2 The Dancing Widow
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32 2 The Dancing Widow We moved to Baton Rouge in the summer of 1995, because my husband , a Washington lawyer, no longer wanted to be a lawyer. He wanted to be a law professor. When, in March of that year, he called me from his office to tell me that he’d landed a teaching job at LSU, my first thought was “Oh, dear God, no.” My next thought was: “Well, at least we won’t have to live there for very long.” After all, I figured, it would only be a matter of time until he traded up: LSU would be a kind of starter job, a way station where Stuart would hone his scholarly skills for a better job at a better university in a better town: Ann Arbor, say, or Charlottesville. Because Baton Rouge was not my idea of a better town. I’d already been there once, on the occasion of his job talk, and once was enough. For starters, Baton Rouge is flat. Not flat the way New York is flat; it’s flat flat, the biggest hills in the whole region the man-made levees that the Army Corps of Engineers built to hold back the Mississippi. Also, Baton Rouge is most definitely the South—the breeding grounds of George Wallace, David Duke (who almost won the governorship of Louisiana in 1991), Anita Bryant, and, for that matter, George W. Bush. It has mega-churches, giant white crosses looming over the interstate, and people who think that the ACLU is a satanic cult. I grew up in the sixties and seventies, worshipping the hippies who flocked to Washington to protest the Vietnam War and agitate for civil rights (and who, on occasion, landed in sleeping bags in our playroom in McLean, where they regaled us kids with stories about the wonderful visions they’d had while on acid). The South was the place you got away from—as indeed my mother’s family had—not the place you went to. You went to New York, as I myself had done after college, and would have continued to do, had my husband not insisted that a New York law practice would have just about sucked his soul clear out of his body, leaving him an empty husk, a dried-out, desiccated former human being with nothing to show for his efforts other than a spacious prewar apartment on the Upper West Side, which, frankly, would have been just fine with me. And Baton Rouge wasn’t even a real city, but—as my father helpfully put it when we announced the news of our upcoming move—an overgrown cow town, a sprawling metastasis of urban blight with big city problems and small town parochialism. The public schools are a disaster; the rate of AIDS transmission is the second-highest in the country; the murder rate is astronomical; there are serial killers, hurricanes, mosquitoes the size of your fist, and giant petrochemical plants ringing the city like monsters straight out of the book of Revelations, exhaling their fetid air into the night while you sleep and entering your membranes as you dream. Summers are so brutally hot that you feel like the end of the world is indeed nigh, fall never comes at all, and ignorance is considered to be a virtue . High school students drop to their knees to pray to Jesus before football games; right-wing groups organize boycotts against stores that instruct their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”; and even people who know that you’re Jewish tend to say things like, “What church did y’all say you go to?” As for the Jewish community itself—what Jewish community? We moved a month before my twins turned two, leaving our lovely, leafy street in Northwest Washington, and our lovely, liberal, and earnestly good neighbors behind, for a chance at what I kept telling myself would be a simpler, more authentically lived life, whatever that meant. Despite my years of therapy, with a whole series of talented psychotherapists in varying shades of Freud, I was a bundle of neuroses, a walking, talking package of unresolved pain, a font of anxiety. My career seemed permanently stuck in the land of almost. I hated my father, except when I loved him. My only brother and I hadn’t gotten along since I was four and he was three. My maternal grandmother, Jennie—the wondrous, magical, beautiful, and brilliantly...


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