Pearls and Roses, chapter 4
She needed little time after meeting and swooning over handsome Tim Gorecki in high school to realize fate was at hand if she wanted it. He was like her, a serious boy who liked being taken seriously, or at least had gotten accustomed to it. Since his father had died young he had been told repeatedly by his womenfolk that he was "the man of the family now" – "such a cruel thing to say to a child," Alice’s mother would say many years later – and he liked the idea of getting serious with Alice while they were still very young. It made him feel proud. He knew Alice bought bride magazines with a purpose, and pored over the gorgeous photographs of gowns and flowers, rings and shoes and cakes. He pictured himself telling his friends about it, rolling his eyes patiently but proudly, like an old married Joe. But he didn’t tell them. He feared they would not be able to take it in the right spirit.
Alice loved the bride magazines. She looked at the photographs and learned all the nomenclature, and was disappointed to recognize sometimes the same models from month to month, for that took away from the fantasy and made the photographs seem staged, not like real brides and real weddings, breathless women participating in an ancient and mysterious ritual, all filled with love. She loved to learn of ivory satins with jewel necklines and cathedral trains, and Brussels point lace and fingertip veils, and tulle and grosgrain and tap pants, beaded bodices to hide flatness and off-the-shoulder pelisses tapering to a point over the stomach to hide waistlines. There was everything to choose, from traditional hoop-skirted opulence to the starkest columnar simplicity. Roses, tuberoses, rubrum lilies, pink lilac, sunflowers for summer, wheat for autumn; colors of moss green for the bridesmaids at Christmastime, purple for summer; black and white taffeta, and purple orchids, for them in January. Winter brides had their pictures taken beside golden fires and gold-decked Christmas trees in brick reception rooms. Summer brides were photographed outside, in sunlit gardens. A girl of a different cast of mind might have looked at all this and said, I want to be a clothing designer, a fashion photographer, a food stylist. Alice looked and said, I want to get married and have a baby. I want to be able to say "my husband," my son, my daughter, while I am really young.
But she also had to go through the motions of attending school and having A Little Part-Time Job, and of course she was aware of her world, watched TV, read the paper, especially listened to music. It was clear to her that the adults who created a culture saturated with love, saturated especially with endless pop songs about breaking up – very medieval, really, courtly love, always the knight who cannot have his lady – did not approve one bit of her wanting to get married. They were positively mendacious about it. They wanted her to watch social studies films about adolescent girls getting married in India, but only on the understanding that while this might be culturally interesting, it was also horrifying and pathetic. They made everyone read Romeo and Juliet because they thought the sex interest would hold, but they were horrified by the prospect of anyone’s following the great and proper lovers’ dignified sixteenth-century example. ("Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband? Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name When I, thy three-hours’ wife, have mangled it?")
Only one person did not actively discourage Alice and Tim from getting married in the summer of 1980, the summer before, before their senior year, and that person was Alice’s father. Her mother was coldly furious, and treated her bitterly, fearfully, like an adult whom she hated but who happened to live for the moment in her house. Pamela assumed that the two young people were bedded already, and that therefore marriage was the lesser of two evils – thought what the other evil was (not marrying?) she would have been hard pressed to say. An abortion, perhaps. Tim’s mother called Alice, ridiculously, a gold-digger, and thus drove him closer to her.
But Alice was a lot like her father and he was proud of her maturity. He knew that in interesting older cultures, the two young people would already be well past marriageable age, and he was not about to panic over their wishing to let excitement and human nature take its course. He liked the look of a thirty-year-old woman with a fifteen-year-old son or daughter, both of them young and blooming, both survivors. But it was also only he who gave them the words of caution that did eventually prove true.
He was big, reticent, bearded, handsome. He said in his slurry monotone, "I don’t necessarily disapprove. But I warn you. This may seem the most sophisticated thing in the world, now, and you may be very happy for a while. You may be very happy forever. What do I know? But my fear is that sooner or later, at twenty-five, at thirty, all your friends are only just going to be getting married then, after maybe three or four serious adult love affairs. And already having good careers and maybe having traveled and maybe loaded with money. I’m afraid you’re going to feel the opposite of sophisticated then. You’re going to feel like you’ve never left the farm."
He was right. There are always women who write to the advice columns about how their improbable, or even scandalous, childhood marriage has succeeded and they are now proud great-grandparents. But for every such success there must be five quiet failures, or who knew? – fifty, Alice thought later. Failures caused, if by nothing else, by the blooming couple’s frustration at having taken themselves off the marriage market before either had reached his full attractiveness, or fully realized how gloriously he can fall in love as an adult, with another adult. As to Tim and Alice at the time, they were very sweet and brave but even their church discouraged them. When Alice called to make an appointment with the rectory for the usual stint of pre-marital counseling in the May before their August wedding, she warned the receptionist on the phone, "Don’t be surprised when you see me, because I’m eight months pregnant."
Oh yes. They had gone as far as that. Alice was well-read enough to know that the legal fundament of marriage is simply the couple, of age, marrying each other. They had watched West Side Story in their Film Rhetoric class, in which Maria and Tony symbolically get married alone in the dress shop – symbolically, yes, but the point was that what good people want to do in their hearts is always right. In the Middle Ages there need not even have been witnesses, provided the pair lived together afterward and were willing to testify to what they had done. And Tim was seventeen and loved her, and was not about to quarrel with the excitement, or with the gift of her body. So fragile and yet so full of freedom, and so electrified with anonymous, fearsome sanctity, is marriage. Alice was in the same position Juliet might have been, if she had lived.
And what a glorious sentence that was, "I’m almost eight months pregnant." It sounded so full, so rich, so crammed with life. I’m pregnant. "I’m pregnant," she savored over the phone to the ordinary middle-aged lady who turned out to be unimpressed. But look at the word pregnant, speak it, the p and the r, the way you purse your lips, the full hanging g looking so heavy, on her doodle-paper and in her mind, with blood and life and slow richness. Eight, the numeral 8, fat, round, one corpulence riding atop and giving birth to another. Most women going in for pre-marital counseling are not eight months pregnant and as young as I am. But I am.
But the lady at church was not impressed. Alice thought she heard her suck in her breath, once. Then she was clinical, busy, flat, accusatory. Very mom-like. "Oh. You’re not rushing into this, are you?" she asked. Alice had half-expected to face a churchly insistence that she hurry up and marry, cover her shame and legitimize the baby, but evidently she was living in Ivanhoe if she thought that still mattered. This disinterest and distaste for her merely wishing to join the human family saga a little bit early upset her more than any churchly insistence on a moral show would have done. Rushing into it? What else in life was there to rush into, if not a wedding? What else were we here for? It was no one’s business what she was rushing into. She thought, if you have no authority to speed it up for morals’ sake, then don’t interfere to slow it down. Just because girls are not supposed to want to get married young. We’re supposed to want to be cops and salesclerks now. Well, I don’t want to be. Who would discourage marriage and a baby? She was glad to do it.
She made the appointment and they went to their pre-marital counseling classes, which did not affect her in the slightest and which she considered an insult to her intelligence as well as a humiliation to her – to anybody’s – historical sense. Spanish princesses sailed from Corunna at fifteen to marry English kings, and never saw their parents or native land again. Do you suppose they attended "pre-Cana" classes first? They were presumed to be adults, and to understand, to be worthy, of what was coming. Ah, but if there was one thing the modern world did not intend to presume, it was adulthood, in anyone. That was what Alice thought, as the counselor droned on for four Wednesday nights in succession. Soon it was over.
The baby, Hunter Leslie, was born in June. The last cheerful thought she had before going into the labor room was that she liked the idea of planning ahead, saving herself from being a scrawny thirty-year-old who couldn’t do this. Unfortunately the birth as such did not come easy. The next day her voice was gone from crying and her face spidered over with broken blood vessels. She had made it worse for herself, as the nurses told her, by her fear – You’re scaring the other ladies! – but later she triumphantly remembered everything, writing it all down in the baby journal that she showed her friends and Tim but that Hunter himself would never read. She remembered every symptom and every procedure done for her, every leak of blood and the passage of each hour. She recorded everything Tim said or did. Not for nothing was she her father’s daughter. She knew that in plenty of cultures girls go through this far younger than seventeen. After it was all over she especially liked to think of herself as one in a long line of queens and princesses, Spanish or not, and anonymous countesses and farm girls and maybe some poets, who had, like her, an even more profound time of it doing this basic human function because they did it early. Like her, they were not afraid to do it early. Or maybe they were compelled to do it early by some ducal arrangement, some kingly husband, in which case she offered up her suffering and excitement now, freely, in freely chosen sympathy across the ages with them. Alice was excessively well-read.
When she got home from the hospital and felt fully healed, her friends came to see her and the baby. There is no describing the initiate mysteries into which a young girl who has had a baby has been inducted in her friends’ eyes – particularly then, for it was only 1980 and this was not yet so very routine. She was the only one in her neighborhood. Rod Stewart’s song "Young Hearts" was popular then ("Patty gave birth to a ten-pound baby boy"), but that was just a song. Alice had gone and done it. Sitting there casually with them, in her sunny, little-girl bedroom in her parents’ house, with the big crib and the box of wipes and the diapers nearby, and the receipt for her wedding gown propped casually on her dresser, and beautiful Hunter crumpled in newborn unconscious stiffness in her lap, was worth every pain and every doubt. She felt like the Virgin of Chartres, enthroned in stained glass with the infant King.
She and Tim got married in August as planned, flat-souled church receptionists notwithstanding. Her dress was the most perfect in the world. It was champagne-colored silk, with an empire waist to hide her slowly deflating stomach and a low scooped neckline to show off the figure enhanced by her breastfeeding the baby. The orange and green braided ribbon around her waist set off her bouquet of yellow and orange roses perfectly. Tim wore a not-too-dark summer suit and an orange rose in his lapel. Hunter was there, too. Her best friends stood as her bridesmaids, all of them for the first time, and all of them wearing just what pretty summer dresses they liked – no polyester magenta uniforms. All their other schoolmates came to the wedding, too, looking sweet and nonplussed in their good clothes and good behavior. For the rest of August until school began Alice relished other, more distant reactions, especially when she heard about them second-hand. Oh my God, you’re kidding! They got married? Yes, we did. What’s the big deal? Adults marry and raise children. No, I don’t live with my parents, she said gently to another middle-aged lady when she went up to the desk to apply for a new library card. "I live with my husband and my son." The lady burst out laughing pityingly, as if to say, Well yes, you might do that honey, but you needn’t say so in front of everybody. You think you’re the first one I’ve seen today?
When school resumed she walked the halls on air, the very height of emotional sophistication. Tim’s mother watched the baby for those short four hours of Alice’s senior-day, and Alice made sure her friends knew her breasts were engorged by noon. And Tim walked on clouds with her. He was tickled to death to be able to say "My wife," "my son." He liked the idea of work taking priority over school, because he had to support a family now. He liked the experience of having more in common, now, as another man, with his father-in-law than with his young guy friends – his father-in-law whose kindliness and honor, he saw, held more sway over Alice’s mother and brothers than many a family man is ever strong enough to command. They shook hands afresh whenever they met.
Marriage was the most wonderful thing in the world for both of them, for a while. Alice said "my husband" not too frequently, but frequently enough to sound casual, she hoped. The rings on their fingers blazed forth their news to all who had not heard it over the summer. She knew everyone watched them greedily as they drove away to pick up Hunter and then go home to their apartment together every afternoon. First she fed the baby and then cooked dinner, as she explained to everyone. Then they did their homework and took care of the baby, and of course she forgot, Tim went to work, and then they did dishes and there was laundry all the time, and tidying up and writing thank you notes and paying the bills, and getting Hunter to the doctor and getting the car fixed, and before you knew it, it was time for school again. That year, Alice’s English teacher assigned Pride and Prejudice to the class. Alice spoke up often there about Lydia, who elopes to Gretna Green with Wickham, and returns home showing her ring. There is a perfect little scene when giddy Lydia purrs to her oldest sister, "’Ah Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, for I am a married woman.’" Alice quoted that in full. A few of her classmates tittered, and she turned red.
On top of everything else, Alice and Tim by marrying had proven gossip wrong, which whispered that the school would permit a girl to stay and graduate even if she were pregnant, but would not permit her to do so if she were married. ("They won’t let you do what? Why not?" Alice and her girlfriends had exploded in earlier years. The one who had somehow unearthed the information said importantly, "Because at least if you’re only pregnant you’re probably still living with your parents and they can still trust you to pay the tuition. If you’re out of the house and married to some guy flipping burgers, they can’t trust to that anymore." Alice remembered how they had all rolled their eyes and sucked in their cheeks at the mendacity of the school, only concerned with money.) In fact the school’s winking at Alice and Tim’s new legal status had everything to do with their parents having paid the tuition in full in August. The young people had triumphed over both worlds, the adult and the adolescent, and yet kept a secure foothold in both. They passed through their last year without mishap and graduated with all the others. Now it was already the next summer. Hunter, eleven months old that May, wore a white baby tuxedo to the ceremony. "Commencement," it is always called. Beginnings.
But the mendacious adults were right, of course. The marriage grew impossible. That August, while Alice and Tim celebrated their first wedding anniversary, another batch of seniors went back to their old high school for the last year of official childhood. They could see them filing in the tiny red doors from their fourth-floor apartment half a mile away. Many of their own friends went away to college, which neither Tim nor Alice could afford to do, with either their money or their time, nor would they have been inclined to do it. One course at a time at a local community college was all she and her husband could manage. Alice had thought to be beyond schooling.
But more schooling certainly seemed de rigueur for everybody else.
Being left behind was the oddest feeling. Their friends had gasped in awe at the wedding and the baby; but now, only a year later, they had all changed their hairstyles and absorbed themselves in brochures, travel plans, financial aid, and buying or borrowing household things for their "dorms." It was as if they were all adults too, and had made decisions without consulting the married couple, without even thinking of them. The friends seemed to have made a decision which opened up the possibility of all future decisions to them, while Alice and Tim had made one which would confine them to one type of life forever, in the very place their friends were leaving. Of course, the friends were not fertile, and they did not love. They didn't have Hunter. Yet neither did they care anymore whether she had. They had things to do.
Alice and Tim still loved each other and still in general liked being married, but at eighteen, with a baby at home and both trying to work and even study part time, and no more audience to watch them play house, both soon enough found love and play far less absorbing than the prospect of life and the future, outlined for them as it might have been by their friends’ choices. Soon enough, how to get the future empty and available again became the problem. They both fell in the habit of going home separately to their parents’ houses to visit every Saturday. They tried to share the holidays equitably, maturely, with both sides of relations, and resented it.
Another year went by. The friends were now college sophomores. Hunter was two. They were nineteen. They did nothing but work. Contempt set in, and after its initial explosion and tears of fright and embarrassment – "divorce," one of them said – there followed a calmer kindness. It was like the trembling relief after illness. Frankly, the world was full of good-looking people whom they both very much wanted to meet. They admitted they had made a mistake, were nothing but ill-matched children. The baby would never know the difference, but they did not even think of that.
If they had been a little older, their breaking up might have been a horrible trauma, without kindness, and if they had been just a little older still, they might have gritted their teeth, loved anew, and stayed together, to become more interesting people than all their stupid friends still single at thirty-five because they "hadn’t found the right person," or "weren’t sure they were ready." But they lacked the strength. You may encourage no man to martyrdom except yourself, as Alice had read somewhere.
Alice’s handsome father, who ardently loved another woman besides his wife anyway, was right. He forbore to remind them of it. Alice and Tim divorced, with that fortunate, childish lack of ill will on either side. Tim stayed in the same town, working, paying child support, seeing Hunter all the time. Alice asked her parents, and her former mother-in-law, to watch the baby while she, with real pluck, put aside even part-time college (where no one was reading G.G. Coulton’s Medieval Panorama anyway – no one was reading the great Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings – 1950), and went out and got a job.
Pearls and Roses, chapter 6