Staying Married: Romance
Interviewing: Marriage - Who the Women Are
Most of the women I was meeting sounded extraordinarily pragmatic. They did not become deeply attached to lovers, nor did they often talk romantically, as had their counterparts in nineteenth-century fiction. It appeared that it was no longer essential for women to cite the overwhelming power of love as justification for breaking marital vows of sexual fidelity. Almost the only women who did insist on having love on their side were older women, those raised in an earlier period and with a different code. But, while such an insistence has its pretty, romantic side, its opposite face is one of turbulence and melodrama.
Dora Rubin / The Long Life and Sad Death of a Fantasy
I got my initiation into the melodrama of adultery from an elderly neighbor of mine, Mrs. Rubin, with whom I used to chat in a specialty grocery store on Broadway. Most often, Mrs. Rubin was pushing a burden before her—her husband, old Mr. Rubin—who had had a stroke many months before and was only now recovering his powers of speech. A few years back, before his stroke, he had been one of the most engaging old men I’d ever known, fond of squeezing tomatoes in front of the “Do Not Touch” sign and always helping me down curbs with my baby carriage. Now I paid back, assisting his wife with the wheelchair.
Dora Rubin was tall, well-dressed, given to Chanel suits and garnet necklaces and proud to look much younger than her seventy years. She loved to talk and told me a lot about how the neighborhood had changed since she first moved here thirty years ago, before the war. She could remember the days, she said, when the building I used to live in, just a few blocks away from her house, had a huge gilt-framed mirror in the front hall and a green and gold Persian carpet. In those days the brass lamps had bright bulbs, instead of the forty watts the landlord now allowed.
“Well, we all grow older,” she always ended. “Me, too. I’ve had a lot of walking over me, and the carpet’s gone, but I’m still here.” She was active in neighborhood-improvement groups, in committees to plant trees along the sidewalk, in collecting money for charities.
One day I saw her at lunch in a nearby restaurant with a man I hadn’t seen before. They were whispering while eating cottage cheese and I couldn’t believe my own mind when I had the fleeting thought that Mrs. Rubin was having a secret tête-à-tête. I chided myself; clearly, my book was going to my head.
But that evening Dora rang my doorbell and came bustling in, one of her heart fund cans in her hand. As soon as she had ascertained I was alone she said, “Please don’t tell my husband you saw me in Teacher’s Restaurant today.”
“Of course not, Mrs. Rubin,” I promised. And she said, “Good, because it would break his heart. But I had to go. I haven’t seen the man I was eating with in longer than you’ve been alive, young lady. But he was the love of my life, my childhood sweetheart. You know how it is.”
I hadn’t even needed to bring up the subject. Actually, I don’t think, or at least I didn’t when I first began to interview, that I could have brought it up myself with a woman so much older than myself. A grandmotherly woman. But since Dora had broached it herself, I knew it would be a loss not to tell her about my project. I mentioned my book and asked her if I could interview her formally about her feelings—or experiences—concerning extramarital affairs. It was her age that made me curious.
It turned out that Stephen Ott, the man she had been having lunch with, had been her childhood sweetheart when she was a young high school student living in an upstate New York town and working in her family’s grocery store.
They had each married, lived long, full lives and not seen each other in close to fifty years, although somehow, through family greetings at holiday times, they had managed always to know of each other’s whereabouts. It was Dora who had seen to this, never letting go. She had hoped to marry Ott, but his father, the local lawyer, had had ambitions beyond a Jewish shopkeeper’s daughter. So Ott had been sent off to college to study accounting and Dora, broken-hearted, had persuaded her parents to let her go to nursing school in Manhattan.
“In those days,” she told me, “being a nurse wasn’t considered a good thing for a Jewish girl. It was dirty work. All bedpans and bleeding people and things girls like us shouldn’t touch. My mother was horrified at the idea but my father finally saw sense to it. ’She’ll marry a doctor.’
“But I was never really happy. It was true it was bedpans and dirty bleeding people and crazy long hours. I finished nursing school and started working in the hospital. I was looking for a husband, but these doctors, they were looking for a lay. You wouldn’t believe it. But there they’d be in the operating room and what was on their mind? Rubbing up against the nurses. You see, they never wore underwear under their surgical gowns and they were always rubbing up, with big hard ones; it was a wonder they didn’t drop their scalpels.
“But of course, I was a good-looking girl in those days. Tall, not stooped like now. I had a nice shape. I wore a size nine. I wore a size nine actually until just about ten years ago, and then I got lazy and a little heavy like you see me now, though I’m still no more than a twelve. Well, in those days, I was slender and quick and I was the belle of the hospital. But no one was out for marrying me.”
It was only when she turned forty that she finally married. She had met Rubin, a refugee salesman five years older than herself, and decided it was time to settle down. His admiration for her carried her past her own conviction that no man but her childhood sweetheart could really make her happy. Carl Rubin adored her vitality, and reassuringly cared nothing at all that many men had come and gone in her life. Together, they moved into a brownstone in Manhattan’s West Eighties, and did chores, sweeping the stoop through the war years when other refugees like Rubin himself favored the still-fashionable neighborhood, taking the garbage cans out and stacking them neatly in the years after the war as the poor swarmed round their doors.
From what I could tell, Dora’s thirty-year marriage had been happy. She and Rubin had had no children, but they had cared for and clung to one another. But after Rubin’s stroke, Dora had begun to dredge through her past during the long, silent evenings. Rubin’s speech was impaired; there was television, a phonograph, and her memories. These became increasingly more sexual as the months wore on. Most of them focused around Ott, as if the rest of her life had been a blackboard on which events and men had been merely chalked, all of them eraseable, even Mr. Rubin.
She remembered, and then when she could no longer remember, she invented details of her lovemaking with Ott: impossibilities, since they had never had more than an hour or two together at any one time. But in her inventions, she had always come ten times, and he at least three; they made love all night long, not just in their parents’ homes, but in romantic, outdoor settings along the banks of the Hudson. Eventually she wrote a letter to Ott. Could he possibly come and meet her in New York?
It was that first reunion I had witnessed, the two old people so charmingly secretive. Ott’s wife had died several years earlier; Dora had received notification and sent a condolence. But Ott’s loneliness had not drawn him to Dora as hers had to him; he had three sons and seven grandchildren. At their lunch he had apparently treated her to photographic intimacy with them all. Dora told me how much she had enjoyed seeing her friend again, exploring his life in Kodachrome.
About two weeks later I was out on the street when I saw Ott go tremblingly up the steps of Mrs. Rubin’s brownstone. His face was suntanned, an oily margarine color. Mr. Rubin was in the park with the Wednesday Jamaican lady who both cleaned the house and relieved Mrs. Rubin once a week.
Next day Mrs. Rubin barely nodded to me on the street. Nor the day after that. Inside her fluffy pink Chanel suit, her body seemed to have shrunk. There was a scowl around her mouth and her eyes looked sullen, old. Only many weeks later did she talk to me again. When she did, ringing the bell at evening just as she used to, there were no preliminaries, no heart fund ruses; her words just flowed out. She had been to bed with Stephen Ott; did I remember her telling me about him? And it had unnerved her, robbed her of something. “He was an old man,” she said. “Just like my husband. He smelled bad. Smelled old. And he couldn’t come into me.” She seemed quite distracted and kept talking a long time.
I think I wasn’t really surprised when, a few nights later, there were the animal-screeches of ambulance sirens drawing to a stop in front of the Rubins’ brownstone. Some neighbors claimed later that they were sure it was Mr. Rubin, that he’d had another stroke. But the stretcher-bearers came out with a pale white female figure wearing a quilted pink robe and pink puff slippers—her costume carefully arranged before her act went on. She had taken close to fifty Nembutal, saved up from her nursing days. Mr. Rubin had found her and had managed to crawl down the stairs to the phone and in his very halting speech call an ambulance. He was whiter than she. I felt, looking at him, that her attempt at suicide had been unutterably selfish; there would be no one to keep him alive if she died. He would go to a nursing home for sure and he wouldn’t survive it very long, I suspected. I felt inordinately angry with Dora and only managed to forgive her—and then just barely—when I learned that her stomach had been pumped, and that after a period of convalescence, she and Rubin had moved down to Florida.
I thought about her a lot afterwards. It was early spring and I was interviewing dozens of women. As I talked with them I noticed, as I have mentioned, how few of them bedecked their extramarital sexual experiences with the elaborate window dressing of romance. I found I felt relieved. I blamed Dora’s suicide attempt and the danger in which she had placed both herself and Mr. Rubin on the enormous romantic investment she had brought to her extramarital encounter. When she had been disappointed in it, she felt she had lost not only a prospective sexual partner but a lifelong love object as well. It had made her inconsolable.
I was sorry she could not have had more perspective. Only a few years before, Masters and Johnson had tried to provide some by detailing the lengthy timetable of women’s sexuality. They had reported that women over fifty, or even over seventy, sometimes felt moved to develop extramarital relationships. Such women’s still-active sex drive, they said, is
influenced by the factor of male attrition. When available, the male marital partner is an average of four years older than the female partner. Many of the older husbands in this age group are suffering from the multiple physical disabilities of advancing senescence which make sexual activity for these men either unattractive or impossible. Thus, the wives who well might be interested in some regularity of heterosexual expression are denied this opportunity due to their partner’s physical infirmities. It also is obvious that extramarital sexual partners essentially are unavailable to the women in this age group.
But, of course, although they could have been describing Dora, she herself might not have recognized herself in the words. She had wanted sex because she was in love.
Younger women rarely talked of love. Love was the justification for extramarital sex in earlier eras, but today there were different justifications: self-exploration; satisfying sexual curiosity; warding off depression. These were present in brief, riskless sexual encounters from which love and romance were by necessity excluded.