Modern Love

Modern Love

They are migrants in their own country, the pair I have in mind, their ancestors having come from Europe, his in the early 1600s, hers two centuries later, proceeding through eastern US states on their way west; his made stops in Michigan, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, hers in Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. Now they, an avant garde moving backwards, have been drawn east again by the magnetism of New York.

How often has he seen her before he speaks? She is tall, a big girl, a great horse of a girl she sometimes called herself, which wasn’t right. She isn’t beautiful, her front teeth protrude slightly distorting her mouth, but like a horse, distorting is too strong. More appropriate for the damaged big toe nail on her right foot which has grown back too thick. Still in all, she is swell. She is lovely. Witty and warm, he can see that and will surely have noticed her drawl; he may even have memorized or imitated privately certain colorful expressions for which she is teased by friends who do not think in terms of horses heading for the barn or spout circumlocutions like Dadgumit! He is, as she will learn, intensely sensitive to and interested in language, also very possibly in her rich brown hair and large breasts, symmetrical and perfectly shaped, though of course, as in the case of that big toenail, their actuality will remain for the time being obscure to him.

What was she wearing? What year in fact was this? I wish I could tell you. How is it that so many details in this story so important to me can never be discovered, can never be known? Internet searches would be useless. That guy on TV, whatshisname the Harvard professor, even he, no matter how many awe-stricken celebrities appear on his show, cannot help me.

These two have not been set up by friends or far away relatives. They meet, not online, but in an elevator and are not celebrities, though his opening line became famous in our family. Do you speak Chinese? As I imagine it, they are alone, perhaps for the first time, because they live at Christodora House, a combination settlement house and boarding establishment, located at 143 Avenue B in the East Village, and she runs around with a bunch of girlfriends, always giggling. I’m sure she hesitated, not that her answer is unready, but that the question, any question, is so unexpected. Who is this guy? He’s young, her own age more or less, also tall, very thin, he wears glasses. But does he? Speak Chinese, I mean. She was bound to say no eventually. To which he responds, Then we have something in common.

Oh boy, oh boy. That was cards on the table, wasn’t it? Corny, absurd, brilliant. He’s been watching her. He knows a lot about her already, knows perfectly well she doesn’t speak Chinese or any other foreign language, though he does, French and Spanish at least. She must have seen him too, but as to taking note, as to sorting through openers, I don’t think so. She has left this to him, it’s the man who makes the first move.

She tells her New York girlfriends, more giggling, conceivably in his presence in the lobby or the elevator, and certainly behind closed doors, but not her friends or her brothers or her parents back home in Oklahoma where she lived on a farm for two years and then in Norman, home of OU. She has left all that behind, for good as it turns out. Probably she already knows this, but it’s the encounter in the elevator that has sealed her fate, to use a cliché, apt as they so often are. More journeys lie ahead, though she’ll never be good at languages. But her children will, and she’ll be good enough to run foreign households and an international school, to be thought formidable by servants, to entertain and be entertained by ambassadors, to hear heels clicked, have her hand kissed.

I plunge too far. For now, he writes to her, tells her how happy he is that she will allow him her delightful company. He submits proposals, propositions, in a list for her approval, Sunday Excursions for the Impecunious, he calls them: Coney Island, Bronx Park, row boating on lakes in Central Park, bus rides and walks on Riverside Drive, a round trip on the steamer Mandalay from the Battery to Atlantic Highlands in New Jersey, movies in case of rain. I don’t see any signs of male toxicity here, do you? Nor does he expose himself, pinch her behind, or grab one of her tits when he finds her alone again in the elevator. Does he describe her in lewd terms by the water cooler? I wouldn’t know, but I doubt it. He’s broke, in debt to his landlady, cheerful about it, says she’s his friend. This he offers as proof that he is not scotch, but extravagant. Not particularly good looking it seems, or doesn’t think he is, sends her instead a picture of his pretty sister. His beloved sister, he calls her, and repeats, perhaps unconsciously, I love her very much. Begs her to return the photograph. He apologizes for his typing. Signs off, Sincerely.

The balance of power (This, we are told, is what it’s always about -- see current Oscar nominee, The Phantom Thread.) would seem to be all on her side, though he tells her to study the list as if for examination and threatens to write her a letter in French. If only his typewriter had accent marks! What dominates is his willingness to reveal himself. It’s the part about his sister that does it, the trust he places in a young woman he hardly knows who has had what he calls a peculiar effect on me. I think he sees already that with fifty years ahead of them, there will be plenty of time to make sure his career comes first, to have more limited aspirations for his daughters than for a son. He will gain weight on her good cooking, stop complaining about the office, build his own import/export business, wind up a diplomat. Let all of that come later. For now, he is content to be quite nakedly in love.

All of me, why not take all of me? Can’t you see, I’m no good without you? What does it mean to open one’s heart completely, to take all of another human being? Everything. No secrets hid. Mortal and immortal. Physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, financial, mental, and intellectual proclivities and capacities; personality traits; health status; drug and alcohol habits (Billie Holiday sang this song.), social and educational rankings; family members, background and training. Hopes, dreams, desires, plans, ambitions. Doubts and fears. Things inherently mysterious, idiosyncratic in the extreme. Why not take all of me? This is the thrust of the letter. No matter how halting, how bumbling it appears on the page with its missing apostrophes, its furious barrage of typos. I wish you could hold it in your hand, as I do, an example of eternal summer, of marksmanship direct and true. Cupid’s arrow.

When does she find this missive from Room F1, this tall, broad-shouldered, innocent, midwestern girl? Rushing off to her classes at the New York School of Social Work or, degree in hand already, heading downtown on the subway to distribute relief money from a paper sack to Italian immigrants crowded in tenements, where she has come upon a venerable grandfather in a bathtub in the living room?

Which Sunday excursion does she choose? What mixed signals does she send? What do they eat, what does she wear? How far does he get? It’s all a bit one-sided, this correspondence. She saved his letters (from Cuba, from Haiti, from Brazil), not he hers. A hat most certainly, gloves perhaps, and I think we can assume the landlady got paid and the couple achieved intimacy without resort to thirty-six questions, or staring into each other’s eyes for four interminable minutes as lately described in the New York Times by some who have tried it.

They exchange vows in someone’s apartment before a few friends and an Episcopalian minister from upstate, also a friend, though later lost track of, like so many details in this story, which after all happened a long time ago, before e-mail, Facebook, texting, tweets, sexting, hashtags, memes, apps, podcasts, artificial intelligence, selfies, talking assistants, augmented reality, face-reading phones… the wedding itself, just ahead of Valentine’s Day and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, on February 11, 1933. Her dress, a deep lavender with Grecian lines, ties at the shoulder. Lunch is at Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street, and later they stop at a delicatessen to get things for breakfast high above ground in the fifth floor walk up they’ve rented, where she will discover how blind is her extravagant and wheeling stranger without his glasses.The shopkeeper takes in their newness, their excitement, seeks unsuccessfully to make a profit. Boxa candy, bottlea wine?

I used to shrink a little, disbelieving, when my parents talked of things they remembered; twenty years ago, they might say, thirty, which was worse. Now I can call up seventy at least. And still I insist that what I have described is modern love. Meet it is I set it down. Not simply to preserve what remains of tales my parents told my sister and me, amazing us with the news that life existed before we were born, to be stashed away for later along with other dull intelligence like sex and death, but to vouch for all our narratives. Whatever we hold in the multimedia of our minds is present and continuous, is happening, is modern.


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