Good night, Sweet Prince
By MARY REINHOLZ
The last time Mark Shechner and I exchanged emails, he accused me of having gone through “a string of men” after our mini–marriage broke up in Berkeley. That is true. But then single girls do date even after they get knocked up, married in a quickie wedding chapel and discarded like a wad of used tissue two years after an abortion as I was by Mark, my distinguished ex from long ago. He died unexpectedly last October at age 75.
He was not the only man to suggest that I was what used to be called a loose woman, somewhat like Marilyn Monroe to his Arthur Miller, a slutty and nutty blonde babe who had wed a serious man of letters. (“Mary has her lucid moments,” he would say in his patronizing manner after we had a blowup.)
A few factoids: Mark and I tied the knot while he was a lowly graduate student at UC Berkeley, working on his doctoral dissertation, a psychoanalytical interpretation of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It became his first book, “Joyce in Nighttown.” As for our bizarre and brief 1964 marriage, he said in our electronic correspondence that it was part of a relationship “that was not built to last.”
“I saw you as the golden shiksa,” he wrote in one of his missives, trying to answer my question as to why he had proposed to me in Los Angeles at his father’s apartment.
. “There was more brass than gold,” he said of me, “but I didn’t know the difference back then.” And then: “Why did I marry you? I didn’t want to disappoint you. What did you expect?”
He acknowledged that our idyllic Big Sur vacation, where we made love under a beach blanket as people in bathing suits strolled by on the white sand, was one of the high points of his twenties and led to his popping The Question. He even sent photos he had taken of me in that West Coast paradise, some standing against a redwood tree. He had kept them all those years.
“Shock and awe, Mark,” I emailed him back repeating the words ascribed to George W. Bush’s carpet bombing campaign of Baghdad in 2003. “Shock and awe.” I was stunned by the pictures of the young girl I once was and saddened by what could have been had Mark and I stayed together. For starters, he had economic security. I did not.
“I’m not surprised you’ve had a hard time,” he wrote after I contacted him from my rent stabilized apartment in downtown Manhattan after seeing a review of one of his books in The New York Times. “You were always drawn to sturm and drang. I always went after comfort and ease.” He made it plain he couldn’t send me any more money after my abrupt job loss in Southhampton. “The well is dry,” he said.
These are some of the unlovely observations Mark issued in the aftermath of our 1991 reunion in New York when we were both middle aged. I write about him now to deal with his passing, which I learned on Father’s Day after realizing he hadn’t updated his Facebook page. In retrospect, I can see that his impact on me as a young woman was devastating.
We got together face to face only once in New York decades after I had petitioned a Los Angeles court for an annulment, ruminating and sniping at each other as we sipped cappuccinos at a Third Avenue osteria.
I was a freelance writer at the time, mainly for the New York Daily News, Newsday and later The New York Times. He was an English professor, by then a noted Joyce scholar and literary critic who was soon to become chairman of the English Department at SUNY, the State University of New York at Buffalo.
He was proud of his salary, his house, his second wife, their adopted daughter and their dog. Mark even whipped out pictures to show me of his family. He had it made.
Or so it seemed to me as a still struggling over-the-hill orphan lady eying him for reparations and maybe a chance to start over again as friends despite unpleasant memories.
It was not to be. Soon it was clear that Mark had visited me at least partly because he was on the prowl for a quickie away from his wife in Buffalo. He asked to see my apartment in Gramercy Park. We parted ways after I declined his request.
He had made a similar overture shortly after our marriage ended. Without calling, he suddenly showed up on his Easter break in the grungy newsroom of The Valley Times, a North Hollywood based daily where I had taken a position as an editor. To this day, I don’t know how he found me there or why he thought I would just spread like a Middle Eastern sandwich after he had dumped me.
Now that he’s gone, I actually miss the bastard. He turned me on to new experiences when we were both undergraduates at UCLA, not the least of which was introducing me to Cannonball Adderley and Dizzy Gillespie at jazz concerts. He had some sterling qualities and went on to compile an impressive CV: Fulbright lecturer in American literature at the University of Kobe (Japan), visiting lecturer at Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan) and. Fulbright lecturer in American literature at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) and the University of Tel Aviv.
For the record, I never stepped out on him during our torturous four-year relationship—not, that is, until I learned he had strayed with another girl he had met while working as a hasher at a Jewish sorority at UCLA and later with an Economics major who was arrested with him in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. He married his aforementioned sweetie from the FSM sit-in and then divorced her long after the steady drip-drip-drip of his rejections forced me to exit the shadowy gloom of his Berkeley pad.
There were other women as well in Mark’s life before he died at his home in upstate New York, a still active retiree who had published several well regarded books on Jewish writers. One was on Philip Roth bearing the ill advised title, “Up Society’s Ass, Copper.” His first and only novel,”Call me Moishe: The True Confessions of a White Whale” (a takeoff on Melville’s “Moby Dick”), came out a year or so before his untimely passing, reportedly from a heart condition. He had been living with a long time female companion.
In contrast, I have remained single and mostly celibate for years after a protracted post-marital swinger phase on both coasts. As a therapist once told me, “You seem to have been angry at your former husband and wanted to get back at him.” Well, yes, I never really recovered from the trauma of Mark. After him, I hooked up with men who could never disappoint me in quite the same way. Other suitors were better lovers and better fighters for justice. But few if any matched his humor, his intelligence, his bursts of generosity and kindness.
The first time I saw him, we were both undergraduates at UCLA. He was standing on the top steps of a building across from Royce Hall, a tall, dark haired presence surveying the scene like a lord of the realm. He had a intense brown eyes and a stern look that intrigued me. “Honey,” he told me later, “When I look like that, I usually have to take a shit.”
But for me in that moment, Mark seemed like The One, a working class Jewish intellectual I could love for a lifetime. He was wearing jeans and a pale yellow shirt with a nerd pack of pens and pencils in the right breast pocket . He had broad shoulders but his fine body wasn’t at all like the muscled physique of a former UCLA football player I had dated briefly, a bonafide All-American who scared the bejesus out of me with his aggressive come-ons.
You see I was still a virgin my senior year at UCLA and I needed a more romantic approach. Mark filled that bill. He passed me a note in an English department library, saying let’s have coffee and talk and followed up with more notes and poems and then a seafood dinner in Malibu.
We began seeing each other regularly, although our first dressup date was quite literally a bust. He had suggested that we see a strip tease at Ciro’s, the swank celeb-patronized nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. The burlesque was a bit much for me, the still hesitant virgin, wincing as I watched a skinny redhead strut across the stage in a G-string and pasties. One of my roommates had told me in advance that Mark should not be considered a serious suitor by inviting me to that naughty spectacle. So I asked him why he had shown me such a lack of respect.
He was astonished and then furious that I would even question his taste and motives. As it turned out, he was a virgin too, very thin skinned and in need of a constant reassurance of his masculinity. We almost parted company after that row. But I was lonely and had become attached to him. We got past our first big fight, and started necking after classes at night at the Trusdale Estates in his big clunky sedan. Mark parked it amid the charred ruins of buildings burned down to the bones after a raging fire in that part of
Making out by the dash board lights in that ghostly setting was the best it ever got for me before we finally had sex at the old family homestead in Pasadena while my parents were away on a business trip.
It was pretty Freudian doing the deed on mom and dad’s king sized bed. But we couldn’t figure out a better place because Mark had returned to his father’s apartment in Culver City after spending his first two college years at Berkeley as a Physics major. His stepmother was a strict Jewish working woman who didn’t seem to like this shiksa much. We worried she might come into his room and surprise us. And I didn’t want to go to a motel.
We got more inventive at my apartment when the roommates were away and once when Mark insisted on booking a room at an inn in some far away small town that we visited on a weekend. The sex was good–and regrettably unprotected. My period stopped.
Even now, I can still vividly recall waiting with Mark on the phone at my Westwood apartment for the results of a rabbit test from the offices of the gynecologist who administered it. When a nurse came to the phone and coldly announced that the results were positive, we just stared at each in terror and then blankly at my chubby apple-cheeked roommate Donna who came racing into the living room shouting: “John Glenn just orbited the earth!”
It was February 20, 1962, and Mark and I were oblivious to this momentous
achievement by America’s first astronaut in outer space.
Another expectant father might have hit the road. But to his credit Mark proposed marriage “if that’s what you want.”
However, he immediately got a splitting headache, and I decided neither motherhood nor marriage were right for me at that time. I wanted to start a career after getting my bachelor’s degree. I never told Donna, a Jewish girl who had her eye on Mark, that I was pregnant, even while routinely throwing up with the onset of morning sickness. She had a room in the back of the house with Marilyn, a budding beatnik who knew and approved of my efforts to end an unwanted pregnancy.
But my conservative roommate Toni, an elementary education major who shared the first bedroom with me in our rented digs, strongly objected when I told her of my decision to get a legal abortion in Japan. “You could have the baby and give it up
for adoption,” she said. “You can wear loose clothes and no one will know.”
That made no sense to me as I retched each morning and worried about getting to my classes on time and getting good enough grades to graduate. Mark stood by me. He found ways to make me laugh as we went to see a Japanese doctor named Amano who arranged for the procedure in a clinic outside Tokyo.
Amano had been referred to me by my part-time UCLA employer, a Finance professor I’ll call Professor S. He had learned of Amano from his physician brother who supported decriminalizing abortion years before it became legal in California.
Mark’s kindly father, a socialist, also approved of my decision and told Mark to cash in his government bonds to pay Amano’s fees, those of the clinic and airfare for my round trip ticket to Japan. Mark composed a little ditty that he sang to me before I left:
“Oh we’ve been to see Amano, you schemer. He’s our Oriental redeemer. If you think he can save Mary’s cluttered concave for a nominal fee, you’re a dreamer.”
He did make me laugh and so did Dr. Amano who said of my breasts, “They’re big enough to feed all of Tokyo.”
The Japanese girls at the clinic also laughed when they saw me and I wondered why. “It’s because you’re so tall,” said Midori Ito, a sweet English speaking woman Dr. Amano had assigned to greet me at the Tokoyo airport and to stay me with me during the abortion, translating instructions from the doctor.
Midori was with me when a female surgeon came into a room with a leather table wearing a blood stained white jacket. She was also laughing. I had been warned in advance not to expect Western notions of cleanliness at the clinic so I didn’t panic. I had taken off all my clothes and slipped into a clean cotton smock. Within minutes, the doctor gave me an anesthetic and I blacked out, waking up in another room with an open window. The wind blew through it and I shivered a little in the cold. Midori was at my side, smiling.
“You’re okay,” she said.
“What did it look like?” I asked, speaking groggily of what could have become my baby.
“It was like a fish,” she said.
Midori was crying when I hugged her goodbye at the Tokoyo airport a few days later. I never forgot her.
Mark was waiting for me at LAX, delighted by the Japanese robes and kimonos I brought from Tokyo. He wanted to know all about my experience in Japan, joking that he was one of the few people I could talk to about it.
We had some good times in the days ahead, but it was never the same again. We continued seeing each other every weekend when I had full time jobs and was taking birth control pills. He even wrote me a beautiful prose poem before I graduated from UCLA.
“Yes, my Mary, we know all about suns and suns rising and how your son was bombed in your pearl harbor and thrust the cones of history out of gyre. But let’s go forward, aggressive virgin. Let’s await the second coming.”
Professor S., my boss at UCLA’s finance department who had connected us with Dr. Amano,. was impressed. “He’s asking you to marry him,” he said.”This is a proposal.”
The next proposal came two years later and it was hardly enthusiastic. “How would like to work in the Bay area?” Mark inquired, as he presented me with a ring. I was thrilled and flashed the V sign when Mark’s father took our picture. But back at work the next day, I wondered if leaving a good job and my own apartment was the right thing to do. Mark clearly had doubts too.
We decided to drive to Las Vegas during the Christmas holiday break at Berkeley and get married before we could change our minds again. I remember the chapel where we exchanged vows, the plaster of Paris cupids, the fake flowers and the piped in Muzak and the Justice of the Peace intoning, “You are now man and wife. That will be $15 please.”
We spent the night at the Sands Hotel where one of his uncles worked. He and his wife were present at our hitching and treated us to a nice dinner.
Mark, however, was in a dark mood and barely said a word to me. He even turned his back on me in bed. It was the same Coventry treatment when I gave notice at work and drove up to join him in my little MG Midget convertible, prepared to look for work in San Francisco and Oakland.
“Why are you here?” he said, glaring at me when I arrived at his door.
“We’re married,” I said. “Remember?”
He went through the paces but paid so little attention to me that I began to checking out his academic buddies. I did his laundry. I cooked for him. But he wouldn’t touch me. We slept in the same bed, but there was no sex. He was staging another sitdown strike, this time against a woman he didn’t want as his wife. And he wouldn’t really explain.
We went to see a Jungian therapist, a man called Dr. Zeff, who saw us separately and then together: He spelled out a reality that should have been clear to me for months: “Mark doesn’t love you anymore.”
Well, yes. Despite his denials, Mark had found another love on the Berkeley barricades, his free speech flame. I still don’t understand why he asked me to marry him but apparently he felt an inner pressure to give his old girlfriend the status of a MRS. After all, he had taken up so much of my time. I’m pretty sure his father had told him to do right by me.
Of course, I could have refused his proposal. And I could have or should have spit in his eye when he asked for the ring back. But I still loved him.
“It would help if you hated me,” he said during our long goodbye in Berkeley.
Yes, my sweet prince, I tried to hate you. I even wanted to kill you. But you beat me to the punch. #