For nine hours a day, Coco Burman secludes herself on a six-by-ten-foot porch with a gallon of gin, five six-packs of tonic water, half a carton of Marlboros, and a portable typewriter. This self-exile was prompted by her husband’s confession of adultery. Though Coco herself has had seven extramarital affairs throughout their twelve-year marriage without getting caught, it’s her husband’s infidelity that really counts. She uses it as the perfect excuse to completely reorganize her life and determines to write the Great American Woman’s Novel.
But as the summer of 1972 drags on, Coco becomes increasingly caught between her post–women’s lib ideals, her domestic obligations, and her prefeminist insecurities. Her novel is a means of showing the world how the inverted values of the 1950s have wreaked havoc on sensitive American women—and if she’s lucky, it just might catapult her to fame.
A funny and caustic look at the emotional and psychological battles of a 1970s unfulfilled wife and mother, Loose Ends is a powerful precursor to author Barbara Raskin’s bestselling feminist novel, Hot Flashes.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Barbara Raskin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Barbara Raskin
All rights reserved.
Coco was outside on the second-floor back porch where she had spent every day since the first of June on the adjustable nylon lounge chair, which was now set at Semi-Recline and turned westward to catch the strong noonday sun. Everything that she needed was stationed around the long narrow porch. On the coffee table beside her was an ice bucket, two plastic tumblers, half a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, her electric portable typewriter, one oversize ashtray with a sandbag bottom, a Con-Tact-paper-covered English biscuit tin filled with beauty aids, three boxes of kitchen matches, a Snoopy alarm clock, Gavin's transistor radio, a can opener, and one economy-size can of Raid insect repellent.
A box of Bond typing paper and two packs of light blue manifold carbons (ripped off from Gavin's office) were tucked under the chaise lounge safe from stray breezes. Along one wall of the porch marched an orderly parade of items led by a gallon jug of Woodley's gin and followed by five six-packs of Schweppes quinine water, a People's Drugstore electric coffeepot, half a can of Medaglia d'Oro, a jar of Pream, and one large plastic container of QT suntan lotion. Three paperbacks, Play It as It Lays, The Female Eunuch, and Anna Karenina, plus four hardbacks, The Bell Jar, The Journal of Anais Nin Vol. II, Sexual Politics, and Wonderland, brought up the rear. The Joyce Carol Oates leaned, prolific and weary, against the fat ends of Coco's looseleaf notebooks, which were stacked in the corner.
A fifteen-foot telephone wire crept under the porch door and meandered around the floor, occasionally crossing and tangling with the ten-foot electric extension cord that Coco used for her various appliances. A small mirror, propped on the narrow ledge beneath the screen, was tilted at an angle so Coca could see herself only when the chaise was set at Semi-Recline or when, on rare occasions, she raised herself to Upright so she could look into the backyard where her children were playing.
For nearly a month now Coco had spent nine hours a day secluded on the six-by-ten-foot porch. This long period of convalescence was warranted and guaranteed by the fact that on the last night of May, Coco's husband, had confessed his first and only marital infidelity. Although Coco had successfully conducted seven undiscovered love affairs during their twelve-year marriage, she immediately launched a very noisy, minor mental breakdown: This necessitated quitting her job (which she had been meaning to do all year), reestablishing her three-times-a-week psychoanalysis, and renegotiating Mrs. Marshall's salary and hours so Coco could recuperate every day, all day long, on the apple-green-painted screen porch in Recline, Semi-Recline, or Upright position.
At various intervals throughout June, Coco went into strategic declines that consisted of hysterical crying jags; these caused some disturbance to the neighbors and much concern to her family. On the weekends, Coco conveniently recovered her emotional stability so she could have dinner out at a restaurant or attend a movie. But her psychological improvements were only temporary, and late Sunday night or early Monday morning she would suffer a relapse that returned her to the porch, where she tanned as much of herself as possible — considering that she could be seen by people living above the third floor in the apartment building across the alley.
During the first week of her exile Coco read 107 final examinations from her four sections of freshman English, marked the bluebooks, computed semester averages, and mailed in her grade sheets to the registrar's office. She then revised her daily List of Things To Do (for the week of June 5–9) and developed her very first Seasonal List, neatly headed THINGS TO DO THIS SUMMER and subtitled "Inventory of Objectives — 1972." After contemplating various possible principles by which to rank her intentions, she finally settled on a nonpriority list which read:
1. Reorganize life
2. Write novel
3. Do women's-lib stuff for Housing Accommod. Commit.
4. Have Affair?
5. Find GOOD publisher
6. Take vacation alone
7. Take vacation with children to Yellowstone National Park?
8. Send children to Mother's!
9. Decide what to do in September
10. Get pregnant?
11. Fix house
12. Buy a farm
13. Get political — work for new Democratic nominee. McGovern?
Coco placed this list behind Addresses/Telephone Numbers in her 5×7" calendar notebook and reviewed it periodically to determine if she had suffered any setbacks or made any progress. On the back side of the same page Coco wrote:
LEDGER June, 1972
Income: My salary $000,000
Expenses: Dr. Finkelstein $360.00
Mrs. Marshall $300.00
Coco consulted her ledger several times a week for budgetary reviews, and one day added an asterisk and a note at the bottom of the page.
The astronomical financial damage done by just one psychiatrist and one housekeeper depressed Coco every time she examined her budget, but she dispatched her discomfort by visualizing Gavin in bed with his girlfriend and then balanced off his marital infidelity with her economic deficit. Since Coco was unable to teach summer session, incapacitated as she was by Gavin's adultery, it seemed only fair that he subsidize her domestic and therapeutic needs while she wrote the novel she had been harboring for twenty years, entitled Take Heaven by Storm.
Several days after her Reorganization Effort, Coco began a Writer's Journal in a black-and-white marbleized hardback tablet. On the first page she wrote:
HOW TO TRANSLATE TRUTH INTO FICTION
(a structural plan)
Then she skipped a few pages and wrote:
MAJOR THEMES TO BE EXPLORED
1. The Fifties
2. The Sixties — a Panoramic History of the Movement
3. Communal Living
4. The New American Revolution (check in closet to find two old short stories on same subject that could, be used)
5. Actions Antithetical to Woman's Nature — Distortion rather than Definition
6. Story about a second wife who is publicly less successful than the first wife — both are writers, but one writes fiction, the other nonfiction
7. Hangups of American men which prevent Hardons
8. Struggle vs. Resolution
9. Effects on a small town when Hollywood company arrives to make a movie. Show impact of culture shock.
10. The Impossibility of ever finding The Right Man
11. Conflict Which Avoids Conclusion. (Idea that people cling to the engagement or the process rather than pushing toward a real change which might prove dangerous.)
12. A combination of 10 and 11.
Whenever Coco reread this list of possible themes, she smoked several cigarettes in rapid succession, because she always felt pleased by the profundity and irony of Number 11. Most of the time, however, she felt drawn to Number 10, which seemed the easiest.
CHARS. TO USE
1. Someone like Gavin — a man who gravitates toward all radical causes, but who is too insensitive to really understand women's lib.
2. Someone like me (description of the difficulties, history of using hysteria — since childhood — to escape confrontation with real feelings. The search for intensity rather than simplicity. The unwillingness to maintain One Single Life Style. The inability to achieve success due to sexist society plus unavoidable female insecurity).
3. Someone like Ann. First wife who casts dark shadow over ex-hubby's new marriage by becoming a chic journalist in New York.
4. Some ex-Peace Corps types.
(The different chars. should be brought together at one time or place to show psychodynamics of the group: social, political, sexual implications, etc., etc.)
On the next page was:
UNRELATED INCIDENTS ALREADY WRITTEN
THAT MIGHT BE INCORPORATED
(upstairs in trunk with snowsuits and sleeping bags)
Coco left this page blank until after she had time to look through some of her old fiction. Then she turned back to CHARS. TO USE and wrote:
* Find a substitute word for "prick."
** Think up good names for the characters!
Coco had already written the beginnings of nine First Novels, and at moments of fine astuteness, usually when she was drinking coffee late at night alone in the kitchen, she resigned herself to her fate — that she would never surpass the unpublishable Beginnings of First Novels Stage because she couldn't decide what she really wanted to write about. In her hours of greatest depression, usually during the soggy, delayed awakenings of a Sunday morning, Coco knew she really had nothing important to say. In her bitterest moments, drunk or stoned, she thought of her novels as nothing more than whining come-ons for men, still strangers, to become her friends.
But now, finally, Coco had achieved a kind of enraged resolution; she would not leave the porch until her novel was finished. During the first week of her self-imposed exile, she worked out a system for running her establishment by dropping written messages over the banister for Mrs. Marshall. After two years of an intense love-hate relationship, Mrs. Marshall was becoming more friendly because she thought Coco had come down with incurable lung cancer from smoking too much and was dying on the second floor. Relieved of face-to-face confrontations, Coco could simply fold one of her good sheets of Bond paper into an airplane, like the Rind Mike made for Nicky, and sail it down the staircase so that it landed near the front door. Eventually Mrs. Marshall would wander past, unfold the airplane, and read some message about not putting T-shirts in the Bendix dryer anymore please or what meat to defrost for dinner. Coco also developed the habit of ordering all department-store consumer goods by telephone and returning the rejects via the next delivery man for an additional fifty-cent service charge.
Coco only allowed the children upstairs to visit her retreat when disputes erupted which necessitated psychological evaluation or sibling counseling. Otherwise, her contact with the four little Burmans was limited to waving lovingly at them from the porch if they yelled up from the yard for a little attention. Some afternoons, depending upon the length of her previous night's battle with Gavin, Coco would treat herself to an hour-long nap to prepare for her next evening's performance. Coco felt it was necessary to run through a variety of hysterical symptoms every night to reaffirm her mental disorganization and her right-to-retirement-with-a-doctor-and-staff. But even in her authentically irrational moments of rage (and these became progressively more frequent during the month), Coco was always conscious of building a nestegg of convalescent time during which to conclude almost thirty-two years of humiliating literary silence.
Actually the first thirty days in which Coco labored to deliver her book were of such epic scale that she was never totally aware of all the various levels of her experience. Not only had she agonizingly sentenced herself to five hours of writing OR ten pages daily, but she also had to produce her nervous-breakdown symptoms and relapses, struggle with Gavin about the condition of their marriage, read the Washington Post's book reviews to check out her competition, stifle strong urges to telephone her girlfriend Glenda, who was in South America; keep applying thick, greasy coats of suntan oil to enhance her tan and erase stretch marks — and assiduously avoid confronting any of her real pathological pains over the possibility that Gavin was no longer totally in her sphere of influence, like a satellite routinely orbiting around her.
After the first trip to Dr. Finkelstein's office, she began wearing a bikini, instead of underwear, beneath her summer cottons, and though the tight elastic leg bindings caused her some discomfort while she lay on the blue couch in the doctor's office, the moment she reached home she could dash up to the porch, pull off her dress, and collapse on the chaise without any loss of time or sunshine. Since the weather began to get hot early in June, Coco quickly acquired several heavy coats of golden brown color on her face and body which helped to excavate all of her latent beauty as well as blot out the small pigmentation spots along her hairline which mysteriously appeared, like her mother, after each new baby.
Because Coco would turn thirty-two in August, her physical appearance had begun to interest her now more than ever before. Involuntarily she studied her face in the small makeup mirror propped against the screen — which she always encountered in Semi-Recline front-side tanning position for signs of old age until she decided (during the second week of her retreat) to squelch this growing obsession and limit her beauty-duty to only one half-hour at the beginning of each day. Her reclamation routine consisted of leafing through inspirational fashion magazines (she still received Vogue on an introductory offer that she kept recycling under fictitious names), while oiling knees and elbows (neglected since infancy), tending to cuticles, practicing the surgical gluing-on of false eyelashes (she owned four pairs that varied in length and price) with her eyes closed (as preparation for doing it in the dark), brushing the slightest curl out of her long black hair, experimenting with various depilatories, testing the tone of her tan against the two pale patches always protected by parts of her bikini, studying the circumference, and depths of various enlarged pores near her nose in a drugstore magnifying mirror, and trying to correct the contours of particular toes, especially the number fours that flawed the perfection of her feet and thus her total body.
Although filing, cutting, shaving, trimming, clipping, gluing, plucking, polishing, and squeezing became terribly engrossing, Coco still managed to keep to the schedule that she had plotted out in a denimblue looseleaf notebook left over from her history-of-linguistics course at the University of Chicago. With great thought she had carefully parceled out her daily nine hours of freedom into neat (lined with a ruler) square boxes on an unlined sheet of notebook paper. Promptly at 9:30 she stopped her Surface Improvements and commenced her physical exercises. On the rough wooden porch floor she did sit-ups, push-ups, and breast-development flexings while trying to think Eastern to put herself in a productive Western frame of mind.
9:30 to 10:00 was allocated to telephone calls of a nonpersonal nature. These included making orders for grocery deliveries from the most expensive Connecticut Avenue market; discussing her balance with the credit department at Lord & Taylor in Chevy Chase; making appointments for the children to visit friends or dentists; attending to repair needs on large appliances for which she carried Sears Roebuck repair insurance (the dishwasher and the garbage disposal broke twice in the first eighteen days of June); calling Gavin to tell him to have the car inspected, pick up his shirts at the laundry, remember Mike's Field Day on the fourteenth (wear tennis shoes), and to save the fifteenth for Jessica's kindergarten puppet show.
Every morning Coco also phoned five names from her Women's Lib Citywide Calling List to help find Housing for the numerous marchers coming to Washington on July Fourth to picket the White House in a Women's Declaration of Independence Day March. Coco felt very efficient about (a) fulfilling her political obligations while flat on her back and (b) staying in touch with demonstration organizers, since one of the possible themes (or basic metaphors) she was considering for her novel was the May Day peace demonstration two years ago. For months now, the Fourth of July had loomed as an important summer landmark. By that time Coco planned to have finished the first draft of Take Heaven by Storm so she could take off a few days to participate in the women's-lib activities. Since she had offhandedly (way back in February) agreed to be co-chairman of the D.C. Women's Liberation Coalition Housing and Accommodations Committee, she had been invited to march at the front of the parade and over a month ago she made Gavin promise to take care of the house and the children during most of the Fourth of July weekend.
Excerpted from Loose Ends by Barbara Raskin. Copyright © 1973 Barbara Raskin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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