at the very moment I should have been devoting my every thought to the one who had brought me into this world....
Excerpted from two marriages by PHILLIP LOPATE
Copyright © 2008 by Phillip Lopate. Excerpted by permission.
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