This is an extract from a book I wrote called The Unfallen. Today is Patriot’s Day, the birthday of Gwendolyn Jones, the leading lady in the novel. In this segment, Gwen discusses how women cheat themselves of their own sovereignty in the vain pursuit of romantic love.
“Do you know how much I enjoy watching you walk?” Devin asked.
Gwen smiled demurely and he knew it was a pose, because, while she was many different things, often many at once, she was never demure.
“When you walk, nothing above your hips moves, not if you don’t want it to. You walk with your feet and your knees and your thighs and your hips. You don’t swing your arms or sway your shoulders or bob your head. Your upper body is perfectly still.”
“Is that so unusual?”
“I think it is. When I first noticed it, I wanted to say you were languid. But languor is such an ugly kind of…”
“Lassitude?” She didn’t quite laugh at him.
“Precisely. You’re a vibrant snot, and there is nothing languid about you. And yet you move so gracefully, even at top speed, that you make everyone else look sloppy and frenetic and spastic.”
“Sometimes I wiggle my behind. Does that qualify me to rejoin the human race?”
“To the contrary. Your butt alone is enough to make every other woman hang her head in shame.”
“I see. Do you suppose the other women snubbed Helen of Troy in the powder room?”
He laughed and that was good enough. They were walking on the beach at Plum Island, a wildlife refuge near Newburyport, south of the New Hampshire border. The children–Hunter and Spencer and Gretchen–had run on ahead of them, racing somebody’s dog to some unknown destiny. The day was very clear and surprisingly warm for mid-December. There were a few people on the beach, most of them running their dogs or running the legs off their children. The air was rich with the smell of the sea.
She said, “I like this sweater.” He had bought big, bulky Irish wool cable-knit sweaters for all of them. It made them look like one big family and she knew that was what he had wanted. Hiking boots and blue jeans and five people driving up the coast in the Range Rover dressed all alike. “I hope you have plans to take me some place where you can take it off me.”
“Don’t ever tease me,” he quoted. “I can’t say no to you and I won’t permit you to say no to me. So be prepared to deliver what you promise. Because I’m always prepared to collect.”
She smiled at him and that was good enough.
Hunter came racing back carrying the carapace of an expired crab. He brought it to Gwen, not Devin, and that was just fine. He said, “Look at the turtle shell I found!”
“It’s awfully red for a turtle, isn’t it?”
“It’s a red turtle. There’s a bunch of ’em here.” With that he raced off again.
“He likes you a lot,” Devin said. “He talks about you all the time.”
“I can’t think that I’ve done so very much to earn his regard.”
Devin shrugged. “You treat him like I do, like Gretchen does. Like a person, not a baby, not something to be talked down to and dismissed. There’s probably more. You’re so much at ease with yourself. Maybe you put him at his ease, too. Certainly you have that effect on me.”
“Are you so terribly anxious when I’m not around?”
“…Actually, yes. Now I am. I hate it when you’re not around, and I have no patience in the hours before I get to see you again. Is that what you wanted to hear? But no, I’m not normally anxious without you, and I’m sure I was passably calm before we met. But when I’m with you… It’s different. It’s a calm, but it’s a frenzied calm, a savage and brutal and frantic kind of peace. I’m infused by you all the time, but when you’re near me, when I can see you, when I can smell you–that’s when I feel complete.”
“…You’ve never been in love before, have you, Devin?”
“I don’t think I have. Nothing like this, never. How about you?”
She said nothing but she grasped his hand in hers and laced her fingers between his. They walked that way, hand in hand, for a long time.
“We used to stay here every summer. Me, my mother, my grandpa and Candy. My dad when he could. The whole month of August, every year.”
Gwen swept her eyes from the ocean to the beach to the miles and miles of barren dunes. “Did you sleep in tents?”
He laughed and squeezed her hand in his. “Not out here. At the other end of the island. There are beach houses there, and my grandpa would rent one for the month and he’d stay in the city all week and come out on the weekends. My mother and Candy and I would stay out here for the whole month. We’re in the lee of Cape Ann, so the worst storms never make it here, and what I remember is day after day of hazy, sultry summer days.”
“I’m amazed that a beach this beautiful should have so few people on it.”
“There were even fewer back then. This island belonged to the Navy, going back to the Revolutionary War. We’re right at the mouth of the Merrimac River, and the Merrimac was America’s first industrial highway. Quaint little Newburyport used to be a real player in world trade. Anyway, the Navy clung to this island long after they had any reason to, and it was only about twenty years ago that it was turned over to the federal park system. When I was growing up, nobody came out to this part of the island. All month long it was just me and the gulls and the ducks and the geese.”
“Whenever you talk about your youth, you always make it sound so perfect. It’s really quite disgusting of you.”
He shrugged. “Do you suppose the other men snubbed Ulysses when they were picking teams for softball games?”
“Touché, mon brave. A worm done to a turn, who could argue with that?”
He pulled his hand from hers and pulled her under his arm. He said, “I had my first… affair of the heart on this island. A very lively young lady named Catherine Goldstraw. Scots-Irish and English Catholic, every persecuted minority in the British Empire, all under one head of shiny black hair. Pale blue eyes and lips like a china doll.”
“Am I to be made jealous?”
He smiled and she could feel his smile in his chest. “Like Helen herself, nothing can compare to you. I’m just telling you what happened. I was fifteen, almost sixteen, and she was at least a year older, maybe two years. I was deeply smitten with her in a puppy-love kind of way, and she led me all over this island, her two fingers hooked right into my nostrils.”
“Oh, so now I understand why you are immune to my charms.” She laughed.
“She wasn’t like you, though. She had your spark and your energy, but there was a darkness to her, too. I was reading Ibsen that summer and I thought she was like Hedda. Not stupidly self-destructive, but as likely to find her amusement in the dark as in the light. That’s actually a funny thing to say, because the night before she left here, she taught me astronomy.”
Gwen looked confused. “Weren’t you interested in astronomy before then?”
“Sorry. Euphemism. I mean she showed me the stars. My first time. Very big surprise for me.” Gwen said nothing. He stopped walking and lifted her chin to look at her. Her eyes bore the smallest touch of sadness. “I hope I didn’t hurt you, talking about that.”
“No. How could you? I was just thinking that I wish I could have been your first, your first and last and only. And I wish you could have been that for me.”
He smiled at her and it was smile more warming than a kiss. “You’re my first love, Gwen. The first time I’ve ever been in love. Everything up to now has been practice, and I’m glad I didn’t know you at fifteen or seventeen or twenty-eight, because I would have screwed the whole thing up. I have you now because I’ve earned you and because I deserve you and because I know finally how to treat you as you deserve to be treated. I couldn’t have had you when I was younger, because I was too stupid to appreciate your immense value. You’re my first, my last, my always. Don’t ever doubt it.”
She buried her head in his chest and squeezed him hard about the middle. They stood that way for a long time and he could feel her hair tickling at his chin and his cheeks as he looked out at the sun hanging over the ocean. The smell of the sea had woven itself into the scent of her, and the two together made him feel very much at home, very much at peace.
He spoke to her, murmured to her. “I love you more than anything, Gwen. I didn’t know, I had no way of knowing it was possible to love someone so much. You’re my last no matter what happens, because nothing could ever replace you in my life. Nothing…”
Without looking up she started walking and they walked that way, her arms locked around his middle, his arm over her shoulder, her face laid against his chest. Up ahead the children were playing Monkey in the Middle with a Frisbee and Hunter had no idea that the older two were spotting him many, many advantages. Devin sat down on a dune and leaned back on his elbow and Gwen snuggled into the lee of his shoulder, where the worst storms could never come.
“You love the wild and the innocent,” she said. “The unfallen–that’s another word you use all the time. Do you know what I love? I love sovereignty. Self-control. Self-responsibility. Self-realization. Self-reproach, even, should reproach ever be necessary. I love Ibsen too, but do you know what is my favorite play? It’s Cyrano. Not for Roxane. Who cares about another dumb blonde with too many boyfriends? No, what I love in that play is Cyrano himself. He says, ‘I stand, not high it may be, but alone’, and it takes my breath away, every time.”
Devin said nothing. He wove his fingers into her hair and combed down slowly, treasuring the silkiness of her tresses.
“Do you understand what you’ve done to me? You told me all about your silence and distance and lies. Do you understand that story from the other perspective? Do you know what those women are doing when their men are trying so hard to hide from them?”
“…I’ve always thought of it as two clams, one striving to be closed as tightly as possible, the other as open as possible.”
“That’s not half bad–as analogies go. A clam is either impervious to injury or it is totally vulnerable. Your men ‘clam up’, don’t they? They refuse to ‘open up’ and share with their women. Do you think the women are opening up as much as possible, making themselves completely vulnerable?”
“I’ve always thought so. I have virtually no first-hand evidence, of course.”
“That’s just what she says she’s doing. What she’s really doing is betraying who she is, in the hope that, by being someone different, he will treat her differently.”
“…You’ve lost me.”
“It’s the business I’m in, isn’t it? Fifteen days to a brand new you! The thirty-minute makeover! How to be the woman of his dreams! Reduce! Replace! Refinish! Renounce! Rejoice in your elemental nothingness! I don’t write that rubbish, I never have. But there’s plenty of it out there. It’s a simple enough syllogism: If I change myself, it will change him. If I lose these twenty pounds, if I try this new hair style, if I ignore my own interests and pretend to be fascinated by his, if I stand on my hands and applaud with my feet, then he’ll notice me, then he’ll treat me as I want to be treated, then we’ll be soul mates instead of just house mates.”
“Is it really that bad…?”
“Dear god! It’s so much worse. He doesn’t love me, not really, and I know that but I can’t say the words. So instead I will fold myself lengthwise along the spine. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll love me then. If he doesn’t, I will fold myself in half again at the waist. Then again at the knees and shoulders. Then again and again and again, making myself smaller and smaller and less and less demanding. Less needy, I hope. Less obtrusive. Less an annoyance to him. Less a curse, to speak the awful truth. He makes himself unavailable, so I strive with all my might to make myself unavailing. He wants to be uncompromised, and I do nothing but compromise myself, night and day, awake and asleep, always. This is my destiny. This is my choice. This is my life, a life composed entirely of absences and emptiness and nothingness.”
He said nothing and she wondered if he was listening until a tear dripped off his cheek and onto hers.
“Did you understand what I wrote on the mirror? ‘Be who you are.’ The most important thing I know. Feminism is such a stupid joke. Women in the boardroom? Women in the legislature? Women on top or women without men–what does that have to do with anything? Women subordinate themselves. By choice. They never really learn how to stand alone, anyway, and they think it’s what they have to do to get men. And the kind of men they get that way just make it all worse. They’re not very much to begin with, and they betray what little they are for a kiss and a promise, and they go on betraying themselves, year after year, with the sage guidance of all those allegedly feminist women’s magazines. Be who you are. You must be a sovereign, an individual, a soul unto your own. Until you can do that, you can’t have anything worth having–not love, not money, not things–and you can’t hang on to the things you get.
“‘Do what you want.’ What you want. Not what your parents want. Not what your husband wants. Not what the sisterhood wants. Do what you want. Follow your own mind, follow your own heart, follow your own star. Stand alone–not high it may be, but alone. Do you know who I respect? I respect divorced women who stay divorced. The ones who rush right into another disaster have learned nothing and probably never will. But the women who have subordinated and renounced and deferred and still wound up out in the cold, the ones who learned better, those are the women I respect. Self-control, self-responsibility, self-realization, all in abundance.
“‘Have what you love.’ It’s a procedure. An algorithm–is that the right word? You may not be able to have what you love. Probably it’s the rare case to have all that you love. But you can’t have any of it until you are fully you, until you have ceased to betray and renounce yourself, until you have given yourself permission to be.
“Permission to be… There’s a poem in there, isn’t there? ‘I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair.’ Shelley was sneering at the frailty and mortality and futility of greatness, but I think he got it just wrong. Ozymandias was mortal, but he was proud of his enormity while he lived. That’s what I despise about women, that’s what I despise in the Not For Women Only woman. All she wants is an excuse to grow smaller still, to be less of herself, to be less a person, less an entity, smaller and less significant than a speck of dust. Devin, do you love me because I’m so terribly small?”
He laughed. “Hardly.”
“Do you love me because I’m so completely deferential? Because I’m so unassuming and self-effacing and pliable? Do you love me because I’m so diminutive, the perfect little pocket-sized helpmeet?”
He laughed harder. “You know better than that. I love you because you’re immense. I hadn’t known you for half-an-hour when I compared you to Prometheus in my mind. Does that answer your question?”
She smiled and even though her face was pressed into his chest he could feel her smiling. “I told you I’ve stopped editing myself for people. I was never a Not For Women Only woman. I never diminished myself or degraded myself or denounced myself. But I used to hide myself–most of myself. I stopped doing that because it was useless. In hiding myself, I was pretending for others to be someone I’m not. Not posing or acting, not portraying a lie. But forbearing to live the whole truth of my life. That had ugly consequences. First, it made me feel awful, made me feel there was something wrong with who I am, that I had to hide myself in shame. And second, it was horribly stupid strategically. Do you see why? The people you might attract being other than whom you are are not the people you would wish to attract. This is so stupid and so obvious, but it took me years to figure it out. To the extent that I wanted people in my life, I wanted people like me–people like you, Devin Dwyer. So how did I go about trying to find them? By being not like me. Very stupid. Very common, but very stupid.”
Devin said, “I’m glad you are who you are. I told you it’s you–the you of the inside–that I love.”
He felt her smile again. “Last Friday at the hotel, I thought about saying something smart like, ‘You’re the best man I’ve had in years.’ The joke of it is, you’re the only man I’ve had in years. I don’t even remember what love-making was like, before. I’d like to say that being with you is better than anyone, ever, but I can’t even make a comparison. Being with you is perfect, though, and not just when you’re within me. From the very beginning you said you wanted nothing but honesty, and I’ve been nothing but honest with you. I’ve been almost completely unedited with you, and I’ve liked it a lot.”
He said nothing, just pulled her more tightly to him and watched the children playing on the beach.