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May 2020 Issue [Memoir]

Carrying On

My first years in America
Collage by Leigh Wells. Photograph of Lynn Freed by Suzanne Szasz, courtesy the author

Collage by Leigh Wells. Photograph of Lynn Freed by Suzanne Szasz, courtesy the author


Carrying On

My first years in America

Nineteen sixty-seven was an inauspicious year to start life in America. Columbia University, to which I’d come as a graduate student, was beginning to fall into the chaos that would soon overtake it. Students, demanding “relevance” in the classroom, were working to upend the humanities with protests and sit-ins. Antiwar outrage had crowds massing on and around campus with bullhorns. And the man I had just married could at any moment be sent off to Vietnam.

He was a doctor, and doctors were badly needed for the war. As a green-card holder, he would be eligible for the draft until the age of forty-four. As it was, he was twenty-six, had been drafted already, had passed his induction physical, and was classified 1-A (“available for military service”).

Meanwhile, his parents were sleeping on the pullout couch in our furnished graduate-student apartment. They had come from South Africa for the wedding, and had named no date of departure. This was not unusual with South Africans, who did not so much travel as migrate. And then, when they’d seen enough, they migrated back again.

But ours was a small two-room apartment, half the size of the servants’ quarters at home. And every night, just as we’d switch off the bedroom light, my mother-in-law would appear in the doorway, her considerable bulk lit from behind through a transparent nylon nightie. “Carry on, you two!” she’d screech. “Just going to the toilet.”

The South Africa of my childhood had a fair gradation of race-, region-, and class-based accents. Hers matched perfectly the vulgarity of her appearance, behavior, and prejudices. Early on, my husband had said, “I’m worried about how you’ll cope with my mother,” and I’d taken this to mean he’d be on my side if ever I needed him to be. One can be stupid at any age, but particularly at twenty-one, just married to a man one hardly knows, and in a confusion of altered circumstances.

As it happened, she might well have been listening in. Three or four times a week he’d give it another go—carrying on and carrying on—only to lie back finally in defeat, saying, “It’s the wife-mother thing.” And I, considering his mother, would long for him to be run over by a truck or carried off to Vietnam, never to return, leaving me free and blameless to start my life again.

So why didn’t I just throw him out, and his parents along with him? What would the feminists make of someone like me? Someone enduring quite a different form of male domination from the one they were protesting so loudly out on the street?

A coward, is what I thought. In the world I’d come from, “divorce” was a horrible word, and I couldn’t shake the thought of what it would do to my parents. There was also money to be considered. My husband earned very little, and I’d spent my scholarship money just to get to New York. Then, too, fraught as the marriage was, I was convinced it was probably the best sort of alliance I could manage. Anyway, how did I know it wasn’t normal to have a gargantuan mother-in-law intruding into the bedroom, depriving her son of desire? I came from a family of women, with a punctilious gentleman for a father. I had only the most romantic ideas about men and their needs, imagining those needs far more urgent than they proved to be.

Just as I’d be considering all this, in he would come with a bunch of daisies because I’d passed my Latin exam or my green card had come through at last. And so I found it was one thing to wish in the dark that he’d be run over or blown up, quite another to stand in the dim light of an apartment in New York, daisies in hand. Then I’d remember that, a week into the marriage, he’d stood at the bedroom window looking out over Broadway and 112th Street and said, as if to himself, “It would have been much easier to meet women in New York,” and how, after that, every woman I saw on the street or in a shop or in a restaurant became a potential rival. Also a possible salvation—half-hated, half-welcomed as a reason to walk out.

And yet I didn’t walk out. Every day, and in the increasing cold, I walked the four blocks to campus, crossed the picket lines, and made my way to Philosophy Hall. Crossing the picket lines with me were a pair of West Point graduates. These were routinely deployed to Ivy League schools to acquire graduate degrees, which they would then use to teach at West Point. With their suits and their fiberglass briefcases, this pair presented perfect targets for the protesters. They were booed and jeered and insulted more than anyone else, all of which they seemed to endure with forbearance, even amusement.

Both were in my seminar and both had done a few tours of duty. One was fourth- or fifth-generation Army and fairly sturdy in his goals, as he might have put it. The other, however, began to teeter in the face of the gorgeous barefoot, braless women flinging themselves around both inside and outside the classrooms. After a while, he was taken up by one of them and cast into an ecstasy of adoration. But then, not long afterward, he was summarily dropped. This was often the rhythm of such alliances in those days. I heard later that he’d been devastated by the whole Columbia experience and had volunteered for another tour in Vietnam, where he was killed.

I never discussed my husband’s 1-A situation with the West Pointers. South Africa was only beginning to emerge then as the international pariah it would soon become, and a South African student was simply an oddity. As far as they were concerned, my husband and I were a pair of amusing exotics, vaguely associated with Zulus and wild animals.

And then in Lionel Trilling’s Wordsworth seminar, I met the only other foreign student in the graduate English department, who also happened to be South African. In almost every way, we were unalike, and yet, on our walks back to her apartment on 116th Street for tea, or to mine on 112th, we became fast friends—and remain so today. She was about three years further than I was into the business of marriage, and she had a small child. At first we talked of home, of our mothers-in-law, of America itself. But then, in fair desperation, I turned our conversations to marriage, although I stopped short of blurting out the real problem. She was a dear, scholarly, sensitive woman. What would she have made of such a failure? Especially when, his mother notwithstanding, I felt that I was the one to blame?

Because the seminar took place in the afternoon, I had time to dash back to the apartment to retrieve my mail. Almost every day brought an aerogram from my mother, sometimes two, and occasionally one from my father or sisters as well. They were full of everything I’d left behind: family gossip, my parents’ theater gossip, news of a servant off to attend a sick aunt, a recipe for pickled herring, a reminder to light the candles on a Friday night. By comparison, the world I’d come to seemed narrow, cold, disapproving, and fraught with sorrows.

“You look too Jewish in that hat,” my husband grumbled when, with the increasing cold, I put on the beret my mother had had made for me from her ermine cape. I looked in the mirror. He was right; I didn’t have the profile for a beret. On the other hand, who did he think he was to spoil such a gift? Who was he, after all—he, who couldn’t even say kiddush—to pronounce on anything Jewish?

Trilling himself was a Jew, a Jew playing the role of gentleman scholar to perfection. “But what is Wordsworth really saying here?” he’d ask in a slightly bored voice.

Before the technique was properly understood, someone might venture, “The pantheistic oneness of Nature?” And Trilling would sigh. “‘Oneness’?” he’d say. “‘Oneness?!” He’d look around. “Anyone else?”

And so, of course, there’d be no one else. Who would want to offer an answer to a question that could so easily turn into a noose? I’d look up from the aerogram I was reading under the seminar table, pretending to think and trying not to catch his eye.

Anyone?” he’d say again, glancing at his watch. He was more at home behind a podium, people said, lecturing to Columbia College men about the relationship between literature and cultural history. “Miss Freed?”

I’d jump, crunch the aerogram between my knees. “Moments of unquestioned belonging?” I’d suggest wildly.

And he’d close his eyes. “Thank you. That will do.”

Trilling was my grandfather’s cousin. This had been established by my grandfather himself some years before. He’d written Trilling from South Africa, and received a regal acknowledgment. “You have a famous cousin in New York,” he’d announced before I left home. “You are kindly to make yourself known to him as soon as you arrive.”

My grandfather was a harmless Edwardian snob, excessively proud of the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren, which he noted carefully on a large family portrait. Like Trilling’s mother, he’d been born in London. In fact, he and Trilling looked like brothers—the same sad Semitic eyes, same dark circles under them, same nose, same jowls. “Yes,” Trilling had said when I showed up dutifully to introduce myself. “The connection is certainly there.”

And right then I’d thought, I’ll not be joining this queue.

“You’re married, did you say?” he asked.

I nodded.

“That’s a pity. For graduate studies one needs to be a monk.”

“One once had great hope for Marxism,” he said one day, and the whole seminar looked up in astonishment. None of us would have considered asking him to justify Wordsworth in terms of “relevance.” Even the Chaucer professor had perched his patrician bottom on the corner of his desk and announced, “If you’re expecting ‘relevance,’ I’d suggest you depart forthwith.”

Now here was Trilling, skirting dangerously close to the rhetoric of the crowd outside. “We had hope even for Stalin,” he went on, “at least in the beginning.” He looked around the class. “Oh well,” he said. “Back to Plato and the ‘Ode.’ And then we can all go home.”

Home for me was a glum affair. Even when, after a year or so, the carrying-on trouble came to an end, passion, real desire, remained a stranger to me. I looked with envy at couples swinging along in apparent bliss. How did it happen, that easy joy? Why did it so elude me? In every other way I was swinging along myself. I’d made friends, I’d learned to cook, I gave dinner parties, wrote papers, took exams and passed them. I’d taken to smoking a lady’s pipe; wearing shirts and ties, miniskirts and knee-high boots; and painting on great black wings of eye makeup. Everywhere I went, men turned to look at me. They whistled, they made suggestions. It was as if everything in my life conspired toward irony. Walking past those men, I longed for just one of them to take me by the arm and walk me his way, giving me no choice in the matter.

But I’d already made my choice, and he wasn’t going to be run over or blown up just to suit me, that much I now knew. More than this, I was a moral coward, a bourgeois, and, never mind the pipe and shirt and tie, I was as if lashed to convention. Doubtless, I was a disappointment to my husband as well. I had no idea how or where his real desires ran, but the fact was, we didn’t suit each other—not in desire and not in temperament. If I’d simply been able to accept this, I could probably have endured it more easily. But I could never bear to fail at anything, not even the baking of a cake. I certainly wasn’t going to fail at marriage.

So I pestered him, and pouted, and was jealous with no cause. My youth seemed to be flying by, fading like Wordsworth’s violets. Yet the more men noticed me, the more I longed to be noticed by them. At twenty-two and twenty-three, I felt discarded, overlooked, unused, and what beauty I had going rapidly to waste.

None of this could I discuss with my friends, not even my South African. Our talk was loud and jolly, or confiding and vaguely feminist, full of laughter, full of anecdote and personal history, and with a great deal of bravado from me. Each of us, I suppose, plays the role she has chosen for herself—or, perhaps, the one she has contrived to have others choose for her. Whatever the case, the real failure at the heart of my marriage and my life existed there in silence and some shame.

And then two years into the marriage, my husband came home from the hospital one day and announced, “You may as well come off the pill. We’re not going to be able to have children.”

Children? We’d hardly discussed children. There was the draft to consider, for one thing. He’d tried everything to get out of it—made appeals, enlisted the help of a senator. But nothing had worked. The only thing left was to leave the country, which would change his draft status to 4-C (“an alien . . . who has departed from the United States prior to being issued an order to report for induction”).

“Two urologists say no chance at all, and the third says one in a million.” He stared at me accusingly, always his way of turning the fault around. “I had a mumps-like virus when I was thirteen,” he said. “Somewhere near the Congo.”

I stared back at him, my heart rejoicing. I was almost two years into the doctorate now and had a fellowship from Columbia that required me to live within fifteen miles of New York City. “The thing is,” I said, “I can’t leave the country.”

But he wasn’t listening. “They advise against artificial insemination,” he went on. “Adoption is preferable. For the sake of the marriage.”

We were off to South Africa for the summer, our first trip home. After that we were to go to Montreal, where he’d arranged a research fellowship, to sit out the draft. To all this, I had tacitly agreed, thinking that something, surely, would come along to save me. Or that, if it didn’t, I could just slip back to New York and fail to return. The life that mattered to me, the life that had some blood in it, was taking place outside the marriage—at the library, or in Philosophy Hall, or going for lunch or for tea with my friends, or to the opera, or to a film, or out to dinner. And then reporting on it all in letters home.

“You’re not listening,” he said.

“But what about my fellowship?” I asked. In fact, I was thinking about his mother. Once we were in South Africa, she’d be everywhere, poisoning the air. And Montreal? How long would it be before she arrived there too?

“Someone will surely advise you on how to get around the details?” he said.


“Of the fellowship! Are you listening?”

Of course he was right. My supervisor suggested I register for large lecture courses that didn’t take roll. I’d only need to comeback to New York for the pre-orals and the orals. The whole world, it seemed, was sympathetic toward draft dodging. Nothing was going to save me from this marriage except myself.

And then in Paris, where we stopped on our way from South Africa to Montreal, I came down with what he decided was hepatitis. I lay in the darkroom of the pension, nursing the awful nausea, swallowing the pills he’d found at a local pharmacy. After a while, he decided he had hepatitis, too, and finished the pills himself, and threw out the bottle. But the nausea would not go away, and, once we arrived in Montreal and some real tests were run, we were told, to our astonishment and disbelief, that I was pregnant.

A few weeks before the baby was born, I went to New York to take my orals and stayed that night with my old friend. There she sat on the edge of the bathtub, keeping me company as I lowered my bulk into it. All through the torment of childbirth, I would remember the look on her face as she sat there watching me, the knowledge she had, as she told me later, of what lay ahead.

As it turned out, we spent only a year in Montreal before my husband was offered a job in California, with immunity from the draft. How they’d arranged this we never found out, but there we were now, the three of us, high on a hill, overlooking the Pacific. With the threat of Vietnam behind us, and all through the years that followed—dissertation and degree, teaching, carpool, dinner parties and the endless visits of his parents—domestic warfare took hold. Over time the weapons we used only became sharper and more deadly. Yet even as adversaries, we seemed held together like survivors of a lost war. We had come to this country, we were not going back, and I had no hope yet for a future of my own.

Meanwhile, he took up woodworking on the weekends, filling the house with butcher blocks. He grew fatter, and I thinner. In my spare time, I took up sewing, shopping, longhair, high heels, jumpsuits, disco, and, after ten years of uneasy fidelity, lovers.

He didn’t seem to notice. Night after night he descended to his tools in the basement, or shut himself into his room with his journals—and, as I later discovered, his astonishing collection of pornography. “All about the mother,” pronounced a psychiatrist. “Old stuff, old stuff.”

And then, one day, about sixteen years into the marriage, he broke into my files and read my notes and journals. By this time I had written three books, published one, and discovered for myself the easy joy of love. It was simple to understand, after all.

So, too, was his rage and jealousy.

“A writer’s divorce,” said my agent when I told her how it had happened.

And when I told my daughter, a sullen and sarcastic fourteen-year-old, that she was one in a million, she actually smiled.

I was thirty-nine, and my real life in America had begun at last.

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