- The Pending Disaster
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[End Page 132]
I can hardly believe it myself."
Anne, my girlfriend, is talking to a neighbor on the phone while I open a bottle of wine in the next room.
"You can hardly believe what?" I ask when she's off the phone. "Sorry, I couldn't help overhearing."
Her hesitation. The look of being caught off guard. "Not that I'm getting cold feet or anything. But what if I move in with you and it turns out that we liked each other better before? It's not like we can go back to living separately again and everything will be the same—you said so yourself."
The theory goes something like this: lovers move forward together toward an unpredictable [End Page 133] future, or they try to maintain the status quo, or they split up. Anything's possible except returning to a former state of innocence or happiness or shared ambition. People aren't made that way.
I hand her a glass of wine and propose a toast: "Here's to cold feet. May they take us wherever we really want to go."
My father, Bernard Ireland, wanted to be a writer when he was a young man. He went to graduate school for a while before taking a job in the admissions office at Columbia, where he worked for the next twenty-five years. Job, marriage and children pretty much put an end to his writing ambitions, although he continued to write speeches for his work and was known in college-admissions circles as a witty, entertaining speaker. I can see him at the dining room table drafting his next speech on a yellow legal pad.
One of the few pieces of his writing that survives is a journal he kept from when he was in graduate school until shortly after he married my mother. It begins in 1936, a few years before the United States entered the war in Europe. Hitler has reoccupied the Rhineland, and Mussolini is bragging about his conquest of Ethiopia.
"The world is an awful, restless place of late," he writes. "When will we learn to live together without constantly being at each other's throats?"
Recently he has submitted an article called "Jukes, Jackasses, and Race-Horses" to a Reader's Digest contest and is waiting for the results. Meanwhile he's dating my mother, Lois Cline, "a very unselfish girl," who suggested revisions to the article and typed the final draft. (A typing whiz, she taught me to type by the touch method, covering the keys of our Underwood with adhesive tape so I couldn't cheat.)
Next thing you know, she's taken him home to meet her parents in Watertown, Connecticut, over Easter weekend, and he's beginning to wonder "if she might not make an ideal wife." He mentions his "esteem" for her, and her "affection" for him, and goes on to list other qualities in her that he admires—"thoughtful helpfulness" and "common good sense leavened with the proper amount of desire to do irrational things."
Like what, for example? He doesn't say. But the omission of juicy details and the formality of the language do not hide the fact that in his attraction for this unselfish girl he has encountered something extremely powerful and at the same time extremely dangerous. At first he doesn't know what to make of it, so he takes a rational approach—he makes a list of her good qualities, as if he were considering an applicant for admission to Columbia. He's still "enamoured" of his "freedom," he writes. But there's not one critical word about my mother, no [End Page 134] explicit weighing of doubts on the other side of the scale, nothing to suggest that he might be better off staying single for a while. I suspect that the writing of that list was the act of a man who'd already lost all hope of making a rational decision where Lois Cline was concerned.
* * *
Between us, Anne and I have been married to other people five times. We ought...