In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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In 1975 I came to love Faye Henry. She was thirty-five years older than I and necessary for my mother, who had no friends at Harvard until she and Faye Henry fell asleep together in the back of “Practicum in Ethnographic Futures Research,” knew they were destined to be friends, and have been ever since.
My mother had friends in Arkansas, wives of my father’s friends. But after my father set me down at my mother’s spotless kitchen table in Little Rock, convenient tears spilling out of his selfish eyes, and informed me that he was unhappy — why, he didn’t know, he just was — and was going to divorce us, my mother forgot her Arkansas friends. When my father leaned forward in his chair, placing a trembling hand on my stunned shoulder and sobbing that he should have never married my mom seventeen years ago and that he had accepted a two-year transfer to Buenos Aires “to find myself,” I forgot my friends. Shoving his hand off me, I forgot my father, too. And within two weeks I was trailing a moving van east, my mom sitting next to me working on her application to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Taking her first chance in seventeen years and praying it would work out better than had her last, here she hoped to and did go back to school. “Her rebirth,” Faye Henry said.
The first time I saw Faye Henry, she was leaning against the mantle in our living room in Cambridge. My mother had described her to me as “sort of an artist. Not that she draws or paints or anything. Kind of how she lives.”
“And dresses,” I thought, seeing her vermillion danskin, frayed emerald peasant skirt, and invisible shoes. A long black cigar was smoking in her hand, and a slew of what looked to be gold coins were strung around her neck. “She’s what you might call a ‘stable bohemian,’ ” my mother had concluded.
“Aztec fertility charms,” Faye Henry said, having noticed my interest and touching her necklace.
My mother, who hadn’t been allowed to dance until she was twenty, blushed, introduced us, and disappeared into the kitchen to check on our dinner.
“I guess you’re a little young to call me ‘Faye,’ and I abhor formalities. So why don’t you call me ‘Faye Henry’?” I set down my school books and a story I was working on, and Faye Henry continued: “I’m from the South, too: Meridian, Mississippi. So it’s nice to hear a healthy drawl, makes me feel right at home.”
“I’m trying to lose it,” I said.
Born to a proper, almost incestuous Southern family, Faye Henry had rebelled late — after graduating from Randolph-Macon and, seven years and a couple of hundred teas later, marrying an aspiring young politician, now governor of Mississippi. “But,” she explained to me, “my rebellion was superb. The evening of my thirtieth birthday, I sat down on the davenport and reminisced over what I had accomplished in my first three decades. And because I could not pinpoint one single accomplishment nor any likely in the future, I packed a bag, drove myself to Montgomery, caught the first available flight to Atlanta, then from Atlanta to Mexico City!” Faye Henry cheerfully snapped her fingers in unison over her head as a tear that appeared to be unwarranted escaped down her cheek. “My full name is still ‘Faye Henry Townsend’ because Asmeth never got around to divorcing me.” She paused. “I haven’t had a man since.”
Faye Henry had spent the next eight years living in a renovated barn in Guadalajara, teaching English to poor Mexican children. “The dirtiest and most rewarding eight years of my life,” she said. Craving Americana, she had then gravitated up to Los Angeles — more specifically, Watts — where she had passed the next twelve years contributing to bi-lingual education programs, founding homes for battered women, and protesting the war in Vietnam. In the fall of 1975, Faye Henry moved to Cambridge to work towards an A.M. in Education, fell asleep with my mother in the back of “Practicum in Ethnographic Futures Research,” and was now leaning against our mantle.
“Dinner,” my mother said, stepping into the room.
Faye Henry blew a perfect smoke ring. “A culinary orgasm, I’m sure.”
And again my mother, who still feels a little the sinner when she sets foot on a dance floor, blushed.
The Sunday morning that Queen Elizabeth was to attend services at the Old North Church, my mom and I picked up Faye Henry in front of the Harvard Coop. Draped in a coonskin coat she had “discovered” in a secondhand store on Mass. Ave., Faye Henry leaned in through my passenger’s window and introduced us to her friend Isabelle, whose floppy felt hat partially obscured the black eyes crowning her fat cheeks and gazing in hesitantly at us from over Faye Henry’s shoulder. Nine years earlier, Isabelle had tired of sitting those eyes down behind a stand on the road to the San Juan airport and selling machine-woven belts to empty-handed tourists with families, friends, and flights to catch. By the grace of God, she had gotten off that road and into a classroom, had maneuvered her way through the University of Puerto Rico, and now through the grace of Affirmative Action was working on her Ph.D. at Harvard.
“Her thesis is on hostility in adolescents,” Faye Henry told my mother. “Tan interesante!”
My mother eyed me nervously.
“We are much alike, this queen and I,” Isabelle kept saying as we drove through Boston’s North End.
“Pachelbel’s ‘Canon,’ ” Faye Henry said, motioning towards the radio. “My favorite song, and so appropriately royal!”
“ ‘Isabelle,’ ‘Elizabeth,’ they are the same,” Isabelle explained. “Her husband, too, has the name Felipe. Her son Charles and my boy Carlos are of similar ages. And we both have other children.” But watching the vendors sell Italian ices and marzipan fruit alongside the narrow brick streets, I somehow couldn’t picture Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, by the road to the San Juan airport, silk and ermine damp with perspiration, scalping cheap belts to myopic tourists.
The four of us staked claim to a grassy spot near the church and sat down to wait. An hour later, we were standing shoulder to shoulder with dozens of people; the Queen was to arrive shortly. Faye Henry pulled a bottle of wine out of her furry pocket and opened it as Isabelle disguised herself with a pair of bulky sunglasses and rattled off “Isabelle,” “Elizabeth,” “Felipe,” “Philip,” “Carlos,” and “Charles” to some polite Latin ear she had found trapped in the crowd. Behind those glasses and under that hat, she could have been a Nazi up from South America for all anyone could tell.
My mother said she was off to find a bathroom. “The wine compounded by the excitement.”
“You remind me so of my husband Asmeth,” Faye Henry told some guy next to her. “Care for a drink?”
The man nodded. “But I’m gay,” he said. “So we can’t be all that alike.”
“Actually,” Faye Henry said distantly as she refilled her wine glass with the last of the wine and handed it to the man, “so is Asmeth.”
I thought, Right now everyone’s a queen.
“My Carlos and her Charles were born on the same day,” Isabelle exaggerated over her shoulder to a large, red-haired nun from Dorchester. “My mother says there is common blood between us. It is true.”
“Tan impossible,” I said. The man next to Faye Henry laughed and smiled at me, but I held his gaze firm, reprimanding him until he turned away in shame.
Soon the powerful North End mafiosi began parading down the street and into the church, with gloveless wives gaudily clothed in sequins, furs, and plumed hats.
“Damnation,” the man next to Faye Henry whispered. “Who dressed them?”
“I swear you sound just like Asmeth,” Faye Henry said. “He also can curse beautifully.”
Then we could see the cavalcade, then the Queen standing in a limousine and waving like she was changing a light bulb.
“It’s her!” my mother yelled.
“Cheers!” Faye Henry said, pushing her empty wine bottle high in the air.
“La Reina,” Isabelle sighed.
“Big deal,” I said.
From our living room, I watched my mother ignore the hair falling in disarray about her cheeks as she rose halfway out of her chair and reached across the kitchen table to pour Faye Henry another cup of coffee.
“That brings us right back to the identity problem: you have to know yourself, be your own individual, before you can really know another, particularly a lover,” Faye Henry said.
My mother swirled her spoon around her cup in embarrassed clicks, stirring milk into the coffee the other two women drank black.
“It is true,” Isabelle said, moving a plate of cookies towards herself and taking one. “My Felipe and I, thirty years and never a fight. Our union, it is a story of success. Perfecto!”
Faye Henry cast my mother a defeated look. “It was his problem, Jo,” she continued, checking the sturdy brown and gray topknot upon her head. “But you should look at his divorcing you as a wonderful opportunity. He has given you a chance to really better yourself, shoot for the stars. That’s something most women standing behind a Hoover in Little Rock never have.”
My mother shook her head. “That’s the difference between you and me, Faye. I just can’t understand how anyone could do that, how you could have left Asmeth as you did. I’m sorry, but in my book you were the villain.”
“In most people’s book I was the villain.” Faye Henry smiled. “Asmeth received a huge sympathy vote when he was elected Lieutenant Governor a month later.”
Isabelle dunked a cookie in her coffee and ate it whole.
“You are right, though: this is an opportunity,” my mom said. “But it’s hard for me to look at it that way, Faye, because I was happy pushing a Hoover around two thousand square feet of Little Rock. I was happy being a good wife and mother. Too happy, I guess, or maybe this never would have happened. Maybe if I’d spent less time on my family and more time cultivating myself into an interesting individual, I would still be married.”
Chomping, Isabelle pulled her head scarf down tightly about her ears and pushed the empty cookie plate back into the center of the table.
“Do you still love him?” Faye Henry asked.
“No,” my mother quickly answered. “Not after what he did to Chockie and me.”
“That’s another difference between you and me,” Faye Henry said, looking down into her coffee.
“Isabelle will be returning to Puerto Rico next week,” Faye Henry said with clouded eyes to my mom and me in our living room. “She has been asked to leave school. Some of the sources for her thesis were found to be fictitious.”
“No!” my mother said. “But she has exaggerated from the word go. We’ve always had to take what she says with a grain of salt.”
“What she says should be taken with the Atlantic Ocean,” I said.
“Excuse me.” My mother left the room.
“We all have our problems,” Faye Henry told me.
“There is a man,” my mother said, pressing a perfect crease in my blue jeans, “whom I have been seeing. I thought you should know.”
“Now I know,” I said.
A few minutes later, she placed the jeans on top of a basket filled with my meticulously ironed clothes. “Have you written anything recently, Chock?”
I looked up from behind my grammar book. “Why?”
“Just wondering. You usually show me what you write, and you haven’t lately.”
I stared at the basket of clothes. “Actually, there is something. I entered a story in the Globe’s high school fiction contest a few weeks ago, and yesterday I got a letter saying they’ll be printing it next month.”
My mother, smiling, walked over and sat down next to me. “That’s fantastic,” she said, then leaned over and gave me a kiss. “When can I read it?”
“You might as well read it now.” I pulled the story out of the back of my book and handed it to her.
Joseph Francis Whitaker crossed his flabby knees and popped a second buttermint into his mouth.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” his maiden sister, Therese, announced to the three Bainbridge sisters, also acclaimed maidens and on Thursday evenings Therese’s bridge companions, “that they have not caught him by now. A psychopathic killer in Topeka is bound to stand out like a sore thumb!”
The sisters nodded. “So terrifying,” Marge Bainbridge said.
“Women,” Joseph thought as he rearranged himself on the Bainbridges’ love seat, “are afraid of everything.” And he shot another buttermint into his mouth.
“That is why I asked Joseph to walk me home this evening,” Therese said, calling her final trick and tallying up the score. Then, almost as an afterthought, she added: “He used to wrestle.”
As the Bainbridge sisters cooed politely, Joseph stealthily sucked in his substantial gut and pushed out what was left of his pectoral muscles.
“Marge and I took the rubber,” Therese said, putting on her coat and sweeping into its pockets the dull silver nickels she had won. “Let’s go, Joseph.”
“Don’t get up, girls,” Therese continued, walking towards the door her brother held open for her. “See you next Thursday.” They stepped into the cold night, and Joseph pulled the door to.
Together, they edged down the Bainbridge sisters’ icy steps. Then Therese turned and cast her brother a dirty look. “Why don’t you ever speak to them? You embarrass me so when you’re around us.”
Behind them, the door clicked locked.
“That’s why,” Joseph answered. “They’re a bunch of fearful old biddies.”
“Then so am I,” said Therese, now on the sidewalk and picking up speed. “You probably even think it’s silly I asked you to walk me home.”
At the foot of the steps, Joseph pulled a small icicle from a frozen bush and broke it in half. He stood eyeing the broken ice and looking pleased with himself as Therese walked further ahead.
“Then don’t walk me home!” his sister yelled back from half a block in front of him. “No, I won’t have you walking with me!”
Joseph laughed loudly. “Then I’ll walk behind you!” he hollered. “You know good and well, Therese, that I have to go this way, anyhow! Good Lord, Sister, who do you think has been sleeping in the bedroom next to yours the past twenty-five years?”
Joseph walked along chuckling. Every time Therese looked back over her shoulder to make sure he was still there, he laughed loudly enough for her to hear. “Women,” he snickered quietly to himself, “are afraid of everything.” He watched Therese turn the corner and smiled when he heard her scream. “That Therese,” he thought, “will do anything to make me look foolish.” Then he walked casually on around the corner, but there was no Therese.
“Just nickels!” he heard his sister screech from an alley only a few yards away.
“Therese,” Joseph said, walking past a trash barrel and into the alley, “let’s cut this out and go home. I’m hungry.” In the blackness he couldn’t make his sister out well. So when he saw the flash of silver near her chin, he asked, “Therese, what do you have there?” But Therese only gurgled as she fell into an overgrown hedge.
“Therese?” Joseph said, stepping towards his sister. But he stopped when again he saw the flash of the knife and then the outline of the huge figure holding it.
The flash flew across Joseph’s shoulder, then his large stomach. The world was suddenly all black and painful and smelled of body odor and liquor as he felt himself being forced onto the ground. Joseph tried to push his assailant off his pounding chest, but his muscles were too old, weak. He felt the attacker pull at his clothes and thrust strong hips up hard against his legs. Then he felt the flash crawl deeply across his neck and the cold air mixing with the buttermint in his throat.
“Get the title?” I asked my mother. “The story opens at a bridge game. Therese and Joseph play a game with each other. And in the end they are game.”
She eyed me skeptically. “It’s not like the stories you used to write in Arkansas.”
“I’m not the same person I was in Arkansas,” I said.
Faye Henry stood beside her bicycle looking at the main entrance to Rivers Country Day School, and everyone walking out that entrance looked at Faye Henry. Or more correctly, they looked at the thin but brilliant purple caftan blowing wildly about Faye Henry. In Cambridge, at three o’clock in the afternoon. On a cold, clouded, blustery day in January.
When I walked out that main entrance and Faye Henry smiled and waved, everyone in front of Rivers Country Day turned to look at me, expecting I would be the jeweled elephant they were sure was going to wrap its trunk around Faye Henry and trudge off with her to the circus.
“This day needed some color!” she explained as I approached with a forced smile.
“Why are you here?” We walked along the sidewalk, Faye Henry pushing her bike and me kicking dead leaves.
“I came to tell you that recently your mother has been slipping out of class to find an empty room and cry,” Faye Henry told me as she parked her bike, knelt down, and began brushing leaves from the walk.
“She does what? What are you doing?”
“I’m going to make a rubbing of the center of this manhole cover. A bell. Interesting, isn’t it? You know, I’ve never been in this part of Cambridge.” She reached over and took a piece of paper from her bicycle basket.
“We only left my father a few months ago. It’s hard on her.”
“I don’t think it’s your father she’s crying over.” Faye Henry placed the paper on the ground and lightly rubbed a scarlet crayola over it until an image began to appear.
“You,” she said, now pushing the crayola frantically back and forth across the paper.
“She’s worried about you, Chockie. She says you’re not happy, that you haven’t made friends. She says that all you do is read and listen to the radio, simultaneously. And she says it’s her fault because you all moved here for her to go back to school.”
“Nothing’s her fault, and I do have friends. I just don’t ask them home with me. It’s hard enough to read and listen to the radio at the same time, much less entertain a friend while I do it.”
Faye Henry smiled halfheartedly.
“I simply like to read, and I think better with music,” I said.
She looked into my eyes. “Your mother says she may not see Alan anymore. She says you don’t talk to him, don’t like him.”
“She forces him on me. He forces himself on me. And one thing I don’t need is another father.”
“She thinks you hate your father.”
“She says you don’t read his letters.”
“But he’s your father. You should.”
“He’s a jerk, so I shouldn’t.”
“Don’t abandon him, Chockie.”
I glared down incredulously at Faye Henry. “You’re a fine one to preach: you abandoned Asmeth.”
Faye Henry peered up at me with eyes which suddenly looked very old. “Believe it or not,” she said, “I thought I was helping my husband. Perhaps I should have stayed. Maybe I did make a mistake, but I guess some things you have to learn for yourself.” Faye Henry rose to her feet. “And maybe your father made a mistake. People make a lot of mistakes, Chockie. Like Isabelle — and me. From the subject of her thesis, I thought she could help you. I didn’t understand how intimidated she felt here and that she herself needed help. I let her make a mistake.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Don’t you make a mistake, Chockie.”
The music I listened to depended on what I was reading. Shakespeare was always classical. Baldwin was blues. Willa Cather seemed to take to country and western, and Hemingway read beautifully to easy listening. Flannery O’Connor spoke through Sunday-morning spirituals. Vonnegut liked rock, Heller jazz.
The right music would emphasize and even explain their words, link those words in new ways, give new meaning. Sprawled out on my bed with radio blaring, I would close both book and eyes and listen, thinking about what they had written, often repeating it to myself against the music until I would fall asleep. Then wake to understand.
About Faye Henry. Half asleep, half awake I understood. Faye Henry couldn’t live a lie. Neither would she divorce the husband who could not make love to her, to any woman: Faye Henry would not deprive Asmeth of the vote of every good Catholic in Mississippi. No, Asmeth’s wife would turn the spotlight on herself by flying away to Mexico. Some would say into the arms of a Latin lover. Many say she had forsaken her husband. Most would say Asmeth deserved better and would make him Lieutenant Governor the following month. But really it was Faye Henry who began Asmeth on his long and distinguished career in Jackson. And it is Faye Henry who protects him still with a marriage license, who has made both their lives good. Because she can forgive.
“That was Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D,’ ” the DJ announced, “dedicated to Chockie Carlson from Faye Henry, in hopes that he understands.”
My eyes opened. “Mom!” I jumped up from my bed and flung open the door.
“I told her you were reading King Lear,” my mother answered from my doorway, a packet in her hand. “She called every classical station in town!”
“It’s a conspiracy,” I said, and grinned.
“You’re damn right,” my mom said, not even a hint of color in her cheeks.
“That’s all I ask.” And she handed me her stockpile of my father’s letters, thick envelopes covered with stamps of cruel-looking leaders and tropical flowers.
“I finished the back flower beds!” I hollered to my mother as I dribbled my basketball down the drive. She was reading with Faye Henry on the front porch. “Anything else?”
“I’ll be at Jerry Metcalf’s playing B-ball!”
“Right!” my mom yelled, laying down her book.
“Right!” Faye Henry yelled, looking over her book and crossing her pink-tighted legs.
“Right!” I yelled, dribbling up the street.
On a rainy spring Saturday in 1977, my mom and I stood with Faye Henry in her apartment, looking at the floor. Faye Henry had taken a quilt her grandmother had made, a beautiful green-and-white wedding-ring pattern, and had spread it over the cheap tile. On its center she had placed a bowl filled with wild daisies and thorny sweetheart roses, around which paper plates heavy with cheeses, fruits, vegetables, sliced meats, and breads were aesthetically arranged.
“It’s beautiful, Faye,” my mom said.
“Sweetheart roses on a wedding-ring pattern in an April day,” Faye Henry said. “The hell you can’t have a picnic in the rain.”
“It smells good, too,” I said.
“Men. Ninety-five percent stomachs.” Faye Henry grimaced, then grinned. “There’s a casserole and also soup for you in the kitchen, Chockie. I figured you guys would want something hot. And a flan, something sweet.”
“Faye, you’ve cooked all day!” my mom scolded.
“Well it’s a big event. A wedding party for you and Alan. A graduation party for you, Chockie, and me. A bon voyage party for Chockie, off to spend the summer in Arkansas. And then your dad’s driving you out to Stanford, Chock?”
“We’re driving,” I said from the kitchen.
“And a congratulations party for me: my first honest-to-God salaried job, complete with title.”
“You should write your family,” my mom said, and winked at Faye Henry. “I think they would approve of a Kentucky headmistress.”
“That’s what worries me,” Faye Henry chuckled as she straightened the crown of leftover daisies in her hair.
“A quick toast before Alan and all get here,” I said, running out of the kitchen.
Faye Henry filled three Styrofoam cups. We each took one and pressed them together.
“Go get ’em, Chockie Carlson,” Faye Henry said.
In his driveway, my father sat behind the wheel of his warming car, trying to pull off the jacket I’d given him for his birthday. It was too small, but he claimed it fit “like a glove” and had refused to return it.
“Hold this sleeve, will ya, Chockie?”
I held the sleeve.
“Thanks. Oh,” he remembered, reaching into the jacket’s only pocket. It had been a poor gift all the way round. I was ashamed; my father deserved better. “You got a letter from your mom.” He pulled out the letter and handed it to me. Then he carefully folded the jacket and gently laid it on the back seat.
I tore open the envelope. Inside was a note with a waxy red bell on its front. Paper-clipped to the note was a small, yellow piece of paper.
Thought you’d want to read this. Call when you get to California. Alan sends his best.
P.S. Tell Charles hello for me.
“She says hello.”
My father smiled. “Good. All set?”
He shifted the car into reverse and pushed down on the accelerator as I flipped open the note.
Dearest Jo, Chockie, and Alan:
My primary responsibility as headmistress was to serve tea. (Lordie, I could have been a headmistress at twenty-three and never knew it!) Need I say more? I lasted two days.
Am now in Jackson with Asmeth. Have been traipsing the bridge-club/church-luncheon circuit with my slide projector, requesting funds for a new teenage mothers’ home. Will have it running soon.
Asmeth has been most kind. I offered to name the home after him: The Asmeth Townsend Home for Unwed Mothers. But he turned a graceful shade of green, gentleman that he is, and declined.
The Governor’s mansion is lovely. Yet in this morning’s wee hours, I crept downstairs, sat on the first davenport I could find, and thought about the past twenty-two years. There has been no mistake here, Chockie: I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. And Asmeth seems a tinge greener each time I see him (or he sees me), and I long to continue (find?) my work.
Interesting, isn’t it, how China is opening up?
I looked from the letter over to my father, who smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder. There I let it rest.
Go get ’em, Faye Henry.
I love you, Faye Henry.