Rewriting Chapter One
In the first chapter of my beloved
wife’s semi-fictionalized account
of our lives two characters with
soap opera names, Gray Becket
and Sylvia Caldwell, meet through
a personals ad. He entices her
with poetry and gifts only a woman
could think of for a man to give.
My wife’s friends love it, and me.
However, after my slight flirtation
with a female friend, she rewrites
the chapter. Now the first person
narrator finds her way despite
the insensitive nature of the male
sex. My spouse’s peers cheer
the work’s new fierceness and
with her pray all women may be
delivered from evil (such as me).
Time passes…and most of that
seems less important somehow.
In the new Chapter One (which I
barely am allowed to see) she
turns to God. Men–even women
who are complete strangers soon
agree–are superfluous; without
them life, as well as writing, flows
just so much more (well) easily.
But what about Gray Becket and
Sylvia Caldwell? Like a TV show
that switches from one time slot
to another they take up residence
in my verse. She, eyes lowered,
dreams of unrequited love while
sipping café latte as he, lost in his
own imagined world, churns out
enough poems to last an eternity.
For a couple winter months my wife and I did something pretty interesting. Each night at six o’clock we would sit down with a couple glasses of wine and write for twenty minutes in our journals. After we were done we took turns reading what we’d produced to each other. I named this “co-journaling.” Here are three of my writings from consecutive nights. I titled them…
My Ideal Woman
In the movie, The Heartbreak Kid, the central character marries a folksy twenty-something Jewish woman and they go to Miami for their honeymoon. She gets a terrible sunburn the first day and while she’s confined to her hotel room for a few days, he is smitten by the young Cybil Shepherd (this was twenty-five or thirty years ago). She is the ideal white American Protestant male’s dream woman. He eventually leaves his wife, doggedly pursues Cybil and at the end marries her in a refined ceremony that is in great contrast to the ethnic celebration of his first marriage that began the movie.
Now I always thought that this premise was wrong. How could someone fall in love with one person and really want just the opposite? But I have wondered about something else. What if a man, for example, fell in love with a woman because she looked a certain way, had a particular manner and there were pleasant dynamics between them and then met another woman who had all the same characteristics but to an even greater degree. There would be a dilemma! He would love the new person, not because she was different but because she was even more of what he desired. That may seem improbable but I can tell you from my own experience, it is possible. You say, well perhaps someone could be taller, more slender, have a better figure, but her personality would be different or she would be less fun to be with, right?
Last week at a bookstore-reading a female science fiction writer, Joan Vinge, claimed she had written her latest book because she fell in love with the male character. That got me thinking about Sylvia Caldwell, the character who is my wife in her semi-fictional autobiography (Gray Becket is the man impersonating me). Now he is of little interest to me—I get enough of myself as it is. But Sylvia is another matter. She is like my wife, but perhaps a little taller and more slender; she has all my wife’s personality traits but I only see Sylvia on her good days. And the sex? Well everyone knows that reality can’t compare with fantasy. There is only one thing that troubles me. What if these two should find out about each other, or even worse, what if they should meet. Perhaps they will.
“And try to make it so there isn’t that ‘glick, glick, glick,’ noise when you shift,” Talia said as we pulled into the downtown area. She had already told me where to exit and where to park and now was back to harping on me about the way I drove.
“I’ll let you off right in front,” I said, “Then park the car.” But please shut up, I was thinking, please dear God, a moment of peace and quiet.
We were going to a grand opening of a new, overpriced Madison restaurant called (give me a break) “The Quill Driver.” My wife, Talia, was one of the wait staff, but tonight’s event was being catered, so her function was to be hostess–greeting and conversing with invited customers from the restaurant’s old location while I…(and I smiled at this as I left the car down the block and walked to the new establishment), …while I…would sit in a corner, drink champagne and scarf down free hors d’oeuvres.
As it turned out, though, we were a little late, the skimpy bits of food were already almost all gone. Wow, I thought, there must have been a mob waiting at the door who waged a major attack on the free d’oeuvres as soon as they opened and it doesn’t look like any reinforcements are on the way. “Oh well,” I sighed and sat down at a back table after accepting a glass of champagne offered by one of his wife’s colleagues.
There Talia was, her hand on the arm of the no-chin owner Rodney, talking to one customer while she was smiling at another. I had to admit, she did look good. There was an animated quality about her that was infectious and appealing, at least from a distance. I was hunched over my glass of champagne and thought, I should really sit up straight, when I heard a voice like butterfly wings at his ear. “Why John,” the female’s well-modulated tones exclaimed, “what a joy it is to see you here.”
I turned (while straightening up slightly and pulling in my stomach) to see alone at the table next to me (why hadn’t I noticed her when I sat down) a stunningly attractive woman, about the same age and height as his wife, but with hair…, well hair that looked like the woman’s pictured on a hair coloring box. My God, I thought, it’s Sylvia Caldwell.
“Won’t you join me,” she purred.
I was sitting next to her, drink in hand, before she finished the sentence. Good Lord, is she here alone, I thought, quickly searching the restaurant to see exactly where my wife might be.
As if in answer to my unasked question she sighed, “I came with Gray Beckett, that other white-haired gentleman in a black shirt, talking to Rodney over there.”
Shit, I thought. But turning my head I could see the direction in which she was looking. There was Rodney and that pretentious, smug Gray Beckett standing next to him. Ah, well. I was envious. What was the big deal with this guy anyway? So much for Sylvia Caldwell, I thought, then Rodney, in the midst of pointing something out on the wall across the room, put his hand suggestively on Beckett’s shoulder. “What the hell,” I murmured to myself, as I remembered Beckett was a designer. “Maybe they’re gay!”
“Haven’t they done a nice job decorating the restaurant?” Sylvia said.
“Huh?” I answered, turning back to her.
“And don’t you just love the name, ‘The Quill Driver.’ It’s an old fashioned slang term for writer.”
“Why, yes,” I said and turned my head again, this time to make a pretend cough so she wouldn’t notice me rolling my eyes. “Do you like writers?” I managed to ask (hoping that since I was one, the answer would be “yes.”). “I mean, what’s your favorite book?” I continued, trying not to be quite so obvious.
Now, because there was this striking resemblance to my wife, I braced myself for an answer of The DaVinci Code, Conversations with God or Jaguar Woman.
“Why,” Sylvia smiled warmly, “it’s your poetry book, Dogs Dream of Running. I can’t tell you how often I’ve read it, John, and each time I find something new and exciting in it.”
I was melting at her feet; drool was running from my mouth and my privates were playing tom-tom. “Why thank you,” I uttered, “how kind of you to say that.”
What I wanted to say was that I was madly in love with her. I looked at her face beaming at me and wanted to sweep her into my arms and into my life. But something held me back… Why? She was perfect. What was the problem?
Then it struck me. It was exactly that . . . the fact that she was perfect and I was not. She had everything she wanted in her already perfect world. I saw my wife now, out of the corner of my eye talking to the ugly sister of one of her friends, making her feel welcome and special. I could tell Sylvia of my love but it would mean nothing to her. What I had was a wife who also had needs. Someone whose life I was important to.
And here was Talia coming over to our table with a bottle of champagne to refill our glasses. (slowly) Sylvia Caldwell—who, now that I thought about it did seem to resemble a young Cybil Shepherd—was fading into the background.