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

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Cynic’s View Of First Love

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are many kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice. Harley Ferguson was not angry or even disappointed at the way things had turned out.  He had married Martha and chosen the tried and true because his love for Bickford, his first wife,  had stressed his emotional halyards to the breaking point.  No one can live such a precarious sexual and fundamentally passionate life for too long.  Winds change, sails luff, and courses are reset for home.

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As he grew older Harley was resigned to the years he had spent with Martha.  A stable relationship; happy, successful children; and the promise of innocence and heritage in grandchildren were nothing to sniff at. Yet he could never forget Bickford. How could he have divorced her? How could he have ignored the fundamental – no, existential – relationship between them? Youth, perhaps and certainly. Ignorance? Even obtuseness? Probably since no one expects wisdom when young. What, then?

There were many things that Harley wished to shake from his memory – failed loves, idiocy, stupid remarks, cowardliness – but he knew that the bitter-sweet, lovely, and often painful trace of Bickford was there forever. A sentinel perhaps even in his old age. A beacon.  Love does exist, but never the same love twice.

The hardest thing was not the forgetting, the filing away of seminal memories, the relegation of love to an unrecoverable past; but dealing with the decision.  How, he wondered in his later years, had he been so intimidated?  How could he have curled up, snuggled into a relationship of predictability and good sense when his life had been correctly navigated from port? What was it about himself that he had tried, quite unsuccessfully as it turned out, to hide?

Months before their final decision to divorce, Harley had gone to Bickford and said that he was willing to live her way – off any social grid, far from the Fathers of St. Maurice, even farther from the prayers and solicitude of New Brighton.  She could have been brought up anywhere or nowhere, a woman of unheard of sexual and emotional liberty; a woman who, despite her own nuns, priests, and Midwest piety, was having none of it; who elided with the Andy Warhol generation without preparation, ambition, forethought, or concern.  It was in her blood; in her genes; and Harvey had no idea whom he was marrying.

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On the surface she was the ideal match – similar education, solid bourgeois, respectable family; beautiful, smart, talented, and ambitious but within acceptable borders – but who knew what was percolating up and out?  How the bits of Victorian libertine Hubert de Villiers’ genetic code got caught in her wires; or how she inherited some of  her father’s truculence – he was always thought obstinate and disagreeable, but he had a niggardly defiance of imposed social borders - or her grandmother’s well-kept secret passion for young boys?

In other words he had no idea who he was marrying but was naively satisfied with the image – the respectable, status-well image of certain success.

He fell impossibly in love with her; and even discounting the fact that she was his first love, it was something else – part Petrarch, part chivalric ode, part Hollywood romance, part Romeo and Juliet, part Shakespeare's sonnets to his young man, and part some indescribable late adolescent longing for intimacy, womanhood, and sexual security.

Romantic Love
with the name that Love wrote on my heart,
the sound of its first sweet accents begin
to be heard within the word laudable.
Your regal state, that I next encounter,
doubles my power for the high attempt;
but: ‘Tacit’, the ending cries, ‘since to do her honor
is for other men’s shoulders, not for yours’.
So, whenever one calls out to you,
the voice itself teaches us to Laud, Revere,
you, O, lady worthy of all reverence and honor:
except perhaps that Apollo is disdainful
that mortal tongue can be so presumptuous
as to speak of his eternally green branches.
After the divorce and the quick second marriage, Harley did his best to accommodate to his new life and new wife.  He felt he could finally take a breath – she would always be there in the evening, in bed with him by nine; up, positive, spirited, and calm by eight.  She was all equilibrium, an ultimate evening out of the electromagnetic spikes and troughs of his first marriagre.  If there was no drama or even melodrama; if there were no ups and downs, nothing unpredictable, no surprises, and no guesswork; so be it.  He had signed on for a life of smooth sailing and had left Scylla and Charybdis far behind.

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Yet as the years with Martha progressed – predictably, uneventfully, and uninterrupted; and as even an amateur psychologist would have surmised, protected by a well-constructed cynical defense against the self-recriminatory, often painful memories of his divorce from a woman he loved.  Marriage – or any prescribed institutional relationship for that matter – was fiction and no more than a confection made up of old feelings for Mommy or Daddy, Hollywood, the Catholic Fathers, and social imperium.  There was no such thing as love, let alone the over-Hallmarked, soap opera version of it.  Love was a matter of convention, an appendix of economic necessity overlaid with romantic idealism.

As marriages age, he concluded, they become little more than private institutions providing social and emotional support.  Easier to rely on a partner with whom one has lived for fifty years than on the vicissitudes of the State.

What to make, then, of romantic pictures of 80-somethings walking on the beach? Do they still love each other after all those years? Mutual dependency is a kind of love after all; and there is every reason to avoid any chance of dissension or disagreement and jeopardize the arrangement.  Holding hands is the visible sign of an operational contract.

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He persisted in this notion for years, content with his wife’s monogamy, his desultory love affairs, his grandchildren, and his uninterrupted trajectory.  He never, until much later in life even admitted that he might have been wrong – not just wrong in divorcing Bickford, but in dismissing the idea of love and especially first love.  Hard though it was to admit, Petrarch and the Shakespeare of the Sonnets might well be right.

There was peril in opening this particular chest.  Admitting that he had not only given up his one and only chance for a truly fulfilled life – one that was consistent with his personality, character, and ambition – and admitting that there was indeed something that he had both missed and missed out upon – could be very painful.  One would need a lot of nihilism and resolve to look therein and be able to look away with some measure of equanimity.

He did look finally.  He revisited their early years, their church marriage, their short life together, and their divorce; but as much as he tried to relegate these memories to memory, he could not.  He had loved her, had always loved her, and had loved no one but her. His life since their separation had been deceitful, and dishonest – not dishonest in itself since he had respected convention and propriety to a large degree – but dishonest in essence. 

After so long it was hard to give up his cynical persona – his quotes from Albee, Shakespeare, and O’Neill, his social economics (‘The Contractual Basis of Marriage’), and his growing indifference about home affairs and, as Patricia Highsmith put it in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’, ‘Marge maintenance’ – satisfying the spouse.  How could he revert to first love idealism when his first love was long dead and buried?  How could he admit to a life of second best satisfaction?

He never did admit it nor anything like it to anyone.  It would remain a personal error, one among many.  Besides, there were too many sunken costs in his forty-some year marriage.  Why give it even the slightest jostle, especially from a long forgotten – except for him – past?

Harley the romantic and Harley the cynic never reached an agreement or a settlement; and of course that was Harley’s consignment, his fate.  He would think of Bickford until his dying breath; but where did that ever get him?

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