Sam, my grandfather, was a womanizer. After 12 years of marriage, he finally left my grandmother to marry a younger woman. My father, who was 11 at the time and the eldest of five, had to get a job to help support the family. None of them ever saw my grandfather again, but they heard that he eventually divorced again to marry yet another, much younger woman.
When my grandmother was in her 90s, she told me how Sam’s turning away had made her feel. “I let my hair grow again,” she said. “It had been cut in a bob for years. But when I was 16 it was long, and Sam used to like to braid and unbraid it. I thought maybe if he saw me again with hair like that, he’d really see me and come back.” As she told me this, her hair was almost white, and cut short.
My father was stationed in Japan during the last year of his military obligation. Since my mother and I couldn’t accompany him, we lived with my father’s brother and his family—Uncle Joe and Aunt Kitty and their two children, Ron and Brenda.
A few months after we moved in, Brenda and I were invited to the birthday party of another 7-year-old girl who lived a few blocks away. My cousin and I took a bath together, dressed ourselves in the identical dresses our mothers had made for the occasion, and—feeling a little more grown up than we actually were—asked and were given permission to walk to the party by ourselves. I kissed my mother goodbye, and as I turned to leave, party gift in hand, I watched Brenda as she stepped away from her mother.
She looked beautiful—so much so that as I admired her, I felt suddenly inadequate and homely. Though my own dress was identical, the particular shade of yellow seemed to make me look jaundiced. I was thinner than Brenda, too—skinny, in fact. And my knees, which I’ve always thought were oddly shaped, stuck out from just below the dress’s hemline. To make matters worse, under a Band-Aid on one of them were the last unpicked remains of a scab.
Then there was the problem of my hair. “Mouse brown” is the way I’d heard it described by my mother, who was always honest. She’d taken me to the beauty parlor that morning to have it trimmed and shaped. When I emerged I was wearing not a mouse on my head but a giant rat. My hair had been teased out with a comb to make it appear thicker, and the hairdresser had sprayed it with an awful-smelling, glue-like substance (the odor of which still depresses me and has kept me away from “beauty” parlors ever since).
I stood on the steps of Brenda’s house, my eyes brimming.
“What’s wrong?” my mother wanted to know.
“Brenda’s prettier than I am,” I said in barely a whisper, and I began to cry.
Parents—I now know because I have become one—are put to the trickiest tests. They’re asked the most impossible questions, and their answers, even when right, are wrong. Or inappropriate. “Why is the sky blue?” is an easy one. “Why is Brenda prettier than I am?” is something else. But that afternoon, as I stood not looking into my mother’s face, as I concentrated instead on my right index finger as it ran up and down, up and down the white ribbon that she’d helped me secure around the neatly wrapped birthday package only a few hours before, my mother said something I never forgot.
Brenda and I had thrived happily together until this moment. An only child, I’d been given the pleasure of an instant sister, a comrade my own age who shared so much with me—her house, her parents, her dolls, her coloring books. We taught each other songs, stayed up for hours telling one another stories in the twin beds we’d pushed together in her room. There was nothing I wouldn’t give her, nothing, I believed, that could ever make me regret a single day of that wonderful year. At that moment, however, my sudden awareness of Brenda’s unstoppable beauty and my apparent plainness became relevant and permanent. I felt dumb. Why hadn’t I noticed before? Why had we seemed so equal, so like twins?
My mother knelt down to me so that we would be eye to eye. She seemed to be ignorant of both Aunt Kitty, who was standing next to her and perhaps feeling a little sad and embarrassed for me, and Brenda, who remained radiant at the other end of the front walkway. Instead of denying the obvious, instead of telling me that I was as attractive as Brenda, or saying that to her I was pretty, or even that I was going to be a late bloomer, she said without the least hesitation, “Your beauty is inside, Andrea, where all the important things are.”
In Latin class Sally Palermo sat at the desk one row in front of me and a seat to my right. Miss Blake, a Quaker woman who every day wore one of what we surmised to be the same two brown or navy shirtwaist dresses, insisted that even though Latin was largely an unspoken language, the only way we were going to learn it was to drill. “Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant” we chanted together as a class. “Hic, haec, hoc, hujus, hujus, hujus, huic, huic, huic” we sang. During these drills I liked to glance over at Sally Palermo. She wore no makeup, her shoulder-length, chestnut-colored hair was consistently combed in a loose but always-in-place pageboy (though she never seemed to have it styled), and she dressed differently from the rest of us. It was 1962, and while we had discovered plaid, pleated skirts and solid-colored sweaters, Sally wore virtually see-through white or pastel blouses, under which it was easy to spot full-length slips or camisoles. Her skirts were always straight and dark, as though she were already a professional in the work force. She seemed older than the rest of us, and she was smart and kind but a little aloof, too.
One day Sally wore a paisley scarf around her neck. She looked relaxed, comfortable, sensual (a word I apply only in retrospect, as it was beyond my vocabulary or understanding at the time). And I’d seen other students looking at her, too, girls as well as boys. But the staring never seemed to lead any of us to say anything much to Sally. We would walk down the hall near her between Latin and English; we might even make small talk—“Did you understand what Miss Blake meant about the nominative?” or “Why aren’t there cases like that in English?”—but small talk with Sally was always school-centered or, more specifically, knowledge-centered. None of us ever ventured into her personal life. I could not have imagined asking even so harmless a question as “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
I don’t know why Sally Palermo was unapproachable. She may not have set out to maintain such separateness, but that is how it was. She was without a doubt the brightest among us—she’d moved the previous year from Chicago to our suburban town in New Jersey— and we blamed her overall sophistication, her stylishness, and what we determined as her slightly superior attitude to having been born and raised in that city. The fact was, we liked her, but we were in awe, too, and a little bit jealous, which prevented any of us from truly befriending her. As far as we knew, none of the boys ever asked her out, either. But rumor had it that she was seeing a college guy.
The next day there was no scarf, but she was wearing, I noticed, a little makeup for the first time. Her face was more striking than ever. She hadn’t overdone anything—just a little light-green shadow on her eyelids, some mascara, foundation and light powder, coral-colored lipstick that seemed to echo the sheen in her hair, and barely noticeable rouge. But on her neck, nearly invisible beneath a layer of liquid foundation, was a series of blue-and-purple, inky marks I’d never noticed before. Perhaps she’d applied the makeup so that our eyes would be drawn to her face and not her neck. But I was not the only one who saw the marks, because a few hours later, as a few of us lingered at our lockers after gym class, one girl asked if we’d noticed the hickeys on Sally Palermo’s neck. “Hickeys?” I asked, knowing just which marks she meant but never having heard the word before.
“You know—love bites,” she said. “She got them from her college boyfriend.”
“I wonder if she’s got them anywhere else on her body,” someone else said. Then there was some condescending giggling, and the bell rang.
For the rest of that week, I found myself unable to keep from glancing over at Sally during Latin. She sat a little straighter in her chair, it seemed to me, or maybe it was that I was slouching in order to examine her neck. As I watched the blues and purples fade to gray and ocher, I felt somehow betrayed for her. And I wondered, when the hickeys disappeared altogether, whether more would materialize—or whether Sally had stopped her boyfriend from kissing her like that.
Later I came to understand that the hickeys were a kind of brand. A man—or woman—claimed a lover by bringing the loved one’s blood to the surface in a deep, sucking kiss and continued to do so until a mark was sustained. It was a signature of sorts, a sexual seal that lasted up to a week or more.
The other girls, and I sensed, the boys as well, behaved differently toward Sally after that. To them, her hickeys meant that she was cheap; they marked her as a slut, a teen-ager who was surely having sex, an “easy lay,” a “bad” girl. Those were the days when huge distances lay between true beauty and the corrupted kind. At the time, we were reading “The Scarlet Letter” in English class and, no matter what Hawthorne or our open-minded teacher wanted us to believe, we reasoned that Hester Prynne had deserved what she got.
But I never truly felt that way. Sally Palermo remained beautiful to me. Those hickeys, too, were beautiful. They seemed to be medals earned through great sacrifice. They signified an inner beauty that could be expressed only by committing one’s whole body They said: “I am not only beautiful, I am capable of passion. I am loved.” To me it was wonderful that love—that coveted, impossible, extraordinary quality, as important as it was invisible—could be made tangible.
Writing for the New Yorker in the fall of 1995, essayist Lawrence Weschler reflected on the initial showing of 21 works by Vermeer (all the extant paintings of the 35 known to have been created by him) exhibited at the Mauritshuis Museum in Den Hague, in Vermeer’s home country, the Netherlands. The exhibit was simultaneous with and only a short walk from the building that housed the hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. Weschler discovered that Antonio Cassese, head of the international panel of judges, was spending much of his break time at the museum. Cassese said he was there because he needed the Vermeers. He explained that the stories he was forced to listen to every day at the trials were horrific. For example:
A soccer player, a famous guy, a Muslim. When he was captured, they said, “Aren’t you So-and-So?” He admitted he was. So they broke both his legs, handcuffed him to a radiator, and forced him to watch as they repeatedly raped his wife and two daughters and then slit their throats. After that, he begged to be killed himself but his tormentors must have realized that the cruelest thing they could possibly do to him now would simply be to set him free, which they did. Somehow, this man was able to make his way to some U.N. investigators, and told them about his ordeal—a few days after which he committed suicide.
While he himself shifted back and forth between the preliminary hearings of the Tribunal and the Vermeer collection, Weschler remembered a comment made 25 years before by a professor visiting his history class, upon observing that the class had gotten caught up in the fervor of a political crisis. The professor, citing the story in the Gospel of Matthew of Jesus on the waters, pointed out that “in moments of crisis one mustn’t allow the storm to enter oneself but should, instead, find peace inside oneself and then breathe it out.”
As Weschler sat among the paintings of the Master of Delft that afternoon, he understood that that was exactly what the great artist had been doing. In Vermeer’s lifetime there was much—often bloody—upheaval in the Netherlands. The Spanish had only recently left, and both France and England posed continual threats. Yet while this relentless turmoil persisted, the artist created a separate peace within himself and breathed it out onto his canvases. But the paintings answer more than the artist s own need to find peace; 300 years later they lend solace and grace to at least two men confronted by the horrors disclosed at the War Crimes Tribunal.
In 1988 I traveled through Europe for six weeks with my husband and son. One night at 2 a.m., my husband woke to find me still writing in my journal. “It’s curious,” he said, “that you seem always to be up late writing, while Brooke and I are able to summarize the highlights of the day so much more quickly.”
“I don’t know what it is,” I said, “but I can’t simply summarize. Perhaps I’m just wordier than the two of you. But I know that if I don’t write it now—all of it—I’ll lose it. I can’t quite experience what I experience until I write about it.” That was my 2 a.m. answer, and it may still sound like one. But even now, more than a decade later, I understand what I was getting at.
I can’t quite experience what 1 experience until I write about it. Even our most vivid experience is in danger of transience if we don’t learn how to hold onto it. Writing is one approach. Rilke understood this. In “Second Duino Elegy,” he says (via Stephen Mitchell’s translation):
But we, when moped by deep feeling, evaporate; we
breathe ourselves out and away; from moment to moment
our emotion grows fainter, like a perfume. Though someone may tell us:
“Yes, you’ve entered my bloodstream, the room, the whole springtime
is filled with you …”—what does it matter? He can’t contain us,
we vanish inside him and around him.
Rilke’s poem—all art, in fact—is an attempt to call us out of ourselves or, rather, to call us into the deepest places in ourselves. In this way, art is an argument against our ordinary lives—or it is at least a curtain drawn long enough against the commonplace to remind us as penetratingly as possible that we are alive.
Because the family was poor, my father wore hand-me-down clothes. One pair of shoes, he remembers, had belonged to a girl in the neighborhood. He didn’t mind the other clothes, but he hated those shoes. On one of his daily walks home from school during that time, a group of older boys who hung out together in front of the nearby dry cleaner stopped him. “You’re a Jew-boy,” they sneered, “and Jew-boys have lots of money.” He tried to pull away, show them he had none. Then one of the boys spotted his shoes. “You’re not a Jew-boy at all,” he shouted at close range. “You’re a girl, a Jewess.” When my father told the story, he always made a hissing sound at the ess in Jewess. And then the boys tore at his trousers, trying to get his fly down, wanting to see whether he was a girl or a boy.
From the time he was 16 until his mid-20s, my father worked at the fur factory not far from his house in Newark, N.J. His job was to remove the fur from the carcasses of minks, foxes and badgers that were shipped in daily. He became quite skilled at it, he told me, but the smell was sometimes asphyxiating. After high school, he began more and more to consider doing something else. He was not stupid, but he had nearly flunked out of high school because he rarely had rime to study or complete his homework. By the time he was 21, he decided that he had to get an education. It was the only way he’d ever be able to get rid of the smell.
His youngest sister was 11 years old when he was accepted on probation to New York University, and because his brothers contributed to the family income, too, such an education became affordable as long as my father kept his full-time, graveyard-shift position at the fur factory during those four years.
At NYU he majored in chemistry—he would eventually become a pediatrician—but each year, along with the required science classes, he took a course in English, often in poetry. “Why poetry?” I asked him one night when I was still in high school.
I’m sure he told me about the balance necessary in one’s education. No doubt he also explained that literature was a refreshing change from the kind of reading and study required of a science student and that reading poetry was a special kind of human luxury. But all I remember him saying, finally, is, “Why poetry? Because I remember what it felt like to wear girls’ shoes.”
In 1987 I met Mary Steenburgen. She was complaining at the time about the difficulty of dating. She was divorced from her first husband, actor Malcolm McDowell, and it would be nine years before Ted Danson would become her second. All the men she went out with seemed nice, she told me. “But I’m never sure,” she said, “whether it’s me they’re dating or some version of me they’ve invented from the screen.”
The problem with being beautiful on the inside is obvious: You have to let people in to see it, and that is scary. I was a shy child, which made matters worse. In high school I was not likely to be the first one to raise my hand in class, and in college I had to sit in the front row, directly in front of the professor, so that when I felt brave enough to take part in class discussion, I saw only him or her and not the other students, whom I feared, certain they would ridicule me.
When I was 23, my first serious relationship with a man ended abruptly; then, just as abruptly and unexpectedly, my mother died. Working and living alone in Cambridge, Mass., I began reading poems, poems that seemed to me to have been written directly from someone else’s heart for mine. When I read a truly good poem, my whole body became charged. It was not unlike the experience of falling in love: I felt lifted out of myself almost electrically—every cell tingled—and when I settled back into my body again, I was aware that I had somehow splendidly changed. If this is what other people’s poems could do, I wanted to write poems that would do it, too.
Like my father I was right to keep literature in my life. It is a way of reminding ourselves that we matter, that what you see and what I am are often not the same. It is a way of honoring beauty.
But beauty is, of course, paradoxical. We behave on one hand as though it were an inherent trait—people are either born with it or not. On the other hand, we know that beauty, as the clichés articulate it, is in the eye of the beholder and only skin deep. To complicate the matter further, beauty is unreliable (it fades, for example, or it doesn’t tell the beholder the whole story). And beauty can also be misleading—even interior beauty.
Six years ago at the San Francisco Airport, I was in line to board a flight to Little Rock when I observed a small, attractive, tailored young woman bidding a reluctant and tearful goodbye to an overweight, somewhat sloppy-looking man about the same age, which I guessed to be about 30. Not only were they physically and stylistically different, but the pair appeared to be living different kinds of lives; thus, I deduced that they were deeply caring siblings. However, when the young woman sat next to me on the plane, I learned otherwise. The tearful parting I’d observed was from the man she’d been in love with for four months but whom she’d never before met. Never before met in person, she explained. “I met him on the Internet,” she said.
At the time, I was a novice to such terminology, but she carefully explained how one could buy something called a modem, attach it to a personal computer, and—she snapped her fingers—communicate with millions of people. The woman, who told me her name was Dorothy, went on to explain that she’d “met” Rick in what she referred to as a “chat room.”
“I mentioned having been born in East San Francisco,” she said, “and suddenly Rick described his view of the bay from his bedroom in that very part of the city. Well, we began talking right away, got a private on-line chat room, and my life changed.” I had to remind myself that Dorothy and Rick’s liaison that first night—and every night for the four months preceding her trip to San Francisco—took place not in person but via computer screen.
“How did it feel to finally meet Rick face to face?” I asked.
“I was scared, of course. I was afraid he wouldn’t like the way I look”—I couldn’t imagine any man not liking the way Dorothy looked—“or that maybe we wouldn’t have anything to talk about when we were finally together.” Then she explained that this hadn’t been the case at all, that they had spoken on the telephone several times before she flew to California—“just to get used to the actual sound of one another’s voices, as a kind of warm-up”—and that actually meeting one another had not deterred either of them.
“It was the best four days of my life,” she said and got teary-eyed. Then we read our airline magazines for a while, ate our peanuts, drank our ginger ales. Just before our plane landed in Little Rock, Dorothy said, “You know, I never would have met him in real life. I mean, I would never even have looked at a guy that looked like Rick—you know, kind of nerdy and, well, kinda chunky. He doesn’t look like a guy I’d have even noticed. You know?”
“That’s the beauty of it,” she said.
I asked her what she meant.
“I mean that I know I love him. I know it. Because I fell in love with who he really is, not what he looks like.” I told her I understood, and when we left one another at the baggage claim area, I wished her luck and happiness.
I still wonder what happened when Dorothy and Rick began living together, as she assured me was their plan. Did they continue to care as deeply for one another as they had for four months on the Internet? Would they tire of one another’s physical presence—not in the sexual sense of the term, but in the literal sense—as opposed to the merely virtual presence each had created for the lure and capture of the other? For that is how it is, isn’t it?
Writers understand this. We write, in part, because we want the reader to fall in love with us. If he does not, of course, that is the end of everything. The book stays closed, is not recommended, has no hope of ever again being examined. For this reason we use language with great care. Every word is a long-stemmed red rose, every sentence an implement of courtship, every book we write our essential selves—body and spirit packaged inseparably with both integrity and beauty. Always we must put the best words in the best order (to quote Coleridge). We want not only to charm the reader; we need to seduce him. We crave more than anything to be desired by him. And hope that he will maintain this desire until at least our next poem, our next story or our next novel. Our next work must be as engrossing as our last. It is love we are after, a lasting relationship—not lust, not an easy lay, a one-night stand. We understand very well that we must reveal from the inside out whatever beauty we are capable of creating. No writer can afford to be just a pretty face. And neither—I admit with a kind of sad, reluctant recognition—can Rick or Dorothy or the potentially millions of other Internet users who may not be who they pretend to be on their chatty message boards.
In 1994 I attended my 30-year high school reunion. When I caught sight of Sally Palermo, whom I’d not seen since graduation, my heart jumped. She scarcely looked different. Her hair had hardly grayed, she had remained slim, and she looked elegant in an understated, black crepe dress and single string of pearls. Most of the other women wore bright colors and enough makeup to cover smile lines and crow’s-feet. Things don’t change much, I thought.
After the “gala” dinner, the hired photographer called “alumni only” together for a group shot. “What? Only the men?” I complained, mostly to myself.
From behind me a voice answered. “Alumnae is pronounced the same way as alumni,” Sally said. “But don’t worry, he means us as well. The masculine term includes both men and women. Remember?” We hadn’t left Miss Blake’s Latin class.
“You’re right,” I said. “How could I have forgotten?”
In a few sentences, we traded 30-year synopses. Sally told me that she was not married, that she lived in California, and that she worked as a researcher in an alternative health laboratory.
“When we were in high school, I really admired you,” I confessed.
“Me?” she said. “Why, for heaven’s sake?”
“Because you were the brightest and the most beautiful,” I said.
“Not me,” she said.