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

Thursday, March 5, 2020

First Love, Last Love And Sorting Out The Muddle In Between

Wright Hancock remembered his first love – not his puppy-love infatuations or his desire for the sweet, soft, succulent breasts of Nancy Ballard, but the obsessive, romantic, impossibly demanding love for an older woman.  Laura Noble was in her late twenties when she invited him to walk with her in the park, to discuss an idea she had for introducing a new arts program at his school.  The park was not exactly a neutral, personally indifferent venue.  It had a romantic history, a story of Victorian lovers who in a scandalous affair had defied and shaken the conservative town of New Brighton.  Before the affaire celebre the park had been simply one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s most famous creations – a small, rolling, parcel of land laid out around 500 year old oak trees, native magnolias, and the brook which flowed down from the Southington Mountains, through the park, and finally flowed into the Farmington River. 

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The park had always been a place of quiet Sunday outings, a breath of fresh air in what had become one of the country’s most important industrial centers – home to factories which had supplied the Union Army during the Civil War, the Allied Forces in World War I, and the booming economy of the Fifties – and was so particularly before the lovers’ day.  In a way the park was the ideal place for a romantic engagement, especially in Spring, and under any other circumstances would have always been mentioned as the first meeting place of the town’s Abelard and Heloise; but because the real affair had been so scandalous – both lovers were married to captains of industry who had been deceived for years until the woman’s husband finally listened to rumor and reason, stalked the lovers by the Antietam Bridge, and shot the cuckolder and left him floating in the brook.

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In any case the affair between Wright and Laura Noble had begun on the very spot where the murder had taken place, significant not because of the crime but because of it, the bridge had become the lovers’ lane of the park, the place whose mythical fragrance of young, impassioned love still had an ineluctable allure.  Whether or not Laura had had sexual designs on him Wright never figured out.  Why would she, a beautiful woman, well-situated, and alluringly feminine, have any sexual interest in him, a high school senior of modest means and predictable future? Perhaps her marriage, the thought many years later, had not been as ideal as it seemed, more Victorian than 20th century, patriarchal, confining, and even abusive.  Perhaps she was a Madame Bovary or Lady Chatterley, or more probably a Ruth Popper, Larry McMurtry’s unhappy, sexually starved, and hopeless romantic Ruth Popper. Or even a licentious, sexual predator, not unlike Hannah Schmitz, the sexually predatory character in Bernhard Schlink’s book The Reader, a story about a former Nazi prison guard who seduces a young German boy.

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In the Schlink novel, Michael Berg, the young boy is disconsolate after Hannah disappears.  His love affair – his first sexual experience with a practiced, sensual older woman – affects him profoundly, influences his relationships with women, his affairs, and his difficult marriage.  When she reappears, this time in court for her role in a Nazi death camp, he contacts her, tries to help her, and awaits her release from prison many years later.  On the day of her release, she commits suicide and Berg is inconsolable once again. His first love was his last and only love.

The affair between Wright and Mrs. Noble lasted for six months and conveniently ended after the summer before college.  Despite many attempts to contact her, he had no luck; and when he returned home for Thanksgiving, he found out that she and her husband had moved to California with no notice and without a trace.  Whatever the reasons for her sexual interest in him and her obvious diffidence about it would remain with her.

Yet for him like the fictional Michael Berg she would never be gone.  Not only was she his first love but a love that jumped a decade.  It had missed adolescent fumbling and uncertainty.  It had jumped a generation of sexual maturation.  She was an able teacher and a trained handler.  She took him unceremoniously and often, without affection and without hurry.  At seventeen he was inexhaustible, always ready, and with a little discipline, long-lasting.  He was at first unconcerned about her personal indifference.  What did matter what she felt about him.  Curiosity was never an issue about a boy with unremarkable parents, little worldly experience, modest intelligence, and narrow interests.  He, however, as very interested in her, a woman nearing his parents’ age, married, with an indeterminate, rumored past.  What was sex like with her husband and with her other lovers? What was she like?

It was because Laura Noble was such an indeterminate, unexposed woman; because he was too young to understand where her raw sexuality came from; and because he had been introduced to sex not only illicitly but secretively, the affair was indelible.  What could possibly follow? How many years and how many sobbing relationships would he have to endure?  Had her sexual complexity and sexual needs which were darker, less hopeful and far less fanciful than any he had ever known, desires which suggested psychological twists and turns that were only intimated, stopped his emotional growth?

The women he knew as an adult were, by comparison, simple, uncomplicated, and less interesting.  They were looking for compatible relationships which had precedent – those with men of conviction, honesty, and respect – relationships which could be objectively vetted and validated; love by prescription, rectitude, and ambition. At a time when he could have understood the Freudian and Lawrentian sexual demands of women – questions of independence, will, dominance, and submission – and when he might have even found the complementary sexual union that Lawrence had insisted was possible, he was meeting women either inflexibly linear in their expectations or who had never given up their frilly princess outfits, wands, and tiaras.

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As he entered his fifties, Wright resembled the fictional Michael Berg more and more.  His relationships with women were slight, inconsequential affairs, even with the best of them.  He had been tempted by a Lebanese woman whose life in the political demi-monde of Palestine, neither Arab nor Jewish but exotic Christian, neither revisionist or progressive, but who – perhaps because of the impossibly complex environment in which she had lived – had more menscheit than any woman he had met before.  Despite her claims to emotional sophistication, she always stopped short.  Any sexual entanglement more complex than a few afternoons in Tel Aviv was too intrusive; and although she and Wright spent many days together, he found her sexual reticence boring and she found his demands too close for comfort.

He never married but was never lonely.  He had come to accept the complaisance and willingness of women and his attractiveness to them; and assumed that he would be dead long before he regretted his long and not particularly unhappy life.

In his mid-sixties, at a time when he had settled in to early retirement, into a life of professional leisure and renewed academic interests; one without sexual activity but with no regrets given his active past, he had an affair with Lisa, an unimposing, barely visible young woman from Accounting. It was like an early Christmas, an unexpected gift under the tree, a rejuvenating sexual epiphany.  In Phillip Roth’s book The Human Stain, the Coleman Silk character – a man also in his late sixties in a relationship with a woman half his age – says about her, “Granted, she’s not my first love; and granted, she’s not my great love; but she is sure as hell my last love.  Doesn’t that count for something?”  Wright and Lisa had nothing in common – he from a well-known, wealthy family from Philadelphia, Ivy League schooled, business school trained; and she from a dysfunctional farm family from Iowa; but stereotypical expectations ruled.  To her he was the brilliant, recognized, experienced and socially adept older man who could teach her, who could protect her, who could nurture her.  To him she was this soft, unblemished, willing, loving woman who would do anything for him, who had no desire to leave her small Adams Morgan apartment, and who was always happy to drink champagne, watch movies and make love.

Image result for images roth book the human stain

After the affair ended as both knew that it would, Wright was as obsessed by it as he had been with Laura Noble.  Both women had provided him a sexual education – Laura had taught him about the imponderables of women’s sexuality and tempted him to know more; Lisa had taught him that it was never too late for sex.  Even though the whole idea of a May-December affair was as hackneyed and treacly as a Hallmark card and the lesson as simple as they come,  there was no denying its meaning.  At the age of 67 when Wright had given up hope of ever even coming close to his affair with Laura Noble, along came Lisa – a pale impression of Wright’s idea of a woman, but a woman who, for the first time in many years, looked at him.

Laura and Lisa were the personal bookends between which were the dull encyclopedias, reference books, and classic novels of his middle years – solid but uninteresting stories that punctuated them with occasional relevance.  “There are many loves in the world”, wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his short story, The Rich Boy, “but never the same love twice.”  Wright’s fate was to look for another Laura and he spent decades of muddle before he met Lisa, and took her for exactly what she was – young, soft, pliant, loving, and sexually insatiable.  What more could an old man want?

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