Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Maddie Dawson's The Stuff That Never Happened

The From Left To Write Book Club discusses new books in a particular way - instead of reviewing what we've read, the contributors share their personal experiences that have been inspired, or, as in my case this week, dragged up by the text.

It was hard for me not to sit as judge and jury when reading Maddie Dawson's first novel, The Stuff That Never Happened. The story of a young adulterer stirred up all sorts of muck from the shallows of my history and it was not a fun time to recall. So I hoisted all my discomfort back onto Dawson's protagonist Annabelle McKay and read her antics with ire and a self-righteousness it was difficult to resist.

The illicit sex in The Stuff That Never Happened occurs between two married people, in the same home they share with their spouses and young children, but this flagrant cheating, for me, did not seem like Annabelle's biggest betrayal of her even-keeled yet distant husband, Grant. It was her casual lying about meeting with her old lover twenty-six years after the affair that felt even more deceitful and had me scribbling "LIAR!" and "O.M.G.!!" in the margins.

Like this passage, where Annabelle defensively misrepresents her reunion with the old lover to her husband: "Come on, this is ridiculous! Okay, fair enough, I saw Jeremiah Saxon. Twenty-six years have passed, and big deal! I run into him in a market, against all odds. And then, yes, I go for coffee with him. I sit in Starbucks with the man and hear about his boring, trite, dull life."

She omits the part about she and Jeremiah making out in the park, "like a couple of teenagers."

We've all heard the adage from a cheated partner: "It's not the physical relationship that hurts the most, it's the lying." Dawson's book brought this line roaring back into my head.

We all operate in the social world by interacting with the people around us on a bedrock of trust. Any question we ask of another human, from the innocuous ("Can I have this by Tuesday?" "Would you like fries with that?") to the most vital, ("How can I help?" "Will you marry me?") presupposes an answer that corresponds to a shared reality. We build our plans, our hopes, our work, our relationships on the presumed truth in those answers. That's why, when faced with a suddenly revealed lie, we can have a hard time understanding or accepting that we've been deceived. And that is why, when caught in a lie of our own, we can experience the deepest shame. We haven't just chosen the wrong words; we've ripped the social contract. We've messed with the rules of logic that run our world. And for the people we have lied to, finding out that their version of reality is broken can be torture.

When the man who is now my husband and I had been dating six months or so, we flew to Florida to meet his parents. I had never had such a well-matched boyfriend - he was kind, respectful, fun and funny, open about his imperfect past and willing to listen to me pour out long, if somewhat edited, stories of my own. And, most importantly, he seemed really into me. And he was gorgeous. (Still is, but back to our story...)

One night on Sanibel Island, during a lull in the family drama, Randy and I stepped outside to sit by the pool. My head was spinning from all the emotion and hasty intimacy at my first gathering of his unusually close family and I suddenly felt an urge to come clean to this man.

"I have something I need to tell you." And with that I fell silent. Here I was again, standing in front of a beautiful trusting man, the hard truth stopped up in my throat. But this time would be different. This time I would make good. I wouldn't change the subject and commit the sin of omission; I wouldn't slip into another lie to avoid an awful truth. I pressed on.

"I need you to know something about me. I have never been faithful in any serious relationship."

My announcement may have been immature dramatics or a compulsion to stir something up, but it was also true.

"Okaaaaaay...," Randy replied, still smiling. "Why are you telling me this? Is there something I need to know?"

"Oh, no! I'm not talking about now, with you!" I had to stop to think. "I'm not completely sure why I'm telling you this. I think...it's because...I want us to be honest with each other. And I don't ever want to go through that again."

I need to emphasize how much I really didn't want to go through that all again.

I don't know if Maddie Dawson has ever seen the face of someone she has hurt deeply or if the cuckolded husband of The Stuff That Never Happened is purely a work of the imagination. I hope the latter. No mind-blowing sex, no thrill of getting away with it, no sweetest taboo, is ever worth the pain or the long-living guilt of knowing you have inflicted that pain.

Maybe I wasn't confessing to Randy so much as professing - letting the man who I would marry know that I was done done done with cheap drama, that I had outgrown honky-tonk over-romanticizing. Letting him know that I could no longer believe in the excuses of loneliness, immaturity, confusion, deluded ideas about passion, bad examples, desperation, indecision, tattered self-esteem, cowardice, alcohol, or Billie Holiday. Letting him know that I had grown up a little since that stupid time in my twenties. And that I could now hardly recognize that cowardly lyin' girl, even though she was me.

Randy's response to my big reveal, "Well, you let me know if there's anything I should worry about," was the equivalent of a shrug. He would tell me later that he did worry a little about what I had said, but in the seventeen years since then, jealousies and suspicions (except about those two bitches, Ms. Bar and Ms. Work) have had little place in our relationship. Honest.

May it ever be so.

You can find more posts about The Stuff That Never Happened here, at From Left to Write.

The participants in From Left to Write Book Clubs receive from the publisher a copy of the book discussed.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Teddy Told Me Nostalgia Means The Pain From An Old Wound"

When I wrote about karaoke nights at CND Tavern a few weeks ago, I was trying to make a point about the pleasures of lingering in the limelight, but I neglected to mention another reason being there is especially precious to me. There is another sweetness to these last nights that is less about ersatz Stardom and more about community, the communal and democratic experience of singing for the sheer love of the song. You follow along with the words on the screen, you hear the voices joining in around you and it's as stirring and soul-satisfying as singing together from the hymnal.

Despite the occasional rap from a Fergie wannabe, most of the songs listed in the tattered black karaoke binders are a few years older and much more, shall I say, embedded? Sometimes the actual lyrics on the tiny screen surprise us ("Jeremy spoke in class today?" Who knew the song was so grim?), but most of the time the old favorites are as familiar as good friends and the first few bars elicit gasps of recognition. We sit and watch the singer and drink (sparkling water for me) and sing along to "Ray of Light" and "I Am the Walrus" and "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" and it's like an American version of Brit filmmaker Terence Davies' movies, where 1950's Liverpudlians gather at the neighborhood pub and sing songs together long into the night.

In the films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, director Terence Davies forges an exquisite art form from the tailings of his nostalgia for a very particular time and place, the working class neighborhoods of post-war Liverpool, England where he spent his childhood.

I have not yet seen Davies's latest film, Of Time and the City, but I was blown away by Benjamin Schwarz's beautiful review in a recent Atlantic.

Here are a few gorgeous lines from Schwarz's review:

"Davies grasps that family life and childhood contentment are orchestrated by a presiding intelligence, almost always female, and nourished by a thousand domestic details, meaningless in themselves.... Of course the fleetingness, and the awareness of the fleetingness, of childhood and family happiness is hardly a novel artistic theme. It lies at the heart of, say, Hopkin's 'Spring and Fall,' and Little Women--and, for that matter, 'The Folks Who Live on the Hill,' Meet Me in St. Louis (one of Davies's favorite movies, which he has discerned 'tapped into something primal, almost like a fairy tale'), and, well, that famous Carousel scene in Mad Men. But usually the accompanying emotion is merely rue, and the intended effect cathartic--the acceptance of loss. This film insists that the loss is absolute and all-consuming. Davis has often said of his childhood, with a conviction as though freshly wounded, that he will never again be so happy. At first that remark seems naive or perverse or, at the very least, immature. But Davies's genius--and no doubt much of his chronic discontent, a psychological state to which he readily attests--lies in his inability to reconcile himself to that passing. Davies's nostalgia, I think it's fair to say, isn't exactly that of an integrated adult, as the mental-hygiene professionals would put it. But owing to his immaturity and his solipsism, that land of lost content has rarely been recalled so insistently and its loss raged against so defiantly. In averring that his wound will not heal--I will never be so protected and I will never be so loved, he seems to mourn--Davies forces his audience to recognize that they are similarly afflicted."