Sharon is standing by the window looking out onto the street from behind a gauzy curtain. Every nerve ending in her body is wired like the E-string on a guitar — high-pitched, taut — and her fists clench and unclench reflexively. Her mouth has dried up like a bleached apricot and her heart thumps crazily at the bottom of her throat. At every unexpected sound, this whole exquisitely tuned physical system jerks as if she’s suffering from an advanced case of palsy.
She is waiting for a sign. The mailman with a letter. The delivery truck with flowers. The ring of the goddamn phone. Footsteps along the sidewalk. The sound of a car gearing down around the corner. The ring of the goddamn phone.
Until one of these things happens, she is sentenced to this nerve-wracking vigil, standing by herself stock-still behind the curtain. She is in love.
Not that my friend Sharon is without other occupations and preoccupations. She’s almost 30 and has been taking care of herself for years now. Got a degree, bummed around Europe, found a job she loves. She considers herself to be in excellent intellectual shape. She is lively, ambitious, greedy, insatiably curious. She’s been an ardent feminist ever since she stumbled across the first writings of the fledgling movement. Life engages her.
But let’s face it, she’s not “busy” the way her grandmother and mother were. Farm work, raising kids, balancing delicate budgets, sewing, baking, scrubbing, mending, tending, working eight to four and then five to midnight. If these women ever stood at windows waiting endlessly for the phone to ring, she hadn’t heard. They married and got down to business by the time they were 20. They didn’t have time to stand by windows. They had too much work to do.
If her grandmother’s life is mysterious to her — an illiterate peasant girl traveling by steerage to Canada to end up alongside her husband scrabbling in the earth to make a few pennies selling potatoes — Elisabeth d’Aulnières’ history (she was the heroine of Kamouraska) is not. Her story took place in 1839; but it’s familiar to Sharon. The costumes and furniture have changed but the emotional landscape is the same. All that energy, all that woman’s vitality, her ambition and greed and need consumed—how? Pacing through rooms, upstairs and downstairs, playing love games with her feet under the dinner table, plotting romantic dramas behind the embroidery screen. And finally, depending on her lover to murder the husband she couldn’t track down herself. She was locked up in rooms, thwarted by babies and maiden aunts.
Middle-class women are not thwarted by such things anymore. There are getaways in professions, abortion, divorce. But in so many ways, the new identities women are taking on now are only masks layered over a more ancient face; that of a woman in love. That remains, for many of us, the essential identity; somewhere inside is this palpitating, tremulous, yearning creature waiting for the touch of the lover to fulfill her most critical ambition; to fall in love. And there is nothing in that particular ascendant fragment of Sharon’s identity
that will help her pick up the phone and make the goddamn call herself. That strength lies elsewhere, in the more tentative character of Sharon’s freewheeling Superwoman persona.
It’s a funny thing about women these days. Even when I and my friends are busy and working happily — finishing projects, meeting deadlines, enjoying the pressure, rewards, glory — we fall in love and drop everything to stand by windows and wait for the phone to ring.
No matter how well things are going, no matter the sweetness and stability of friendships, the ego-food of work done well and usefully, these things fall away like chaff from an armful of wheat when we fall in love. My God, the willingness to reorder priorities, the compromises made, the readjustments to our schedules, the time taken out just to keep a love affair going. To keep the momentum steady (he could stop calling me! He might move away! Maybe he thinks I don’t care enough!). We will drop everything to keep a rendezvous with a lover. We become mistresses, secretaries and nannies all rolled up into this one creature who is a woman in love; all the men have to do is indicate their interest and their need and the thing will be immediately arranged. Within their schedule, of course.
A woman in love. The illusion of action. (Another girl friend told me this story at lunch: “I was standing in his living room looking at a picture. I had been hideously depressed for days. I looked at the picture and started crying. He held me and kissed my wet, sloppy eyes and said: ‘Don’t be sad.’ I never heard from him again. Why doesn’t he call? Me call him? Oh no, suppose he says, ‘Brenda who?’ ”) There is a lot of distressed activity, pacing rooms and composing dialogues, playing romantic movies in our heads. But action? He does. I am done to.
And yet, and yet, what woman would really want to be just like men? Men, with their well-ordered categories of Work, Buddies and Sex. That way they have of saying (the dust is still on the cowboy boots they swing off the end of the bed), “I love ya, baby, but I gotta go. Gotta hit the road. I’m a ramblin’ man. Nothin’s ever held me long. A man’s gotta do what a man’s, etc.” Sharon, for one, understands what that is all about, it sickens her, and yet she still stands there, nose pressed to the glass, a little bit weak with the guilt of having wanted to make him stay.
How will we ever get together, men and women? There is something in men’s style I think women respect, something we would like to appropriate for ourselves. This sense they have of being a centre from which satisfaction and humor radiate like spokes on a wheel. And something in our own style we have come to despise, the timidity and dreaminess, the mute hopefulness, the inability to make the first move, take a risk. I don’t think women want to turn themselves around to gain that cool and lose, in the process, the heat of the human need for connection, the human consolation of surrender. But there must be some way out of our dilemma, some way around that goddamn phone.
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