The thing about Marlene was that she was a fantasy personified. Yes, I loved her, I had tumultuous sex with her, I floated in the perfume she favored (White Shoulders), I reveled in how pretty she was. She was the proverbially cute-as-a-button shiksa. She did not walk, she strode: at once feminine and athletic, thin, maybe too thin. When I first saw her in the school hallway she had weight on her. Clearly she made a choice and lost weight. I would later discover how determined and strong-willed she could be. Her breasts were diminutive, which reminds me of Charles Chaplin’s comment of his then mistress, Louise Brooks, the great actress of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, who had breasts the shape of “pears.” It was not her body parts which first attracted me. It was her face, which was lean, with redolent lips. What I did not sense then was the way she bore herself, the old word being her “carriage.” She had a determined bearing, not a hauteur, but a defensive posture that seemed to say “I will not be denied, make way as I egress!” At the time I thought that attractive; now I see it as misspent energy and uptightness, the posture of a repressive personality.
Marlene had a Catholic father and a Protestant mother, and I think of Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kroger (even his name reveals the division) whose protagonist expresses both the Nordic north and the radiant exuberance of southern Europe in a conflicted self. Mann had a German father and a Brazilian mother. I mention this because Marlene seemed to have inherited a stronger dose of the Nordic. In terms of our relationship she evinced more of this steely persona than of Tuscany, let us say. When we came to part I could not access her, and I was taken aback, given the intensity of our recent relationship. A connection was closed and shut down forever. In fact it was like a lightning bolt: crack! The relationship was over, the riven oak the only remaining evidence. She was too hurt to reconcile.
Our love affair was propelled by my own needs: to get away from a dreadful experience with Adrienne, to explode. I felt as if I hadn’t lived, and I hadn’t. I went into an early marriage for all the wrong reasons, trying to escape my terrifying aloneness, for I had not spent years working on myself, taking care of myself, finding out who I was. I did not know how to ask the right questions of myself, for I was outer-directed. I could not distinguish between being lonely and being alone. I did not stand in love, I fell in love. There’s an immense difference. I thought, I didn’t think, marriage would save me from myself, give me a matrix. I much later came to understand that the affair with Marlene served as an escape from what was unfulfilled in me. I was feeling stifled, tethered to a marital ball and chain, self-drafted into a mistake of first marriage to Adrienne, who was intemperate, homely and immature. So, classically, the affair served the purpose of getting me out of a suffocating experience. And I experienced all the sexually learning pleasures I could with Marlene.
When partaking of Marlene’s body and its infinite and subtle pleasures it was as if I gorged at a buffet, devouring sweetmeats at will. Consequently, unknown to me at the time, I reified the affair, gave the abstraction a concrete base, so that for a while I came to miss the affair more than Marlene, for years after we had broken up, to my dismay.
I could never be sure what Marlene wanted from this affair except, perhaps, to get away from her husband Charles. She was 24 and he was 38. She may have entered into an early marriage that she wanted out from. Yet, why? I suppose she felt the same way as I did. We were mutually attracted to one another and an affair itself is attractive: the craving for the next assignation, the hair-curling necessity of fooling spouses and coming up with excuses, the bravado of acting out. We served each other’s purposes. What makes this fantasy even more curious is that we made a bubble of pleasure without intent or direction, lacking real examination of our motives. It was the Sixties and Marlene’s favorite album at the time was Simon and Gar’s Bridge over Troubled Water. How apt.
We never talked about things of real importance. We were incapable of doing so, two repressives. I was particularly laminated by a life’s worth of inhibitions. Marlene never told me in so many words that she cared deeply for me or that she loved me, nor did I express such feelings to her. We were on a lark. In some way her presence powerfully saturated mine, so that I needed and wanted her, and desired to be far away in a more peaceful place and clime to live out our lives as one. I never could ask her the right questions because, as you have observed, my awakening of intelligence had not occurred. I reveled in the shared fantasy. If obtuseness could describe me then, I would be a monumental orifice.
When I was away from her during the summers of 1968 and 1969 I was depressed because I had no idea that I had a self or that I could work on having an inner direction. Marlene did not help me to grow, that was not her task, but that was due to her self-limitations. As I look back, hopefully fairly, I don’t believe she had much of an inner life as well. My friend Hal once said that he felt that Marlene was not very bright, which I resented at the time, but there may be some merit to that. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. In a strange Gene Autry serial of the Thirties the people living above ground were called the “surface people.” I associate this to Marlene because I feel, after all these years, not that she was insubstantial but that she was lacking in depth. At moments I kept to myself needs that she never responded to. However, I was so inhibited that I was fearful to express the unheard scream. I thought I’d chase her away if I expressed such a want, and that would not do, given all the psychological and emotional investment I put into her. It was not a healthy investment which powers a healthy relationship. On some levels I could not admit to myself that she was lacking. Marlene lacking? No way!
Somehow our relationship cooled, its ardor spent. I found her drawing away. She did share with a mutual friend that she was having difficulties with me, but she never said anything directly to me, nor did I express what I was feeling about her distance. In my own therapy with an incompetent therapist who was also seeing Marlene as a client at the same time (a real breach of professionalism) and was thus privy of both our minds and behaviors, began to suggest to me (the Grand Poohbah) that I should consider breaking up with her. I cannot recall how it all came about but since I was feeling that Marlene was no longer responsive to me, I ended the relationship one night. The very next day at school she dealt with me as if I had never penetrated her (metaphorically, maybe I had not).
It took me a while to realize that the decision to break up with her was not solely mine and reflected a third party’s assessment of the situation. I had a therapist who was telling me what to do, who was advocating and in so doing compounded the mess. I rued and regretted the decision as soon as I did it because it really wasn’t mine, for it lacked conviction. However, I was dimly cognizant of a peevish “joy” in that: I got to her first. I rejected her, and she did not get to me first. I must say that the therapist was right. I don’t think our relationship would have endured, as I look back now. And how do I know that? Rochelle taught me the ways of loving, and it would have not been imaginable, even if I broke up with her, not to have her willing to hear me out or to express her regret. She would contemplate reconciliation. Rochelle exuded concern and care, while Marlene, once rejected, turned to Nordic ice queen.
Within two or three months Marlene had found another man and, within a few months, married him, which left me dumbfounded. I could not grasp the rapid turnaround, the capacity or determination to transfer new feelings to a new person. Even a good roast taken out of the oven needs to “rest.” On the other hand, my leaving her may have triggered all kinds of feelings I could not ever have access to.
For several years I could not expunge her from my mind, she was such a haunting memory of loss. Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is a weak comfort to my heart. Marlene sparked something in me, for she was the first true love of my life, and I totally committed myself to her. Did I get over her? Ever? The solace I found with Rochelle, the depth of her loving finally made me see Marlene as a special moment in my life. In certain ways Marlene helped me grow, but the sad part of it was that her help was indirect and unintended. Rochelle taught me deliberately and concretely how to go about loving.
On Facebook there is a picture of Marlene and her two daughters. She’s pretty as ever, but she’s now an old painting in the darkening corridors of my life’s museum. This way to the reminiscence, sir.