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

Monday, September 10, 2018

When Memories Crowd Out The Present–New Loves Can Never Size Up To Old Ones

Allie Randolph had led a good life – a long, reasonably happy marriage, two children, grandchildren, a second home in the Bahamas – but had recently been bothered by memories of his first wife, his first life, and his youth. 

This is of course not unusual for an older man reflecting on his life – what he did, what he should have done, and what he never did.  Regrets are part of getting old, and even the very rich and famous wish they could have done otherwise sometime somewhere. There was a time a few years ago when Allie would never have ever considered regret.  Still in his prime, he felt himself fortunate to have engineered a life with few boundaries, easily negotiable responsibilities, and as much freedom as any man could ever want. He had a home, a loving wife, and children for whom he was the center of the universe and who could do no wrong.

What happened to alter the equation, to tilt the balance, and edge him to a worrisome periphery? Why was he now increasingly obsessed with past loves?  What was the niggling, troublesome thing that was keeping him awake? Was it Porfira, the Egyptian girl who looked like Nefertiti who refused to sleep with him because of propriety and faithfulness to her storied family, descended from the Ptolemies, insistent over the millennia about some sense of racial purity?  Unlikely since her ancestor Cleopatra bedded any Roman emperor that showed her favor, protecting and defending her offspring, and preparing herself for life as an empress or consort of royalty.  Allie had wooed Porfira in the Nubian desert, as alone and smitten with her as the fictional Count Almasy was in Ondaatje's English Patient.  Allie too ran up against propriety and family rectitude, and for a time had no success in winning her.  Only after many months, in Anjouan, a remote island in the Comoros archipelago, did he convince her that their love was indeed viable, without maps as Almasy had insisted, and more important than any other.

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Or perhaps it was Usha, the Pakistani whom he met in Peshawar where she had to be covered, chaste, and careful.  He had been unsure of her, family of Indian immigrants who had fled to Pakistan after partition who had become wealthy landowners in Sindh.  An affair with Usha was never private or privileged but part of the muhajir diaspora.  However Allie demurred and insisted that his love for Usha was a serious affair, he was always suspect, an interloper, a ferenghi , someone never to be trusted.

Or was it Lisa, a Midwestern girl of no pretentions, simple upbringing with more than her share of emotional dislocations? Allie had met her at work during an unfamiliar interlude.  No one, least of all Allie, ever imagined him in the bed of an aspiring secretary of a middling firm in Washington, DC, a girl who had had few proposals, fewer propositions, and an unpromising future.  But bed her he did in a tight-fitting flat in Adams Morgan, basement apartment,and  close to Chinese and Indian take-outs.

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Allie had been married for over thirty years, a safe haven after what was always called ‘a misspent youth’.  He never considered it misspent, but not spent enough.  it was only the propriety and rectitude of his good New England family (Cabots and Lodges) which kept him in his traces and held his more natural libertine and antisocial tendencies in check.  If it hadn’t been for Grandfather Arthur Randolph, product of a felicitous marriage between the Virginia Carters and the Hookers of Connecticut, he would certainly have gone off into uncharted waters; but thanks to Arthur and a strong family consistency, he stayed close to the bone, married Elizabeth Browning of Chicago, of the textile Brownings, and led a correctly prescribed life.

For many years Allie remained in harness, pulling the family plow, reaping the considerable harvests, and required only to be kind to his children, and be attentive to his wife. 

This scenario would drive even the commonest of men to memory – to those loves before predictable and acceptable marriage.  Arranged marriages have been concluded since the institution was invented; and real love happened beyond its perimeter. Kings, queens, knights, and courtiers all understood that marriage was necessary for legitimacy, social position, and respect; but equally all knew that love could only exist outside such legitimacy.  Petrarach’s sonnets to Laura were not to his wife but to an unnamed woman.  

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Allie was no different.  He understood the difference between social obligation – marriage, children, God, and Church – and personal validation.  Marriage might provide the context for family unity and responsibility; and it might even satisfy the needs of wayward husbands to have a safe haven; but it was by no means the be-all and end-all of existence.  Men were never meant for monogamy, and only because of women’s historical demands for established paternity and guaranteed income and retirement, has it persisted.

Yet men, programmed to wander, have never been either complaisant or settled.  Infidelity and the perennial search for romance and the perfect Lawrentian sexual union, have always had their day.

There is ironically an accretive nature to sexual memory.  The more lovers a man has had, the more encumbered is his memory, and the more he feels he must square his past with his present.  How is it, Allie wondered, that he was still in bed with the same woman; and that his sexual adventures had dwindled and died?  How was it that despite a youth of adventure, risk, and inconsequence could he possibly be still married to the same woman?

Worse were the memories.  Had he been able to expunge the memories of past lovers, trysts, deceits, and romantic encounters, he would have been able to more easily accept his life of permanent marriage; but he could not.  At every turn – the mortgage, the joint accounts, tax law, wills, powers of attorney, and the basement – he was both pulled into the depressing reality of a long marriage and pushed into an unrecoverable past. 

Had he not had lovers, his marriage would have been without rear windows.  Yet, for better or worse, he had known Porfira, Usha, and Lisa; and now in late middle age, they were all he could think about.  They, not his wife, had defined who he was.  He was  really not the temperate, respectful, dutiful husband, father, grandfather, and professional that others saw.  He was the sexually ambitious, sexually defiant, untethered individual the he and his lovers knew.

Rabbit at Rest is John Updike’s last book in the Rabbit series.  In it Rabbit, suffering from a poor heart, a tedious marriage, and insufferable children and grandchildren, is still ambitious and unrepentant.  He sleeps with his son’s wife, finally dismisses his boring, pretentious wife, rejects once and for all the nostrums and prescriptions of a tedious, meddling society, and dies on an inner city basketball court, reliving for a few minutes the only moments of uniqueness he ever had.

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Aware of his coming death he thinks of the women he has loved and only as an afterthought to his wife and children.  His lovers were what defined him because they were part of his natural enthusiasm, bravado, and unique individualism.  They loved him for his very male self-centered arrogance and did not try to tamp it, dismiss it, expunge it, and ignore that it ever existed.  Of course he thought of them first.

Rabbit dies unrepentant and happy.  In one last gesture, he affirms his being, his uniqueness, and the absolute validation of his existence.  His wife, his son, his grandchildren never had any real meaning, enforced on him as they were.  His life has been prescribed by class, upbringing, education, and geography; and in his last moments, he says fuck off to them all.  Better to die with the memories of an unalloyed past and a defiance of all traces, tethers, and moorings than to die in bed in a suburb of Pittsburgh.

Allie is no different.  Although unlike Rabbit in terms of class and privilege, he is still a  brother – an unrepentant, defiant, independent man who would rather die in the bed of is lover than in that of his wife.

Allie’s memories defined him more than his current life.  He had been compromised – or rather he had compromised himself – in his middle and later years, but remained the same person he was as a youth.  It was not romantic nostalgia, old folks meandering memories of a dimly recollected past.  It was real.

The problem was what to do with it – how to square a past which was really and truly Allie with a present that reflected only shadows of it?  It was too late to revert to anything since he was far closer to the end of his life than the beginning; and the only recourse was accommodation – acceptance of life’s trajectory from one  of reality and promise to one of compromise and second best.

Allie ‘took it like a man’ as his father had always advised him.  The roll of the dice had been made at birth if not well before, and it was about time that this nearly aged man manned up.  He had had his opportunities, lost most of them, and had to live with the consequences.  He dreamt often, but forced the daydreams back.  There was no point in regret, only an acceptance of a trajectory which had started its long arc way, way before he was born.

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