I keep a note on my iPhone of passages I like. Passages from writers such as Junot Diaz, Mary McCarthy, John Green, Ann Beattie. Quite a few people. (An aside: I initially typed “like” instead of “such as” two sentences ago — my senior thesis adviser once told me “like” was lazy. Is that true? I’m not sure. But I make myself change it every time.) But for whatever reason, in the last couple of months, I haven’t picked up books whose sentences ache for transcription. That’s not to say I haven’t read some great books — At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard is one my favorite things I’ve read this year — but nothing so lyrically startling as to merit copy in the proverbial iPhone note.
That changed the other day. I was at Kramerbooks on Sunday afternoon — my little ritual — and found a great passage in Marry Me by John Updike. This is the first novel of his that I’ve read. I’ve always liked his short stories and I decided to try something longer. I am 121 pages in and there is a lot to love. Like this bit on 81: “‘Ruthie,’ Martha would sigh, ‘you’re a magical girl but the world’s going to do you in. You don’t fear the right things.’ The more dire the pronouncement, the more cherished Ruth had felt.” I nearly gasped at that line. How true. We’re silently thrilled when others diagnose us as harboring some darkness, some destructive tendency, one that very likely escaped unnoticed to ourselves. It means they’ve taken the time to look for, and understand, those dark parts, deciding to call us magical in spite of them. And isn’t that what it means to be cherished? Seen?
I don’t think I quite understood this until reading it here. I’m just angry Updike didn’t continue. Tell me more about who I am, I wish I could have badgered as he wrote this.
Anyway! I began this post for a different reason. In the process of copying this down in my iPhone, I was reminded of the other dazzling passages I’ve come across in the last two years, when I began this note. One always stands out, and I want to share it here with you:
Everywhere you find us — and somehow it is long ago and now all at the same moment. Only Virginia Woolf knew exactly this.
I just wanted to tell you this — and to say that I try very hard here not to be unhappy. As we should be fulfilling these dreams of our youth together. You see, my dear, I do love you very much, and I will always. I am desperately sorry for what life has done to us — but at the core of all my joy here is our joint young ghosts — and sometimes it is too much. I can never even have the somewhat dubious solace of saying, “Why did this happen to us?” for I know. Well, now I feel better—but it was too awful for a moment jumping out of a taxi in Clarence Terrace right into a July fourteen years ago. I can even remember what you wore. Good night my darling, sweet, pig-headed boy. Maybe in our next lives we will be wiser.
Leo Lerman wrote this letter to his ex-lover, Richard Hunter, in January 1951. He was in London, with the partner he would stay with until his death, Gray Foy. Lerman was a Manhattan magazine writer and something of a social prince. He was a contributing editor for Mademoiselle until 1974. (What a magazine, yes? A discussion for another time.)
I read this and understand why nostalgia was deemed a disorder from 1688 into the twentieth century. I suppose we all know that fact—if not literally, then at least latently. Nostalgia hurts, and no sane person should crave it. You feel that here. Jumping out of a taxi…right into a July fourteen years ago—doesn’t that make your throat tighten? We’ve all jumped out of taxis into moments years before, and God, if it isn’t wrenching. Because for just one second we believe we are back in that singular, solitary moment, that we’ve received a second chance to rewrite the script. To preserve whatever it was that we so long for today.
What aches in this letter furthermore is what’s left unsaid. For I know what happened to us, he writes. What? I wish I knew. It seems strange to me that things can happen, things so insurmountable, such that two people who clearly still long for each other cannot be together. But then again, as with most things, I am young.
Anyway, goodnight. I hope your Monday was lovely. I hope your Tuesday is even lovelier.
Yours, as ever,