Reviews — From the May 2009 issue

Love for Sale

Appraising the relics of a relationship

( 3 of 4 )

Soon enough, major fault lines reveal themselves—buried, as it were, in the fine print. Included among the items to be auctioned off is an email message from Hugh Nash, an old flame of Lenore’s, a printout on which she has scribbled the time and place (Café Loup, 8:00 p.m., Friday) where the former lovers have arranged to meet when Harold is out of town. In the next lot is a pair of men’s pajamas, and—following an exchange of apologies between Hal and Lenore after a long-distance argument—a photocopied flyer from a club in Williamsburg. “Verso reads: ‘Thanks again for letting me crash, H. xo.’” A clipping of Lenore’s Cakewalk column, written after her date with Hugh, provides one of the book’s many pastry-encoded clues to her state of mind: “The fading light, a certain restlessness, an in-between feeling—when 4 o’clock rolls around, nostalgia seeps into the kitchen and thoughts turn to what might have been . . .” In another photo we see Harold carrying an umbrella that, we are told, was “left by Hugh Nash at Doolan’s apartment.”

Within a few pages, we find ourselves studying the photos and reading the captions with the close attention we might give to a densely illustrated, heavily condensed and abbreviated short story. And the intensity of our scrutiny pays off, as Shapton’s portrait of the couple is sharpened by each sale item. Nothing seems accidental or uncomplicated; we feel that each object is invested with the layers of meaning it held for Lenore and Hal. How much it tells us about them—individually and as a pair—that, for their third Christmas together, Lenore gives her photographer boyfriend a photography book (Duane Michaels) and Hal gives Lenore . . . a photography book, Cindy Sherman’s Complete Untitled Film Stills, inscribed, “She reminds me of you.”

The lovers argue, respond (or don’t respond) to each other’s social, familial, and professional obligations, argue some more, make up, move in together. We can track the highs and lows of their sex life through lingerie purchased, hotel rooms rented, erotic books consulted, and the T-shirt (property of mcgill athletics) that Hal and Lenore put on to communicate their readiness for love-making. Hal fails to respond with sufficient enthusiasm to one of Lenore’s cakes; other failures follow. He neglects to show up on a birthday and New Year’s Eve. He bails early—work calls!—during a trip to see Lenore’s ailing father in Canada. From time to time, Lenore makes lists of her boyfriend’s good and bad qualities, tallies in which the balance shifts so sharply from positive to negative that eventually she has trouble finding one thing to say in his favor. We know from these lists that Hal’s drinking is a source of concern to Lenore, but when the couple finally decides to live together, she signals her game acceptance of this flaw, and perhaps others, by presenting him with a set of vintage martini glasses and a cocktail recipe book from 1933, in which she has written a double-edged dedication, “For my hard-drinkin’ Hal, with love from your new roomie.”

Hal’s absences grow more frequent and more casually extended, his avowals of missing Lenore cooler and more formulaic. Relatively early, there’s an adoring letter to “Hally” from a woman named Allison, and, later, a snapshot of him talking to an “unidentified” woman at a party. The name “Erich” begins to turn up among Lenore’s jottings. A selection of self-help and relationship-advice manuals appears, ominously, on the couple’s bookshelf. Another set of notes scribbled in a playbill—this one exchanged during a performance of Abigail’s Party—include a rapid-fire disagreement about Morris having read a “creepy” email to Doolan from another man and a subsequent volley of comments about trust and suspicion.

A slightly charred backgammon set, a souvenir of a summer the lovers spend in the country, precedes a handwritten message from Hal: “I want this to work, but there are sides to you I just can’t handle sometimes. When you raise your voice and throw things, I shut down and go cold. I know this makes it worse, but I can’t help it. Chucking the backgammon board into the fire was the last straw . . .” The phone number of a couples therapist appears on the back of a business card, and we realize that the crisis has escalated when we see a photo of Morris’s white-noise machine, which appears to have been smashed by a hammer. Letters inlaid in magazines (a Gourmet supplement) and books (William James) convey Hal’s wish that they can remain friends, followed by Lenore’s response: “The sound of your voice stirs up a volcano of emotion I’m trying very hard to control. Please respect my silence. You remain extremely special to me, but let’s keep our distance.”

Ultimately, the death of the relationship is made official by the modern, urban, unmarried couple’s equivalent of the divorce decree: “Real estate listings for one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan; options circled in Sharpie. Real estate listings for one-bedroom apartments in Los Angeles; options circled in pencil.”

Francine Prose is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author, most recently, of Goldengrove.

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