Sunday, June 1, 2008

When I was St. George

What do you think of as you lay in bed at night, you who have not even the rudimentary possessions and proofs of living – man, baby, dirt and food and exhaustion yes, but proof among the rumpled sheets that you have gone out into the world, have lived? What replaces the breath and blood of family beating in the next room, when your own childhood-ness, the waiting time, fades decades into the background, when you haven’t seen childhood cousins in twenty-five years and it begins to look as though the waiting was all for nothing?

My sister ekes out her hardworking smiling solitude with hobbies, concerts, cats, and friends, but surely that was not all she had wanted. Surely, an endless smiling attendance at her pretty nieces’ weddings was less than she had wanted.

And yet look at other people’s stories, look at the Sunday paper. Look at the Sunday paper often enough and Elizabeth’s life, any life, will begin to seem suspiciously, unrighteously quiet. For one thing there are plenty of young women, "contributors," with their pictures at the back of the magazine, all teeth and curls, already finished interviewing prime ministers. Then there are the local women in the newspapers’ society pages, all teeth and curls, who evidently sketched a more compelling pattern of living twenty years ago, and are pearled and prominent now. It’s not that I envy them. It is not enough that Elizabeth has never seen Venice (neither have I yet), and has no family.

No, read beyond the society pages and get to the meat of the thing and it will seem that not only is her life serenely closed, sheltered, it is also unjustly, inhumanly clean and untroubled. Genuinely good people suffer. How many strong women in the newspaper human-interest pages (on the front pages, for God’s sake), have survived disease, drug addictions, and the death of children? How many foreign women in the paper have lived through war, bombs, starvation, agitation, finally to be interviewed in bright patterned cottons, a soft nobility of expression in their faces, finally to speak of closure, humor, and renewal? Suffering and great goodness bestow maturity and decency, and more goodness, and therefore the right to be happy. Women open halfway houses for the battered homeless, using personal funds more modest than my sister’s own. Women are sometimes vivacious, cancer-stricken, sincerely loved local actresses or wine importers, and joyfully get married on their deathbeds and then are laid to rest a week after with three devoted ex-fiances and the new widower as pallbearers. I won’t have three ex-fiances at my funeral. Neither will she.

What great, great stories. It seems hardly fair that the humble, dull, and good – the mistaken, the waiting – should not get what they probably wanted, and then age, and run all the usual human risks, all the while not earning nearly the attention that the paper heroines do. All their potty adventures scream little but ego anyhow. Yes, she wanted the morphine, but she wanted to marry him first. If I were in that hospital room witnessing that, I would have either burst out laughing or stormed out in disgust. Of course I probably wouldn’t have been a friend of such a grand person to begin with. How horrible I, we both, must be.

Naturally you put yourself into stories. Sometimes they are all over in a moment’s thought. You attend elegant parties in black and pearls, black pearls, while the black city glitters below, outside large plate glass windows. There was once a pair of earrings for sale in the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog, one black drop pearl and one white drop pearl, modeled on a pair worn by a Rubens Venus. You imagine wearing them, and someone complimenting you on them. You say arch things to prominent men, preside over meetings and deliver charming, mannerly rebukes to rising politicians. You have reason and income to see Paris, Rome, Jerusalem. Somehow good things, perhaps including a good man, come to you in mysterious compliment to your youth, as they seem to do to other women. You leap one night, overnight, into a world of Titans, and there is no point making any real plans until that happens and you know where you are.

Until you know where you are. Elizabeth works at the same company as our maiden great-aunt of sixty years ago, who also had her own house full of pretty things. One day I stopped in the middle of dishwashing to realize that my grandmother also married a mechanic whom she met at a church social, and had four children. Are women – and men – allowed their own lives, or do two or three patterns only exist, and taking up a pattern is part of the dignity of human experience? Then what of the noble women in the Lifestyles section? Perhaps they do know something different. Elizabeth’s friend Jane has a child with a hole in his heart. Thanks to several babyhood surgeries he has survived to the age of nine (but wait, it’s been years since I’ve seen her – he’s fourteen, no, nineteen), but Jane lives every day with the knowledge that he might have a heart attack at any moment. She and her husband vacation in Mexico every year.

If I could I’d call in the devil.
"Elizabeth" would give, not her soul, but her bodily favors to the handsome devil in exchange for the right to meet historic ghosts and eat fine meals and see beautiful jewels in compensation for the unbidden dullness of her "narrow, deep little life." She would talk with all her favorite medieval queens, and eat a clambake right in her own living room amid roils of steam, and have beautiful furniture of cherrywood inlaid with tiny hand-painted Italian tiles. She would wear oxblood-velvet gowns and green capes with yellow silk lining and have pots upon pots of yellow roses and bird of paradise in her bedroom every day. And the devil would appear dressed in evening clothes, a burly, graying figure, clean-shaven with warm brown eyes and heavy arched brows. He would appear suddenly, an immense rush of black. His beautiful voice would lie full and high in the back of his throat, sounding like liquor poured in a glass.

In the midst of all this, really, my sister’s company offered her a temporary position in Paris. She accepted it, thrilled. Perky, virginal Elizabeth was thrilled to go. I was terrified for her, but was busy anyway with a fifth baby.

She lived and worked there for two years. I read as many books describing France, and Parisians in particular, as I had time for. The French live for their marvelous food ... no, they scour their supermarkets for American maple syrup, and think chocolate chip cookies (with raisins) the height of chic. They luxuriate in fragrant baths, and consider the quick shower uncivilized ... no, they take very quick showers because water is so expensive. They drink gallons of water for their complexions, they drink very little because they hate the indiscipline of needing to find a bathroom away from home. They are insanely cruel, they will smirk "How spiffy!" at you if your clothes look too new ... no, they are kind and even-tempered. Their favorite response to any mistake is "de rien," it’s nothing. No matter, all of it. How would Elizabeth survive alone?

Survive she did, speaking only English and getting things done for her company. American business practices have so far permeated the world, as she explained when she got home, that even the cultured, leisured Europeans have to do things like staff their offices overnight, to accommodate the calls and faxes that hard-working Americans make whenever they want, time zones and ancient local customs of gracious living be damned. Tiny French code-slights intended to rough up visiting rubes, if they are even done, will not matter much longer compared to that. So she was in her element, and besides was not a rube. Paris had to work around her. The men especially tended to be very kind to her. She found everything delightful.

That made for a new story. I love the stories in the paper, I’m sucked into them as we are meant to be, but afterward I have hated them and their heroines on her behalf, and almost hated myself. I was St. George, Elizabeth the princess in pink damask robes and a silver crown. The dragons were the heroines who led better lives than either of us do. Heroines, almost always heroines. Who decides who gets interviewed, and what is important? There is praise and glory everywhere. But the time has passed ferociously, and now she’s been to Paris, I really don’t care what makes her tick anymore.

Besides, didn’t medieval queens have interesting lives, and didn’t that undermine my point? A woman asked this. And then that insufferable Roger folded his arms and said in his usual slurry monotone, "I don’t know that we’re going to get anywhere, deigning to speculate how unhappy our fellow human beings are." Well, what on earth was I to say to that? His diction was professorial, perfect. The scents of coffee and pastries wafted across the store. I left, and joined a poetry workshop elsewhere.

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