First Comes Love

First Comes Love

by Marion Winik

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First Comes Love by Marion Winik

  A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

   When Marion Winik fell in love with Tony Heubach during a wild Mardi Gras in New Orleans, her friends shook their heads.  For starters, she was straight and he was gay.  But Marion and Tony's impossible love turned out to be true enough to produce a marriage and two beautiful sons, true enough to weather drug addiction, sexual betrayal, and the AIDS that would kill Tony at the age of thirty-seven, twelve years after they met. 
   In a memoir heartbreaking and hilarious by turns, Marion Winik tells a story that is all more powerful for the way in which it defies easy judgments.  As it charts the trajectory of a marriage so impossible that it became inevitable, First Comes Love reminds us—poignantly indelibly—that every story is a special case.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307556141
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/16/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 623,797
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

  Marion Winik is heard regularly on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."  She was the recipient of a 1993 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction and has been voted Favorite Local Writer by the readers of the Austin Chronicle for four consecutive years.  First Comes Love won the Violet Crown Award for Best Book by an Austen Writer, 1996, from the Austen Writer's League.  The author of Telling, she lives in Austen, Texas, with her two sons.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read an Excerpt


Tony has never looked more beautiful than he does right now, sleeping, his features sculpted and glowing by the light of the candles. They are the Mexican kind, in tall glasses, two white and two blue as he requested, arranged in a semicircle around our wedding photograph: my gauzy veil, his spiky hair, our wide, giddy smiles. Under the edge of the picture's vermilion frame, he has slipped another photo, a dreamy-looking sepiatone postcard of a woman dancing that someone gave him on his birthday in the hospital last month; she seems only half there, as if she had turned the corner into another dimension.

On the lower shelf of the night table, there are two goblets of red wine, still full, along with Tony's rimless eyeglasses, which I just took off for him. The table is one of a pair he bought at an estate sale, then stripped and painted and drizzled with wavy lines of pink and white paint-a typical Tony home improvement project in that it took almost a year and he ran out of paint before he finished all the boomerang-shaped decks. Its twin stands on the other side of the bed, a firm and lovely king-size model that we acquired when I was pregnant with Vince and damned if I would go through another pregnancy on that old futon of ours. Flanked by these tables, the bed has always reminded me of the Starship Enterprise, about to take off for the final frontier.

I have been watching Tony sleep for almost twelve years, on and off, since the early days when I was so keyed up and hungry that at night I lay wide-eyed beside him, gazing at him, examining him, drinking and eating him with my eyes. In the morning, I would wake up first, make coffee, come back to bed to look some more. I filled sketchbooks with drawings of him sleeping. The dark lashes against the cheek, the long arm thrown out against the pillow, the fingers curled slightly toward the palm. Years later, I took a series of photographs of him napping with Hayes; in the first, a few days after Hayes's birth, they are sleeping on the lambskin baby spread together and there is that arm again, the baby no longer than the distance from wrist to elbow.

When you think how much of a person's beauty is in their eyes, it is astonishing how beautiful they can be with them closed in sleep, perhaps as when you suddenly notice how talented the members of a chorus line are once the stars of the show have left the stage. Finally, you can look at something else. His hair, for instance, cut the way I like it best, long in front, short at the sides and back. We call it the don't-ever-change do because he alternates between this and more extreme cuts, and whenever he returns to this look, my mother and her friends at the club say, Don't ever change. It is beautiful hair, thick and shiny, a sandy forelock jutting forward and slanting down almost into his eyes. He's been complaining of its falling out and changing texture from the medication, but I don't see it, only that the color didn't lighten this year because he didn't spend that much time outside. Normally, his hair bleaches almost blond every summer, the color it was when he was a boy, the color Hayes's and Vince's is now.

The boys look so much like him, especially Hayes; I've seen a picture of Tony at nine, ice-skating on a pond, that could easily be our son. Hayes doesn't quite have the eyebrows yet, the thick, dark Italian brows Tony inherited from his mother. Beneath them, Tony's closed eyelids are shadowy and delicate, almost waxen, set deep in the rim of bone. The long planes of his cheeks are made of coarser stuff, less than smooth since the last shave, and I know just how they move, how they crease when he smiles, how they suck in when he smokes, how they work when he is angry, and all this is there in their stillness.

His nose is perfect, long but not too long, thin but not too thin, with a slight boyish lift at the tip, and some of this is thanks to the miracle of plastic surgery. When we met, our nose jobs were just another of the many amazing things we had in common. His was broken in a fight at a New Orleans movie theater years before I met him, over a parking space, I believe.

His mouth, wide and beautiful, deeply colored, the etched V of the upper lip and the sensual push of the lower over the clefted chin, lips I have kissed so many times and I am kissing them now, brushing them gently and then I can't keep my hand from fluttering over his shoulder, along his collarbone, inside his shirt, the soft hair on his flat chest and stomach, God he is so thin. He has always been slender, but now his bones have nothing to cushion them, they are jutting out everywhere, awkward and raw and painful to look at. Oh, the five thousand nights this body and I curled together against the cold and the dark, I want to pull him to me again, feel how the curve of his butt fits in the cup of my hips, my belly against the small of his back, my breasts against his shoulder blades, my leg slipped between his.

And I would lightly trace the slight curve down to the forest of black hair and his penis, do I dare touch it, it is heavy and somnolent, the thick weight of it curled over my palm, now I am remembering everything and I have to let go I am scaring myself should I call the doctor his breathing is thick and labored and I have to pull away, it is an action before it is a thought. The thought is to take a photograph, is that grotesque? I don't know I don't care it is too quiet between these difficult congested breaths quick take the picture then get out of here the boys' Polaroid is on the dresser and I am looking for the right angle I am barefoot standing on the end of the bed standing over him with a camera taking the last picture I will ever take of Tony and he is so beautiful, my poor sick angry dying junkie baby is so beautiful, released finally from his sickness and his anger and his junk and even his dying and he was so brave! so goddamn brave and calm and sure and clear, no self-pity, no fear, not a victim anymore. I felt it all day long. He was casual, smoking cigarettes, laughing a little, kvetching a little, still Tony, but he was walking straight toward someplace else without looking back. It was almost holy, it is holy now and takes away my unsureness and unclearness and worries about motives and power, right and wrong, and I see now this is his, this is his.

I am sitting on the edge of the bed, if I were not so numb my heart would be breaking, if it were not already broken my heart would be breaking, I am drinking the wine in big sips, the fancy red wine he wanted, and I am waiting for the Polaroid to develop. It is coming out with a greenish cast, not beautiful and rosy like he looks. The breathing is getting worse and worse and I am afraid to be here but I can't leave. Jesus Christ, Tony, did you really do this? Did I really let you? Are you really leaving?

Oh baby oh baby, I whisper, saying it to him and to myself, finally crying after the eerie calm of this whole long day, the chaos of this whole long week, this whole long month, these many years of everything that could never happen happening and happening, for better and worse, for breakfast and babies, for road trips and fistfights, till death, that stupid unthinkable, out in the corridor all along, comes in with his noisy vacuum cleaner to do us part.


When you drive into New Orleans on I-10 early in the morning, it takes a while to realize you have actually arrived. The city rises slowly from the swamps, wrapped in an old gray bathrobe of a morning sky, her suburbs sprawling around like grown children too lazy to leave home. Unlike cities that spring frantically into action at dawn, New Orleans seems to be waiting for breakfast in bed, her morning rush hour drenched in languor.

I had been in the car for thirty-two hours, driving for the last eight, speeding down the deserted interstate, feeling the truckstop caffeine catch hold in my blood, seeing only the cone of light boring through the blackness ahead of me. My miasma of gloom had begun to lift. Now the sky was light and downtown lay ahead. The scents of car exhaust and bayou and doughnuts floated in on the chilly air like ghostly fingers in a cartoon, beckoning the muddled hero to adventure.

I followed Shelley's botanically detailed directions into town, off the highway and up St. Charles Avenue, a wide boulevard lined by antebellum mansions with wrought-iron gates, divided by the grassy track of the old-fashioned streetcar. I was supposed to turn left at a house with a big magnolia tree. Sandye, I said, nudging her. Wake up, honey. You gotta help me.

When Sandye, my best friend since elementary school and currently one of my roommates in New York, had suggested we drive down and visit our friends Shelley and Pete in New Orleans over Mardi Gras, I was unenthusiastic. I was in a serious year-long tailspin after a disastrous love affair and had become nearly addicted to heroin and misery in the process. At twenty-four, I had melodramatically decided my life was over, my prospects nonexistent. Leaving town would be pointless even if it was chemically feasible.

Sandye, however, was on a rescue mission and refused to take no for an answer. She had been down to Shelley and Pete's earlier that year and regaled me with descriptions of their funny little apartment in the Garden District, of Pete's gumbos and red beans and crawfish, of their friend Tony, the gorgeous gay iceskater, who would give us free drinks at the bar he worked at in the French Quarter. It sounds like fun, I said vaguely, just to appease her.

The plan gathered momentum without me, however, and soon my sister Nancy and her boyfriend Steven, with whom we shared a pathetic fifth-floor walk-up in the no-man's-land between the West Village and Chelsea, were planning to fly down and join us. In the process of working on me, Sandye had managed to sign up one of my classmates from the MFA writing program at Brooklyn College, a woman I worked with at the Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center, and a guy we met one night at a bar. On the appointed day, they all showed up and shoved me into the car. I don't think it even occurred to anyone that this rest cure they were dragging me off to was in fact one of the largest-scale public debauches in the civilized world.

I was not much of an asset the first three-quarters of the trip, having done a big farewell shot of dope before I left the house. Once it wore off, too much drugs, too little sleep, and dragging myself to work and to school every day caught up with me and I was comatose through many large central and southern states. Finally, around Birmingham, I woke up in the crowded backseat.

Let me drive for a while, I said, sliding forward so that the sleeping bodies on either side of me collapsed together.

All yours, said Sandye, ready for a nap herself.

She came instantly back to life when I woke her on St. Charles and, after using the rearview mirror to reapply her Frankly Fuchsia lipstick and refasten the many plastic barrettes in her black curly hair, she and my writing-program friend successfully identified not only a magnolia but a Japanese plum, a crape myrtle, and an azalea bush, leading us ultimately to our destination, a run-down Victorian mansion which had been converted to apartments, at the corner of Second and Chestnut. It was not yet 7 A.M. on Tuesday, February 8, 1983, when we did our clowns-from-a-Volkswagen routine in front of the house.

The door was answered by a tall, slender young man with honey-colored hair, clear brown eyes, and a long, arrestingly handsome face. Tony! Sandye cried, throwing her arms around him.

Welcome back, Miss Thing, he said, smiling over her head at the rest of us.

Shelley and Pete emerged from the shadows behind him in their faded T-shirts and messy hairdos. Neither was much taller than five feet, and next to Tony they looked shorter than that. They weren't big huggers, but seemed glad to see us in their don't-make-a-big-deal-out-of-it way.

The five of us, the three of them, and all our stuff gradually relocated from the front stoop into the one-room apartment, where a pot of chicory coffee, a case of generic beer, and a jar of Pete's famous pickled eggs awaited on a folding metal bridge table in the center of the combination bedroom/living room/dining room/recording studio/printmaking shop. Introductions were made, and we milled around the room eating and drinking for a while without saying much. Once the coffee kicked in, Shelley whipped out a parade schedule and started filling us in on Mardi Gras activities and customs. Her tiny figure, long, unraveling red braids, granny glasses, and raggy clothes made her look like a porcelain music-box figurine on its day off.

I was trying to pay attention but found myself seriously distracted by Tony, who was stretched out on Pete and Shelley's spartan, army-blanketed twin bed, reading the paper. He was still wearing his work outfit from an all-night shift at the bar-a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black jeans, and pointy-toed ankle boots.

I'll make another pot, Tony said as the last cup of coffee was poured, hopping up from the bed and going into the kitchen. When he came back, he sat at the table next to Shelley. The two of them started going over the parade listing more closely, trying to see what he could fit in around his work schedule.

Something about him was drawing me like a magnet. Maybe it was his East Coast way of talking-it turned out he'd grown up an hour and a half away from my New Jersey hometown, in a suburb north of Philadelphia-or maybe the wide, boyish smile that revealed his chipped front tooth. Whatever it was, after about fifteen minutes it became so intense I had to go sit in his lap. I didn't even think about it, I just did it.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Reading Group Guide

1. Marion Winik has chosen a quotation from Giacomo Casanova to begin her narrative. How does this quotation apply to her life, and to Tony's?

2. Why do you think Marion was so strongly attracted to Tony, knowing as she did from the first that he was gay? How can you explain their mutual need for one another? How does Marion explain it? Do you find her explanation convincing?

3. "Miz Rain say value. Values determine how we live much as money do. I say Miz Rain stupid there. All I can think she don't know to have NOTHIN'"[p. 66]. Which opinion do you agree with, or is there something to be said for both? What answer, if any, does the novel offer?

4. Leaving New Orleans after meeting Tony, Marion says, "Lines from love poems by Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg were in my head, and that's who I wanted to be--that passionate outlaw poet with his beautiful taboo love" [p. 32]. Is Marion a romantic? Does her self-perception change during the course of the memoir? Does she still see her life as romance at the end?

5. Tony decides to take Marion's last name, and Marion says, "I. . . loved what it said about us. I was the man of the family. Tony was mine" [p. 95]. What does she mean by saying she's the "man of the family?" What sexual stereotypes do Marion and Tony transgress? What role does each one play within the family?

6. "Nobody but us thought trying to have a baby was such a good idea" [p. 99]. Do you think it was a good idea?

7. How can you explain Tony's violence toward Marion: is it because his own father abused his mother? Because of drugs or instability? Because of insoluble elements in their relationship?

8. "I was determined to staywith him no matter what. That was my commitment" [p. 183]. Do you think that Marion was right to stay with Tony as long as she did? Was his presence, his violence, and his dependence on drugs harmful to the children? What might you have done in her position?

9. After Tony and Marion argue over the possibility of the lethal injection, Marion weeps, saying to herself, "He does not wish me well. He does not wish me well" [p. 243]. Later, she says, "Tony always said that he loved me unconditionally. I believe that he did" [pp. 254-55]. Can both of these statements be true? If not, which is true and which is false?

10. What other memoir have you read recently? What aspect of the writer's life do you think inspired the author to share her experiences with the public? What do you feel about authors who share their most intimate secrets with the reader?

11. What can a memoir achieve, both for the reader and writer? What is the author trying to capture, or to lay to rest, in writing it? Is the experience of writing, and re-creating the past, a voyage of self-discovery, of catharsis, or both?

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