The black lace of elastic around my thigh and the silk of the stockings opaque and dark against my white leg, framed me in a Mad Men kind of desire. I rode a top of him, a master jockey, used to traveling the fast distance of the racetrack called love. John Patrick, my businessman hottie, bought me these silk thigh-highs as a gift to match my black bustier. Apparently, his ex-wife would never wear anything sexy. It wasn’t that I was sexy, per se, but hated anything around my waist. I favored thigh-highs for this simple reason. Stockings made of silk have been an extravagance since our Depression-era grandmothers, when some secretaries slept with their bosses for such opulence. My “that-girl” freedom was I didn’t have to use garters to keep these stockings up.
John Patrick was always astonished that I worked, like it was miraculous that a woman was capable of such a thing. From the helm of his bed, I kept writing poems obsessed with Death of a Salesman. I was the female character Miller might have written out of the play, I was a character in search of an author, a playwright, a love to bring me back from the never written and into the light of day, the stage where I was loved, invented, and wanted. I was the daughter of a salesman who had gotten some dirt on his hat. John Patrick reminded me slightly of my father and grandfather. I was beginning to understand that in order to stop repeating narratives generationally and otherwise that I must heal myself within the narrative of my poems, and not always be on a personality disorder watch. The poems were helping me learn how to protect myself by posing questions I couldn’t consciously ask. I frequently had told my students that sometimes they had to live the life that would allow them to finish a poem. Yet my over-vigilance was making my empathy disappear.
He wanted me to go get my nails done across the street—“My treat,” he’d implore from the other room, where he’d gone back to his computer to do his market research, but my friends always thought he was into porn. Well-coiffed hands were a sign of success, and I was a symbol of his prowess. But I was busy writing poems and sending him enticing emails from the bed.
The day before he had googled, “What does it mean if your girlfriend doesn’t kiss you on the lips anymore?”
“It means you are really a teenage girl,” I said.
I mean I kissed him, but he always wanted to stick his tongue down the back of my mousetrap mouth.
“I have arthritis in my jaw, remember?” I said. “That’s what it means.” I can’t hold my mouth open.
He was constantly working on his laptop. He was a big cheese market researcher, and the computer was his shield against humanity, that was why I started emailing him between lines of poems in the other room. He was constructing market research questions about technology and cancer treatments, so American industry could turn death into cash, a kind of resurrection for the one percent. Sometimes one has to dabble in death to make it seem like it doesn’t exist.
“Miss you, xoxoxo. Isn’t this puppy so cute?”
I attached a link to a website of cute puppies I wanted for my birthday.
Sometimes John Patrick called me “doll.” I became childlike around him, and he encouraged it, so I went with it. I thought it was funny until I realized it wasn’t. I was becoming an actress on the stage of the poems I was and was not writing. The abandoned daughter is doomed with a penchant for a repeating relinquishment. I had been in therapy so long I forgot that you must heal your life in poetry in order to break free from bondage, even if it had silk stockings for ropes. I knew only a spiritual solution could truly crack my problem open.
For his part, John Patrick was trying to deal with his workaholism, albeit not well. He didn’t want to live together because he didn’t want to have to be “the provider” again, never mind I owned my own house (with acreage! with barns!) and had a successful career. He didn’t want to be the traditional man, but didn’t want to live in my house.
“I can’t live in it,” he said. “It’s yours. How can I be a man and live in it when I didn’t pay for it?”
Mixed messages were the wooing of my childhood. I let it drop. He kept showing me love materially, but not spiritually, and it made me joke more and more at his expense. Humor is sometimes anger with me, the only way my Jewish father could show his anger was through jokes, practical ones, sick ones. I learned well.
He had recently moved to Saratoga Springs, New York from Burlington, Vermont during one of our breakups. He loved horse racing and a good buffer distance between us. His New York ways felt assaulted in the People’s-Republic-of-Burlington, where he felt the baristas were unmannered and uncouth. He liked wearing his dead father’s old seersucker suit to the Saratoga races where confused suburbanites from New York come en mass thinking they are in a Masterpiece Theatre episode, where their martinis runneth over.
It was still early spring, and that scene was still in the future, and it was raining. We were going to work out, but he was still wrestling a focus group questionnaire he was writing. He was actually pretty smart, except for the part where he had given up his real love—writing and reporting for UPI—for a big paycheck in marketing years ago. The first red flag I became colorblind over. Maybe that was why he hated (not so secretly) my writer friends and always wanted to leave me at weddings and parties because he said no one was talking to him and no one liked him. In the focus group of the world everything was about him. He had sold himself out.
Selling yourself out means you must pay close attention to your toilette. John Patrick had to shave before each meal, especially when anxious. Stubble bothered him. A lot. He carried his electric shaver in his briefcase. Maybe there was a bottle of Grey Goose in there, who knows. The older I get, apparently the more I fake myself out of seeing. What I learned from my father is all Mad Men and salesmen worth their salt are excessively clean, so that no one can see the shoddy stains on the soul.
I didn’t want a manicure or a pedicure. He kept calling to me from the other room, “You sure?”
“My treat,” he’d reiterate. I could hear the electric shaver humming in the background like a lawn mower taking down suburban chaos.
It was kind of obvious he was trying to get rid of me to call a girlfriend, or take a swig, or watch porn. For once his good-time Charlie “generosity” wasn’t working. So, eventually we got dressed in our running duds, and went across the courtyard to the gym where he showed me something he’d seen on TV, a fitness segment on the Today Show, which I didn’t know he watched.
“Like this,” he said, showing me the way to lie on my back and use the barbells.
“They said it keeps the breasts from sagging,” he said. He wasn’t winking.
Then he turned on CNN and we watched another American town get gun downed while we watched ourselves in the mirrors running in tandem on machines, whereas on the road he was always running ahead of me and my plebian, public school twelve minute mile. Once we had argued about the subtext of running ahead of a partner. Now it didn’t matter because we were both on the move and stationary at the same time—that contradiction and union of opposites.
“The best predictor of future behavior,” he was fond of saying, “is past behavior.” It was, for him, a market research Great Truth. He liked to use this line on me, especially when my college pal recalled how once I thought some big man on campus was cute in 1983, a guy who was not my serious boyfriend back home. This was signal I was impure. Madonna, whore. All right already. He was so full of old tropes they seemed retro.
The next weekend I visited John Patrick in Saratoga, he mentioned a quick conversation we had had on the phone about the clothing I had left at his place. I had been in a rush, and was trying to pare down belongings that were accumulating out of control, so without thinking I told him to toss my thrift store bustier and the stockings. He had bought me two pairs, and I still had one. I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying when I said, “Chuck them.”
“When you told me to toss the stockings and bustier, I got the idea I should bury them out back, but I didn’t have the right shovel,” he said, very seriously.
Quiet bafflement surrounded me like a migraine aura. I noted the weirdness, and then filed it away until a time I might really consider the implications of wanting to bury someone’s stockings. I was lost in metaphor, which meant I was lost in everything.
I guess the stockings were a reminder of failure, the proverbial spot on the hat. The stockings and bustier were my crown and my scepter in his world, and without them I lost legitimacy and could no longer negotiate the realm.
Why was I with him? In what ways had my boring, ever-present Daddy issues come back yet again? In what ways had I prostituted myself as the buyer Miss Francis had done in Death of a Salesman, sleeping with Willy Loman for a couple of boxes of silk stockings?
Back home, I had a closet of gifts from John Patrick: three hundred dollar Frye boots; silk and cashmere sweaters; Brooks Brothers dresses; capri pants from Talbots, a pair with whale print; black camisoles; gold chains. The list went on. He wanted me, I see now, to be the Talbot Robot or the Whore awaiting him in bed, but I was a poet, a professor, an aging punk-rock-hippie who liked the Knicks. I liked Sunday dinners well enough, but also my couplets, my Richard Pryor.
Once a professor of mine at the University of Wisconsin told me in the student union over beer by the clanking sailboats of Lake Mendota that I would have made a good prostitute. I was twenty then, and I don’t understand it now, as I did not then. I did grasp that I was shaped by my father, a salesman, handsome as all get out, man about Manhattan with a massive wallet and the longest leanest legs that even I could see as a child were sexy. At five, I wanted to marry him—waited up for him whenever I could, pretending to sleep—listening to the midnight rambling of the garage door opening beneath the bedroom of the 1970s childhood.
A wise woman, whom my daughter calls “Mother of the Universe,” our family doctor, has the largest breasts either of us have ever seen. She once asked this of me as I sat crying in her office after another failed romance with a preppy narcissist: “What was it like when your father came home from work?”
“What does that have to do with anything,” I bellyached.
“Come on, tell me about it,” she said, inserting another acupuncture needle in my ear lobe.
“I’d lie in bed waiting for him, and he’d never come tuck me in because he was never home. And when he got home my mother would yell at him about the prostitutes and secretaries,” I said.
“Sometimes it would thunder and I’d think it was him opening the garage door, but I’d leap out of bed and look at the window at a vast emptiness of driveway.”
“And that waiting sounds like anything familiar?”
I looked out the window like I had taken up waiting as a kind of sorcery that would access me to some kind of crazy control over the world of men, who for me were always salesmen. I waited for the knock on the door, the car pulling up, the smell of expensive aftershave wafting by the door, the imminent closing of the deal.
I have waited for men who never arrive, either emotionally or physically. I can wait for a long time, like I can hold my breath underwater. I don’t want to wait anymore. For one thing, my father is now long dead, the one now waiting in the vast expanse of interstellar space. When he had died suddenly at sixty-one of a heart attack in his car on his way to his pregnant mistress, I had started writing poems about the life of the salesman and the play Death of the Salesman. I discovered salesmen have higher death and suicide rates than the average population. The American Dream has unhinged so many, so why not me?
Soon I was writing a collection of poems and lyric essays called, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances. It was a book that examined both method acting, and the Arthur Miller play as a way to write about the life I had lived so far from a feminist perspective. As Lynn Notage says in her forward to the Penguin Centennial Edition of Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, “Miller believed in the need to confront ourselves continually, and his plays represent a belief in the obligation of theater and art to help us do so. To his worldview, he brought psychological perspicacity, remarkably fluid dialogue, and an abiding sense of humor.”
Over coffee recently, I tested this theory of what-was-daddy-like-when-he-came-home-from work with a younger writer who was also suffering the effects of unavailable men.
“My father,” she said. “He’d pay a lot of attention to me at first, for the first five minutes or so, and then he’d disappear into whatever, unable to acknowledge me at all.”
Her big kohl lined blue eyes stared at me, incredulous.
“Sounds like you-know-who,” we said in unison.
You-know-who was the musician we both had a crush on, hers more serious than mine, who could only court women in his own music studio where he’d invite them to come over to collaborate artistically and flirtatiously, but would refuse to see any of them outside the space like a restaurant or a city park. He’d shine a lot of intensity on you at first, but then you became like a sprained ankle that he nursed quietly out of duty and a strange sense of damage.
Men of my generation and older have always been a conundrum to me. Miller’s Death of a Salesman offered glimpses of types that I could understand. The Lomans were the Jewish men of my father’s gritty, but upwardly mobile second generation American men, gorgeous with their aftershave and determination. From his Jewish afterlife I could practically hear my father echoing Willy Loman, “I was driving along you understand? And I was fine. I was even observing the scenery. You can imagine, me looking at scenery, on the road every week of my life.”
I began to understand that I had not yet lived the experience that would finish the book of poems with the Willy Loman trope. There were still images in the book that I didn’t have the narrative for. There were still secrets I didn’t understand. The manuscript was a finalist everywhere, poems won prizes, but still the finished book eluded me. Ten years later I was divorced, began dating John Patrick.
Back then market researcher seemed a bit different to me then salesman. I neglected to identify the fact that market research makes sales possible, like the bible makes theology necessary. I was in a dissociative state, something I came by honestly from trauma, PTSD as a child. When others might notice red flags, I might feel a warm homey feeling, like when John Patrick told me about the time he asked his wife, who was coming to visit him in another city where he was on business, to pretend she was a prostitute when she knocked on his door, to which she rightly replied was a demeaning request, sexist, part of the problem with patriarchy. So, being my father’s daughter, I said, jokingly but not jokingly, “I’ll do it but you have to leave me real money on the table.” John Patrick laughed nervously. I have to admit, as a struggling writer, I liked his lavish dinners at French and farm to table restaurants and getaway weekends to fancy hotels in Montreal where we’d spend the weekend ordering room service and “resting” in our own version of Plaza Suite.
“A warm blanket,” he said.
“That’s what you ask for at a hotel when you want a prostitute sent up,” he said, for no particular reason, once.
I never questioned why he knew so much about sex workers until he disappeared one day after three years together, never to be seen again. His leaving reverbed all around me like a monkey’s cymbal, or mostly the thunder of my father’s closing garage door. It came as a shockwave; he left a note on our hotel bed and the key to the room. I had been working out in the gym downstairs.
“I must go,” the note said.
He blamed it on his son, a suicidal heroin addict, who John Patrick said was back home trying to hang himself. Maybe he was, I don’t know. It was always something about his son, who was thirty and still lived with John Patrick, who also indulged him in BMWs and fine clothing and dinners out most of the time. Originally, John Patrick and I had planned to move in together, but then he decided he couldn’t be around my kids because they were too “perfect” though no one is.
My kids liked John Patrick: Basketball games, skiing, a trip out west to see Spring Training. But John Patrick was married to his son, whom I called his wife, which in retrospect I see now as not funny, just insensitive. I started to understand that John Patrick took most of his advice from his son. “Thad told me this is the best model for the price,” of his new car, or “Thad says buy this stock this week,” or “Thad says it’s a great movie.” If Thad okayed it, we did it. Thad knew a lot for someone over thirty who lived with his father and didn’t have a job. John Patrick felt guilty for being on the road the kid’s entire growing up. Like Miller says in Death of a Salesman, father desertion leaves you feeling temporary about yourself. John Patrick’s father had been a traveling salesman, too, who had taught him the lie of the Loman brothers and the American Dream, the lie that “the only dream you can have—to come out the number one man” whether in business, women, conquering the natural world, or excelling in sports.
John Patrick had been plotting his escape, but in my usual mode I couldn’t see it or ignored it, perhaps still puzzling over the recent bizarre admission that he was wanting to bury my thigh highs in the abandoned boat yard we hiked in behind his condo, but ultimately he didn’t have “the right shovel,” he said.
One of my closest friends is a noted literary critic. She loved to point out that when John Patrick was inexplicably going to bury my thigh highs in the boat yard that, “he didn’t have the RIGHT shovel!” In a literary sense, she pointed out, that is a key metaphor.
“He didn’t have the right shovel!” she’d reiterate into the phone.
In some ways it felt like he was going to bury me, like he didn’t want to see or be reminded, so he could keep moving ahead, knocking on the next and the next door.
John Patrick’s Occupy Movement daughter had called him Don Draper, after the character on Mad Men. She also told me he drank a lot when he wasn’t with me. Red flag 502. I was starting to listen, but she reminded me of my mother, a butchy lesbian, who wanted to be a man and in her maleness objectified me as well. I couldn’t listen. I thought about how my father and grandfathers had been “Mad Men,” not in advertising, but on Madison Avenue nonetheless. I could never watch the show, having lived the vileness of that reality. I was the boss’s daughter, and my father was trying to make sure I was not treated “special” when I worked for him at his office. He didn’t want me turning out princess-y, he said. He sent me to the viper pit at fifteen. He made me the typist for the salesman’s pool—an ass-pinching agony—how could he not see it or know it. Gross. Maybe Dad did secretly hate me, so deep his misogyny, though his mother had loved him. Prior to typing for the salesmen, from ages seven until fifteen, I had pretended to be the mannequin in the window of 290 Madison Avenue where the Eames chair displays needed human tending. I would hold as still as I possibly could so passersby might think I was the perfect mannequin. At fifteen, I became just that. Hold still, I always whispered to myself. At home, I took a tape measure and made sure my measurements, bust to waist to hips, were as good as any of Charlie’s Angels.
Just before John Patrick had left me, I recall him neurotically talking about a $20,000 sex doll he read about—“was it in the Atlantic?” he had said. I should have looked it up then. In hindsight, I think he wanted one. No intimacy needed. In retrospect, I had been encouraged to be a mannequin. The power that objectification had over me my whole life was becoming clearer, the turn on of heritable memory and desire only made clear by my writing the poems that put my love life in perspective.
I kept waiting for him to return. I waited like I waited for my father back home, for little noises. Maybe he was off on another business trip? I waited like I used to wait in the window of my father’s showroom on Madison Avenue. A mannequin. 36-24-36. I tried to be better. I tried to be thinner, sportier, smarter, cooler. I was never going to go back to the mannequin life. Each poem I wrote in response to all I found out about my father’s secret life, to all that had happened with John Patrick, and all I read and decoded from a feminist perspective in Death of a Salesman, made the narrative of my poetry manuscript’s trajectory congeal. You must live the life that makes the poems. I was still curiously in love with a man in a uniform, the good smelling capitalist narcissist in his Brooks Brothers finery, the man with the code and encryption to my psyche. Until just now.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.