Years ago in McGlinchey’s, a Philly dive, I overheard a female voice, “I don’t know how anyone can get married, I don’t know, before they’re 45. I mean, hello!” The woman was in her mid-20s.
In 2014, I was at the Golden Cicada in Jersey City when a karaoke session broke out. The participants were a group of three gay guys and two single women, plus a straight couple. In metropolitan New York, one often hears women complain about the dearth of straight men, so it’s no surprise to see these young ladies enjoying a night out with their gay buddies.
As for the couple, she was Indian and he, Italian. We talked. Staring lovingly at her boyfriend, she cooed that they were engaged. He showed no emotion.
As the increasingly boisterous singers howled, “No one knows what it’s like / To be the bad man / To be the sad man / Behind blue eyes,” I thought of India-born poet Reetika Vazirani. She had a child out of wedlock with Yusef Komunyakaa. I’ve had dinners with Yusef in Philly and New York, but I never saw Reetika face-to-face. We exchanged some emails.
On October 15th, 2002, she sent me:
After a long time. Wanted to say hello and say where I am with little Jehan who is nearly two. We are well.
Sending you the best.
On March 25th, 2003, she wrote:
It has been so long since our dialogue in The Literary Review. I would like to stay in touch. Here is my number: 757-XXX-XXXX. I’ll be moving at the end of April. Can we speak before then?
My best, and many thanks for the messages,
This request for a phone chat was a bit odd, I thought. Emailing back, I explained that I was in Italy. Though I was warm and solicitous enough, I never phoned Reetika. I dislike talking over the phone.
I received one more email from Reetika in May, then in July, words came that she had stabbed her son to death before committing suicide. Reetika and Jehan never lived with Yusef, but rented a house near him in Trenton. During her final months, she reached out to many people. Surely someone could have said something to save the 41-year-old woman and her baby?
One should recall that Jehan is the name of that man who loved his wife most enduringly, for after she died, he commissioned 20,000 artisans over two decades to conjure up that “dream in marble,” the Taj Mahal.
Since the poetry world is small, I know another of Yusef’s girlfriends. Savvier, she didn’t expect too much from their relationship. In her mid-40s, this poet wrote a humorous newspaper article about online dating, then managed to get married soon after.
Though you can’t count on sampling endless partners before settling down at 45, this culture dopes us into thinking we can be young forever, with all options open until that cremation chamber. Just before we turn to ashes, we can have that last Botox implant, face-lift and buttock augmentation. Men ape Hugh Hefner, and women, Madonna. Bring on the fresh meat!
A young Augustine bargained with God, “Give me chastity, but not yet.” We of the 21st century don’t care for checks to our appetite. Just give us protean sex! Chastity still comes, however, as too many of us find ourselves unmarried, loveless and compulsively molesting our forlorn, nether parts while ogling Chaturbate. Boy, that felt good!
In 2013, I met three women in Oakland. They were in their early 30s, cool, smart, attractive and fairly miserable. Three or four nights a week, you could find them sipping cocktails outside the Make Westing bar on Telegraph Avenue. It’s a hipster hangout, with two bocce courts inside.
Let’s call our three graces Splendor, Mirth and Good Cheer. Raised in Oklahoma, Splendor moved to San Francisco to have better access to art, knowledge and decadence. She lived in the Tenderloin, where a whore climbed through her window via the fire escape. Relocated to Oakland, Splendor was teaching 6th grade history and English in a public school.
After marrying without much conviction or a wedding, Splendor found herself mostly alone. “We have an open marriage. Charlie leaves when he feels like, and comes back when he feels like. He can disappear for months of a time. I don’t want to stand in the way of my husband’s freedom.”
Mirth was finishing a PhD in biology at Berkeley. For nearly three years, she was in a relationship, but each time her man proposed marriage, Mirth said no, thanks. It felt enough like marriage since they were living together and even bought a car together. When Mirth won a six-month fellowship to study in Paris, she finally agreed to get engaged. This way, her boyfriend could be assured she would come back and not shack up with some French beau.
Settled in Paris, Mirth decided she would jog each one of its streets, so for a month, her map filled up with red lines. She would conquer Paris, alley by alley. Her giddiness was torpedoed when friends in Berkeley emailed to say her fiancé was regularly seen with another woman. Mirth flew back to confront him, but the cad refused to meet. Dodging Mirth, he even left their apartment when she moved her stuff out. He kept their Chevy. Just like that, their relationship had turned into a public joke.
Trying to get even, Mirth kept raw fish in a jar on a balcony, in the sun. She planned on pouring the rotted slime into her ex’s carburetor. “That car would stink forever!” All that happened, though, was Mirth getting on all fours to clean up the shattered, splattered mess after seagulls knocked the jar over.
Good Cheer was also doing a Berkeley PhD, but in literature. Since her live-in boyfriend was a star poet among her crowd, Good Cheer cherished all of his intense emails. She was his muse and confidante. An aspiring poet herself, Good Cheer would be a Sylvia Plath to his Ted Hughes, but minus the suicide. Without hints or explanations, however, he dumped her. Good Cheer took it in stride and still considered her boyfriend of three years a close friend.
When I met these lovelies, they were certainly alluring enough to score transient boyfriends or at least bed partners. Sadness was creeping in, however, and Splendor even admitted, “I have two cats because, well, it gets lonely.” She showed me self-made ceramics that resembled mangled uteruses, frankly. Resisting a primal urge to sniff them, I merely grunted, “These are nice.”
Two months ago, I profiled a young Philadelphia woman, B.B. Growing up in post-industrial and crime-wracked Camden, she suffered through a turbulent childhood spent mostly in foster homes and even jail, simply because the state had nowhere else to house her. Her dad died from work exposure to asbestos. Her stepfather sexually molested her.
At 32, B.B. got engaged, only to break it up when she found her man cheating. They fought. After B.B.’s fiancé accused her of stabbing him, she was jailed for 10 days, but the charge was tossed.
Again, B.B.’s life was in turmoil, with the only stability her two-days-a-week job at the Friendly Lounge, my local dive. Since B.B. said she had always wanted to write, I gave her tips and even an assignment. Tailored for B.B., it’s a 1,000-word story called “Creeps.” As an attractive bartender in an old man’s hangout, she certainly didn’t lack material.
Welcoming this challenge, B.B. thanked me repeatedly and gave me a drawing of a rabbit, with thread stitched into the paper. She promised me another rabbit, personalized. “You’re my only audience,” she confessed.
I showed B.B. a poem, published in Harper’s, that’s derived from my years as a house cleaner. It begins, “Belonging to the lower class, you’re expected / To cater to the upper class’ lower bodily functions.” Her work experience matters, I kept telling B.B., and of course her layers of wounds. She has overcome so much.
Each Thursday, I brought my laptop to the bar so B.B. could type out a draft, but there was nothing. She couldn’t focus. I read in her notebook an old account of a dream with a dead goose.
Listen, I have no illusion about writing as a career or vocation. As a public overture, it’s mostly pathetic, if not bathetic. So futile, most writers are lucky to have one attentive reader, counting the writer. As a meditation on self and the world, however, it can never be useless, for writing is just thinking made concrete. Writing is a deed to one’s experiences.
B.B. texted me:
it’s difficult to articulate but, it’s as though despite all i have and want to say, all I can see, all i can think about or even write about, are the issues I’ve been going through an trying to deal with in my personal life. . i know I need to get past it if I am to go anywhere with my life, let along my writing. i just don’t know how to go about getting past it all, it’s as though these problems have consumed me, and there is not even a “me” anymore . . . in the vacancy of where i was, are the problems and heartache that caused me to disappear.
Most alarmingly, B.B. spoke of suicide on two occasions. She said she didn’t know how to live, and just wanted to end it all. I tried to comfort B.B., cheer her up. I told her she needed time to heal, and surely she would heal.
Since suicide is the ultimate blasphemy, many of those who failed at the attempt speak of experiencing the darkest terror during their brief death. It is a paradox that one of the most devouts ever, Simone Weil, was a suicide, but of course, so was Jesus. God killed a third of himself. He also had a get-out-of-hell card. We don’t.
On Thanksgiving, the Friendly was closed, so B.B. lost half of that week’s wage. She ended up dumpster diving. Hunger-weakened and with carpal tunnel syndrome, B.B. had to strain to lift each heavy lid.
This week, along with my laptop I brought B.B. a story I published in 1997. Since it has a bar setting and a character from Camden, I thought she might be inspired by it. One of the dialogues is lifted straight from a conversation I had in McGlinchey’s. “You hear crazy shit like this all the time, so use it!” I was going to tell B.B.
When I opened the door, I saw a brand new bartender, however, and the place seemed darker than usual. It was dead. There was but one customer, a middle-aged woman with wiry, uncombed hair and a shabby jacket, hunched over an ashtray and her High Life.
“B.B. is not working today?”
“Do you know when she’ll work next?”
“I don’t think she’ll be back.”
“She got fired?!”
“I don’t know.”
Home, I texted B.B., then called to make sure she was OK. Receiving no answer for two days, I feared the worst.
One of B.B.’s tattoos is “XXIII,” meaning she only found love, sort of, with her 23rd boyfriend. Sex hounded B.B. constantly. Men of all ages propositioned her daily with dinner, cash, coke or weed. Of course, she longed for love. Another ink of hers is “DIE BITCH.”
Many people talk of killing themselves, but how many have it etched into their skin? Years ago, a Friendly Lounge bartender became a massage therapist, then got busted twice for prostitution. Boozing in Friendly, she flirted with Don, its owner, then slurred that she wanted to off herself. Calling her bluff, Don laughed, “Can you lend me $50 first?” The 42-year-old overdosed on Seconal within a week.
Editor Frank Wilson told me he spent three long evenings talking a friend out of ending her life. The night she finally did it, this smart, accomplished woman had a dozen close friends over. The dinner was a feast. An hour later, the lonely woman was dead. “If they really want to do it, there’s nothing you can do.”
In the early 90s, I served in Philly’s City Hall Art Council with Ella King Torrey. She would rise to become president of the San Francisco Art Institute. Ella was tall, well-liked, never married, childless, in a field she loved, financially secure and with a spectacular career trajectory. In any room, Ella always had the biggest smile. She collected African-American quilts, drove long distance to see Cher’s Farewell Tour. Hillary Clinton invited Ella to the White House. At 45, she killed herself.
From Cleveland, Elizabeth Hayes sent me a most harrowing account of her attempted suicide, “Why I Jumped off the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge.” The key reason, in my mind, is her ill-considered marriage. Elizabeth:
When I was 19 somebody asked me, “But don’t you want to get married?” I said, “If I’m gonna get married, it will have to be 1) some autistic guy and 2) someone who is gone a lot.” By autistic, I meant somebody who would leave me alone and be incapable, and disinterested, in figuring out what I’m up to, as long as I’m fairly discrete. At 33, I decided I really wanted to have a child, so should find someone to marry, and none of the guys I’d been hanging with would think of having a child with anything but horror, and would have gotten pissed at me even bringing the matter up. And don’t give me this nonsense about how single motherhood is the way to go.
Then I met Malvin, appropriately named as it turned out (bad wine, get it?), a jazz musician (flute and sax) who had a steady job as a bureaucrat at Welfareland. At 45 he wanted to finally settle down, and get this, beyond his stupid bureaucrat job, he gigged at least three times a week! That fulfilled criterion number two, and Mal’s mood variations were nil, any intuitive powers lacking, which fulfilled criterion number one. Therefore, I decided I’d get a baby out of him.
In 2014, there were 41,143 American suicides, as compared to 16,108 murders. We hate ourselves and each other more than the citizens of just about any other First World nation. We are also the champs of drug taking and porn watching.
In practically any other place or time, a woman like B.B. would be a wife and mother, but here, now, sex is divorced from love, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. In this context, declarations of love are often cynical ploys, but better love sans sex than sex sans love, I’d say, though perhaps not yet. Soixante-neuf, mon chéri?
The ultimate poem, the marriage vows should outlast all others, “I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Declared at a wedding, in front of practically everyone one knows, the vows are made not just to one’s spouse but the entire community that one will be a responsible adult, at last.
For a century, we’ve been reeducated about the evils of marriage, however. In 2013, youngish Canadian feminist Meghan Murghy reminded us:
Marriage has been an institution within which women have suffered abuse, rape, murder and forced reproduction. It’s an institution that guaranteed men a maid and someone to bear and raise their offspring.
That’s why Murphy wanted no part of it, although she’s interested in “a monogamous, love-type relationship” with, eventually, “a life partner.”
Most Western men born after WWII actually welcome such a rejection, for it means many booty calls and intimate relationships that can be ditched at will, even without pretexts. Feminists’ disavowal of the traditional family means much more variety for these horndogs.
Growing up among “church mouses,” my drinking buddy Marty was liberated by feminism to pounce on 140 sniffable, lickable and squeezable trophies, while blowing up five marriages along the way.
Encouraging heartlessness and dishonesty, this freedom to fornicate breeds cynicism, wrecks home and traumatizes children, but who wants to hear that? Sex is fun, rejuvenating, soul shaking, revenge, raid, exploration and carthasis, dude, while marriage anchors and delimits. Since husbands and fathers can be such tyrants, let’s just have playas. Pork and run is cool.
In my defense of marriage, I raved to the three Oakland graces, “To love is not to embrace a beautiful body but a decaying, aging person, practically a corpse.” Invite me to your next party, eh?
Alas, B.B. is not yet a cadaver. She just texted me. Like many among us, she will put on a brave face and slog forward. Tailed and cornered by creeps, she may even pretend that she is loved.