Personalities & Lifestyles
Eye on the World: An Interview with Graham Robertson
NEW YORK: April 1967
NOTE: This interview was conducted in my office overlooking the East River rather than in Mr. Robertson’s Greenwich Village apartment because Mr. Robertson does not allow women in his apartment under any circumstances, he says – not even to clean. There are no photographs of Mr. Robertson accompanying this article, either, due to his insistence that no photographs of him be taken or published.
To his credit, he was extremely punctual. Mr. Robertson arrived at my office at precisely four o’clock in the afternoon dressed in clean Levi’s, a short-sleeved khaki shirt, and leather moccasins with no socks. He wore a Leica M3 around his neck and a stainless steel Rolex on his left wrist. He did not shake my hand when I rose to greet him but promptly sat in the chair across from my desk and glanced out the window at the river below. Mr. Robertson looked me straight in the eyes throughout the interview though his gaze did stray to the window from time to time. He did not smoke and he did not smile.
The following is an unedited transcript of my interview with this newly acclaimed young photojournalist who has so recently taken the world, if not everyone in it, by storm:
GR: Here I am, Miss Capriccio. What did you want to ask me?
P&L: I see that you brought one of your cameras with you. Are you going to take my picture?
GR: I only take pictures of things that interest me, Miss Capriccio. So far, you don’t interest me.
P&L: Is that the sort of thing people mean when they say that you’re rude?
GR: Since I’m not one of those people, I really wouldn’t know.
P&L: Do you have any idea why you’re so hostile?
GR: Since I’m unaware of being hostile, I’d have to say no.
P&L: Your answers are not very satisfying, Mr. Robertson.
GR: Your questions are not very stimulating, Miss Capriccio.
P&L: Shall we begin again?
GR: No. That would be a waste of time.
P&L: You don’t like to waste time, do you?
P&L: What do you like to do?
GR: Take photographs.
P&L: Of what?
GR: Of whatever interests me.
P&L: What interests you?
P&L: Everything but me, you mean.
GR: I was speaking in the generic sense, Miss Capriccio. In other words, I’m interested in humanity; I’m simply not interested in you as a specific example of the human race.
P&L: Have I done something to offend you, Mr. Robertson?
P&L: And what is that?
GR: You’ve wasted one minute of my time.
P&L: Are you always this impatient?
GR: Only when something or someone is unnecessarily keeping me from doing what I ought to be doing.
P&L: I’ve heard that you’re a real bear to work with. You have no consideration for other people’s comfort or feelings. Would you say this is a fair assessment of your behavior when on the job?
GR: I suppose so.
P&L: I’ve also been told that you can be the most gentle and patient of men if that’s what it takes to get the job done. Is this also true?
P&L: You can remain absolutely still without making a sound for hours if need be.
P&L: But you can’t sit still in my office for five minutes.
GR: I have no need to sit still in your office, Miss Capriccio. There’s no picture for me here. Besides, I’ve been sitting still ever since I came in, haven’t I?
P&L: I guess you’re right. It’s just that you keep shifting your eyes to look out the window, and that gives you an air of impatience.
GR: If you say so.
P&L: I feel that I’m making you uncomfortable somehow. Is it because I’m a woman?
P&L: But you don’t like women much, do you?
GR: I like women no more or less than I like men.
P&L: And do you? Like men, I mean.
GR: Some of them. I like some women, too. It’s just that most of the time I tend to think of people simply as people rather than as men or women.
P&L: Mr. Robertson, you’re known to be an individualist, a loner, a man devoted solely to his work. Is there anyone in this world to whom you feel really close?
GR: My parents.
P&L: You grew up as an only child?
P&L: Do you think that may account for your being such a lone wolf out there in the big, bad world?
GR: I really don’t know.
P&L: You’ve never been married, have you, Mr. Robertson?
P&L: Do you think you’d like to be someday?
GR: I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve ever thought much about.
P&L: Some people claim you’re anti-social, that you really don’t like people at all, maybe not even yourself. Can you comment on that?
GR: Miss Capriccio, I have been a student of human nature for many years, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there are no bounds to that nature when it comes to good and evil. I have seen men, women, and children commit acts of incredible courage and unbelievable cruelty. I have even seen the same individual behave at both extremes in a very short period of time. I am totally awed and mightily terrified by the potentialities of the human race.
P&L: Don’t you think you’re a bit young to be such a cynic?
GR: I’m not all that young, Miss Capriccio.
P&L: Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, you do look a lot older than I’d expected.
GR: Miss Capriccio, if you’d been where I’ve been and seen what I’ve seen, believe me, you’d look old, too.
P&L: But you’re only – what? – twenty-five years old?
GR: I’ll be twenty-six next month.
P&L: Twenty-six is hardly old to most people’s way of thinking, Mr. Robertson.
GR: Most people aren’t me, Miss Capriccio.
P&L: I guess you see some pretty terrible things in your line of work.
P&L: Does that bother you?
GR: Bother me? Does it bother me? That’s too stupid a question to answer.
P&L: I understand that you grew up in rural Mississippi and never had much money. You worked your way through two years of journalism school at the University of Mississippi and then dropped out of college and went to work as a photographer for the Associated Press. Why did you drop out of school?
GR: Two years was time enough to learn what I needed to learn in college. Most of what I wanted to learn wasn’t taught at university anyway.
P&L: What did you want to learn?
GR: I wanted to learn about what makes people tick and what makes the world go ’round. There’s only so much of that you can learn in such an artificially controlled environment.
P&L: Were there any particular courses that you did like in college?
GR: Yes. Mainly chemistry and physics, but Russian was kind of interesting, too.
P&L: Which course did you like the least?
GR: History. But I find it quite fascinating now. It’s just that it was so boring in school.
P&L: Are you easily bored, Mr. Robertson?
GR: No, I never have been. If I can’t find something around me to interest me, I just think something up inside my head.
P&L: Are you thinking up things inside your head now, Mr. Robertson?
P&L: What are you thinking about?
GR: A photo I want to take down by the river as soon as I can get out of here.
P&L: Speaking of photos, you’re about to launch an exhibition of your photographs around the world, beginning in October of this year at your alma mater, the University of Mississippi. You’ve already sold a number of photographs at galleries in New York, London, and Hamburg, some for well over $1,000 apiece. How does it feel to be so successful at such an early age?
GR: I don’t know. I don’t feel particularly successful.
P&L: What would make you feel successful?
GR: To see an end to war, oppression, disease, and hunger.
P&L: You don’t expect much of yourself, do you?
GR: Only what I think I’m capable of.
P&L: You think you’re capable of saving the world?
GR: No, but I think the least I can do is give it a good try.
P&L: Do you think taking that photo you want to take down by the river would help?
GR: Not really, but it would certainly help me to have a more pleasant day.
P&L: Is that the main thing you look for in life, Mr. Robertson? To have a pleasant day?
P&L: What do you want out of life, then?
GR: I want to know that it’s not all for nothing and that there’s someone else out there who cares as much as I do. And I want to know what it’s like to really love someone – not just my parents, but someone else – and to have that person love me back not because of who I am but because of what I am.
P&L: And what are you, Mr. Robertson?
GR: A thorn in your side, Miss Capriccio, a thorn in your side.
P&L: Mr. Robertson, would you mind telling me why you’re here?
GR: Not at all. My agent threatened to drop me if I didn’t allow you to interview me and I don’t want to lose my agent, so I promised him I’d come.
P&L: You’re only doing this interview because you promised someone you would?
P&L: That’s ridiculous.
GR: Miss Capriccio, I may have done some despicable things in my life, but I have never, ever broken a promise, and I have no intention of starting now.
P&L: Mr. Robertson, if you really don’t want to be here, then why don’t you leave?
GR: I would be most glad to do so. In fact, I think I’ll just remove my rude, anti-social self from your presence while the light is still good and never impose it upon you again, Miss Capriccio. And that, I may add, is a promise.
Maggie slipped into the Fine Arts Building through a side door and quickly took her place at the refreshment table. She’d been too involved in the novel she was reading to watch the time properly and so was a few minutes late, but apparently no one noticed.
She glanced around the gallery at the small clusters of Ole Miss professors and prominent citizens dotting the floor and realized that even though she was late, the guest of honor at this, the grand opening of his first ever international photographic exhibition, was even later.
Where are the heroes of yesteryear? she wondered, and in an effort to suppress her disappointment, withdrew the book from under her blazer and rested it discreetly on the table in front of her. The magnolia leaves surrounding the punch bowl would hide the book from anyone except those who came to the table for refreshments, and she had a large cloth napkin in position to take care of that situation whenever it should arise. It seemed appropriate, she thought, that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold should have a good hiding place here among the enemy – as well as a Plan B in case of imminent discovery.
Maggie scanned the room once more, then opened her book and quietly escaped into the world of British spydom. She was thoroughly immersed in a barrage of bullets flying across East Berlin when a warm, strong hand encircled her wrist.
“Bring your book and let’s go,” urged a voice to match, and Maggie knew she had been found.
Lost, her mother would have said, but Maggie knew better. Without a word she closed her book and followed the stranger out of the building.
* * *
As soon as they were outside, he turned to face her.
“Where’s your car?” he asked.
“I’m a freshman,” she told him. “Freshmen aren’t allowed to have cars on campus.”
He stared at her. She stared back.
He was six-two and lean with a long waist and even longer legs. He had a good face, brown hair and eyes, and little crow’s feet, or laugh lines, at the corners of his eyes. His skin was tan and slightly weathered as though he spent a good deal of time outdoors, and his hands were immaculately clean with long, dexterous fingers. He had a neat moustache, a closely shaven beard, and unruly hair that brushed the back of his collar when he walked. He was casually but neatly clothed in faded jeans, a flannel shirt over a cotton turtleneck, and cowboy boots.
Graham Robertson may have made a name for himself photographing race riots, student unrest, and the Vietnam War, Maggie thought, but this man had done more than just photograph such events: he’d lived them.
How old was he, anyway? Thirty? Thirty-five? Forty?
Too old for you, her mother would have said, but Maggie didn’t listen.
He raised an eyebrow. “Shall I repeat the question?”
“In the Law School parking lot,” she said.
He took her hand and led her beside Fulton Chapel toward the rear of the Fine Arts Center.
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” she asked.
“Let’s just say I could be if I don’t get the hell out of here soon.”
“So what do they want you for? Kidnapping?”
As they neared the back of the building, they came upon members of a balalaika orchestra milling about behind the auditorium.
“Damn!” he exclaimed under his breath, and quickly turned his back to the visiting artists as he took Maggie’s elbow and guided her along beside him.
“Do you think there might be KGB agents accompanying those Russian musicians?” she asked as they hurried toward the law building.
“I know there are,” he said.
When they got to the Law School, he let go of her arm.
“Which car is yours?” he asked.
Maggie led him to a Buick Skylark.
“You drive,” he said as he got in on the passenger side and slid down in the seat.
Maggie got into the car and started the engine.
“Where to?” she asked.
“Somewhere they’ll never think to look for me,” he told her, and then, glancing at the book she’d just laid on the seat between them, added, “and make sure we’re not followed.”
* * *
Maggie drove east for a while and then turned off Highway 6 onto a dirt road that led to a small farmhouse.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“My place off campus.”
“When I was a freshman,” he told her, “we weren’t allowed to have a place off campus.”
“Which century was that?”
“The same as this one and you know it.”
Maggie got out of the car and looked at him through the driver’s window.
“Are you going to come in, or do you plan on just sitting in the car all day?”
He got out of the car and followed her up onto the porch. Maggie unlocked the door.
“Welcome to my safe house,” she said, and invited him inside.
They entered a 1940s-style kitchen with gas stove, old-fashioned refrigerator, and wooden table with four mismatched chairs firmly settled into the linoleum.
“Have a seat,” she said.
He took a chair facing the sink and stretched his long legs out under the table.
“Would you like some hot tea?” she asked after checking the fridge and finding it wanting. “I’m afraid I’m fresh out of Cokes.”
He laughed. “What is it about you Southern women?”
“I beg your pardon?” She turned to look him straight in the eyes.
“If I’d tried to pull a stunt like that in Boston, the young lady would have kicked me in the shin, kneed me in the groin, and screamed bloody murder before I’d even had a chance to say, ‘Bring your book.’ So why didn’t you do the same?”
Maggie drew herself up to full height, which at five-foot-eight was none too short.
“I may be a Southerner,” she said, “but I am nonetheless a full-blooded American, and I consider myself honor bound to do whatever I can to preserve the freedom we Americans are so privileged to enjoy, thanks to the blood of our fathers and their fathers before them.
“Now, would you care for some tea?”
“Yes,” he said. “Please.”
Maggie filled the teakettle and put it on to boil, then turned to face him once more.
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?” she said.
“Like what’s my name, what’s my major, where am I from, what does my father do, am I engaged…”
“No. Are you?”
“Divorced or widowed?”
“There, you see? I’m more clever than you thought,” she said, and turned her attention to the kettle once more.
“Is there anything else I’ve forgotten to ask you?” he inquired.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ve forgotten to ask me what sorority I pledged.”
“Dear God. You haven’t, have you? Pledged one, I mean.”
“No, of course not.”
He closed his eyes in an attitude of prayer. “Thank you.”
“Don’t you at least want to know my name?” she asked.
“I don’t have much use for names.”
“So what did you figure on calling me?”
He smiled. “Your name will do nicely, I’m sure.”
“It’s Maggie,” she told him. And then, suddenly remembering her older brother, added, “Not Maggot; Maggie.”
“Maggie,” he repeated. “Of course.” He stood and took her hand and gave a slight bow. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Maggie.”
“I don’t suppose you have a name,” she ventured when he was once again seated with a cup of tea in front of him.
“On the contrary,” he said. “I have several.”
Maggie set milk, sugar, and lemon on the table.
“No doubt you have several passports as well,” she commented.
“More than one, anyway.”
She sat at the table and put lemon and sugar in her tea while he stirred milk into his.
“You haven’t told me what you do for a living,” she said, “or what you were doing at a photo exhibition you apparently had no interest in seeing.”
“No, I haven’t.”
She watched him and waited, but nothing more was forthcoming.
“Would you care to share one of your names with me?” she asked.
“Not really. It’s probably better for us both if I don’t. Besides,” he added, “who a man is is not important, Maggie. It’s what he is that counts.”
“That’s all very well and good,” she said, “but I have to call you something.”
“You could call me Somey for short.”
She smiled at him. “Okay.”
They sipped their tea and looked at each other across the table.
“So, where are you from, Somey?”
He laughed. “Who are you?”
“I’m Maggie,” she said. “Who are you?”
His laughter faded.
“Ashley,” he said. “My name is Ashley.”
“First or last?” she asked. “I mean, am I supposed to call you Mr. Ashley or just plain old Ashley?”
“Plain old Ashley will do fine,” he said. “Unless, of course, you’d rather call me Somey.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because,” he told her, “no one else has ever called me that. So, if I heard someone yelling for Somey, I’d know it was you and I’d come straight away.”
“Oh,” she said, and lowered her eyes to take a sip of tea. “So, where are you from, Somey?”
He smiled. “Denmark, originally.”
“Really? You don’t sound Danish.”
“I’m not. I merely meant that I grew up in Denmark.”
“You don’t sound Scottish.”
She laughed. “I meant the one here in Mississippi, of course. As a matter of fact, I’m probably the only girl in my dorm who even knows there is an Aberdeen in Scotland. They’re all too busy teasing their hair and putting on makeup and dreaming of that frat party next weekend even to think about the fact that a place like Scotland exists.”
She shook her head and looked at him. “Have you any idea what it’s like to be stuck in an institution of higher learning among a lot of boys whose idea of a good time is to go squirrel hunting – and I didn’t mean that as a double entendre, but you may take it that way if you wish – and then get drunk enough to puke all over everybody and everything in sight? Not to mention a whole lot of girls whose greatest ambition in life is to actually marry one of those boys?”
Ashley sighed and gave her a commiserate look. “Yes.”
“Honest to God,” she said, “sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Not looking for a husband, that’s for sure.”
“I believe you,” he said. “So just what is it that you are doing here?”
She looked at him in some confusion. “Well, studying journalism, of course. Getting a college education. Earning a degree. Isn’t that what young women are supposed to be doing these days?”
“I don’t know. I thought they were all supposed to be out looking for husbands.”
“Now you’re making fun of me.”
“No, I’m not. I’d just like to know what it is that you think young women should be doing these days.”
Maggie gave him a hard look.
“Nobody cares what I think about anything,” she told him, “least of all what I want to do with my life.”
“I do,” he said.
“My parents don’t.”
“I want to be a writer, don’t you see? But my parents say I have to go to an in-state school, so my choices are limited. They really wanted me to go to MSCW because it’s both a women’s college and close to home, but I said if I had to go to college in Mississippi, then I would go to Ole Miss because at least it has a decent journalism department and perhaps I could learn something there. Oh, you have to pick and choose your courses according to who’s teaching them, of course, but you can get a lot out of it, really, if you try. And at least most of the journalism students are not frat rats or sorry sisters. They may be a little strange – not the sort your mom would want you to hang out with, much less marry, I suppose – but they’re not a bad lot, really.”
She was pensive for a moment.
“I plan to go somewhere else my junior and senior years,” she told him, “but my parents insist that I stay in Mississippi for my first two years of college.”
“Must you always do as your parents say?”
“According to them, yes. I won’t be of legal age till I’m twenty-one, you know, and my parents never miss an opportunity to remind me that until that day, I am their responsibility and any trouble I get into, they will have to pay for.”
“How old are you now?” he asked.
Maggie gave him a calculating look.
“What would you say if I told you I’m two weeks away from my eighteenth birthday?”
“I’d say, ‘So how old are you now?’”
“Why? Does it really make any difference to you whether I’m seventeen or eighteen?”
“Thanks. What’s that supposed to mean? That you don’t give a damn how old I am because you’re going to rape me anyway, or you don’t give a damn how old I am because you’ve no interest in raping me at all?”
He just sat there studying her. Maggie had never known anyone to look at her so intently for so long. She began to worry about what he was seeing: a gangly, flat-chested girl with ordinary brown hair and plain brown eyes underscored by a too wide mouth that spoke too often and said too much?
And then he looked into her eyes with such intensity that she felt her skin melt away under his gaze, leaving only the good bone structure underneath for his viewing. And when the bones began to crack and crumble as well, she strengthened her resolve and stared back at him with equal intensity, holding her intelligence and wit, her love of literature and longing for adventure, her generous spirit and romantic heart all safely wrapped up in her soul – her wondrous, searching and, she now realized with growing horror, totally transparent soul.
“Neither,” he said quietly.
Maggie felt her breath catch at the back of her throat. She lowered her eyes.
“Somey…” she said.
“Why did you kidnap me today?”
“I didn’t kidnap you, Maggie. I rescued you. Don’t you know that?”
She bowed her head and stared into her teacup.
“Who are you hiding from, Somey?”
He reached over and pushed her hair back off her face.
“If you want to be a writer, young lady, you’d better brush up on your grammar,” he said.
She looked up and stared at him. Hard.
“Shall I repeat the question?”
He dropped his hand and sighed.
“Them,” he said.
Her eyes widened.
“You mean ‘Them’ with a capital T?”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
“Wow. No wonder you didn’t want to go near Fulton Chapel today.”
“You won’t tell anyone about me, will you?”
“Then you really are in danger?”
He shook his head. “No. If we’d been followed, we’d know it by now. Anyway, it seems unlikely they’d look for me here.”
“But what’ll they do if they find you?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Go ahead and shoot me, I guess.”
Maggie’s face paled.
“But, Somey, if they know you’re here in Oxford…”
He reached over and covered her hand with his.
“I won’t be in Oxford for long,” he said.
“But then where will you go?”
“Back to Denmark.”
He withdrew his hand.
“That I can’t say.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Are you staying here for the night?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Too risky.”
“But they would never look for you here, would they? There’s plenty of room, and I’m already signed out for the weekend. We could…”
He took both her hands in his.
“Maggie,” he said, and waited for her eyes to meet his. “No.”
He let go of one of her hands and touched her face.
“Don’t let me be the one,” he said. “Please, Maggie, don’t let me be the one.”
“What one?” she asked, pulling her hand away and drawing back in apprehension.
He shook his head and smiled. Maggie stood and took their teacups to the sink to be washed.
“So, tell me,” Ashley said. “What did you think of Robertson’s photographs?”
“I didn’t get a chance to look at them, really. I just barely got there in time to start serving, and then you came along and…”
“Well, the exhibition will be here for another week, won’t it?”
“I’ve seen Robertson’s photos on occasion. I’d be interested to know what you think of them.”
She turned to face him. “Then you’ll be…”
He shook his head. “I’ll give you an address where you can write to me. Will you do that?”
He took a small notebook and pencil from his pocket and wrote down the address for her.
“It’s just a post office box and a special code number,” he said as he handed it to her, “but you can reach me there until further notice. You don’t need my name, just the address. It may take a while, but it should get to me eventually.”
Maggie stared at the APO San Francisco address.
“Vietnam,” she said.
“I didn’t say that.”
She turned away from him and slammed her fists against the edge of the sink. Ashley came over to stand behind her and put his arms around her.
“It’s only for a few months,” he said.
“But it takes only seconds to die.”
He turned her in his arms, lifted her chin, and kissed her.
“I won’t die,” he told her. “I never die.”
He held her in his arms for a moment, then grasped her long, straight hair and tilted her head back to look into her face.
“Don’t, Maggie,” he said as tears slid down her cheeks. “For them, maybe, but not for me. Never for me.”
Maggie closed her eyes and leaned her head against him as he tenderly stroked her hair. At last her tears were spent and she took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of him and feeling once more that strange little flip in her tummy and even stranger tingle below that she had first sensed when he’d slipped his arms around her just moments ago.
She raised her head and looked at him as he took a step backward.
“I want to apologize for dragging you away from your post at the exhibition this afternoon,” he said. “It was more than a bit barbaric and totally selfish of me.”
“Are you sorry you did?” she asked.
“No. Are you?”
She shook her head.
“Then perhaps you won’t mind if I ask one more favor of you.”
“I’ve still got a bit of a journey before me, and I was wondering if you’d mind if I took a short rest before I go.”
“No, of course not,” she said, and led him to a large, airy bedroom with brick fireplace, high ceiling, and tall, wide windows. Against one wall stood a double bed in a painted iron bedstead, replete with brass finials and handmade quilt.
Ashley sat on the edge of the bed and removed his boots, then lay back against a double layer of down pillows and let out a sigh of contentment.
“This is heaven,” he said, and closed his eyes.
“Is there anything else you need?” Maggie asked.
He opened his eyes and looked at her.
“Just you,” he said, and held out his hand.
Maggie hesitated, then stepped closer and put her hand in his. Ashley’s smile broadened as he gazed into her eyes.
“If I were a vampire,” he said gently, “I would have done you in the kitchen.”
She smiled and looked down, watching his thumb move in small, repetitive circles over the top of her hand.
“Just lie here beside me for a while,” he said. “I promise not to bite.”
Maggie looked into his eyes, then slipped her hand out of his and removed her blazer. She draped the blazer over a bedpost, took off her shoes, and crawled onto the bed beside him. Ashley slipped his arms around her and kissed her forehead before settling down to sleep.
Maggie lay with her head on his chest, listening to the rhythm of his breathing and the sound of his heartbeat until she, too, was lulled to sleep.
* * *
When next she awoke, Ashley was gone. He had, however, left a lovely bouquet of wildflowers on the bedside table. Next to the flowers lay The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, accompanied by a brief note. It said:
Don’t believe everything you read. – S
Maggie went off to summer camp for the first time when she was thirteen years of age. A few weeks before she was to leave for North Carolina, her mother took her aside to explain to her the facts of life.
“I think it’s time I talk to you about sexual intercourse,” her mother said. “Don’t you?”
“Sure, Mom,” Maggie replied, always glad for new information on virtually any subject.
“You do know what that is, don’t you?” her mother asked.
Maggie nodded, not wanting to appear ignorant. She had heard of it, at least. She had even looked it up in the dictionary once. It was listed, all right, but the definition was stated in such a way that Maggie had been unable to decipher it.
She remembered that her mother had read to her a book on the subject a few years back. It was all about mammals and how they have babies. It had helped Maggie to understand how babies are born and how they come out of the mother.
The book had also talked about humans and what a husband and wife need to do in order to cause a baby to develop inside the wife. The nine-year-old Maggie had pictured the happy couple’s going to the doctor’s office for this procedure. There, under the auspices of a kindly doctor, the husband and wife would remove their clothes and lie down side by side, facing each other, on a double-size examination table with sterile sheets. They would probably smile at each other because they would be so happy to be making a baby. Maybe they would even hold hands. And then, when they were ready, the sperm would flow out of the husband’s penis across the sterile sheet and somehow find its way into the wife – Maggie hadn’t quite figured that part out yet – and then the couple would get up and get dressed and go home again, happy in the knowledge that they would be having a baby in about nine months’ time.
Maggie now looked at her mother’s questioning countenance and began to feel some doubt.
“Well,” she admitted, “not exactly.”
Her mother, who was sitting across the parlor from her, proceeded to explain it in very specific terms.
Maggie was horrified. She had always thought she wanted to have children, but now she didn’t see how she ever could. Wasn’t it enough to expect a woman to go through the pain of labor and childbirth without making her go through that? She would wind up an old maid with no husband and no children, never having known the full joy of true love because there was no way in hell she would ever do that.
“Do you have any questions?” her mother asked.
Maggie took a deep breath and tried to slow her heartbeat.
“Does it hurt much?” she asked.
“Oh, no,” her mother said. “It can be quite pleasant, really. If you’re married, I mean.”
Maggie didn’t believe her.
“What if you’re not?” she asked.
“Well,” her mother said, obviously flustered, “that would be quite different, of course.”
“How do you mean?”
“It would be a very bad thing to do with anyone but your husband,” her mother told her. “Then you could get hurt. Oh, yes, indeed. You could get hurt very badly. If you were doing it with anyone but your proper husband, I mean.”
Maggie didn’t get it. How could being married make any difference? Married or not, one thing had to go into the other, didn’t it? Either it hurt or it didn’t, and Maggie couldn’t imagine how it could possibly not. At least as far as the poor woman was concerned. Was there no end to life’s hidden horrors?
“I just thought it would be a good idea to make sure you understood about these things before you went off to camp,” her mother told her. “I wouldn’t want you to be misled by a lot of old wives’ tales you might hear from the other girls.”
“Well,” her mother said as she rose from her chair and headed for the kitchen, “I’m glad we had this little chat.”
Maggie managed a tight smile. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Anytime, dear. You know you can always come to me if you have any questions about anything. Anything at all. That’s what mothers are for, you know.”
As soon as her mother was out of sight, Maggie fled the parlor and ran to her room where she flung herself onto her bed and started in on a good cry. She was not ashamed to be crying, for to grieve for the loss of one’s future happiness did not seem the least bit childish to her. And so she indulged herself thoroughly for about thirty seconds, at which point her gaze happened to fall on The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biography of Michelangelo by Irving Stone, which lay on her bedside table.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Maggie repeated aloud. She thought it sounded rather like the title for a treatise on sexual intercourse – assuming, of course, that the second portion of the title referred to men only. She picked up the book and started reading. Soon she forgot all about future husbands, lovers, and children as she entered the body and mind of an inquisitive Italian boy who had lived four centuries ago.
* * *
Maggie pretty well managed to forget about boys as such until she was seventeen years of age and a senior in high school. That’s when Malcolm took her under his wing. He was four years older than she, a friend of her brother, and very rich. He was also very smart. He had made a perfect score on the SAT Math while in high school and damn near a perfect score on the Verbal as well. When he came home from Harvard for spring break, he took her out for a most elaborate picnic, which included not only pâté de foie gras but champagne and caviar as well. Maggie didn’t care for the pâté, the champagne, or the caviar, but being with Malcolm was always interesting, and today he had brought along a most intriguing play: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
They each took parts and read the entire play aloud. By the time they finished the sun was setting and it was time to go home, but Maggie had to admit it had been fun.
“He’s grooming you, you know,” her brother Stanton told her that evening.
“To be his wife, of course.”
“I don’t want to be his wife!” she cried. “I don’t want to be anybody’s wife.”
“Why should I want to spend the rest of my life mating someone else’s socks?”
“Is that what wives are for?” he asked, and glanced down at his feet.
One was dressed in black, the other in dark green.
“Damn!” he said. “Maybe it’s time I get married.”
* * *
Maggie thought a lot that night about Malcolm Ingstrom and what he had to offer her as a future husband. It was plenty, more than most girls would ever dream of, and she really did like him. She liked him a lot. She must like him a lot, or she wouldn’t even be thinking about the possibility of marrying him.
And that’s when she realized that what she’d told her brother that day had not been entirely true. It was true that she didn’t want to marry Malcolm, but it was not necessarily true that she would never want to marry anyone. She didn’t want to marry Malcolm because she wasn’t in love with him and didn’t think she ever could be. But if there were a man she could be in love with, and if she were ever so fortunate as to meet him, then wouldn’t she want to marry him in spite of everything? Wouldn’t she be willing to risk both physical and emotional trauma in order to experience the joy such a love might bring her?
She wasn’t sure. She thought of Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights that she had read when she was twelve and yearned for that age of innocence again. How much simpler to experience the agony and the ecstasy, the mental anguish and sexual torment, the physical tortures and romantic raptures through the medium of fiction rather than trying to deal with them amidst the aggravation and tedium of normal, everyday life.
Still, there was something to be said for the real thing, she supposed as she picked up the book by her bed and escaped with Gene and Finny into A Separate Peace.
* * *
Maggie decided to take Finny’s advice and pray that night, even though it was no longer her custom.
“Dear God,” she prayed, “please let my heroes and heroines enjoy it, even if they’re not married. And please, God, let there be a hero for me. I think perhaps I could bear it if only he were a true hero.”
* * *
Now, six months later and an eternity away in an old farm house in Oxford, Maggie once again knelt by her bed.
“Dear God,” she prayed, “remember when I asked you to find me a hero? I meant a live one. Just wanted to make that clear. In the meantime, I promise to write Ashley at least twice a week until I see him again, and I promise you, Lord, that if you do send him back to me, I will never, ever take him for granted. Amen.”
It was not until she had wandered into the kitchen to prepare supper that she found his letter to her. It was written on yellow legal paper, probably torn from her tablet in the study, and lay in wait on the kitchen table. Maggie picked up the letter, sat in the chair where he had so recently sat, and read:
Thank you for the tea. I enjoyed it immensely. And while it pleases my sense of chivalry to think that I rescued you today, we both know that it was you who rescued me. I thank you for that as well.
Maggie, please know that I would never willingly lie to you, but I have a long history of lying by omission. It has served me well in the past and no doubt will do so again, but I feel that it is inappropriate here, and so I want to set the record straight:
1) I did not grow up in Scandinavia; I grew up in a small farming community known as Denmark, Mississippi.
2) I do have more than one passport: one from the United States and one from the Coral Isles. They are both legitimate as I have dual citizenship.
3) I do have three names: a first, a middle, and a last. Ashley is my first.
4) The people I was hiding from today are popularly known as The Press. (Yes, I saw them sticking their heads out of the studio where our beloved journalism prof no doubt had stashed them after promising me that no photos of me would be taken at the opening today.) If they had found me I have no doubt that they would indeed have shot me, but only with their cameras. The Press can be an ugly beast – mea culpa – but it may also be our last hope for saving the world. Your joining the ranks is a good sign that it is at least headed in the right direction.
Write to me, Maggie. And remember: I will always be…
Ashley G. Robertson
© 2016 Ann Henry, all rights reserved.