Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Norman Mailer, perfume, and me.

When I was a child, my mother was on the leading edge of the feminist movement. A true activist. A marcher in parades, a letter writer to the editor, a researcher for the League of Women Voters. I had an ERA button pinned to the lampshade of my white and pink porcelain bedside-table lamp. We hosted ACLU meetings in the living room. Ms. Magazine arrived at our doorstep and was cherished, cradled in our arms with reverence, to be carefully placed on the center of the inlaid coffee table, whereas Time, Newsweek, Life and the daily papers were chucked on top of growing heaps of mail, slithering off the kitchen table onto the floor.

Norman Mailer was despised. Right up there with Nixon. (And John Updike too, come to think of it.)

I can recognize his gravelly timbre immediately. There's a bone in the back of my neck which tenses when I hear him on some documentary or another. I'm on alert. It's HIM. My husband watches a fair amount of boxing documentaries on cable, so I'm slowly getting used to the old fart opining about Ali. I'm beginning to tolerate the old boy.

Today I was putting off climbing the stairs to go to bed (Why is the house so Cold?), and I caught the better part of a PBS documentary. There was Norman, looking rather frail and elderly, actually. He was sort of having trouble getting his longer sentences out, which made me sympathetic, I guess.

My defenses must have been down. Or maybe it was the fact that he spoke over Mozart's Requiem, which always get to me. Tonight, I can't quite forgive that old sod, rest his soul. He fucking made me cry. With this:

Oswald's a ghost who sits upon American life. It's a ghost that lays over a great many discussions of what are some of the real roots of American history.

What's abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this or is it that? You can't know, because the ghost doesn't tell you.*

Simple. Well done, Norman.

Except for me. I'm surrounded by ghosts. By perfumes on the breeze.

The L'air du Temps with the little doves on the stopper Grandma gave me for my sixth birthday. I never used it, but just watched it go darker over the years, collapsing in the bottle on my dresser, because I never wanted to use it up. It would be gone then, and I'd never be able to ask her for more. What if she had stopped loving me by then? What if I used too much until she called me a Painted Woman as she frighteningly did that time behind her hand about the checkout girl in Waban Market? There was love all in its little fragile bottle. Better never to touch it. I watched the level go down and got more and more anxious. Should I use it now? Would she forgive me if I did? Is it this, or is it that?

We had an attic room in my house. Up the tight steep stairs to the attic and to the left. A single bed, an old dresser, a slanted ceiling and a memory of Laurie painting my nails while she fed me circus peanuts. The peanuts were fat and orange and she had to carefully place them into my mouth one by one so that my nails wouldn't smudge. My nails were candy pink. I was a little fat bird with my mouth open to her care. Feed Me. Feed Me. And then one morning she was gone. Her long honey hair, her patchouli, and the white wool coat on the hook. Gone. Her clothes and books stayed in the room right above mine for weeks. Gone. Her white painted desk at the window with the little nail polish bottles lined up at the sill was still there. Gone. Not a word and we were not to speak of her. Gone. Someone (I later found out it was her mother) came one day while I was at school and packed up her bags. No one ever told me. I went up the stairs one day to sit on her empty bed only to find the desk, like Laurie, was gone. Did you want to leave? Did Mom fire you for wearing the short skirts? Did we get in trouble for the circus peanuts? (Come back, Laurie. I'm on a diet now.) Is it this, or is it that?

Joyce used to enter and exit my life with icy swiftness. One moment she was there at Thanksgiving, holding me on her lap, asking me to take down, take down, take down her luscious thick hair to brush it. No one brushes it like you. Have a trinket. Have a piece of barley sugar. And then she was gone. I can't come to your birthday party, even though I live across the street from the pool. Splash under the cold willow and think of me avoiding you for my own conceits. It's not allowed for me to call you, Joyce. Please can you remember to call me sometime? I'm too young to sneak out of the house and run to Grandpa's shop, although I'll learn to do that later to find you. Find you. But for right now, can you call me? And then one day you did. And I don't know why. I don't know why you offered to take me to the horse farm for years. I just don't know. I think maybe you needed free labor with all those stalls. I think maybe you were finally lonely enough that you needed me to sleep on your couch for months on end. I think maybe you needed someone to brush your hair, or at least to talk to once she moved out and on with her life. Was it me you wanted?

After you died, my mother (Chanel No. 5) made it a point to tell me that I wasn't your favorite. That you had taken my cousin Melissa out to lunch at least twice too. Yeah, but did Missy sleep on her couch? Huh? Huh, Mom? Did Melissa get Joyce's Iranian coat? Huh? Oh Christ. That coat. It held your scent for months after you died, Joyce. 4711 and leather and roses, maybe Oil of Olay, with a top note of Chapstick. I used to lie on my bed with your coat over my chest and breathe you back into my lungs. Until one day it was all gone. The incense had finally guttered -- the perfume was spent. Just memories now.

And I still have so many questions for you, and I'll never know the answers. Some about the horses, and some about the men in your life. Some about the women, come to think of it. But most painfully about me. ("It's ALWAYS about me," said the narcissist.) Did you love me, or did you tolerate me? Did you put up with me because you loved me, or did you put up with me because you felt as if you should love me and then felt as if you HAD to tolerate me? Is it this, or is it that?

Fuck you too, Norman Mailer.

"Is it this, or is it that?" You're talking about Kennedy, assassinations, American History and collective grief, yet with a simple turn of phrase, you have me pulling up my ghosts and memories and questions and grief, just like a good writer should. I didn't need this tonight. Thanks a hell of a lot, you old creep.

*PBS, The American Experience, "Oswald's Ghost", copyrighted, etc. etc.

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