Authors: Hortense Calisher
SUPPOSE MOST COUPLES
the age of Rupert and me are not expected to be still compelled by sex. He and I still go on, side by side in our delicately fading pleasure-harness. Our performance is like memory, sometimes faint, sometimes strong. Often dampened by the daily rhythms, or refreshed by the slightest novelty. As a couple in our seventies, with me four years ahead of him, we are said not to be too bad a business to the eyes of those in the rear.
We ourselves see every change, as in autumn one does. He tells me that my head, hawked by so much architectural seeing, and set on shoulders stiffened into the drawing-board curve, is now like those marble busts with flows of serpentine hair that one meets in the corridors of palaces newly opened to the public. To me his tallness is still romantically stooped, and under his pebble-colored thatch the fine features, small for a man of his height, can still pinken like a boy’s. Our naked bodies are more of a match now, brought to resemblance by the Palladian lines of aging. Yet to me the aquiline of his nose is still a kind of physical poetry. While he says that the slack underside of my upper arm and forearm, when pulled, is like a Greek wave etched by an artist adept at those border patterns.
‘Little iambs of skin—’ he says, as his finger slides. But then, we are both helped by our professions. He is the poet—who no longer writes much. I am the architect—who no longer builds.
So we reminisce with our flesh—and stretch our limbs toward the present. Nor do we lie to ourselves. We are also making gestures against death—only from a vantage nearer than for most. What bothers us deepest is that one of us will inevitably be left behind.
But although we once met the writer Arthur Koestler and his wife in London—he originally a friend of Rupert’s former wife, Gertrude, who still lives there—the double suicide of the Koestlers, reasonable as it may have been to them, still seems to us dreadful. ‘She so much the younger—’ Rupert said at the time. ‘And still in health.’ In our case, so are we both, and in genes about equivalent—the nineties even possible, we dare to think—if modern stress permits.
Yet, like any duo, we cannot hope to die in absolute yoke, dropping together in the brown furrow some hardy October. And as dying goes we are each in our own way opposed to it. Take us singly, and we are rebels on more than one score. Only together do we grow meek.
So—We have decided. From now on we will each keep an almanac. For company—to the one of us who survives. To be read by him or me—only afterward.
‘You start—’ Rupert said. ‘Pen-and-ink comes easier to you.’
We smile—at the old joke. Pen-and-ink is literally his medium. Older though I am, I have rarely touched either, having gone straight from kindergarten crayon to a child’s typewriter, not at all a toy and with a circular central dial even analogous to today’s electronic ‘daisy,’ made for me by an architect uncle, when I was five. What Rupert means is that the words come easier to me because that is not my profession, and because I use a word processor. ‘And that will encourage
—’ he adds. Back to poems as well? He doesn’t mind my knowing of his dearth, rather expecting me to.
So of course, I begin at once. Throughout our thirty-five years together he has been the encourager. I don’t tell him that even in front of this easy-working screen the shoulders he admires for their marble grow more so each day.
He knows. Dear Rupert, I write as we agreed. I begin. But I refuse to think of you as possibly to die—or dead.
O—SHE THINKS IT
begins? But in the white and red scrawls of our brains hasn’t a diamond-point stylus begun swinging from each to each the first day? And so blending that except for pronouns and other minutiae, an outsider would not otherwise distinguish what I write from what she will; the confessions will be so much the same? By now there is also that fine aping which spins its thread between those who share time, sperm, and interest. Open our skulls and you might find blood-thickets identical—only mine now all blueprints, and in hers a poem.
Otherwise we don’t look enough alike to bore people, as so many of the long-married do.
‘Saved from that—’ Gemma laughs, ‘by two rickety Mexican divorces.’
In which to this day none of the four parties involved quite believes. Because of that, under legal suggestion, each of us signed away any claim to the putative estate of the former spouse. Then, as we thought at the time, those two would drop away and out of our lives except for the stray bulletin—as we would from theirs. Gertrude—perhaps still working for one or the other London publisher, meanwhile pursuing, one after the other, her bitter, darkly Freudian love-bouts. Arturo, from his picture a man with the sweet round face often found on the easy hedonist—in his case a father who gave up all rights to and support for his and Gemma’s two young daughters with an airy promise to ‘send for them now and then’—did go back to Siena to be ‘the young Count’ again to his family’s servant-girls, although he was already in his fifties, and worked in a bank.
In our own modest joint estate, Gemma’s and mine, what is it that one can neither sign away nor leave behind? Circumstance.
I was a Long Island brewer’s son, who, after a second-rate but not sinister prep school, refused college and went to Wyoming instead to work as a cowpuncher. In the areas of horses, girls, and campfire kinship I served happily, after eight years returning to the East minus two front teeth, plus some mended bones, and with a head still intent on certain nightingales I hadn’t found out West. In hopes of song outside myself, I married a raven-haired staff member of a literary review, a woman whom I saw as a slim reed swayed by the winds of literature, not, as was the case, merely quivering from the latest critic’s bed.
Gertrude was one of those for whom sex appeared to be the path both to spiritual discovery and to a livelihood, the priority of either being arguable. Her very history compelled toward her lovers like me, and had a magical interest for outsiders as well. There the verdict was that she was not a femme fatale, since all her men eventually got away.
I was the primitive talent she found before others did. Beware of those like me; we often turn out not to be primitive enough, even to ourselves. By day I worked in the circus or kennel end of the theater, as anything from stuntman to animal expert on such necessaries as dogs in plays and elephants in opera. So I was still toutable as nature’s man. By night I did walk-ons as a beginning poet on the party-stages of those marathon talkers who kept the bivouacs going for the wars of art.
Seven years of that—and enjoyable.
‘You take what comes, Rupert,’ Gemma says, ‘and squeeze the good from it.’
But Rupert is aware that any healthy man, also reasonably in pocket, who doesn’t enjoy his thirties, is a dolt. And perhaps any woman. Though a man cannot truly know how women view the curves of circumstance, I do know that it is in that view, more than in any curve of hip or of inner egg, that they least resemble us.
Still, Gemma had forty years of herself to herself—or not to herself, as she may see it—the last twenty-two as Arturo’s wife and her girls’ mother, in the synecdochically plump county of Westchester, New York.
Gemma, when you read this you will have to look that up. I plan for you to—and in this same instant, relent.
means taking the part or parts for the whole—and that is certainly what the suburbs do. So let us share, postmortem, a joke we would have enjoyed in a joint life. For Ĩ write this as from the dead, sure that you will survive us, our duality, better than me. Meanwhile, let me talk you gently toward me, through whatever time you have left.
Did I know at once, when Gemma and I met, that she was to be my survivor on an island formed by all the years to come? Back when Arturo, a teacher of art at the ‘American’ college courses in Perugia, began to court his blue-eyed, blonde Italo-American student, his Tuscan family had thought her North Italian in ancestry. When this only child of a Bridgeport, Connecticut, contractor was discovered to be of Sicilian stock, there was at first the devil to pay—all rosied over when Arturo disclosed that she was also Jewish—like them. An only child—Gemma had said to them winsomely—how could I be Catholic? And the Count, Arturo’s father, had turned out to be only a
really, a military title derived from his military service with Mussolini in North Africa—and for a Jew doubly devious. But so were some of the dollars made by contractors.
‘Brewer’s stock is more honest,’ she sometimes says when we differ about money.
No—only more tediously literal. Though I don’t grudge her any fluff or sortie, I swore always to have enough to leave her comfortably provided for.
‘What comfort will that be?’ she flares. ‘And I’m older. Give it to me now.’
I take her literally. From under the covers I say afterward, ‘And I’m younger. A gigolo must self-provide.’
What she calls my charm is merely the bland, beer garden temperament my family deeded me, along with a one-eighth interest in an oversize house in Garden City, on only one acre of sward. Plus some Teuton jokes which now and then surface in light verse. Little curlicues left over from Shrove Tuesday family revels in the neatly whitewashed basement, where we munched
crullers and bobbed for apple-luck. No taste for bloodshed except in the
of Wagner, and easily absorbed by the safe red velvet box-seat of a season ticket. No taste for war, except as goose-stepped to an oompah band that in the spring twiddled on our street. Such an upbringing can be rationalized away. But the optimism is ineradicable.
How I go on. But there’s all the time in the world now, my dear, isn’t there. I have no logical problem about thinking of you as pre-deceasing me, Gemma. But traumatically I would not have tolerated it. Remember how, when you wanted to let your hair go white, I insisted you keep it the soft brown it had darkened to before graying—and that’s my honesty.
What I saw over a quarter of a century ago was the gracile blonde mother of two and supporter of three—for Arturo, ensconced at home in a country where even a bravura painter is excused from working during siestas adhered to as rigorously as when he had briefly been employed at the bank, now found he loved his girls too much to let them skimp along on American culture. Commandeering their presence in the name of Italy and an ancient house where they could have a father for free—both arguments that softened Gemma—he wooed them for longer and longer visits, from which only substantial ransom rescued them back to her.
I saw a woman who seemed to me all heart-shaped—face, breasts, and hips—above those long Aryan legs that sometimes do disconcertingly grow right out of the Old Testament.
‘I’m a builder,’ you said. ‘I never graduated as an architect.’
Later I would make you go back and get your degree.
‘I’m a pretty good poet,’ I said. Indeed they sometimes let me teach it—at the convent school near the animal-boarding farm I now owned and, according to some, had made almost beautiful enough for people to live on.
Circumstance—yes, men speak differently of it.
‘I’d give a lot to work as a landscape gardener,’ you said. ‘But that takes acreage. I and the people I know out here—we haven’t it.’
‘I always wanted to rewrite Virgil’s
,’ I said. ‘But that takes acreage too.’
We stared at one another. We were in the house of a famous conductor and his wife who had opened their door to the kind of benefit rally for a radical cause at which only the well-heeled can safely appear.