Required Reading. I think everyone who loves books has specific authors that they return to over and over again. And I think that each of these authors is returned to for a very specific set of reasons. I return to Rebecca Lee frequently, most often to her short stories, though this is perhaps a feature of my lack of time than of an particular preference for her short stories over her novels. And I turn to her frequently because she is one of a handful of writers who writes supremely, darkly, complicated-ly real characters. This is the story “Bobcat” from her collection Bobcat and Other Stories, a collection that I picked up on a whim the day before a long flight a few years back and proceeded to read without stopping over the course of the flight. (You’ll have to scroll down a couple of pages in the linked pdf. It’s a part of a press release that I managed to find through the powers of Google.)
It was the terrine that got to me. I felt queasy enough that I had to sit in the living room and narrate to my husband what was the brutal list of tasks that would result in a terrine: devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables. It was like describing to somebody how to paint a Monet, how to turn the beauty of the earth into a blurry, intoxicating swirl, like something seen through the eyes of the dying. Since we were such disorganized hosts, we were doing a recipe from Food and Wine called the quick-start terrine. A terrine rightfully should be made over the course of two or three days–heated, cooled, flagellated, changed over time in the flames of the ever-turning world, but our guests were due to arrive within the hour.
Of the evening’s guests I was most worried about the Donner-Nilsons, whom my husband called the Donner-Blitzens. I had invited them about a month ago, before it had begun to dawn on me that one-half of the couple– Ray Nilson– was having an affair with a paralegal at work, a paralegal so beautiful it was hard to form any other opinions of her. I suppose Ray felt in her presence something that seemed to him so original that he had to pay attention even if he had a wife and a small baby at home.
My friend Lizbet was also coming, and I had filled her in on the situation, making her promise that she would reveal nothing at the dinner, even with her eyes. “My eyes?” she had said, innocently. Lizbet was so irrepressible that I could imagine her raising her eyebrows very slowly for Ray’s wife, darting them suddenly over to Ray. Watch out!
Lizbet was the person who had introduced me to my husband, John. She and I had been children together, and then during the years I was getting a law degree at NYU, she and John had been writing students together in the state of Iowa. This fall, ten years after they’d graduated, both had novels being published. Lizbet’s was about the search for the lost Gnostic Gospel texts and the book was already, pre-publication, being marketed as the thinking woman’s Da Vinci Code. My husband’s book was a novel about a war correspondent getting traumatized in some made-up middle-Eastern country that sounded a lot like Iran but was named Burmar in the book.
Truthfully, I was not pleased with his book. I was reading it for the first time, in galleys, and within the first forty pages, the protagonist had slept with three women, none of whom even remotely resembled me— one was an aging countess, another a Midwestern farm-girl TV journalist, and then the narrator’s true love was a sexy Burmarian/Iranian waif named Zita.
“Who is Zita?” I had asked him early this afternoon. I was hovering over a roast, trying to figure out how to tie it for the oven, having just finished his book.
“She’s nobody,” he said. He was carrying into our apartment bags of groceries and he leaned over to kiss my cheek.
“Who is she, though?”
“She’s a fictional character.”
“Do you think our unborn child will one day want to read about your sexual fantasies of
other women in war zones?”
“Wait,” he said. His head was cocked to the side, as it was when he felt confused or hurt,
and wanted to explain something. He looked innocent, yet interested. “First,” he said. “There is no Zita. Secondly, the protagonist in the book is not me.”
“Zita is Frances,” I said. It was absurd, I knew. Frances was Frances Sofitel, his book editor, who was also due to show up at our house in a few hours for this dinner party, a woman as unlike a waif as humanly possible. She was tall and very angular, and spoke with an authoritative baritone, and seemed always properly amused by all the underlings around her. As well, she actually managed to make quite a bit of money as an editor, partly by digging in the muck a little, a celebrity bio here, a porn star’s memoir there, just a little bit on the side to allow her to publish what she considered her heart and soul, books like my husband’s literary thriller and paean to women who weren’t his wife.
She and my husband had what I thought was an overly intimate connection. I didn’t really like to see them together. They actually talked about language itself a lot. Just words and puns and little synonyms, and such. This was completely dull to me, which in addition to my jealousy was a terrible combination. For instance, we would all be out to dinner, and one of them would dig out a little piece of paper so they could play an acrostic, or dream a little about sentences that were the same backwards as forwards. For my husband, words were fascinating— their origins and mutations, their ability to combine intricately. When somebody would say something in an economical way, and use grammar originally to some satisfying end, he would usually repeat it to me at the end of the day. It stayed in his mind, like a song or a painting he loved. I did feel he would be a very good father, partially for this reason, as I could already picture him crouched over the baby, listening, rapt, waiting for the words to come in.
“Zita is not Frances, nor is she any woman,” he said. “It’s fiction.”
“You spend all your time writing, so we’d have to say that those women take up the lion’s share of your time—they are your significant others.”
“Well, then we’d have to say that Duong Tran is your significant other,” John said. Duong Tran was a Hmong immigrant who had refused to give his dying wife treatment for her heart condition on account of the medication being, according to Duong, Western voodoo and not ordained by the many gods who’d traveled alongside them from Laos to New York City in July of 2001. I was his lawyer.
The argument devolved from there. Certain themes got repeated—John’s intense solitude, my long hours, his initial resistance to commitment, my later resistance to marriage, and then at some point the reasons were left behind and we were in that state of pure, extra-rational opposition.
Our argument was both constrained and exacerbated by the fact that I was pregnant, and had read that high levels of cortisol in a troubled mother can cross the placenta and not only stress out the baby in utero but for the rest of its life. As well, there was a deadline; our dinner party was set to begin. People were soon going to be out in the streets and on the subway, making their way to our apartment. They wouldn’t want to picture their hostess like this— emotional, insecure, lashing out at her husband. You want the hostess to be serene, the apartment a set of glowing rooms awaiting you, quiet music pouring out of its walls, the food making its way through various complex stages in the kitchen—the slow broiling fig sauce, the buns in the warming oven, the pudding forming its subtle skin in the chill of the refrigerator.
Lizbet arrived early. She helped me hoist myself up from the couch and then stood in the bathroom with me while I put on my make-up. Lizbet was a very spiritual person whose gifts of the spirit—patience, warmth, wonder—were quite available to her friends. Though her novel was about the Gnostic Gospels, her personal life was governed by the slightly spooky, semi-
Christian ideas in the book A Course in Miracles, which was written by two Columbia psychology professors in 1976, both of whom believed that they were channeling the voice of Jesus, though a Jesus inflected with a kind of cool, Buddhist gravitas.
Lizbet had brought a huge trifle for dessert, and it stood gleaming on the kitchen counter, in an enormous glass bowl. Normally I didn’t really like trifle—its layers of bright, childish tastes; strawberry, coconut, sugar. But Lizbet’s trifle was perfect and mysterious-seeming— anise, raspberry, and port, with a gingerbread base. Lizbet basically knew how to live a happy life and this was revealed in the trifle—she put in what she loved and left out what she didn’t. Her novel was the same really— a collection of treasures, a pleasure-taking, a finding of everything praiseworthy and putting it into words, with one concession to the traditional plot at its heart, which was the death of an important Gnostic scholar at the hands of his former student—a radical feminist—whom he had sexually harassed in college. What could be better?
Standing in front of the mirror, it occurred to me that Lizbet and I were living out our mothers’ dreams for us—mine that I finally be pregnant and Lizbet’s mother’s dearest desire that she never be pregnant. Our mothers had met in a consciousness-raising group in late 1967, in the East Village. They had become best friends, even though Lizbet’s mother was a radical feminist, even a lesbian separatist for awhile, without ever working up to actually sleeping with other women, and my own mother like feminism as a sort of hobby, and a way to chat with a big, cozy group of women, eating coffee cakes. Once she told me that feminism had given her some good ‘tips’ for dealing with husbands, such as, don’t cry; resist. My mother had moved to Boston when she was pregnant with me, and set up my beautiful childhood home, ablaze with light and happiness, the seasons passing through it effortlessly, —pumpkin muffins, the deep winter
solstice, the return of spring and then the whole house flung open all summer, more and more babies arriving each year.
Lizbet lived with her mother in the Village, and as I grew older I traveled by train back to see her as many weekends as I could. Their tiny apartment always seemed like a great bohemian experiment to me, a little jerry-rigged maybe, but ultimately exciting—with its hanging wicker chair and it’s profusion of plants, the total devotion in that home to interesting, liberating ideas. Lizbet’s mother was a campus radical at NYU, a clever Andrea Dworkin-style feminist, whose mind seemed a reservoir of interesting, possibly incorrect beliefs, which nevertheless were powerful enough to transform the culture. She tried out ideas. She taught Lizbet that ideas were tools to excavate the truth, not the truth itself, which lies somewhat beyond the reach of minds, so to be in their house was like being in the middle of a never-ending, fascinating conversation at all times.