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Jane Vandenburgh Headshot

Acclerated Females

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New millennium fast approaching, hot new wind from behind and on it the song that was our urgency, but what was startling now was that when a couple split it was almost always the wife doing the leaving.

Wife gone, husband left stumbling bewildered around in dim rooms of echo-y houses, tripping over all those discouraging packing boxes, half-emptied or half full, who could ever tell?

Husbands left, possessing the only-one Adirondack chair and hiding from her, out of spite, important tools to the vacuum cleaner and why shouldn't he? why be large when you're made to feel not just small but humiliated, as the ruin of anything into which you've put so much work and love and trust will make you feel?

Because a marriage, any marriage -- good, bad, disastrous -- has its own tacit dances and sacred codes, shorthand, holiday recipes, its shopping list.

A marriage -- like a planet -- must be big enough to be round and so encompasses an entire population of past and current friends, colleagues, family members, including your soon-to-be ex-in-laws who've always secretly liked you better than they do their own crappy offspring who's just broken everyone's heart by dumping you.

In his recently re-published book of beautiful poems, Wendell Berry calls this The Country of Marriage.

The country of marriage in which I live contains one citizen who believes Heinz ketchup to be a proper condiment for a taco while the other ponders, all these years on, where the hell that comes from, some marriage concocted long ago in some far distant galaxy?

And unlike San Francisco, where you live when you're glamorously young and single, the East Bay is such a determinedly coupled-up and child-rearing place that our best restaurants stop serving early as everyone must get home now to read to the little ones as they'll be up at dawn and so will we because we live in this place of glorious mornings and need to be out running our dogs on the hiking trails.

So with every other marriage in Berkeley going down, no one felt safe, as it was the strongest among us, those with means, those of sound mind and heart, the able-bodied, succumbing, as in the influenza pandemic of 1918 when it was folks in their childbearing years who were taken, leaving the very old to raise the very young.

Now there were all these wan-faced doomed-to-be-ex-husbands roaming the grocery aisles huge-eyed with wonder at all they never knew they didn't know.

How to make rice, for instance?

So if you were shopping for husbands in the late '80s, early '90s, you'd wander the rice aisle to find these highly successful mid-life guys, resumes thick with advanced degrees, staring through tiny readers at the directions on the back of the rice packages, completely flummoxed because the true secret to great rice is that it doesn't come in packages!

Because those of us with rice-mastery had taken our pastry-making tools, also the blurring whisks with which we made our perfect lemony hollandaise and we were out the door.

2013-06-09-DoorFourthStreetLorettaAyeroff.jpg

Door, Fourth Street, "For Raymond Chandler"
Copyright Loretta Ayeroff, 2009

We were out into those first bright moments when houses sold for a zillion dollars, cash out? split it? buy a sports car in a bad-ass color? money left for waxing? time share? personal trainer?

We left because we could, because we felt like it, because we wanted to follow the arc of our own interesting narrative, because we had a duty to our own happiness. We dyed our hair mahogany, had it cellophaned.

We had entered a new time, it was the Era of the Accelerated Female, a person none of us was entirely certain we had ever before encountered, as they were women yet they exhibited this man-like selfishness.

And all over town, it seemed, it was the same grand gesture, as if in this quiet little bookish place with its artsy, its meek, all those hovering at the fraying hems of the academy, together went out and got hip new Elvis Costello glasses and tight black jeans, seeing how this new Sexy Librarian look of ours so exactly fit how intelligent we were. We now lived under the overarching neon glow of self-imagined celebrity, our own Hollywood Sign, all high stakes, life-and-death theatrical, and who might play us in the movie to be made of these bright moments of our lives?

One gentle soul, a medical doctor, a large man who'd never intentionally hurt anyone, there in the street at the corner of Cedar and Shattuck right in front of Black Oak, found himself arguing with the former wife he'd seen by chance as she sat behind her steering wheel waiting for the light to change and as he was suddenly dragging her bodily through the car window -- a growing crowd politely looking on -- no one was more surprised than he.

Another friend, Cal professor married to Cal professor, rousted from his beautiful house in the hills, took to sleeping in the family Volvo parked in the drive as his soon-to-be-former wife was inside entertaining the much-younger graduate assistant she'd later defiantly marry.

Was it that the wives were leaving that caused the world to wobble? wives? women? mothers? they couldn't act like this, could they? kicking their current insufficient husband to the curb, then just blithely going out to shop for a better one? Was it No Fault Divorce or just that gunk that collects on the nose piece of your glasses just one day too frankly bothered me?

We were seething with all we'd lost, porous too to all that lay beyond the confines of our houses and the future beat towards us wave after wave as it does in great literature. We quit drinking, ran a marathon, took up smoking cigarettes as a New Year's Resolution. We'd turned gray-eyed with desire and would never feel this alive again.

By day we did our duty, zipping around town in our Mom-Mobiles hitting speed bumps at fifty, zooming up and down Marin in our Armored Urban Assault Vehicles at terrifying speeds with our wide-eyed kids only barely buckled in.

Forty was the new 30, the women of Berkeley its new men, by night the sky was lit with the tracers of our trajectory and it now seemed any one of us might be capable of anything.

Okay, Mom, our kids said, speaking out from the seats behind, now you're scaring me.