From The Other Half, a manuscript in progress rebutting the author’s 1996 memoir, Half a Life, which describes her relationship with her husband, whom she met when she was a teenager and he was forty-seven. Her latest novel, The Body in Question, will be published in June by Pantheon Books.
What do I call him? My husband? I would if the story were about how we met and married, shared meals for forty-five years, raised a puppy, endured illnesses. But if the story is about an older man preying on a teenager, shouldn’t I call him the artist, or, better still, the art teacher, with all that the word “teacher” implies?
On the last night of his art class, I stayed after the others left to get his advice about my upcoming move to New York. He knew artists in the city who might need an assistant. In his private studio, adjacent to the classroom, he drew me to him, and I went willingly. He didn’t know what to expect when he kissed me. I could have screamed. I could have slapped him, but what seventeen-year-old is prepared to slap a forty-seven-year-old man she has fantasized about for the past six months?
I fervently kissed him back. But did I have the agency to consent? Was I about to be raped in today’s interpretation of sexual assault?
I’ve written about this seduction before, twenty-five years ago, in a memoir about my youth, Half a Life. I was forty-five when I finished the memoir, essentially the same age box my husband would have ticked that night. The memoir is as close as I have to a transcript:
On my last night of art class, I dawdled in the hall until the other students were finished. I heeled the wall and watched them file out. As soon as they were gone, I slipped back into the classroom and shut the door behind me. Arnold was leaning against a window frame, arms folded, eyes shut, yawning. This time I approached him without a hint of coyness, without the spark of a blush.
I unbuttoned the top three buttons of my peasant blouse, crossed the ink-splattered floor, and kissed him.
He kissed me back, then stopped himself.
I had no precedent to go on except Valley of the Dolls and Peyton Place. I asked him if he would sleep with me.
He looked stunned.
I mustered all my nerve and asked again.
“Maybe we should talk,” he said.
I shook my head no.
“Sweetheart, I can’t sleep with you. I’d like to, but I can’t.”
“I don’t see why not,” I said. I honestly didn’t.
“For one thing, I could be arrested.” He smiled, trying to make light of things.
I had no sense of humor. “I won’t tell anyone,” I promised.
He put his hand on my cheek. He didn’t caress me; he simply pressed his hand against my skin. “It wouldn’t be fair to you.”
The gesture felt so loving that I began to cry.
“Shhh,” he said. He tried to take me around, but I kept my face averted. As much as I wanted to be held, I was embarrassed to stain his shirt with my leaky mascara.
“I bet you think I’m a big jerk.”
“It’s the last thing I think.”
“I’ve made such a fool of myself.”
“No you haven’t.”
“Do you still like me?”
He cupped my head in his hands. I could tell he was choosing his words with great caution. “Jill, if you were older, I—”
“I’m old enough,” I said flatly.
So who kissed whom first? If my husband kissed me first, should I refer to him in the language of today—sexual offender, transgressor, abuser of power? Or do I refer to him in the language of the late Nineties, when my forty-five-year-old self wrote the scene? The president at that time was Clinton and the blue dress was in the news. Men who preyed on younger women were called letches, cradle-robbers, dogs. Or do I refer to him in the language of 1970, the apex of the sexual revolution, when the kiss took place—a Casanova, a wolf? And how do I refer to myself? In today’s parlance—victim, survivor? The words are used interchangeably but have very different connotations. Calling myself a victim implies that I had been helpless, whereas calling myself a survivor suggests I was empowered, or became so. Or do I employ the language used to describe Monica Lewinsky—bimbo, vixen? Or do I talk about myself in the verbiage of the sexual revolution? In that case, I am the coolest, bitch’n-est chick on the block because I kissed my art teacher.
While writing a memoir, the time it takes to re-create a moment from your past is usually longer than the time it took to live the actual moment. The memory of writing the memoir slowly accumulates until it usurps the life you are trying to capture. It took me days to compose the scene. The kiss itself may have lasted only seconds.
How am I so sure who kissed whom first, who had been the transgressor and who had been the transgressed? Because I daydreamed about the art teacher pulling me to him and kissing me for weeks, months afterward, longer than it took to write the scene. I know who kissed whom first.
New York didn’t work out as I had hoped—instead of the Greenwich Village garret I had envisioned for myself, I ended up in an abandoned squat on Avenue D. Instead of painting nude models at the Art Students League, I posed naked for “photographers” at a sex parlor called Escapades. But I was no longer a virgin. (I had given that job to a boy my own age.)
I lasted four months before taking a Greyhound bus back to L.A. I returned defeated and ground down by the reality that, just because I wanted to be an artist really, really badly, it didn’t mean I would become one. All I had left of my aspirations was the memory of that kiss. I borrowed my mother’s car and went to see the art teacher. I didn’t call first.
This is how I describe the reunion in my memoir:
Arnold’s studio door was unlocked. I gave it a sham knock, a brush of knuckles, then stepped inside. He lay on his cot, asleep in a puddle of lamplight. His heavy square eyeglasses, pushed back on his forehead, doubled the lamp’s glowing filament in miniature, like two magnifying glasses collapsing the sun to start pinpoints of fire.
I shut the door behind me and slid the stubborn bolt into its rusty lock. Then I crossed the studio and stood over him. A book lay open on his chest; his arm dangled over the cot. A faint dusting of black hair silhouetted his forearm. He stirred, squinted up at me, and started to speak. I hushed him, touching his dry lips with my fingertips. Then I peeled off my ribbed T-shirt, lingered for a wooden moment in full lamplight, and lay down beside him. It wasn’t hard to seduce him. The suggestions had already been implanted. My previous attempt, clumsy as it had been, must have tugged on his imagination until it unleashed tendrils of fantasies.
This scene is true in the sense that it has remained a consistent memory over the years. I’m fairly certain that it was I who seduced him that afternoon. But would I have if he hadn’t kissed me first? Am I as delusional as Humbert Humbert when he narrates (Lolita is twelve at the time), “It was she who seduced me”?
In both scenes from the memoir, the art teacher is passive, either lost in thought or asleep when I appear like a nymph in the forest. There is empowerment in remembering oneself as the sexual aggressor, especially after modeling at Escapades. But I don’t believe that was my motivation.
Was I protecting my husband? The statute of limitations had long ago expired.
Was I protecting my marriage? We had just celebrated our twenty-seventh anniversary.
I didn’t ask then, but I have to ask now. Was my marriage—the half-century of intimacy, the sex, the shared meals, the friends, the travels, the illnesses, the money worries, the houses, the dogs—fruit from a poisonous tree?