When Stalker asks me about “James” on the spreadsheet, I will have this essay ready for him.
1986, Portland, Oregon. My fantasy has come true and James wants me. “I watched you every day from my window. I watched you crossing the campus to the parking lot, in your straight skirt-business suits — in gray, pink, navy — with matching high heels,” he told me. I hadn’t a clue he noticed me. He was a man with the ultimate poker face: neutral, steady gaze, and unyielding.
Looking back, I was at my peak of beauty, in my early 30’s. Age had not yet chipped away at my 5’3″ height. I was more toned, more muscular than ever before, and fitting nicely into my size 6 — or smaller — outfits. Once, a lover caught me looking at myself in the mirror. “It’s okay. Admire yourself. You have definition not often found on a woman. I like it.” He stroked my forearm, with its muscles defined. It was 1986, before strength training was a common practice for women. But I had personal Princess Bell hand weights at home. They came with a booklet that told me all I needed to know. I liked feeling strong enough to take care of myself, to carry my own packages. To be independent, self-sufficient. Since I had to be.
My dark, curly hair was not yet streaked with gray. My face — in my youth, a little too round, a little too oily — now matured into a fresh adulthood, but without a first hint of wrinkle. A woman approached me while I was shopping for clothes. She organized fashion shows, and had vintage dresses she wanted to show. “Would you consider modeling? You have a great walk,” she said. “You could fit into the clothes, I’m sure,” she said. Yes, I’d love to do it.
My supple body’s easy walk broadcasted that I was comfortable with my sexual energy. My passion had already found expression with my past lovers, lovers who taught me what I needed to know. Men could tell who I was by looking at me, even if they didn’t know how they knew. I had not yet lost that magnetism — why does it evaporate once we women settle too deeply into domestic life? — when men know they have found easy prey. Twenty-five years later a girlfriend reminisced, “You were pure sex. You just walked by and men turned their heads. Wow! What just went by, they would think, and their heads would turn. It didn’t matter if you wore baggy jeans or oversized sweatshirts. Your sacral chakra was wide open. You don’t know the effect you had on men back then.”
“Oh, I knew I was having quite the active social life,” I told her, with a smile. Why did she think I didn’t know? Afterall, I felt it. I lived it. I guess part of my attraction was that I seemed not to know. Why talk about it? Why ruin it?
James didn’t ask about my past; I didn’t tell. As we lay together each night, I followed his lead. He assumed me inexperienced. I didn’t correct him. I didn’t dance any steps he didn’t first demonstrate. He didn’t ask. I didn’t offer. Later he would say, “You didn’t want to talk about sex.” I could barely keep from laughing.
He moved out of the family home and got a room on a friend’s houseboat. I had never been on one before, the uneasy contrast of a solid house and a watery foundation. A romantic setting, with the moon reflecting on the Willamette River. James taught me the name of each flower that spring, that summer, opening my eyes to delphinia, dinner plate dahlias and the wildflowers of the Oaks Park Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Each evening, he opened a bottle of wine and we crawled into bed — a mattress on floor, which took me back to my early 20’s — to hug and talk. Heavenly intimacy and togetherness. He told me about his childhood, his career, his work. We talked about the university — the politics, the personalities. We became a covert team. He wanted to shield me from the difficulties of the divorce from his second wife, but the stresses finally seeped through, as did his guilt over disturbing his children’s lives. His guilt became mine. We began to mesh, to merge. I supported him through the divorce — those messy meetings with the lawyers; the giving away too much because of the guilt; the financial fallout. I lived through it with him. Afterall, it was my fault, wasn’t it?
But as we held each other every night, we were in a world away from the world. The houseboat wasn’t permanent, but it was enough for us.
One night I felt bold, my curiosity winning out. I risked a prying question.
“The first wife. Ruby. The mother of your oldest child. What happened? Why did that marriage end?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to be married anymore,” James said.
“What does that mean? What happened?”
“Just that. That’s all there was to it.”
I didn’t want to push. I wanted to be different from my past self. More respectful. Give the man some room. Maybe that was all the insight he had, or, maybe that was all he was willing to share for now. Give the man some time. I came to like his respect of his ex-wife’s privacy. Yes, that is what it is. Protecting her privacy.
And that was all ever said about Ruby, the first wife.
We were in love. That blanket of scents and senselessness that poets have tried to describe through the centuries: we felt it and basked in it. It enveloped us and protected us from the outside world. I wore the in-love feeling like a heavy overcoat in the dead of winter, keeping me warm and safe from the outside elements. I brought it in closer, hugged myself in it. Turned up the collar. Impossible to believe I was feeling this again. The scent was so thick; it cradled me through the night and day and I had that heavenly feeling. Senselessness took over. All that mattered was to keep the feeling, preserve it; don’t let it evaporate this time.
He felt it too.
One night, we lay on the mattress in the dark, my face up against his, his arms bringing me close to him. “I love you,” James said. I didn’t have the words. I hadn’t said those words in so long, I could not find the lost words. “Say it. You can say it.”
I whispered back, grateful for having been given the lines, for being forced.
“I love you, James.”
For once, a man felt real, the man felt right.
I wrote my mother. “Would Daddy accept my marrying a non-Jew?”
The answer determined the course of more than I expected.
to be continued . . .
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.
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