For five months I’ve been pretending my life is all right. I live in Manhattan, I have terrific friends, I’m part of a movement. I care. And don’t forget the best part: official freedom from my parents, not that my mother recognizes that. She’d crawl into my grave and say she’s the only one who can tell me how to get into Heaven.
I haven’t mentioned that I’m not starving to death or being bombed. I should be grateful, and usually I am, but today the kind of cloud that blocks out all sunlight parks over my head. A big question jumps out of the shadows. How did I trip over my dream of becoming a freelance journalist and stumble into a steady job?
I happen to be at the steady job as I write this. Now watch me make my excuses. Was anyone lined up to buy the insights of a brand-new Barnard graduate? Doesn’t it cost money to live, even in the East Village?
My mother would be saying, “Stop your whingeing,” and she would be right. I sold out. Those words make me want to puke.
I was interrupted by the heavy-booted step of my boss, George. He’s married and lives in the suburbs. He loves his work.
“Is the aphrodisiac cookbook going to be done by Friday?”
I’d already finished editing it. I wasn’t telling anyone because I wanted some free time to think and trash myself in the journal I carry everywhere. When I’d first started working here, I’d fallen into the good student bag. Get A’s on your paper; get A’s for your editing. My friends convinced me to relax, but relaxing makes me feel like I don’t care.
And finding and living a true purpose for my life is vital, because if I don’t get involved in one, I’m going to default by falling in love.
I’ve never been anyone’s idea of a good Catholic girl, but I couldn’t grow up listening to aging virgin nuns go on about the sanctity of marriage and the family without knowing that my circuits are wired to believe that love leads to weddings, babies, and burial in the suburbs. I fought too hard to get away; I’m not giving up my freedom.
But on a gray January afternoon when teenaged runaways are panhandling for spare change and the sky is pregnant with imminent snow, freedom isn’t a big turn-on. Even the suburbs look good.
I wonder if anyone’s at Finnerty’s.
When I got out of work, I loosened my unruly hair from the French braid that imprisons it from nine to five and took a bus downtown to Fifth Street. I hoped someone cheerful and funny would be in Finnerty’s, someone who could get me to laugh off my gloom.
My high-heeled shoes moved soundlessly through the sawdust.
Michael stood at the bar, an empty glass before him. Seamus brought him a fresh drink and leaned over the bar to give me a kiss.
“Hello, darling. You’re looking melancholy.”
I didn’t want to be reminded. “Winter. Could I have a whisky, please?”
Seamus poured me a glass. Michael picked up his own glass and took my arm. “I want to talk to you about something.”
“That’s the spirit, lad. The best-looking woman who’s come in on this cheerless afternoon, and you take her away.”
Michael parked us at a table towards the back of the pub. “Did you hear that Jake Levy reported for induction?”
Jake had come on to me once at a party, but it would have been like having sex with a cocker spaniel. Still, Vietnam. . . . That thought pushed me from melancholy to misery. Wiping away sudden tears, I sat down.
“I know, it’s a real bummer,” Michael said. “Eli, of course, blamed himself. You’d think you can sell a couple years in jail like it’s a Caribbean cruise.”
Jake wouldn’t last five minutes in prison. He wouldn’t last five minutes in Vietnam. I saw him dead, like Kevin Rafferty, who’d been in my high school graduating class, the coffin with the flag draped over it, the black-shawled women, the priest muttering about God’s will, and wasn’t it a great country, anyway?
But Jake was Jewish. They covered mirrors and sat on boxes. Give me a wake any day; at least you can get a drink.
Ghosts flittered through the dimly lit pub, and, instead of Jake’s death, I imagined my own, walking down a dark street, a shadow slipping in front of me, the flash of a knife in dim moonlight. An unearthly voice sang through my bones, the banshee, superstitious Irish bullshit, Ma standing by the window, saying someone was going to die, and the telegram came the next day.
The whisky burnished the edges of my fear and filled me with a warm melancholy that ignited into longing for lips to tingle with life against my own and a pair of arms to ward off death. Michael, who could sense female desire at a thousand paces, put his arm around me with more than friendly intentions.
I jerked away. “Where’s Rainbow?”
He didn’t even have the decency to look repentant. “She’ll be here in a while; she had to drop her sister off at the airport. I acted as a tour guide for two days, hoping to convince Sister Louise that Rainbow hadn’t married a no-account Northerner.”
“That’s what you are. Why not go to Vietnam yourself if you have such a death wish?”
Michael is like one of those big dogs, a Lab that leaps up every morning, thrilled to be alive, ready to lay muddy paw prints all over everyone it meets, wagging its tail and knocking priceless glassware off tables.
He inched his hands towards me. I grabbed his left hand and pointed to the heavy gold ring. “Remember this?”
The man isn’t one of the world’s star attractions. Basically, he resembles a Pillsbury Doughboy with long hair, but his eyes are deep blue, and when he’s turned on, hypnotic. He saves most of his hypnotic stares for women, but anyone whom he wants to persuade can get impaled on those cobalt arrows.
“Before I got married, I ranted endlessly about smashing the old, hypocritical standards. I should have listened to myself. And I shouldn’t have gotten married, but I was going to lose Rainbow if I didn’t.”
“And you made a promise. You didn’t have to, but since you did, keep it.”
“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“I do.” Adultery as a sin is another big chunk of catechism I was force-fed, but I’m fanatical about keeping promises (except to myself).
Michael dipped his finger in a puddle of beer and traced a heart on the table. “Can you explain why physical closeness is more intimate than sitting here in a bar and discussing how we feel about things?”
Too bad he never went to parochial school. The nuns could have let him play the serpent in a Biblical pageant: an amoral, friendly creature who strangled resistance with slithering charm.
He squeezed a little tighter. “I’m surprised you even consider issues like fidelity and monogamy. I always thought you had such a great attitude about sex, so open and easy.”
“Easy?” I remembered Carmel McCarthy, a bleached blonde with rolling breasts and hips, who’d allegedly accommodated the entire football team of St. Joseph’s High School. I tasted the bitterness of the worm in the apple Michael offered me.
“Mary, Mary, it’s 1968, and we’re not our parents, and you’re a wonderful girl-woman-sweet and funny and pretty. You make me think about how sex should be: spontaneous, laughter between friends. We had so much fun together.”
That sentiment began to erase the Whore of Babylon image, but it didn’t change my mind. “We’ll still have fun together, but we won’t share a bed. Please don’t ask me again.”
“I won’t.” He paused. “But I’ll regret it. Since you won’t sleep with me, how about joining the commune?”
“Jesus, Michael, first you want to fuck; then you want to adopt me.”
“I’m flexible. Listen, even Eli said he’d think about it.”
“And he may decide by the time you’re ready to start a communal retirement home. Why would I want to leave the city?”
“You want to be a writer.”
“And there are eight million stories in the Naked City, maybe five in the country, and they’re all about dead cows.”
Seamus took off the Clancy Brothers album he’d been playing and replaced it with a harps-and-bagpipes rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.”
The song is about surrender, about giving up the limitations that keep you from being a whole person. It’s about faith, trusting that all will be well, but how can I trust the world as it is? Barry Goldwater (whom I never quote) said that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. In my own life, that’s true. I can’t even go to a bar to relax without having to put up my guard.
Michael, however, redeemed himself. “Why don’t you interview Jake before he leaves? A story about why he made his decision could turn into a powerful antiwar statement. You’d have to promise him anonymity, of course.”
“Of course,” I murmured. The idea captivated me. All I had to do was believe that even if my head wasn’t stuffed with facts and theories like Eli’s, I had something to say.
Michael’s fingers seemed to be slowly inching toward me again. He had no right. I don’t want anyone, but if I ever do, it will be someone who’s available for more than the loan of his time and heart.
My big mistake is being in love with love-not that plenty of women aren’t, getting their first hope chest at the age of twelve, as if a twelve-year-old cares about matching tablecloths and napkins-but details like this are all part of the Big Marriage Thing. I don’t believe people get married and love together forever. Based on my own family history, they get married and fight together forever. Or your husband makes marriage vows and then tries to seduce other women.
I’m in love with love, and I’m also in love with sex, even when it’s bad, like sex with a man who thinks that foreplay has something to do with football. I’ve been having sex regularly since I was sixteen, and I’m not tired of it yet. I’m convinced, though, that it’s a drug for me, a distraction from my intention to take myself seriously as a writer.
Which is more important? If sex weren’t always on my mind, I’d have more room for creative thoughts. But I wouldn’t take that opportunity. I’d go out of my mind. I’d shrivel up; I’d become dry and cold like my mother. And wouldn’t she be delighted to hear that her hoor of a daughter was at last seeing the sinfulness of her ways?
Sex isn’t sinful; it’s quicksand that sucks you into its depths. And since the big thing is to avoid stumbling into marriage the way I did into my job, celibacy is surely my best protection.
I can convince my mind, but I’ll have to have a talk with my body. How can I stay strong in a city full of attractive men? Girls say yes to men who say no. Bullshit, but it’s as pervasive as the steam that rises from the sewers. Maybe I should enter a convent.
Or join a commune, like Michael wants. Imagine a farmhouse surrounded by snow. It’ll be cold; that will help. I’ll sit at my typewriter and rub words together for warmth in the chilly air. In solitude and celibacy, I’ll become a writer.
So I told Michael I’d think about it.
Gone to Flowers is available at Amazon.