He’s asked me to marry him. This is not good news. This is not bad news. This is in-between news, which means that there is a degree of ambivalence involved. And ambivalence, as we all know, is that ‘no man’s land’ in matters of the heart. Ambivalence is that sage little voice in the back of your head—also known as instinct—telling you: ‘You know this isn’t totally right, so why not consider the door marked ‘Exit?’”
Doubt. I have considerable doubts about John. My parents, on the other hand, think he is ‘excellent husband material.’ Those were my father’s exact words, as if I was choosing a fabric to re-cover a sofa that was frayed and collapsing. Come to think of it, my father—a very successful dentist in New Jersey—does think of my life to date as something akin to the sort of broken-down piece of furniture you’d find in a Boho apartment. Like my own.
If you are the daughter of a dentist, especially from New Jersey (the ultimate in bland professional class suburbia), you are not going to win parental approval for attempting to forge a career as an abstract expressionist painter in the demi-monde precincts of Brooklyn. Or by having a torrid two-year involvement with a baba-cool art professor twenty-five years your senior (who turned out to be an emotional cripple). Or then switching to a Puerto Rican sculptor with a growing dependence on crystal meth (but he did have talent). Or bartending to make the rent every month on a shabby two-bedroom apartment that you share with three others. Or still not being able to find a gallery willing to take me on as a painter (and in the New York art world, a painter without a gallery behind her is like a novelist without an agent: someone who, in that most competitive of creative cultures, is going nowhere fast).
So yes, my orthodontist Dad—and my stay-at-home housewife Mom (who rather loves her lot in life as a lady who lunches and loiters with intent at the local country club where she is the Queen of the over-fifties tennis circuit)—have despaired of me for years. Truth be told, ever since I graduated from that very expensive college for creative neurotics (Sarah Lawrence), I’ve despaired of me as well. Even though, to the outward world, I’ve always projected edgy arrogance. I was winning visual art prizes throughout college. I spent several years after graduating in Berlin, initially on a fellowship, then living in a warehouse studio space in a grubby district called Wedding, falling into bed with an ongoing cavalcade of unsuitable men (only I would find myself intertwined for a few weeks with a near bipolar Serbo-Croat conceptual artist), and existing on very little (which is one of Berlin’s many attributes —which it is why it is a magnet for so-called emerging artists like me—‘emerging’ being a synonym for ‘nowheresville’).
I did manage to get into a group show in Berlin. A gallery owner from New York saw it, took down my name, emailed me, told me that he might consider representing me. But if I wanted a chance at a big city career, I should get back to the big city.
This was around the time that my relationship with Novak—the manic Serbo-Croat (is that a tautology?)—was in meltdown. I had begun to realize that I could tread water for years, even a few decades, in Berlin, bolstered by my super-cheap rent, the odd painting sold, some part-time teaching work at the American Academy, and the one thousand dollars a month from Daddy (not requested, but when he saw my ‘La Bohème’ existence on a visit there a few months after I’d settled in, he insisted on ‘a financial top-up’ each month, and as I could live nicely for a grand a month in Berlin… Knowing what he made straightening our suburban brats’ teeth in Morristown, New Jersey, I didn’t say no).
Anyway I had a great setup in Berlin and even had interest from a gallery in Mitte in perhaps taking me on. But one of the problems with being a kid who grew up in the shadow of Manhattan—and who thought that the only real success to be had on the planet was that to be achieved in that playpen of vertical ambition called New York—is that anything not New York is not true achievement. So back I went.
A bad call is always reparable if you choose to acknowledge the error and embrace the gods of change. In my case, having realized my error within several months of landing back in New York, I convinced myself that I had to fight forward in the art world there (even though my instincts kept whispering to me to get back on the plane to Berlin). After living at home for two desperate months (suburban ennui after all that edgy German realpolitik) before finding a mattress on the floor of a friend’s place in Flatbush (not exactly the most BoHo corner of Brooklyn), I then bartended my way into Williamsburg and a tiny bedroom (for $800 a month) in a crazed shared apartment with three other artist/writer/standup comedian hopefuls. Everyone was a ‘hopeful’ in Brooklyn, all working other jobs while trying to somehow find a way of breaking through that membrane, the other side of which is being accepted into the club of the successfully creative.
Of course the gallery owner who showed interest in the work she saw in Berlin decided that I didn’t have a substantial enough ‘oeuvre’ to date for her to take me on. I knocked on just about every other gallerist’s door in the city only to be told, more or less, the same thing: some interesting work, not significant enough to be embraced just yet (i.e., sold), but do keep working, do get back to us.
I kept working, finding a cheap studio space in Red Hook, still bartending, still running through interesting, inappropriate men (all of whom were from the arrested development side of the park), still traveling hopefully, conscious of now being in my late twenties, of the forward momentum of time, of the charm of the BoHo life subsiding, of hating the fact that I was still dependent on the fifteen hundred per month that I now got from Daddy to let me function in the big city. Add to this the fifteen hundred that I cleared from bartending per month, four hundred to the tax man, eight hundred in rent, three hundred in utilities and my cellphone, and I had three hundred and fifty dollars a week to pay for groceries and live in one of the most culturally bracing (and bracingly expensive) cities on the planet.
Just eight months ago a lucky break came my way: I subbed for a friend who teaches art at a very elite, very expensive private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My friend was going off on maternity leave. I seemed to impress the principal and the students. I was offered her post for the next year at a salary of fifty thousand—a small fortune for me, though exactly the same amount that each of my students’ parents was paying in annual tuition for their child to be there. I was hardly complaining. I took to teaching instantly. I liked the kids. I stayed out of the internecine world of the staff room. I knew that, come June, I’d be gone from there—back to scrambling for a living, back to bartending, back to the studio in Red Hook and the ongoing voice of doubt insidiously whispering in my ear: do you really think you’re an artist?
And then Bob Bannister came into my life. He was the father of one of my fifth grade students, Molly. He was something on Wall Street. Harvard Business School. Forty-one. Trim. Sort of handsome (he was going bald). Divorced. Thoroughly nice. As straight and responsible and anodyne as they come. As such, he was unlike anyone I had ever become involved with before.
His wife had left him for an investment banker colleague two years earlier. Bob and his wife had lived in the very white bread suburb of Old Greenwich, commuting daily into the city. When Bobbi (can you imagine being married to a woman named Bobbi?) fell in love with her colleague, she moved into his big deal loft in SoHo (only bankers can afford SoHo these days), leaving Bob the house in Old Greenwich at which Molly spent every other weekend and which Bob wanted to hold on to, as it provided a sense of continuity in his daughter’s still-young life, and because he was a suburban boy who preferred the tidy hissing of summer lawns world of such communities to urban grit. One other key detail kept him in the ‘burbs: he was a serious golfer and the golf course in Old Greenwich was just a seven minute drive from his house.
I got to know him at a parent/teacher event. He surprised me by asking me out. I surprised myself by accepting. He tried to dress hip for our first date, but a black leather jacket never works with pressed khakis and a blue button-down Brooks Brother shirt. Still, he did show a certain sharp sense of humor, and an openness to my world (he’d read up a great deal on abstract expressionism). And he did let it be known that he was making close to $1 million a year.
What did he see in me? He told me early on that I was unlike anyone he’d ever known, that he believed in me as an artist, that he knew I’d have the great breakthrough so far denied to me.
What did I see in him? Decency, steadiness, safety. And, yes, support. I was used to wild, dangerous men. Passionate. Erratic. Compelling…until they tipped over the pathological edge. Bob was none of the above. He was hyper-responsible, hypercorrect. As a lover he told me that, before me, he’d never known true passion before. With me (entre nous) he was passable in bed. He tried very hard. He aimed to please. But this was a man who admitted he had no creative side, who rarely read, who agreed to come to the cultural events I dragged him to as a way of pleasing me, who was so much the golf club type. Sex with Bob was, at best, modestly pleasant. As erotic as vanilla ice cream.
And yes, I found him emotionally limited, with moments of little boy neediness. But at the same time, he insisted on paying for a better studio space for me in lower Manhattan. And he brought me to Paris for a week. And he didn’t try to change the way I dressed, or the friends I still saw from Williamsburg (who would drop all sorts of comments about my button-down Wall Street boyfriend). And when I turned thirty just a few days ago, besides taking us skiing at some uber-chic resort in Wyoming, he also presented me with an engagement ring and the hope that I would marry him.
His timing was shrewd. My contract with the school had just expired, and during the year I was there, we’d kept our relationship circumspect, out of his daughter’s sight (so she didn’t have to cope with her art teacher dating her Dad). But he also knew that I was about to revert back to that hand-to-mouth bartending existence I’d previously lived. Along with the ring came the promise of so much: yes, we’d live in Old Greenwich, but he’d have the garage renovated into a studio. And yes, he’d continue to subsidize the studio space for me in Manhattan. And even when we started having children—he was the first to propose this even though I always knew that I did want kids and often despaired in Brooklyn that I’d eventually be one of those forty-five year olds who’d had a maternity bypass—he would subsidize all the necessary childcare to allow me to continue as an artist.
Did I say yes on the spot?
I did…even though, as I accepted his proposal, I felt the most profound attack of ambivalence as I saw myself a decade from now, running my children to school in a Volvo SUV, returning to a studio that I little used, as the heavily upholstered contours of my Old Greenwich suburban existence had long since made me consider painting to be a tertiary activity…given how busy I was also being super-Mom and super-wife to a man with whom sex had become a twice weekly quasi-indifferent event, with whom I could never intellectually connect, a man who was now priding himself on being the chairman of the Old Greenwich Golf Club, and who could get just a little tetchy and disappointed if his wife wasn’t on his arm every weekend at the club.
And I would look back on that moment in Vail when he opened the box and showed me the ring and asked me to be his wife. And I would think: so this is what is meant by a Faustian Bargain, of the sorts made by countless women in countless 19th century English big house novels; the casting off of the bohemian veneer and the return to that which your class and background destined you to be—in my case, following my footsteps of my stay-at-home Mom by becoming a post-feminist version thereof. And how turning thirty is such a dangerous juncture. Because you mistakenly think that you have to get serious now, have to cast off your louche ways, have to become adult. Especially as, for a woman, the maternity issues begins to quietly loom.
He will give me a very comfortable existence. He will be a splendid provider. He’s too anodyne and correct to ever cheat on me. He has a good heart. He has promised me nothing will change in my life as a wannabe artist. But everything will change. Because I will no longer be living near the edge, near the danger zone that is so necessary for creative frisson. Because I will become a somewhat more worldly version of my mother and, in time, a suburban matron.
Part of me wants to now hand him back his ring. And jump a cab to the airport. And go back to my crash pad of an apartment in Brooklyn. And wake up my once-time fuck buddy Zack—still trying to finish a novel at the age of thirty-eight—and smoke some of his insane weed and fuck his brains out until sunup (because sex is stoner Zack’s most discernible talent). And when I wake up the next morning…
Then what? That’s the damnable question.
And here is Bob, coming back from brushing his teeth in the bathroom, wearing the hotel bathrobe and slippers, looking so amazingly pleased to have me in his field of vision, and telling me we are going to be such a great couple, such a great team. And me thinking…
Manifold jumbled, contradictory thoughts. But looming large above them all is one reflection so direct, so simple, so chilling in its larger implications that I vow immediately not to consider all the subtext ricocheting off the walls of my brain right now.
And what is this all-telling, revelatory reflection?
He’s the safe choice.