If at first ...

A marriage dies and is, after 35 years, resurrected.

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The man on my doorstep is tall and muscled, healthily tan and not the
least bit bent. I'd been wondering if he'd be bent or stooped, his age
showing; he's almost 70.

I've been watching him now from my entry window. First while he stood, a little gawky and irresolute, on the other side of the street, then crossing the street, dawdling up the short path to my front porch. I recognize some things about him, height and body outline, tilt of the head. But not the hair; it's white now, and looks good. The way he clears the curb, in one
big stride; I understand that. "Legs too long for my body," he used to say.
Which wasn't true. He's always been well-proportioned. Handsome, in fact.
I haven't seen him for 35 years. But I know him -- correction, I used to know him -- very well.

Once I was married to him. He's on my doorstep today by invitation.

The doorbell rings; I pull the door open onto a treescape of Northern
California eucalyptus, the tarred smell of a residential road, my visitor. He wears a checked shirt and blue jeans. The word that presents itself, oddly appropriate, is nice.

"You look great."

We say this together, a chorus. We stare. We laugh.

I gesture him into my home in this academic town full of professors, writers, high vegetarian ideals, views of the bay. I bought my house here this year, after my divorce from my second husband.

Mel follows me into my living room, where the view is, alas, turned off; I bought this house because of its shimmering prospect of a green lagoon surrounded by cattails, but now the utility board has drained the water. "It used to be great," I announce, gesturing toward the expanse of asphalt bog, radiating heat like a Safeway parking lot.

He looks dubious. But he manages to be gallant. "You can see a bit of the
bay," he suggests.

Well, yes you can, Mel, if you bend your head, crane your neck, and
squint. The advantage of my disappeared view is that it gives us something
to talk about. Talking is hard; of course it is, we've been apart for 35 years, half a lifetime. And for us there are also memories from before the separation, memories of silence and awkwardness. Of secrets. After all, we're ex-husband, ex-wife. We broke up, very painfully.

"The bay," he says, "that edge of blue. And that's got to be the Gate in
there, right? But it's foggy," and I agree, "Sure, foggy," and he says, "I
guess it's usually stacked up in that spot, huh?" and I'm all set to agree
again when, thank God, he switches, turns from the window, smiling an
expansive smile that I seem to remember.

"It took me two days to drive up here."

The normal driving time from Los Angeles to my house in Kensington is seven hours, maximum, unless you pull over at every McDonald's and rest stop and
Road S.741 to ask yourself what on earth you're doing. We can both smile now.

"Were you scared, too?" he wants to know, and I say, "Sure. Of course." I
start to add "scared spitless," but don't; that seems too revealing. I also don't tell him what a help his three letters have been.

He wrote congratulating me on my recent novel, generous words from an
ex-husband. And then he wrote again. Those letters arrived during a dark
time; my second marriage had finally collapsed and I had stormed out of my
own house. And sometime later I sat on the floor in a urinous Oakland motel room and tried to cry. And finally told myself, "So, OK, shut up and take your Xanax."

Against that background Mel's letters seemed like lights, stars, reminders of what the real world might be like, a world beyond me and my present angers, one where an ex-husband could make a sweet letter-writing gesture and I could respond normally, decently. Like a regular human being.

So here we are, we're talking. I won't ask myself, how does it feel? I clunk a bottle of white wine out of the fridge; we settle down on the couch. And again we review his drive up here. (Did he do the pea soup restaurant? He did. Did he visit that rest stop whose name I love,
Buttonwillow? Yes.) We reevaluate my novel, the decor of my house, the
weather, the hike he has just taken through Tilden Park; we kill half
the bottle. We start comparing notes on our son; unbelievably, he's almost
40 now.

How can we have a grown son together and not have seen each other for
35 years? Well, we did that. With shared custody, too, summer
visits to daddy. Tears leaving, tears on arrival. But that's what airline
stewardesses were for back in those days -- the stewardess, the caretaker that
you handed your child over to. Shepherdess of the commuting kid. Jesus, I

And what are you really thinking, I wonder. Men aren't sentimental, like
women, I tell myself. They don't build stories, the way women do. I'm wrong in all that, of course. I know the fallacy even as I'm harboring it. I know also that Mel is separated from his wife, that his separation and mine occurred at exactly the same time.

We chat about possessions. He has an apartment on a Los Angeles beach; he has a car. The car is a Mustang, a '68.

"A '68 Mustang?" I inquire. "Terrific."

I'm faking here.

"You didn't use to know much about cars," he remarks correctly. We look at
each other. There's recognition, recollection. And a touch of sadness, probably. We laugh. I'd forgotten about that straightforward laugh, with the eyes engaging you directly.

I'm aware of myself in my yellow dress, leaning against the couch-back,
balancing a wine glass. I've started feeling good. Simply and straightforwardly; here's someone who begins to make me feel healthy and younger. It's been a long time since I knew about that.

And it's been a long time since Mel and I laughed. The last time we were
together we didn't laugh. That was when we were saying goodbye. That is, I said goodbye; he hardly spoke.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It's night, September, balmy; we are outdoors on the grounds of our
housing project in suburban Washington. The year is l95l. He and I sit rigidly on the opposite edges of a small green sandbox, not talking, each clutching a corner of sandbox frame, each staring into a tiny prickly sandbox landscape decorated with broken plastic shovel handles.

It's dark; all of this illumined by the lights of our housing project. Albemarle Terrace is in the southeast section of the District of Columbia. The Albemarle builders intended their fake colonial brick boxes for young ordinary folk -- that's how the Terrace was advertised -- EX-SERVICEMEN! FAMILIES! But by some accident -- nobody understands just how -- the project got co-opted by Communists. By young ones, ex-serviceman ones, lower middle-class ones. By us, in fact, who are almost what the builders intended, except for being Communists.

That's what we are -- Communists. Both of us. Mel is more devoted and loyal than I am; he knows the Party can abolish unemployment, discrimination, war. We don't tell people who we are. Being Communists has made us different. Back in the good days it made us serious and pious. And lately it has made us paranoid.

"Say something," I demand of my husband. But he doesn't respond, doesn't
even budge, stares into the set of sand hills, his long dark face immobile.

Too handsome, that's what I thought when I first met him, the intense look
too much like the second lead of a bad movie, the guy with the big frame
and dark hair and eyebrows and mustache who dies at the end and sets the
heroine free. But Mel isn't like that at all; he's gentle, stubborn, shy. Shyness can make you seem intense. He's loyal, awfully loyal.

Please stop looking that way. I try for a deep breath, my lungs feel locked shut. He's loyal to me. Loyal to the Party.

"I want," I say now, making my voice calm and flat, but louder than usual, "a divorce." He waits a beat. There's a noise in the distance -- a plane. Finally he says, "Oh." No movement, nothing; I look at his shoulders, broad against the building lights, at his hands on the sandbox rim, no inflection. And then at last he says, "NO."

This is pretty awful, I think; I can't do it. Then I know that I can; here
I am doing it; I'll stick with it. Back inside the project, in one of the rooms above the sandbox, we have a 2-year-old child, asleep, window open
so we can hear him if he cries. I tell myself he's the reason I'm sitting
here saying this, but also I think maybe that's a lie; maybe I'm just
scared, the way the comrades have been saying to each other, passionately,
every time there's a meeting of more than four people. "What are you
-- scared?" they say, or hiss, as if it were salacious.

Can you hiss a word like scared? I'm angry. And fiercely, achingly sad. I won't go to jail and let my child be raised by his grandmother. Because that's what is threatened in this year of 1951. McCarthy has entered the headlines and our Communist friends are getting arrested.

Mel hasn't spoken since his gut-wrenching NO. Light from a window hits the side of his face, contorting it into the mask of a Goya sufferer -- there I go, standing aside and making artistic comments at myself, even when it hurts. Self-centered, the genuine me, always watching. Please, please.

Last week I sat in a parked car, down near the edge of this housing
project, the car doors closed and the windows rolled up, hot and steamy and dense inside with B.O.; I sat there with three other Communists and a poor guy who was being brought up on charges.

Charges is what we call it when we have a kangaroo court like this one.

This man owns a little drugstore; that makes him a capitalist, a member of the ruling class, like Andrew Mellon. A capitalist, but also a CP member. He gave money, picketed, all that. And last week two thugs invaded his drugstore, tied up him and his wife, probably raped her (we haven't mentioned this; that's what I'm guessing; it goes with the story). They didn't kill the druggist and his wife and by the next morning he got free and called the cops.

That's why we have him here now in this investigation. We're trying him on charges of siding with the oppressor. Of failing to support the true position of the Party. Because the invaders were Negro and thus the Party's allies, and the cops are cops and of course the enemy, and he should not have called them. He gets lectured a whole lot and then gets expelled.

Probably he's glad to be expelled.

I sit there sweating and hating these proceedings, hating them and
not saying so. I'm part of the judging committee. Judging this poor guy. What's wrong with us in the Party? What devious, destructive ailment has
skewed our ideals, our love of the world, our loyalty to each other? I say
nothing and look at the dirt pattern on the greasy car window and decide
that this is it. The end. It's been seven years of the deepest personal and
religious allegiance, and now it's over.

I haven't told Mel about this session in the car; he and I are in different Party cells and aren't supposed to discuss secrets with each other; that's how paranoid we're getting. Also I haven't told him because he and I don't talk to each other. About anything, any more. Bit by bit, inch by inch, we've painted ourselves into the silent corner where you never say it. Don't talk, keep your distance. Freeze.

Three days later I move out of Albemarle Terrace with our baby. Mel is alternately amazed, furious, stubborn. He loves me and our child, but he also loves and is stalwartly faithful to the Communist Party; he won't see its faults. (There's no indication yet of the Mel who, five years later, will leave the Party and become, like me, "a socialist always, a joiner never again.") "Choose," he signals at me now. And I do. I settle into a new life; I get a job as an office worker and put our child in day care. I file for divorce.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

And now? l985, in Kensington? Here's Mel in my living room; he smiles and
fiddles with a wine glass; we have an hour of polite, tentative conversation, a couple of relieved laughs. He doesn't show social fear much, but I still know him well; I can guess what he's been thinking.

Closed, quiet, pulled back, that describes him. Qualities hard to recognize
in so big and vigorous a man. And he's larger and more muscular now than he was back then. Back when.

We finish our wine; we start out toward his car. Once on the road, I'm hardly self-conscious at all about the wind blowing my hair and the two of us looking so fine in the white open-top car.

Mel the Mustang driver smiles at me and positions wide hands on the
designer steering-wheel. "Have you ever had an accident?" I ask, admiring
his skillful negotiation of a complicated Berkeley intersection. "Accident?" he laughs. "Wow. Many, many times."

Yes; there's the Mel I knew; I feel a pull in the pit of my stomach. Doesn't brag, never admits to a special virtue. That sensation in my belly is OK; it feels good. But it bothers me, too. What did I expect from this encounter? This little foray into a distant past? Maybe a few days' relief from the agonies of recent divorce, perhaps a summer camp almost-romance, six days' flirtation with someone who used to like me once?

And if more, then more what? Pain, that's what Mel must have thought, driving up here, stopping at every wildflower patch on the ugly flat north-south freeway, taking two days for a seven-hour trip. Hell, oh, hell.

So we'll talk about Berkeley. Do I know a lot of people here? he inquires
neutrally. The town is pretty, he suggests. Land mines, even these innocent
forays. It's too early for him to ask, these friends, are they good
friends, were you happy with them; was it OK for you here until just
before the end?

Pause. Turn a corner. "So, hey," he says, "you're looking really good."

I've chosen the restaurant because of nostalgic association. Maisie's
specializes in crab-cakes and flaunts a carefully vulgarian motto, MAISIE'S
HAS CRABS. During our three years of marriage we lived in Baltimore and in Washington. And Baltimore is famous for its crab-cakes. We heard a lot about crab-cakes; not that we ate them much ourselves, we were too poor for that, but we knew all about them.

We settle down at the restaurant's best table, secluded in a nook with a
view of a terrace. "Tell me about your magazine," I say. While I've spent my life teaching and writing, Mel has been publishing his magazine, a trade journal.

He shrugs. "I started it in my backyard garage; it supported my family. I had to be my own boss; I was blacklisted, y'know?"

Yes, I know. We're silent for a minute, remembering. I think at him, "You
never got arrested nor summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. And neither did I. I remembered you during that time, Mel. I wrote poems about the two of us. I even put you in my novel."

"I want to talk about Mikey," Mel says.

Mikey. He used to call him that. How strange. Mikey, Diana and Mel, the trio. Yes, I, too, want to talk about Mikey, our son, so sweet and gentle, with too many talents.

I ask for stories about the rest of Mel's family. He has a beautiful daughter, he says, she's a reformer; a nice son, also a reformer. "Those genes get passed on, maybe, huh?" He looks pleased. I talk about my youngest, Andrew, a writer, a reformer, a newspaperman.

I'm feeling something I can't express, that as we talk about the children they begin to seem real; they're us and verge on being joint property.

I'm the first one to act out the impulse. I raise my glass with the
tag-end of my wine in it; then together we lift almost empty glasses. "A
toast to our kids," I say. The sun makes a path across the uneven bricks of
the terrace and hits the window in a bright assaulting splash.

"I'm drunk," I tell him on the way out. "I'm out of practice for drinking;
let me hang on to you, don't go away now."

"Right. Count on me."

He doesn't mean it, of course; it's just something you say; he'd offer that
to any lady who was wobbly and needed help. "Just count on me now." And yet, I tell myself, he does mean it, in a way. We're climbing into
his convertible now; he says, "Thanks for the crab-cake dinner."
"It was a good dinner." I lean back against the padded leather headrest.
Summer is still with us and darkness will come late; we'll drive back to
Kensington through this elegant bright Berkeley sunset.

Real life is more convoluted than its outline, and it takes us six months
of exploration, conversation, recollection ("I dreamed about us last night
-- you know, that Labor Day picnic?") before we make our decision. It
happens at the top of a small mountain peak outside Los Angeles. (We've
been taking turns commuting between Los Angeles and Kensington.)

At the summit, 35 Girl Scouts are squealing, pushing, giggling and eating baloney sandwiches, but we circumvent them and scramble around the hill, where we hunker down over supermarket beer poured into plastic glasses.

We raise the glasses, touch, and stare solemnly. "Shall we?" And we agree
that, yes, we will.

That was 13 years ago, and we're still together. We have hope,
taste, interest, enthusiasm in common. And we're in love. We think we always were.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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