Non-Fiction

The First Husband

           In the winter of 1974, I was 25, a graduate student about to take my oral exams in 18th and 19th century British Literature at Stony Brook where Ian was already a tenured professor in the sociology department, having made his reputation with his book on marijuana smokers.  He’d started smoking pot in 1968, getting stoned to participate in the subculture and interview smokers for the study that would become his field of expertise. I loved the heady notions of Andrew Weil who, through the haze of a spliff the size of a cigar, explained to us one day the thesis of his book, The Natural Mind. Drug use, said Andy, was one manifestation of the inborn human drive to transform ordinary consciousness, witness the child who spins in circles to experience the dizzying whirl.  

      The last eight years of our lives had seemed cutting edge. Our happiness felt personal and political. Ian had been my great fan, dismissing my insecurities–I’m so stupid, I despaired in the early years of our marriage. You’re not stupid, he said. Ignorant, maybe, but not stupid.  Though my parents were college educated and my mother was a teacher,  Ian had encouraged me to take myself and my interests seriously in a way that my parents did not; he pushed me to be ambitious beyond their expectations.  Unsolicited, my father-in-law had sent me the seven volume set of George Eliot’s letters for my birthday.  Hy was Betty Friedan’s neighbor and sounding board when she was still a married housewife contemplating “the problem that had no name.” I’d met Betty numerous times at his house in Piermont, NY. I’d watched her grab men by their jacket lapels and make them listen to what was on her mind. Marrying Ian I’d tapped into a pipeline for the zeitgeist, raising my consciousness with feminism, and transforming it with dope.             

      The night Ian sat me down for a tete a tete, I was still buoyant with victory, having recently passed my oral exams, and looking forward to a hard-earned vacation we’d planned, a car trip to the Florida Keys with our friends Nancy and David.  I sat on the day bed in our den, made cozy by the red bandana curtains, and the bookcase full of Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf, and George Eliot, novels that had become like friends.

      Ian sat at the dinette table across from me, his elbows resting firmly on the round table. You know that I worship the ground you walk on, my husband said.  And I love being married to you. He sat opposite me at the round dinette table, his elbows resting on its laminated surface.   But don’t you ever feel the need to have other relationships? I mean you were practically a child when we met.  Don’t you ever have any curiosity about  other men? 

       I don’t know.  I guess I can imagine a sexual adventure, I said. But imagining is one thing, actually doing it, another.

      I’m not talking about one-night stands, he waved his hand dismissively;  his tone had an impatient edge to it.  I’m talking about a meaningful relationship, he said.  I realized he was in earnest, and didn’t see how ridiculous he sounded to me.  

      I thought I already had a meaningful relationship with you, I said, assuming that my sarcasm would not be lost on him. Why would I need another one?

      Maybe another man would bring out a part of you that I don’t, he said.  Or there’d be someone you felt you had a lot in common with; you know literary things.  He wasn’t  really looking at me, he was building an argument.

       Are you kidding?  I said. You’d go nuts if I had a lover.  As things were he was an insecure and suspicious guy.

       I’d be willing to take that chance, he said. Jealousy is a weakness. An obstacle to  overcome.  We’re mature adults who should be able to transcend possessiveness.  

       I had a sudden desire to make him shut up, to stop listening and put my hands over my ears and start screaming to drown out whatever he was going to say next.  

      I’ve been wracked with guilt, he said.  I’ve been seeing Letty Teufelman.    

 I think we should have an open marriage. You should feel free to explore.       

        I thought I was going to throw up; my stomach cramped with fear. It felt as if he’d tossed a live hand-grenade in my lap, and if I didn’t panic I might escape, toss it out the window before it blew us both up.  

        She admires and respects you, he went on.  Hates that I haven’t been open with you.  I hate sneaking around behind your back.

       Who was this man going on and on? A vague sense of unreality enveloped me.   What happened to my husband?  He was in the room with me but I’d never felt so utterly alone. 

      It’s so undignified, he said, and here he looked at me, as if he expected my understanding.  I want everything to be above board, he said.  She has a boyfriend. Doesn’t want to threaten our marriage. 

     He’d obviously rehearsed this; there was something so sickening about his chatty tone, as if he were suggesting some minor alteration in our living arrangements, like moving the living room furniture around, which would take some time to get used to at first, but pretty soon we’d forget it had ever been any other way.   

       I recalled seeing Letty in an elevator at the ASA meetings last August, and with the memory of her in a strapless red and white striped tube top, accentuating her huge breasts, all my insecurities surfaced in a jealous sweat.  Ian said hello to her.  I thought boy, she’s so obvious, wearing that at a professional meeting. Then I remembered that I’d seen her more recently at the surprise birthday party Nancy had thrown for me in June.  After the party, I’d even mentioned that I thought it odd that Letty was there because she wasn’t my friend.  Ian explained that she was new faculty, didn’t know anyone outside the department and he thought it would be a friendly gesture to invite her.  I was so trusting, but even so something not quite right registered in my mind, seeing her standing against the far wall of my living room by the fireplace, making sly asides to my husband out of the corner of her mouth. She had handed me a feeble plant for a present. Happy Birthday, she said, no smile, as if she were making a sick call, the dour expression on her face destroying any notions I might’ve had about her being beautiful.       

     What a shit you were to invite her to my party.  You were screwing her then. I looked at him squirming in his chair like a schoolboy.

      I wasn’t, he whined.  But how could I believe him?  Any sense of well-being I had was destroyed by the realization that it had all been an illusion. I thought we were happy! I cried.

      We were, he said. We are. This has nothing to do with us. I swear. He came towards me.

      Don’t touch me, I screamed. 

      Okay, okay. He held both hands palms up into the air as if I’d pointed a gun at him. 

       I just don’t buy that, I said.   People go outside the marriage because there’s something wrong. What’s wrong?  Was it because I was preoccupied with studying for my orals? 

       Nothing. I love you. Nothing’s wrong.  He held his arms and let them drop down to his sides in exasperation.

       I don’t believe you.  Is she better company? What’s her field again?

        Alice, this is not the point. I knew it wasn’t the point. The point was he’d broken my heart, and he needed to soothe me. The sound of his voice distracted me from the pain.  

        What is it, just tell me what it is.

         Demography. He sounded defeated.

         I don’t even know what that is. 

         It’s the study of the statistical data in large populations, births, deaths, diseases, marriages.

         Well she knows nothing about marriage if she thinks she’s no threat to us. She’s deluding herself. What’s a single woman doing having an affair with a married man? She’s older than I am. Her biological clock is ticking. My throat felt sore and I had a headache. I was exhausted but the sound of our words kept me afloat; I was afraid I’d drown if we stopped talking.

     Not all women want the same things, Ian said.  He put his feet up on the chair opposite him and folded his arms as if to show that he was resigned to hearing out all of  my objections.

     I don’t believe that. She’s lying if she says anything else.

      We stayed up half the night, arguing. I kept hammering away at the same point. Something was wrong with the marriage, with me. Is she better in bed? Is that it?   Ian kept denying it. He loved me. It wasn’t about us.  I thought of the abortion I had six months ago.  Getting pregnant had been an accident but I would’ve had the baby and didn’t because he said he wasn’t ready to be a father.  You have to finish your degree, he said.          

        I’d wanted your baby, I cried. He tried to comfort me, putting his arms around me.    Don’t touch me.

        We’ll have a family.  The timing was off. You have to write your dissertation. You don’t want to get waylaid with a baby now. It’s hard enough to do as it is.

        Oh and having an open marriage isn’t a distraction? How am I supposed to concentrate with this?

        Would you have preferred to be ignorant?

     Yes. Ignorance is bliss, in this case. I think you just wanted to get it off your chest. The guilt was killing you.

      I was guilty, but that wasn’t my only motive. I’m telling you, I love you. I respect you. That’s why I told you.

     I wanted to believe him. He was my life.  I had been happy.  Maybe if we  kept our vacation plans,  if I could  just get him  away from Letty  I could talk some sense into him.  He agreed to drive south and to say nothing to Nancy and David about what happened.

     Cooped up in the car I felt safe.  Even pretended that the last 48 hours had been a bad dream.  If we didn’t talk about it, it would go away.  We rotated the driving- marathon style, drinking black coffee, singing, telling jokes, brushing our teeth in gas station bathrooms.   On the car radio, the disc jockeys’ speech slowed to a drawl as we drove through Georgia. We counted Stuckey peanut butter signs, made bets about how many signs we’d see before the trip was up.  In the back seat, I nuzzled up close to Ian, needy for the comfort of his body.

     We found a cottage in Sanibel Island, and Nancy and I joined the beachcombers while David and Ian tended the barbecue pit on the beach near our cottage.   I sifted the sand for shells I could string together in a mojo charm, chanting, ersarija annulus, cerithium humile, monodonta labio, the magic words that would bring my husband back to me.  In bed, I whimpered, begging Ian to give her up. It won’t work. I said. We made love, but he seemed far away,  the endless churning of the ocean echoing of his indifference, the line where the sky met the sea the intractable place where he had turned his back on me.

       Nancy was menstruating and afraid to swim, afraid of sharks, she said. Ian kept her company on the beach. He was not a confident swimmer and hated sailing anyway.   David and I took a sunfish out onto the water.  The wind filled the sail and the sun was hot on our faces. I was tempted to say something to him, ask his advice, but then I hesitated, and the wind picked up and we needed to hike far out  to keep from capsizing,  the water choppy and slapping against the sides. 

     Back home I tried to take the moral high ground. I can’t stop you from doing what you want, I said, but I’m not going to go along with this. I’ve got my dissertation to write.

  I spent two weeks going to the library, my head spinning, the words a blur on the page, reading the same sentence over and over. I still couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone else about what happened.  Then at the end of the second week, I came home and told Ian I’d get a divorce if he didn’t break it off. 

         I don’t want a divorce, he said. But when he ended it, he didn’t act as I’d hoped. I had expected some kind of reconciliation.  Some understanding, appreciation for how much he had hurt me. Instead, he moped around, retreating behind his typewriter, closing the door to his study.  Where was his remorse?  I felt like a stodgy mother who had spoiled her teenager’s fun.        

      At night, Letty telephoned our house.  I was in the kitchen, cleaning up after a late dinner. The phone rang and Ian picked up in the den.  Ordinarily, I could hear his telephone voice from where I was standing by the open refrigerator; I held my breath, straining to hear, but there was nothing.   Who is it? I called out to him, even as I had a sinking feeling that I knew. He didn’t answer.  It seemed as if I’d been stalling, standing before the open refrigerator, rearranging jars of peanut butter and jelly and Miracle Whip, allowing him plenty of time to tell her that she couldn’t invade our privacy like this, she had no right.  She could see him at work, in his office or hers. How dare she trespass into our home, a sacred space where I felt safe.   I’d given him sufficient time to hang up, to cut her short.  I went back inside expecting that he’d apologize to me for the disruption But he hadn’t hung up,  he was still on the phone with his back to me, crouched on the floor like a prisoner in a cell, one ear pressed to the receiver, the other covered by his free hand to block out whatever noises I might make in the background. He was sighing, whispering, I know, I know. Even with his back turned to me, I could feel the tenderness compressed into the phone line, and the sight of him sympathizing, offering reassurances, while he treated me like a jailer, was more than I could bear. I grabbed my bag and left, slamming the door. I sat in the car in the garage, and when he didn’t come after me, I 

 backed out and drove to a nearby shopping center.

     The only place that was open was a bar, Pandora’s Box. I rarely went to bars, and never alone.  Inside, it was jammed and noisy, and I was grateful to be anonymous in the crowd.  I ordered a sloe gin fizz, remembering something Nancy had said about the homeopathic powers of the blackthorn berry.  I held the tall cool glass in my hand and sipped from the straw greedy for its palliative effect.  I couldn’t taste the gin, finished off one, and ordered another.  My eyes adjusted to the light and I made out a familiar face, Tom G, a poet who worked as an administrative assistant in my department. Tall, blond, with the kind of good looks women used to say were wasted on a man,  I’d known Tom and his now x-wife, Mandy for years. Their little girl Becky had play-dates with the little boy of friends of mine.    

     Tom smiled and came towards me. What a nice surprise, he said. How’ve you been?

      Could be better.  I jiggled the ice in my glass.

      What are you drinking? Tom asked.

      The bar tender saw him approach then asked if I wanted another sloe gin fizz.

       Tom laughed. I haven’t seen anyone drinking a sloe gin fizz in years. In the fifties, young ladies from the south drank sloe gin.

      I smiled. What are you drinking? 

      Coke, he said. I’m on the wagon. Been over a year now.

        Let me buy you one, Tom said.  At parties, he was shy; an audience for the booze-slurred stories of bar-fights and tractors his Michigan buddies liked to tell.  I didn’t know him well, except to feel there was a basic decency about him, and that he had always been kind to me.

        Isn’t it kind of rough on you, I said, not drinking at a bar?

       Not really. After what’s- her- name and I split up, I thought I was going crazy. I was really afraid I was going off my nut. I went to a shrink for six months and discovered it was the booze. It was a great relief.  I’m not crazy, I’m just an alcoholic. 

         We went over to a table in the corner.  My tongue felt thick in my mouth and the gin made me feel warm and coddled.  I began to tell Tom about Letty, my ultimatum, Ian’s sulking, and her phone call.  I didn’t feel like going home, I said.

      You can’t drive at the moment, anyway, he said.           

      Tom’s place was a winterized summer cottage walking distance from Mt. Sinai beach.  We stayed in the car for awhile listening to B.B. King. I rolled down the window and the smell of salt was in the night mist. Nobody but my mother loves me/ And maybe she’s jiving me too.   Tom’s room could’ve been a monk’s cell with its narrow bed, desk, and chair.  He made coffee in the tiny kitchen.  We stood next to a table covered in yellow oil cloth.  He held my face between his hands and kissed my forehead, my eyelids. I hadn’t been with anyone but Ian for eight years.  The room felt so solitary, his sadness, surrounding my own.   

        Ian was waiting up for me, close to dawn, when I got back.    Liar, he said, when I told him nothing happened.  Liar.  

     Maybe I wanted to even up the score, I said.  

      But I broke up with her because of you.

      And you’ve been punishing me for it. 

      Ian said he’d continue to see Letty, and I should continue to see Tom.  It’s obvious, he said. You want this. Tom sounds like he’d be good for you. You should see Tom.

      It wasn’t what I wanted, I said.  What I wanted was to turn back the clock, but I knew  there was no going back and things could never be the same.

      If he was serious about trying to keep our marriage together, I said, there had to be some rules.  I couldn’t take any more phone calls to our house from Letty.  Absolutely no more phone calls. 

    Ian saw Letty twice a week when I saw Tom.  On weekends, we stopped going to sociology department parties because I didn’t want to be around Letty. I didn’t want to be cordial, to pretend that I didn’t want to scratch her eyes out. Besides, I hated confrontations and didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of seeing me distraught.  I didn’t want to acknowledge her status as Ian’s girlfriend.   But she was always on my mind. When I asked about her background Ian told me she had been married for a short time, her mother died when was 12, and she was estranged from her father is a rabbi.  I tried to convince myself that this wasn’t about her; I was a feminist, and I wasn’t going to blame the other woman.  Ian had a will of his own.  He should remain my focus, my argument was with him.  I couldn’t bear to ask him about sex with her, but I did ask him what else they did together.                                       

    Letty, he said, was helping him feel less inadequate, more competent. He was learning how to cook, he said.  He was learning how to prepare Chinese meals. Letty shopped for  the ingredients and had them ready for him when he got there. She had a cookbook and recipe all picked out.  I was completely unprepared for the jealousy such images of domesticity provoked in me.   

     Since when are you interested in cooking?  You always told me that you thought eating was a waste of time. You’d take a pill instead of sitting down for a meal if you could.

     I know. I know. I say all those things, but it’s not just about the food. It’s what it represents. I like praise, I like the way people make a fuss over you when you cook for company. I’m a little jealous of you, I guess.

     God knows I’ve never stopped you from learning how to cook.

     I’m not saying you do. I just want to do something really well, have a unique specialty, like Chinese cooking.

     The fact was that Ian’s father was a fine cook, and a flamboyant host. And the more I scrutinized Ian’s behavior the more obvious it seemed that he was taking after Hy in every other way as well. Though Ian denied it, it seemed clear to me that he was competing with his father and re-creating these over-lapping professional and marital sexual relationships.  But if I could wrap my mind around these explanations, they did little to diminish my suffering. 

        Letty was escalating her assault on my marital turf, encroaching upon my life in a way that I was helpless to prevent. Ian related how he and Letty had paid a hospital visit together to see our friend Stanley. Stanley had been the best man at our wedding.  And Ian hadn’t even told me he had been hospitalized for chest pain. Moreover, Ian never made sick calls; he hated hospitals.   Ian didn’t see why I was so upset. Letty was friendly with Stanley, too, he said.

        No matter how hard I tried to focus my anger on Ian, Letty drew attention to herself and manipulated events,  insinuating herself into every corner of my life, making me  aware that I was losing a power struggle for my husband. She telephoned my house, her tone was casual, familiar, as if it were the most natural thing for her to ask me for Sylvia’s phone number. I don’t know why I couldn’t think straight and just tell her to go to hell. Or hang up.  I simply gave her the number and hung up. I turned on Ian and screamed. Why is Letty telephoning me at home for Sylvia’s number?

     Sylvia was going to be visiting the department to give a talk, Ian said. He had not told me about it because he knew I’d be upset. Ordinarily, I would’ve joined them all for dinner afterwards. But as a member of the department Letty had every right to be there, and now she would be socializing with Sylvia as Ian’s girlfriend.  By telephoning me Letty was making certain I’d find out about all this.  She was rubbing my nose in it.        

        That night it poured rain. I got home from seeing Tom before Ian.  I lay in our bed in the dark, listening to the rain pelting against our bedroom window, picturing the bend in the road before our driveway, Ian’s motorcycle skidding, and his body splayed out in the muddy dirt; there has to be more to life than worrying that your husband will be killed on the way back home from seeing his girlfriend, a little voice inside me said.   

       I didn’t even feel any smug satisfaction when Ian began to complain to me about Letty.  She’s voracious, he said. She blackmailed me into seeing her when her brother was visiting. She got hysterical, impossible to calm down. She said I was using her to solve my marital problems, and if I was so unhappy with you, why didn’t I leave? I told her I didn’t tell her the good things.

     What good things?  I began to wonder.  Upon my insistence, Ian was seeing a therapist. I’m too dependent on you, he said. One night at Letty’s he had an anxiety attack. Letty was so sexually demanding, he told me later, that he was afraid he couldn’t perform. I wanted to phone you at Tom’s and tell you to come home right away.

     I can’t listen to this, I said.

     You’re my wife, he said, if I can’t talk to you, who can I talk to?

     Tom wanted me to become more involved in his life. He wanted me to go to his daughter’s kindergarten class with him to see her in the spring show. I said I’d go. But I was wary of becoming involved with Becky. I didn’t want to hurt her, become a presence in her life and then, disappear.  We sat near Mandy, Tom’s x-wife, and her boyfriend Carl.  Mandy beamed at me, and Carl couldn’t have been more friendly, telling me how we were neighbors, and how convenient that would be. I felt as if I were meeting my in-laws.  I watched their tow-headed daughter in her bumble bee wings, while Tom squeezed my hand. I’d wanted my own family with Ian. I’d wanted to see our own child grow day by day.   Mandy nodded in my direction, sucking me into her family circle, while Becky flitted from daffodil to daffodil, her pipe-cleaner antennae all aquiver, and I was miserable, realizing how far I’d strayed from the hopes I had had for my life.

     That night I told Tom that he shouldn’t count on me, that even if Ian and I were to divorce, it would be too soon for me to commit to him. I wasn’t ready to get married again. I’d be needing to be on my own.  He understood, he said. The timing was not right.   I wish I could cry, he said. .           

       I wanted to try one last time to get away with Ian and recapture our intimacy.   I wanted to go to a conference with him where some photographs he had taken were going to be exhibited.  I was there when he took those pictures.  I encouraged him to take the photo of an oil-drenched man on a rig that had been chosen for the show. I had been the one to ask permission from the man who was so soaked in oil he looked like a bronze statue.  We had a good time on that trip to Texas.  But Ian said he wanted to go alone. I’m too dependent upon you, he said.

     I need this Ian, I told him.  I need to be with you.  But he was adamant about going alone. You always get your way, he said.  Fine, I said. Go by yourself.   Just don’t come back here. 

      Where shall I go?  You’re kicking me out of my own house.

       I don’t care where you go. 

     It was a trial separation. Ian found a place of his own.  I was surprised that he hadn’t moved in with Letty. I was still angry, but I was not ready to give up on him. I couldn’t imagine his not being at the center of my life.  When he returned from the conference he told me he met someone who knew Tom and that this stranger had shown him a poem that Tom had published in a little magazine. That’s my wife’s lover, Ian boasted. 

      Was that all I was to him, someone he took proprietary pride in who could flatter his vanity?

       I went to my dissertation advisor and told him that I might need a full-time job for the fall.  If Ian and I split up permanently, I couldn’t live on my graduate student stipend or the adjunct salary I was earning at the local community college. Could he inquire for me about something full-time there?

     I had never lived alone and was afraid of the silence.  I’d memorized Ian’s phone number even though I’d only called him once at his new place.  I’d been generous about giving him things from our house to furnish it, hoping the lamp, or table would remind him of our life together.  I still fantasized about our reconciling. Somehow we’d get back to the way we had been. Ian would wake up one morning, and realizing how he couldn’t live without me, beg my forgiveness.

        I broke a date with Tom to see Ian and lied to Tom about where I was going.  I was ashamed to admit my attachment to my husband. 

       I drove to Ian’s place, and saw for the first time the gingerbread trim, and snug front porch to the downstairs flat of the Victorian house he was renting.  I had purposefully kept my knowledge of his living arrangements vague, but now here was concrete proof of his life apart from me.

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Categories: Non-Fiction

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