Authors: Stuart Nadler
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and have a child.
The wind carries them off
in different directions.
âMark Strand, “The Marriage”
As usual, the book only made her problems worse.
The new editions arrived overnight from New York. One large box came, torn already at the corners. When the deliveryman knocked, Henrietta pretended she was not at home. From an upstairs window she watched him, obviously cold in his uniform, looking harmless, carefully holding the box as if it held something truly valuable. A storm was just beginning. Constant wind bent the stand of birches by the road. Snowdrifts gathered in steep, clean slopes beneath the casement windows. The best option, she decided, was to leave the box out in the weather. That way, mercifully, the snow and sleet might ruin everything.
Hours later, though, her daughter was digging in.
“Disaster averted,” Oona announced, home from her shift at the hospital, snow and ice on the hood of her coat. “I've saved the books!”
Oona smiled fiendishly. This was the look that afflicted everyone who ever came in contact with this thing. She put down the box on the kitchen counter and expertly ran the sharp edge of her car key through the cardboard.
“Don't open it,” Henrietta pleaded, reaching out to try to stop what was about to happen. “Please. Let's just put it back outside and let them all get destroyed. That's the healthy, reasonable thing to do.”
“You have to let me do this,” Oona said. “I had the worst day. A guy came in from a car crash with his lower half in a zillion pieces.” Oona held up some Styrofoam peanuts and crushed them in her hand until confetti poured through her fingers. She was an orthopedic trauma surgeon at a hospital in Boston. A good deal of her stories started like this. More confetti came down. “Like, a
pieces.” Oona was the rare medical professional who somehow made surgical scrubs fashionable, a feat she accomplished by wearing all black, all the time, from scarf to clogs, as if she were a medical ninja. “The Styrofoam, so you know, is supposed to represent bones.”
Oona had ended her marriage earlier this year, and ever since she had been living at home again, in her childhood bedroom. For Henrietta, this turned out to be good timing. Her husband, Harold, had passed eleven months ago, and it had helped to have her daughter back in the house, to have, however temporarily, another soul here, under the same roof, another person breathing and speaking. This sudden recurrence of mothering had become the perfect antidote to her widowhood.
Oona was tall, like her father, and had his same profile, his same wide-set eyes, his exact same laugh. Henrietta had never been more grateful for this than in this last year. At times it seemed inconceivable that they might have ever raised a doctor together. Especially in this house, with the occasional chicken running through, with its loud music, and with their gallons of artery-clogging homemade butter in the freezer. For years Harold was a successful chef with a French restaurant in downtown Boston, and it turned out that all their Sunday evenings here in the big open kitchen julienning carrots and butchering meat had at least left Oona comfortable with sharp knives.
Oona reached into the box and took out the first copy of the book, immediately pressing it against her chest and feigning devotional ecstasy. Henrietta looked away. After all this time, the familiar pink cover was back in her life.
“Oh my goodness,” Oona cried out in mock surprise.
“Don't act like you weren't obsessively tracking this package,” said Henrietta.
They had known, of course, that the box was on its way. People in New York had alerted Henrietta to this fact last night.
Let us know what you think,
they had implored her, deliriously excited, full of foolish optimism, as if she was inclined to think anything positive after all this time.
“This is so wonderful,” Oona said. The box held eleven more copies. “Can I keep it?”
“You already have a copy, I'm sure,” Henrietta said.
“I have a
of copies. But none so pristine,” said Oona.
The truth was that Henrietta was long in the habit of denying her book's existence, but this was difficult to do when it was there on her counter, and in her daughter's hands. This month her old publishers, Hubbard and Co., were set to release a new (still pink) edition, replete with, of all things, critical essays and appreciations. Henrietta had not known such things might apply to a book like hers. Her editors had asked her to write the introduction, something light but wistful, and she'd refused. They'd called after her for weeks.
Just write something,
Anything! Don't you have any thoughts about your book?
She'd responded with an email that read,
For a very long time I have tried to ignore the fact that I authored this book. You should understand that this is the work of someone very young and supremely untalented. I know I am not alone in that opinion. I say this with full knowledge of how uncouth this sounds: I really just need the money.
She had written the book here, during her first years in Massachusetts. Earlier in her life, she had taught in New York. Women's studies. The politics of the human body. The gendered dialectics of mass-market media. Harold had moved them here when she was pregnant. Without classes to teach, she thought she would try her hand at fiction. She was young and full of confidence. Mostly she wrote at night, in short fits while Oona slept. Her heroine was a twenty-five-year-old woman named Eugenia Davenport, a newspaper reporter tasked by her editors during the summer of 1967 with finding the most desirable man in New York City and then getting him to marry her. Henrietta had the idea to structure the book like a visitor's guide to the female body, designed to emulate the traveler's companion that tourists brought with them to Paris, replete with maps and photographs and historical anecdotes about the various cathedrals worth seeing. In every chapter, Eugenia Davenport had a new lover, and with every new lover there were discoveries to be made. Henrietta cringed even to hear the word “diagram” now:
had in it the first in-depth diagram of the vagina that had ever appeared in a mainstream book, or, more accurately, a book that was being sold in the supermarket, and which any woman, or grandmother, or, for that matter, any nine-year-old boy, could pick up while waiting for the checkout clerk to finish bagging. This is to say nothing about the way she'd drawn this particular diagramâlike an ironic treasure map to a mythic hidden colony.
If they spoke of it at all while Oona was growing up, they called it
That Motherfucking Thing.
Until a few months ago, Henrietta wondered if she was the only person who remembered what it really was, or what it had meant to that whole generation who'd professed to love it. But then Henrietta had needed the money, and this whole ordeal had started up in earnest once more. Her picture had appeared last week in the
and then in
Strangers had lately begun to recognize her again. Recently, whenever she was out in downtown Aveline, someone inevitably would stop her, someone about her age, squinting to see if she really was the same woman from the back of the book, the one holding that infernal silver teapot. The conversation was usually about the scene three chapters from the end, when Eugenia smashes her own teapot through the front window of the Cadillac belonging to Templeton Grace, the man she blames for ruining her impending marriage. The teapot was intended to be some ironic joke, some winking insult to the women she'd been trying to make a comment about, women like her own mother, for whom the teapot, or the serving spoon, or the watering can, had become the family coat of arms. That smashing of the window was supposed to symbolize some epochal generational shift. Women assuming some whiff of a man's primal violence.
The repudiation was endless. The book had been construed as something she hadn't intended. She'd been called out by smarter, better-educated feminists for having contributed to a caricature of women being shrill and unstable and willing to throw teapots through the windows of American luxury automobiles. The book was cheap, critics said, and irresponsibly witless. Its depiction of sex-crazed women would almost certainly prove counterproductive to the struggle. Henrietta had called the book
because she was trying to make a point about monogamy and fidelity and about the unspoken hope of all newlyweds: that their marriage might go out into the world unbreakable, tough as steel. This, too, was criticized for being overly simplistic and sentimental and also too beholden to patriarchal norms. The people she'd set out to pillory had become the book's biggest champions. For a year, at every one of her public appearances, cheery housewives brought her silver teapots, hugged her, whispered loving encouragement into her ear. Finally someone had written a book for them! A breezy, fun, sexy book! And it had pictures, too! The men who Henrietta hoped might feel stung by this bookâmen who saw the advent of the Pill and the subsequent ushering in of the sexual revolution as an excuse just to fuck more and fuck everyone and fuck with impunityâwrote her letters suggesting that she very probably wanted to fuck them, too. These men also felt compelled to show up at her readings. Although she refused to admit it aloud then, she'd been crushed when her book was rejected by the erudite establishment she'd assumed she belonged to. If she chose to search them out, she found dozens of news articles attesting to this rejection, all with variations of a headline much like this: “Olyphant Insists Sex Book Is Actually Good for Women.” She'd sought to make an asshole of people, and people had very rightly made an asshole of her.
She never wrote another book, or another article. There was just this. She had the original reviews packed away somewhere in a box, the collected array of her misery stored together with other similar artifacts that brought her shame: bills from her credit card company, the impossible-to-open case for the diaphragm her mother had ordered for her before her first semester at Barnard, her humiliating attempts at landscape painting.
Henrietta watched Oona flip through
with something close to genuine enthusiasm, relishing, somehow, every page. It was one thing to have written a book like this; it was another thing entirely to have a daughter who enjoyed it so much.
“Oh!” Oona cried. “It has the diagrams. Still!”
“You're handling this all wrong,” Henrietta said. “I need compassion from you. Or at least some genuine disapproval.”
“You were a genius,” Oona said, turning the book around so that Henrietta could see. “What kind of drugs were you smoking when you decided to do this?”
“My favorite part?” Oona said, pointing to the most famous diagram. “Is the fact that you felt it necessary to include a label for pubic hair. As if we can't tell what this is.”
“Okay,” Henrietta said, turning away. “Now you're just being coarse.”
Henrietta would not touch the book. The truth was that she had not physically handled a copy of
That Motherfucking Thing
for a decade. Perhaps two. This went beyond superstition. She detested it. The first sentence, the second sentence, the last sentenceâevery sentence. The cover. The back cover. The concept. The pictures. She had burned a few copies once, this having been the seventies, and a therapist of hers having advocated some combination of primal scream therapy and pyromania. Not surprisingly, it had not been very helpful to feel a kinship with Joseph Goebbels.
“You don't understand,” Oona said. “It's a cult sensation now.”
“Cults are not good things, Oona. Why should I feel good about this?”
Oona smiled. “Because it's wonderful and trashy and fantastic.”
Henrietta took a deep breath.
“I know,” Oona said. “You thought it was actually smart.”
“The trashiness was unintended, I know. But accidental trashiness can still be exquisite. The trash can age and ripen.”
“I left the box out there to get ruined,” Henrietta said. “
“What fun is that?”
“You were an infant when this was published. You don't remember.”
“I've heard a million times about the cat on the porch,” Oona said.
“Girls from Radcliffe brought a
cat,” said Henrietta.
from Radcliffe, Mom.”
“That's the wrong part of the sentence to be concerned with!”
“I know. You were an academic. A serious thinker.”
“What was your lecture? The gendered economy of housework?”
This was true. She met Harold when he catered a lunch for her department at the university. Because there were empty seats, she invited him to sit and, surprisingly, he accepted the offer. There were charts, she remembered, registering the declining wage per hour of various domestic jobs before and after women began doing them. Days later, Harold invited her to the restaurant where he worked. He was slender, with long brown hair that he kept tied up above his head with kitchen twine. He worked at a small bistro in midtown, near the theaters. She went thinking that they would eat together in the dining room, that it was his day off, maybe, that he would, at best, politely disregard her lecture, or, at worst, confront her with the same tired invective she'd heard ever since she started teaching:
Why don't you talk about something more pleasant?
What's a pretty girl like you have to be upset about?
Instead, they ate out in the alley behind the kitchen. He had twenty minutes off, he told her. He had set up a makeshift table on the steps of the fire escape. He told her what he'd made.
Escargots Ã la bourguignonne. FricassÃ©e de poulet Ã l'ancienne.
She didn't know what any of the food was. She'd grown up poor, eating the cheapest cuts of meat, boiled potatoes. He had Sancerre in stemware that he'd carefully unwrapped from cloth napkins. It was fall. She wore a sweater. She had never drunk Sancerre before. He had lined up flowers and candles, she remembered, along the rusted steel staircase. Earlier that week she had lectured for forty minutes on the insipid mass-market depictions of men trying to woo women. He served the chicken in a shallow bowl. While she ate, he watched her, nervous that she would not like it. “You can tell me,” he said. “You can tell me if it's awful.”