Friday, April 01, 2005
All traces of the Spring have vanished, and I don’t mean the weather, though it’s getting warmer and muggier each day. The Yalies have either graduated and moved on (S. is home in Germany before starting graduate school at Harvard come September), or have returned to the nest until the Fall Semester brings things here to life once more. The campus is hardly deserted, however, the Summer session started up before the beds of the Spring semester’s students were cold, the graduate’s tears dried, the memories of “Bright College Years” (the Yale theme song, with its treacly lyrics and smarmy sentiments) beginning already to fade, along with the snapshots and yearbook autographs put away to be brought out again in 10 years or so at some future reunion.
I’m sure, as always, my feelings are strongly slanted to the negative by my tiredness. P. on the other hand is relaxing a bit these days, he has completed his oral examinations and is reading a few crucial texts before submitting his final PhD thesis prospectus to de Man for approval. Nothing really taxing. I’m not surprised he’s picked some complex topic that will combine all the strengths of his voracious interests and wide experience. How I envy his ability to concentrate and his opportunities to do so. Occasionally I’m envious to the point of destructive behavior, even a tantrum now and then, though I understand it makes no sense for him to stop his rush toward his doctorate for me who didn’t even finish sophomore year of college to start over. It would be madness putting my needs and wants (there’s that word again) above his clear path and promising future. As he always tells me— and I believe it, though it’s not always easy to accept— the quickest way for me to get my life back is for him to finish his doctorate, then I’ll be free to pursue my own dreams.
Well, at least the ones that married life allows.
Besides, women learn early in life to sublimate their wants and needs, we’re good at it.
The plans S. was unveiling about Ellen almost every day started to resemble my bad dream after awhile. I even began to wonder whether these fantasies were really more about me, or maybe some perverse ideal in his head. Surely he couldn’t be so hopeful and stupid as to think she’d ever surrender to his desires? Her family’s some kind of obscure Orthodox Christian sect, she ran down the rituals they followed for engagements and weddings once for her friend, Trudy. There was no way in hell she’d yield to this product of the streets and his avidly pornographic mind, which he stoked (when not working on his senior thesis or his last few classes) reading Victorian erotica like The Autobiography of a Flea and A Man with a Maid. He declaimed a few passages aloud to me one evening in the kitchen, thinking I’m sure I’d find it shocking.
He couldn’t know about a magazine one of my co-workers had brought in when I was working at the post office in Philly. Printed in Sweden, it showed a couple who looked like the boy and girl next door doing everything under the sun. The final photo showed the guy ejaculating on her face, and I remember thinking “why would a woman pose for a photo like that?” It wasn’t the act that disturbed me, it was the fact she’d posed for the picture doing something so personal, for money. Yes, I posed nude for The Yale Daily News, but that was just a hoot, and certainly nothing sexual, other than what the undergraduate men did with it in the privacy of their dorm bathrooms— and keep in mind, they have Playboy and lots better than my picture to stoke— or stroke— their libidos. But the more I thought about that Swedish girl, the more I understood people in photos are just shadows, we can’t know anything about them, can’t trick any meaning about them or their lives from the images we see, no matter how open and revealing their expressions or actions. One way or another, the pictures are only shadows, pure and simple. Her feelings and motives didn’t matter, and we couldn’t learn anything about life from pictures, either.
The next day after class, S. was walking me back to M & A, even carrying my books like we were at Southern High. I think I surprised him this time asking if he ever looked at pornography.
“Not often,” he answered after hesitating a bit. “For one thing, it only makes me feel lonelier than I already am.” We were walking from Lit Y class back to M & A, the sun was shining and Spring was literally in full bloom, daffodils trumpeted their yellow life force from every flower bed and along many walkways. “It’s like going to the ‘naked parties’ off campus. Everyone stands around nude, but it doesn’t usually do anything but make you realize what you’re missing out on. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” We walked a little more, me watching the campus beginning to reach out from its Winter doldrums. “The other day you insisted true romance could enter our lives in the form of a married person.” I held my arms up to my chest as we walked along, absent-mindedly thinking it would protect me from all things bad. “Don’t you think that’s an evil thing to do? To break up someone’s marriage?”
“Not if it were true love. Why are we so certain marriage and romance have any connection? Couples for thousands of years have gotten married for tons of reasons. It wasn’t until the troubadours came along in the Middle Ages that people even thought about love as an important ingredient in the relationships between men and women. Before that, marriage was a sacred act or to seal a land sale.”
“You mean to say couples didn’t love one another during Roman times or in China or India? What about the Taj Mahal? This king was so grief-stricken over his dead queen he constructed the most beautiful monument to love ever built.”
“The one who bore him 14 children? I never said married people can’t be in love.”
“I read once where he locked himself in his room after she died and refused to come out or eat for eight straight days. When he emerged from his grief, his black beard had turned completely white.” I couldn’t imagine a love like that, though I wanted to believe I could feel such a love, that P. felt such a love for me. At the same time, I worried if any test to prove his love could last so long would just come up short. “I believe the Taj Mahal was built after the troubadours, though I doubt they were widely read in India.” I had him on that point and I savored my rare triumph.
“You mistake my meaning, Mis-sus Campbell. I meant simply love has rarely in history been the basis for marriage. Families married off their children to cement political or financial alliances or to escape from having to feed and clothe them.”
“Then that begs a question: is there a difference between love and romance?”
“Has to be. You can love another person even when they don’t love you back. It’s the basis for most of the world’s tragic literature and much popular music.”
“That’s true, where would Cole Porter or Gershwin be without unrequited love?”
“You’re right, though. Unrequited love would seem to be unromantic. However, our culture has raised it to an art form. If you look at Abelard and Heloise, her letters to him reveal a deep and abiding love, without romance, since he became a monk after her brothers castrated him for bedding down their unmarried sister.”
Then, almost out of nowhere, I called to mind part of a letter written by Heloise I’d memorized in high school English class. It blew me away and I could still quote it almost verbatim:
For it is thou alone that canst make me sad, canst make me joyful or canst comfort me. And it is thou alone that owest me this great debt, and for this reason above all that I have at once performed all things that you didst order, till that when I could not offend thee in anything I had the strength to lose myself at thy behest. And what is more, and strange it is to relate, to such madness did my love turn that what alone it sought it cast from itself without hope of recovery when, straightway obeying thy command, I changed both my habit and my heart, that I might show thee to be the one possessor both of my body and of my mind. God knows I have never required anything of thee save myself, desiring thee purely, not what was thine. Not for the pledge of matrimony, nor for any dowry did I look, not my own passions or wishes but thine (as thou thyself knowest) was I zealous to gratify.
Both of us stayed quiet after I finished, each as surprised as the other by this unexpected feat of recitation. Why it was I could recall a complete chunk of Heloise’s letter, while failing to remember simple geometry formulas, God only knows.
“Touching and romantic. Though not very romantic having one’s testicles removed for a beloved. How can you have romance when he’s in a monastery and she’s wearing a nun’s habit locked away by her father in a convent?”
There was no time to answer these unanswerable questions, I was back outside the Wall Street entrance to the library, ready to return to my own monkish cell. The conversation, though, left me with a disquieting awareness that S. might be plotting all these elaborate, impossible, ultimately futile scenarios, not with Ellen in mind, but me. I don’t know where that realization came from, and it didn’t emerge for hours. In fact, I was standing at the sink washing the dishes (more mindless tasks to leave my brain free to think too much). I must have flushed right down to my toes, I felt sweat soak my blouse and I had to turn off the hot rinse water which was elevating my already skyrocketing temperature. It wasn’t that he was hopelessly in love with the wrong woman— instead it all began to make more sense to me as a sub-text he was composing in his mind to communicate with me! The more outrageous the scheme, the harder it would be for me to ignore it— or him.
“It’s too absurd, I’m married,” I blurted out, forgetting P. was in his study only a few feet away, blushing and smiling at the flattering notion he might be in love with me.
“What did you say, Love?”
“I was remembering a line of Heloise’s letter to Abelard where she writes him—
And if the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if thou be not ashamed, concubine or whore. To wit that the more I humbled myself before thee, the fuller grace I might obtain from thee, and so also damage less the fame of thine excellence. Thou hast not disdained to set forth sundry reasons by which I tried to dissuade thee from our marriage, from an ill-starred bed; but were silent as to many, in which I preferred love to wedlock, freedom to a bond. I call God to witness, if Augustus, ruling over the whole world, were to deem me worthy of the honor of marriage, and to confirm the whole world to me, to be ruled by me forever, dearer to me and of greater dignity would it seem to be called thy strumpet than his empress.”
“Was that Heloise’s letter to Abelard?” he shouted from the other room.
“Good recitation, Cassie. What in the world led you to memorize it.”
On another night, I might’ve taken offense at his being surprised, implying a low estimation of my learning. This particular night I preferred to let it slide.
“Just something I remember from high school,” I replied.
Then I remembered the Petrarchan sonnet he’d written for me shortly after we’d gotten married entitled “A Walk Along the Santa Monica Beach.”
Your loveliness is undisputed,
Gold shimmers in your chestnut strands,
While daylight slips through graceful hands
Brushing aside breezes partly muted,
Raised like champagne in glasses fluted
To scatter ocean airs drifting from distant lands,
As aimlessly as our feet gliding over heated sands
In this hour time has not diluted.
Eventually there will be no light,
Or strength to grasp your supple hand,
The sun will darken, the stars above
Go dark, death come with all its fright
My body covered over with sand
Nothing left but my unceasing love.
“Recognize that one?” I wasn’t sure whether he’d remember it. Suddenly I felt his hands around my waist, felt his breath next to my ear, it tickled and startled me. He just held me for a few minutes and then we both went back to what we’d been doing.