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   d o u b l e    s t a n d a r d

--- R O B I N   R E I N A C H

                 Opening my boyfriend's desk drawer in search of Scotch tape, I became my mother. The pile of nude Polaroids sent me toppling me down, down into a deep dark cliché. The sudden glossy vision of naked breasts and teased hair thrust me kicking and screaming into a role that had previously been reserved for Mom-cuckold, fool, and second-class citizen. In 1974 I was nineteen, still young enough to define myself as her opposite. As a child, I'd vowed to be different from my mother, and genetics had helped with that promise. Fair and freckled with thick red hair, I was fast and fiery where Mom was cool and reticent. People said she was a Mary Tyler Moore look-alike, petite and slender at 44, with dainty fluttering hands and green eyes that sparkled glassily on command. Mom had a shallow kind of charm, hair-sprayed and nail-polished into place by Kenneth Salon every Thursday afternoon. I was a renegade hippie with flaming frizzy tresses and chewed-down cuticles that fended for themselves. I'd been a few years too young to rebel in the '60s, but rode their coattails into my teens, full of fine ideals and radical sentiments. Safely part of the liberated generation, I was free to disdain what I thought of as Mom's compliance and capitulation.
                 In relationships and social situations, I took action while she retreated behind feigned refinement that I hadn't yet realized camouflaged insecurity and despair. When I was a child, Mom never confronted Dad over his infidelity. Not at two in the morning when he came home from karate lessons or on weekend afternoons when he disappeared with his camera for endless walks in Central Park. Fanning naked photos across my boyfriend's desk top, I decided to do what Mom had never done when we both lay awake in the middle of the night waiting for Dad to come home. "Eddie!" I shouted from my boyfriend's living-room office, ready to take the bull by the horns.
                  "On the phone," he called back from the four-poster bed that was featured in many of the snapshots spread across his desk.
                 Eddie was 30, the first grown man I'd ever dated, my second sexual experience. We met the night before I graduated high school and dated steadily that summer and into my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence. After college started I commuted into New York City on weekends and stayed at his Second Avenue apartment.
                 Now I examined the photographs he'd taken with the Polaroid camera we'd purchased together. There was a Mae West type-blond, nude except for an open ankle- length fur coat, smiling from the kitchenette door. The lining of her white fur was embroidered with the name "Marilyn." It had flourishes on the M and Y. Underneath, on the thick white Polaroid band, was a date: 7/22/74. The next photo featured a slender Asian with a long dark ponytail and pubic hair waxed into a narrow strip. She posed on Eddie's four-poster with her legs spread and a pink tongue running over her lower lip. With a shock, I guessed that my boyfriend had acted as director. A little bit wider, I could imagine him saying. Stick your tongue out. Yes, like that. 7/27/74 was printed beneath her crotch in Eddie's neat handwriting. He hadn't wasted any time between girls, I noted.
                 The next Polaroid displayed two identical faces, curly-haired twins with pert breasts and dark tangled thatches of pubic hair. They pressed their cheeks together and smiled with identical wide mouths; one of them made bunny ears above the other's head. Evidence mounted with each pretty face, each naked or scantily clad female. Every shot was dated on the bottom, and the pile was arranged in chronological order. I scrutinized each one carefully, the complete pictorial record of Eddie's infidelity. While my boyfriend talked on the telephone in the other room, I marveled at his energy and scope. The dates were weekdays of course, when I'd been busy on campus. I tried to remember if we'd had phone calls those nights and pictured him instructing the twins: Shush, don't say a word while I'm on the phone. Were they laughing at me while we talked-naïve young girlfriend, stupid and evidently blind? Was I the object of pity or contempt?
                 I had felt both for my mother, scorning her voluntary blindness just as I had despised what others considered her girlish helplessness. Humiliated by the pampered incompetence of a full-time housewife who couldn't cook, clean or do laundry, I felt she gave women a bad name. Sitting at Eddie's desk, I considered clipping into shreds the photos that threatened to force me into a shameful camaraderie with the one person whose style I'd shunned all my life. I thought of setting the pictures on fire in the wastepaper basket and waiting until Eddie noticed the smell. I fantasized replacing them without a word and cleverly poisoning him later, like a character on TV.
                  "Eddie!" I shouted, standing up. "Get off the phone right now!"
                  "What is it?" he asked, all innocence as I charged into his bedroom waving the Polaroids in a fan. His face dropped as soon as he saw them. "Gotta go," he breathed into the receiver, hanging up fast. Eddie's smooth tanned cheeks grew pale; his brown eyes widened. "Robin," he said, reaching for my arm. "I never meant for you to see those."
                  "I believe that," I laughed.
                  "Give them to me." His well-shaped lips were firm, regaining composure, and he held his hand out for the photos as if I was a child.
                  "You want them?" I shrieked and threw the snapshots so they scattered across his bed.
                  "Listen," he said urgently from amid naked pictures, brown eyes shining and sincere. "You've got to understand. These women mean nothing to me. Absolutely nothing. I was never with any of them more than one night. I just picked them up in a bar and brought them home for sex. It's a novelty thing," he hastened to explain. "They're all strangers."
                  "Strangers?" I repeated with as much sarcasm as I could manage, while my eyes scanned the nude women in intimate poses splattered across the bed.
                  "Yes," he assured me, as if it made a difference. "See, I just like sex with someone new. Completely different. A lot of these girls I don't even know their names. I like it best if I don't know their names," he added softly.
                  "What!" I demanded. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
                  "It's not like we're married," he pleaded, beginning to gather the pictures. "If we were married, or even engaged, but I never promised-"
                  "Don't bother," I interrupted. "Save it for Marilyn!"
                  "Who's Marilyn?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.
                  "Check your photos and find out!" I stormed out of the apartment.
                 Walking home, I tried not to think of my mother. Passing boutiques on Lexington Avenue, I determinedly pushed away the memory of her drawn face, with black rings carved under green eyes, on those nights when Dad was late. Sympathy seemed too dangerous; any similarity between us only made me feel weak and vulnerable. Once I'd let myself feel sorry for Mom. When I was sixteen a boyfriend who worked in Dad's office had casually told me about his affairs. "Everyone here knows," he clued me in, "secretaries, clients, and colleagues." I learned then that many married men in Dad's business had relationships with questionable women who fucked for money or expensive gifts. But when I told Mom she stared at me with burning red-rimmed eyes. I was the traitor, her look implied. "You're wrong about your father," she said icily. "Do you understand?" I understood that there was no chance for honesty in our family.
                 Stepping off the sidewalk, waiting for a red light to change in the street amid a cluster of aggressive Manhattan pedestrians, I reminded myself that Mom had turned down my solidarity, just as she'd refused my comradeship many times while I was growing up. My mother had spurned the grubby intimacy and chatty enthusiasm of her little frizzy-haired girl. Throughout my childhood, she'd complained often that I was difficult, too loud, too active, and too strong-willed. But my father had valued the energy and strength that he identified as deriving from his genes. He hadn't been afraid I'd mess up his hairdo or rumple his business suit when I greeted him open armed at the door. In the end, I made excuses for Dad's infidelity because I felt we were on the same team. Mom's brittle aloofness had hurt him too, I noticed at an early age. She wasn't physical with my father any more than with me; she lacked enthusiasm for his projects, and held back when he wanted to move forward. Dad and I were comrades in suffering, I imagined, and forgave him for needing other women because we had both been rejected by Mom.
                 Passing a small business supply store, I remembered finding a pornographic story in the family typewriter when I was twelve years old. The typed scene portrayed a married man naked in bed with his ilicit girlfriend. After a detailed description of foreplay, came the dialogue: "I'm sorry I can't be there on your birthday," the man whose first initial was the same as my father's said at the bottom of the page. "I know a girl has a right to expect that." The woman replied, "Fuck me, Jason, fuck me," and mercifully the page ended there. Without telling anyone, I removed those pages from the typewriter case. Dad and I were the only ones who typed, and he never mentioned the missing story.
                 I'd been too embarrassed to ask Dad about the erotica when I was twelve, and I hadn't felt strong enough at sixteen to confront him without my mother's support. There had been a more recent incident when Eddie and I first started dating. At a party, we bumped into one of Dad's business partners with a woman who was not his wife. "Don't look at me like that," the man I'd known all my life had said. "Young lady, one of these days you're going to see your father at a party like this."
                 Against my will, I'd felt a surge of sympathy for my mother then, and another one stabbed me now. Walking briskly at a pace Mom could never keep, I listened to my shoes smack the pavement. My cheeks were hot when I reached 86th Street; my body hummed with energy and purpose as I planned what I'd do next. I opened the door to my parents' coop with the key I still carried in my purse. Heading directly to the master bedroom, I found my father where I guessed he'd be late on a Sunday morning.
                 Dad was lying on his stomach on the twin bed that was connected to my mother's only by a king-sized headboard and a salmon-pink bedspread that had already been removed to reveal individual mattresses with individually tucked in sheets and blankets. The Sunday Times was spread in front of him, and I stood at the foot of the mattress, hands akimbo.
                  "I broke up with Eddie today," I announced.
                  "Oh?" Dad glanced back at me over one shoulder.
                  "There were a million pictures of naked women in his desk drawer. I found them this morning." My voice was deadpan with outrage.
                  "Ahh." Dad turned to face me, brown eyes wide, vulnerable and expectant.
                 But I didn't want to bring up his business partner or the typewriter story anymore. When our eyes met, the old connection, born of my childhood longing for intimacy and protection, welled up inside me. I faced the parent who'd taken my side and helped me be strong. Confusion swelled in my chest, rose to the hollow of my throat. I both needed to confront my father and feared breaking the bond I'd relied on all my life.
                  "Why did he do it?" I demanded shrilly.
                 Dad's head dipped, and one hand ran through his thinning hair. "I can't answer that," he said. "And I don't know why he left them for you to see."
                  "I'm glad I found them," I asserted with vigor, realizing that was true.
                 My father looked at me hard a long moment. Then his lips broke into a small smile, and he said quietly, tone full of significance, "Some women would rather not know."

© crossconnect, inc 1995-2004 |
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |