by Robert Earle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
I’ll begin with dark Helen, the daughter, who was by no means reticent. She described herself as a free-lance designer in the style of the Ascot-Contis. She believed all design should be a quest for elegance that isn’t detached from functionality — her words, not mine.
To Helen, design was a form of simultaneous assertion and protest: assert the bones, protest the fat; accentuate the ascetic, denounce the gluttonous. She’d design anything from bookcases to jewelry to balconies, corporate logos and tables. Apparently she was successful. In this dimension, the professional dimension, her father clearly was proud of her. In the personal dimension, more central to why we were sailing together, things became more complicated.
“Apparently you don’t know anything,” she said, “because my father played one of his tricks on you. I’ll fill you in. After my mother died four years ago, I moved in with him. The worst mistake of my life,” she sighed. “Really, the worst. Worse than two failed marriages, because I really love my father and there’s no way out of that.
“But, with him, you have to guess what’s going on and work hard at keeping him occupied. I was through with being a wife, and I’d never be a wife like my mother anyway, so it was three years of hell.
“That’s when I advertised and Marguerite came into the picture to keep him company and see him around town. I didn’t think I was being a fool because of the fifty-year age difference between them but, six months later, he married her.
“My first thought was that this was one of these elderly delusional things complicated by the ebb and flow of his multiple sclerosis. He relapses, that’s his form of the disease. He’s had it for twenty years. But that’s not really the point.
“The point, again, is he’s 72 and she’s 23. He shouldn’t have let her fall for him. He should have talked to me and said he thought it better if we let her go. Wouldn’t you think that would be in her best interest?”
All four of us were sitting in their sitting room when she described her father as delusional for marrying Marguerite. This was on our first afternoon at sea. Ostensibly I’d been invited to have tea with them so that we could begin to get to know one another. Well, we certainly did.
I said cautiously, “I don’t know if anyone can say what would be in her best interest.”
“Would you let a girl that young marry you?”
“Meaning I’m too old for her, too?”
“How old are you?”
“Okay, I saved us all some trouble by finding out that you taught high school. That’s your qualification for what my father calls an ‘intellectual companion.’ So, I’m asking whether, back then during your active teaching career, you would have had an affair with a girl a third your age, much less entice her to marry you.”
I guessed Nowitzki knew Helen would ask me such questions and didn’t forewarn me because he suspected I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t, but there was no turning back now. “After they graduated, a number of young women came looking for me,” I admitted. “But it wasn’t me looking for them. I want that to be clear.”
“What was the age difference?”
How do you answer a question like that when you don’t remember every girl who wanted to score with her former teacher? It usually happened when they were sophomores in college. There were a lot of them, one not that much different from the others. “As I got older, the spread got wider.”
“But not fifty years.”
“I was never fifty years older than any of my students to begin with.”
But, I asked myself, if it were fifty, would that be wrong? I’d never discussed these episodes with anyone, and I’d probably — no, certainly — already said too much. Nowitzki studied me as I sat there somewhat frozen. He may have been enjoying himself. He certainly wasn’t going to rescue me.
So it was Marguerite who saved me by interjecting, “There’s a difference between crushes and love. I had crushes, now I have love.”
“What do you mean by love?” I asked, beating Helen to the punch.
“Yes, I’d like to hear,” Helen said, not to be left out.
“You’ve been married twice, you don’t know what love is?” Nowitzki asked her.
“What I know is that marriages tend to be born of sexually-driven infatuation.”
“I know what sex is, but what’s infatuation?” her father asked.
Helen drew herself up, pleased to have the mike in her hands again. “Infatuation is an empathy with someone to the point that he, if you’re a woman, seems essential to your existence. You think the drivel of your life has melted away because you are close to this man. The little problems roll off you. Nothing else matters. But it doesn’t last, just like you and Marguerite won’t last. She’s infatuated with you, Daddy, and you’re exploiting her exactly the way men always do.”
Axe blow to the face. How had these three agreed on a cruise to Athens if their personal disagreements were so blatant? The old teacher in me took control. I became dispassionate, unruffled. “Okay, we’ll say that’s infatuation more or less. But, Marguerite, I asked how you would define love. Remember?”
Marguerite answered, “I think the essential element may be knowing how badly someone wants and needs you and feeling the same way.”
“Another way of phrasing infatuation, I’d say,” Helen observed.
“Let her go on,” Nowitzki said.
Marguerite did go on. “Herman and I found ourselves on a border in life. They appear all the time. Take this ship for example. There’s a border between floating and sinking. And he was just beginning to sink. He was drowning of old age and multiple sclerosis and grief over losing his wife and feeling that he’d lost you, Helen.”
Helen objected, “Nonsense. He hadn’t lost me at all. I was trying to help him by hiring you, not get away from him.”
“She’s talking about how I felt and how she perceived it,” Nowitzki said.
“I don’t necessarily dislike the proposition that love is somehow connected to borders,” I said.
“Maybe you are an intellectual,” Helen said. “Can you expand on that comment?”
Quickly enough, I sidestepped her charge. “No, it’s Marguerite’s turn. Let’s listen to her.”
“Yes, let’s do that, ” Nowitzki agreed, definitely enjoying himself now.
Marguerite looked at Nowitzki tenderly. “He said he finally knew what love was when he lost Dottie. I asked if he hadn’t known before. He said no, the fullness of love comes with loss, when you’re on one side and your beloved is on the other. Then you’re in love like never before, so that’s why I say love is something that comes on the border of things, and the fundamental border of things is between life and death. It’s a commitment across that border, it’s wanting to go, too, but if you don’t, if you keep living, you’re much more deeply accepting and open than before, because you know the importance of love.
“I sensed that with Herman. I’d never sensed it with any boyfriend I’d had. With boyfriends, I had what you call infatuation, Helen; and yes, it was sexually driven. I started having sex ten years ago when I was thirteen. I know what it is. What I didn’t know was love.
“Herman and I started to love each other by talking about your mother’s death, and then about my mother’s death, who died much younger than yours, and death itself, and I think we could see that love only comes in the face of death, which is overwhelming. The first thing about love is that: bonding in the face of death, really meaning it when you say, ‘Till death do us part’.”
Quite a speech. Never having been in love, not as Marguerite defined it, I felt rather cowed. Nowitzki wasn’t cowed at all, however.
“I’d like to thank you both, Helen and Marguerite, for being so articulate, and you, Seth, for playing along. I’ve felt for some time that I had to do something to confront Helen’s concerns, but I wouldn’t be able to do it if this trip were just the three of us. That’s why I needed to include you.”
“I think I’ve deduced that.”
“I knew you’d be the right guy right away.”
“How so?” Helen asked.
“He wasn’t perturbed when I pushed away his resume. He wasn’t so tied up in his past that he had to hide behind it. He adapted. Seemed like the kind of guy who could be a positive factor in helping us with the conversations and exchanges we need to have to see if there’s any way we can really understand each other.”
“By that you mean you and me?” Helen asked.
“You and me, yes. But you and Marguerite, and at some point all three of us and Seth, too, why not?”
“Focusing on love?”
Nowitzki smiled that cunicular smile of his. Marguerite interceded to ask him if it wouldn’t be a good idea to lie down a while. He agreed. Off they went. But, yes, focusing on love. That’s why he decided to hire me the instant I mentioned The Symposium.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Earle