New Thresholds, Thr esholds, New Anatomies Robert Wexelblatt It was only when my wife was strangled by her lover, I discovered she was being unfaithful to me. According to the coroner, Howard Oberman throttled her with a Countess Ma ra necktie and then shot himself . Oberman’s rea son for strangling my wife was never entirely clear. It was presumed he killed himself because he ha d just k illed her. It looked like a crime of passion and during crimes of passion, nobody thinks of leaving a note. Two detectives came to the apartment to tell me what had happened. They arrived at dinner time, just when I was expecting Leda. I wa s planning manicotti with my homemade red sauce served with a mixed salad and, since I ha d stopped by LeBoef’s bakery on the way home, a fresh baguette. “How do you know he was her lover?” I a sked after a moment of reflection. Lieutena nt Skolkowicz, a large man in a brown suit who ha d exceptiona lly thick eyebrows, did the ta lking. W hen he heard this question he frowned, not with suspicion but disapproval. For all I know this is the way hardened detectives look at everybody; however, I had the impression of having flubbed my line and, I have to admit, it sounded a bit egocentric. There wa s a rapid exchange of male embarrassment between the partners, a look I had first seen on a playground when I struck out with two men on. In fact, I felt they judged me doubly pathetic: first, for having a 1
wife who took a murderer for a lover, second, for being a cuckold a nd not even knowing it. For severa l weeks, I told myself Oberman had killed my wife beca use she’d refused to leave me. I pictured him begging and threa tening; I saw her shaking her head a s she told him she regretted her mistak e and wanted to break off the af fair. That would have been what provoked him. I actually imagined her shaking her hea d, her newly auburn hair swaying this wa y then tha t. Skolkowicz left me no room for doubt about the na ture of the relationship between murderer and murderee; there were letters, e-mails, phone records, motel receipts, you na me it. Nevertheless, I was free to believe whatever I liked about what had caused the killing, for a month a t least. About a year earlier Leda, bored with her job at Student Records, decided to make a move to the world of commerce. “If you do a good job there,” she’d sa id, “they give you more money.” She quickly found a job with a firm of a ccountants, three money men who specia lized in dodgy ta x deductions. Their clients were a ll wealthy—heart surgeons, orthodontists, and people in show business. Leda loved the new work and she was convinced her bosses were geniuses. Their na mes sprang off her tongue lik e those of Oly mpian gods as she hera lded their dea ls, the alchemy of turning beach houses and P orsches into business expenses, the magica l leveraging of investments in government- owned land out West, the wholesale transmutation of taxable gains into deductible losses. She didn’t so much tell me about these 2
operations as rehearse them with a we; I just happened to be there. It was a lmost a species of praying. This new world went to her hea d and she became, like so many converts, a zealot. All tha t money, the celebrities on the phone calling her by her first name, the new clothes and hair color. And the accountants were delighted with her too; they kept giving her more responsibilities a nd larger bonuses. She really did have an aptitude for being the pin in their whirling pinwheel. Before long, she was the only one in the off ice who k new everything that was going on. One night, Leda told me the story of the government land over roast chicken and I spok e my mind. “They’re crooks,” I sa id simply. I was unprepared for the tirade these three syllables ca lled down on my head. What did I know, a n ivory-tower a cademic, nothing but a schoolmaster. These men played in another league entirely; they’d mastered the exalted place called Reality of which my grasp was at best theoretica l. I was full of resentment, just lik e most people who made ha rdly any money; I had to suppose rich people were corrupt to console myself. Where did I, who took no risks, get the right to sit in judgment of men who had the guts and the smarts to do so? Etcetera. Such vituperation from my wife was an unplea sant novelty to me and, while I didn’t withdra w my verdict, I never mentioned it again. I thought Leda was beautif ul a nd smart and maybe she was right about me and Rea lity. 3
This Oberma n, the man who screwed then killed her, wa s one of the firm’s clients, a theatrical producer. Ha d he been an a ctor, the story would have attra cted even more coverage. Even as it was, the tabloids gave it some play. Oberman had coproduced a hit musical f ive years before and it was still being put on all over the country by road companies and ama teur groups. The show had a lot of cute parts for little girls. Teenaged females everywhere had lea rned to screech the bouncy show tunes, for a uditions, for fun. It was really because of these ca tchy tunes that the press was interested in the murder a t a ll. Then, the federa l investigation began. Turned out I wa s right. The accountants were crooks. The clients had to pay big fines and their pictures were a ll over the papers while the accountants got two years ea ch in one of those minimum- security prisons down south, the kind with tennis courts. They paid hundreds of thousands in fines, but millions more wa ited impregnably for them in the Cayma n Islands, making compound interest. I had to reconsider. Perhaps Leda wa s killed because she knew too much, had made the mistake of joking to her lover: “My husband’s such a simpleton. He a ctually think s this is all illegal.” Maybe it wasn’t even Oberman who killed her but one of the geniuses who made it look that way. The affair wa s real, though. All those receipts. With an air of kicking me while I was down a nd thoroughly out, Skolkowicz even phoned to offer me a transcript of the e- mails, photocopies 4
of the letters. declined.
As usual, he called me “sir.”
In theory, we are the sum of wha t we do, our achievements and fa ilures, our choices a nd ref usals to choose. In pra ctice, wha t we are is often what happens to us. The theory is mora lly satisfying, conferring dignity and responsibility; practice is repugna nt, belittling, almost insulting. The risk of being pinned to the wall by contingency is part of the deal, though. Planes tumble from the sky. Perhaps the pilot’s number’s up, but what of the passengers’? There are wars and accidents, famines and tida l waves, microbes and deranged cells tha t spread lik e bad news though the organs of mora l beings whose chara cter is irreleva nt to their destinies. I’m not saying the proposition that chara cter is fa te is an illusion, just that it isn’t always true. Any way, the equation began as an aesthetic ideal, not a theory of psychology. It’s just one of the reasons why art is more philosophical than history. So, I am the man whose wife wa s murdered by her lover. But perhaps I’m still evading the truth. Maybe it was my cha racter, at least in part, tha t led to my wife’s death a nd so to my condition as well. Yes, I ha ve to consider my responsibility in all tha t happened. As I said, those three syllables of mine might have triggered the catastrophe, or my indifference to money, or my wife’s dissatisfa ction with our life together. Once you begin this ga me there’s no end to it. Was Leda ’s character her fate, or Oberman’s for that matter? She liked money 5
and celebrity and so was strangled? His vanity demanded a young woman to go to bed with? What won’t we swa llow for the sak e of a coherent world? I know Leda was k illed with a silk tie but not why, not for sure. I know she had an af fair with a theatrical producer, but not why it turned lethal. I know my own powerlessness but not my power, unless it’s the negligible sort you get f rom reflection and the illusion tha t gives you of having mastered events. I couldn’t get over that Oberman a nd I had shared the intimacy of sexual intercourse with the same woma n; that we had been in the same secret places, perhaps only hours apart, had been welcomed by a Leda open to us both, who stroked our back s and squeezed our f lanks with her white legs, tha t we both heard the sa me little sounds from the back of her throat. How do you get over such things or keep from hearing yourself mocked by your wife and her lover and concluding tha t everything’s a chea t? And another thing: how do you keep from f eeling she was punished for betraying you? Frederick Oberman might have been my antiself. I found out a little more about him than was in the papers, though not much. He was married but childless. His wife had been a n a ctress who had presumably chosen the steady pa rt of marriage over the struggle for more fleeting roles. Oberman had been lucky to hook up with his co-producer, Justin O’Brien, who was ta lented a nd still is. Oberma n’s contribution had been to supply seed 6
money, not theatrical sk ill, and even that was inherited. He was showy, liked his toys, owned three homes, four cars, a big boa t. A sha llow, acquisitive man who loved comfort and, I suppose, being admired by my young wif e, if not his own. As to Oberman’s inner lif e, I couldn’t f ind it. Still, he must have loved Leda, if he cared enough to strangle her. Unless, that is, he didn’t, unless they were both k illed because of the financial shenanigans. Leda was in a position to tell the Feds everything, though it seems they found out anyway, most of it at least. Ha d somebody panicked? B ut the police were satisf ied with the crime passionel theory and maybe they were right. After a ll, who knows every thing that goes on between people in motels, the sexual games, the desperation of dark nights? People sidled up with their good intentions, faces sourly composed. I could see how they’d prepared themselves but when it came to it, when they had to conf ront me, they were like clumsy waiters dropping tra ys piled up with words. They’d pick up a broken phrase at random and hold it out to me in the hope I’d take it and let them run away, duty done, a wkwardness not a verted, but at least abbreviated. “I’m so sorry . . . terrible . . . don’t rea lly k now what to say . . .” They wanted to express sympa thy; they were in thrall to the word. But, in fa ct, the sympathy was mostly on my side. I felt for them. I understood something had to be said to me. My colleagues were ba d enough, but my students were infinitely worse, especially the ones who had 7
respected me, had come to my off ice to share their anxieties and va lida te their dreams, to compla in and speculate like grown-ups. Wha t I saw in their faces was no longer respect. I was now the professor whose wif e was murdered by her lover. This wa s beyond unfortuna te. They a ll believed fate is chara cter and drew the only possible conclusion. These excruciating encounters lasted three days, and then stopped. Af ter that, I was more or less taboo. Evidently, the impulse to avoid people whose spouses a re murdered runs deep. People cannot help believing that misfortune and failure are conta gious. Exile is the immediate impulse of honest primitives a nd children on pla ygrounds. Quarantine’s just the civilized version. So I sat alone in my office, alone in the suddenly large apartment, a lone in my car. I slept a lone and a te alone. I found I loathed distractions, television f or insta nce, simply because they failed to distract. Books were better, though not much. I would be sitting up late and suddenly I’d reca ll a line or two not read for a deca de and I’d get up to look up the half-remembered verses of unhappy poets. Poetry, unlike wives, isn’t biodegrada ble.
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, Which finds no natural outlet, no relief, In word, or sigh, or tear . . . Hell is neither here nor there Hell is not anywhere 8
Hell is hard to bear. Even while I was lecturing I felt solitary, speaking to a scrim of painted fa ces, solitary at the rostrum but not tragica lly exalted. On the contrary. Not all victims become ridiculous but, under the right circumstances, their spouses do. The semester ended on a bright day in the merry month of May. The walk from the parking lot to the depa rtment office wa s almost pleasant, happy graduates, excited underclassmen, a sprink ling of speechless parents, grass and budding trees, a riot of springtime release. The secretary looked up, made the face, and I handed over my grades. My letter was stapled on top. Still, an a ct is not a condition. I could resign but I wasn’t resigned. I had enough money in the bank—most of it earned by Leda—to idle through the summer riding my bicy cle, reading, moping, endeavoring to think to some purpose. Nobody tried to ta lk me out of resigning. Only my chairman ca lled, said he’d gotten my letter. A decent man, he tried to keep the relief out of his voice as he mouthed a few decorous platitudes. Of course there would be an excellent letter of wreck-emendation a ny time I needed one, sorry to lose such a promising young teacher, a little time off no doubt a good idea, a chance to sort things out. Any plans yet? I went into a ca rdboard box and took out my Ph.D. diploma, fra med in bla ck plastic, a small thing, not even in La tin. I exa mined it with disgust. It said I wa s something, but not something all that 9
uncommon; it sa id I was entitled to a ll the rights and privileges, but not tha t there actually were any. It declared that I could be but not that I could have . In August, I phoned Frank Rasmussen in Chicago. We’d had one of those college friendships based on being complementary types, he after a finance degree and I deep into English Lit. We’d ha d some adventures, including an allday, all-night drive f rom New York to Chica go in a borrowed Toyota. We caught up quickly. He was married now, fa ther of a son a nd, as he said he would when we were freshmen, he ha d assumed his ordained pla ce in the family firm. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he ha d already risen to vice president, charged with handling the more opulent corpora te clients. He sa id he wa s devastated by my news, ha dn’t heard about Leda or even the crooked accountants, and maybe he was telling the truth a nd maybe he was being considerate but I didn’t care. I told him I was calling to ask for a job. “You?” he laughed. “But we make money, you know. We deal with money. Nothing but money and people’s feelings a bout money. You were never into money.” Frank was amused by my request, made fun of it even, but he wa sn’t explicitly discouraging. “So this terrible thing happened and now you want to change your life, right?” “I want to cha nge my lif e.” “And you think this is going to cha nge you ?” “I’ve a lrea dy cha nged. At lea st I think I have.” 10
“All right. Got any skills we can use?” “Ambition?” “Ambition’s hardly a skill, pal.” “I don’t know. I suppose I wa nt to find out. I’m a doctor of philosophy who’s willing to start at the bottom. I used to be good at lea rning things. I ca n make myself presentable. I’ve got a good vocabulary. I can write memos that scan or at lea st are gramma tical. I have a firm grasp of supply and demand and I’ve some notion of collateral and that the ra tio between price and earnings is important. I’ve even heard of IPO’s and leveraging. Oh, and I’ve a good nose for what’s illega l. W ill that do?” Frank laughed like Torquema da after a good paella. “But what is it you want to do ?” asked Frank. “Ah,” I sta lled. “What I want to do, Frank, is surprise and delight my employer.” “Look,” he said, “If you’re serious, send me a résumé and I’ll do what I can. I mean it. I’m not blowing you off . Try to play up the skills and please don’t emphasize the aca demic stuff. Okay?” I wanted to learn to want, to have, to tak e up the nationa l disciplines of getting a nd spending, to put aside the musty robes of the vita meditativa and exercise my equally musty libido. I wanted to have affa irs, in particula r adulterous ones. The move to Chicago was easy. I found an apartment near the Loop, took up my new duties with commendable earnestness, was invited to dinner at Frank’s mansion in Highland Park and met his and his wife’s circle of agreeable Yuppies. 11
I ate my f irst country club dinner. I lea rned I was good at squash and useless at golf. At schmooz ing clients, I was a natural, my pedagogica l skills being admira bly suited to the purpose. I discovered that making large sums of money is not unlike successful pedagogy; you have to relish the process and f orget about the result. Leda was right. When I did something good there were no empty speeches or plaques, just more money. My Christmas bonus f loored me. It was ha lf my annual salary. By January I had, not without embarrassing clumsiness, begun a n affair with the bored wife of one of Frank’s suburban friends, and in March added a nother, with greater ease. S he was a client whose husband taught anthropology at the University of Chicago and went on frequent, lengthy f ield trips with graduate students. The ensuing complica tions were exhilarating though the women seemed more grateful tha n in love. Both turned out to be gifted at clandestine operations. I let them tell me where to be and when, even wha t f urniture a nd clothing to buy because they enjoyed it so much. The businesswoman found me a new apa rtment in Old Town; it suited her to have a lover hard by the loca l branch of Bohemia . I stopped recollecting bits of poems about misery but early one Sunday morning, as I lay spent on ensea med sheets listening to the regula r breathing one of my paramours, “ So we’ll go no more a-roving ” popped into my head.
“You’re doing well,” said Frank, jiggling his scotch glass to make the ice cubes tinkle. “Surprised?” “Thoroughly.” “And delighted?” He paused judiciously and considered his drink. “ Up to a point.” “Oh?” “Look, why the married women?” “You know?” Frank nodded omnisciently and with halfhearted condemna tion. It made him look like his father. “Why not?” “You look ing for revenge? Is tha t it?” “Let’s just say ‘new thresholds, new anatomies.’” “What?” “From a poem. The clients love it, by the way, my quoting poetry at them.” “I’m aware of tha t too. But then you k new the poetry already.” “Well, I’ve learned a lot.” “Such a s?” “Well, I’ve learned that deals are closed after the sun goes down and that conf idence generally trumps interest rates. I’ve lea rned not to try to play golf and not to beat everybody I can at squash. I’ve learned tha t your real world runs entirely on appea rances. I’ve learned that whenever a woman gets a new ha ir- do, you’d better mention it, but if a man gets a haircut you should pretend not to notice.” He smiled ruefully. “ Words to live by.” 13
“Everybody needs principles. By the way, I found a buyer for that textile mill down in Tennessee. Morissey’s group. They want to liquidate the place, I’m afra id. More unemployment and destitution down in Appala chia.” “You’d ha ve preferred keeping it af loat?” “Of course. Who wouldn’t?” Frank examined me so hard he squinted. “You feel bad about them, the textile workers?” “Not particularly. The deal’s lega l. I made an effort to find a buyer who’d keep the pla ce going. I did my best for the work ing class.” “You know, I think I liked you better bef ore,” said Frank wistfully. I shrugged. “I’ll take that as a professional compliment,” I said, “Proof I’m no longer merely ornamental.” I wa s shaken but, on the other hand, Frank wasn’t looking at me as the man whose wife was murdered by her lover. The affair tha t had been hard to start ended amicably, the ea sy one in recrimina tion a nd divorce papers. Fra nk was understanding but embarrassed. It got so bad, I decided to lea ve Chicago and move east. Frank gave me the names of a couple of head-hunters and, like my old department chairman, promised to say positive things about me if he were put on the spot. In no time at all, I was driving to New Y ork in my new silver Saab. The interview—in three Acts—went swimmingly. In the finale, I deployed a bit of 14
Walla ce Sevens to devasta ting effect, especia lly when I divulged the poet had been a n insurance man up in Ha rtford. I found a place in a newly rehabbed S oHo building, again ha rd by the shores of Bohemia. This time I decorated to suit my own, now cultivated, taste. I aspired to a place tha t a woman would wa lk around a ppraisingly and, with a mixture of bemused indulgence and respect, pronounce â€œvery masculine.â€? Then I settled down to resume the routine of making money. The new job proved harder than the old one for a number of rea sons. First, it was New York , not Chicago, the Bigs, not triple- A; second, since people now expected me to perform rather than to be hopeless, to surprise and delight was not in the cards; third, in the city that never sleeps the hours were stupefying. As previously noted, to make the big bucks you have to love the game the way a nuclear physicist loves smashing a toms, the way the first physicist to smash an atom loved smashing it. After several months of grindstone and celiba cy, I tried going to a few ba rs but these were frequented by single women who looked like my students. There were a couple of dinner parties but the wives were either una dventurous or elderly. Perhaps Iâ€™d just lost interest, a case of use it or lose it. I liked New York only about two percent more than it liked me. Somewhere outside the sealed windows, it was May aga in. It was late in the morning when 15
she showed up, ha ving ask ed for me by name, insisting on me, just me, to handle a certa in complicated but hef ty investment. No doubt the receptionist wa s impressed. So it was no coincidence, anything but an accident. The moment I heard her give her name—despite everything, she’d retained her husband’s—I had a n astounding recognition, tha t I wasn’t the only one with a story, that, in fact, I might well have been a chara cter in somebody else’s a ll along. This is not an easy thing for human beings to bear in mind. She was younger tha n I had supposed, a bout my own age, well dressed, not domineering or stuck-up or intimida tingly soignée , but nevertheless a presence. Her ha ir was the kind of gold you don’t f ind in bottles and she’d had it cut Dutch-boy fashion. She wore an expensive but simple green sundress and the overall effect was that of a daffodil. Stepping into my little square office she looked at me in a way I had seen before. It was the way you stare at a man whose wif e has been murdered by her lover. We went straight out to lunch. Why else come at eleven forty-five? She had chosen a restaurant that was quiet and dark and recommended the baked sca llops which I happen to love. The thing had obviously been planned with some care. For example, there rea lly was an investment to discuss and this was a great help in settling me down though ha rdly the point. “I wanted to meet you and when my friend Suzanne told me a bout this new single guy at her husband’s pla ce and then she dropped the name, well—” 16
“I am single,” I sa id superf luously, a scallop on my fork . She lowered her head lik e a shy f illy. “Me too,” she breathed, then smiled up a t me with astonishing innocence, this rich New Y ork widow and ex-a ctress whom for some reason I expected to be mercenary and hard. Brittleness, acerbity, sarcasm, even contempt—a ll this I wa s prepared for. W ho could have foreseen douceur ? Sweet she appeared and sweet she was. I thought hers was the only sympathy that meant anything to me. I began to ask a question. “Did people look at you—?” She brightened up, pleased to interrupt me. “Oh, the Look!” “You too, then?” “And the bumbling condolences, the ponderous pity ?” I nodded. No need to review the purveyors of ponderous pity. “You were an a ctress? I mean before?” “Now how did you k now that?” I merely smiled, doing an imita tion of Frank doing one of his father. “Oh, just in the chorus. Callow and not very good and absolutely ready to be swept off my aching feet. I might as well say it. My husband was a grea t disa ppointment to me.” “And did you know?” “About the affa ir?” I nodded. “Not for sure, no,” she sa id carefully. “Y ou?” “Not a clue.” 17
“Poor you,” she leaned toward me and spoke with so much sincerity I could a lmost have wept. “So you gave up teaching?” “You knew I taught?” “The papers. You were always The Professor, like on Gilligan’s Island .” “Well, yes, as you see.” “I think I understand. I’ll bet it felt pretty good to resign, didn’t it?” “Marvelous. And you? What’ve you been doing?” “Oh, I was a complete mess for three months. Then I bega n to travel. I invited my three poorest girlfriends a nd paid their way. No men, that was the one rule. An iron rule.” Though on this point we had differed I f ound I was glad of it. I let the Iron Rule levita te over the table for a minute. “Mrs. Oberman,” I said forma lly, “why did you really come to see me?” “Funny thing. I don’t actua lly know. Because I could, I suppose. To see if it was rea lly you? No, I knew it was you. I knew it the moment Suzanne said your name. Well, then it was a sort of compulsion, a thing I had to do, you know, lik e when you know you have to take a test?” I liked to way she ended her sentences with a question, voice going just a little bit up. “You’re not originally from New York, are you?” She shook her hea d and her yellow hair moved back and forth. “A stage-struck Iowa girl with big dreams. S till am, I suppose, except for the dreams and the stage.” 18
Though I couldn’t help it, at least I mumbled. “ ‘Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair .’” She smiled uncertainly, charmingly distressed. “Pardon me?” Is chara cter fate? Does fate determine chara cter? Or, in our self-importance, are we determined to mak e what’s random significant? Can we rea lly be the sum of our choices when to make a choice, a proper choice, is the work of a lifetime? I hated making money. I decided to go back to teaching and found a job in the Midwest. Mrs. Oberman a nd I found we couldn’t bear not seeing ea ch other. There was no revenge in it, only an inevitability to which we ever more happily and wittingly succumbed. We were wed by a bald justice-of-the-pea ce in Ames, Iowa who read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous, sa ppy sonnet off a discolored three-by-five card. I couldn’t help it. I laughed and laughed.