"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Husbands And Wives–A Cautionary Tale

Bobby Driscoll was pussy-whipped, an indelicate way of describing his subservience to his wife, but the best way.  If you spent any social time with Bobby and Jill, you would never guess that they were anything other than a well-balanced, upper-middle class professional couple; but once you got to know him you began to notice his well-practiced deference.  He would never interrupt her windy commentary on the plight of black women in southern Georgia, female circumcision, or Congress’ indifference to the Violence Against Women Act; and in fact would always add his support.  “As Jill has rightly said”, he would always begin, and then quote Mahalia Jackson, Amy Semple McPherson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They made a good team, Bobby and Jill, and were pleasant company. Occasionally Bobby would strike out on his own, staking a position on something other than gender, class, or race; but Jill would somehow always bring the conversation back around.  Unlike most husbands, Bobby did not object, or push on, furrowing his own ground.  He deftly reconfigured his argument within her familiar rills until she picked up and took over.

Bobby was a frequent visitor at one of the many women’s conferences attended by Jill.  Not surprisingly, he was one of the few men enrolled, but was always an enthusiastic shill and loud vocal supporter of the issues raised.  As speaker after speaker banged on about untoward grievances, women ignored, and positions not filled; or whinged about every imaginable insult, injury, or disregard suffered at the hands of men, Bobby was there applauding, raising his fist in the air like the Black Panthers at the Olympics, and yelling in loud solidarity.

“Do you really buy into all that women’s shit?”, asked Rasher Hadley, Bobby’s roommate of many years ago.

“What do you mean, ‘women’s shit’?”, Bobby replied indignantly but with a smile.  Bobby was from an old New England family – not old-line WASP aristocratic ruler stock, but good Puritan, hard-working people who came over not much later than the Mayflower.  His family were good, honest burghers from Worcester, gave back to the community, and provided a solid, religious home.  Rasher was one generation removed from redneck Georgia cracker.  His grandfather came down from the hills, built a shipping empire based in Savannah, and made more money that the Hadley family and its descendants could ever have imagined.  Rasher’s father never worked, spent his time tomcatting through the better-heeled families of the South, and never spent a dime of his inheritance living off the largess of his wealthy mistresses.   Rumors persisted that he was the father of John Calvert, latest in an unbroken family line that dated back to the first settlers of the colony in 1732; and few people denied that Billy Cox, another descendant of the First Families of Savannah, had Rasher’s father’s blue eyes and quirky smile.

Rasher was a chip off the old block, but had struck out on his own in a more freewheeling and carefree way than his father.  Rasher understood women, and knew that regardless of any overt political commitment to the contrary, they wanted sexual satisfaction.  He knew that behind any of Bobby’s feminist viragos were women who wanted what he, Rasher, could give them.  He was a supremely confident, attentive, bad boy lover whom women could not resist.  More than anything, he understood that women wanted to be listened to – a serious indictment of God knows how many eons of repression and subservience (that he gave to the feminists).  All  he had to do was to pay attention to stories about their unhappy loves, their fathers, their bosses, and their frustrations; to notice their hair, their dresses, and their moods, and they were in bed with him in a minute.  Rasher Hadley loved women and they knew it.

Bobby Driscoll had never been a confident lover, and his marriage to Jill had been an accommodation to his sexual shyness and a refuge from hungrier women who wanted a lot more than gender equality and professional recognition. He never slept around, always kept his own counsel, and claimed that he ‘had too much respect for Jill’ to stray.   However, he suspected that his years of quiet complaisance and the marital truce that assured easy sailing through usually troubled waters left him unprepared for the outside world.  He used respect as his demurral, but the real reason he stayed at home was that he was afraid that women would dismiss and discard him.

He was quite happy enough in the company of politically engaged women like his wife, and attendance at all their conferences and seminars helped keep up the illusion that he was attractive to women.  However, what he thought was praise and adulation for his unremitting support for women’s causes was actually the very dismissive wave of disapproval that he feared.  His raison d'être –progressive political solidarity with the women’s movement – was suspect in the eyes of The Sisterhood; and women personally thought he was a dickless loser. 

Bobby’s male friendships were as tepid as his marriage.  His friends were committed progressives like him, active in many social causes from the environment to gay rights, and all of them had made a decent living from this engagement.  They all joked about working in the non-profit ghetto for grape-picker wages, but wore their relative poverty on their sleeves as a mark of their gravitas and sincerity. Making money would reek of the capitalism they eschewed.  Theirs was a happy, ingrown clique just like the Sisterhood; and all members had either ignored the sexual libertinage common to most men in the corporate or high-stakes political world or fled it out of sexual insecurity.

Rasher’s confidence and allure was not restricted to women; and he parlayed his sizeable inheritance into big profits in venture capital.  Investors were just as eager to be seduced by Rasher Hadley as his women. In fact, some of the best returns on investment he ever made were from trusting, loving women.  The feminists with whom Bobby kept company refused to believe that such gullible women still existed, but could never explain their terrible attraction to men like Rasher Hadley.

He was, however, only one of millions in the long line of seducers and sexual predators, the romantic heirs of Casanova, Valmont and especially the Baron, the insatiable sexual satyr depicted by Anaïs Nin. 

When he needed money he married a rich woman, plundered her, and left her for another country. Most of the time the women did not complain to the police.  The few weeks or months they had enjoyed him as a husband left a sensation that was stronger than the shock of losing their money.  For a moment they had known what it was to live with strong wings, to fly above the heads of mediocrity. 

He took them so high, whirled them so fast in his series of enchantments, that his departure still had something of the flight. It seemed almost natural – no partner could follow his great eagle sweeps.

Hadley had no idea why women fell so easily and completely in love with him, but they did.  He was compelled to love women, he said.  He had no choice in the matter.  He insisted he was no skirt-chaser, content with dalliances and minor adventure.  Each conquest was Tantric.  Every other acquaintance, friendship, or camaraderie was insignificant, too temperate to be noticed, insufferably predictable, stable, and too interminably long.

Rasher and Bobby were like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy – opposites who enjoyed each other and liked the fact that in a polarized world they could still be friends; but the friendship at heart was unequal.  Bobby wanted to be Rasher, and not the other way around.  He knew that his life had been subsumed within Jill’s.  He was her person rather than his own.  He had used her causes as a camouflage for his unconcluded wants.  He wore her mantel of intellectual propriety and probity to cover his inability to court and bed other women.

Bobby’s frustration grew worse with age.  A close friend of his whom he had also known in college had recently concluded a long affair with a woman less than half his age. Both he and the young woman knew that the relationship would never last, but it had enough of Rasher Hadley’s Tantric proportions to keep it alive and immediate.  The friend said that it was the most transformative experience of his life.  It showed him that sexual passion and complete emotional ecstasy was possible at any age; but that this unexpected, miraculous idyll with an unblemished, lithe and perfect young woman also foreshadowed his death.  It made his life exciting and once again worth living; but sounded the klaxon of his demise.

“I don’t care”, said Bobby.  “I don’t want to die without knowing that”. He knew what Rasher did not, that the very impermanence of an impossible relationship and its unexpected and surprising nature, made it more valuable than any of his youth. When you are young, he mused, you know that there will be many loves.  He thought of the lines spoken by Coleman Silk in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain when he speaks about his young lover: “She is not my first love”, he says. “Nor is she my best love; but she sure as hell is my last love”.

Bobby wished that Rasher would go away so that he would not have to hear his insistent, nagging, nettling, criticisms of his sexual lethargy.  For Rasher, sex was never an excitement, a diversion, or a pastime.  It was a signifier.  It was the be-all and end-all.  It was the most any man could aspire to; and Bobby knew that he was withering in a dry, passionless, regrettable relationship with Jill.

He could only think of the opening paragraphs of Absalom, Absalom in which Rosa Coldfield reminisces about the losses of her sexual past.  She is living alone in a hot, airless, dry room, hearing the cicadas and sounds of late summer outside, smelling the earth and the flowers, and thinking of her lost life,  She is as dry, desiccated, and shriveled as the September world outside, and she is full of hostile regrets.

At this point in his life Bobby was in turn both frustrated and resentful and resigned and philosophical.  He wanted what Rasher still had and berated himself for being so inept and unable.  Here he was, nearing the end of his life, regretting his past and immobilized and incapable of action. Yet at the same time he remembered a Francois Villon poem from his studies at Yale – we all would end up in ‘un tas pele mele’ said the poet.  In death we would all end up in the same, undistinguished heap.  Rasher Hadley’s exuberant excesses and his own frustrated abstemiousness would be no different.

Few of us can face the fact of a life unlived, and so Bobby Driscoll renewed his enthusiasm for things social and political.  However much he might have wanted to live the life of his friend, he and the world had conspired to deal him a bad hand.  In the few years he had remaining, he would have to deal with that.

It would be nice to cite poetic justice when describing the fate of Rasher Hadley – that he learned too late the value of permanent, meaningful relationships; or that he came a cropper when one of his squired ladies turned on him and sued him for fraud; or that he became crippled and impotent from a disease acquired in the seraglios of Turkey or the courts of the Middle Kingdom.  None of this was ever to be.  Rasher Hadley squired beautiful, wealthy women until his death - untimely, unexpected, but benign at age 80.  He was a man who went to his just rewards with no regrets.

Bobby Driscoll soldiered on in the vineyards of social realism until the respectably old age of 92.  He relaxed at 75, reasoning that even if the will were there, the equipment needed retirement.  His wife mellowed and retreated from her unequivocal feminist positions of years before.  She suspected that her husband had derived little pleasure out of their marriage and that she, with few aspirations and idealistic dreams, had fared better than he; but the two of them at least had survived many years when either one of them could have fallen off the rails.

Bobby had lost track of Rasher Hadley long before he died.  After 80 one’s life is really only one’s own; but he never forgot him, never stopped admiring him and envying him.  No amount of Francois Villon or existential texts could erase or compensate for that.  He had led a good, responsible, ethical life; but it was nothing compared to that of Rasher Hadley.

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