Mia is grown up, living alone in West Virginia; Stuart has found another woman. She asks his advice. I’m not sure why.
PART THREE: AD HOMINEM
“Tell me about men.”
She repeated the demand. Stuart didn’t know what she meant.
“I don’t know anything about men,” he said.
“You are one,” she said.
“You think that gives me some special insight? I don’t know anything about myself, and that includes being a man. Why are you so interested?”
“I’m new at this game,” she said, with the same expression she might use to say, “it’s still raining.”
“I’ve never done it.”
Stuart did a double-take inside his head, although he showed nothing on his outside. Why are you telling me this, he wanted to know, but was afraid to ask out loud.
“I consider virginity to be a form of ignorance,” she said.
“A minor form at best,” Stuart said. “Compared to bigotry, patriotism or not being able to name the starting lineup of the ’55 Brooklyn Dodgers, it’s hardly anything.”
“But it is a kind of ignorance, and I think I’m too old now to maintain that ignorance.”
“You have someone in mind?”
“So this is theoretical?”
“Not exactly. I intend to lose my ignorance, and I need to know the other camp. You are my spy.”
“I’m not sure I qualify. I haven’t had a successful relationship, or rather never had one that lasted more than a few years.”
“But I can’t talk to anyone else. You’re it. So, tell me about men.”
Stuart did, in fact, have a theory. Like all his theories, it was more about spouting off than about solid sociological, theological or scientific research.
“OK, here goes.
“Men are all fetishists. This is the primary distinction between men and women,” he said.
“I don’t mean all men are into leather or vinyl, but that men localize their interests. It all comes down to a focus on a single issue, and all others can fend for themselves.”
“You mean men can’t multi-task?”
“That’s a good way of putting it.
“Think of porn. Why do women not respond? Why do men? People say it’s because women are not visual and men are, but that’s not the main problem. After all, women don’t respond to verbal porn either. It’s because men localize their sexual interest in one spot on their bodies. And, believe me, it’s always the same spot.
“By the way, if you attend to that spot, it doesn’t matter what else you do, they’ll be happy. It’s really rather simple. Everything about men is really rather simple. I know that’s hard for women to understand, because women are wired for complexity.”
“That seems like a stereotype,” she said. “As in: Women can multitask.”
“But it’s true. Look at D.H. Lawrence. He adds a religious layer to the whole thing, and makes a god of that spot on his body, and believes that both men and women worship that dangling deity. But it’s really only a man’s religion.
“It colors everything in a man’s life. But it especially colors his attraction to women. Not only does he believe that women care about his equipment, he actually believes women go around talking about it in hushed, worshipful tones. Is it big enough? Am I man enough? Very little thought goes into anything else that might be thought manly.”
Mia knitted her eyebrows and shifted in her seat. This wasn’t what she was asking about really, but Stuart was always interesting, so she let him go on.
“So now, when a man looks upon a woman, that same single-mindedness makes him pick out a single attribute of the woman for worship. It is seldom her equipment. Why? I don’t know. Ask Freud. Wait. No, don’t ask Freud.
“So, for a man, it is her boobies he fixates on, or her hair, or her legs. Her big booty or the light down of hair on her arms. It becomes the trigger for his attraction.
“You see it all the time. A man loves a woman because her hair is blond, or because she has a turned-up nose, or pouty lips. She can weigh 200 pounds, but because her hair is curly, he sighs and pines.
“It can be something less tangible, like a sense of humor, but it seldom is. Mostly it is a physical endowment. Some like saggy boobs, some like a high arch on the instep. Some like just the hint of a mustache on her upper lip.”
“But it’s true.
“When in the act of love, it is usually this one particular that the man is obsessing on. He is wildly in love with her hair, or the mole on her cheek, or the way she cuts her fingernails short.
“It can be perfume. It can be the fact she wears short pants. It can be the one button left undone on her blouse. But it is one thing.
“Women, on the other hand, tend to see the whole man, to see him as a person. When women complain about the objectification of themselves by men, they are right to do so, but they also miss a central truth of existence and the propagation of the species.
“Men simply don’t see the counter-indications: If that blonde in fact does weigh 200 pounds, or is a shrieking harpy, it doesn’t figure into his erotic calculations.
“The woman, however, always takes all the conflicting data into account and makes a profit-loss calculation. Is there enough there to work with? Does the good outweigh the bad.”
Mia objected, the way you do when presented with something you know is true but don’t wish to acknowledge, hoping that denying it will make it go away, at least for the moment.
“It can’t be that simple,” she said.
“It isn’t. Actually, it’s really quite complicated. What’s most interesting is to see it play out in the long run. Then the whole thing reverses.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that after living with a woman for 20 years, a man finally learns to see the whole woman, to access all the other parts of her personality and personhood that he was blind to in the first rush of ‘let’s-make-babies.’ She grows in his estimation. What he should have seen from the beginning, he now understands. The fire has spread into a circle, leaving the grass in the middle burnt, but a wider horizon of concern and interest expanding.
“By the way, learning more about the woman isn’t always a good thing. It also may lead to divorce.
“But the reverse is true for the woman. After living with the man for years, she is likely to latch onto the one thing, the one attribute, the one saving grace he has that makes up for all the failings.
“So, his appreciation for his wife grows, her appreciation for him narrows, but deepens.”
“At some point, though, it would seem there should be a crossing of the lines on the graph,” Mia said. “There should be a point when her narrowing and his expanding meet at one perfect moment of mutual understanding.”
“Well thought. I don’t know,” Stuart said. “That’s what you will have to find out. I never got there.”
It was a few days later. Mia sat in her room with no lights on. It was getting dark. She just sat. It was the time of day when nothing has any shadows.
It’s me again, come out from behind my mask.
You can see I’m not very forthcoming. I’m more than shy; I really don’t like getting personal, but you can see that already, I’m sure. But why write this story if I don’t want to let on?
So, I should tell you that a few weeks after talking to Stuart, I ended my ignorance. The gentleman was very pleasant. We spent a nice evening talking, and when it came down to it, he was more attentive than I expected, caressing me and talking softly. I could have no complaints.
In fact, he spent rather more time on me than on himself, which surprised me. He didn’t know I was a novice and I didn’t tell him. He seemed interested in me, and my body, and he spent most of his time, even after I had taken off my clothes, looking me in the eye as he talked. At least, up to a point, after which he seemed to be more like a bicycle delivery boy with a deadline, pedaling faster and faster to deliver his parcel, well wrapped and waterproofed, I should add — I said he was a gentleman. Job completed, he began once more to pay attention to me.
I can’t say it wasn’t a pleasurable experience. I’m sure I didn’t know what to expect. And one instance is not a large enough sample from which to make any generalizations. As to whether I felt “release,” I really cannot say. Certainly I had a warm feeling that flowed through my body and ended the experience relaxed in a way that I could not altogether call familiar.
I did not see him again.
As to the question of ignorance and enlightenment, I can only say that the older I get, the more I realize that the end of one ignorance is only the beginning of another. I’m going back to my shell now.
“What was your fetish?”
“What do you mean?” asked Stuart. For once, she was visiting him.
He was putting together a model airplane and concentrating on gluing a wing strut without leaving a bead of glue on the fuselage.
“I mean,” said Mia, “what gets your oomph in gear?”
Stuart stopped, cocked his head and tried to figure out what Mia meant.
“Don’t you remember,” she said, “last year you told me that men focus on one thing only?”
“Why is that?”
“Because my thing is eyes. I always notice eyes first. I get turned on by eyes with a slight puffiness in the lower lids. I think it gives a woman’s eyes a slight squint that I take for implied skepticism, and I find skepticism highly attractive. I always notice a woman’s eyes first.”
“Why do you say lucky?”
“Because a woman never has to say to me, ‘I’m up here.’ My particular fetish means that any woman I’m with thinks I’m looking deep into her soul. It gives the illusion I’m interested in her. And that illusion is like the lure an anglerfish dangles in front of his prey. It gets’em every time.
“I don’t mean that I consciously use it as a technique — it comes natural. I really do love eyes and usually, I really am interested in them. But it has made me very lucky, in both of the word’s common senses.”
Then Stuart said something he truly believed, although you don’t have to: “I have never had sex with a woman I wasn’t in love with.”
As you have guessed, Mia is rather introverted. She has a hard time making friends and meeting potential mates. When you spend your life parsing the aorist tense in Aeolian Greek, that sort of thing can happen.
Mia now had her masters degree and was obviously headed on for a piled-higher-and-deeper in Greek and Latin, and when she wasn’t dug in with a Loeb Library volume, she was trying to figure out how to keep her apartment from turning into a midden. Everyday life was not her strong suit.
But she had met someone. His name was Michael and they did four things: They went to the movies; they ate dinner in restaurants; they had sex; and they talked about the meaning of life. But, they were both 23, so what did they know?
As for movies, they both loved subtitled films, although he favored the German films and she favored the French ones. The German films always seemed to be about someone having power over someone else, or over some group. The French ones were always about how loves flutters like a flake of soot on a fire grate, not ever knowing quite when to let go.
As for restaurants, in this they agreed. They both loved finding new and more unusual ethnic restaurants. Ethiopian food, or Dravidian food, or some new restaurant featuring food from the Maldive Islands. Not that they weren’t happy with Greek or Thai. But they both loved to spend long hours over that final cup of coffee discussing the meaning of life, and how the latest German/French film meshed with the latest Peruvian/Estonian food in their gut.
You might expect them, therefore, to be adventurous in bed, as well. But there you would be wrong. Neither Michael nor Mia required anything other than an intimacy that reinforced their ties to each other, and gave them each the momentary limbic whoopie.
Mia was happy with her life.
“OK, kiddo, tell me about it.”
Stuart had wandered through town. He was writing a book about traveling with no itinerary. It seemed to be a way of turning his natural talents toward monetary good. He actually had a book contract and a deadline. He also had an editor with a whip. Literally. It wasn’t his thing, but he didn’t mind. Yes, they were living together, and no, she didn’t mind when Stuart left for weeks on end.
“It’s nice,” Mia said.
“Nice is for turnips,” he said. Mia didn’t know what that meant, and Stuart probably didn’t either.
“Tell me about Liz,” Mia said.
“She keeps me in line. After Helen left me, I knew I needed someone who would provide more structure. Liz is an editor; sometimes, I am a writer. It seemed like a match made in, well, maybe not heaven. Maybe a corporate lawyer’s office.”
He shuddered. The image gave him the willies.
“We have fun,” he said, although it sounded maybe a touch insincere when he said it, and also, beside the point.
“It’s interesting you should say that,” Mia said. “Because, I have a problem.”
“My Dear Mia,” the letter began. She was rereading it.
“I’m sorry about having come to see you. I feel I couldn’t say what I wanted to.
“Perhaps it is because when I see you it is like looking into a mirror.”
It was a letter from Dan. The first letter she had received in something like 20 years.
“I have trouble saying what I need to say, and it seems as if you do, too. It must be genetic. It is a trait no doubt handed down from your great grandmother, who everyone remembers said nothing at all when her house in Cincinnati burned down. I was just a kid then, but I remember her face never changed. Grandad fell apart; he was never the same. They lost everything. But Nannie stood there, in front of the fire and pulled her shawl around her shoulders and said nothing.
“What I wanted to say is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I’ve come to understand something about family that I never would have guessed. It is why I wanted so much to see you, even if we have almost no shared experience. It is that family matters.
“I don’t mean in the simple way, like your granny and pops used to tell me, when I was a kid, and the aunts and uncles would come back to the house after church on Sundays. I mean something with deeper roots. I mean your German and English forebears, the ‘long man’ of history, the single strand of DNA that has been forwarded from the past and you will pass on to the future.
“If you want to understand yourself, you need to know where that braid of amino acids came from, and why it is stuck in you. I couldn’t say these things to you; it would have sounded silly. But I can write them. Writing is a way of saying things you cannot speak.
“Since your grandmother’s family came from Germany, their past is lost, at least to me. I don’t even know what boat they came over on. But my dad’s family, your grandfather, came from England. I have traced their genealogies back. I have them back to 1621. Pop’s family goes from London back to York, so there’s probably some Scandinavian blood in there, too.
“If you remember seeing the photographs of Granny when she was young, dressed like a flapper in the 1920s, you can see yourself, or at least, your nose and eyes. Your mouth rather favors my father’s side of the family. But there they are, showing up in your face. That gesture you use to express disdain — you used it to me when I visited — that is the same gesture my mother used to use when she was scolding me. It was a shock to see it reflected in your hands and arms.
“This is why I felt I had to see you. I know I haven’t been a father to you, but what I’ve come to realize is you cannot deny family. It is what I wanted to tell you; it’s what I’m trying to tell you now. And now, except for you, I have no family left. I am alone.
“I may have screwed up as a dad, but I have an interest in you. You are, after all, my way of projecting myself into the future, when I will no longer be there. You are also projecting Granny and Nannie, and everyone back to 1621. Each of us, while we are alive, is a pivot, a fulcrum, on which the past and future see-saw. Each of us is a root, growing from the dark past into the dark to come. A seed that becomes a plant that flowers and grows fruit that produce seeds again, over and over, one flower growing out of another, out of another and out of another. You are my flower.”
She woke up in the morning. The sheets were all crumpled. Bill was on his side with one arm up over his head, snoring. This is the time to look closely at your partner, to see if you really want him, with a bit of spittle drooling out of a corner of his mouth, the underarm hair bristling in the pit of the distended arm, the little grits of sleepsand in the angle of his eye. If he can stand this test, he might be worth keeping.
But Mia wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the drool she minded, or the stertorous breathing. Perhaps it was the sense she had that Bill made the assumption that he could stay the night without asking. That he presumed on their bed.
She got up, leaving him there, like a beached porpoise, and went to the kitchen, turned on the light, squinted her eyes still used to the dark of early morning, and turned on the kettle and reached for the instant coffee.
In two more days, she would turn 30.
To be continued