Bud Kovacs jammed his tongue in my left ear so vehemently that saliva ran down my neck. In the den my husband, Tad, did something with Bud’s wife, Kitty, that I could neither see nor hear. Tears ran down my face.
From the sofa, I could see my boots leaning against each other by the front door – arctic-explorer boots with thick rubber soles, smooth fake fur on the outside, the kind that would have walked me home.
I was twenty-seven years old, could have put on those boots, trudged a mile through the snow from the Kovacs’ boxy colonial back to our awkward split-level and banged on the door for the babysitter to let me in, but I possessed no firm “I won’t,” just a tearful “I don’t want to.”
Forty years ago, to embrace the “I won’t” would have required me to proclaim my personal independence, and, in that time and place, for me, existence in the singular was as ephemeral as fog. Life would not have improved if I’d walked out into the snow.
Seven years before, in 1965, when I was twenty, Tad and I had married in a picturesque Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, lucky kids full of wide-open western optimism. I stood at the foot of the chancel steps, looking into his handsome blue eyes with two thoughts. I barely knew him, and it was good to marry while I was young and malleable. We’d grow together.
Two years later, we moved to New Jersey to live with Tad’s parents, Hersh and Mina, so that Tad, with his Dad’s backing, could open a Toyota dealership. In the home of his parents, life became a slow-frame-speed black-and-white movie, one where coarse men and silly women lurched and flickered. My husband called his multi-millionaire father “the old man,” and on Thanksgiving he laughed on cue when the old man pulled out a dining chair for the old lady as though to seat her, and then walked away leaving her poised in mid-air, flailing, grabbing at my hand to catch her balance.
“Hersh,” she pleaded, “this is no time to behave like that.” Hersh walked toward the head of the table. “What a dope,” he snickered, and Tad chuckled his allegiance.
Hersh kept a mistress in Florida. His weeks-long absences were simply ignored.
Shortly after we started living with Tad’s family, his brother, Nate, came home to join the business. On his brother’s first night home Tad said, “The old man and I are gonna take Nate down and show him the store.”
Hours later I asked Mina where she thought they had gone.
“Oh, you little dear, they’re out drinking.” She snickered at my expense.
“Why’d they lie about it?”
“They didn’t lie,” she said, looking up from her Readers Digest. “That’s just how the men are.”
When Tad finally crawled in bed beside me, I hissed, “Why’d you lie to me? I don’t care if you have a drink with your brother.”
“Don’t bitch at me.”
“If your dad is rude to your mother, do you have to be rude to me too?”
“Jesus, I can’t even come home and go to bed.”
“You act like you’re ten.”
“Shut up. Just fucking shut up.”
By the time I felt Bud’s tongue in my ear that January evening, I had two children and had earned little more than Christmas cash. I was Wife and Mommy. When I married Tad, I’d not only volunteered to give up my surname, but I’d involuntarily lost my Christian one. To get my attention, Tad either waited till I looked at him or addressed me as Wife.
“Why,” I asked, “don’t you use my name?”
“It’s too weird.”
I despised the tawdry scene in the Kovacs’ living room, but in the real world Bud had his arm around my shoulders – no one ever put his arm around my shoulders – and suddenly I didn’t want him to stand up and walk away.
After a while, I said, “O.K. We can do it.”
Bud put his hand around my arm to lift me off the couch. I shrugged him off, stood up by myself. In the master bedroom the sheets were rumpled.
The only attempt at seduction, the only alluring sensation that evening, had been the lobster fra diavolo. Bud, a high-school dropout who’d learned to cook in the Navy, was the executive chef of the Penn Central Hotel, an aging Manhattan hostelry on Seventh Avenue across from Penn Station.
I can still feel the steam rise off the lobster, see the tender claw meat slipping out of its fire-red shell, feel the Serrano peppers sting my tongue, breathe the garlic, taste the plum tomatoes on the al dente pasta.
I sat at the foot of the oblong table, Kitty and Tad on the sides. Bud circulated among us, shaving fresh Parmesan cheese with a rasp from the hardware store. Thirty-five-year-old Kitty, with a rhinestone barrette fastened in her hair and mascara caked on her eyelashes, refused to look at me. Tad had talked me into the evening by saying that dinner would be a discussion of “the issue,” nothing more. No one brought it up. After dinner, Tad followed Kitty to the den, and when I tried to help clear, Bud took the dirty plate out of my hand and showed me to the living room.
A month earlier, for the Christmas holidays, my “you’re-another-man’s-woman-now” father, and my “well-honey-you-know-how-men-are,” mother had acceded to my wishes and flown from Texas to New Jersey for a visit. When they left before the New Year, Mom took me aside. “We won’t be back, honey. Daddy doesn’t like the way your husband treats you. He’s fooling around with that short blond friend of yours.” I needed a more detailed description to realize she was talking about Kitty Kovacs.
By the time the Christmas tree was down and the flat January light was wiping out what few charming features our split-level provided, Tad called from work and wanted to come home to talk while our son napped and our daughter attended kindergarten. The dealership he owned was only three miles away, but he seldom came home from work during the day, certainly not to talk to me. He arrived with a magazine article – a question and answer format, two columns per page, a picture of a man with sideburns and bellbottoms, a woman with Cher Bono hair and a flower-print blouse. The subject was wife swapping, and the magazine professed an understanding of human sexuality. Tad said Kitty had given him the article.
It extolled wife swapping as a superior way to add excitement to your sex life. No sneaking around, and each spouse got the opportunity to have sex with the opposite spouse at designated times, in designated places. Or, as Tad put it, “it’s fair if you get to do it, too.”
“Sex isn’t fun anymore,” he said. “It’s more fun to take a big dump.”
I cried. I said no.
“Everybody is O.K. with this. You’re the only fucking weird one.”
I cried more.
I called my mother, mumbled something about how maybe Dad was right. “Tell me why, Mom,” I sobbed. I didn’t mention the article.
“I don’t know, but you’ve been married seven years and that’s when men get the itch.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“I’m sorry, honey, I can’t help you. Your dad isn’t the kind of man who believes in spreading his sex around.” Then she listened to me cry until I decided to hang up. She never called me, because Dad wouldn’t pay for the call. What kind of phrase is spreading his sex around?
In the master bedroom, Bud and I removed our own clothing, like grown ups, like married people. At forty-seven he stood about 5’10”, not much taller than I was. He weighed about 160 pounds with muscular arms from years of labor in commercial kitchens. His brown hair was beginning to gray and to thin, and his mustache matched. No identifying scars, no odd toes; his absolute ordinariness appealed to me. He tossed his clothes over the back of a chair, the same chair, I thought, he’d use any night of the week.
I stood by the unmade bed, unbuckled the heavy leather belt around my corduroy hip huggers and shoved them to the floor. I yanked at the snaps in the crotch of my stretchy red bodysuit and wrestled it over my head. Since my second child, I’d been self-conscious about a small oblong bulge below my waist in the space between my hipbones, a space that had once been concave.
Shortly after our second child was born Tad bought a Polaroid camera, and one night, as I walked naked in the dark from the bathroom to the bed, it flashed. My image cranked from the boxy camera – sagging breasts, protruding tummy and a head full of orange-juice-can sized rollers.
“I took this to show you how ugly you look,” he said.
As I stood next to Bud and Kitty’s bed, I knew Bud didn’t think I was undesirable. I inhaled the human smell of used sheets, wondered why I was doing this. Maybe we kissed.
When we dressed and went back downstairs, the den door was closed tight. We finished an open bottle of red wine without talking. Tad appeared with his ski parka already zipped, said goodnight and hustled me out the door. In the snow-covered driveway, he held his cigarette lighter against the frozen door lock while I kicked snow from behind the rear tires.
“How long were you waiting?” he asked.
“Maybe half an hour.”
“Shit. You’re not gonna believe this, but after you went upstairs, I had some trouble…” he rolled his hand in the way people do who expect you to fill in their meaning. I said nothing. “You know,” he rolled his hand in front of his fly, “gettin’ it up.” Once he’d returned our babysitter, he had no trouble at home.
There seemed no way out of the zoo I was caged in. I was lonely and bored and spent hours coffee-klatching in neighbors’ houses. Mostly five to ten years older than I, none of these women had careers. They blotted out their intellects, yanked out their desires by the roots, and complained about their husbands. Tad was no company at all.
Still, when a Friday night swap date rolled around, I had Bud to talk with, someone who listened to me, someone who wasn’t complaining about the pathetic state of his life like my neighborhood girl friends, someone with a career that didn’t involve his father, someone with no illusions about himself. “A good man is hard to find, honey,” he said. “I’m not one either.”
Bud taught me to clean a squid, to sauté veal, and above all how to keep my knuckles against the knife. By forming a friendship we broke the rules and overstepped the boundaries of swapping. Without realizing it I’d taken the hand of a man not confined to my zoo and stepped through the bars of my cage.
In the fall, Tad and Kitty, who always seemed to be the initiators, had made plans for a long weekend. Bud and I were discussing ours.
I said, “We could stay in the city, use the hotel.” I loved the Penn Central. Despite its nod to once elegant rail travel, the hotel was decaying, but to me it was pungent with the wartime passions of lovers. I imagined them in its rooms, women smoking in their platform shoes, barrel-chested men in fedoras and double-breasted suits.
As I lay awake one night at the hotel, listening to the sirens of the NYPD, watching their lights circle around the ceiling, an unbearable tenderness floated up from within me – not for Bud, but for the chaos in the street, for the Puerto Ricans from the kitchen banging the dumpster lid in the alley while their boss snored next to me, for tug boats nursing barges up the river, for the entire city. I felt free.
Bud said. “I don’t want you comin’ into the city by yourself.”
“It’s easy. I’ll catch the train in Matawan. When I get to Penn Station, I’ll walk across Seventh Avenue and meet you in the bar.”
“Friend of mine runs a nice little inn near Lambertville.”
“I don’t mind coming into the city.”
“Claudia. Stop arguing. This place is a damn pit.” Claudia. Not Wife.
“Whaddya think?” Bud asked, waving one of his friend’s mussels under my nose.
I inhaled garlic and wine and a hint of summer at the shore. “They smell fabulous, but I’m no expert.”
Bud rolled his eyes, slipped the mussel onto my plate. “Why is it, Claud, that you always apologize for yourself?”
“I don’t know. Everybody in Tad’s whole family is something and I’m nothing. His father makes tons of money without even working, his sister has a masters in teaching, his brother’s an engineer. Tad was a Naval officer, he understands business.”
“What’d he do in the Navy?”
“Deck officer on an aircraft carrier.”
“Hell, he was probably in charge of painting a ladder. You’re a smart girl. You can do anything.”
“I can organize a dinner dance.”
“How far’d ya’ get in college?”
“Through my junior year, but…”
“…you quit to marry the stud muffin.” Bud motioned toward my plate. “Eat the mussel. It’s gettin’ cold.” I sucked it off its shell.
“Why don’t you go back?”
“I don’t even know what kind of career I’d want.”
“Look.” He leaned across the table as though he were about to share a secret. “A career is nothin’ but a job you’ve had for a long time.” He ripped off a piece of bread and dipped it in the wine sauce while the waiter poured more fumé blanc into my glass. “First thing, finish school. You only got a year, why not?”
“It’s been so long I’m not sure I’ll succeed.”
“So what, Claudia? Go!”
Claudia graduated from Rutgers in 1974. Life is complicated, so it took a while, but, eventually she put on her boots, opened the door, and walked herself into a bright white January day.