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On fulfilling one of your mother's worst fears
At the small private high school I attended on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—housed in a building that was later sold to the infamous Jeffrey Epstein—I had two unforgettable teachers who drilled us in the glories and puzzlements of French language and literature. Mme Davies was of Parisian origin, with a square face and greasy hair and a vile temper that probably would have gotten her sacked in more recent times. It was she who taught freshman and sophomore grammar, endless drills and quizzes once a week, and when we stumbled, she might throw a book across the room or yell at us: “Pull out your pocket mirrors and compacts and look at your lazy American mouths—what an insult they are to the French language.”
M Poulin, who taught French literature to upperclassmen, was a whole different kind of pedagogue. Originally from Toronto, he aspired to a certain level of cool, and often succeeded; his hair carefully tousled, his trousers creased just so. He even once wore a Nehru jacket to one of our class parties, and of course more than one girl had a crush on them.
Not surprisingly, the two teachers despised each other.
I thought about them recently because I was trying to remember which assigned us the writings of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher who came up with numerous choice little nuggets like “Le nez de Cléopâtre s'il eut été plus court, toute la face de la Terre aurait changée.” Meaning if Cleopatra’s nose had been a tad shorter, her suitors—Marc Antony and Julius Caesar—would not have fought so hard for her and the face of the Roman Empire would have been different. Why a short nose was considered an unattractive thing I can’t tell you, but one must never question the French on matters of style.
It’s a quote that occurred to me often, on a microcosmic scale, as I was writing “Rotten Romance.” If only I had done such and such, things might have turned out quite differently. If only I had tried harder to acclimate to San Francisco, my ex and I might never have divorced. And if only I’d stuck around, he might never have lost so much money. If only we’d had children….
You can make yourself totally insane with this sort of reasoning.
But in reconstructing all these liaisons of the past three decades I came to realize that the one I should have stayed with was Jeff in Seattle, the hero of “Radio Daze.” Nearly 25 years later I can still summon his presence: the way he laughed, his sexy but haunted Gary Cooper good looks, his shaky baritone when he sang beside me at a Christmas service so long, long ago. We shared a mordant sense of humor and connected over everything from board games to Bach. The impossible teenaged daughters would eventually have grown up and flown the nest. I could have found a job in Seattle….he died three years ago, but we would have had 18 together.
Foolish thinking, the sort that has you in tears at 3 a.m.
When my mother was around the age I am now, she gave me one of her scalding looks and said, “I’d hate to see you alone when you’re in your seventies.” And now it appears that might very well be the case. My last serious encounter with a man was about two years ago, the summer before Covid-19 changed the world forever. Another prospect culled from the Internet, barely literate but attractive in an L.L. Bean sort of way. We went out twice, and both times he was a little too handsy and kissy-face for my comfort. But then I thought, “Ann….you haven’t had sex in God knows how long, and he seems reasonably nice, so just throw back a couple of Manhattans and have done with it. You might even fun.” Then on the day of our appointed rendezvous, he emailed, “I’m sorry. I’ve been seeing someone else.” When I responded with a few choice expletives, he replied: “Don’t we all have a right to look for love?”
It wasn’t long after that aborted liaison that a male friend (happily married) suggested: “Have you ever thought about looking for a connection with a woman?” Well, yes, indeed I have. I’ve even nursed mild crushes on women—one, my editor at The New York Times, a person I knew only from her voice. But we had wonderful conversations and I felt a sense of loss when she was let go about a year later. The other is the author of numerous books and one of the most vibrant people I’ve ever met; I’ve run into her twice at parties and once, when I worked on a women’s magazine way back in the 1980s, I commissioned an essay from her. But I could never imagine anything for the long run; I’m simply not built that way, though I often envy those who are.
You might think with so much negative experience behind me that I would be down on marriage, and that is not the case at all. I was virtually groomed for marriage from an impressionable age. My mother carped at me, over and over, “Don’t you want the security of marriage? Don’t you want a man to take care of you?” I would have preferred a little more cheerleading in support of a career as an art historian, but that was not forthcoming. And then came the ultimate threat: “You know, your father and I can’t retire until we see you settled.” As though my failure to find a mate would condemn them to a life of never-ending toil, long past their sell-by date, and if they fell over from a stroke because I was still whooping it up as a single woman, it was all my fault.
No, I genuinely respect marriage, and I’ve seen more than a few that work, but another union does not seem to be in the cards for me. I doubt I have the stamina to navigate the matchmaking sites anymore, and I’m getting way too cranky to date. If chance throws a likely prospect my way, I will do my best to follow up. If he mentions anything about Blaise Pascal, I will probably fall over in a dead faint.
In the meantime, Sylvia offers the consolations of a warm furry body in the mornings, I have my ex for company twice a week, and I’m making plans that will keep me in and out of trouble for the next decade. Alone doesn’t have to mean lonely.
Since I’ve reached the end of the road with “Rotten Romance,” I am not sure what I will be sending you next. Possibly some short fiction, or I will resume “Eat My Memoir” as a Substack weekly. One thing is reasonably certain, I plan to keep writing. Below: Sylvia gets ready for seasonal caroling.