Ted had once gone 50 days without a shower.
This was in Korea, in 1950. That had been the worst thing about the war. Every guy in Korea had his own Worst Thing. For some it was the hunger, punctuated by the insult of cans of cold beans. For some – most – it was sleeping in the snow and waking to numb hands and feet. For Ted it was breathing his own filth. But it had been made bearable by thoughts of Betty. The memory of her soft lips could make the war around him dissolve.
He met her on the beach in San Diego, just before being shipped off to Yokohama, then Osaka, then Kobe, then Wonsan Harbor and on into Korea’s frigid interior. He was at the beach with a fellow Marine, Joey Taylor. Ted and Joey came from the same town in Nebraska and were stationed in San Diego together. Betty was at the beach by herself. She’d come with a friend, she said, but the friend had suddenly taken ill and had to head home, and Betty decided to stay. Betty was quiet and subtly beautiful. He lived in the moment of the first glimpse of Betty. He remembered it like he remembered nothing else.
“You look lonely,” he’d said.
She smiled and everything stopped. “I’m not lonely. Enjoying myself.”
“Girls by themselves is always lonely,” Joey said. He had a way of making you agree with what he said.
“One of you pals got a cigarette?”
And so Ted and Betty spent a glorious week together. Then he lived his life through letters. He wrote her dozens of letters during his deployment, maybe over a hundred. I barely sleep, he wrote. We have been sleeping outside in snow banks. We sleep in shifts. We take turns waking each other to make sure we haven’t died of exposure. But this will be over someday. And we will have a beautiful future together. She had written him exactly once in Korea, to say she was carrying his child. When he returned to San Diego in 1952, Betty was nowhere. She had moved out of the boarding house where she’d lived.
He went home to Nebraska and found all the letters he had written waiting for him, returned to his parents’ house, unopened. Betty was nowhere. He would not let himself throw the letters away. He wrote her more letters. Every week he wrote to her, sometimes more often. He had nowhere to send them.
He went to the University of Omaha, and there he met a pretty girl named Connie who he married after graduation. They had a baby within a year, and Ted appreciated Connie. He tried to love her. He’d thought, for a while, that he did love her. But it was a subdued type of love, and as much as he tried to eliminate Betty from his thoughts, every day he confronted the cruel fact: Connie was not like Betty. With Connie, there was no mystery to penetrate. They talked to each other only in sentences, and those sentences said exactly what they meant.
Betty, my life is so boring now, he wrote to her. I can’t leave Connie. It wouldn’t be right. But let us remember our love, however fictitious. He erased “fictitious” and wrote “fleeting.”
He had every intention of trying to love Connie; it was imperative. But he continued to write to Betty, letter after letter. He had no intention of sending the letters; he couldn’t. He went to his teaching job at the high school early most days to write her a letter. He kept the collected letters in a large box of tools in the garage, underneath the hammers and screws.
His past was ugly: the war and the filth. This was inescapable. But there was the week of Betty. This was irretrievable. He thought of her as a girl but she wasn’t one anymore, he figured: she may be like his wife now. His past was gone, warped in places.
Joey Taylor disputed Ted’s memories of meeting Betty. They both lived in Omaha and were still friends.
“Oh, no, no, Ted,” he said one evening over pinochle and cigars. “You thought she was
the ugliest broad at the beach!”
“You’re crazy. She was the essence of youth, of beauty.”
“Will you listen to Mr. University?” Ted looked at the other men around the table.
“Essence, my ass. You didn’t give her a second look until she came over and asked you for a cigarette. And then you was even more disgusted. A woman like that? Come aahhhhn!”
“I was the one who approached her.”
“Sorry, Ted. It wasn’t like how you said. She was plain but she thought she was something else. You wanted company for the night and you settled for her. Then you fell hard, but it was afterwards. She wasn’t no essence of nothing. A broad like that ain’t never nothing of the kind. Not today in Omaha, and not by herself on the beach talking with two corps guys. I mean, we were about to be shipped off to certain death! Well, you guys remember how it was.” He poked his cigar in his short fingers at the men around the card table. There was general agreement.
“How would you remember? You’d been drinking half the day.”
“You’re either lyin’ or you don’t remember. Now…” He propped the cigar in the ashtray and his voice grew quiet. “The only girl that mattered to me….you’re sayin’, Ted, that Betty was the only girl that mattered to you, and you may be right, you’re just remembering wrong. But the girl that mattered to me….you remember?” He wagged his finger at Ted. “You remember. Yeah. Wendy Connelly. Ohhh, Wendy.” He picked up his cigar but did not put it into his mouth. “Wendy Goddamn Connelly. She wore so much make-up on her eyes, she looked like a raccoon. But…green eyes, wavy red hair…” He put his cigar back in his mouth and looked up, looking into the past. “I could’ve been happy with her ’till the kingdom come.” He snapped back into his usual demeanor. “But as it turned out, I was the king, coming!” Everyone laughed. “In fact, Teddy boy, it’s a good thing I didn’t marry her. And it’s a good thing you didn’t marry Betty. They would’ve been different as wives. All women are. We wouldn’t have had the good memories to cling to.”
Joey dealt the cards for the next round.
The past may have been ugly, but the present was hospitable. The present was scotch and soda, his wife rocking the baby to sleep, roast chicken for dinner. It was hospitable, and uncomfortable. He was a guest in his own life. He was waiting for something else. During the day he waited for the bus ride home so he could read the evening paper. During the bus ride home he waited to get home so he could eat: the roast chicken, the soft chairs, the hospitality. During dinner he waited for the evening and sex. During sex he imagined Betty.
He often transcribed poems in the letters he wrote to her. He had taken a poetry class in college, an English poetry class that started with Chaucer and ended with Coleridge. He took the poems right from his old textbook. He started with Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe, then moved on to Thomas Campion:
There is a garden in her face,
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heavenly paradise is that place,
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
He often arrived in his classroom as the night janitor, Raymond, was leaving. For a long time they didn’t say much to one another aside from terse greetings. Then one morning Raymond noticed Ted reading a book of John Donne.
“You like poetry, do you, Mr. Ackerman?”
“Sure I do,” said Ted.
“I write poetry myself.”
“You write poetry?”
“Yeah, been writing it for years.”
“Well…that’s wonderful. I think poetry helps what ails the soul.”
Raymond laughed. “If that’s your view. That’s not how I see poetry.”
“How do you see it?”
“Poetry…just is. It interprets, I guess. It describes. I don’t think art should be comforting.”
Ted thought that was strange. “There’s so little in this world that is comforting. I don’t see why art shouldn’t comfort.”
“Don’t you have a family?”
“Don’t they comfort you?”
“Sure….sometimes….well, not always, no. I – ” Ted leaned back and squinted at Raymond.
“Have you heard of a guy named Frank O’Hara?”
“He’s a New York guy. Really something.”
“What is he, a Beat?”
“I don’t think he’s associated with them. I like the Beats. A lot. But Frank O’Hara…he knows. I’ll bring you some Frank.”
A week later, Raymond brought Ted a slim volume of O’Hara’s, A City Winter. It was full of references that Ted didn’t understand – they seemed to refer to artists and musicians that the poet knew personally. What was this world? But Ted read through them effortlessly, hungrily. How could one write a poem addressed to a leaf, a poem about sandwiches? How could one include a fragment of dialog in a poem that was no different than the words he spoke to his own wife? Was poetry inherent in daily life? Or the other way around? And yet it evoked in him the same feelings as Shakespeare and Marlowe.
He included an O’Hara poem in one of his letters to Betty:
I’ve got to tell you
how I love you always
I think of it on grey
mornings with death
Ted’s work brought him pleasure. He liked the early mornings of poetry and unread letters before work; he liked teaching history to kids. The dates of battles and treaties were indisputable, unchanging.
Home, too, seemed unchanging, except that the baby, Phyllis, got bigger and talked more every day. Soon she was not a baby, and called out “Daddy!” when he got home, her brown curls bouncing as she ran to him, never combed enough. He liked that her hair defied her mother’s constant smoothing and attempts at order.
One morning Raymond came into Ted’s classroom to empty his trash can.
“Did you read Frank?” Ted noticed that Raymond’s nose twitched as he talked.
“And what do you think of him?”
“Well – he’s interesting. I’ve really never read anything like it. It’s so simple. This O’Hara fellow – I can understand him. But it’s more than that. I can’t quite explain why.”
Raymond laughed. He was tall and very bald, though he wasn’t past 30, and he was so skinny he looked sickly. “Christ, you are so stiff. Poetry will help you.”
He dumped the trash into the larger can he pushed around on a dolly. “Try reading Frank out loud. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. That way it’s living poetry. I do readings when I can. I keep thinking I should leave Omaha. Go out to New York. That’s where the scene is, you know. I don’t belong here.”
Ted leaned forward on his desk. “Let me ask you something. What inspires you?”
Raymond tilted his head. “Love. The moment. Injustice.”
“Do you write with a pen or a typewriter?”
“Well, I do both. If I’m at home, I use my typewriter. If I’m out, I always carry a pad of paper in case the mood strikes me.”
“Hm.” Ted was mystified by the personality that was able to create art and literature. It was so alien to him, yet in some small way he wanted to be a part of that world.
“What is it you’re writing?”
“Letters.” He said no more; he’d said too much.
“To who? Your wife? Love letters?”
“Sort of. I mean, some of them. They’re letters to the future.”
Raymond stared at him for an extended moment. Then he laughed.
“You don’t take anything seriously, do you, Raymond?” It occurred to him that Raymond may have been drunk.
“Au contraire.” (He pronounced it “ow contraire.”) “Absolutely I do. At the right times I do. I don’t take work seriously. There’s no point in that. Not when you’re a poet who’s a janitor.” Raymond’s eyes were very red and he spoke slowly, strangely. Yes, he must have been intoxicated. “But I like what you said,” Raymond continued, “letters to the future. That sort of sums up what everyone in the world’s doing. Thinking of the future. Never a thought for today. I’ll tell you something. All you have is today. So you should send those letters. Give ’em to your wife, or whoever you’re in love with. The words won’t last. The women probably won’t, either.” He looked at his watch. “Mr. Ackerman, I have to go. My job is done. 7:00 already. This is my bedtime, you know. I live opposite to the whole world. Just like Frank. He’s opposite like me.”
“What do you mean, opposite? You mean he sleeps during the day?”
Raymond stared at Ted again with wide eyes. They seemed to sink into his head the wider he opened them. Then once more he erupted in laughter. “Oh, man, Mr. Ackerman,” he said. “What I mean is, Frank’s a homosexual. Are you reading those poems? It’s all in there. Good-night.” He left.
Ted’s heart sped up to a ferocious pace. This was too much. He loved the newness of O’Hara’s poems, the unexpectedness. But to be reading the work of a homosexual, and someone who celebrated it! It was too much. The new, it seemed, was always accompanied by a dose of the frightening, the abhorrent. Every good thing, it seemed, was a mere morsel of good surrounded by impossibility. The good was momentary; Betty existed in his mind as a moment, a moment that was overwhelmed by her absence. The lines of poetry that he loved so were overwhelmed by the poet’s sins. These moments couldn’t be sustained. It was the awful things that loomed large: the war, and the lie that made his marriage possible. Poetry couldn’t just be, as Raymond had said; nothing was neutral. Nothing was happy.
Ted felt disgusted at Raymond, for whom nothing was serious, not work or love. He threw away the letter he’d started writing to Betty. He didn’t know what to do with the book of Frank O’Hara’s poems.
For several weeks he didn’t go to work before 8:00. He didn’t write Betty any letters or read any poetry. At night he played cribbage with Connie. He stopped off to buy her flowers one night. But as he rode home on the bus, bouquet in hand, and walked the two blocks from his house to the bus stop, he imagined he was headed into Betty’s arms.
Raymond was fired and arrested one night after being caught smoking marijuana behind the school during his break. Ted heard this in bits and pieces. He still had Raymond’s book of O’Hara’s poems. He’d been carrying it in his briefcase for 2 weeks. He threw it in the trash in the men’s restroom one day. There was a chasm between the life he led and the strange world in O’Hara’s formless sentences, a chasm that Ted refused to cross. He resumed his letters to Betty. He started going to work early again, and he and the new janitor, a Negro named Perry who was as bald as Raymond, said nothing to each other. Ted would nod at Perry as he came in to empty his trash, but Perry never looked at him. Ted went back to reading older poems: Robert Herrick and Ben Jonson, and their letters to their loves, Julia and Celia.
One day was different. Phyllis ran happily to greet him as usual, and her messy hair stood on end from static after she hugged him. He looked up and Connie stood in the kitchen with a cigarette burning in her hand, her face red from crying. She was wearing denim pants, a rich blue like false happiness. Ted loved those pants. They made Connie’s contours look womanly, defiant. For a moment he looked at the pants rather than at her tortured face.
“What is it, Connie?”
Her voice was small but hard. “Phyllis is here, or I swear I would slap you.”
She lifted her slim hand to put the cigarette to her mouth, and when she set her hand back down on the counter, Ted noticed, resting beside her hand, several stacks of weathered envelopes, some of them tied neatly with yellowing string. He recognized them at once.
“I needed a hammer from the garage, Ted.”
“Oh….” He nodded, but Connie did not see. She was looking away, at nothing. Ted stared at her pants. “Oh. Connie, those are – I wrote those letters a long time ago. I don’t know why I kept them.” There was a chance she hadn’t read the letters that he had been writing, weekly, all these years.
Connie picked up one of the stacks and whipped it at him. “You are lying! Who is Betty?” Two tears rolled down each of her cheeks.
“Don’t cry, sweetie. I can’t stand to see you cry. How can I make it better?”
“I am not ‘sweetie’! Don’t call me that! Who is Betty? Who is she?”
He looked at the piles of letters. There were enough to fill a volume.
“She – she’s – I…”
“It just doesn’t make any sense, Ted! This is the work of a madman! You haven’t even sent them! Why?”
Ted was quiet. There was nothing to say, of course. How does one explain the past? He was not a husband and father at that moment. He was no better than Raymond. He was a slug. He was unwanted by one woman and hated by another. Connie, he said in his heart. Connie, he pleaded. He couldn’t tell her he loved her because the only love he felt in the world was for Betty, for Phyllis, and for poetry. He had often told Connie he loved her but he couldn’t do it now. He couldn’t apologize. He couldn’t lie. This was not who he wanted to be. He wished she would hit him so he could forgive himself for his lack of love.
“I know this is wrong, Connie, but if I could just explain – ” He knew she wouldn’t let him explain and that was the only reason he said it.
Connie suddenly shoved all the letters off the counter. They fell to the floor and there they rested: years and years of his life condensed into a heap of confetti. Connie threw her cigarette in the sink. “I want a divorce.” She stomped into the bedroom. She stayed there all evening. He heard the radio playing. Patti Page.
He began a silent mantra: Betty is dead. He wanted to believe it. Ted would never see her again and he realized it that night. The future he’d imagined was obliterated. This was his reality. This was his future: Phyllis playing with blocks on the floor, Connie hating him, Ted wishing all of it away.
Somewhere she lived, and her child did too, Ted’s child – maybe – but he would never see her again. He’d heard deserts existed, and nebulae. He knew Betty was somewhere. But none of these were part of his life. None of them mattered. His world was here, in this plain living room. He had not asked for the war, for Connie, for Raymond; he had begged for Betty. But today, nothing was real beyond this living room, that TV. Betty is dead.
Divorce was not mentioned the next day, nor the day after that. Connie had dinner ready in the evening and said little to him, but she kept a pleasant demeanor.
That Saturday, Ted went to play pinochle at Joey’s house. There were only the two of them that night. Ted did not mention his rift with Connie until he was on his third scotch and soda. “Connie wants to leave me.”
“Holy Christ, Teddy. What for?”
Ted didn’t want Joey to know about the letters. It did seem a bit mad. “She – found some old letters I’d written to Betty. She thinks I’m having an affair.
“Why’d you keep ’em? I mean, how can you still be hooked on her?”
“I don’t know, Joey. I don’t know. I just am.”
“Here’s me, I wanna forget everything to do with the goddamn war. Even Wendy Goddamn Connelly.”
“Do you remember how dirty we were?”
“I don’t wanna remember.”
“I counted 50 days without access to a bath.”
“I counted 50 days without access to pussy.”
“I had to scrub for 15 minutes to get my fingernails clean. And there was still dirt I couldn’t get out! But, you know….have you ever felt more alive? Before or since?”
Joey looked at Ted grimly. “Did I feel alive? Are you kiddin’ me? I felt dead the whole two years. Some part of me is still dead. You wanna bring up the past? That past? That hell? You’d be a filthy dirty kid tryin’ not to get shot in the snow? You’d do that again? Just so you can have another chance with Betty? Are you kiddin’ me?”
There was no divorce. There was a tautness between Ted and Connie each night; Ted would wait for Connie to mention the fight; he would wait for himself to conjure an apology, an explanation, a promise to do better. There was none. He waited each night, through the tautness, but soon he became unaware that he was waiting. Some nights he forgot the fight entirely.
Connie was pregnant. She told him this one night after Phyllis was in bed. There was a mild smile on her face. Ted smiled too and nodded.
“Well, good news!” he said. “Good news….That is great. Phyllis will be a big sister. Wonderful! I’m happy, Connie….happy.” He meant it.
“I am too, Ted.” She looked sincere, Ted thought.
A happiness settled upon him. A happiness centered right here, in his own living room. It was all he had now.