The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage, I could have said, but why ruin everything right now? Here we were in first-class splendor, tentatively separated from anxiety; there was no turbulence and the sky was bright, and somewhere among us, possibly, sat an air marshal in dull traveler's disguise, perhaps picking at a little dish of oily nuts or captivated by the zombie prose of the in-flight magazine. Drinks had already been served before takeoff, and we were both frankly bombed, our mouths half open, our heads tipped back. Women in uniform carried baskets up and down the aisles like a sexualized fleet of Red Riding Hoods.
"Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?" a brunette asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew, I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I've witnessed thousands of times over all these decades. "Mrs. Castleman?" the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn't want her cookies, or anything else.
We were on our way to the end of the marriage, heading toward the moment when I would finally get to yank the two-pronged plug from its holes, to turn away from the husband I'd lived with year after year. We were on our way to Helsinki, Finland, a place no one ever thinks about unless they're listening to Sibelius, or lying on the hot, wet slats of a sauna, or eating a bowl of reindeer. Cookies had been distributed, drinks decanted, and all around me, video screens had been arched and tilted. No one on this plane was fixated on death right now, the way we'd all been earlier, when, wrapped in the trauma of the roar and the fuel-stink and the distant, braying chorus of Furies trapped inside the engines, an entire planeload of minds -- Economy, Business Class, and The Chosen Few -- came together as one and urged this plane into the air like an audience willing a psychic's spoon to bend.
Of course, that spoon bent every single time, its tip drooping down like some top-heavy tulip. And though airplanes didn't lift every single time, tonight this one did. Mothers handed out activity books and little plastic bags of Cheerios with dusty sediment at the bottom; businessmen opened laptops and waited for the stuttering screens to settle. If he was on board, the phantom air marshal ate and stretched and adjusted his gun beneath a staticky little square of Dynel blanket, and our plane rose in the sky until it hung suspended at the desired altitude, and finally I decided for certain that I would leave my husband. Definitely. For sure. One hundred percent. Our three children were gone, gone, gone, and there would be no changing my mind, no chickening out.
He looked over at me suddenly, watched my face, and said, "What's the matter? You look a little...something."
He was Joseph Castleman, one of those men who own the world. You know the type I mean: those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages. Why should they care? They own everything, the seas and mountains, the quivering volcanoes, the dainty, ruffling rivers. There are many varieties of this kind of man: Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, who loved to consume runny cheeses and whiskey and wine, all of which he used as a vessel to carry the pills that kept his blood lipids from congealing like yesterday's pan drippings, who was as entertaining as anyone I have ever known, who had no idea of how to take care of himself or anyone else, and who derived much of his style from The Dylan Thomas Handbook of Personal Hygiene and Etiquette.
There he sat beside me on Finnair flight 702, and whenever the brunette brought him something, he took it from her, every single cookie and smokehouse-treated nut and pair of spongy, throwaway slippers and steaming washcloth rolled Torah-tight. If that luscious cookie-woman had stripped to her waist and offered him one of her breasts, mashing the nipple into his mouth with the assured authority of a La Leche commandant, he would have taken it, no questions asked.
As a rule, the men who own the world are hyperactively sexual, though not necessarily with their wives. Back in the 1960s, Joe and I leaped into beds all the time, occasionally even during a lull at cocktail parties, barricading someone's bedroom door and then climbing a mountain of coats. People would come banging, wanting their coats back, and we'd laugh and shush each other and try to zip up and tuck in before letting them enter.
We hadn't had that in a long time, though if you'd seen us here on this airplane heading for Finland, you'd have assumed we were content, that we still touched each other's sluggish body parts at night.
"Listen, you want an extra pillow?" he asked me.
"No, I hate those doll pillows," I said. "Oh, and don't forget to stretch your legs like Dr. Krentz said."
You'd look at us -- Joan and Joe Castleman of Weathermill, New York, and, currently, seats 3A and 3B -- and you'd know exactly why we were traveling to Finland. You might even envy us -- him for all the power vacuum-packed within his bulky, shopworn body, and me for my twenty-four-hour access to it, as though a famous and brilliant writer-husband is a convenience store for his wife, a place she can dip into anytime for a Big Gulp of astonishing intellect and wit and excitement.
People usually thought we were a "good" couple, and I suppose that once, a long, long time ago, back when the cave paintings were first sketched on the rough walls at Lascaux, back when the earth was uncharted and everything seemed hopeful, this was true. But soon enough we moved from the glory and self-love of any young couple to the green-algae swamp of what is delicately known as "later life." Though I'm now sixty-four years old and mostly as invisible to men as a swirl of dust motes, I used to be a slender, big-titted blond girl with a certain shyness that drew Joe toward me like a hypnotized chicken.
I don't flatter myself; Joe was always drawn to women, all kinds of them, right from the moment he entered the world in 1930, via the wind tunnel of his mother's birth canal. Lorna Castleman, the mother-in-law I never met, was overweight, sentimentally poetic and possessive, loving her son with a lover's exclusivity. (Some of the men who own the world, on the other hand, were ignored throughout their childhoods -- left sandwichless at lunchtime in bleak school yards.)
Lorna not only loved him, but so did her two sisters who shared their Brooklyn apartment, along with Joe's grandmother Mims, a woman built like a footstool, whose claim to fame was that she made "a mean brisket." His father, Martin, a perpetually sighing and ineffectual man, died of a heart attack at his shoe store when Joe was seven, leaving him a captive of this peculiar womanly civilization.
It was typical, the way they told him his father was dead. Joe had just come home from school and, finding the apartment unlocked, he let himself in. No one else was home, which was unusual for a household that always seemed to contain some woman or other, hunched and busy as a wood sprite. Joe sat down at the kitchen table and ate his afternoon snack of yellow sponge cake in the moony, stupefied way that children have, a constellation of crumbs on the lips and chin.
Soon the door to the apartment swung open again and the women piled in. Joe heard crying, the emphatic blowing of noses, and then they appeared in the kitchen, crowding around the table. Their faces were inflamed, their eyes bloodshot, their carefully constructed hairdos destroyed. Something big had happened, he knew, and a sense of drama rolled inside him, almost pleasurably at first, though that would immediately change.
Lorna Castleman knelt down beside her son's chair, as though about to propose. "Oh, my brave little fella," she said in a hoarse whisper, tapping her finger adhesively against his lips to remove crumbs, "it's just us now."
And it was just them, the women and the boy. He was completely on his own in this female world. Aunt Lois was a hypochondriac who spent her days in the company of a home medical encyclopedia, poring over the sensual names of diseases. Aunt Viv was perpetually man-obsessed and suggestive, forever turning around to display a white length of back revealed in an unclenched zipper's jaw. Tiny, ancient Grandmother Mims was in the middle of it all, commandeering the kitchen, triumphantly yanking a meat thermometer from a roast as though it were Excalibur.
Joe was left to wander the apartment like a survivor of a wreck he couldn't even remember, searching for other forgetful survivors. But there were none; he was it, the beloved boy who would eventually grow up and become one of those traitors, those cologne-doused rats. Lorna had been betrayed by her husband's early death, which had arrived with no preamble or warning. Aunt Lois had been betrayed by her own absence of sensation, by the fact that she'd never felt a thing for any man except, from afar, Clark Gable, with his broad shoulders and easy-grip-during-sex jug ears. Aunt Viv had been betrayed by legions of men -- sleepy, sexy, toying men who telephoned the house at all hours, or wrote her letters from overseas, where they were stationed.
The women who surrounded Joe were furious at men, they insisted, yet they also insisted that he was exempt from their fury. Him they loved. He was hardly a man yet, this small, bright boy with the genitals like marzipan fruit and the dark, girlish curls and the precocious reading skills and, since his father died, the sudden inability to sleep at night. He'd roll around in bed for a while trying to think soothing thoughts about baseball or the bright, welcoming pages of comic books, but always he ended up picturing his father, Martin, standing on a puff of cloud in heaven and sadly holding out a pair of saddle shoes still nestled in their box.
Finally, around midnight, Joe would give in to his insomnia, getting up and going into the dark living room, playing a game of jacks alone in the middle of the rag rug. During the day he sat on that same rug at the women's feet while they kicked off their pumps. As he listened to their unhappy, overlapping sagas, he knew that in some unstated way he ruled the roost and always would.
When Joe was finally sprung from the household, he found himself both enormously relieved and fully educated. He knew some things about women now: their sighs, their undergarments, their monthly miseries, their quest for chocolate, their cutting remarks, their spiny pink curlers, the time line of their bodies, which he'd viewed in unsparing detail. This was what would be in store for him if he fell for a woman one day. He'd be forced to watch her shift and change and collapse over time; he'd be helpless to stop it from happening. Sure, she might be desirable now, but one day she would be nothing but a giver of brisket. So he chose to forget what he knew, to pretend that the knowledge had never penetrated his small, perfect head, and he left this all-female revue and stepped onto the creaking train that sweeps people from their lesser boroughs into the thrilling chaos of the only borough that really counts: Staten Island.
Just a joke.
Manhattan, 1948. Joe rises from the fumes of the subway and enters the gates of Columbia University, meeting up with other brainy, soulful boys. Declaring himself an English major, he joins the staff of the undergraduate literary magazine and immediately publishes a story about an old woman who thinks back on her life in a Russian village (wormy potatoes, frozen toes, etc., etc.). The story is laughable and poorly written, as his critics will later point out while pawing through crates of his juvenilia. However, a few of them will insist that the exuberance of Joe Castleman's fiction is already in place. He trembles with excitement, loving his new life, enjoying the feverish pleasure of going with college friends to Ling Palace in Chinatown and ingesting his first prawns in black-bean sauce -- his first prawns of any kind, in fact, for nothing that calls a shell its home has ever entered Joe Castleman's lips.
Those lips also receive the lips and tongue of his first female, and in short order his virginity is removed with the crack precision of a dental extraction. The remover is a needy but energetic girl named Bonnie Lamp who attends Barnard College, where, according to Joe and his friends, she has been given a merit scholarship in nymphomania. Joe is captivated by doe-eyed Bonnie Lamp, as well as by the amazing act of sexual intercourse. And, by association, he's captivated by himself. After all, why shouldn't he be? Everyone else is.
When he makes love to Bonnie, entering and slowly exiting, he's impressed by the way their interlocking parts emit little, rhythmic clicks, like a distant secretary's heels walking across linoleum. He's also fascinated by the other sounds Bonnie Lamp makes independently. In her sleep she seems to mew like a kitten, and he watches her with a strange mixture of tenderness and condescension, imagining that she's dreaming about a ball of yarn, a plate of milk.
A ball of yarn, a plate of milk, and thou, he thinks, in love with words, with women. Their pliant bodies fascinate him -- all those swells and flourishes. His own body fascinates him equally, and when his roommate is elsewhere, Joe takes the mirror down from its nail on the wall and gets a long look at himself: his chest with its careless littering of dark hair, his torso, his surprisingly large penis for such a short and wiry person.
He imagines his own circumcision, so many years earlier, sees himself struggle in a strange bearded man's arms, accepting a thick pinkie finger dipped in kosher wine, then sucking wildly on that pinkie, mining it for nonexistent fluid, and instead finding only a whorled surface with no hidden pinhole source of milk. But in this image the painting of sweet wine down his gullet dazes him, makes a hash of all the proud faces around him. His eight-day-old eyes close, then open, then close again, and eighteen years later he awakens, a grown man.
Time passes for Joe Castleman, and he stays on at Columbia for graduate school, and during this period there's a shift in the environment. It's not just the change of seasons, or the continual bloom of new buildings with their crosshatches of scaffolding. Nor is it simply the small socialist gatherings Joe attends, though he hates to be a joiner, can't stand to be part of a group, even for a cause he believes in like this one, sitting earnest and cross-legged on someone's mildewed carpet and just listening, just taking information in, not offering anything of his own. And it's not only the increasing drumbeat of early 1950s bohemia, which leads Joe into a few narrow, underlit bongo clubs, where he develops an instant and lifelong taste for smoking grass. It's more that the world is truly opening up to him, oysterlike, and he walks inside it, tentatively touching the smooth ridges of its cavity, taking a dry bath in its silver light.
There were moments during our marriage when Joe seemed unaware of his power, and those were the moments when he was at his best. By the time he hit middle age, he was big and ambling and casual, walking around in a beige fisherman's sweater that never disguised his gut but merely cradled it indulgently, letting it swing when he walked, when he entered living rooms or restaurants or lecture halls, when he showed up at Schuyler's General Store in our town of Weathermill, New York, purchasing a new supply of Hostess Sno-Balls, those pink, coconut-rolled, entirely unnatural marshmallow domes to which he was inexplicably addicted.
Picture Joe Castleman at Schuyler's on a Saturday afternoon, purchasing a fresh cellophane packet of his favorite treat and benignly patting the store's resident arthritic dog.
"Afternoon, Joe," Schuyler himself would say, an old stick of a man with a delft-blue, weepy eye. "How's the work?"
"Oh, I'm trying the best I can, Schuyler, for what it's worth," Joe would reply with a deep sigh. "Which isn't much."
Joe always did self-doubt very well. He appeared vulnerable and tormented throughout much of the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and the first part of the nineties, whether he was drunk or not drunk, reviewed badly or favorably, shunned or loved. But what exactly was the source of his torment? Unlike his old friend the eminent novelist Lev Bresner, a Holocaust survivor and painstaking chronicler of an early childhood spent as a prisoner in a death camp, Joe had no one, specifically, to blame. Lev, with the gleaming, deep eyes, should have won the Nobel Prize for Sadness, instead of for Literature. (Though I've always admired Lev Bresner, I've never thought his novels were all they were cracked up to be. To admit this aloud, say, at dinner among friends, would be like standing up and declaring, "I like to suck on little boys.") It's Lev's subject, not his writing, that makes you flinch and tremble and dread turning the page.
Lev is authentically tortured; long ago, when Joe and I entertained regularly, he and his wife, Tosha, would come to our house for the weekend and he'd lie on our living room couch with an ice pack on his head and I would tell the kids shush, and they would drag their noisemaking toys out of the room, the doll that chattered its declarations of love, the little wooden spaniel that clacked when you pulled it on a string.
"Lev needs quiet," I would tell them. "Go upstairs, girls. Go on, David, you too." The children would stand for an extra moment at the foot of the stairs, unmoving, transfixed. "Go," I would urge them, and finally, reluctantly, they would ascend.
"Tenk you, Joan," Lev would say in his heavy voice. "I am weary."
He would say it and it would be allowed. Anything would be allowed of Lev Bresner.
But Joe could never say he was weary; what did he have to be weary about? Unlike Lev, life had spared Joe the trauma of the Holocaust; he had bypassed it easily by being a charming little boy playing hearts with his mother and his aunts in Brooklyn while Hitler goose-stepped across another continent. And then, during the Korean War, Joe accidentally shot himself in the ankle with an M-1 during basic training, spending ten days being indulged by nurses and scraping the skin off tapioca pudding in the infirmary before being sent home.
No, he couldn't blame war for his unhappiness, so he blamed his mother, the woman I never met, but who has been described to me by Joe in detail over the years.
One thing I know about Lorna Castleman is that, unlike her two sisters or her mother, she was fat. When you're very young, a mother's fatness might make you feel safe, even proud. You flush hot with pride at the idea that your mother is the biggest mother you know; with haughty distaste you think of your friends' mothers, those unhuggable shrimps.
Later, according to Joe, you transfer this feeling onto your father. Your father should be big and fierce if possible, a wide-shouldered wonder taking you into his office or his store or wherever it is he spends his gloomy, manly days, lifting you into the air and letting the women who also work there fuss over you, giving you linty sourballs, probably the kind that no one likes: pineapple. Your father should be a powerhouse; you can ignore the shiny, rapidly enlarging spot on his skull, the grunts he makes when he eats his daily plate of pan-fried liver. He might be quiet and retiring, but still he's as strong as a draft animal, and when his urine hits the bowl it trembles the water, and the sound rings out like a brook that winds wondrously through all the streets of Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, you're suddenly horrified by your fat mother -- this woman who can work her way through an entire Ebinger's Blackout Cake in its green windowed box -- the thick spackled icing, the porous, pitch-dark interior -- in ten minutes, easy, without feeling any shame. You're repelled by the mother with whom you used to stroll the neighborhood; she was always powdered and perfumed and large but noble: a sofa that walked.
You used to love her madly, wanted to marry her, tried to figure out whether or not that would be technically possible, and if it were possible that you might someday stand beside her and work a ring onto her finger, you wondered whether you could ever be worthy of her. Lorna, your mother, in her busy floral dresses bought at a store in Flatbush called the La Beauté House of Discount Fashions for Large Women, was everything to you.
But now life is different. Suddenly you want your mother to be small, constructed of wishbones only. Narrow, a size 2. Fragile but beautiful. Why can't she look more like Manny Gumpert's mother, a stylish woman whose body is as small and compressed as a hummingbird's? Why can't she just go away?
But she didn't, not for a long, long time. For years after poor Martin Castleman dropped dead in his shoe store, slumping down in his low vinyl seat with a girl's leg locked between his own, and a box of saddle shoes in his hands, Joe was left with his mother and the other women. She was there in his life until Joe was fully grown and had married his first wife, Carol, and only then, while circulating at Joe and Carol's wedding, did Lorna disappear. It was a heart attack that came out of the blue, just like her husband's had, leaving newlywed Joe orphaned and fully aware of his own inherited faulty pump. His mother's death was very upsetting, Joe said, though not as traumatic as his father's.
But I have to admit here that when he told me this story, my first, awful thought was: good material.
I pictured his big, flushed mother in high spirits; the aunts with their fancy dresses and clutch bags, the waiters circling with their trays of rainbow sherbet in frosted silver cups; I even heard the strands of sinuous klezmer music playing as he and his bride, Carol, danced.
"I don't really understand something," I once said, early on in our own marriage. "Why did you even marry Carol in the first place?"
"Because it was what you did," he told me.
But the thing was -- or at least it was the thing that Joe would decide later -- Carol was insane. Locked-ward certifiable, a classic lunatic. You can say this freely about a man's first wife, and the other men in the room will nod vigorously; they understand exactly what you're talking about. All first wives are crazy -- violently and eye-rollingly so. They writhe, they moan, they snap into flame and crumple, they decompose before your eyes. Probably, Joe said, Carol was already crazy by the time he first met her at a lonesome coffee shop at 2 A.M., one of those Hopper's Nighthawks type of places where everyone who's slumped over the just-sponged counter looks like they might have a tragic life-story to tell if you make the mistake of agreeing to listen.
But Joe didn't understand this about Carol yet. He was back from basic training and his accidental self-injury. He was alone and open, and so when he first met her that night he let himself be charmed by the peculiar appeal of the childlike woman with the brown hair cut across the forehead in neat bangs and the feet that didn't even reach the floor. In her doll-hands she held a thick book: The Collected Writings of Simone Weil. Actually, it was the écrits of Simone Weil, in the original French. He was immediately impressed, calling upon the one bit of obscure Simone Weil trivia that he knew -- perhaps an apocryphal tidbit, but sworn to him by a college friend to be true.
"Did you know," he said to this girl Carol Welchak who happened to be sitting on the stool next to his, "that Simone Weil was afraid of fruit?"
She gave him a fishy look. "Oh, yeah, right."
"No, no, it's true," Joe insisted. "I swear to God. Simone Weil was afraid of fruit. I guess you could say she was a fructophobe."
Both of them began to laugh, and the girl picked up a slice of orange that was lying ignored on the edge of her plate of pancakes. "Come here, Simone, ma chérie," she said in a French accent. "Come and try my lovely orange!"
Joe was charmed. What a find! Apparently the world was full of girls like this, each of them simmering in her own stewpot, waiting to be savored by the men who would come by, lift their lids, and inhale.
"So what are you doing here by yourself in the middle of the night?" he asked. On Joe's other side, a longshoreman scratched at his rashy neck, making Joe recoil and try to move a little bit closer to the girl, although of course he couldn't, for the stool was bolted to the linoleum.
"I'm escaping from my roommate," said Carol. "She's a harpist, and she practices all night. Sometimes I wake up before morning and for a minute I think I'm dead, and that angels are flapping around playing music at the foot of my bed."
"That must be gratifying," Joe said. "Thinking that there is a heaven, and they've let you in."
"Believe me," said Carol, "I was a lot more gratified the day they let me into Sarah Lawrence."
"Ah, a Sarah Lawrence girl," he said with pleasure, deciding at that moment that she was a highly creative type, her hands damp with both acrylic paint from art class and ambrosia from some middle-of-the-night winter-solstice ritual. He also imagined her to be like one of those Mongolian sexual acrobats he'd read about, turning midair somersaults that would vault her directly and miraculously onto the pivot of his penis: ka-ching!
"Well, I used to be a Sarah Lawrence girl," she said. "I already graduated. So tell me, whoever you are," she went on, "what are you doing here in the middle of the night?"
It was clear that she didn't yet get it, didn't yet know that men like Joe -- brash men who loved the free verse of their own voices and the smeared gleam of their reflections in their shoes -- went to lonesome coffee shops in the middle of the night simply because they could. And New York City, at that particular moment in time, 1953, was a spectacular place in which to take a walk in the middle of the night if you were a young, ambitious, confident man. The city was constructed of neon lettering and bridge lights and subway steam huffing in checkerboard gusts up through vents into the street. Desperately kissing couples seemed to have been strategically stationed at every lamppost.
"What am I doing here?" Joe answered. "I'm an insomniac. I can't sleep at night, so I get up and go for a walk. What I do is pretend that the whole city is my apartment. Over there's the bathroom" -- he pointed out the window. "And over in that direction is the closet where I keep my jackets."
"And this must be the kitchen, I guess," Carol said. "You just came in to get yourself a cup of coffee."
"Exactly," he said, smiling at her. "Let's see if there's anything in the fridge."
They swiveled their stools restlessly back and forth in a little mating dance. Then they got their checks and paid, each of them grabbing a handful of those chalk-dusted mint pillows that for some reason sit in a straw basket beside every coffee-shop cash register in the world, as though all the coffee-shop owners had gotten together and agreed on this protocol. And then he held open the door for her and together they headed out into the night. With Joe by her side, both of them sucking mint pillows and purifying their mouths for the kiss that was likely to come sooner or later, Carol could begin to enjoy the late-night wilds of the city in a way she never could when she was alone. What euphoria to know what it meant to relax and not worry, to be part of something enormous and vital. The night was cold, and the points of the buildings seemed to have been freshly sharpened. He held her tiny white hand, and together they made the grand tour through shuttered streets, because he was one of those men, and all of it was his.
"We'll be landing soon," the brunette flight attendant said almost apologetically as she strolled the aisle of our plane. By now, of course, nine hours into it, the entire experience of the flight had moved from the clean, expectant pleasure that was there at the outset to the cranky, restless filth that occurred when you stayed within a small space for too long. The air, once so antiseptic, was now home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes. Clothes were crushed; people bore corrugations on their cheeks from where they had slept against the seat or on their own crumpled jackets. And even the brunette flight attendant, who had earlier seemed such a seduction to Joe, now looked like a tired hooker who wants to call it quits. She had no more cookies to offer; her basket was empty. Instead, she returned to her seat in the back, and I saw her strap herself in and squirt breath freshener into her mouth.
We were on our own again. Rows and rows behind us, separated by curtains, sat Joe's editor, Sylvie Blacker, and two young publicists, along with Joe's agent, Irwin Clay. Joe had no significant relationships with any of them. They were all of very recent vintage; his longtime editor, Hal, had died, and his former agent had retired, and he'd been passed on to other people, some of whom had already left their jobs, and these particular people were here not because they were close to Joe but because it was appropriate for them to come, to take partial credit by association. Joe's friends and the rest of our family had been left behind; he'd told them it wasn't necessary that they come to Finland, that there was really no point to it, that he'd be home soon enough and he'd tell them all about it, and so of course they'd had to listen to him. The airplane began to lower through a thatch of clouds, bringing Joe and me and everyone else down toward a small, beautiful, unfamiliar city in Scandinavia at the end of autumn.
"Are you okay?" I asked Joe, who always became frightened during the quiet anticlimax of a descent, when it seemed as though the engines were conking out and the plane was coasting like a child's balsa-wood flier.
He nodded and said, "Yeah, thanks, Joan, I'm fine."
I hadn't asked him the question out of actual concern; it was more of a marital reflex. All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It's part of the contract; it's the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you're paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored. Joe actually looked calm, I saw, though some of that was probably a side effect of sleep deprivation. I couldn't remember the last time he had gotten a decent night's sleep. I'd always known him to be an insomniac, but every year his sleeplessness inevitably reached a kind of crisis right before the winner of the Helsinki Prize was announced.
Always, each year, you hear stories about how some winner or other assumed the call was a prank. There are legendary tales of writers being shaken from sleep by a ringing telephone and cursing the man with the accent on the phone, telling him, "Do you know what time it is?" Only then, lifting to the surface of consciousness, did they realize what the call was about, that it was genuine, and that it meant that their life would change shape forever.
This wasn't the Nobel prize, of course; it was a few steps down, a defiant stepchild that had enhanced its reputation over time by the sheer power of its prize money, which this year was the equivalent of $525,000. It wasn't the Nobel, just as Finland wasn't Sweden. But still the prize was an extravagant honor and thrill. It elevated you -- if not to Stockholm heights, then at least partway up.
All of them, the novelists, the story writers, the poets, desperately long to win. If there is a prize, then there is someone somewhere on earth who desires it. Grown men pace their homes and scheme about ways to win things, and small children hyperventilate over the prospect of gold-plated trophies for penmanship, for swimming, for just being cheerful. Maybe other life-forms give out awards, too, and we just don't know it: Best All-Round Flatworm; Most Helpful Crow.
Several of Joe's friends had been talking to him about the Helsinki Prize for months. "This year," said his friend Harry Jacklin, "you're going to get it. You're getting old, Joe. You shall wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled. They don't want to overlook you; it would be egg on their faces."
"You mean egg on my face," said Joe.
"No, theirs," insisted Harry, whose own field was poetry, which pretty much guaranteed that he would remain entirely unknown and broke forever. Even so, he was deeply competitive; a mean vein of spite ran through him, as it did through all of the poets Joe knew. It always seemed that the smaller the pie, the greater the need to have more of it.
"I'm not going to win," Joe said to Harry. "You've told me I would win for three years straight. You're like the boy who cried wolf."
"It needed time," said Harry. "Now I get their strategy. See, they were sitting there in Helsinki, eating their smoked fish and waiting. Their plan was that if you were still alive by now, they'd give it to you. You're politically correct, and that really counts these days, at least as far as the Helsinki is concerned. You've got that extra gene, that sensitivity toward women. That unwillingness to objectify the opposite sex, isn't that what they say about you? That you invent a female character and put her in a marriage, a family, a king-sized bed in the suburbs, and yet you don't feel the need to describe...I don't know, her pubic hair in literary terms: 'a burnt-sienna nimbus,' or whatever, like the rest of your crowd would."
"I don't have a 'crowd,' " said Joe.
"You know what I'm saying," Harry went on. "You mix in all this feminism, if you want to call it that -- even though it always makes me think of dykes with chain saws. You're an original, Joe! A great writer who isn't a total prick. You, you're fifty percent prick, fifty percent pussy."
"Ha!" said Joe. "That's so kind of you to say. And lyrical, too."
But other friends agreed with the poet's logic, pointing out that this year there weren't too many obvious contenders for the Helsinki Prize anywhere in the world. In America, it had been a year of literary deaths, one after the other, men whom Joe had known since the fifties, when they used to gather sometimes for socialist meetings. A decade later they gathered at marathon, all-night readings whose purpose was to protest the war in Vietnam and suck all the energy out of the audience. And then they gathered again in the early eighties after they had all sheepishly agreed to pose for ads for a fearfully expensive wristwatch manufactured by an old, elegant German company with an unsavory Nazi history. And then, finally, they began to gather for one another's funerals. Every single one of those writers, Joe noticed at the service for playwright Don Lofting, still wore the German wristwatches they'd been given.
Harry Jacklin was right that there were few of Joe's peers left standing who deserved the prize, few writers whose body of work was such a marbled block of muscle. Lev Bresner's Helsinki moment had come seven years earlier -- no surprise at all, it had been expected for a long time -- but even so, that news had sent Joe to bed in a darkened room for days, subsisting mostly on barbiturates and scotch. Then, three years later, Lev had miraculously gone on to win the Nobel prize, and to this day Joe could hardly bear to talk about it.
The Nobel prize was well beyond Joe; we both knew that, and somehow we'd both accepted it. Though he was popular in Europe, his work didn't traverse the globe in the important way it would have needed to. He was American and introspective and always taking his own pulse on the page. As Harry had said, he was politically correct, yet somehow he wasn't at all political. Even the Helsinki Prize was a reach. Yet critics had always admired Joe's vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe's work was from the old, postwar, "marital" school -- husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials on suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood and his early adulthood and then his two marriages.
His novels were translated into dozens of languages, and the shelf in his study was lined with these books in translation. There was his first novel, The Walnut, that slender book from a much more innocent time, about a married professor and his best student who fall in love, leading to an event that causes the professor to hurriedly abandon his wife and child, flee to New York City with the student, and eventually marry her. This book is pure autobiography -- the story of the two of us and Joe's first wife, Carol.
Beside it on the shelf were the foreign versions of The Walnut, variously called La Noix, Die Walnuss, La Noce, La Nuez, and Valnot. And then there was his Pulitzer prize-winning book Overtime, also called Heures Supplémentaires, Überstunden, Horas Adicionales, and Overtid. The Pulitzer prize had been restorative, a bracing snootful of pleasure, but it was so many years ago that even that dose of gratification was by now forgotten.
In the author photograph on the back of Overtime, Joe still had his thick head of floppy black hair, which sometimes, to my surprise, I still grieve for. It long ago thinned out and went white, but back then it used to fall across his face, and I would push it away so I could see his eyes. He was attractive and thin as a greyhound in the early years, his stomach hard and concave. His erections were endless, held aloft by some woman's invisible hand (not necessarily mine), a muse who whispered into his hot ear, You're brilliant. Decades have elapsed since the Pulitzer, though there have been other American awards, too, prizes that took Joe to chicken-breast luncheons in the bland banquet rooms of New York hotels to claim his loot and give a speech, while I sat quietly watching with the other wives and the occasional husband. But now it was time for another prize, a big one. He needed the fuel it would provide, the sumptuous, caloric pleasure and the accompanying delirium.
On the night before the call from Helsinki would come, if it was going to come, I went to bed early. Joe, of course, was still prowling the house. It is an old house, painted white and well kept, standing behind a low stone wall tufted with moss, and it dates back to 1790. There are many rooms for a sleepless man to walk through. I knew that if I were a better person, I would have stayed up with him, the way I used to do each year. But I was tired, and longed for sleep the way I used to long for the press of our two bodies. And besides, I didn't want to go through this yet again. I could hear him scrabble around downstairs like a hamster, opening drawers in the kitchen and taking things out, banging together what sounded like a cheese grater and a spoon, in an obvious, pathetic attempt to wake me up.
I knew how he operated; I knew everything about him, the way wives do. I even knew the inside of him, having been there that day in Dr. Ruffner's office to review the footage of Joe's colon. We sat and watched light travel through his most intimate inner tubing, and after that we were really bound together for life. When you watch your husband's colon at work, at play, see the shy, starburst retraction of his sphincter, the amble of barium through an endless human hose, then you know that he is truly yours, and you are his.
And then, years later, in the company of a small, elegant, Brahmin cardiologist named Dr. Vikram, I had the chance to see sonograms of Joe's heart, that defective, overachieving fist, its mitral valve closing sloppily, almost drunkenly.
And I knew him again tonight, could see the way his mind was forming ideas, hunches.
"I might actually have won this time," Joe had said to me at dinner. We were eating Cornish game hens, I remember, with their pileup of tiny bones on the plate afterward. "Harry thinks so. Louise does too."
"Oh, they always think so," I said.
"Don't you think it even might be the case, Joan?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"Just give me a percentage," he said.
"You want me to give you a percentage of your chances of winning the Helsinki Prize?" Joe nodded. On the table stood a milk container, and at that moment my eye happened to leap to it and so I said, "Two percent."
"You think I have a two percent chance of winning?" he asked glumly.
"Oh, fuck it," he said, and then I shrugged and said I was sorry, and told him I was going to bed.
So there I lay, knowing I had extraordinary power in this moment of withholding, knowing that I ought to go to him, to keep him company as he kept vigil. But instead I just lay there, fully awake, and a very long time passed, and finally I heard his footsteps on the old, narrow stairs. If I wouldn't come to him, then he would come to me. Wives are meant to be sources of comfort, showering it like wedding rice. I used to do this superbly for him and for all three of our children, and mostly I enjoyed the job.
I always sat up with Joe when he agonized, and with the kids during their various bad dreams, and even during a mescaline trip our daughter Alice once took, in which all of her childhood stuffed animals came to life and mocked her. She was so frightened that night, and she clung to me like a marsupial, or like a much younger child, saying, "Mom, Mom, help me, please, help me!"
Her cry was plaintive and almost unbearable, but like all mothers, I held on tight with racing heart and poker face, babbling an endless cycle of motherly white noise at her, and eventually she came down from the trip and was able to sleep.
And I did this kind of thing again and again during our son David's explosive outbursts, which have taken place periodically over the years. In school, where they told us he was brilliant but emotionally troubled, he lashed out at other kids. In his twenties and thirties there have been bar brawls and street fights, and once he repeatedly hit his recovering-heroin-addict girlfriend with a heavy loaf of bread. This is our heartbreak: David is a rangy man in his late thirties now, alternately indifferent and angry, a handsome nighttime word processor at a New York law firm who has no other ambitions, no hopes for happiness or glory. But he is one of my children; Joe and I made him. And so when, in moments of repentance, he has come to me, I've negated his claims of worthlessness, countering them not with any hard evidence, but simply with my quiet, effective presence in a nightgown, and the compassion that rolls out easily in the face of the suffering of one's own child.
I always made myself available, both to David and to his sisters, Susannah and Alice, and I was good at it. I spoke softly to them, and when the situation called for it I would stroke their hair and bring them cups of midnight water.
Now, late at night in the house, waiting and anxious, Joe wanted me to stroke his hair, to push it away from his eyes the way I used to do. He reached the landing and came into the bedroom, lying down and putting his arms around me while I pretended to be asleep. I could tell, instinctively, that he didn't really want this touch to spread out into sex, but that he was running out of alternatives. Sex used to be a good idea, one we both liked equally, the coats on somebody's bed spilling to the floor, a mouth on a breast, a mouth on a penis. Occasionally, afterward, we would discuss the high hilarity of all these objectified pornographic images, their primitive quality, the way they equalized us, smacked and flattened our entire species into one pancake of desires and fluids and predictable outlets for similar urges.
Urges. We both had them, Joe and I, and usually we weren't embarrassed by them, though once, long ago, he'd said to me, "You could kill a crocodile with those thighs, Joan," so severe was my grip on him, and I was embarrassed. Women don't want to have the tungsten strength of their sexual desire pointed out to them; it's supposed to go unnoticed, like the passing of gas. For a long time I was as strongly sexual as he was, and then suddenly, somewhere in my forties, I realized that I wasn't anymore, that it had simply gone away, taking with it my happiness, my willingness, my sense of being Joe Castleman's other half.
But on this night of anticipation, though we'd barely touched each other in ages -- had it been a whole year? -- Joe suddenly seemed to find a hidden stash of longing and nostalgia inside himself, and so he slid a hand to my breast, and I felt the nipple collect itself into an obedient knot.
"Don't do this," I said, no longer pretending to be asleep.
"Don't do what?" He knew what.
"Use me because you can't sleep," I said.
"I'm not using you, Joan," he said, but he dropped his hand. "You're so inflammatory. I just wanted to touch you."
"You wanted to find something to do with yourself," I said, sitting up in bed. "You are completely nuts and climbing the walls."
"All right, fine, maybe I am, but I don't understand why you're not," he said. "This is one of those nights when we find out if the world has passed me by."
"You know it hasn't," I said. "There's so much proof of that; how much do you need? You own the entire world, Joe. You're still up there. You still matter."
But he shook his head. "Nah," he said. "I don't feel it at all."
I looked at him, realizing I was still able to extract some tenderness toward him from inside myself. Here was a moment of it, a core sample lifted from me in the middle of the night. I could be furious at him, could dislike him and think of devious psychological ways to punish him, could go to bed early and leave him to wander our big old house forlornly, but despite my better instincts, here I was.
"Do you know that you're a totally pathetic person?" I said.r
"I trust you mean 'pathetic' in the best sense of the word," said Joe with a slight smile.
"Oh yes," I assured him. "Absolutely."
Joe lay with his head against my shoulder, and we settled in for what remained of the night. If the sun rose in the morning and we were still lying here like this, the telephone having stayed silent, he would know that another year had passed and he hadn't won the Helsinki Prize, and that most likely he never would. But still, somehow, everything would be all right, because he had a wife, which is something that everyone needs.
Joe once told me he felt a little sorry for women, who only got husbands. Husbands tried to help by giving answers, being logical, stubbornly applying force as though it were a glue gun. Or else they didn't try to help at all, for they were somewhere else entirely, out walking in the world by themselves. But wives, oh wives, when they weren't being bitter or melancholy or counting the beads on their abacus of disappointment, they could take care of you with delicate and effortless ease.
At five-twenty in the morning, my sleep was very deep, occasionally punctuated by the usual barnyard assortment of snorts and sighs that most people my age begin to make. But Joe was lying wide awake beside me then, when the telephone rang.
Later, when telling the story to friends, he would revise the events of the night, putting himself in the role of an innocent sleeper startled awake by the phone. In this idealized version, the phone rang and he sat up in bed, disoriented ("Wha...? Wha...?"), and his hand reached out and grabbed for the phone, knocking over a glass of water. When he eventually spoke into the receiver, it was in a mush-mouthed, unprepared voice. And I, beside him, was supposed to have gasped and embraced him when I heard the news ("Oh Joe, Joe, you've worked so hard for this...."), and then we both began to cry.
He had to tell it this way, otherwise he would have seemed too eager, like someone who had been confident that the call from Finland really would arrive this time.
The truth was that Joe reached for the phone in one swift movement, knocking over nothing. His voice was strong when he said hello. The connection was infused with a crackle and the slightest quality that suggested both voices were trapped in a time-delay tunnel.
A foreign man spoke, his tone both meek and hearty at once. He asked for Mr. Castleman, "Mr. Yoseph Castleman," he specified, and then he told him the news. Joe swallowed, felt his chest expand with an aching pride that seemed a troubling, distant relative of heart attacks; he pressed his palm flat against his heart, shushing it.
"Can my wife, Joan, get on the extension?" Joe asked Teuvo Halonen, the acting president of the Finnish Academy of Letters. "I think she should hear this too."
"Of course," the Finn said.
By this time, I was sitting up in bed and staring at Joe with wild eyes, my own heart going nuts, chemicals flooding into me from every port, and I scuttled down the hall in my nightgown to pick up the phone in what used to be Susannah's room.
"Hello," I said into my daughter's pink Princess phone. "This is Joan Castleman." I sat on her bed beneath the bookshelf with its ancient, pristine sets of Nancy Drews and Trixie Beldens.
"Hello, Yoan -- that is, Mrs. Castleman. I am hearing that you wish to be part of this conversation," said Mr. Halonen. "Well, your husband is our choice for this year's prize."
I gasped. "Whoa!" I said. "Oh! Oh my God!"
"He is a wonderful writer," continued Halonen calmly, "who deserves these accolades. We are honored to have had the opportunity to choose this gentleman, for we find his work to have been heartbreakingly beautiful and important over the years. His career has a great span to it; he has grown in stature, and it has been a pleasure to observe. Each book is increasingly mature. I must say, my personal favorite is Pantomime, for in many ways the characters of Louis and Margaret Strickler remind me of myself and my wife, Pippa. So fallible! So human! You should know," he went on, "that later today, Mrs. Castleman, you shall be fending off the press."
"I'm not a movie star, Mr. Halonen," said Joe from the other extension. "I'm a fiction writer, and that's not very big in the States anymore. People have much bigger things to worry about now."
"But the Helsinki Prize is important," Halonen said. "We know it's not the Nobel, of course," he added obligatorily with a self-conscious and revealing laugh, "but still everyone gets excited. You will see." He went on to explain more details, including the breathtaking prize money and the visit to Helsinki that Joe would be making. "We expect you to come, too, Mrs. Castleman, of course," he added quickly. This week there would be an official interview done at the house, and next week a photographer would do a formal sitting with Joe, in preparation for our trip to Finland. "But I recognize that we have awakened you," Halonen continued, "and I shall let you get back to sleep now. The undersecretary from our offices shall be in contact with you later today." He must have known, of course, that no one ever went back to sleep after receiving this call.
We all said good-bye like old friends, and when we had hung up I ran into our bedroom, throwing myself down beside Joe on the bed.
"Oh my God, this is it now," I said. "You were right. You were right. I feel like fainting, like vomiting."
"I didn't know I'd be right." Joe leaned against me. "This is the beginning of a new phase, Joan."
"Yes, the insufferable phase," I said.
He was silent, ignoring that. "What should I do?" he asked after a moment.
"What do you mean, what should you do?"
"What should I do?" he repeated, childlike.
"Call Lev," I said. "He'll tell you what he did. He'll give you tips on everything. He'll walk you through it step by step, how you deal with it. But basically, I think you do what you've always done. It'll be the same, but bigger."
"Thank you, Joan," he said to me quietly.
"No, don't say that. Don't start. I don't think I could take it."
"But I have to say something," he said.
"There's nothing new to say," I told him. "And please, no matter what happens, don't even think about thanking me when you get up on that stage in that gigantic hall, or whatever it is, in Helsinki."
"But I have to," he said. "It's what everyone does."
"I don't want to be the long-suffering wife," I said sharply. "You can understand that, can't you? I mean, come on, Joe, think about how you'd feel."
"Can we worry about that later?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I suppose we can."
He kissed me hard on the mouth, and we both tasted the vinegar of sleep. Then he did the strangest thing: he slowly got up and stood on the bed, towering unsteadily in the room, looking down from this new angle. The room was tilted but still ordinary. Joe Castleman knew he was special, though not so special that he could avoid the things of everyday life. They surrounded him, as they always had. Yet now, he knew, he could pay less attention to them; he could let himself exist in another world, a parallel dimension where big-time prizewinners lay on chaises eating figs in the sun and thinking of nothing but themselves. He would have to fight that impulse, keep himself from getting soft. He'd have to keep publishing, keep his output strong and constant.
"What are you doing up there?" I asked now, peering up at him as he stood on the bed.
"I want to jump," he said. "Like the kids used to."
I thought of David and Susannah and Alice, and the way their small bodies had shot up into the air, pajamas flapping, shrieks of pleasure accompanying each jump. Why did children love to jump? Was there actual pleasure to be found in the up-and-down of childhood: the bed, the playground swing, the seesaw, as opposed to the blindly determined in-and-out of adulthood?
"Come on," he said. "Jump with me."
"For joy?" I asked, not smiling.
"Maybe," Joe said, though he must have known that joy was not exactly here right now in this bedroom at dawn, with the sun discreetly poking into the windows, illuminating both our faces, pointing out the similarities between men and women that age creates, the androgynous tempering and etching.
What was here was something else, something exciting but maybe a little bit too exciting, too stimulating, so that it blurred the sensations, reducing the possibility of joy until it dwindled down to nothing.
"Jump with me," he said again.
"No," I said. "I don't want to."
"Oh, come on, Joanie."
It was a name he hadn't called me in a very long time, and he understood that the siren call of it would have an effect. It did. Despite myself, it roused something in me. I was an idiot to be taken in again and again by him, wasn't I? To celebrate him, to sing him, but I couldn't find it in me to be any other way. It took a moment, but finally I brought myself to a wobbly standing position on the bed.
"This is extremely weird," I warned.
We faced each other, bouncing lightly. We certainly didn't feel the kind of freedom our kids had once felt, the simplicity of bodies inhabiting undefined space, and I reflexively crossed my arms over my chest so my breasts didn't swing up from under my nightgown and sock me in the chin. I tested the mattress, getting used to the give of it, its trampoline possibilities. Despite everything, there was some pleasure here, no matter how self-conscious; it lightly stirred the air as we started to jump.
Soon the telephone would be ringing all the time, and it would always be for him, or about him. So what else was new? I was used to that by now; Joe had been famous for a very long time, and there's an inevitable uniformity to fame, regardless of its level or quality, whether it's the TV kind with its feral, laser-bleached teeth or the political kind with its puffed hair and cuff links, or Joe's kind: the rumpled sweater and the perennial drink gripped in a fat hand.
Soon the round of interviews and congratulations would start. Soon it would be too much for me to bear -- as the days passed I began to see that. I wasn't going to handle this well; it would inflame me with the worst kind of envy. It would leave me all alone in my unadorned, wifely state. Soon he would gloat and preen and discuss his triumph nonstop, inflated with ecstasy and self-importance. Soon it would be intolerable. And soon, too, we'd be on an airplane -- this airplane, now -- lowering slowly through the clouds into an unlikely pocket of Scandinavia and into the end of everything between us. But for one moment on the bed, Joe and I were fine, entirely the same, our ridiculous late-life selves in crumpled pajamas, briefly lifting off above the earth, before finally settling back down.
Copyright © 2003 by Meg Wolitzer
The moment Joan Castleman decides to leave her husband, they are thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean on a flight to Helsinki. Joan’s husband, Joseph, is one of America’s preeminent novelists, about to receive a prestigious international award, and Joan, who has spent forty years subjugating her own literary talents to fan the flames of his career, has finally decided to stop. From this gripping opening, Meg Wolitzer flashes back to 1950s Smith College and Greenwich Village and follows the course of the marriage that has brought the couple to this breaking point—one that results in a shocking revelation.
With her skillful storytelling and pitch-perfect observations, Wolitzer has crafted a wise and candid look at the choices all men and women make—in marriage, work, and life.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
1. After attempting her first short story in the library stacks at Smith College, Joan, the protagonist of The Wife, imagines "what it was like to be a writer: Even with the eyes closed, you could see" (p.46). Explain how this observation could also be made of wives. What does Joan see even when other people think her eyes are closed?
2. In Chapter Two, Joan meets the writer Elaine Mozell who warns Joan against trying to get the attention of the literary men's club. How might Joan's life have been different without Elaine's discouraging advice haunting her?
3. On a trip to Vietnam with Joe, Joan finds herself on an airstrip, in a segregated clump, with the wives. But Lee, the famous female journalist, chats with the men. Joan laments to herself "I shouldn't be here! I wanted to cry. I'm not like the rest of them!" (p.134) How is Joan different from the rest of the wives who appear throughout the novel? In what ways is she similar?
4. Joe's friend, Harry Jacklin, praises Joe's work, telling him, "You've got that extra gene, that sensitivity toward women" s (p. 25). Indeed, we discover that Joe's "sensitivity" is primarily thanks to his wife. How do you think Joan would have been received in the literary world if her name had been attached to the same material? Do you think she would have been as successful?
5. After Joe receives the call confirming he has won the Helsinki Priz see more
Articles About This Book
Posted on Off the Shelf
Posted by Caitlin Kleinschmidt
We are all familiar with Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, and the contributions they made to feminist literature. But great literature concerning feminist themes is not confined to these classics. Many of our most...