Sunday, July 23, 2017


     What does a woman do when she is jolted from a dream world and discovers her marriage isn’t what she thought it was?  If she's like me, she segues into shock and bitterness. I gave boozing a try -- not so much to drown my sorrows as to get attention from Ed.
     "He wants a different woman?  By God, I'll give him a different woman!" I scowled into the mirror, toasting my bleary-eyed image with a third double martini.  My alcoholic phase didn't last long.  For one thing, Ed was disgusted with my drinking and reported it to our children.  For another, I couldn't stand the hangovers.  Alcoholism wasn't my bag.
     I spent a lot of time curled up in bed, thinking about suicide.  Then my reveries shifted from suicide to murder.  One of us would have to go, there wasn't room on this painful planet for both of us. 


     "I didn't do anything, why should I be the one to die?"  In a frequently viewed fantasy, Ed was walking across the yard to the greenhouse.  He passed a bird feeder strung on a line between the greenhouse and the porch.
     "Officers," I pictured myself saying to the policemen  examining the 22 rifle, "I was shooting at a starling, and my husband happened to walk by when I pulled the trigger.  You see, the Audubon Society says it's all right to shoot starlings because they're not indigenous to Massachusetts." 
     What could be more convincing, especially with the word "indigenous" thrown in?  Nah, they'd never buy it, and besides, I wasn't comfortable with the idea of murdering anyone, even if he deserved it.          
     Back to Plan A.  After my suicide attempt I was committed to a psychiatric hospital -- jailed, really -- for two weeks.  I was assigned a psychiatrist and had to agree to regular visits before I was allowed to go home.  I sat in his office and fed him stuff about my childhood.  Never mentioned my fantasy about Ed and the bird-feeder. 
February 1, 1971    
San Francisco
From Vonnie to her parents
    I was getting anxious when I didn't hear from you for so  long.  The news of your separation was shattering and disheartening.  You get so used to seeing and feeling things in the  family life around you, you take them for granted.  Then something happens that so completely changes things, there's first disbelief, then realization, then readjustment.  It's painfully disillusioning to discover that the perfect relationship isn't so perfect after all.  But still and all, our family flourishes with love ‑‑ we're still exceptional.  This I know and believe.  My dearest love is with you both no matter what happens.
February 5, 1971
To Vonnie
     After I pulled this stupid stunt, Timmy was wonderful -- so kind, so loving.  Strangely, I had forgotten I even had children!  Tim went with me in the ambulance to Mass. General and sat by my bed for a long time, holding my hand and repeating gentle, caring words. 
     When I was transferred to Graystone Hospital I found myself in the company of other loonies, some pitiful, some scary.  I felt lost until Mother came to see me, bringing a dozen roses and an armful of my magazine articles.  "For your coffee table," she smiled, ignoring the bars on the windows.  The articles accomplished their purpose.  Ernestine had reminded me that in real life I was a writer who could make people laugh.
     Then she said, "I've got to tell you something. I can't help it.  I still love Edward."
     I told her I wouldn't want it any other way.  Maybe I'd love him again myself someday. 
     A few days later, who walks in, prepared to make a rational woman of me, but your unbeloved Dr. C.  His proposed road to sanity was via shock treatments.  Seeing my expression (horrified), he launched into a long, reassuring speech about how effective this therapy had proved to be.      
     Trying to conceal my terror, I said I'd read about this kind of therapy and its side effects of memory loss.  I didn't want anyone tampering with my brain.
     "It's perfectly harmless," he said.
     "Have you ever had a treatment?"
     He looked startled and said no.
     "If you'll have a treatment and let me watch, maybe I'll consider it." 
      Looking at me as if I were crazy (hah!) he brushed off my proposition and suggested I talk it over with my husband.
     Other patients told me if They wanted to give me shock treatments, They'd do it, whether I liked it or not.  Your father said, "But dear. if the doctor thinks it will make you better, doesn't he know best?"
     I put in a panicky call to Kathie, who said, "Don't let them do it, Mom.  I'll speak to Dad." 
     As you can see, my brain was not assaulted and is as brilliant as ever.  However, in order to get sprung from Glenside, I have to agree to visit Dr. C. once a week.   
     Dad is courting me.  So far, like Jeanette McDonald, I haven't said yes, I haven't said no.  If he were Nelson Eddy, I'd say yes, and we could sing a duet.  (Remember how you asked us when you were a little girl if we ever sang to each other?) 
February 12, 1971
San Francisco
From Vonnie
     Mom, I was proud to the point of tears to see that the Malley sense of comedy is unquenched, even in a time of crisis.
     When and if you feel up to writing again I'd like to hear of your progress with Dr. C.  I couldn't believe it when I heard he was your designated head shrinker.  If at any time he gets you outraged enough, pop him in the eye and give it a little extra zap ‑‑ just for old times sake.  I sure wanted to do it more than once.  "Talking‑back" shrinks have a way of making you bring out truths you don't want to admit, thus causing you to resent them to the point of turning blue.  
     How is Kathie doing?
March 5, 1971
To Vonnie
     I've called it quits with Dr. C.  The last thing I need is a psychiatrist who regards a man’s straying as normal but as sluttish if a woman does the same.  I turned blue, as you predicted, not because he was bringing out truths but because he's an effing male chauvinist.
     Kathie is doing wonderfully.  In addition to teaching psychology at B. U., she is doing research with children who are having trouble learning to read, under a special grant from the Office of Education.  She tells me she doesn't like the word retarded because she doesn't like to categorize children.
     Recently she talked to me about her pet hate -- being considered courageous or a role model.  She insists that she isn't.
     "Nature always compensates for a loss," she said.  "I can't use my legs but my shoulders and arms are more powerful.  If you have a strong will, that doesn't change no matter what happens to you.  Look what the survivors in concentration camps went through.  I'm very lucky."
April 20, 1971
San Francisco
From Vonnie to her father
     This is for us.  I guess it's the first real written communication we've ever had.  You've brought me up, protected me, stood by me, loved me.  I feel so deeply for you it hurts.
     You've got three children going in good directions and one that's going out of orbit.  Once in a while I find someone I think may be a little bit comparable to you, get disappointed, and start giving up again.  I know you're not perfect, but you've been my whole world as far as being a man, a father, is concerned.  Daddy, you're so good, please help me find someone that can measure up to half the man you are.
     I just can't seem to find myself, whoever I am.  Remember when I was a kid?  I was always in trouble.  A teenager?  Still in trouble.  Does it ever, ever end?  All I want is to be loved and to love, with all my heart and soul.  That's what I was cut out for, not a Doctorate like Kathie, not an athlete or hip pilot like my brothers.  Just a plain lover -- for one person. 
     Daddy, I love you.  Please don't give me up as lost.
May 24, 1971
San Francisco
From Vonnie
     It's been a year now.  It doesn't seem possible that that  little tow‑headed, thumb‑sucking, freckle‑ faced girl who couldn't leave you for one single night, who couldn't go to sleep without the burning, yearning kiss goodnight, has been separated from you for so long.  It's sad.
     I wrote to Dad a couple of weeks ago.  I've been trying so hard these past months not to ask for help.  But I just couldn't hold out any longer.  As usual, he came to my rescue without more  than a silent personal groan.  How fortunate we all are to have him.  His goodness surely outweighs his shortcomings.
September 21, 1971
       A week on a cruise ship seems like a year of ordinary living, but we finally arrived in Istanbul day before yesterday.  I visited the city’s famous bazaar—sixty-seven streets and with forty-four hundred shops.  I walked quickly through the maze of narrow lanes, bought nothing, but took a few pictures.
      The streets beyond the bazaar teemed with sellers, buyers, strollers, beggars, and creatures humped over like camels, bearing enormous burdens on their padded backs.  I snapped picture after picture. Nearby was the university and an open area where handfuls of corn were sold by crones and children.  A pretty Egyptian girl assured me I would get my wish if I threw the pigeons a few golden kernels.  I threw a few kernels.    
     A young man, wearing tinted glasses and a dark moustache, spoke to me next.  
     "You are American.  Are you visiting our city for long?"   
      "No, my ship is leaving tomorrow," I said.      
     "I am a student at the university," he said, falling into step beside me.  
     I didn't want company; I wanted to concentrate on taking pictures.  The young man introduced himself as Ahmet and continued to ask questions.  I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him to get lost.
     Ahmet offered to take me to picturesque areas I would have difficulty finding by myself—outdoor markets, fishing wharves, and parks.  At no charge, he said.        
     "You are a very attractive woman, if you don't mind my saying so."  
     I didn't mind.  Ahmet was twenty-four and couldn't believe I had two sons almost as old as he. 
     "You are so slim and shapely—surely you must have been a child bride?"    
     Going, going, gone.  At the end of the afternoon, as Ahmet walked me back to my ship, I agreed to meet him after dinner and let him show me Istanbul's night life. I took the precaution of telling shipboard friends that I was going out for the evening with a student named Ahmet.    
     "If you don't show up for breakfast, we'll sound the alarm."   
     My escort took me first to a shabby cafe where we had drinks and tried to talk above the clamor of a jukebox.  Soon Ahmet was calling me Barbara, clutching my hand in both of his, and assuring me I was the most fascinating woman he had ever met.  After one more drink, I believed him. 
     He was not satisfied just to hold my hand, he said.  He would take me to a place where there was dancing, so he could hold me in his arms.   
      The next dive shrouded its seedy atmosphere in darkness.  Battered tables, lit by candle stumps, were grouped around a dance floor.  We had more to drink, we talked, we danced.  Ahmet said I had bewitched him, he couldn't bear to think he would never see me again.  Behind his glasses, his hooded eyes entreated me to relax and let him hold me closer.    
     "You are not afraid of me, are you?" he asked.  "You can trust me totally." So might a cobra speak if it had a larynx and spoke with a Turkish accent. 
     "But it's too late," Ahmet was insisting a couple of hours later when I said I wanted to return to my ship.  He showed me his watch.  "The authorities close the gates to the ship at midnight."    
     Then I would have to go to a hotel, I told him.  I was tired and had had too much to drink, and I really wasn't feeling very well.  Ahmet said it was all his fault, he was so enchanted with my company that he had lost track of the time. 
     My stomach rumbled disagreeably.   I was beginning to think I had picked up an affliction from one unwashed glass or another.  Arguing persuasively, Ahmet convinced me I should spend the night at his house, which he described as a villa, with terraces and landscaped grounds.  There, he assured me, I could enjoy complete privacy in a separate apartment; and to prove his honorable intentions, he would give me the key to my bedroom door.  He would get me back to my ship first thing in the morning.    
     Several bus changes followed, with the neighborhood and our fellow passengers gradually deteriorating.  I felt increasingly alarmed.   
      "Ahmet, I've changed my mind.  I want to go back to the city."   
      "There are no connections at this hour.  Why have you changed your mind, Barbara?  Are you frightened?  No harm will come to you as long as you are with me."    
     Next, we were walking down a deserted alley, lined with the dark irregular shapes of two‑ and three‑decker tenements.  I desperately needed a bathroom.  That first. Then a policeman.    
     "Here we are," said Ahmet, whose voice begun to sound  brisker and less ingratiating as we neared the home he had  described in such splendid terms.  He led me down a set of jagged stone steps, took out his key, and pushed open a scarred, creaking door.   
      "Where is the bathroom?" I asked, looked around the dingy apartment.  I had been thoroughly conned.  The question was, would I now be killed or was I just in for a bad night?    
     "Over there." Ahmet pointed to a curtain. "The toilet seat came from Sears Roebuck," he said with a note of pride.  "We haven't had it connected yet, but you can use it."   
      "We?" I asked.   
      "My cousin, with whom I share these quarters.  You remember my telling you about him?"    
     Yes, I remembered something about a cousin.  At the time I had visualized "these quarters" as being less intimate.    
     "He is very nice, you will meet him in the morning.  Ah— here he is now."   
      A dark‑skinned youth with sparse black whiskers, pulling on a pair of trousers, came through one of two doors opposite the curtain.  Ahmet started to introduce us.     
     "I have to go to the bathroom," I interrupted.    
     The toilet seat, backed by a lidless, empty tank, was stationed over a hole in the floor.  I had no choice but to use it. 
     Outside I could hear Ahmet and his cousin conversing in low voices.  Oh God!  Trapped in a 12 X 14 "villa" with Bluebeard the Turk and his cousin, Blackbeard!         
     "Barbara, if you need water, I will show you where you can wash up," Ahmet called through the curtain.   
      When I came out, the cousin had disappeared.  Ahmet said he had gone to bed.  I certainly hoped so.  He ushered me into a cubbyhole which was apparently the kitchen.  There was no sink, just a pipe with a faucet.   
      "Where's a towel?" I asked. 
      Ahmet gestured toward a grimy rag hanging next to the pipe and left me to manage my Turkish bath as best I could.    
      Ahmet entered my cell in his maroon pajamas, removed his glasses, and surveyed me with dark, heavy‑lidded eyes.  He had changed from a mild‑mannered university student to an imperious, mustachioed sultan, accustomed to having his way with his choice of the night.     
     In an attempt to think positively, my mother's precept, I tried visualizing myself aboard my ship, having an elegant breakfast with my fellow passengers.  If they could see me now. . . .    
     Through that long night I felt an affinity with women of all times and all cultures who have been sexually exploited against their will.  The next morning, haggard and degraded, my self‑esteem in shreds, I accompanied Ahmet and his cousin to the bus stop.  The three of us talked about the weather on the long ride back to the city.
September 22, 1971
     It worked again. Like my stay in the loony bin, my night with Ahmet lost its obsessive power
once I had written it out in terror-assuaging paragraphs.
     I stayed in my cabin on the ship until noon yesterday, writing, writing.  I sent for a sandwich and wrote some more.  Then I slept, and slept.  This evening I was ready to face the pre-dinner cocktail group. There, someone asked me, “What do you do?”  I had rarely heard this question until I started traveling.  At first, my stammered answer was “I’m a housewife, I guess.”  But now another answer occurred to me.  “Well, for one thing, I fly an airplane.”
    This terminated all conversation within earshot as effectively as if I’d announced I was a go-go dancer.  My shipmates insisted on hearing about some of the zanier adventures Ed and I have had, starting with our boating days; they wouldn’t let me stop until my memory went dry.  Next to writing, holding a group’s attention is the best poultice for a traumatized psyche.
     I am about to go to bed, after condensing a sanitized version of Istanbul and Ahmet on a postcard for Kathie: “Leaving the bazaar, I was picked up by a twenty-four-year-old Turk, a university student who told me I was beautiful and said he wanted to take me dancing so he could hold me in his arms.  Wherever you may roam, a line is a line is a line.  After a few drinks of Turkish rotgut, we did go dancing and I woke up this morning with a hangover.  Love, Mom"
November 2, 1971
     I returned from Europe looking and feeling like the one thing I had never been able to be for Ed since 1940—a new woman.   In an earlier era we might have reconciled and lived haphazardly ever after, but now I know I have options besides shrinks, suicide, and little blue pills.  I asked for a trial separation.
     “`Enry `Iggins” was sure I’d come crawling back in two weeks as if, like Eliza Doolittle, I was nothing without him.  Instead, I have made an unexpected discovery:  being single again isn’t all that bad.  Rather than orbiting like a trapped planet around my husband’s personal planet, I am free to explore new worlds, including the world evolving inside my head.
     I have joined a women’s consciousness-raising group and signed up for a seminar for recently divorced and separated men and women.  I’m looking into Parents Without Partners.  I’m even taking dancing lessons.       

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