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

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cigarettes, Perfume, And Fur Coats–A Boyhood Fantasy

Sybil Birnbaum was the classiest of my mother’s friends – by far the most beautiful and most elegantly dressed.  When she came in the front door, perfume filled the hall, her diamonds caught the light of the chandelier, and long and sharp colored prisms flickered on the walls.  She always a dark mink almost velvet in color that complemented her black hair, lavender eye shadow and red lipstick. On formal occasions she wore low-cut black gowns and looked like Whistler’s Madame X.

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She lit her cigarettes with a silver lighter taken from a gold case. She tilted her head upwards when she exhaled, showing off her long, elegant neck.  Her entrance was glamorous, seductive, elegant, and irresistible.

She wasn’t the only beautiful woman at my mother’s soirées. There were many. Some came in mink, others in Persian lamb.  Some wore diamonds and others emeralds and rubies. Some wore Arpège, others Femme de Rochas. 

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They all said hello to me but Mrs. Lavaca always gave me a kiss. She was the sexiest of all my mother’s friends.  She wasn’t as elegantly tailored or manicured.  She wore little makeup and jewelry, but she was ‘inviting’.  That was the only word I could think of, for of all the women at the party she was the only one I hoped would come up to my room after I had gone to bed, pull down the covers and lie beside me.

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Even today after so many years, the smell of cigarettes and perfume on a woman still brings me back to my boyhood in New Brighton.  Women wear little perfume these days and rarely smoke, so the only time I smell the heady, sexy mix of my youth is on older women in their 80s who never gave up cigarettes or the habit of wearing Chanel.  I would see them – or smell their scent – in the Oak Room of the Plaza or in the lobby of the Willard, looking just as graceful and confident as the young women I watched from the hall stairs in New Brighton.  They hadn’t changed a bit and could have been waiting for a paramour or an unexpected admirer. 

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One day after work I was having a drink at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington and noticed an older woman who could have been Adrienne Lavaca fifty years later.  She was alone but neither impatient nor ill at ease. She was surely sitting where she sat every day, coming in after an afternoon of bridge or a visit to the Phillips.  She looked comfortable and receptive. I introduced myself and asked her if she might be from New Brighton. 

I knew that she was not Adrienne Lavaca nor from New Brighton, but because everything about her reminded me of Adrienne - the way she distractedly played with her hair and looked at her nails, and especially the way she sat - I still wanted to talk to her. Most older women have a fussiness about them, a kind of irritability, an out-of-sorts unpleasantness.  They are either unhappy about where they are or impatient to be someplace else; but this woman seemed unusually relaxed and content.  She looked like she came here every day, enjoyed the routine of the bar, the guests of the hotel, and the way the whiskey sours were shaken and strained.

Her name was Meriwether Van Horn. She was from West Hartford, a town only twenty minutes from New Brighton.  She had moved to Washington years ago, still lived in Spring Valley, and although her husband had recently died, said she had no intention of moving. “I have the money”, she said without pretense or affectation, “and I am well taken care of.”

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She spoke just like Adrienne Lavaca.  Again, most older women lose their coquettishness and intrigue; and their voices are without timbre or variation. Meriwether (named after her Great Grandfather who had been a Union officer in the Civil War and her more distant relative who had served with Washington in the Colonial Army) spoke like a young woman; and her charm, allure, and voice were just like Adrienne’s.

I never knew Mrs. Lavaca.  I was only ten at the time and adults were out-of-bounds, curiosities, and remote.  I could only follow her, imagine what she was like and wonder about her. When I heard that my mother was to play golf with her, I asked if I could caddy for them.  The Farnsworth Country Club was an old golf course laid out long before any development in Farnsworth, Avon, or West Hartford. It had been designed by Bobby Jones, and was challenging for even the scratch golfers who played it.  Mrs. Lavaca was a natural athlete and a champion golfer. I loved to watch her tee off, her breasts tight against her arms in a fluid, graceful arc. Her legs were long and tanned early, so by June they were golden brown, sleek, and polished.  She was like a statue of Venus de Milo standing over her putt.

I heard her voice coming from the women’s lounge where my mother had drinks with the ladies after their eighteen holes.  Mrs. Lavaca did not have a loud or impertinent voice, but I could always pick it out and hear it clearly as she talked about her fairway shots, her children, or her coming vacation to Nantucket.

I didn’t know Adrienne Lavaca in the normal way; but after five years of her incidental company and watching her every move, the way she dressed, how she talked, sat, and walked, I felt I did.  I must have because I thought of her often over fifty years; and there she was sitting next to me sipping a whiskey sour at the Regents Room of the Fairfax.

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I was as attentive as a lover, as intent in pursuit as I had been as a young man.  I was not sure what I wanted from her – an affirmation that she was an incarnation of Adrienne Lavaca? A validation of my instincts? A desire to know what Adrienne had become?

There was something mutual in our attraction; but she had no more of an idea of where our friendship would lead than I.  She didn’t need companionship, and her days of paramours and love affairs were long over.  She was a Washington matron, a wealthy resident of Spring Valley and still active in the Capital’s social life; but yet we found time to be together.

At times I felt uncomfortable. I was a voyeur who was looking into the projected life of Adrienne Lavaca  Not the real life of Meriwether Van Horn; but one whom I invented based on the matière primaire of my boyhood fantasy. We shared a similar background but her trajectory had taken her in a far different social orbit.  I knew none of her friends, nor she any of mine. Why then did we continue to see each other?

The conversation with Merri was easy and comfortable.  I don’t remember now what we talked about; but I know that we put Connecticut on the shelf early on. We had known each other long enough to exhaust even Dostoevsky; and the repeated Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions at the Corcoran bored us.

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It was for the first and only time in my life a perfect relationship, not predicated on sexual fantasy or jealous demands. It began with no prescribed perimeter, no limits or rules, and certainly no expectations.  I never probed to try to understand the way she thought, and was only marginally interested in her family.

I was the happiest I had ever been. I was in love with Adrienne Lacava again. When I looked at Merri I first saw Adrienne and then her. When she spoke I first heard Adrienne’s voice and then hers. 
Meriwether died a few years later.  We had just had an early dinner, but shortly after I dropped her in Spring Valley, the phone rang and her companion told me that she had died.

Grief did not feel appropriate. After all she was not real.  Few people knew of our friendship, and so in a way it was indeed a uniquely special, unshared relationship.  I didn’t tell anyone about Merri, and she only told her companion about me when she knew she was dying. 

I was not certain how I felt or even how I could go back to more normal relationships.  I was not young, but not yet old; and yet anything less than that particular and peculiar intimacy I had with Merri would never do.

I eventually stopped thinking about her, remarried, and moved to the Eastern Shore.  I realized that I had never taken any pictures of her; but on second thought, that was not surprising. She was not real.

Sex, Lies, And More Lies–There’s Got To Be A Better Way

Sex, lies….and more sex and lies. We are simply congenitally programmed to be unfaithful, and that’s that. Everyone knows the drill – staying late at the office, dinner with an old friend, quick trip into the city – and the only surprising thing about the charade is that we all fall for it hook, line, and sinker. 

It is so much work to deceive, all that plotting and creating. It is not easy to come up with a plausible excuse for coming home late or not at all, especially with a regular paramour. One can be en charrette for only so long before one’s partner begins to wonder how many late nights it takes to complete a proposal; or how many long-lost college friends can  possibly be passing through Charlotte.

I had a very punctilious friend who drew up a simplified spread sheet to keep track of his excuses.  His affair with Marge from Accounting had gone on for a number of months, and he was afraid of crossing or repeating his stories.  He operated on what he called The Theory of Intervals.  Most people, he argued, especially his wife, forget the details of anecdotes, stories, and tales after four or five weeks. By that time, dates, times, people, and venues get confused and confabulated, and the original story is as good as new. 

He classified his excuses as follows: Office, Old Friends, Drinks with the Guys, etc. His best – because its elements were fungible – was stringing together plausible excuses to add up the time.  For example, he might leave early on Saturday and come home by early dinner; and to cover for his long tryst with Marge he said that he first went to the gym, then had coffee with a friend, popped down to the office to pick up some papers, had lunch with a colleague who happened to be working as well, and finally took a walk on the Canal to get his remarks straight for Monday’s presentation.

Given the mathematical laws of permutations and combinations, he could work this ensemble many ways.  It didn’t matter whether he started off his Saturday with the gym or coffee; or whether he did or did not have lunch with a colleague. There were enough variables in the equation to keep his wife guessing and off guard.

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His carefully engineered duplicity worked very well; and his wife never suspected his excuses.  He was brought down, like many men, with ‘lipstick on the collar’ which in his case was an email from her that he mistakenly had ‘replied’ to his wife.  The jig was up, and it took him many months and cost many pounds of flesh before he could make things right and start up his serial delinquencies again.

I know of no men who get away completely.  Whether they are meticulously careful or cavalier, they get caught.  Some simply want to get caught.  They are weary from the effort of deceit, and are getting bored with the assignation.  There is only so much that one woman can possibly do, no matter how inventive; and even the most independent of them bring up ‘relationships’ and marriage. So subconsciously they let down their guard and presto! they are called on the carpet.

Others with less organizational talent than my friend, tell the wrong story at the wrong time, get the wires hopelessly crossed and concoct impossible Saturdays. Still others are simply caught in delicto flagrante by a common friend or neighbor.  Bill Flanders and his girlfriend were so drunk that they began grappling in the cab, and when they got into the lobby of The Brighton where she lived,  he said “Fuck it” and pulled his pants down right then and there.  As luck would have it, an older lady who was a member of the same exclusive women’s club as his wife, lived in the building and came in just at the wrong time.  To her credit, she said nothing; and looking straight ahead quickly walked up the stairs to her apartment.  She spilled the beans the next day, and Bill had to rein in his chariot until June.

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Now, the point of all this is that such dishonesty need not spoil a marriage.  Back in the Middle Ages, for example, there was no such thing as a love marriage; and all matrimony was sealed as a social or economic contract.  Henry II of England, for example, arranged to marry his six-year old son John to the heiress of Maurienne, a territory that commanded the passes of the Alps. As the historian Roland Bainton writes:

In all this there was almost no regard for personal feeling.  However the system made for stability in the institution of marriage; infidelities were tolerated and did not disrupt marriages.  And in some instances, to be sure, a tender mutual affection developed out of such arrangements (Christianity, 1964)

Only when Petrarch and Abelard and Heloise muddied the water and introduced the concept of courtly romantic love, did troubles start.  The idea that there might actually a thing called love was disruptive and destabilizing. Men and women were used to being bought and sold by their parents; but suddenly they realized that they were no more than commodities on the open market.  Love would not only release them from this emotional slavery but liberate their long-buried exhilarating passions. It was a mess.

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I lived in India for many years, and Indians made no bones about telling me that love marriages symbolized the fantasy and ignorant idealism of the West.  We foreigners didn’t realize that the world was illusion, that sexual desire was no more than a distraction from one’s spiritual development, and that we would spend a lot more time on the Wheel of Becoming than necessary.  Arranged marriages, they said, were the most sensible and practical.  If a good match were made – caste, color, profession, family, etc. – then the rest would take care of itself.  If in the unlikely event that husband and wife were to discover a mutual affection or even attraction, so much the better; but incidental love was only an irrelevant by-product.

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As long as the marriage remained intact, the longevity of the family line was assured, and granny was well-taken care of, nothing else mattered.  One looked the other way when Mr. Gupta had his weekly sorties to the Cages in Bombay.  Low-caste adivasi women regularly slipped into the rice paddies with their lovers to escape the tedium of village life.

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The harem for wealthy Turkish pashas or Saudi princes was the solution to the infidelity problem.  With enough wives, few men felt the need to stray outside the margins of traditional marriage.  If he was careful and paid attention, the high-class Arabian prince could choose ten uniquely beautiful women, one for each of his fantasies.

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The problem with all this is that Americans tried a new paradigm of sexual congress. “Love the one you’re with” was the mantra of the Sixties when the institution of marriage itself was challenged and rejected as hopeless bourgeois.  Now, fifty years later even gay men, who have been the most sexually liberated Lotharios ever, are getting married. What ever happened to the sexual liberation which would have unfettered us all from the traces of marriage?

The answer is women.  They have a lot more at stake in selecting and keeping a sexual partner than men.  After all, they are the ones who have to bear the child and take care of it, at least for a while; and if socio-geneticists are right, there is something to maternal instinct.  As most single mothers are finding out, raising a child with just one pair of hands is very difficult work; and as importantly, you have no one to blame but yourself if he goes off the rails. It is all well and good for men to be sexual Johnny Appleseeds, but a woman has hearth and home (and increasingly a job) to worry about.

It is surprising that there has been no compromise struck between free love and marriage.  Open marriages, for example, have a lot of promise.  Vita Sackville-West wrote about her open marriage to Harold Nicholson (Portrait of a Marriage) one which was mutually satisfying and gratifying. Their marriage prospered in the free and unrestrained sexual environment they created.  There were rules of engagement, and insistence on mutual respect; but other than that they flew on their own.

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Since few of us are as wealthy as a Turkish pasha or Saudi prince; have rejected hippy-love and communal living; and have become more Puritanical than the Puritans, we are stuck with marriage, infidelity, lies, duplicity, hurt, and vindictive retribution.  We made our beds so we must lie in them; but there isn’t an American man alive who doesn’t think, “There’s got to be a better way.”