White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Robert Earle
With more than seventy stories in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. He also has published two novels (The Man Clothed in Linen and The Way Home, now available in Kindle version), a book of literary criticism (Tuppence Reviews, also available on Kindle), and a nonfiction book about a year in Iraq (Nights in the Pink Motel). He has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins and has settled in Chapel Hill, North Carolina after twenty-five years as a senior U.S. diplomat. Other fiction can be found online at The Missing Slate, theNewerYork, The Write Room, The Puritan, and others.

Featured Work
Loading...
Subscribe to RSS     Share

The Perfect Marriage

Robert Earle

 

They agreed on a beautiful life; that would make their marriage perfect. This meant talking to one another about things that mattered, reading aloud to one another, listening to music together, taking walks and paying attention, spare furnishings, walls of light. An aesthetic existence, in other words.

Anyone with any taste would have said the long-limbed, long-nosed, full-mouthed, dusky Tati—short for Tatiana—was beautiful, perhaps except her parents, Russian Jews who left the Soviet Union to reclaim their religion, not renounce it, as they renounced Tati.

At the day school where Richard taught English, he was asked by Eugene Sanz, the Spanish teacher from Madrid, "Where on earth did you find her?"

As an Englishman, Richard wouldn't ask a question like that, but to be friends with Sanz, you had to accept all of him.

Richard had been in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts gift shop buying a book on the French realist Gustave Courbet that he mischievously planned to send to his mother in London, who had said she’d rather he moved to France than America (purgatory as opposed to hell, he supposed). Tati was the counter girl. She said in an almost inaudible whisper without raising her eyes to meet his that Courbet was one of her favorite artists. Richard decided to keep the book, although he did not see the immediate connection between this exquisite young woman and the self-described “proudest and most arrogant man” in France.

"You didn’t say he was one of your favorite artists, too?" Sanz asked.

"Well, no. He intrigues me for his rebelliousness and strength. That’s what I said."

“A mistake.”

Richard observed, "Perhaps, but we married after all."

"What does she think of Courbet now?"


"She loves him for obscure reasons, but we've found lots of other things to talk about as well."

Richard hadn't come to America expecting to find anything like Tati. He came to escape the stifling predictability of England, however, and so he couldn't be surprised when he met someone totally unforseeable. She wore long cotton and linen dresses and skirts and blouses and lived in a roachy one-room apartment in a grubby South Boston neighborhood. Because she had no confidence that if she pursued a doctorate in art history she'd be able to lecture—too shy—she settled for the gift shop job.

Richard returned and asked if she ever would be free for a cup of tea. They could talk about Courbet. They made a date, but when he saw her approach the cafe's street door, she hesitated and walked away. Richard scurried out onto the sidewalk to pull her back.

She explained she suddenly thought she had the wrong time or address, but it obviously was shyness, excruciating shyness. None of his

questions worked. She barely replied. He thought she found him awful. He already was balding in his mid-twenties, and he was terse and quick as the English can be and now forced to blather about himself...widowed mother, brother in Manchester, school and then Oxford, and now a teacher west of Cambridge—Massachusetts, of course.

She said at last, "I thought we were going to talk about Courbet."

He puffed up and became the theatrically professorial Richard, making his voice a bassoon. "As yes, Courbet, Courbet."  This was the kind of woman, he knew, who might dismiss him if he went too far, but he plunged forward. "I like his subtle palette, his focus on the ordinary people in the world, not just princes and demigods, no history painting, thankfully, and I don't know how one can discuss him without accepting his bold eroticism and personal candor. He was a successfully miserable man, I gather, or a miserably successful one."

Tati agreed. "I think all of that, too."


He wanted to say that he didn't see how a woman who was more iris than any other kind of flower found herself drawn to Courbet the realist who had wrenched French painting away from the romantics only to lose it to the impressionists. In fact, what about the pre-Raphaelites? Except for her oriental exoticism, Tati could have been a model for Rossetti. He decided to keep quiet on this point and simply ask if she'd see him again.

"May I call you?"

"I don't have a phone."

Richard lived, perforce, a spare life, but he had a phone and a car (which Tati lacked, too.)

"It's too keep myself cut off," she explained.

"Not from people like me, I hope."

She smiled at him for the first time. “No, not from people like you.”

They were married with neither her disapproving parents nor his distant mother in

attendance.  Richard proposed using his trust monies to buy them a house in the countryside. He would continue to teach and she would paint, her lifelong dream. Eventually children, but not yet. In fact, Richard could hardly imagine Tati with children.

The house was an inexpensive summer place located on a hillside overlooking an apple orchard.

"I'll insulate a few key rooms first. Anyway, the English live cold and I imagine the Russians do, too."

"You lived in England. I didn’t really live in Russia."

He never got her into overalls, but together they made the house habitable, turned the garden shed into Tati's studio, terraced the slope from the road to the front door and planted irises in profusion.

"Iris is the messenger of love," he said.

Tati knew this but let Richard inform her about


all sorts of things as though she needed his schooling. Her specialities in the relationship were art history, Turgenev, Proust, and Walter Pater, but she expressed her views hesitantly. When Richard left for school, she also had a difficult time daubing canvases with subtly different shades of the same color. That was her style, where color grew dark and where light and where thick and where thin.

One painting could take her months, spent on endless discrimination and decision-making, but they weren't about to do anything wrong. Had no television. Primarily ate vegetables, bread and cheese and drank exceptional teas and small quantities of wine. A life that one could take in, that had no clutter or rush. If you looked at an art book, look at it, discuss it. If you listened to Yeats, listen to him, discuss him. What Tati didn't like to talk about were her father's upholstery business, her mother's synagogue activities, or her brothers' (she had two) commercial cleaning firm. She'd rather spend time discussing which of two Shaker rocking chairs they should buy. Richard's views on T.S. Eliot as an Englishman fascinated her. She enjoyed going to the chapel on the periphery of the Harvard

campus where Eliot allegedly had his religious revelation.

One evening Tati said, "Whatever we do, we have to hold onto who we are."

"What do you mean, 'Whatever we do?'  Are we going to do something?"

"We're going to have a baby."

And she had decided that she did not want to have a baby in the country. She had to be nearer to places she could walk, or take a bus, because she couldn't drive. Driving, like snakes and cocktail parties, paralyzed her.

He couldn't have told you she was pregnant, or that he suspected it. Though she was thin, her breasts always were large. Though they were an almost ethereal couple, their erotic life was electric and had remained unchanged. But she was pregnant and apparently had resolved to abandon their exquisite solitude, the living room with its large windows overlooking the russet apple orchard, the


beautifully tiled kitchen that opened on the iris terracing, the bedroom Richard had built between the pillars that held the house up on the hillside, her studio in the garden shed, and his agreeable drive through the countryside to his day school.

Richard said he was thrilled that she was pregnant. He didn't say he wasn't thrilled with the idea of moving. He had come to the conclusion that any criticism of Tati inevitably led to a two or three day spell of morose alienation.  He would like to have asked, for instance, how she happened to have become pregnant given their precautions. The answer would be these things happen. What else could it be?  But she might regard it as suspicion she had done something without telling him, and then not only Tati, but this baby, would be put under a cloud.

He could hardly talk to Sanz. Sanz would have volunteered to take Tati off his hands for him. But there was a school psychology teacher who also practiced, and Richard hinted his way into an exchange with him.

The psychologist said no diagnosis came to mind, but it might be considered that Richard and Tati were runaways who thought they would be able to live in a fantasy world marked by extreme sensibility.

"Extreme sensibility?" Richard asked.

"Or sensitivity," the psychologist said. "I've noticed she's abnormally shy and you are the most demanding teacher in the school. If things aren't exactly the way you want them, you won't let them go."

Richard objected, "My students excel in all their standard testing."

"I didn't say it was bad, Richard, but it's a little extra-human."

They sold their solitude for a row house with a porch in Allston and redid the entire place to make it perfect. Tati could sit on the floor and let her belly drop between her legs and paint the lower molding with extraordinary precision. You couldn't see the brushstrokes.


"Maybe this is what I ought to do for a living," she said. Her special facility was that she could paint with either hand. "It's not that I'm ambidextrous, it's that I don't know the difference between right and left. That's why I can't dance."

Richard had been married to her for three years without knowing this. "Is that why you can't drive, either?"

"I suppose."

"And of course why we've never danced."

She confessed, "Any time the opportunity remotely has come up, I've steered us away. Do you dance?"

"Well, not with you."

"With whom then?"

He was good on his feet—hard to grab on a break-away in rugby—but he danced at Oxford in a mechanical, mock-serious way only when

intoxicated, and he tended to wander from his partner. His idea clearly was to downplay the act's significance. "Jane White."

"That's a made-up name."

"It isn't. There are thousands of Jane White's in England. I must have danced with one of them."

She returned to the trim work. "You'll never dance with me because you'd have to get me good and drunk, too."

"I've never seen you drunk."

"I was once and hated it."

"When?"

"I think it was with a boy named John White."

They planted irises in their vest-pocket garden and hung a hummingbird feeder and salvaged a wrought-iron bench from someone's curbside trash. Richard suggested a housewarming party.


Tati was against it. "I don't want people to see me this way."

"You'd be clothed."

"Women know. I couldn't bear the baby talk."

Nigel was born easily but Tati had horrors nursing him.

"He sucks until I feel he's pulling my nipples off."

"I shall speak to him," Richard said, lifting Nigel out his crib. "Sir, there are numerous reasons why you should indulge yourself less vigorously."

But Nigel, two months old, had to go on the bottle, as Richard put it. He often was the one to give it to him, but not exclusively. Tati did like to hold and carry and walk him, especially to the expensive grocery store on the corner. Painting, because Tati had become allergic to oil paint (as opposed to the latex she applied to the trim work), was out, but there were the art books, which she would show to Nigel, telling him about the artists and images. She still dreaded lecturing, but she

could at least hold him on her lap facing away from her so they could both see the opened books on her knees. A good way to pass part of an afternoon whether he was awake or asleep. They came to the Courbet book and Tati wondered whether she should skip it, but decided no, she had to deal with it.

"In Courbet we see a palette that embodies the mood of the subject, and we know that we are not being tricked. And here...well, here we have a painting with which you are more familiar than you realize. It's called ‘The Origin of the World.'   This is where you came from, right between your mother's legs. Those legs are spread and her pudenda are covered with pubic hair, but we can see the crease that leads through the labia to the vagina, and above that is the soft belly with the modulated skin tones, the navel, and the partially exposed right breast and hint of nipple. This painting hangs in the Musée d’Orsay where no one wants to be seen looking at it. Women as well as men, but there is nothing pornographic about it. It's a work of exquisite beauty and calm. On the other hand, a photograph like this would be considered pornographic. I suppose the difference would be


that a photograph would be a mischievous effort to enable you to see what you aren't supposed to see whereas a painting painstakingly creates what you really ought to see, especially given the title."

Although Nigel surely was asleep by now, Tati continued her commentary. "And here is the likely model for ‘The Origins of the World,’ a red-headed Irish woman named Joanna Hilfernan examining her face in a hand mirror as she toys with her curly hair. See how present she is?  That’s Courbet's skill in capturing the variations in skin tone and hair color, and the implicit question in Joanna’s expression,  'Who am I?'"

Tati turned the page and stared in silence at Courbet's self-portrait, "The Desperate Man."   His eyes were opened horrifically wide. His eyebrows were uplifted. One hand clutched at the top of his head, the other clutched at the side. It was as though he wanted to pull himself apart. A frightening chiaroscuro swept across the face from left to right. A massive chord ran from his breast bone up his throat to beneath his jaw. Anatomically improbable, but expressively accurate. In some

ways, Tati felt, this painting was the first bell tolling the end of realism, and something she desperately longed to find in herself died in her before it stopped ringing. She didn't know what she was going to do now that she couldn't paint and had a baby. Keep walking to the corner store?  Keep waiting for Richard to come home? Keep feeling guilty about her nipples?      

Having a son made Richard feel that he was going to work in the morning, not driving toward an extended conversation about the books he loved. He felt financially pressed and concerned about the future. He never filled the tank of his wobbly Fiat (bad tie rods), ate apples and bananas for lunch, and urged Tati to consider shopping at the Price Rite instead of the corner store, but she couldn't bear the scale and smell and harsh light at the Price Rite.

"I don't want to become a 'consumer,' do you?  I hear the cans and boxes yelling at me, 'Buy us or die!'"

If she would give breast feeding one more try, they'd save on expensive formula, but Richard


didn't mention that, or using paper nappies, as he called them, instead of the service. She feared Nigel would develop a rashy bottom.

But money.... As chairman of the English department, Richard received a thousand dollar increment. The other teachers, older and more senior, made more. They’d been chairman themselves and kept their increments and received raises as the years rolled on. But none would fill in for a colleague who called in sick; that fell to Richard. Likewise, discipline fell to Richard. Haley Downs, in particular, made glorious trouble singing show tunes when he should be teaching Emily Dickinson. He also was alcoholic. When Richard spoke to him, Haley promised to change his mouthwash so his "occasional celebrations" weren't so noticeable, but he insisted his students needed the show tunes as an antidote to the "little sisters of death," meaning Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and their ilk. "And we haven't even gotten to Sylvia Plath. Oh, God, the pain! The pain!"

Richard went to Bob Dow the headmaster to

request equitable compensation. Bob pushed out his lower lip.

"Haley would demand more for his years of seniority. So would Lark and Simeon and Fred."

"I have a new baby, Bob!"

Bob gave him a look that said the school didn't give bonuses for producing babies. "School management and family management are two different things."

"And I teach four classes to their three and I do all the substituting and curriculum coordination and ordering books and perform like a seal on our bloody parents' nights."

"Can't afford it. Sorry, Richard."

Furious, Richard decided he'd look for his own headmastership elsewhere.

Tati didn't like it. "I don't mind being poor. I'd rather be poor than rich."


"It isn't a question of being rich. We won't ever be rich if I stay in secondary education."

"What else would you do?"

She was genuinely curious, which insulted him.

"Maybe I'll go into real estate. I moved us here without losing any money. That wasn't easy."

"Richard, I don't want to be married to a real estate salesman."

"You won't be married to anyone if the front end of the Fiat falls apart on Route 128."

Tati began to cry. Richard held her. He saw that they couldn't talk about this, but he knew he had to act.

He was offered a headmastership in St. Louis at a boys' school that planned to become coeducational. The salary equaled Bob Dow's. In addition, the headmaster received a large stone house with steep slate gables, copper gutters, and impressive lawns. He sold the Allston house and invested the

proceeds prudently. Tati seemed to concur in semi-silence, though she begged off an introductory trip to St. Louis because of her recent pregnancy. Curiously, her sexuality seemed to return concurrent with Richard's new assertiveness. She was lustful leaving the Boston area and remained that way in St. Louis. Richard sensed something deep within her emerging, more than just sex and more than what she said.

"Now that we're here in this big house, we can have another baby, or two or three."

Richard understood immediately what a mistake he had made. Not that he didn’t welcome more children, but the board of directors had been excited about hiring a dynamic young Oxford graduate with impeccable manners and never imagined he’d bring along Tati in her loose cottons and linens with her wispy hair and long Jewish nose and habit of declining invitations and disappearing from receptions and acting like a deaf-mute when cornered for a conversation.  This was the Midwest. People were friendly, talkative, community-oriented. Tati, too, understood perfectly well that


she didn't fit in.

"I can't believe what I've done to you. I'm worse than I ever was. All I can do is walk in these endless suburbs and cry in the afternoon and wait for you to come to bed so we can be alone together. What do they say when I don't come to their dinners and receptions and events?"

“They don't say anything. I tell them you're indisposed. I'm not sure they understand exactly what an Englishman means by that, but they nod as if they do."

“You must resent me, Richard. You must wish you never met me.”

“Are you out of your mind? How could you say such a thing?”

“Because it’s probably true.”

Richard said, “Bullshit,” probably for the first time in his life.

Tati became pregnant again, but her style of

dress didn't reveal that and explain her continuing indisposition. Nonetheless, by virtue of his position Richard had to keep having people to the house three or four nights a week, sometimes for cocktails, sometimes for dinners. Tati hid with Nigel on the second floor. She reached the kitchen on the back stairs. The chairman of the board's wife asked Richard if Tati were ill "with something you might prefer not to talk about."  She wasn't a nosy shrew; Richard understood her husband, a banker named Wilson Pollock, had put her up to it.

He replied, "I wouldn't say so."  Mrs. Pollock kept looking at him. He hadn't told her enough. Her husband would expect to hear more. Tati had sworn him to secrecy but what could Richard do?  He said, "You see, she had a difficult pregnancy with Nigel and now she's pregnant again and has no energy in the evenings."

Mrs. Pollock understood; her husband didn't. He had ascended to the board chairmanship on the premise that the school, if it were to survive, must go co-ed, merging with a local girls' school in financial trouble. So Richard and Pollock spent a lot


of time talking to their counterparts, and Richard was expected to outline a leadership vision of future unity that ensured boys and girls would be treated as equals.

"We need to show these ladies that we see women stepping up to the plate, playing a role in life, doing their share," he said to Richard. “And to do that we must give them a sense that our school leadership is pro-girl, give them role models. Do you get my point?"

Richard got the point. As gently as he could, he asked Tati if she couldn’t be a bit more present.

There was a dinner arranged with the potential partner school's leadership group. Tati attended, whispered when she spoke at all, and kept her hands clasped around her abdomen. This was torture to her. Anyone could see it.

She tried to be supportive afterward, if not during. "You gave such a good speech," she said when they got home. "You’re so knowledgeable about management issues, all this talk about synergy and harmonization and boys and girls

learning from one another. I would have said something if I could have thought of anything. But I don't know anything about these things."

Richard sensed that his professional efforts fundamentally betrayed their relationship. They were drifting apart, and in all candor, it was Richard who was doing the drifting, not Tati. He felt overwhelmed, sinking, bewildered. A job was so much easier than a marriage, but a marriage was so much more important than a job.

As it turned out, the leadership dinner was decisive in two ways. First, the potential girls' school partner wanted to go ahead with the merger. Second, there had to be a different headmaster.

Pollock called on Richard the next day. They sat across a coffee table in Richard’s book-lined office. It was late in the afternoon. Pollock was a bald, florid man who favored three-piece suits and knew St. Louis, as he said, like the back of his hand. He'd been the one who'd hired Richard in the first place because he'd been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and felt a kinship with him.

"I can't push back on this idea of a different


headmaster without your assurance, Richard, that once Tati has gone through this pregnancy, she'll do more to give us a leadership couple representative of coeducation. I think they’re right in an important sense: You can't do all the social politicking that we have ahead of us on your own. It won't work. I can't tell them you’ll remain our headmaster, no discussion, unless I'm sure I won't regret that."

Richard didn't dislike Pollock, and he liked running a school. He could handle dozens of consultations and decisions on any given day. He liked setting policy, watching over finances and negotiating, essentially, the birth of a new school whose campus would be his creation. And then there was the security of a good income, a stately home,  a place where they could have this next baby and more.

But what could he do?  He offered Pollock his resignation and Pollock accepted. Richard would finish the school year and the girls' school headmistress would take his place.

Tati asked herself how she could have done this

to Richard and what she could do now. Richard was simply numb. He had no job, another child on the way, and a clear track record of failure as a school administrator.

"I suppose I can tell people I always was intended as a transitional figure, someone whose job was to negotiate the merger and then leave."

Tati asked, "Who would you tell that?" She meant she couldn't imagine him contemplating another headmastership. She wanted them to go back to the way they had been in the beginning. "Since we’ve been here, you've come home and talked about boys and girls' bathrooms and locker rooms, investment policy and health insurance programs.”

He almost said, "And you didn't listen," but clearly she had or she wouldn't be able to throw these things in his face. So he conceded, “And I didn’t talk about Yeats. I didn’t talk about Courbet. I know, I know, I know...I’ve just felt so driven to hold us together, I mean as a family, pay the bills, give us a future.”

He looked at her just as desperately as Courbet


stared out of his self-portrait. She heard the scream in his words. She had to say something. Had to help. Couldn’t just sit there being the perpetual origin of the world without doing something to keep the world going once it had begun.

"Did you negotiate a relocation allowance?" she asked.

"Did I what?"

"We’ll need money to cover our expenses moving back to Boston."

He couldn’t believe she would raise such a practical topic. Wasn’t offended, was amazed, actually felt tears of gratitude in his eyes. She wasn’t accusing him of anything, she was trying to help him. "No, we just talked, didn't put anything on paper."

Tati gathered herself, trying to think how to say this. "Good. Perhaps because you’ve been so honest and accommodating to him, you can maximize the severance package, get the moving expenses covered, and we'll need a continuation of the health

insurance. Maybe what you do is agree to all this as a consultant to the school for the next year." She didn't know how she rattled all this off.  Why hadn't she spoken this way once in the last seven months? In the last five years?  It was like painting again but not hesitating, moving her brush fast, urgently trying to keep up with her inspiration. She had Nigel in her arms and handed him to Richard seated on one of the parlor's three sofas."I need to walk through the house and see what it's going to take to pack up our things and move. I have to think. Hold him while I do that."

No one else could detect how pregnant Tati was except Richard. She was very pregnant. He knew just how much of her blouse and long skirt she filled up and why she walked the way she did, yawing to the right, yawing to the left.

"Would we live in Allston again?" he called after her.

"Richard, first let's see where you work. It's late but there's still time to find a job before next September. I’d like it to be in Boston, but how can we know?”


She disappeared. The house was so well-built that he couldn't hear her upstairs. Nigel had bubbled to the drooling point. Richard cleared away his saliva with a thumb and then wiped the thumb on the sofa and stared out the front windows over the bordering boxwood to the immaculate lawn and the handsome stone wall running along the street. He wondered if he could count on Tati to stay this way, but he knew the only realistic chance they had was if she did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Robert Earle. White Whale Review, issue 7.1


Previous Author Prev Next Author