Now, having spent too little time with talk radio, I am not familiar, at this point, with Dr. Laura. But as I skim her maxims by the pool later that afternoon, I get the sense that I am reading some hieroglyphic transcript of an alien culture, a text I must translate into the Roman alphabet, filter through what I know of the rest of the world and pass back through a decryption device before I can decipher its meaning. And when I do, it pisses me off.
It's not that I think women ought to hang their ids on the next available man, get themselves knocked up to score a husband and then let said husbands bat them around. It's just that I am not Dr. Laura's woman. That Mark, one of my closest friends, thinks I am fills me with the kind of loneliness I feel in foreign countries where I don't know the language. Where do you get this idea of me? I don't want to get married. I don't want someone to rescue me financially. I'm looking for more organic companionship, a meeting of the minds, someone to sit up and argue with me about foreign policy in the middle of the night, eating ice cream out of the container and spilling wine on the bed. Not someone to subsume my entire household and identity.
"I've been married," I remind Mark. "Remember? I'm not looking for a husband." I hold up the book to give it back. "These," I inform him, "are not my problems."
"Okay, fine," he says, taking the book back.
"No, really. It's true."
"Yeah. Well, whatever."
Whatever. Explanations and self-definitions fail me in these moments. Protest too much, and the wise friend nods in sympathy; don't protest at all and expect more advice about how to snag a man. Another close friend gets married, to a man she picks out of the L.A. Weekly personals, made to order, ready for marriage, and begins recommending boyfriends to me, men who use trite metaphors in e-mail and work as marketing consultants, men who want to get married real bad. I ask her what the consultant will think when I tell him that I still might want to have sex with women.
I could make up reasons for why I left my husband, but in words they would emerge as half-truths. It might be better to ask why I got married, but I can't even answer that. It was as if I stumbled through the whole event absent-mindedly, understanding what I was supposed to do, yet experiencing neither joy nor passion. I don't even remember the proposal. What I remember most is the phone conversation that clinched the end: I had just moved to L.A. He was in Minneapolis preparing to join me. "Now, hon," he said in his lumbering way, "we have to talk about how we're going to handle the money." A few days later, I was on the phone again, crying. I can't. I just can't. Soon after, I found someone else. Someone who understood the importance of keeping one's bank account separate and passport current.
The Rules. Smart Women, Foolish Choices. Women Who Love Too Much. These books are documents of rituals to me, relics of a culture I, like my mother, muddled through to a point but eventually threw up my hands against, as did my maternal aunts, one of whom left her insurance-salesman husband for a Rastafarian she met in Barbados on vacation. Even my paternal grandmother hit her limit fairly young, abandoning my then 5-year-old father to the care of his teenage siblings while she went to live alone in a North Dakota shack. (She missed, she would tell us later, "the unbroken horizon.") On neither side of my family is there one single happy marriage after which I could model my own.
Here is a scene from my childhood that I remember more vividly because it strikes me as strange that I do: My father is driving, my mother is in the passenger's seat. My sister and I are in back. I am 8, maybe 9 years old. I am watching, curiously, as Mom and Dad have a conversation. I am not aware of the topic, only that they are exchanging information, nodding "yes, yes" at each other's comments, emitting "uh-huhs" as people do when they take in each other's words with the relaxed, floating attention of intimacy. I remember this mundane scene - the street, the mowed-lawn smell of the air, the filtered light on the back of my mother's head - because as far as I know, it never happened again. Mom and Dad were having a conversation at a pitch that didn't send their children scurrying for cover.