The Madwomen Flies Dry
It's all about money these days--billions of dollars of it. There is a lot of death, too, of the sudden, colorful variety. And the usual kind that comes to the stale and worn-out. But that's not strange. There's more money than ever around, or not around, and more death, too. More people, more death. My personal death-in -life is the quiet kind that catches you in unguarded moments and says, Why bother to live any more? You know it's all for nothing. Everything has been done. It's just repetition. You're like a poplar tree, dying from the inside out, ready to be cut down.
I read novels about fictional dead people. The trivia of their days. Love caught in a frozen glimpse. It becomes harder to care about the surface of existence. If this writing lives beyond me, would people read it and attempt to find some significance in it? And what good would that do me? Isn't this just a pastime, writing to keep away the nothingness?
People lie. They do it to stay alive. Who can bear the truth? A man of my acquaintance recently presented me with a small paperbound book with the title, "Marx was the Devil." He is lucky. He thinks he understands the world. He has found the answer in the teachings of his church and in his little book. It's harder to say the truth--Marx was a man and now he's dead, and does it matter? Especially, does it matter to Marx? He's dead. Past tense. Even up in the air I cannot get away.
These days, when I travel, I wear blue jeans, a tee shirt, sandals and a sports jacket. I satisfy the need for feminine adornment in a perfunctory way with earrings and a perm . I'm somewhat stiff in the joints and overweight but recently managed to stop drinking. Depression of the kind that engenders the above thoughts lingers, however, and overtakes me, usually after lunch. I wonder whether it's physiological rather than existential--just an uneasy stomach? Did alcohol cause the depression, or did the depression cause the drinking? We all have to die, and it takes a lot of alcohol to mask that basic knowledge.
I wonder if women suffered this kind of dread of extinction in the past to the extent that men always have. In order to experience this knowledge of one's eventual obliteration, one must have an ego, not something most women have traditionally had a lot of. Besides which, most of us did not survive into our mid-50's, my present age. Postmenopausal, yes. Most of us still can't talk about that. Most of us can't face that little death. Many take the hormones like good girls, hoping men will stay interested in them. They like to bleed.
I settle into my first-class window seat. I hope no one will sit beside me. No such luck. I look up and see my Nemesis planting his fleshy self in the aisle seat. 70 or so, florid, full of food and drink. But still dark-haired and vital looking and with an edge to him. He immediately orders a bloody mary, downs it and orders another, and the edge disappears. I order plain mineral water. I pull out my novel. It's dusty and dull. I can't keep my mind on it. We're at cruising altitude now. I look out the window and see the bare spine of the California fault line. It looks as if a great being had raked its back--the fault itself like a spinal indentation. I have never seen such dryness. Not the California gold I remember from my youth, but a brown that resembles nothing so much as the dead look of a snowless Midwestern winter. Inevitable that California now looks like the places people came to it from to escape. San Francisco looks like New York, Oakland like New Jersey, Marin county like suburban Connecticut, but dry, dry, in this, the time of the seven-year drought. The Nemesis initiates conversation in spite of my obvious desire not to talk to him. (Or am I kidding myself?) I can write the script before he opens his mouth.
He starts out slow, with the usual pleasantries about wives, husbands, kids and colleges. I manage to remain neutral, but he knows that I'm good for it. Just the way I don't look beat up, cute, or compliant or anything he needs or admires in women. He knows I'm beyond that. We are not physically attracted to each other. He reminds me of my father; I remind him of his daughter. We sit, strangers, hashing over the stale domestic fiascoes of his and my past. The inevitability of it all! The wife who doesn't want to cook and clean, the contemptuous, contemptible daughter, his delighted discovery that he can have anything he wants if he can pay for it, so he doesn't have to put up with that shit. A very bitter man, for all his success and prestige, because the rules have changed.
I have not flown first-class for 30 years, I see the change. The flight attendants give friendly, efficient, perfunctory service, just as they do in tourist class. They are not all young, and they do not chat and flirt with the passengers, too busy for that. Some of them are even men. That erotic atmosphere, pitched to the desires of the moneyed male, and his need for constant flattering and catering to, has vanished. Now all they get for their extra dough is a wider seat and better food and, of course, free drinks. Men must seek farther and farther, into Southeast Asia (my companion's destination) for that absolute exchange of money for favors which demands nothing of a man except that he should pay up.
"My daughter," he says. "She goes around with this guy who wears an earring, just like that steward, there. He's O.K. He's straight. But these gays in the military. I mean, why don't they stay in the closet? I don't want that kind of thing shoved in my face.…" "My wife. One day she asked me where something was, and I said, 'In the kitchen. You know where that is, don't you.'" All those little anecdotes. Why use them on me? I'm not going to laugh at them. More bloody marys. He's rapidly becoming incoherent. His opaque blue eyes look dazed. He starts yelling at me. Abruptly, he falls asleep, and I return to my book and try to ignore the horrible in-flight movie which features a mechanical bedroom scene or two and body parts flying everywhere. When my companion awakens, he has, of course, forgotten everything he's said and believes that we are parting on the best of terms. But he lingers in my mind. He has re-infected me with old bitterness. He and all the men like him who rejected their families. They left a lot of needy daughters out there.
Stalin's daughter wrote a book about her father. She alternately worshipped and hated him. He was a man who blew hot and cold with his family; and, as she finally had to admit to herself, his family did not mean all that much to him. What fooled her when she was younger was his occasional warmth. Her heart was full of bourgeois sentimentality about life in the country, faithful, goodhearted family retainers, kindly grandmothers and grandfathers, jolly family get-togethers and so on. But she knew how little she meant to her father, and his cruelty repelled her. What she held against him was that he wasn't a good family man, which is why I see her as a stunningly banal person. In some men's lives, children are a by-product of their careless sex lives, and Stalin was such a man. His role in history meant the most to him, his place in the world of men. She sought his warmth and interest. Did her belief in the possibility of a more benevolent father keep her from despair?
Really, I'm no different. I too believed all that bourgeois stuff. Didn't I read all the books? In fact, I was worse. She always knew the danger of her position, visible as she was. .Look what happened to the czar's family. It could happen to her, too. I pretended my family provided me with warmth and security..A nobody like me could escape the attention of the Fates, I foolishly believed.
My mother learned the lesson early--that in the universal competetion for scarce goods in the good old days, among unimportant people, it was women and children last.--. Her brother, the eldest of seven, was the only one sent to college and inherited the small family fortune after his parents' death,. She brought me up in the tradition. My own father needed money for his education to a professional level, for a new car, for suits and clean shirts. Wasn't he the breadwinner, after all? If his daughters grew up homely and awkward, wearing cheap hand-me downs, wasn't this proof enough that good things were wasted on them? My mother shared my father's opinion on these matters. As if to re-enforce the edict that we needed and deserved nothing, she drank. Her inabilities provided us with the chaotic household that was all we had coming to us. If we had known how to be pretty and charming, it might have been different. Certainly my mother could never praise her children. No, our parents did not do us any favors. In return, they expected our unconditional love and support, and no back-chat. But the weaknesses of old age have made both of them ever more rage-prone. I think it's what keeps them going, away from the lurking despair. The rage, I mean.
The last time I visited Mother, she flew into a tantrum and accused me of Elder Abuse. I had to laugh at how she had picked up jargon that she would earlier have snobbishly despised. Tempting scenarios of me, a big, strong , bully of a woman, beating up my tiny, helpless old mother, played in my head . So I keep away from her now, call her up now and then. It's just the social disgrace that bothers her--that her daughters neglect her. She really does need help, of course, but we, her daughters, can't give it to her. She must depend on the kindness of strangers and pay them well for what they do for her. Thanks to alimony and and social security, she's well fixed enough.
My father has done better, because he has his profession and a wife now who backs him up in the way his generation of men demanded. She's a drinker, too, but she's a hard-working woman from a Wisconsin farm, who believes above all in money and appearances. She is perfectly adapted to American life and takes her hormones. I do not believe she suffers in the way we do at all, even after burying her first husband and two of her children. Even after her recent stroke. She has faith in men . My father, never able to tolerate alcohol well, is drinking more than ever, which has not improved his temper, never, as you know by now, very good anyway. He was the kind who would hold it in for months, in a state of repressed fury which made us all walk on tiptoes. The precipitating factor that would set him off would be, say, an object left in the middle of the living-room floor. He would pick up said object and hurl it, usually at me. Luckily, he always missed. This he would follow with a half-hour tirade about how he wasn't going to put up with it any more. About half the time, he would pack a suitcase, leave, and be gone for a couple of weeks. Then, after he'd worked it off, he'd call up, be forgiven, (though not by me) and return home.
With all this, I went through two major phases. In phase number one, I discovered that my family wasn't normal. In phase number two, I discovered that my family was ordinary. We all suffer from the same thing--a lurking beast that grabs us unless we distract ourselves all the time. It's damn difficult to see the point of existence under these circumstances. I used to laugh it off, even a couple of years ago, but no more. It's too serious. Life is serious.
© Marianna Scheffer, 2001
Published in "The Portland Review," Spring, 1993
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