By Priscilla Long
“Living for Robert” appeared in The Chaffin Journal (2008), 145-156.
In this house, books are everywhere. Books are stacked on the floor, stacked on the couch, stacked on the captain’s desk Robert purchased at such expense. Derrida, Adorno, Lukacs, Lacan, etcetera. Piles and towers of books list toward the front window as if they were longing for a peek at those big old sycamore trees out on Woodlawn Street. Half these books are overdue. I don’t blame my husband. Robert can’t work unless surrounded by books. Not only his own books, but just many other books checked out of the library, 486 books to be exact. I plan to return and renew them today, each and every one, despite the recent events. Why shouldn’t I, since this is what I have always done.
As for our daughter’s unfortunate loss of temper earlier today, I will simply not let it disturb me. Roberta does not understand her mom and of course she is 16 and knows everything and considers her mom to be a specimen from the Dark Ages. When she yells and screams like that I think it best to ignore her. Roberta needs to learn that there’s such a thing as living for someone besides yourself.
Not that my relationship with her father is perfect. Life is not perfect. When you’re married to such brilliance, you’ve got to accept, you’ve got to love him for who he is. You’ve got to compromise. Our home is in Seattle, but Robert has a visiting position in Berkeley. He doesn’t want me with him in Berkeley, he wants me to take care of things in Seattle, and of course, I know perfectly well why. At least he doesn’t flaunt his flirtations in Seattle. I know what’s going on, but I also love my husband. When I married him, it wasn’t because I thought it would be easy. The question is, Do I have the strength to forgive him? I think I do.
I don’t let Roberta see how upset I am. If I wanted to talk to her about it, I would try to explain that men will be men, as she herself will learn soon enough. Roberta would just use her words, as we taught her so well to do, to explain her scorn and derision for my choices. She wonders what my career is. She believes that “a thinking woman has her own work to do.” Robert put these notions into her head and while there’s nothing wrong with them in the abstract, they’ve had the effect of turning my daughter against me. Except for today’s outburst, Roberta hasn’t spoken three words to me in three weeks.
Certainly, I’m not proud that I never finished my dissertation. Do we even need to go into that. Maybe I had no real choice. I was in love with Robert and he obviously needed me to help him keep things organized, not to mention raising Roberta. Do we have choices, really? I often wonder.
Roberta is at this moment upstairs stamping around. Perhaps this is her further effort to communicate. I will just ignore the racket. Sitting here in Robert’s study—Robert’s and my study, really—I can see the books that my own darling has written. Books which, I’m proud to say, I’ve had a hand in, with the proof in the acknowledgments and thanks in each and every one. I consider these books as much mine as his—don’t get me wrong, it’s his genius, his mind—but for me those books represent a labor of love.
Should I ask Roberta to help me pack up these library books and lug them to the car? I will just start. I will not ask. If Roberta wants to come down and help her mother, then I suppose she will. Thank goodness Enid and I are getting together today. Sometimes I think Enid’s the only one left who understands me.
The Allegro Café is worn and warm and scuffed as an old shoe. Enid and I have been meeting here ever since graduate school nearly twenty years ago. The café chairs are wood-glued and scratched, and the little square tables rock on their pedestals. The walls have turned to dingy hues of mocha and macchiato. Voices murmur and mix with the hiss of the espresso machine, the clank and ding of the cash register. The Allegro never changes, the old dictionary lying open on the dictionary stand, the smell of burnt coffee and bitter chocolate. High windows face the alley with its benches for smokers. Robert and I used to sit out there and smoke Galois cigarettes when we were young and did smoke. I stand in line for my macchiato and there’s Enid at a corner table, frowning into her laptop. Total concentration. She’s twisting and untwisting a strand of her frizzy pale hair with both hands, as if she was working her next thought out of her curls.
“Roberta had a fit today,” I say. I clunk my little white cup and saucer down on the glass-topped table.
Enid looks up and grins. “How age-appropriate,” she says. “They are sixteen, aren’t they?”
Enid is saying that to be nice. Her own sixteen-year-old is pleasant and helpful, courteous to a fault.
“Roberta called me a stupid wimp at the top of her lungs,” I say.
“What’s bugging Roberta?” Enid shuts her laptop but keeps her hands on it as if to protect its contents.
“I was returning some of her father’s library books. That would be against the principles of her highness the queen.”
Enid looks down at her laptop and then up at me. In middle age she’s turning into what’s called a handsome woman. She’s got big hair, straw-colored but now salted with white. It kinks and curls around her strong-boned face like the hair of one of those pale African Americans, although Enid is a person of mongrel descent out of some sort of Scottish gene pool.
“Did you get them all returned?” she asks.
“I … you know … I returned some, renewed some, the usual … It took me an hour to get them to the car—with no help whatever from Roberta. Then it took an hour at the circulation desk … That’s why I’m a little late.”
Enid gazes at me with those laser-beam blue eyes. Here she is, back in graduate school after raising five kids. Watching her, it looks easy.
“For which I apologize,” I add.
“Don’t apologize!” Enid sweeps away the apology as if it were an Allegro Café fruit fly. Then she says, “René, old friend, you are still renewing Robert’s books?”
“If I didn’t,” I say with a little laugh, “we’d have to sell the house to pay the fine.”
“Yeah, but … René?” Enid has this way of looking at you intently over her little square reading glasses.
“Enid?” I turn up the corners of my mouth. I try to stay cheerful, upbeat.
“Hello? Robert is shacked up with Anne Peabody? In Berkeley?”
In this, Enid is correct. Robert’s little Anne Peabody fling has been going on for more than a year. I smile again, as brightly as I can manage. “That doesn’t mean we should sell our house to pay his library fines.”
Enid does not appreciate my little joke. “Wow,” is what she says.
“This is a community property state,” I press on. “If I didn’t return his books I’d be in debtor’s prison.”
Enid looks at her hands, looks around. People talk, cups clink, fingertips tap laptops. Busy, busy. Tap, tap, tap.
Enid sighs. “But, girlfriend. Don’t you get pissed? Don’t you feel mad as hell? He’s out fucking this Anne Peabody and you’re taking care of his books? Are you serious?”
“I hate fighting,” I explain. “I detest it.” And I do. I grew up with it, grew up with my parents’ war, with their constant, daily, screeching battle. Why they didn’t call it quits I cannot fathom, even to this day. They fought on and on as if they were countries in the Thirty Years War. I will not do that. I will not allow my home to become a battleground.
Enid keeps looking at me.
“My parents fought, as you know.”
“No need to fight!” Enid opens her palms as if to ask Why? “Just calmly state that you can’t return his books…”
“It’s not that simple,” I explain. “I know my husband.”
“What about your life, René?”
“I’m ok with my life,” I inform my friend. “Besides, what else can I do?”
“Well … just a suggestion … but … you could finish your dissertation.”
“What was it on? Bridges, bridge engineers, something…”
“Have you been talking to Roberta?!”
“René! Come on. Get off it.” Enid sits there turning her wedding ring, a habit of hers. It’s a wide copper-and-gold band tooled with a geometric design that she and Jack worked on for weeks before they got married right out of school.
“Sorry. I know you wouldn’t do that. How’s Jack, by the way?”
“Jack’s doing great, especially since the Seahawks won.”
We sit there.
“René, why not finish your dissertation?”
I cast about for something cogent to say. Finally I say, “I chose a way of life.”
Enid looks down. She lifts her mug and drains the rest of her tea. Her cellphone rings. She talks to her daughter, hangs up. Then she looks at me and says she has to go.
“You have to go right now?”
Enid sighs. She unplugs her laptop, pulls out the connecting cord, coils it around her hand, and stuffs it and the laptop into her briefcase. She zips the case shut.
“Look…” She leans toward me and lowers her voice as if she were conveying state secrets. “I can’t stand watching you throw out your life like … it was a piece of paper or something.”
“I’m not throwing out my life.”
“René, why don’t you see someone—”
“—some sort of therapist, counselor, shrink…”
“This assumes there’s something wrong with me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you!” Enid looks around as if seeking help. Then she looks back at me. “Believe me, René, there’s life after Robert.”
“I’m fine. Really, Enid, don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine.”
Look …” Enid stands up, puts on her coat. “Look, I’ve got a lot to do today. I have to go. We’ll get together again … soon.”
“You’re leaving now?”
“See you soon,” she says. She turns and walks out the door.
I am stunned. I don’t move. I sit. I wonder how Enid knows a thing about my marriage, living as she does with her Jack, who treats her so special, sort of like a rare orchid or something. I take a sip of my macchiato in its white cup. It’s strong medicine and its dollop of foam does little to dilute it. I clink the cup down on its white saucer. I have nowhere to go. I have nothing to do. The books are returned. Enid has vacated our appointment. Robert is gone. It’s too soon to go home. I listen to the murmur of voices at the other tables, the clicking keyboards, the malicious hiss of the espresso machine.
By the time I get home and park the car and walk up to the porch and get out my keys and unlock the door and go in and ascertain that Roberta is not home, I’d worked it out that of course the entire campus knew about Robert and Anne Peabody. It was not a private family matter. It was everybody’s business, and I’m the campus fool, the faculty-wife fool. And I must have known it, too, because last week when Robert wanted me to go to the English Department to check into some letter, I wouldn’t go. That’s his department, of course, but it’s also Anne Peabody’s department.
I take off my coat and go down to the basement, carefully treading the steep, rise-less steps. Here under the floor joists of the kitchen is my old work space. The cellar reminds me of old potatoes. It smells dank. It has a cracked cement floor and cracked cement walls up to ground level. Our vintage 1926 cottage that we’ve added to but could never bring ourselves to leave squats on this cement foundation and has never once budged off it during the several earthquakes of the last century. A small high window looks out on the front yard at grass level. I sit down and look at the shelves of old books, file cabinets, card files stuffed with 4 x 6 cards. My notes. There are also piles of notebooks, and boxes of DOT reports, U.S. Bureau of Roads reports, Xeroxed correspondence from bridge engineers, etc. There’s even a tumbler full of No. 2 pencils sharpened and ready for archive use. As well as the usual basement things. The hot water heater brightly new and white. The furnace, squat and metallic. The washer and dryer. And my old graduate-student desk that my father built out of varnished plywood, with all its parts — four legs, plywood top, shelf for book or dictionary — screwed together with nuts and bolts. This was meant for easy disassembly and reassembly during the early years of my career when I might have to change jobs several times before finding my tenured position.
Father. Oh, he wanted me to succeed. I know he did. But I blame him all the same, just a bit. All that time out screwing around with one or another of his lady friends. Making Mother miserable. And Robert is so like Father. Why did I even expect him to be faithful. So here we are, come full circle. Except you don’t see me screaming or begging or throwing things or having one more highball or weeping uncontrollably in the living room while my daughter looks on.
And why, I ask myself in Enid’s voice, don’t you just leave?
I can’t, is my truthful answer. I just can’t.
I pull out the drawer of a card file, move back the follower-block, and pick out a 4 x 6 index card filled with my own tiny holograph. I read words I copied fifteen years ago from The Town Crier, 18 Ja 1913:
Ralph Ober, superintendent of the city building department, has recently been chosen President of the Pacific Northwest Society of Engineers. Those who know anything about this society know it to be composed of men of high standing. Aside from being competent engineers, men who do big things and who know how big things should be done, the men of this society, as a rule, are men who take a lively and intelligent interest in public affairs—good citizens, in the best sense.
Ralph Ober, designer of the high Aurora Bridge, built 1931-1932. I remember why I wrote that down. There’s something about that passage that’s very 1913, very un-2005. But what is that something? And why didn’t I write it up?
Whatever thought I had, it’s long gone. And look at these notes, so many notes. Neat, complete notes. All those years of taking notes on bridge engineers and their idea of progress, and then, after I met Robert, taking fewer notes and getting more sucked in to Robert’s life, Robert’s days, Robert’s deadlines. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to write the thing anyhow. Maybe I was secretly relieved to let Robert’s requirements overwhelm my own requirements. Had I actually had any idea how to begin writing? Gradually, so gradually, I shed this work, shed it without deciding to shed it, shed it by doing less of it, shed it by skipping one day, two days, two weeks … Once I probably had high hopes. Enter Robert, to save me from my big fat ego.
Upstairs the door slams. There is a silence. “Roberta honey,” I call up. She flips on a light upstairs and starts coming down to the basement. Roberta is tall like Robert, but bony and skinny with long legs and undeveloped breasts and black buzz-cut hair. Like many tall girls, she slumps. Much as I tell her to stand up straight, she nevertheless continues to slump. Something important has happened, I know, because Roberta is coming all the way down the cellar steps to speak to her mother.
“Have a seat,” I say. I pat the old futon sofa I am sitting on.
“Mom,” she say. She stands on one foot and twists her other foot around her leg.
“What dear? Come sit down.” I pat the space beside me again.
“I don’t want to go back to Nathan Hale High.”
“You’ve only got a year and a half to go, sweetheart.”
“I hate it!” She screams, and then falls silent.
I let out a long slow breath. “I know you do,”
“I want to go to Berkeley High. I can live with Dad and Anne…” She stops.
The furnace clicks on and begins to hum.
“Dad says I can.”
My back stiffens. I say nothing. I stand up, just to gain some time. I move the file boxes off the sofa and onto my old college desk. Then I sit down again, farther over, and pat the sofa again.
Roberta sits down, and looks at her nails, bitten down to flesh. She puts a finger to her mouth to bite a hangnail.
“He says they would be glad to have me.” She looks down at her jeans.
I take a breath. “Could you get in to Berkeley High? It’s already February…”
“I’ve been accepted,” she say.
“Oh.” I see immediately that everything has been taken care of except for the detail of informing me.
I try to breathe. It’s important to remain calm, even stoical. Robert and I have always put up a united front before our daughter. “If that’s where you want to go, then I’m happy to have you go there,” I hear myself saying.
“Mom, thanks!” Roberta smiles. I’d forgotten her smile. She stands up. “I have to pack. School starts next week.” She goes up the stairs.
I sit there for a long time.
Without thinking, I open another card file. I read the file guides: Aurora Bridge, Fremont Bridge, London Bridge. Why London Bridge? Notes upon notes on London Bridge when I was writing on American Bridge engineers. What was I thinking.
Suddenly I remember a bottle of rum sitting in the kitchen cupboard, untouched since Robert left. I think of it hiding there, sadly, in the dark of the cupboard, as if waiting for its man to come home. I get up. I mount the stairs to the kitchen. I find that bottle of excellent Meyers rum. I pour myself a glass, neat.
Next time I see Enid, I’m completely alone. Bereft, I should say. I’m at the Allegro standing in line waiting for my macchiato, in some sort of daze. The barista has to say —Hello there! — to get my attention. I order and pay and see Enid at her preferred corner table. As usual, she’s frowning at her laptop. When I get my macchiato I walk over—I don’t know what I’m thinking. I just stand there looking at her.
She looks up, startled. “Oh!” She saves her file and clicks it away and then puts both hands on the lid of her computer as if she’s going to snap it shut. “If you want to return Robert’s books, René, that’s your business and I apologize.” She says this quickly, a little breathlessly.
“You are right,” I say. “I shouldn’t return his books.”
“Oh René, I’m so sorry.”
“I just don’t know what else to do.”
“Sit down,” Enid suggests.
I sit. “Enid,” I say. “If I were to ask your advice, what would you say?”
Enid seems to be studying me.
“You see,” I repeat, “I am truly clueless about what to do.”
I listen to the clatter of plates and the murmur of people talking about what I’ve always imagined were significant and important things. The café tables are all occupied. I feel wedged into a corner. I feel backwards and stupid. I take a sip of macchiato, so sophisticated, I used to think, back when Robert bought me my first one.
“By the way, just so you know, Roberta has enrolled at Berkeley High School. She’s there now, attending school.”
Tears come to Enid’s eyes. “Oh René,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”
I had to tell Enid, but I have no desire to speak of it at length, or even at all. “So, any ideas?” I prompt.
Enid shuts her computer and takes it off the table. She pulls her tea in front of her and cups her hands around the mug. Her fingers are long and bony and her copper and gold wedding ring gleams.
“Robert’s books?” She looks at me steadily.
“Robert has 340 library books checked out right now.”
“I renew them when they come due…”
“What do you want me to tell Robert?”
Enid puts her elbows on the table, puts her face in her hands, and shakes her head back and forth as if she has just learned that her tenth grader has flunked algebra for the third time.
“Do you ever speak to Robert?” she says through her hands.
“Every week. We talk business … I arrange his schedule. Next week he’s speaking in Spokane. The week after he’s in D.C. He comes home once a month or so.”
“Tell Robert the deal’s off.”
“What is the deal, René? Between you and Robert?”
“Don’t forget, Robert is my husband. Is that supposed to be a deal?”
“So Robert goes off and shacks up with else, somebody who is—frankly—his intellectual equal, and his old sweetie takes care of his library books.”
“I take his calls too.”
“You take his calls.” Enid states this.
“The phone rings,” I explain patiently, “and it will be for him.”
“What ever happened to feminism?”
“I’m a feminist, of course, but Robert can’t do for himself. He’s brilliant and all, but he’s not competent at certain things. It’s actually kind of funny.”
“You asked me what you should do…”
“Do whatever you want. It’s your life.” Enid leans back and stares off into space.
I have been put off my lifeboat and now I am drifting out to sea.
“Ok,” I say. “Let’s start again. I’m listening.”
Enid resumes eye contact. “Call Robert and tell him the deal’s off.”
“Return every library book. No renewals. Return them.”
“The house will be empty.”
“What was your dissertation called?
“The Idea of Progress in the Beliefs and Structures of American Bridge Engineers, 1870-1935,” I say.
“Have you looked at it lately?”
“I did.” I look at my hands. In my opinion I look rather young for my age, but my hands are starting to look old. If you want to know somebody’s age, look at their hands.
“4 x 6 index cards. Thousands of them. File boxes full of index cards. Then Xeroxed Engineering Department reports, etcetera. Why did I take notes on the London Bridge when my dissertation was on the U.S.?
“Did you write any of it?” Enid takes a sip of tea.
“Do you remember the History Department prize I got?”
“Of course. It was on a bridge.”
The Aurora Bridge. “The High Bridge as an Emblem of Progress in the Age of the Auto.” That was going to be a chapter.”
“The jumper’s bridge.” Enid shudders. “I came that way this morning. Some guy had been about to jump, I guess. Traffic was backed up for forty-five minutes.”
“It’s made of silicon steel as well as carbon steel, a lighter-weight steel, you know.”
Enid did not seem interested in this. She sipped her tea. “Did you write any more beyond that chapter?”
“I didn’t write anything else. I took notes. Then Robert’s tenure was coming up — it was an emergency more or less. I started helping him stay organized, which was easy for me. Robert’s a sweet man, but disorganized, as we know. When I started helping him, things started getting better right away.”
“Better for Robert.” Enid says.
“It’s not really Robert’s fault,” I say. “It’s just a habit we got used to. I got used to not working on my dissertation, which was easy because I didn’t know what I was doing. The more notes I took, the more complicated everything got, the more I had no clue what I was doing.”
“You can always figure out what to do, with a little help from your friends.” Enid smiles brightly.
“It’s not Robert’s fault,” I repeat.
“Robert is Robert,” Enid says. “It’s nobody’s fault. The question is, what do you do now?”
“I haven’t had any kind of a marriage for a long time,” I say. Suddenly the sadness of it hits me.
“This being the case,” Enid quotes from one of her Buddhist texts, or is it Sanskrit, “how do you proceed?”
“OK, so I call Robert and tell him the deal’s off. I try to explain when he asks me what deal. Then what?”
“You go to the history department and you get down on your knees and beg.”
“We had ten years to get done,” I remind her. “That was twenty years ago.”
“You go over there and beg,” Enid repeats.
“I know how to beg,” I say. “But do I know how to write a dissertation?”
“First you see what’s been done on your topic,” Enid continues. “Then you narrow your topic, then you reframe it. For example, right now it’s in to look at how things are seen. I’m still doing my dissertation on Edith Wharton, but it’s more, how was Edith Wharton seen over time, as cultural and psychological perceptions changed, and how is she seen in light of post-structuralist theory, which, lucky you, you already know because of helping Robert. So you … as they say … read the literature. You’ve got to catch up on twenty years of new work. But you start writing immediately. And if you get stuck, you get help—immediately.”
“I’m stuck right now,” I joke. Then I say, “Are we still friends?”
“Oh René.” Enid gets up and comes around the table and puts her arm around my shoulders. “We will always be friends.”
I am aware that what Enid said is not strictly true. I know it depends on what I do next, what I do now. Funny how it never mattered much to Robert one way or the other whether or not I finished my Ph.D. It matters to Enid though. Roberta, of course, wishes I were more like Anne Peabody.
I do what Enid says. I don’t know what else to do. I return the library books, a three-day project. The house goes all hollow, all empty. I call Robert on his cell phone in the late morning, after his office hour has closed. I ask him if we can talk. I tell him the deal’s off.
Robert responds in the worst possible way—politely, without an argument. He asks me if I would send his things. He’s “concerned” about this or that book, about certain papers. He asks me if I would call a moving firm, and send everything to Berkeley. There’s that flat tone in his voice, as if he were talking to a telephone operator or a shipping clerk.
It takes me a full week to take Robert’s clothes out of the closet, to press his shirts for the last time. I fold his trousers and suits, pack his books. Then I call the moving company and they come and they go and now the house has nothing in it at all. Except of course all those meaningless notes in the basement.
Then, if only to keep the faith with Enid, I go up to the history department and speak with Professor Joe Franklin. He shakes my hand and motions for me to sit down. He is brisk and handsome with graying hair, cord trousers, and a tattersall plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I wonder who irons his shirts. We talk for about two hours. The question is, Can I focus just on Seattle’s many bridges and various bridge engineers. We agree that this would narrow the topic nicely, and still be valid and interesting, perhaps even more interesting because there would then be little danger of it becoming a catalog of scattered bridge stories. It takes me about two weeks to go around and get all the permissions, assemble a committee. I do that. I do everything I’m supposed to do. I even go to the University Book Store and buy a notebook.
Another week goes by, then another. Roberta is gone, Robert is gone. He must have taken my statement literally because he hasn’t called once since I told him the deal was off. Enid calls and leaves a message. A couple of days later she calls again … twice. I can’t bring myself to return her call. I had wanted to report progress…
I have to face the fact that I’m a woman who needs to be with someone. I make a good wife—Robert told me that once. I need love, a great love, a love that gives meaning to life. Without love, what’s the point!
Is finishing a dissertation on American bridge engineers going to make anybody happy? Will anybody care? Would even my father, that bridge engineer par excellence, care, if he were still alive? Who will be happy when I finish it, supposing I even have the wits to do it? What difference will it make? Will it bring Robert back? Will it be the miracle that causes Roberta to speak to me again? And what about Enid? Enid is happy. She’s happily married, a happy mother to her five kids, half of them all grown up and nice people and even successful. She’s happy to be back in school. In any case, Enid is a congenitally happy person, and she certainly doesn’t need me to drag her down. Does the Department of History care? To the Department of History, I’m just one more ABD, all but dissertation, all but married, all but mother. So then. It’s decided. I will do something for myself for a change, something that, I must admit, has crossed my mind before.
So. Let the fun begin. Let it begin here, with this bottle of excellent Meyers Rum, which is—in a way—a gift from Robert. And it’s still half full.
* * *
On June 6, 2005, the following item appeared on a back page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
René Gottlieb, wife of renowned philosopher Robert Gottlieb, died late last night after jumping off the Aurora Bridge.
About 2:15 a.m. yesterday, the Seattle Police Department reported that a woman jumped off the east side of the Seattle span. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Gottlieb’s identity and found the cause of death to be freshwater drowning.
Gottleib, 54, had just returned to graduate school in history. Her dissertation was to be on the idea of progress cherished by American bridge engineers. Ironically, in 1985, she won a graduate-student history prize for a paper titled, “The Aurora Bridge: The High Bridge as an Emblem of Progress in the Age of the Auto.” Gottlieb and her husband had recently separated and Gottlieb was reportedly despondent over the breakup. She is survived by her husband and by her daughter Roberta, 16.