Raven-haired, intelligent, and intense Mary kept after Roger for the first year. In the beginning “they” as a couple seemed to be her idea. Not that she was some John Hinckley, Jr., stalking his Jodie Foster. They got physical (and they howled each other’s praise) after dinners out, after movies, after bluegrass bands, after backgammon. That first Christmas Roger bought Mary a navy blue goose-down coat from Eddie Bauer’s that matched his. Mary could not imagine, she said to her two married sisters, that Roger would not marry her.
A friend who just turned fifty told me, “I’ve become nervous about introducing unmarried, younger friends. It’s as dangerous as taking sides in a marital spat. In a marriage breakup, the couple gets back together and hates you. When you make introductions between single people? They sleep together awhile then quarrel, or simply drift apart, and they blame you for bringing them together in the first place! ” Roger, as things turned out, did not marry Mary. When they met, he was a thirty-three-year-old newly hired physics instructor, a chunky, ebullient, blue-eyed, blushy, Irish blond who played shortstop on his department’s softball team and lined vicious drives into left field. Although he could be seen treating relatives’ children with reverence, that first year he begrudged Mary’s question, “Do we have a future?” Mary did not ask again. She cheered Roger’s home runs, and after she stacked the graded papers for her freshman scientific principles class, she stopped by the music store and picked up strings for Roger’s banjo. Before she left for school in the morning, she made potato salad for the softball team’s potluck. She appeared to those of us older women -— we matrons who watched — to be doing what we had once done. She was biding her time. We praised her, saying how admirably she behaved, how cleverly, how spunkily. She would get him, we said.
In my day (I am getting close to forty-five), girls were schooled to catch a man. When he was caught, he was congratulated. “Never,” etiquette manuals warned, “congratulate the bride.”
In the middle of the second year Roger proposed. Mary said, “Until I get my degree, I’d rather we played it by ear.’’She assured him, “It’s not that I don’t love you. ’ ’
Roger and Mary leveled into an eighteen-month protracted crisis. Week by week, Roger increasingly organized his life around Mary. He carried fresh coffee to her library carrel, where she worked on her Ph.D. in the history of science and her dissertation on Lamarck. He ran and reran her dissertation bibliography through his office word processor. He missed softball practice. The calluses on his left hand softened, and when his banjo picks accidentally went to the laundry (he also carted in Mary’s laundry) in the pocket of his chinos, he never got around to buying more. When they parted, Roger was thirty-six, an assistant professor, and a heartbroken man. “I did everything I knew to do,” he said, "and it wasn’t enough." His blue eyes and pink cheeks had faded. His once flat belly curved outward.
We matrons gasped. “How could Mary have treated him like this?” “Wasn’t he,” one asked another, "the perfect catch? What does Mary want? ” “Did she,” one of us suggested, “simply use him?” To which my twenty-year-old daughter, sitting by, simply said, “What if she did?”
In his posthumously published book The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes that “human beings can hardly move without models for their behavior, and from the beginning of time, in all probability, we have known no greater purveyor of models than storytelling.” Stories have changed, Gardner notes, and this change reflects changes in the way human beings see the world.
We now have what Gardner calls “meta-fictions.” He mentions short stories by Donald Barthelme and novels by William Gass, Robert Coover, Italo Calvino, and John Fowles (whose French Lieutenant's Woman is supplied with two very different endings). Metafictions undermine what Gardner calls “fiction’s harmful effects.” One of those harmful effects, Gardner writes, is hero and heroine worship, a reader’s and a culture’s adulation of certain characters who have dominated our literary conventions. This admiration or adulation we feel subtly persuades us of the rightness of these characters’ behavior, Gardner points out. “Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction,” he concludes.
Along comes meta-fiction. It stops the “vivid and continuous dreams” of our accustomed fictions, it breaks into that dream and shows the reader what is happening to him or her as he or she reads. If the metafiction succeeds, it shoehorns the readers easily into the momentous discovery that his hero, let’s say, was a tyrant and his heroine perhaps only shoddy and manipulative, and not — in today’s mirror — truly beautiful. Caught as I am between love stories of twenty-year-old daughters and fifty . . . sixty . . . even eighty-year-old matrons, caught between Pride and Prejudice and The French Lieutenant's Woman, I did not need John Gardner to tell me life and literature are changing. But he helped me to see that current lovers, the Rogers and Marys, unsettle culture in the same way that what he calls meta-fictions unsettle readers. The Rogers and Marys undermine our old hero worship. The presence in our lives of Rogers and Marys — like the brooding presence of meta-fiction among fiction — throws an ironic reflection onto love and romance as practiced by older, earlier generations. How in peril we feel!
Oh, but it is puzzling, bewildering, and painful — metafiction and the new lovers. We do not understand their stories. We have lost, too, the happy or tragic but firmly conclusive finales, the satisfying endings that exacted punishment for what we believed to be wrong, and rewarded, lauded, decorated the right, the good. Mary received her Ph.D. with honors. Roger, who, after all, did learn in time that he loved, needed, and valued Mary — Roger, who learned unselfishness and walked five floors up to her nook in the library carrying quart-size paper containers of fresh-ground French roast coffee of the brand she liked most — Roger, we matrons concluded, was simply used, until he was all used up and then dumped, worn-out and deflated. And at the last moment, at that.
This indecisiveness and confusion about marriage, this reluctance to marry and bear children is a problem apparent only for and among the privileged and prodigiously educated professional young. YUPs, they have been called: Young Urban Professionals. These men and women leave universities with MBAs, with Ph.D.’s in hard and computer sciences; they are skillfully trained as doctors and lawyers and art historians and import-export experts. In their first years in the workplace they earn salaries a senior blue-collar worker will never earn. They drive BMWs, new Volvos, and Porsches. Their tastes in food support gourmet restaurants and specialty delicatessens. Their proclivity for exercise induces businessmen to finance all-night Nautilus studios. They wear Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis and Calvin Kleins that are not mass-marketed. They furnish homes and apartments and condominiums with carpets and dishes and sofas and sound and video equipment that their own parents, usually affluent, had to tuck away their dimes in cookie jars for years to afford. These young people form a loose-knit and increasingly obvious new nobility in urban America. When we talk about “gentrification,” the restoration of deteriorated urban property that turns tenements into townhouses and mom-and-pop comer stores into boutiques and high-class eateries, we are talking about the influence these people’s money is having in our cities.
The Cosmopolitan reader, the Glamour reader, the Redbook reader, the junior secretary and file clerk, the young women in entry-level positions who at most will be community college-trained, do not remain single if they can help it.
They are still trying to meet and catch a man at singles bars,laundromats, even church. Young women with no work or only sporadic minimum-wage jobs are having babies. They are having babies, in and out of wedlock, and they are becoming pregnant when they are not much more than babies themselves.
The professional woman, a college professor like Mary, a physician or a lawyer, an architect or orthodontist, a bank officer, a manager, an executive, no longer looks to marriage as the goal of her existence or to a man to put the luster on her life, to give her a name. If she does marry, she may choose not to be a mother, or she will wait until her midthirties and have one child. This neo-Amazon plays out her own life more independently than any woman in history, with the exception perhaps of the great English and European queens, czarinas, and empresses.
Older women, who begin careers in midlife or live in emotional and economic peril and dependency, envy her. Younger women of the middle and upper classes emulate her but fear the consequences of that lifestyle. Younger, poorer women want her clothes, her car, her freedom, and her power — and have only fuzzy notions as to how they were acquired, and have inadequate means with which to attain them.
Her father is proud of her but is intimidated by her success; he worries that no "real " man will love her. Her brothers feel pushed aside by her new, equal ranking in the family pantheon. Employers expect her to do what men do, but they want her to do it in a "feminine" way. Rejected lovers call her everything from a ball cutter to a bull dyke to a prima donna to a neurotic, grasping bitch. They characterize her sexuality on a continuum that runs from frigid to sexual sportswoman. And I have heard one man say rancorously and without humor about his ex-fiancee, “She used my body. ”
From the perspective of YUP males who court the new Amazon, who fall in love with her and want her company for a lifetime, she is a terrifying Medusa whose gaze turns them to stone. They cannot give her anything she cannot give herself, including an orgasm, or a child, or a night on the town. She can buy sperm, and has and does, and shops for a biological father as carefully as her foremothers shopped for a silk blouse or a sable coat or a string of superbly matched pearls.
These men, mostly of the professional class, are not troubled so much by the fact that women have joined them in the workplace as they are by women no longer being a constant presence in the home.
There is no Mama to go back to at night. Their homes offer no refuge, little comfort, and do not smell of drifting Chanel No. 5 or Arpege or Joy. (One man of my acquaintance recently said, “I’d give a lot to come home to pantyhose drying over the bathroom towel rack.”)
Bit by bit the more resourceful and emotionally sturdy of these men learn to create this refuge and comfort by themselves. They learn to shop for food, to cook, to arrange a home. They remain lonely, but they make do. Most are nursing at least one major heartbreak. They wonder, once they hit thirty-five, if they will be part of a generation that marriage will simply pass by. My friend who longed for the sight of a woman’s drying pantyhose asked, “Will I be part of the debris left from the second great wave of feminism?” And many good and decent men, men like Roger who would be heroes in the fiction of an earlier (or almost any) age, are suddenly facing what Roger faced. He had done "everything he knew to do, and it was not enough.”
Mary told me, “Roger was — in a way, still is — the most important relationship in my adult life. At first, yes, I really wanted to be married. My sisters are married and my parents have always seemed deeply satisfied with one another. I wanted children. But then, as my degree work progressed, marriage began to seem less compelling. I looked ahead. I saw myself teaching students, inspiring them, provoking their curiosity. I saw myself writing a book.” Responding to the bafflement in my widening eyes, she said, “Of course I still love Roger, and I can’t imagine I will not always love him. But when I asked myself, ‘Where do / want to be in ten years?’ he was not in that picture. And he was uncomfortable with my decision against marriage ... at least I have decided against it for the time being ... so we quit seeing each other.
“Yes,” she continued, “I may well regret not marrying him. I will probably hate it if or when I hear he’s married someone else.” She laughed, ruefully, and looked down at her hands. “I may think of his hands on me, and kissing him, and just walking on the beach with him,
"Of course I still love Roger," she said. "But when I asked myself, ‘Where do I want to Be in ten years?’ he was not in that picture.”
Roger later said, “My personal life is adrift,” his strong tenor rummy and warm. When I asked what had happened, he squinted, as if checking the horizon across sunlit water, and breathed deeply, his chest rising. “At first she wanted marriage, and then I wanted it. But we never wanted it at the same time.” He lifted his heavy shoulders in a shrug of such perplexity that his red polo shirt pulled out of his belt. “Apparently we were just one of those couples you hear about that needs and uses each other to get from there to here. Sometimes I think it’s as simple as this: that Mary and I just happened always to be a few seconds out of synch and so missed colliding.” He threw up his hands, palms outward.
“My God,” I said, and regretted at once the pain I saw my words give as his forehead furrowed deeply.
“By the time I’d been married as long as you and Mary were seeing each other, we had two children and one of them was already walking! ” Nature hasn’t changed. It’s these Marys and Rogers, and my twenty-year-old daughter, talking to me in what sound like haiku, with answers that help like a Zen master’s answers . . . “missedconnection,” “he wasn’t in that picture.” It’s the Marys and Rogers, this upper-educated cream rising to the top of our badly shaken-up American dream, this gentry of the light-and-logic information industry, this knowledge elite over whose discretionary incomes advertisers scrap like feisty terriers; it is these men and women, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.
I go back over these odd stories I have heard, remembering the voices that told them. They are stories of “drifting apart,” stories in which the partners to dual bliss always return, alone, to their own apartments and townhouses and condominiums to “pick up the pieces” of their own lives. The stories emerge as soliloquies, arias, in monologues, in long plaintive solos. They are stories of disappointments, of what did not and cannot ‘‘ever work out.’’
Not only that, but unrequited love, the love of the lover that the would-be beloved does not return, seems more and more the love style of the modern-day romantic. Indeed, “unloved” love seems as sought by some as does that love which consummates in home and hearth. Yearning seems the predominant emotion.
When this light-and-logic new elite does marry, when they do choose to go two-by-two, what appears is more a merger of promising young corporations than a love match. Prenuptial arrangements are drawn and studied, as in the era of family-arranged marriages. Marriage contracts divide cooking and cleaning. They provide clauses to cover the eventuality of child care. My daughter told me, casually, of a thirty-six-year-old officer in the bank who insisted that her fiance undergo a genetic study before she could decide to accept his proposal. "I cannot afford for anything to go wrong,” the young professional explained.
Hannah and David, both single and unacquainted with one another, were invited together with three married couples to a backyard July dinner. “Maybe they’ll like each other,” the dinner’s host said. They did. In late October they took a week’s vacation on a Caribbean island. They came back tan and holding hands. When they danced, David took Hannah’s waist between his palms as if she were a bouquet of delicate orchids.
His steady gray eyes sparkled whenever they met Hannah’s, and she radiated back his pleasure.
Drying off after swimming, I said to her, “You and David are gorgeous to watch together.” She laughed, showing perfectly even white teeth, and said, “We’re not getting married, if that’s what you mean.” When my face showed the confusion I felt, she hugged me, as if I were the youngster and she the ripe matron. Looking full into my eyes, she said, “We are simply taking from the present what the present gives.” In my day and age, humankind could not bear so much ambiguity. And our bodies got pregnant.
Marxists and conservatives, both the far left and far right, criticize the Rogers and Marys, the Davids and Hannahs. The Marxist analyzes this class as ruthless and degenerate offspring of capitalist robber barons, hypnotized by consumer goods, reveling in their class privileges, cynically indifferent toward the underclass and Third World. Conservatives see these Rogers and Marys as narcissists. They diagnose this generation of the single, affluent, technologically elite as spoiled by Dr. Spock, morally queered by breakup of two-parent homes and prayerless schools, misled by violent, sexy TV, by the Beatles and drugs and birth control. This generation is accused by conservatives (although the wording is cautious) of race and class betrayal. Why? Because they refuse to reproduce their “own kind. ” What I find in the pricey hardcover books stacked in bookstores is, generally, what echoes and tries to answer concerns of the upper-educated and better-paid man and woman. (It is in the monthly magazines aimed at all-women and all-men audiences that I see articles entitled, “How to get HIM to Commit” and “Men Who Order Wives from Asia and Latin America.”) In the bookstores I find The Peter Pan Syndrome, in which the author diagnoses the modem male of Roger’s type as unable to extricate himself from the land of lost boys, unable to grow up to be the man his father was. I find The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, a book that takes readers back, slowly, past Seventies and Sixties landmarks, into the now long-ago Fifties, to show that a revolt against the “breadwinner ethic” began long before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. I find Dennis Altman’s The Homosexualization of America, in which Altman points out parallels between homosexual socialization patterns and that of the Rogers and Marys and Hannahs and Davids.
All of this makes for racy, intriguing reading. But it comes to me that the most obvious and the simplest answer to the apparently sudden change in what I see this springtime in the courtship and marriage — and nonmarriage — habits of the affluent, educated young was wrought by the birth-control pill.
Perhaps human beings cannot admit that any change as dramatic was caused by a pill. But not getting pregnant changed everything. It is discomfiting to recognize that what I saw as romance between parents and grandparents and friends may have only been what was at that time called “unwanted pregnancy.” I know that I am uncomfortable with the obvious, that when women have the choice to marry or not, to be mothers or not, they often choose not to do either. And I am even more uncomfortable because I know that, given the choice, I might have remained single and childless. My twenty-year-old daughter said — did not ask — ‘ ‘Did you really marry Dad just because you loved him?”
To my relief she did not want an answer; she had already left the house and shut the door. I would not have told her the truth. ‘‘He had ‘deflowered’ me. I had no way, yet, to earn a living. I lived in fear my diaphragm would develop an invisible puncture. I could think of nothing I wanted to do. He liked my father. I liked this. Marriage was the obvious step.”
When I asked Mary, ‘‘When you told Roger you would not marry him, was it for you an either-or, love-or-work, one-or-the-other situation? Did you feel you had to choose? Did you believe you could not do both? ’ ’
This is what she told me: ‘‘For the first time, when I became engrossed in my dissertation I felt my life was my own. I finally belonged to me. I could do with myself what I chose. I wasn’t asking myself, as I always had, ‘Am I smart enough, pretty enough, am I good enough, and caring enough?’ I was asking, ‘How do I solve this next question? What is the truth here?’ It was as if I had entered, been — don’t laugh — born again into a new species, a new race of beings.”
This spring Mary and Roger have shown me a new heroine and a new hero, men and women who love one another without exacting either a happy or a tragic ending to that love. When the trees’ leaves unfold, when the crocus, the purple iris, the daffodil, and the narcissus push up, when the skunks come up from the canyons and turn over our garbage, I have always liked to walk out to see young couples holding hands. I have enjoyed seeing a child walking between them. I have enjoyed seeing the parents ’ features in his or her face. I see Roger’s blushy cheeks fading, and hear the controlled desperation with which he describes a ‘‘missed collision.” I hear Mary, and she is saying, ‘‘Born again into a new species, a new race of being.” No one sounds right and no one sounds wrong. □