by Robert Earle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Along the way, I found a gym; Helen found an office for staying in touch with work, but Nowitzki and Marguerite didn’t do much of anything. For a while he wasn’t feeling well, and she shuttled in and out of his bedroom, bringing him things to drink or read or helping him tap into the ship’s trove of movies.
One day Helen and I agreed to have lunch together in a restaurant styled as a French café, and I asked her for her definition of love, which we hadn’t got to on that first encounter.
Immediately she turned the question around.“Wait, before I do that, what about Marguerite’s definition? Did you agree with it?”
“To me what she was describing almost sounded like desperation as much as love, but it might be love. I really don’t know.”
“You’ve never fallen into her kind of love or some other kind with these girls who pursued you?”
“Come on, they were girls.”
“With a woman, then? Have you ever married, Seth? You’ve evaded that point.”
I didn’t recall evading it, but Helen was the kind of person who knew how to get her hooks into you. “No, I haven’t been married. New York makes it somewhat unnecessary.”
“Because there’s always another person?”
“Who breaks things off: you or the women you have relations with?”
In one sense it almost never was me, but in another it was always me because I wouldn’t give women any commitment beyond being faithful while we were together. So they moved on.
I said this, prompting Helen to say that she didn’t think that her father and mother were that much in love. She said it seemed they were more each other’s habit. She said his trick of blowing off my resume demonstrated this perfectly. He erased the past rather easily.
But he didn’t want to die; he grabbed hold of the youngest thing he could possibly grab. Marrying Marguerite had nothing to do with her mother’s death. It was all about her father’s impending death and Marguerite’s vulnerability.
“She’s a naive romantic. Pretty and poetic, but gullible. She’s even gullible to herself. She believes what she thinks.”
“You don’t believe what you think?”
She laughed and rolled her eyes. “You marry a guy and he cheats on you with other women. You marry another guy and he’s just as bad. Does marriage have anything to do with love? You didn’t happen to avoid marriage because you imagined a life full of former students coming your way, did you?”
I didn’t think that was true and said so. However, Helen wasn’t satisfied. The next evening over dinner, served in their suite, she recounted our discussion to Nowitzki and Marguerite in detail, emphasizing the fact that I’d never married, never loved anyone and didn’t seem to know what all the fuss was about.
I had the sensation that somehow Nowitzki and Marguerite had become the wise old married couple anyone in need of enlightenment about life would turn to. I even felt that Helen was putting me in a situation whose underlying premise was that she and I were in a relationship that needed fixing if it was to go anywhere.
But Nowitzki didn’t want to bother with Helen’s speculations about me any more than he wanted to study my resume. He wanted to tell me more about Helen. “Whatever Helen wants to say about you, all I know is that if I went off on a cruise with Marguerite and left Helen behind, I’d feel terrible, but if I invited her along, how would I distract her? Our relationship’s best when she’s distracted.
“She was always my little girl, not Dottie’s. That’s probably why she thinks Dottie didn’t count so much with me, which isn’t true. The truth is Dottie didn’t count that much with her, and yet Dottie kept after her anyway. Women are like that. They know what young girls shouldn’t get be getting away with, and they know that at a point a girl makes a father pretty uncomfortable. The time comes to take on boys.”
I said, “You’ve thought a lot about this?”
Some old men — and I realized I was getting to be an old man — are terrifyingly honest. There’s no more time for lying, and they have nothing they worry about losing. Herman was brutally frank about himself.
“When Dottie was alive, I didn’t think at all. I knew how to run complicated insurance operations, but then she died, and that’s when I realized I couldn’t do the mental equivalent of a single pushup. I was atrophied. I was lost.
“To give Helen credit, she recharged me to the point where I could even imagine Marguerite in my life. You have no idea what it takes out of me, this multiple sclerosis of mine. You’re not seeing the worst. This sea air is a blessing to me, same as Marguerite.”
“They’re somehow equivalent, Marguerite and the sea air?”
“Exactly in the sense that Marguerite put it the other day: the thin physical fact of floating versus drowning. But I’m going to drown, and we’ve discussed that. It’s what she says: facing death makes things richer. Probably the battlefield is the same way. Knowing you’ll die soon and admitting it and cherishing the moments still left.”
“Bullshit,” Helen said. “And why turn this all on me and Mother and even blame me for your silly marriage?”
“It isn’t silly at all,” Marguerite complained. “I don’t know why you say that so often. It doesn’t change anything, does it?”
“No, that horse is out of the gate unfortunately.”
“Girls, please,” Nowitzki said. “Helen, what gets into you? Don’t you understand that by talking about Seth the way you were doing was embarrassing him? That’s why I changed the subject. I didn’t bring him along as a punching bag.”
“Then let him punch back.”
“I don’t want to punch anybody,” I said.
“How do you know what you want?” Helen asked. “You’re 61 and don’t know what love is, so maybe you also don’t know you want to punch back when someone hits you.”
“If Seth says he doesn’t want to punch anybody, we must accept the fact that he doesn’t,” Nowitzki said.
“But what if Helen is right, and Seth isn’t aware of what goes on in his life?” Marguerite asked. “It may be worth discussing: not Seth punching someone, Seth loving someone.”
The difference between Marguerite’s age and mine wasn’t fifty years, but it was close to forty. I felt that made her suggestion somewhat impertinent. “Let me phrase myself differently. I can’t define love, because I have not felt it by your definition or anyone else’s.” I said this sharply, but I still wanted to take a dig at her. “After all, a lot of my potential loves were girls pretty much like you.”
“Didn’t you indicate there were other women, too?” Helen asked. “Real women, ‘Manhattan’s full of them.’ Those were your words, weren’t they?”
“I don’t know if I said it that way or if I agreed with it when you suggested it.”
“And none of them gave you that bonding death stare my father and Marguerite value so much?” Helen asked.
Helen taking digs at Marguerite irked Marguerite more than my taking digs at her. It was her turn to be sharp-tongued. “Helen, your father lost your mother and that put him in touch with the fact of love in the loss of death. And I sensed that. I sensed that he didn’t want to be told things would be okay.”
“What did you tell him? That they weren’t going to be okay?”
“What would you expect her to say?” Nowitzki asked. “I’ve got chronically relapsing MS. I’m 72. My life except for someone brave enough to face the truth with me is pointless. Marguerite will have a lot of life to live after I’m gone.”
“Daddy, I’m not trying to make you feel worse, but whatever clicked between you two is going to damage her. That’s infatuation. Now it’s here, now it’s gone. Death is an escape hatch, not a lifeboat. Seth, come on, don’t you agree?”
I was still feeling bruised about being classified as ignorant of my own life experience; I was terse. “I’ve never been on the eve of death, and I haven’t submitted myself or anyone else to the relationship between love and death.”
“What do you think love is then, Seth?” Marguerite asked. “Don’t you think you’re loveable? Don’t you know you could die tonight, regardless of your age? Is that the problem?”
Nowitzki said, “I didn’t know it until my Dottie died. And that’s when I knew how much we loved each other.”
Saying this, Nowitzki glowed a bit and the quavering in his voice acquired a slightly different timbre. It wasn’t just the MS affecting his vocal chords. It was a note of emotional satisfaction, even health.
“Let me ask you this,” I said. “Did you and Marguerite discuss the advertisement in the Manhattan Review beforehand?”
“At some length?”
“I wasn’t sure about it,” Marguerite said, “because I had been hoping I could find a way through to Helen on my own.”
“So this is about me?” Helen asked.
“Of course it’s about you,” I said. “Not your father, not Marguerite, not me; you. I’m incidental; right, Herman?”
Nowitzki said, “I just felt they’d fight over me. I needed relief. I needed, you know, just what I said: a companion, someone with a brain.”
“Someone with a brain is a cut below an intellectual,” I observed.
“All right, pardon me if I got it wrong. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I ought to go lie down.”
The old lying-down trick when things got hot. Nowitzki hoisted himself up and away, shuffling into his bedroom, closely followed by an attentive and concerned Marguerite.
“Proud of yourself?” Helen asked me.
“I’m going to tuck in for the night, too,” I answered. Didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Earle