Fairbanks, Alaska, 1999:
I am having a luncheon out today on the deck of Pike’s, a popular local Alaskan restaurant on the river. I am with five women whom I don’t yet know very well, five women who are colleagues at the university where I have just been hired to teach creative writing and literature. These women are well-dressed, intelligent, and attractive, in that very distinct way that educated, independent, middle-aged-or-approaching-middle-age Alaskan women are considered attractive and, by that, I mean they are not “pretty” in the frail, feminine, doll-like ways that men elsewhere like their women. They are laughing and drinking Margaritas and Martinis and something called “Wallbangers” here in the midday late-summer sun, enjoying the time with each other in a way that tells me they have done this many times over the years they have been living here.
I am trying to imagine that I might, in the next few months, come to be one of the inner circle of their friendship. I am imagining that I have something in common with them, with some of them anyway, though I cannot imagine what that might be other than the kind of genitalia we were born with. I am not like them, in some profound ways. They seem comfortable here. With each other. With themselves. They are a bit bawdy. And they throw back their heads and laugh loudly when they are amused. They eat like bears eat after a long winter, exuberantly, loudly, leaning over their meals, pushing the food in, smacking their lips. And they seem likable. At least, I am imagining that they are likeable. Infinitely likeable. And so, among them, I can imagine myself likeable too. Likeable, in some abstract, charming, womanly way.
And while I am trying to imagine myself into their group – one of the “girls,” as they call themselves though they are well into middle age and beyond anything which could even remotely be considered “girlish” – the hot topic under discussion turns suddenly to the outrageous responses some women have to being “cheated on,” from going into life-long psychoanalysis to slashing the guy’s truck tires, to showing up at the new lover’s doorstoop waving a shotgun and shouting death-threats. They are talking about women they’ve known – friends, neighbors, sisters – who have reacted badly to being “cheated on” by boyfriends or husbands. It strikes me, sitting here among them on this end-of-summer deck by the Chena River, that probably none of them have ever been “cheated on” by their men. Otherwise, why would this behavior seem so unfathomable to them, so ridiculous? And though I have no interest in adding my own two cents to that discussion, I chuckle at that expression, cheated on, and I say that that it sounds so blasé, as if love were a board-game or a game of cards – Hearts, perhaps – at which one could cheat or be cheated.
“Well, what do you-all call it in the South?” the youngest of the women, Francine, asks from across the lunch table, her voice drawing the words out badly like some actress playing a Southern character in a movie or on stage but who is clearly not of the South. She is “tipsy,” or outright drunk. Her eyes have that loose-in-the-socket roll that happens after four or five martinis…her drink of choice this afternoon. She leans back, her petite sun-bronzed face half-hidden in the deck umbrella's wide shadow cast by the deck. Another of the women snickers at her syrupy Scarlett O’Hara accent.
Please. I have, for the record, never used the word you-all. But I can fence with the best of them when the occasion arises. And it seems to me that the occasion has, indeed, arisen. I’m a newcomer to the farthest-north university in America, a woman with a deep drawl who can, all-too-easily slide into diphthongs and a genial demeanor which belies the blade-sharp mind kept hidden beneath the faćade of a rather ordinary face, a newcomer who, it seems, is about to be served up, du jour, alongside the main course and dessert: Southerner a la mode and Women-Who-Have-Been-Cheated-On-By-Their-Menfolk. So much for me imagining myself into this group of women-friends. Fiends is more like it.
“We-all call it being jilted,” I say, quietly, without so much as a hint of a drawl, studying my salad intently rather than lifting my eyes across the table to the shadows in which she is seated. I am certain, even now, that I can out-fence anyone, man or woman, who sets out to openly mock me or humiliate me. I have had a lot of practice at this. Growing up in the South, in that god-forsaken country of heat-riddled tempers lacquered over with propriety and good manners, my defense – my only worthy defense – was an acerbic wit and a lightning-quick tongue with which to deliver back, two-fold or four-fold, any venom delivered unto me. Cast your bread upon the waters, scripture says, and Francine has cast it out.
It is about to be returned to her.
Over and over, Momma used to caution me: “Keep it up. One day the boys will think you’re a girl with nothing going for you but a quick wit and that will be your undoing.”
Better, I’d think to myself, than being a half-wit. Or a nit-wit. Or a dim-wit.
No wonder I wasn’t getting dates, she’d murmur to that no one in the room who she seemed to endlessly have these conversations with when I didn't seem to be taking her advice seriously. No wonder, she'd sighed to that no one, her daughter wasn’t being asked to prom.
As if a girl with a mind was some kind of third rail. Electric. Dangerous. Something to stay clear of.
“Well, we-all in the South sometimes say someone is cuckolded, though some of we-all know the term is rarely used accurately now,” I say, matter-of-factly, not in that voice of melodramatic commiseration that my mother has practiced, all her life, on me. I figure using we-all twice will send the message clearly: if you think you can out-mock me, if you insist upon making light of me or the decent, hard-working people from whom I come, then you deserve whatever sad fate befalls you on this deck on this summer day in the far north.
She gets my drift right away. She has the decency to look embarrassed and to mumble an apology. In her own voice. Pittsburg, I think. Or Princeton. I can’t decide. But definitely a Northerner. A Southerner would have mouthed a wide “O” and declared that, Oh dear, she most certainly had not intended to insult anyone. My goodness no. Heaven forbid.
I take a breath and go on, reluctantly surrendering up – yet again – the fleeting dream of finding a few women friends with whom I might, occasionally, go shopping or share a pleasant luncheon or a phone conversation, someone with whom I might, at Christmas, swap secret-pal gifts or family recipes. Instead, I am wading deeper and deeper into what I know is going to be a terrible lesson in Southern semantics and etymology. And bad manners. I do what I always do: I leave the disappointment of the body and the spirit and I bore head-long, full-throttle, into the cerebral:
“A cuck is, technically, a married man who finds himself the unfortunate victim of a sexually unfaithful wife. The word derives from the Old French word for the Cuckoo bird – Cocu + the pejorative suffix – ald: a bird with a reputation. Thus cuckold. The female bird lays her eggs in other bird’s nests, thus freeing herself of the burden of nurturing or caring for her eggs or feeding her hatchlings.”
I pause to place my butter knife alongside my plate and to wash the last bite down with a long sip of sweet iced tea. The Chena River moves along beside us, carrying on its brown back a duck and her ducklings. I toss a piece of crust into the water just to see the ducklings scatter and rush to gobble it down. Then I go on.
“Thus a married woman who was unfaithful sexually, made a ‘cuckoo’ of her husband who was, unknowingly, providing her and her potentially-illegitimate offspring with shelter and protection, much as a tricked bird does to the cuckoo’s eggs. Lately, the word’s connotations have broadened, though, to include any male (married or unmarried) in a relationship to a hotwife – a term most often used to refer to the unfaithful woman.”
They rather like that part, it seems. The part about a hotwife. And I can tell, by the nervous giggling around the table, they are also embarrassed by it, these women who have spoken openly – loudly – through the lunch, of religiously faking orgasms and of the fast-withering erections of their husbands and lovers who fall deeply asleep immediately after sex.
There are some jokes all around the table about hotwife and Dierdre wonders aloud if that is where the word hottie comes from. Lilly, returning from the restroom, hears the butt-end of the conversation and the word hottie and asks, “Hey, are you talking about me again?”
Laughter erupts around our table. They wink and laugh and nudge each other while Lilly sits there puzzled and a bit bereft after thinking she’d just scored the trick. That’s what they call it – scoring the trick – when one of them one-ups another with a joke or quick retort, when one suckers the other or makes the other the momentary object of ridicule or laughter.
“What?” Lilly asks, wide-eyed, looking from one to the other of us, folding her cloth napkin into place again on her lap. “What, for Chrissake?”
And, just at this moment, I think I might still have a shot at this women-friends thing after all, a thing I have not quite managed, not well anyway. Not even well enough. I, who have spent much of my adult life hung in a kind of androgynous intellectual purgatory. I who have worked mostly, and most comfortably, with men who are generally more comfortable with apparent intelligence and scientific observation and logic, men who are less comfortable with conversation about lovers and husbands and children and aging parents, and much less comfortable in the presence of emotions and intuition.
Among men, I am often “invisible” as a woman, assuming my cerebral life, a life filled daily with facts and diagnoses and observable, documentable events. A logical life. A reasonable, practical life. Among men, it matters hardly at all that I am ordinary-looking or unable to flirt respectably or play coy or dress fashionably. I have a role to play in what they are trying to accomplish. Among men, I am a colleague in sheep’s clothing: nothing much to fret over.
Among women, I am also relatively invisible, probably because I have concerned myself only marginally, if at all, with the things they seem to do with ease. Things like flirting, laughing at or teasing their men, like talking easily about taking lovers, like having sex, and all the thousand other things that fill their daily, ordinary, womanish lives: high heels and designer handbags, the perfect brownish-black waterproof mascara, face-lifts and nose-jobs, blow-jobs and breast implants.
I feel today like those Bonobo apes must feel at the Great Ape Trust, the Bonobos who were “rescued” from impending extinction in the Congo, saved apes whose closest ties are now with humans. They can communicate fluently with their human caretakers, using a lexicon board. They are well-socialized enough to share brief time with strangers, like the reporters and photographers and tourists and philanthropists who come to see them at The Trust. They are deeply-attached to their human caretakers. And, when I look at photographs of them, they seem shot-through with a profound sadness, as if they sense somehow that they are no longer a part of the ape-world and only marginally part of the human world. In limbo. In some place of no-belonging, hung between two opposing forces, longing like all get-out for something you can’t even name.
I feel like that most days. Especially today, among these women. Sad. As immigrants and refugees are sad. Sad as exiles are who find themselves in a country where they cannot speak the language and so are thought to be imbeciles.
Maybe I could re-enter a life that is lived, easily, among my peers, among women; maybe I could relearn, even now, what it is to be back “in the wild” of being a woman. Maybe this shot at friendship would be enough. A good, once-in-a-lifetime shot.
And this is precisely when our waiter, a handsome man whose nametag reads “Raoul,” puts down my plate of beautifully-glazed salmon and roasted new potatoes, then faces me.
“So," Raoul asks me in his heavy, Latin American version of English, "jou are from the South, so tell me: why is it that every time there is a love-gone-wrong episode in the South, the woman throws all the man’s belongings out in the rain and sets fire to his trailer?”
That’s a cliché. It is. Tossed clothes in the bare dirt yard and a trailer in flames. Yes, it is. But it’s nevertheless true. Every salad fork at our table hangs suspended in mid-air. Lipstick-glossy smiles freeze on the faces of the women at this dockside table, smiles which are locked crookedly, off-kilter, under their aquiline, aristocratic-looking (some surgically-corrected) noses, odd smiles, faces which look as if some mortician forgot to place the corpse’s denture in straight before wiring the jaw into place for the viewing.
And God only knows what storm-cloud is trying to move in over my brow. I feel the familiar throb behind my right eye where a full-blown migraine will take up residence a few hours from now. Stress: hair-trigger of the gun that’s going to one day kill me.
But what I do just now is smile up at Raoul, at his handsome-in-a-dark-and-exotic-way face which is looking down at me with such innocence and anticipation that it is hard for me to imagine that he is some young woman’s heartbreak-about-to-arrive. So I smile back up at him despite the throbbing behind my eye.
Why not? It is a gorgeously bright day and I am best at this kind of smiling: smiling under duress, smiling in the face of insult, smiling in the face of being openly-ridiculed and publicly-jilted. Yes, that too, though I’d rather take a cup of hemlock than admit it. I’d rather my uterus fall out in the grocery store aisle than have to speak about that time in my life. But, if nothing else, I am mistress of a dazzling, toothy smile. So I smile. No matter what fate has brought to my feet. Or my table.
I smile. And I dazzle. I dazzle like a cobra dazzles. I fill my lungs with all the air that the afternoon seems to have suddenly emptied itself of. I smooth the white linen napkin into place on my lap, though it has not shifted out of place, and I look up at this stranger, this handsome black-haired, raven-eyed waiter, Raoul, who is standing there, perplexed, in his best starched white shirt and black dress pants. I say in my best Sunday-school-teacher voice, sotto voce, “Raoul, I have been married five times, to four different men, three of whom ‘cheated on’ me, and I have never, ever burned down a trailer, mine or anyone else's.”
Raoul is leaning in now, his eyes widening in their sockets, his white shirt flapping in the dock-side wind like a flag of truce. Or is it surrender? He pretends to be horrified at first, then he grins down at me and pushes my shoulder in a friendly, kid-brotherly kind of way.
“Oh, jou,” he says then, smiling down at me now, as if I have been teasing him. The five women around the table are, well, shocked, I suppose, and utterly speechless, though Diedre begins to cough as if she’s swallowed a small bone that has lodged itself in her gullet: not dangerous, but annoying. Like listening to a cat trying to hork up a hairball.
I am taking shape before them suddenly, a new and strange creature: a woman who has married five times, divorced four times; a woman who has never once – despite the myth that Southern women have a bent towards jealousy and hysteria – burned down a trailer, "mine or anyone else’s." A woman who will declare, publicly, that she has married many times, many men, and not look a bit chagrined about it. Or apologetic. I am a woman who has been "cheated on" and might admit it openly. A woman who might have very interesting things, dangerous things, perhaps, to say. I am becoming a woman who might have a reputation. I am becoming, in this moment, visible.
There is a moment when the world, as you know it, tilts on its axis and a new true north struggles to take up its place. The spinning intensifies, as if you have been sitting in a chair all afternoon, napping, fanning yourself, sipping strong juleps and then you rise too abruptly. Everything around you spins. A low buzzing begins behind your left ear and time halts on its long foot-path across space. It is the kind of moment when babies come into the world, the moment before they will either breathe or not breathe. It is the kind of moment where the preacher has asked if you’ll promise to love, cherish, and obey “till death do you part,” the moment right before you will – or you won’t – whisper I do. It is the kind of moment when anything is possible. It is the pregnant pause, filled with everything and nothing. It is the moment between the flash and the thunder’s rumble deep in the basement.
This is that kind of moment.
photo courtesy of The Great Ape Trust
Note: All names have been changed to protect the innocent and the unintentionally-wicked