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“Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” the narrator cries, leaping from his seat in Delmore Schwartz’s story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” as he watches his mother, on-screen in the darkened theater, prepare to accept his father’s marriage proposal. With the surety and horror of dream, Schwartz’s story animates a hopelessly mismatched couple, standing on the precipice of their married life. Doom written in their wedding vows. A terrifying view of the future as a waiting catastrophe toward which we hurtle unknowing, like an army grunt about to be ambushed, tricked and appeased by our profound misperception of the present.
I don’t remember when I first read Schwartz’s story, but I’ve returned to it, as someone returns to a crime scene, whenever, for whatever reason, I’m seized by the memory of that distressing cry. Each time I read it–young, newly divorced; older, remarried–the story evokes in me the same wave of alarm and sadness. The narrator’s powerful dream trumpets the painfully obvious. So many of us fail, miserably, at the thing we most want to be successful, the thing we believe will bring happiness, contentment, or at least a life where the scales tilt in that direction.
Myself, I come from a generous inheritance of marital catastrophe, which did nothing to dispel illusions or staunch the cascade of divorce: My grandparents, my parents, myself, all four sisters, my daughter, twice. Acrimony pelting each of us like thrown rice on the church stairs. An alarming comment on our family’s collective judgement, the lessons of which were dutifully ignored by each generation.
My grandmother’s diary: “October 13, 1957: Barbara called to ask if I would meet her in Oxnard after church, which I did. Donald had asked for a divorce – they were going to Dr. Poganoe’s family counseling. Oh God – she is pregnant again too.”
“October 21, 1957: Such a day, God. Do be with us….Donald called about 4:00 to say since I had talked with B, perhaps he should talk with me – so we arranged to meet for dinner again in Oxnard at the Colonial House at 6:30. He is so unhappy – has been all along, he says, & is determined to leave.”
My father drives up to Oxnard from L.A. to meet his mother at the Colonial House, she driving down from Santa Barbara. Tells her how unhappy he is. That he’s never loved Barbara, my mother. He’s been unhappy from the start.
Now wait a minute. I’m leaping from my seat. I don’t believe you. Your words warped by the accumulation of years, the treachery of that last year, her new pregnancy, tricking you, hoping you would stay. But those early years, I don’t believe you didn’t slip off to sleep, at least some of the time, warmed and entangled, miseries melted.
Evidence: That photo of mom on your lap on the couch, your easy slouch and grin, the sling of her body, skirt flared, over your legs, her head tucked into your neck.
Evidence: The postcard mom wrote on your honeymoon in October, 1943 at Big Bear Lake to her sister: “Dear Kay, We also find the mountains most agreeable on our honeymoon. It’s beautiful up here. We fished in this lake. No luck. But I’m in luck as far as husbands are concerned. He’s swell & we’re having a perfect time. You guess what we do! Love, Babs.”
Setting aside my mother’s small hint of competitiveness with her sixteen-months younger sister who had married just three months earlier, how can I doubt that honeymoon happiness?
WHEN I WAS NINETEEN, in 1967, my grandmother arranged a family reunion at Estes Park, Colorado, a mid-country compromise for those on west and east coasts. She commandeered us into these reunions every few years, and beneath the laudable purpose of maintaining family ties, we always felt her other motive of cajoling our father, who in 1958 had decamped from L.A. to New York, into spending a few days with us, his daughters. Forced visitation was what it felt like to us, and probably to him. Though there was always that hope that he would recognize our hard work and accomplishments, maybe reward us with a brief compliment, a momentary arm around our shoulder.
Breakfast with seventeen of us abreast a long table, orange juice or tomato juice. Horses, a pool. Amid the lofty Douglas firs, the bracing pine needle smell, my father asked me to take a walk with him on a short dirt trail. I could tell by his tense, motionless face that he was dragging behind him that old bag he carried, full of all the things I didn’t want to hear. He was thin, professorial, with a razored haircut, in slacks, a short-sleeved shirt. He stopped, one foot up on a small boulder, talking into the air, not looking at me. Unreeling that litany, all the things my mother didn’t do that she should have, all the ways she had failed, and burdened him. “I despise your mother.”
And there it is. The generational hand-off of resentment, bitterness. As if we won’t someday have enough of our own.
WHAT’S REMARKABLE is the staying power of a marriage gone bad, dribbling out its half-life for eons. The aftermath that oozes and weeps unaccountably and endlessly.
Evidence: A taped conversation with my grandfather in 1984, happily married to his second wife since 1946, speaking of that first wife, my grandmother, and why they moved from Kansas City, Missouri to California: “That’s a long story. I don’t know. I’ll tell you, if I had to tell you real fast, you know that Mary, my first wife, we never got along. I’m not going to try to place blames or anything. But she just couldn’t…. I wanted to play cards ’cause I’d always played cards. She wouldn’t let me bring a deck of cards in the house. She wouldn’t do this, she wouldn’t do that.”
“Now, Don,” second wife harumphs.
“Okay, I won’t go into it. Anyhow, I wanted to, I thought if I moved, oh, everything was dictated by the church or by either the church or the sorority or something, and she was cold … so I got a, well, we split up. We split up six or eight times in the first few years. We split up and I went to Louisiana. I got a job there traveling north Louisiana. It didn’t do any good. So we finally moved to Texas, then down to Harlingen.”
Those random, pool-shot moves, driven by an always receding dream of the next place, where contentment might possibly reside. He and my grandmother, still searching for that elusive place they’d find happiness, landed in Whittier in 1933, Santa Barbara in 1936, the land of orange groves and ocean, sunshine and possibility. Where their older son and my mother met.
IN RETROSPECT, it’s all too easy to see the intimations of danger, those niggling, wait-a-minute moments. Increasingly agitated, the narrator of Schwartz’s story watches the movie screen as his future parents stand at the rail of the Coney Island Boardwalk, observing the ocean below. “Overhead the sun’s lightning strikes and strikes, but neither of them are at all aware of it…. My mother and father lean on the rail of the boardwalk and absently stare at the ocean. The ocean is becoming rough; the waves come in slowly, tugging strength from far back.” Those lightning strikes. The rough ocean. Wake up! Watch out!
Evidence: My mother’s sister, Kay, watching my father and mother at the piano one evening in 1943. “He criticized her piano playing,” Kay says. “I remember him being a little impatient with your Mom when they were engaged. And I thought, gee, they’re not even married yet. And I was concerned about it then.”
“Don’t do it!” Schwartz’s narrator shouts to the image of his courting parents.
The child sees clearly what the parent can’t. The child who has endured the monstrosity the marriage has become, who knows its razor-moments and explosions. But at that moment in Schwartz’s story, on the Coney Island Boardwalk in 1909, the debacle unfolds step by fraught step. After dinner, after the awkward proposal which was “scarcely as he had thought it would be,” the young couple stop to have their photo taken. The photographer can’t get it right, the father agitated and angry, the photographer capturing the father’s grimace, the mother’s pasted-on smile. Increasingly distressed, they pass a fortune-teller’s booth and argue, his mother wanting to go in, his father refusing. “She is near to tears, but she feels an uncontrollable desire to hear what the palm-reader will say.” Inside, “… suddenly my father feels that the whole thing is intolerable; he tugs at my mother’s arm, but my mother refuses to budge. And then, in terrible anger, my father lets go of my mother’s arm and strides out, leaving my mother stunned. She moves to go after my father, but the fortune-teller holds her arm tightly and begs her not to do so … and I get up from my seat and begin to shout once more….”
THE SHOUTS, the recriminations, the sobs. That day in 1976 I screamed at my soon-to-be-ex over the phone, furious at his latest betrayal–as if I hadn’t done the same myself. The poor, placid landlady who lived downstairs had to leave the house, unable to bear the hurricane of accusations slamming the walls. Or the time he threw a shoe at the bedroom wall, plaster slivers on the wooden floor, our shouts devoid of any meaning other than this is over and I hate you for not being the person I wanted you to be.
Exhausted by the try-again efforts and yawning distance between us, we’d taken a last-ditch day-trip to a park in Napa, five-year-old daughter unbuckled in the back seat, soon-to-be-ex speeding dangerously into each curve in his BMW sports car, top down. Proving his freedom. Who was this man, I remember thinking, glancing at his devil-may-care profile. How could I ever have married him?
At the end of the day, all that was left was that achingly horrible moment of our last threesome hug in the living room of his bungalow, our daughter clutching our knees.
BUT THE BLINDING POWER of that effervescence before the fall–it can be stupendous. A trance, a dream that carries you on its strange, heated currents, that so absorbs your attention all else falls away. “He brought me violets,” my grandmother said wistfully, age ninety-eight, reviving the moment when she was nineteen that had never left her. How my grandfather, courting her, took her to the train station, gave her a wrist corsage of violets, said he wouldn’t let her get on the train until she agreed to marry him. “And you know how I love violets.” Violets!
Here’s mine: 1965. A body-crush of teen-agers in our high school gym after a rousing, championship-winning basketball game. I’m heated and sweaty in my wool cheerleading sweater and navy blue pleated skirt, elated and jumping with energy. The gymnasium stuffy and vibrating, a battle of the bands churning at fever pitch, loud speakers blaring off the wooden walls. Two bands in the corners. The Newports, in the middle. Their turn, and they swing into a syrupy tune by Gerry and the Pacemakers, “Don’t let the sun catch you cryin’.” I hear that milky voice purl over the swarm of dancers. “The night’s the time for all your te ee ee ee ears….” I vaguely know the lead singer, senior class V-P. His voice smooth, magnetic. I leave my friends, push through a crowd of elbows, twitching hips, squeeze into a crack between bodies and face him straight on, the speakers hitting me with shivering waves of sound. “Your heart may be broken tonight. But tomorrow….”
He’s working those electric guitar strings, crooning into the mike like Sinatra. In a button-down shirt, long-lashed, seductive eyes. Clean cut with a hint of roguishness. Our gazes catch, and his knowing smile pours over me. I don’t move. Stay right in front, so he can see the flirtatious smile I shoot back. “For the morning will bring joy….” He sings straight at me, never taking his eyes from mine. Those eyes alive with a music thrumming in his head, and mine, eyes that, later, I’ll sink into for slow exquisite hours. “Don’t let the sun catch you cryin’, oh no. Oh oh nooo.”
Oh no. We both know something waits between us. No intimation, no warning from the future, can override that.
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Dorothy Wall is author of Identity Theory: Poems (Blue Light Press) and the essay collection Encounters with the Invisible: Unseen Illness, Controversy, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Southern Methodist University Press), and coauthor of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net, and her poems and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Nimrod, Dos Passos Review, Cimarron Review and others. She has taught poetry and fiction writing at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley Extension, and works as a writing coach in Oakland, California. Visit her at dorothywall.com. Read the author’s commentary on her piece.
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