Valerie martin, p.1
Valerie Martin, page 1
Also by Valerie Martin
The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories
Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis
The Great Divorce
The Consolation of Nature
A Recent Martyr
Set in Motion
a cognizant original v5 release october 07 2010
For Nan A. Talese
intrepid night swimmer
Our ordinary type of attention is not sufficiently far-reaching to carry out the process of penetrating another person’s soul.
An Actor Prepares
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
My mother liked to say Freud should have been strangled in his crib. Not that she had ever read one line of the eminent psychoanalyst’s writing or knew anything about his life and times. She probably thought he was a German; she might have gotten his actual dates wrong by half a century. She didn’t know about the Oedipus complex or the mechanics of repression, but she knew that when children turned out badly, when they were conflicted and miserable and did poorly in school, Freud blamed the mother. This was arrant nonsense, Mother declared. Children turned out the way they turned out and mothers were as surprised as anyone else. Her own child-rearing strategy had been to show no interest at all in how her children turned out, so how could she be held responsible for them?
Proof of Mother’s assertions might be found in the relatively normal men her four sons grew to be, not a pervert or a criminal among us, though my oldest brother, Claude, a dentist, has always shown far too much interest in crime fiction of the most violent and degraded sort, and my profession, while honest, is doubtless, in some quarters, suspect. For the other two, Mother got her doctor and lawyer, the only two professions her generation ever recommended. My brothers’ specialties have the additional benefit of being banal: the doctor is a urologist and the lawyer handles real estate closings.
My mother was a tall, beautiful woman, with dark hair, fair skin, an elegant long neck, and excellent posture. She was poorly educated and, as a young mother, intensely practical. My father had various jobs in the civil service in Stamford; his moves were sometimes lateral, occasionally up. She hardly seemed to notice him when we were around, but there must have been some spark between them. She had her sons in sets, the first two a year apart, a five-year lapse, and then two more. I was the last, her last effort—this was understood by all—to have a girl.
Even if Freud hadn’t encouraged me to, I think I would still have to blame Mother for my craving to be someone else, and not only because she wasn’t satisfied with who I am, though she wasn’t, not from the start. My middle name is Leslie and that’s what I was called at home; I became Edward when I went away to boarding school in Massachusetts. Mother had “gender issues,” but none of us realized how serious they were until after she died. This mournful event took place when I was nineteen, a freshman at the University of North Carolina, and it was preceded by a seismic upheaval that lasted six months, during which time Mother left my father for a woman named Helen, who was ten years her junior and bent on destruction.
Mother wasn’t naturally a warm person—I know that now—and she must have been lonely and frustrated for years, surrounded from dawn to dark, as she was, by the unlovely spectacle of maleness. A frequent expression upon entering a room in which her sons were engaged in some rude or rowdy masculine behavior was “Why are boys so …” As the youngest, I took this to heart and tried to please her, not without some success. I kept my corner of the bedroom spotless, made my bed with the strict hospital corners she used on her own, rinsed my dishes at the sink after the pot roast, meat loaf, or fried chicken dinner, and expressed an interest in being read to. I wasn’t picky about the stories, either; tales of girlish heroism were fine with me, hence my acquaintance with the adventures of such heroines as Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, and all the travails of the shrewdly observant Laura in the Little House books. I know, as few men do, my fairy tales, from Rumpelstiltskin to the Little Goose Girl, stories certainly grisly enough to terrify even a stalwart little boy and which I take to explain the surprisingly violent images that so often surface in the consciousness exercises of young actresses. Mother was a good reader; she changed her voices for the different characters. She had a cackling crone, a booming good fellow, and a frightened little girl in her repertory, and she moved from one to the other with ease. Long after I could read myself, I approached her after dinner with a book clutched to my chest and asked if she “felt like” reading to me. Many times she didn’t, and she wasn’t terribly nice about refusing me. But when she agreed, I was invited to lean against her on the couch, watch the pages turning beneath her bloodred fingernails, and feel her voice through her arm. She was a smoker, so there was the cloud of smoke wafting up from her lips as Nancy cautioned her dopey boyfriend Ned not to open the suitcase they’d found in the empty house. It was all very comforting and at the same time confusing, also mysterious and sexually disturbing. But I like to remember Mother that way, and myself, her favorite, her Leslie, the good boy who hung on her words.
When I went off to school and became Edward, I had no clear idea of myself; perhaps that was why I was drawn to acting. Inside a character I knew exactly who I was, the environment was controlled, and no one was going to do anything unexpected. It seemed a way of playing it safe. Of course, real acting is the farthest thing from safe a person can get, but I didn’t know that then. Perhaps in some corner of my adolescent consciousness, I understood that my mother would eventually crack under the strain of the role she herself was playing with increasing reluctance and incredulity. On school vacations she and my father were glum and irritable. One night she put a roasted chicken on the table and announced that it was the last meal she was cooking. She joined a reading group, but this quickly bored her and she decided to become a potter. This led to sculpture and ultimately ironwork. On my next vacation there was a welding torch on the kitchen table and all food was takeout. A few days before I graduated from high school my father called me to say Mother was moving out; she would be living with a “friend” named Helen, someone she had met at the artist co-op where Mother had rented a space to do her sculpture.
I saw Mother and Helen together once. They were living in an apartment in Brooklyn, two rooms above an Italian deli, strong odor of provolone and red sauce. Helen spent my visit turning over the pages of a fashion magazine at the kitchen table, occasionally fixing me with a baleful glare. She was clearly, totally nuts. Mother served me coffee and some hard cookies from the deli; she tried to make small talk, asked about my courses, disapproved of my interest in theater, recommended medicine, law, the usual. I told her I was far too squeamish for medicine; I feel faint when I see my own blood, no, seriously faint. This made Mother laugh, which provoked Helen to push back her chair and shout, “I can’t stand to see you like this. I hate this part of you,” after which she stormed out of the apartment.
“She’s so high-strung,” Mother assured me after the door stopped reverberating in the ill-fitting frame. “She’s just too sensitive to live.”
When I returned from this disturbing interview, I found my father meticulously washing out a coffee cup at the kitchen sink. He was stoical—civil service does that for a man—and he was mystified by Mother’s abdication of her domestic reign. “So did you see this divine Helen?” he asked.
“Briefly,” I said.
He turned to me, swabbing the d
“Scary,” I said.
He nodded. “I guess your mother really wanted a girl,” he said.
I went back to school and after a few months Mother’s sudden and bold defection seemed almost bearable. I was absorbed in experiments of my own, concocting an identity from the flimsy material of my considerable naïveté about the world in general and sex in particular. I was smitten by a senior in my theater arts class—I’ve repressed her name for reasons that will shortly be obvious—but I’ll call her Brünnhilde, as she was a shapely Nordic princess with eyes as ice-blue as my own. To my astonishment she indulged my fawning jokes and compliments. Our classmates referred to me as her lapdog, which amused us both, and made for crude punning about laps and lapping, etc. She lived in an apartment off campus with a roommate from New Jersey who occasionally went home on weekends. It was a dumpy two rooms above a garage, but it was the height of sophistication in our set to be invited to Brünnhilde’s Friday afternoon BYOB party. One day in class our professor, doubtless sensing sparks between us, put Brünnhilde and me together for a word exercise, the results of which were so electric the class burst into applause. To my joy, my beauty leaned across her desk, pushing back her wedge of straw-colored hair and said, “Come by on Friday, after five, if you like. It’s 58 Gower, in the back.”
Who knows what disgusting bottle of wine I brought to this occasion; something I got a friend to purchase as I wasn’t of age. Perhaps it was the ditchwater that came in the fish-shaped bottle, or the ghastly Mateus that was the coin of the realm. Or something red, to brighten the vomit that was not an uncommon occurrence late in the evening at the Gower Street gathering. My hostess only smiled and deposited my offering on the card table with the others, introducing me to the assembled guests who were all older than me, though they appeared not to notice. Soon I was ensconced on a lumpy couch, swallowing huge draughts of cheap wine and holding forth on the existential commitment required to bring truth to a theatrical performance. To be, or not to be, it wasn’t just the question, it was, in fact, the method. Drivel along those lines.
The company took me up, they praised me, and I was their breathless ingenue. At some point a marijuana pipe appeared, moving steadily from hand to hand, and I had my first taste of that. It grew late, the empty bottles outnumbered the full, and couples began to drift out into the night in search of food or more licentious entertainment. I stayed on, switching to beer which was still in good supply. At last we were alone and Brünnhilde ran her hand along my thigh. “Would you like to see my bedroom?” she asked, serious as a church.
I spent the night there and most of the next day. Late in the afternoon I stumbled back to my dorm room for a change of clothes and more money, my brain grinding with amazement and apprehension. It was paradise in Brünnhilde’s bedroom, but I knew I would have to be very alert, very dutiful if I wanted a key to the gates. I scarcely glanced at the message scrawled on a scrap of paper by the phone. Your mother called, 6 p.m. Your mother again 10:30. Mother again, MIDNIGHT. So she knew I’d been out late, but would she care? I didn’t want to waste time making excuses because I was in a hurry to get to the café near the university where my darling had agreed to meet me. It would be un-loverlike to keep her waiting on what was, after all, our first real date. I would call my mother back at the earliest opportunity.
It was Sunday evening before I got the news and by that time Mother wasn’t making any calls. The new message read: Your father called. Urgent, call at once. Even this, in my state of elation combined with sexual exhaustion, didn’t make me suspicious. “Where have you been?” my father said when he heard my voice.
“Exam tomorrow,” I said. “I pulled an all-nighter at the library.”
“I want you to sit down, son,” he said. “Something terrible has happened.”
So I sat down and he told me that my mother and her girlfriend Helen had committed suicide together in the Brooklyn apartment sometime in the early hours of Saturday morning. When Helen failed to turn up at her regular Saturday appointment, her psychiatrist made repeated attempts to reach her self-destructive patient. At last on Sunday morning she called the landlord who let himself in to find his tenants in bed, naked in each other’s arms, the empty bottles of Seconal lined up next to two glasses of water on the bedside table.
I wonder now what I said. I remember a torrent of incredulity; for several moments I simply didn’t believe my ears. I looked around at the suddenly unfamiliar furniture of my Spartan dorm room and spotted, of course, the scrap of paper with the message that concluded: Mother again, MIDNIGHT. The ensuing sob that rose from very deep within me came out as an agonized groan of pain. “Son, do you want me to drive down to get you?” my father said.
“Oh Dad,” I wailed. “Oh Dad …” But I didn’t say, She called me, and I never did tell him, or anyone else for that matter. My roommate knew but we were hardly more than acquaintances and he, out of courtesy perhaps, never said anything about the messages. When I got home my brothers were all there and it was clear that she had not tried to call any of them, or my father, either. Just me, the baby, Leslie, who made her laugh with my horror of blood. She’d left a note, addressed to no one, two words: I’m sorry.
After the funeral, I returned to school. You can imagine my confusion. I was nineteen, an innocent, and my emotions were in an uproar. I wasn’t so naïve as to equate sex with death, though my experience certainly suggested the connection forcefully: have sex, your mother kills herself. Rationally I knew I had nothing to do with Mother’s despair, though I couldn’t resist speculating about how differently things might have gone if I’d been what Mother wanted: a girl. Would a daughter have walked into the cramped apartment, taken one look at Helen, and said, “No, Mom, you’re not doing this”? Worst of all was the second-guessing about the missed calls; if I had been studying in my room like a diligent student, could I have saved her? This question kept me awake at night. For months I woke to a refrain that sent me out of the dorm and into the late-night diners near the campus—She needed me, I wasn’t there.
Of course word had gotten around that I was a motherless boy, and sympathetic female arms stretched out to me from every direction. I said Mother had died suddenly in her sleep, which satisfied everyone and wasn’t entirely a lie. Brünnhilde was suitably tentative when next we met. Though I said nothing about the manner of Mother’s death Brünnhilde understood that the proximity of the event to our first coupling might be disturbing to me. I declined the halfhearted invitation to the Friday gatherings and in a few weeks she had a new lapdog, a budding playwright who wrote monologues about his miserable childhood in Trenton, New Jersey.
Gradually the shock wore off and I began to take an interest in my feelings as opposed to simply feeling them nonstop. My acting classes were particularly useful for this. As Stanislavski observed, “In the language of an actor to know is synonymous with to feel.” My studies offered access to the very knowledge I most required. Many actors are called to their profession by an insatiable craving to be seen, to be admired, and to be famous, but for me acting was an egress from unbearable sorrow and guilt. My emotions at that point were the strongest thing about me; they did battle with one another and I looked on, a helpless bystander. This, I realized, mirrored the position of the audience before the stage. I wanted to find a visceral way to give an audience everything they needed to know about suffering, which is, after all, the subject of most drama, including comedies, hence the expression “I laughed until I cried.” I studied my peers and attempted to assess my position among them. Many were drawn to the theater because they possessed such physical beauty that they stood out in a crowd, they looked like actors, but what, I wondered, possessed the overweight girls, the hopelessly nerdy guys who would be doomed by their physiognomy to a lifetime of character parts? One in particular fascinated me, a short, scrawny, colorless boy named Neil Nielson, who cultivated a scanty reddish mustache beneath his pudgy inelegant nose a
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