I can tell who’s calling before Jenna says, “Hey, Rusty!” with that particular lilt she keeps for him. Rusty’s bass voice is unmistakable. Molasses, not gravel—I help myself to clichés I’d outlaw for my students. Someone asked me once if he puts it on, but the same musical rumble emerged from his mouth when he was a scrawny nineteen-year-old. With Rusty, what you hear is what you get.
The words are muffled, but I glean what he’s saying from Jenna’s answers: How’s that boss of yours behaving? Did your landlord fix the window yet? Even without her replies I’d be able to guess because these are the questions Rusty asks: kind, and a little predictable.
Describing some dubious practices she’s noticed at work, Jenna drops onto her end of the couch with a glance of apology as my laptop wobbles. She doesn’t live with me anymore, but we still have our ends of the couch, and she still picks up my land line when it rings. I don’t object; I guess I like the continuity. In any case, other than telemarketers and Rusty, hardly anyone calls me on it either these days, and Rusty is hardly a secret from my daughter.
I download the next essay from my Wednesday English Writing class, taking pains to avoid the student’s identifying information. Andrew Marvel, it begins. With barely a sigh, I insert the second “l” in green—more mentoring, less harmful to freshmen sensibilities than pugnacious red, we’re warned. I’ve long stopped marveling at college students’ capacity for misspelling writers’ names. Your job, I tell myself, is to banish ignorance and inattention and whip that mess of bumbling half-thought into competent writing. Yes! Sometimes I do it, too.
Andrew Marvel[l] is quite correct in his view of Life in my opinion. His poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ reminds me of an old movie I watched with my mom called ‘Dead Poets Society.’ The English teacher tells his students to act on the Latin motto ‘carpe diem,’ which means ‘seize the day.’ Don’t put off having fun, Andrew Marvel is telling his girlfriend. Life is short. Enjoy yourself while you can.
“Thanks, Rusty!” Jenna says. “I’ll give that a try.”
‘Good analogy,’ I type next to the movie reference. I’m always happy when they make connections.
Jenna likes Rusty for his own sake, as well as for mine. Up until tenth grade she still called him ‘Uncle,’ but having begun to address me as ‘Motherrrr’ in jaded tones, I suppose she thought ‘Uncle Rusty’ sounded babyish. I became ‘Mom’ again soon enough, but Rusty never regained his title, which felt like a shame. That slight air of formality is part of his charm for her, I think. His solidity too—in every sense, since Rusty is portly now. His suit jackets strain a bit at the shoulders and upper arms, but not with the musclebound swagger of would-be jocks; more with elder statesman-like dignity. The men who people Jenna’s life—her twenty-something peers at the office and downtown bars, the over-forties in the same places—don’t do dignity, she says. Loud, shallow man-children, every one of them. So she tells me. And Rusty is courtly, too, which they are not. Rusty is courtly and portly. He has music and rhyme.
I close my ears to the ongoing consultation, because, though most of these essays are within a word or two of the minimum I’ll accept, the students do need them back before the final exam, I need to check the ‘personal response’ box on the course curriculum, and soon, when Rusty asks, “Is your mother there?” Jenna is going to hand me the phone with a look that says, Mom, he is soooo nice.
I remind my writer that poet and persona are not necessarily the same, and let myself dwell for a moment on how admirable Rusty is. How steadfast and thoughtful, how unabashedly in love with me. I don’t indulge this reflection often, in case the little bud of pleasure hardens into a pebble and starts a landslide. I’ve seen it happen: women who’ve raised more kids, earned more money, carved more exemplary single lives than I have out of grief or anger, lapse into girlie helplessness when rescue appears. I’m afraid I might be like them—not because Rusty might nudge me into dependence, but because he might not have to.
Jenna would scoff at this. “You, girlie, Mom?” But Jenna would like to see me embrace Rusty. Embrace the idea of Rusty, of him and me together. She wishes we’d get on with it, though she’d never say so. I catch her watching us, and I can pretty much fill in the thought bubble forming above her head. So, (a)Mom: not well off, low on the college totem pole, a little lonely at times, a little lazy about making social efforts and (b)Rusty: not bad-looking, super nice, loaded with cash and mad about Mom. Duh?
I’m oversimplifying—Jenna wouldn’t settle for a man-child, and she wouldn’t expect me to settle for just anyone either. But Rusty is not just anyone, so you can see her logic. And Jenna is thinking of leaving the city, even leaving the country for a while.
We’ve talked about this possibility. I want her to go, I say. She’s restless and this is the best time to do it—when she’s not attached. I make it a statement of fact, snipping off dangling threads before more words can leave my mouth. I don’t want the pain I feel at the thought of her absence to brush even lightly against her hard decisions. Yet, who am I kidding? Only child, widowed mother—I’m bound to factor into the equation. And when she considers Rusty, whom she likes so much, and who’d be so good to me, there’s a meant-to-be aspect it’s hard to ignore. You can be sincere and still have an ulterior motive.
How I relate this poem to my own experience, is that my cousin’s friend died in a car wreck last November. He wanted to spend one summer surfing in Costa Rica, but he was making to much money to quit his job or take time off and now it’s to late. Andrew Marvel points out that you can’t have any fun at all when your dead, which is true.
I add an extra ‘o’ to two of the ‘to’s, and change ‘your’ to ‘you’re.’ I consider asking, Was the teacher in the movie referring merely to fun? but it’s not a useful diversion. Marvell’s suitor is referring to fun—fun for him, at any rate—and my guy has gathered that, at least.
I’m thinking ‘guy’ instinctively, I note. I tell my classes my no-name rule on papers makes my judgment impartial, but it also gives me a mild kick to test my gender assumptions. Am I biased? Are my students? I scan the paper to the end and write, Do you suppose the person he’s addressing finds him persuasive or not?
Which is why I think this writer’s a guy, of course. No inquiry into the girl’s point of view. I check the identity number against my list to see who got 17 this time. Am I biased? Perhaps, but I’m also right. Scott Penny. A nice kid. He wants a passing grade and for this course to be over soon.
My computer shifts again as Jenna springs from the couch, phone still pressed to her ear, to study herself in the mirror opposite. If she slid her gaze a fraction, she’d find me spying, but she’s unaffectedly inspecting her own eyes. “Gray,” in Jenna’s case, doesn’t imply some pale cloudiness. Hers are a bluish, flannel gray—soft, but with a snap to them, like the wool pants with a crease that are Rusty’s winter wear.
In today’s late-spring mildness, Jenna’s legs and feet are bare. Her sandals sit by the door, one upright, the other on its side. Her body is beautiful. Not Hollywood beautiful. Not even as stunningly proportioned as bodies I see every day on campus, including in my own writing classes. Beautiful in its taken-for-granted firmness and elastic movement. I admire it without envy, I believe, if envy involves resentment, which it surely does. Neither firm nor elastic anymore, though perhaps not as saggy as I’m apt to think, what I feel is pride of creation.
Naturally, I can’t claim more than half-shares in that. The gray eyes are replicas of her father’s. And as I think this for the thousandth time, I realize why she’s staring and tracing her eyebrows with her free hand. It’s Rusty. He’s told her again how much she reminds him of Bill, and Jenna is loving it. She always loves it when other people tell her. She thinks that I’m biased but they are not, and therefore their word carries weight. I’m not sure how unbiased Rusty is. I don’t mean he’s untruthful—Jenna’s resemblance to Bill is vivid and dear to him—but he wants her to stay fond of him, and recalling her father is a guaranteed route to her heart. You can be sincere and still have an ulterior motive.
With thirty-odd years of platonic friendship behind us, it took me forever to grasp that Rusty’s ulterior motive was me. God knows what my students would think. Well, they wouldn’t. It wouldn’t occur to them. Not only am I not remotely what they envisage when they conjure objects of passion, but neither is stately, deep-voiced Rusty their concept of desire.
Middle-aged men are invisible to college freshmen. Yes, they’re aware they’re in the room if it’s a teacher or their dentist—the source of geeky jokes or an antiseptic smell. But they don’t see them. One way I knew I was middle-aged myself was when the features all those old guys had in common began to separate into different faces. All of a sudden, I noticed cute fifty-year-olds. Cute sixty-year-olds too.
Jenna wanders over to the bureau and fingers the frame around the photo of Bill and Rusty: shaggy-haired college friends, Bill’s hair black and Rusty’s red. It doesn’t seem an especially conscious act. I don’t think Rusty is still talking about him. They’ve moved on to human resource issues. He’s outlining a situation that’s cropped up in his company and she is giving it her full consideration. It feels a little hokey to me. Rusty has an entire human resource department at his command, and Jenna has two years’ experience. But she’s very earnest in her analysis, and he’s not interrupting. It’s very fatherly and daughterly.
I read another paper. Scott Penny is hardly alone—you can’t teach compulsory English Writing and feel surprised at the want of fire. Even the nuanced thinkers can be perfectly bland. They see more dimensions, their vocabulary’s more sophisticated, but it’s task completion all the same. Their papers blur on a higher level, that’s all.
And then, Andrew Marvell, born March, 1621, died August, 1678? People, I have news for you! The creep in this poem has clones hanging out right now at your gym, your favorite café, in your dorm. Tune them out! Don’t let their weasel words lead you into a trap.
No doubt about this identity. The students don’t realize that sometimes the writing declares its ownership. It may be a stylistic tic that gives it away, but often it’s an idiosyncratic slant on life that shapes the argument whatever the context. There’s an engagement here, even if it’s wild and off-course, that the last two essays lacked. One-note in her war on men, blinkered in her literary judgment, but so indignantly involved, Kara Jackson cheers me up.
The single difference between Marvell’s slimy speaker and all those duplicates out there is the length of their… sentences! Did you ever come across a modern male who could string five words together coherently? Oh sure, the language may have changed, but the message is the same. ‘Boo hoo! Why are you holding out on me? Let me into your bed now.’
It’s true, life expectancy was shorter in Marvell’s day. This wannabe lover and his girlfriend could die of the plague tomorrow. You might say he’s simply facing reality. But if she gives in to his pressure and the plague doesn’t get them, she’ll have a raft of tomorrows to regret her choice and maybe a baby to raise. And where will Mr. Lonesome-for-Your-Love be then? Spinning the same line to another coy mistress!
Jenna taps my knee. Rusty has to hang up, but he’ll call me back. “All right,” I say. “I’ll be here.” She puts on her sandals and jacket, ready to head home to her roommates. “Thanks for dinner,” she says. “You’re welcome,” I say. She leans forward to peck my cheek and lays the phone on the seat beside me. Before she closes the door, she turns to wave, and I blow her a kiss.
For all her hectoring, I’d say Kara sidelines the mistress as effectively as Scott. Men are the steady fuel for Kara’s outrage; the girl is mostly a handy surface to dump it on. Is it that word “coy,” with its taint of fake reluctance that makes her so easy to discount? My voice laden with disdain, I read the first two lines of the poem aloud, weighting “coyness” with extra scorn.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
Enough with the acting, my voice implies. Don’t overplay your hand. I run my eye down the page and give “long preserved virginity” and “quaint honour” the same treatment. Cut to the chase, my tone suggests, or lose me altogether.
Yet, a heartbeat later, that mocking note no longer holds.
And therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires
Those lines don’t lend themselves so well to sardonic distance, do they? I glide my thumb along the soft inner margin of my bottom lip. In Marvell’s day, had “coy” not yet developed the sense of sham unwillingness? Did it simply mean “shy?” I don’t know the answer, and this bothers me. I shuffle into a more upright position and read the first few lines again, this time with a beseeching sadness that’s most affecting. Worldly coquette? Chaste, but ardent virgin? What are her emotions as he speaks?
Kara would call my persistence absurd. “Who cares?” she’d say. “His goal’s the same either way.” She’s right, it is. But Kara is nineteen years old. She’s not yet attuned to the whirr of the wings on Time’s chariot—that rhythmic pulsing that poets and Rusty and I all hear without trying.
I look at Marvell’s dates again and do the math. Fifty-seven years old when he died. That’s five years older than I am now, four years older than Rusty. We’ll almost certainly exceed his span, though Bill’s our proof it’s not a given. Rusty’s view is unambiguous. “Whatever time there is, I want to spend with you.” His diction is not as operatic as Marvell’s suitor’s, nor as sensual, but in its way, it’s as importunate.
And here’s the rub (the fly in the ointment/the wrench in the works): I can’t for the life of me clarify my wishes, and indecision makes me yearn to cast aside for once my self-preserving, teacherly restraint and alert young Kara to the notion of complexity. To write on this, her last essay for my class, Make no mistake, Kara, Rusty’s desire for me feels like a month in Bermuda after a winter in Fargo. He dotes on my breasts, and behold! I enter rooms with aplomb. He admires my hips, and my step acquires a spring. He praises my lips, and I startle my boss with the boldness of my views. And don’t assume that nostalgia is fabricating the gently rounded me who co-exists in time with his coppery hair. His eyes are clear. What’s more, Rusty’s powers of transformation don’t stop there. His wealth could turn my tired apartment into a memory, make these student papers disappear forever. His presence could rescue Jenna from daughterly guilt. One word from me and Rusty could redirect my entire story, but he can’t delete the part that’s already been told.
Sex with Rusty, Kara, as you certainly don’t wish to hear, is a rather serious affair. There’s none of the humor I remember with Bill, and no one since has counted enough to blunt the contrast. On top of which, it’s a graceless thing to admit, but Rusty was sometimes the butt of our jokes. Bill and I would picture him and demon germ fighter Michelle together and roar. She surely didn’t insist on surgical gloves and masks, as we liked to pretend, but that didn’t curb our hoots. Sex was our own patented invention, and we claimed the right to judge. We thought the world of Rusty, but we laughed at him anyway. It was private, and it was fun. We told ourselves that he and Michelle would never last. It never crossed our minds they would outlast us.
Who can I share this awkward history with? Not Rusty, for obvious reasons, not Jenna, who’d veto the details, not friends, because Rusty deserves my loyalty. I have to confide in someone, which leaves only Bill. And so that’s what I do, Kara, when Rusty and I make love. I confer with my dead husband. There are things I still haven’t learned, because I don’t ask. What sex with Michelle was really like, if Rusty has slept with much younger partners, whether he wonders the same kind of thing about me. But I’ve learned enough to be thinking, See, Bill, we were right. He is polite, he does ask permission. He’s almost exactly the way we imagined him, except we never imagined him with me.
So, what to tell Kara in reality? I hesitate, thinking I ought first to check the historical use of ‘coy.’ But it strikes me that, for this purpose, it doesn’t matter. Even if it meant no more than ‘shy’ when he wrote it, Marvell could still be using it ironically. The ambiguity is inherent, and that’s what makes it a good assignment. I am relieved. I can justify my selection. You never know when you may have to.
Rusty doesn’t have children. Too messy for Michelle, we always thought, but then she had twins with someone else at the age of forty-two. I wonder what Bill and I would have made of that, or of Rusty’s subsequent affairs with svelte women with boardroom potential. Speculating on my own wasn’t the same, so I gave it up in favor of reading in bed.
I’m ready now to bestow my green advice. Read the poem again, I write. Open yourself to the language. Does it leave you completely unmoved? Poor petitioner, his suit looks doomed, whether his mistress is a heartless tease or a panting Puritan. Or even, the sudden thought flits into my head, if she is neither.
On the makeshift stage of my invention, two coy mistresses curtsey and depart, and a third appears. A well-intentioned girl she seems, with a look of regret in her eyes. She is touched by her wooer’s attentions, she says, honored by his devotion, the loss of his friendship would wound her to the core. Nevertheless, she has reached an unhappy truth. Her pursuer is not a magician. He can’t turn esteem into love.
I ask myself, did Bill and I always roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball, as the speaker demands? Clutch to our hearts every moment of our life together? Of course we didn’t. We wasted time and slumped in tired indifference like everyone else. But sometimes, without any inkling that for us it was urgent, we did. And that sense of completion is something Kara has yet to conceive of, I believe, and it’s why, when Rusty calls back, as I think he may, for decisions at last, I will have to say no. I’m sorry, dear Rusty. The answer is no.