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mackerel sky   PART FIVE: THEORY OF RELATIVITY

1.

It was Thanksgiving and Stuart and Genevieve were fixing a big dinner.

Outside, it was a Maine November, dry and crisp but not yet cold. The fallen maple leaves textured the ground at the base of the trees. There was a mackerel sky.

Bernard was there with his wife. Stuart’s younger brother was there, too. Mitch came in from New Jersey with his new lady friend. Bernard’s two children had come, also. Both now grown and Liz had her own children. She came with her best friend, Dell. Jason came with his girlfriend. They all drove in from Allentown. Stuart’s father sat in the corner; he barely moved all day, taking in the scene — probably. It’s hard to know. Bernard and Ellen had picked him up on the way.

It was full house. Mia hadn’t shown up yet.

Bernard: “So, little brother, how’s life treating you?”

Mitch: “Just fine.”

In Stuart’s family, this counted as an extended conversation.

Liz: “Dell, can you take the brussels sprouts off the burner? I have to mix the Jell-O.”

Dell: “Which are the brussels sprouts? I’ve never had brussels sprouts.”

Pots were steaming, with rutabagas, potatoes, brussels sprouts and green beans. In the oven were the turkey and two pans of oyster stuffing. The gravy was yet to be made. That was Stuart’s job. He was the gravy man.

Mitch: “Hey, you’ve got Coltrane here.”coltrane

He was flipping through the CD collection.

Mitch: “A Love Supreme. Geez, what music.”

Stuart: “Put it on if you want.”

Thanksgiving was the only holiday Stuart enjoyed. The others seemed like obligations, but Thanksgiving seemed like a warm, humid, cozy indoors played against a cold, dry outdoors: You could feel it when you touched the window.

There was a brief discussion, as Bernie wanted to watch the game, but Mitch wanted to play Coltrane. They compromised and watched silent football with a jazz soundtrack.

Stuart: “Now that’s what I love about Thanksgiving.”

Meanwhile the grandkids were pinging and buzzing their Gameboys. The women gravitated to the kitchen. Mitch’s girl, Jerri, came in to help.

Jerri: “Pie!”

Liz: “Pumpkin”

Dell: “Cherry.”

In the living room, Mitch and Jason had taken to comparing political theory. Uncle Mitch was a Democrat; Jason was a Republican. It is one of the anomalies of history that as the millennium winds down, it should be the younger generation who turn conservative. It is as if time were out of joint.

Mitch: “Yeah? What do you know? You’re just a kid.”

Jason: “Well, I know Bush is going to trounce Gore.”reagan-bonzo-in-bed-time-for-bonzo

Mitch: “God help us. We’ll have gone from Reagan to Bonzo.”

Politics brings out the analytic elegance in people.

The doorbell rang and Stuart opened the door. Mia came from the bright blue sunny outdoors to the dark, warm inside, thick with the scent of turkey, dressing and nutmeg and cloves. With her came Michael. Yes, they were still together, 10 years later.

Mia: “Everyone, this is Michael.” Mia went around the room introducing everyone and they all shook hands.

Dinner was a feast; everyone ate till their bellies hurt. Conversation was warm, funny, by turns nostalgic.

To Mia, this was family, even if she wasn’t related by blood to any of them. She knew many of them well — Stuart and Genevieve might as well have been family; Bernie and Ellen; even Mitch, although she had never met Jerri. Others were more peripheral, but Mia knew which was which, for the most part. It was hard, though, to tell the twins apart at that age.

With the meal packed solidly in their collective guts, like sausages stuffed into their casings, the evening wore on. The women put up the leftovers. Stuart told them to leave the pots and dishes; he would get them in the morning. The men sat on the sofa; Mitch’s head was cocked back and a slow stertorous snore echoed in his gullet. Stuart began to talk about ancient Egypt.

“Not now,” Genevieve said, heading him off. It was not bossy, but teasing. He stopped.

After dessert and coffee, when the evening wore down, Bernie and family, along with dear old dad, left for the motel. A pile of others found a place in the guest room or on the sofa, wrapped in a down comforter.

2

Mia and Stuart stayed up late.

“Gen is great,” she said. “But you realize, don’t you, that you have been with her for more than a decade. You are breaking precedent.”

“Well, yes. But I have gotten old. It isn’t as easy to wander aimlessly. And we get to travel a lot, as she gets gigs all over. Spent most of the summer up in Hancock for the Monteux Festival. She got to play the Shostakovich sonata. It was great.”

“She’s a steady presence,” Mia said. “I can’t tell whether Michael is a steady presence for me, or if I’m the steady presence for him.”

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe not.”Dirty dishes

They stood over the kitchen sink, piled with dishes. Stuart had his arms up to the elbows in suds.

“Let me tell you about my first official marriage. Before I married your mother.

“I was unfaithful to my first ex-wife before we were married. I loved Ruth, although she drove me nuts. She was always worried about things like window curtains and insurance. She wanted kids; I wanted to continue being able to sleep late for the next 18 years and I knew that her plan would have made that impossible.

“But Ruth was really a great woman. She was beautiful. Had great eyes. And she was smart as hell. Maybe a little skinny. But there was this conventional side to her. In my lovesickness for Ruth, I pretended I didn’t see that, or at least pretended that it didn’t matter. She insisted we wait till marriage. I was so smitten, I didn’t even question that.

“Oh, but there was Helen. This was a different Helen. She wrote poetry. It wasn’t bad poetry, considering we were all just sophomores in college. Helen was not a beginner at love. In fact, she was the ‘college widow,’ as Groucho Marx might call it. A completely free spirit. I fell hard; Helen admitted me to the inner circle — so’s to speak — inner circle: I’ve never heard it called that before —  as one of many admirers.

“You should have seen me. I panted like a puppydog, waiting to be patted on the head. Helen and I hitchhiked one week to the coast and spent the nights sleeping in the sand. We made love in the dunes, in full sight of anyone. A fisherman in a passing boat waved to us.

“We left love stains all over campus. Our favorite was a practice room in the music building, and boy, we got lots of practice.”

“Yes, I remember you told me about the Organ Room on campus.”

“At night, it was unlocked for some reason, and we snuck in.

“Oh, but there was Ruth. And I loved Ruth, too. I didn’t know what I wanted. Sensible Ruth or crazy, passionate Helen? Should I go with the sensible choice or should I go with my gonads? Thrill or stability?

“I knew I was not terribly stable, that I was not really a fully mature human being, that I was flamboyant in my irresponsibility, and so I finally decided that I needed Ruth for balance. I did the sensible thing; we got married. I learned my lesson: Never do the sensible thing again.

“I made life miserable for her and without trying, she made it miserable for me. Years later, friends told me they knew it wouldn’t last and I wanted to slap them — Why didn’t you say anything then? But I also knew it wouldn’t have made any difference if they did.”

Mia looked confused.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “Isn’t this what you’re doing right now, with Gen? Aren’t you making the ‘sensible’ choice all over again?”

“Of course,” Stuart admitted. “Of course, I’m doing the same thing all over again. I’m a lot older now, so it’s different.”

“Different?”

“Well, maybe it’s not different. As you get older it isn’t so much you get wiser in the sense that you make better choices, but that you get wiser in that you recognize the fact that you’re never going to get any smarter and you’ll always do the same stupid thing.”

“That’s wisdom?”

“I dunno. Maybe.”

“That’s depressing.”

“No, not really. It’s liberating. That’s the thing about getting older. All the stuff that used to drive you nuts, you let go of. It no longer matters.”

“So, it’s OK to be comfortable in a relationship? Without fireworks?”

“Violas seldom break out in fireworks,” he said. “But I’m happy.”

“But you said it was a mistake.”

“Did I?”

3.

I’m coming out of my duck blind for the last time. I just turned 40; I got tenure. I published a book last year — a new translation — or retelling, really — of Ovid for children. I’ve been living with Michael for about as long as Stuart has lived with Genevieve. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to compare my life with his, but there is no one I’ve known as long or as closely as I’ve known Stuart. He is the only touchstone I have.

This has been a strangely skewed memoir — I have left out so much: my career at the university, several relationships that went nowhere, the whole world of Greek and Roman letters that are so central to my life — because I wanted to focus on this single aspect of my life that has been so muddled. Family. What is it, why is it, does it need to be?

When my dad died, it hit me in a way I didn’t foresee. I always thought of Stuart as my father; he’s the one who was there when I was a little girl, and he has remained there through my life in a way Dan never did. Yet, I felt so odd when I went to visit Dan in the hospital. I saw something in him — gesture, voice — that caught me unawares: They were mine, too. Dan had tried to tell me about it, but I didn’t have ears to hear, or to pay attention. He was dying, after all. Other things seemed more important.

It was the day after that Thanksgiving, when I talked with Stuart’s brother, Bernie, that he brought it all together for me. Stuart and Ellen went to the kitchen to finish cleaning up what we hadn’t washed the night before, and Gen was in her study practicing. The dulcet tones of the viola filled the house like dinner had the night before. Bernie and I sat in the front room and talked.

4.

“What do you think about family? Why is it important? Stuart always says his friends are his family — except for you, he says. You are more friend than family, he says.”

Bernie had bad knees, and sat on the sofa. His hair was mostly gone and his mouth had settled, the way they do as you get older: Younger mouths show off the upper teeth; aged mouths show the lowers.

“I take your point,” he said. “Families can be quite a burden. We have to take care of dear old dad, for instance. He’s barely there anymore. But I have the example of my wife.

“You’ve been with her a long time.”

“Thirty years …”

“Can’t fathom that. Mind you, Ellen’s great. You hit the lottery, as it were.”

“Ellen has a take on family I’d never really considered,” he said. “Family is something different for her. For her, it is where she came from.”

“You mean, like genealogy?”

“Sort of, but she isn’t so much into the family tree as such, or into whether or not she has a coat-of-arms, but rather, that she is made up of the hand-me-downs, genetically, of the ancestors, the piling up of character — of meaning — that has concentrated in her. Her family is her roots, deep in the ground, and she is connected to them as literally as the tree is to the root ball, all of a piece.Great grandmother

“She sees her hair in her grandmother’s hair, her jawline in her father’s, her love of nature — and, I might add, her stubbornness — in her grandfather. She grew up with her great-grandmother in the house, who was a Civil-War widow, and sees history not in paragraphs on a page in a book, but in her wrinkly skin. She wants to know how her great grandfather came to live in North Carolina, whether he is Scots-Irish, why they eat collards or sing certain hymns as opposed to others. Obviously, this is not all genetic. A good deal is cultural, but I don’t think Ellen makes that much distinction: It is all roots, all the long line of ancestors, which, for her, go back — and I’m not kidding — to Adam and Eve, or whoever you want to pick as the ur-progenitors. Her interest in cave men is part of the same thing. She calls it ‘the long man,’ the person drawn from one generation to the next the same way a plant goes to flower, a flower to seed, a seed to seedling, to plant, to flower, to seed and so on in a continuous recreation of the same life — the same DNA shuffled around — of which she is merely the latest flowering. Or the antepenultimate: She has now sprouted a daughter, and that daughter twin granddaughters. So now Ellen  can see she isn’t the end of a long line of ancestry, but only one link in a continuity.

“Thus, family for her isn’t simply the people who she shares Thanksgiving dinner with, as if they were all discrete entities, but rather as if they were the acorns hanging on the same oak tree, in a sense, a single person with multiple incarnations. At Thanksgiving, even if she is alone, she is having dinner with all of them.”

“Well, that is Ellen, through and through, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and it has made me think differently about family. I share your sense of relatives as something you’d rather not have to spend time with. I have chosen my own ‘family’ of friends, who mean a great deal to me. But I also have come to see the ‘mystic bonds’ of family — again, not as a question of whether I want to spend time with them. I don’t, really. But rather as a continuation of a process.

“Looked at another way, I am a bit of my parents planted in the future to grow, and to plant my children there in the future that extends beyond my harvesting.

“I had the oddest experience a few years ago. Did I ever tell you about it? You know, before Ellen, I was married and divorced. We had a son. When we split up, she took our son and I didn’t see him for something like 30 years.”

“I didn’t know.”

Mia was surprised. Bernie always seemed so rock solid. How could he have not seen his son for so long?

“I was young and a prat,” he explained. “So I moved on without much thought of it. Most men are prats when they are young; I was no exception.

“But a few years ago, I got a phone call and on the other end a voice said, “Are you my father?” It was my son. I had not seen or had any contact with him for 30 years.

“Well, Ellen and I went to Austin, Texas, where he was living and we met him and the shock was palpable: He looked exactly like I did when I was his age. Not just in physiognomy, but he wore the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses, the same plaid shirts, the same long hair I had back then. It was uncanny. He was living with a woman who came from the same county in North Carolina that Ellen came from. His house was a mess of books and CDs and DVDs. He worked, at the time, in a used bookstore and was in charge of the classics section and the poetry section. His favorite literature was the classics. The resemblance was uncanny.

“I had always assumed that in the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ controversy, that nurture was by far the more important. We were raised at a time when we thought, ‘It’s all cultural.’ But here was evidence in front of me that perhaps it wasn’t all cultural. Perhaps DNA ruled not only the shape of our noses, but the preference we might have for Manhattan or New England clam chowder.globe

“The real clincher came when we walked through his office at the back of his house and there, on the top of a bookshelf, he had a world globe with the ball taken off, turned upside down with Antarctica now at the top, and replaced. I laughed. Back home, on top of my bookshelf in my office was a world globe that I had reversed to put Antarctica on the top. It was almost scary. How many people have done that with their globes? What are the chances that father and son, with no interaction for three decades, would each do the same peculiar thing?”

“So, you’re saying then, that as opposed to the question of whether you choose family or friends, that the question is basically irrelevant: That family is who you are, that ancestry defines your nature and you have family to thank or blame for it.”

“I remember having this discussion many years ago with a colleague. We had both grown up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. We shared a good deal of nurture and could understand many of the same cultural references. But he was from an Italian family and I was from a Norwegian family. Despite how much we shared, he had a preference for Fellini films and I had a preference for Bergman.

“Not that I couldn’t appreciate Fellini — I do — but that deep in my bones, I knew the Bergman world; it was my interior world. While the Fellini was tremendous, but exterior to me. There is something in my genes that responds in a family way to the world of Bergman that Fellini doesn’t hit. But it was the reverse for my colleague. Italian genes felt at home in Fellini.

“In the old days, I would have chalked it all up to culture: He grew up in an Italian family and so the folk ways would have felt familiar. But now, I think — it’s only tentative, of course — but I think perhaps it may be something genetic. This may be the collective unconscious that Jung wrote about. The pile of chromosomal tendencies, tastes, judgments, behaviors, that have been reinforced over the generations by the distillation and concentration of DNA.

“I’m sure that upbringing and culture plays a part, no doubt, but I now think that there may be something inherent, that if I had been adopted by an Italian family, I would still feel more at home in Bergman. Not provable in my case, perhaps, but I think plausible.”

“So, I think you are saying, that you are inevitable in terms of family as you are in terms of history, that you may not like the times in which you are born, but you simply have no choice in the matter, and that all those relatives who bore you on holidays are just the titrations of chromosomes and you are thus embedded in your family like raisins in a muffin. No choice. Just is.”

“Yes.”

“Still don’t want them over for dinner.”

“We need ice,” she said, just as he had gotten his shoes off. “There must be an ice machine somewhere. All motels got them, don’t they.”

“OK.” And he started to pull his shoes back on.

“And what about a Coke machine? Did you see one when we came in?”

“No, but I’ll look.”

“If they have one, I want a Dr. Pepper, OK?”

“OK.”

Vernaise pulled her sweater up over her head and caught her elbows in the wool. She looked like an animal trying to wriggle out from under a tarpaulin. When it finally came loose, her glasses were lost and she had to dig through the sweater as if it were a suitcase.

“Here they are,” she announced, but Bill was already off in search of ice and drink. The smell of wet wool was everywhere.

The weather in the mountains had been just awful and they abandoned their campsite for the Capri 700 motel with gingerbread decorations on the veneer four-poster bed and scenes from Pompeii framed around the walls. The TV had cable and adult video. Vernaise had chosen it.

“No ice,” Bill slammed the door. “But here is a Mountain Dew.”

“No Dr. Pepper?”

“No.” He looked at her in her underwear. It didn’t fit. The elastic in her panties was all stretched out of shape and her bra was too big. Her breasts looked like hard boiled eggs rolling around in cereal bowls.

“The rain looks like its getting worse,” he said. “I think we did the right thing.”

“No shit. I’m soaked,” she said with more than a hint of whine in her voice. “Even my bra is wet.”

She unhooked it and hung it over the towel rack in the bathroom. It looked friendless.

The pasty marks it left on her back and sides was a topographic map. Red lines on clammy, white skin.

Bill pulled the tab on her Mountain Dew and took a slug himself. “Here.” He offered it to her.

She took it and turned the knob on the TV. As the tube crackled and whistled while warming up, she sat on the edge of the bed and sipped her drink. A game show came on and she got up and spun the dial.

“Nothing but game shows.”

“What did you expect in the afternoons?”

“But what about those adult videos? They gotta be here somewhere.”

Bill started taking off his wet clothes. His shoes squeaked; his socks left wet black lint between his toes. His thighs stuck to the damp denim of his jeans. His scrotum shriveled.

“Isn’t this romantic,” she sighed.

“Your glasses must be fogged.”

“No, I mean, here we are in a motel, pretending to be married. And we can spend the whole night together in bed.”

“That’s what we would have done in the tent.”

“But this is different. Everybody camps together. Staying in a motel is something that would give Mom shitfits.”

Bill unbuttoned the last layer of flannel shirt and peeled it back from his skin. “That makes it romantic, huh?”

“Sure. It’s exciting.” She turned the dials some more and settled on Family Feud.

He walked to the bathroom, picking up rug lint on the bottoms of his wet feet, and turned on the hot water for a shower. The water was hot enough, but the spray from the shower head was a mere drizzle. “Hey, there’s no soap.”

His voice sounded to Vernaise like it came from an oil drum. “I’ll look through the pack  and get ours.”

She pulled nearly everything out of the pack — it was all damp. She found the soap and it was already lathering. “Here it is.”

“Thanks. Want to join me?”

“I never take showers. Only baths. Bad for my hair. It gets all frizzy.”

He was already burbling and sloshing before she finished her sentence. She went back to Family Feud.

As she was watching, she unconsciously started pulling off her panties. All Bill heard was a horrible scream.

“A tick! A tick! Get it off!” She had found it clinging to her skin just above the dark line of her pubic hair. She jumped and wiggled her hands aimlessly in the air. “Get it off! Get it off!” Her voice was an octave higher than usual.

He ran into the bedroom, not knowing what to expect and dripping like a mop. He saw Vernaise performing a St. Vitus dance in the middle of the floor. “Get it off! AAAAAAAHHHH!”

“Calm down. Let’s see.” Sure enough, there was a tick burrowed in. “Calm down, we’ll get him off.”

“Now! Now! Don’t wait!”

“Lie down. Sit still. Let’s see.”

She sat down on the bed and then lay down. Bill tried to brush off the offending spot, but it wouldn’t move. “I’ll try a match.” He rummaged around through the pack and found the watertight capsule. He lit one and blew it right out. He applied the smoking end of the match to the tick’s head, but it wouldn’t pull out. He tried again. Then he tried dousing it with mercurochrome from the first aid kit. It looked pretty all in red, but it didn’t budge.

“I’ll have to pull it out,” he said, and grabbed the tick’s body and yanked. The body came, but the head stuck firm. Vernaise thought she would be sick. Bill somehow grasped the remaining head between two fingers and it pulled loose, taking a sliver of skin with it.

“Yuck. Yuck. Awful. I’ll never go out in the woods again.”

“Come on, it isn’t that bad.”

“You wouldn’t say that if it was your body. I feel so unclean. I gotta take a bath.”

Bill just stood there, dripping, naked, holding a tick’s head in his fingers and wondering if it were time for a tick check of each others’ bodies.

The tub filled and Vernaise sloshed in. “Yuck!”

2

The mood had been ruined for Vernaise. All she could think about was crawly things. Bill found a Marx Brothers film on one of the cable channels and reclined on the bed, watching the film between his feet. Vernaise  dried off and wrapped herself in a blanket. The red lines on her body had faded somewhat, but her skin, no longer clammy, was still wet.

“Bring those lips over here,” said Bill, in the way of being romantic.

“No, I couldn’t. Are there bedbugs in the bed? Fleas?”

“No. Don’t be silly.”

“Silly?”

“Sure. It was just a tick.”

“Just a tick?”

“Yeah. It won’t kill you.”

“Men!” She was only 19, but already she knew the curse that described all that was wrong with the universe.

Duck Soup.”

“Huh?”

Duck Soup. Marx Brothers. It’s on.” He gestured toward the tube but she didn’t seem interested. She sat on the edge of the bed, turned away from Bill.

“Don’t be that way,” he said, reaching across the bed to squeeze her boiled eggs. She jumped up, taking him with her and he fell, flat on his nose on the floor.

“AAAGGHH!”

She screamed, too. “Bill! Are you OK?” His nose was a bleeding pancake.

“What’d you do that for?” He sounded a little like an oboe. “Why’d you pull away?”

“You scared me. Besides, I don’t feel like it, after the tick and all.”

“Jesus.” He held his nose and walked naked to the bathroom where he pulled off a skein of toilet paper and mopped his schnoz with it.

“It’s swelling,” he yelled from the oil drum.

3

They slept in the bed with its stiff sheets and hard mattress. Bill’s arm wrapped around her. She had her back to him. Once, in the night, she had to get up to pee. He hardly noticed.

The next morning, it was still raining. One of those warm April rains that rises in steam to your nose and saturates the air with humidity.

Bill could hardly breathe. His right nostril was split and a black plug of blood hung on the fleshy part. The nose was not only larger than it should be, but bent, too, he thought.

Vernaise rolled over towards him, opened her eyes to a slit, barely aware of the daylight. She saw the plug of blood and let out the beginning of another scream, but caught it mostly in her throat. In the haze of sleepiness, she thought it was a tick, or it reminded her of the tick she had.

It wasn’t a pleasant way to start off the morning. She lifted the sheets and looked down at her crotch. The tick was gone. Hardly even a little ring of redness remained.

“Damn, my period started,” she said. It was regular as the full moon, and because of that dogged dependability, she purposely refused to keep track of it, and it surprised her punctually every 28 days.

“Huh?” Bill honked. He was just waking up, too. In fact, he didn’t want to wake up. He wanted to stay asleep. But he slowly became aware of something wet in the bed, and consciousness jumped him like a bandit.

“What’s that? Oh.” He knew as soon as he asked the question. This wasn’t a new thing in their relationship.

“I’ll get a towel.”

He got up, walked to the bathroom, stood over the toilet and drained for a minute or two, grabbed one of the face towels and wiped the clot off his nose, brought the towel back into the bedroom and handed it to Vernaise.

“No, I don’t want your bloody old towel,” she said. “I want a clean one.”

“OK.”

He walked back into the bathroom, picked up another towel and stood there for a minute, as if he had forgotten what he was doing.

It is important to realize that men don’t, in such situations, actually think about love or relationships. They wouldn’t have the vocabulary for it even if they had wanted to. But there were fleeting sensations and images flashing across the inside of his skull. He stood there and thought about the wet, sticky part of the mattress. He thought about Vernaise demanding a clean towel. It reminded him of the time she wanted a sticky bun for breakfast, and when he went out to the 7-Eleven and brought one back, she had complained it wasn’t the right kind of bun. He shoveled that thought on top of his memory of the red-striped skin from yesterday under the elastic of her underwear. That soaked over the thought of the way her voice rose an octave when she got upset. It not a pleasant squeak in her voice. More like a door that needed oiling. Annoying. Oh, and he thought about her mother. Large woman. Muu-muus. Teased hair. They say you can tell what a woman will become by looking at her mother. He pictured her mother with Vernaise’s face. He pictured Terry Bradshaw passing to Lynn Swann in the Super Bowl. He was losing focus.

“You have the towel?” she asked from the next room.

“Oh, yeah.” He remembered why he was there.

Vernaise sat on the edge of the bed, feeling a little logey. Perhaps it was the time of month, perhaps it was the interrupted camping trip and the lack of sleep. She looked toward the bathroom and saw only Bill’s behind as he stood there like a statue with his head cocked to the side.

She had been attracted to him, she realized, because — well, now she was wondering. She thought it was because he seemed older and more experienced. But she realized now that he wasn’t really. He played in a band, but then, it was only a garage band. He took her places. They had sex. She liked that. Mostly.

She tried to remember exactly why she was with Bill. Probably because he asked, she realized. Being wanted is the most potent aphrodisiac.

But she also admitted to herself that she already knew he wasn’t the one. Her thoughts were more direct than his. She didn’t wander: She compared him with Paul. She compared him with Shelley. Then with Al and Frederick. She had a mental tab column in her head.  Make a list. Looks. Potential. Sense of Humor. Check, check, check. Al gets a double check here. Oh, and Ted, too. She had forgotten Ted. She hadn’t stayed with any of them longer than she did with Bill, but she wasn’t really sure why.

Later in the morning, still in the room, since there was no place to go for breakfast, they mixed up some of their trail food — a strawberry shake that tasted less like strawberries than liquified cardboard.

They signed out of the room at noon when the maid knocked, went back to the campground and struck the tent. It was twice as heavy with all the water soaked in. They threw it in the trunk.

“Some romantic weekend,” he said.

All he could think about was the squeaky hinge. All she could think about was the tick.

 

Charleston

Stuart came back through town again. This time, with his theory of “Three and One.”

My old friend has a job now, working in an office. He’s been there for almost a year now.

“I’m in a pod,” he explains. “The whole office is organized into pods of four desks, like lily pads in a pond spread out across the tenth floor.”

His three podmates are all women, he tells me. “One is married and has two kids, but the others are always talking about their dates. I ask them questions. We spend more time chatting than we do working. I’m told this is normal for the American business world.”

As I think back over Stuart’s worklife, I realize this may be the first time he’s ever had a regular job in an office. He’s been a teacher and a writer, and he’s had lots of odd jobs working on road crews or clerking in stores. Now, he’s in one of one of the taller buildings in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, looking out on the Kanawha River and the gold dome of the state capitol. I’m a little fuzzy about what he does there, but with Stuart, that’s not unusual. It may be advertising, it may be insurance. If I can get him to slow down, sometime, I’ll try to ask him.

“I listen to them talking about their love lives. That’s mostly what occupies them. And I ask them questions. To them, I’m just an old geezer. They don’t see me as a fount of experience and wisdom, for some reason. But I listen to them talk. And I’ve come to this conclusion, that for a relationship to develop, there must be three things that register. That is, out of 20 or so characteristics you might use to describe a guy on early acquaintance — or a woman, if you are looking for that — it works both ways — I’m sure it must be something of the same for gay men or lesbians — anyway, there must be a quotient of three to make a relationship click.

“I’m not talking about sex here, but about a relationship, a second or third date or more. A guy looks to a potential date and adds them up: She speaks well, she has a sense of humor … And … the third thing: She has a frontispiece that would make St. Anthony sing falsetto.”

Yes, Stuart means her chest.

“Or perhaps she has long legs, blue eyes, and can do double-entry bookkeeping. Or maybe it’s a she and she sees in him strong shoulders, the ability to listen and a sense of humor. Anyway, out of all the possible traits, there must be at least three that draw her in. More than that is better, but two isn’t enough. Two means only she looks at him across the bar and thinks, ‘Interesting,’ but not enough to go over there. Three, though, and we’re in.

Stuart always has some new theory when we talk.

“It’s funny,” he said, “but it would seem like you’d need more than three things to sustain a bond, but maybe that comes later, when you know each other better. But going in, I’ve discovered, there must be a list and three items need checks beside them. More than three and maybe the lights start flashing, but three is the threshold.grey eyes

“I remember going out with Irma. God, she was gorgeous. The name was a little recherche, but she was funny — check number one — and she had grey eyes. Ever see grey eyes? Really grey, almost charcoal. Her irises were colorless and that provided a contrast to the warm skin of her eyelids and cheeks, almost like in the movies when the director has drained the color out of his filmstock, but left one item glowing with red or blue. The contrast raises a kind of ambiguity that I have always found sexy.”

“And the third thing?”mahabharata

“Yes, and she had read the Mahabharata. The whole thing. And she could talk about the Hindu mythology without ever sounding like one of those guys at the airports asking for money in their shaved heads and yellow sheets. She didn’t use it as a religious text, but as literature. We talked for hours about Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. Taking sides. It was great. Three check marks. Oh, there were more, but I’m a gentleman.”

“What did she see in you?”

“Unfair question. Ruled out of bounds.”

“OK,” I tell him, “That’s the Three part of the theory, but what’s the One?”

“That’s the converse. Although it takes three things to make the magnet stick to the metal, it only takes one to break the connection permanently. And if that one thing is present, it doesn’t matter about the Three or however many more items you might ink into the credit column. One debit entry puts the kibosh on the deal.”

Double-entry bookkeeping? Credit and debit? I’m wondering what kind of job has Stuart gotten himself into? Are these clues?princess bride

“I mean,” he continued, “suppose you’re on a date with a guy who adds up just fine. Shined shoes, steady job, strong hands. You think you’ve got the requisite three things, but then, while you’re together on the couch in his living room and he’s willing to watch your favorite movie without complaining, even seeming to enjoy it. And then… And then, he picks his nose. The buzzer goes off; contestant number one has just disqualified himself.

“This actually happened. It’s one of the things Julie told us about. She admitted that surreptitious nose-picking is only human, but that on an early round of dates he digs in with an index finger, or worse, a pinky, that is the kiss of death, as far as she is concerned.

“Anne had another one — she’s the other single woman on the pod. She went out with a guy and they were at a restaurant and he got soup on his mustache, a bisque she said it was, and it hung there like wallpaper paste on a brush.

“You know how when someone has spinach on his teeth and you point to your own teeth to sort of indicate to the other one that there is something and the other person will naturally suck his teeth or use a finger to rub the spinach off? Well if she doesn’t have a mustache, how can she politely tell him that he’s wearing a badge of schmutz?

“That killed it for her, she said.

“What’s interesting is that Penny laughed and said that her husband had a habit while watching TV of leaning just a few degrees off plumb and letting loose the gas pressure, and while once she might have ruled him out over it, she now just ignored it.

“‘But you’re married,’ Anne said. ‘That’s different.’ And I take her point. When you’re married, you put up with a lot, because by then, you’ve already put in your commitment papers, you’ve decided there are enough on the Three side — and hopefully a good deal more than just three things — and you’ve besides agreed for better or for worse, and after all, a little atmospheric disturbance while watching the telly isn’t such a great sin.

“The thing is, that it is that first circling around each other when it counts. If Penny’s husband had leaned and dealt while they were dating, she might well have called it all off right then. But he had the decency to keep it bottled up till after the wedding. No doubt, Penny had her own secrets kept until the vows were stated.

“I knew a woman once who had lived with a man for several months, but when he finally popped the question, she realized she could never marry him because his legs were too skinny. It was the One thing.

“Another woman, divorced for several years, found a guy with a tool belt. He was tall, handsome and considerate and could fix anything around the house. He could change the oil in his car. Hell, he could rewire the rec room if he’d wanted. He actually did hook up her surround sound. And he adored her, loved her to distraction, and he was a great listener, truly interested in her. But then…”

“Yes, what?”

“But then, he turned out to be a Christian. There she was, torn. He was the perfect mate except for the fact that he said evolution was just a theory, homosexuals caused Hurricane Katrina, abortionists should be bombed and infidels were going to suffer eternity in Hell. Now, there are lots of kinds of Christians and not all of them are bad, but he was the kind who believed that Methodists were really just communists and that even Baptists were too liberal. Turned the poor girl off any Christians of any stripe forever.”

“That seems like more than just one thing,” I said. “It seems like a whole slew of attitudes that could well give one pause.”

“Well, she saw it as one thing. She summed it up with a kind of sneer: ‘He turned out to be (shudder) Christian.’ And it meant the end.

“These are not things universal,” Stuart said. “They are all idiosyncratic. In other words, someone else might find snorting when you laugh to be cute, or a wandering eye attractive, or even bigotry to be a harmless little tic. Surely many bigots find bigettes to marry. I went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting once, did I ever tell you? Plenty of bigettes there. They even had a bake sale. I wonder what were the three check marks they had found. Being Christian was probably one of them — as long as they weren’t Catholic.”offisa pup

“What about you?” I asked. “Who are you seeing now? What are her three positive checks?”

“I’m unattached at the moment,” he said. “I was going out with a little filly who was doing graduate work in anthropology. She had a lot of check marks, but the first three were her long, frizzy hair, her long fingers and a tendency to quote George Herriman. She called me Offisa Pup; I called her Krazy. We were together for all of last winter. Stayed warm together.”

“What happened?”

“She said I talked too much.”

adam and eve poster 1958

Stuart is a friend of mine and he always has an opinion. They aren’t always completely thought out, but then, that’s the way it often is with our opinions; we form them out of instinct and then seek factual support.

Stuart has always had definite opinions about men and women. The fact that he has had two official and two unofficial marriages, and continues to forge his way through one failed relationship after another has not blunted his faith in his grasp of the matter.

I recently wrote a blog about the difficulty most men have in multi-tasking (https://richardnilsen.com/2014/02/17/keeping-life-simple/), and Stuart brought it up when he came to visit on another one of his cross-country trips, unsure of where he would settle this time.

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.”adam and eve woodcut

“That seems like a stereotype,” I said. “As in: Women can multitask.”

“But it’s true,” he continued. “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.

“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.adam and eve comic

“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.”

“Gross!”

“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.”adam and eve etching

I 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,” I said.

“It isn’t. And I always make room for the standard disclaimer: Individual variation trumps gender variation. You can find exceptions to every so-called rule, but in aggregate, women and men have their ways. There are women who could beat me to a pulp, and I wouldn’t want to tangle with one of them, but on the whole, men have greater upper-body strength.

“I’m not saying you should make laws based on this. Should you outlaw women from operating bulldozers or backhoes? Of course not. Individual variation is greater than any difference between men and women as a whole.

“But, what’s most interesting to me about this thesis about men and their fetish-oriented sexuality is this: In the long run, the whole thing reverses.”vigeland old age

“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,” I 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.”