Saturday, May 21, 2011

What Arnold Schwarzenegger and I Have in Common? We married Shrivers.

Do I want to write a post -- maybe one of my open letters -- to Arnold Schwarzenegger, clarifying, point for point, how badly he screwed up? I do.

But, instead, I thought of what Arnold and I have in common -- we both married Shrivers. I thought I'd post an excerpt from this essay (which first appeared in " It’s A Wonderful Lie: Truth About Life in Your Twenties, in which I discuss my husband Dave's Shriver-ness. His mother's maiden name is Shriver and, yes, he's related. Below you'll find the (terrifying in a GREY GARDENS way) Shriver family reunion that Dave took me to after we'd been dating about a month.

But there's a lesson embedded in it. A cameo from an elderly couple -- the hosts of the reunion -- Aunt Hat and Uncle Holden. These two were at both Arnold and Maria's wedding and (a bit of a let down?) ours. They were elderly and amazing -- "inspiringly romantic," as I put it below. They are the lesson here -- not the kind of love won while cheating on your wife, without protection, and hiding a child from her for 13 years. Nope. Not even close.

I know that Arnold knew this couple -- and what did he think of them? Could he stop his large rectangular head for a moment and turn off the jaw-clenched power smile long enough to see something beautiful in them, something to aspire to? It's hard to see what other people have to offer, deeply, when you're lying about who you are and spending all your effort in trying to convince people of that lie that is yourself.

To set this up, all you have to know is that my mother's parting words to me before I went off to grad school were these: Whatever you do, don't fall in love with a poet.

And so, I did -- immediately. We'll start the essay here:

This was before I found out that he wasn’t just a poet.

He was, in fact, a Shriver poet.

He told me this when he invited me to a Shriver family reunion – on a 200-acre Shetland pony farm just outside of Baltimore? We’d been eating beans and rice, gauging our wine on how badly it stained our teeth purple. I was caught off-guard.

"As in Maria Shriver?" I asked. "And Sarge? And the tennis pro?"

He said that Aunt Hat and Uncle Holden, the hosts, had, in fact, been to Maria and Arnold's wedding.

"Do you think Maria and Arnold will be there?"

He shrugged. In all fairness, he didn't know. He hadn't been to the farm since he was a boy.

He was little help, and I was ill-prepared. I'd only been to my own family reunions in West Virginia where my sister the actress once won a new Sears blender in a husband-calling contest. What does one wear to a Shetland pony farm Shriver reunion? A hat? I'd heard rich people wore hats to horse-related events. And what would I say to Arnold, exactly, when we met. "You and your wife have excellent jaw lines, perhaps the best jaw lines of any couple in America?" We would be spending the night, and I wondered if I might bump into them in the morning after taking a bubble bath in some marble, claw-footed tub. I wondered if they'd fly in via helicopter, touching down on a grassy lawn. I'd learned from watching Dallas that rich people had heliports in their back yards.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not the type to go for the money. I think that I’ve already established that: I was trying to become a writer. But as we drove up the coast in the Honda – seven hours with the heat on full blast to protect the engine – the prospect of a timely death of an elderly doting Shriver crossed my mind. I knew Dave had no money, but with Shrivers in the wings, how long before a trust fund, a simple inheritance? I didn’t dwell on it, but when two young writers get together, there is an unspoken argument that exists on a molecular level from the very first instant. It’s an argument about time, and arguments about time are usually arguments about money, lightly disguised. Imaginative by trade, we were both aware that, if this were to work out, long-term, we would be jockeying for housewife. Writers want to be at home, by and large, close to their own screen. And because I had no real sense of money – not wealth and not poverty – I only thought about the future abstractly.

And I knew better than to tell my mother about the Shriver aspect of the reunion. Why orchestrate disappointment?

When we drove down the dirt driveway to the mansion, I was reminded of the fact that the rich are an unpredictable lot. We were greeted by about fifteen itchy dogs on the front porch, mangy dogs, more than one having a stump where a leg should be. There was a tree growing out of a crumbling chimney, a bird-shit-stained statue of St. Francis, the yard spotted with noisy barking wild peacocks. Maria and Arnold were not there, and it was pretty obvious, early on, that they wouldn't be touching down. However, the guest list wasn't without its surprises: a Communist uncle and, if memory serves me correctly, a weasel-raising cousin. (Was that right? Do people raise weasels?)

But this was nothing once we got the full tour by our knowledgeable guide, the weasel raiser's mother. There was a small room devoted to thirty-some years of unopened mail, much of which was probably monthly payments of people who'd bought their little girls now long-dead Shetland ponies.

In the upstairs bathroom, a sword hung on the wall next to a picture of a Shriver holding up the decapitated head of a native of someplace unidentifiable. There was a room for the sole purpose of dying, cleverly called “the death room”. The walls were lined with pictures of famous people on their deathbeds, presidents mostly. A fake bookcase led to a prohibition-inspired hiding place. In one corner, an eight-legged formaldehyde-steeped calf in a glass case.

The attic walls were covered in World War I posters and newspaper headlines, the ceiling decorated in a similar fashion for WWII. A ham hung from a beam, but the caretaker had been dead for years so no one was really sure how long the ham had been curing. The attic stretched on and on, room after little room, each filled with giant steamer-trunks of god-knows-what. Silver? Shriveled hams? Shrunken heads? Impossible to say.

I was horrified, of course. But I’d read some Flannery O’Connor by this time, some Marquez. And although I didn’t know what to do with it, I knew an eroding literary landscape when I saw one. On some level, I understood all of this as a gift.

And Dave, he was stunned by it all too. He said, “I just remember the ponies. I was a kid, you know. Kids remember ponies.”

The food was covered with flies, picked over by cats. I walked in on a caterer crying in the bathroom. Dave and I ended up splitting a Trix bar that he happened to find in the glove compartment. We were in this together.

We were shown to our room, next door to the death room. I was afraid to sleep on the sheets – it was all so deathly. Dave lied down and I slept on top of him at first. Finally exhausted, I relented.

This is the point when the relationship should start to lose steam. Hadn’t he misled me? Wasn’t this oddness just a little too much to bear? But that isn’t quite how it played out.

Oddly enough, our hosts, Aunt Hat and Uncle Holden were endearing, holding hands as they greeted people from their wicker porch seats which creaked like their own old bones. She wore a faded house-dress. He was a retired banker with crusted mustard on his suit lapel and a droopy boutonniere. They rode around in golf carts. They were, in their own way, inspiringly romantic.

It was a landscape of stump-legged dogs and barking peacocks and golf carts – as foreign and fecund as a jungle. It was an estate rotting, yes, but from neglect of earthly possessions, an inability to part with the past, and a love of the living, a love that extended to ponies, strays, and even, or so it seemed, flies. This is where we would really fall in love.

In the morning, we brushed our teeth together for a long time. Taken by this new image of not being one but two people, we looked at ourselves in the spotty mirror, spitting and rinsing, glancing from our own reflections then to the other's and back again.

"Your nose is crooked," I said.

He leaned into the mirror. "It just curves out on this side and dents in on the other. It's not crooked."

"By the time you're eighty, your nose will be in your ear."

"No, it won't," he said.

"Noses grow the length of lives." I had heard this on Geraldo. I was very relieved that Dave didn't ask for my source. "I hate to tell you but your nose is headed very definitely east."

Dave continued to brush and then responded, "My nose has, if anything, been sharpened, refined, in search of its element."

"Its element is obviously located in the east," I said. Dave, a little concerned, took a closer look at his nose. To make him feel better, I added, "Look, my nose is hooked under, the nostrils are tucked way up under there. You can't even see the nostrils what with the hooking."

We both looked at our noses, as if seeing them for the first time. And then Dave said, "So your nose will grow into your mouth. Everything you say will come out garbled." He paused. "But I'll only be able to hear half of it anyway, what with my nose in my ear."

With this, he pointed to our future together; what I realized in that moment that I wanted to believe: we would grow old together. It was the first small proposal in a series of small proposals.

I said that we would be great fun for the grandkids, perhaps they could even wheel us in for Show and Tell. And that’s how I accepted – a first small acceptance in a series of small acceptances. As if adding a bit of mood, a piece of the moldy ceiling drifted down and settled into the rusty sink like snow.

On one level, I didn’t expect to fall in love. I saw this other future version of myself, a merciless, lonesome writer, banged up, brooding, bullying her way through life. But, honestly, I also felt like this was the person I’d been waiting for. There was a feeling of relief – a feeling of Oh, here you are, finally. And this is what you look like. And this is what your voice sounds like. And this is the set of your childhood memories. I’d thought I’d been looking but really I was just waiting for him without knowing that I was waiting, really, without knowing that I missed him. I thought the ache was a restless lonesomeness, but it was more like homesickness for a place you haven’t yet come to.

That’s how the story begins. I was twenty-two and my mother said, “Don’t fall in love with a poet,” and I did and we’ve been together ever since.

For more of this essay and others like it, click here. This anthology was edited by novelist and memoirist EMILY FRANKLIN.