By Maile Meloy
Riverhead Books, 2009
The A.R. Ammons poem from which Maile Meloy borrows the title of her new collection of short stories appears – as does Meloy’s writing – straightforward at first:
Yet this simplicity, once probed, proves duplicitous. Consider it this way: had a but joined the two halves of the poem (i.e., one can’t have it both ways, but both ways is the only way I want it), the resulting sentiment would be clear enough. A truth is spoken; the opposing desire is expressed; the but signals acceptance of the fact that truth will win out over desire.
But this simple word and – what are we to make of it?
The poem itself, because of this and, knows it can’t have it both ways and will always want it both ways. You can’t have it both ways…but can you?
Because what Meloy is singularly skilled in is articulating the simultaneous acknowledgment of a desire contrary to plausibility and the desire – deep, unrelenting, maddening, painful – for the fulfillment of that desire. Rather, situations, characters, even life itself hang poised above this and in her stories. The stories could easily frustrate a reader in their resistance to narrative and emotional resolution, yet Meloy’s simple, unhurried, at times plaintive writing leave one pensive more than anything else. How do we ourselves deal with this and?
Consider “The Children,” the story in the collection in which the poem makes an appearance. Fielding arrives at his lake house – in anticipation of the later arrival of his wife Raye and adult son Gavin – to find Jennie Taylor, a young friend of the family the age of his lately-out-of-college daughter, waiting for him. “You’re leaving Raye,” Jennie announces.
“Does it show?” he asked.
Jennie smiled. “I’ve known you since I was born,” she said. “You think that means you know me inside out, but really it means I know you.”
“Does my family know I’m leaving?” he asked her now.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It was my mother who saw you. In a car, with a girl. She asked me if she should tell Raye. I told her not to.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“My mom kept telling me it was my swimming teacher. That really upset her.”
“She hasn’t been that for years.”
“Is that what you tell yourself?” she asked. “Does it help?”
“I’m not doing this lightly,” he said.
Enter Raye, exit Jennie, enter Fielding’s and. Fielding has, indeed, been planning to leave Raye for the much younger former-swimming-teacher Eleanor, but in the company of his wife, his doubts don’t so much crowd in as hover on the very edges of things. Fielding and Raye, after dinner, relax on deck chairs outside, and Raye (who, it becomes clear, knows nothing of Raye’s adultery) mentions she has that afternoon run into Eleanor; Fielding’s worries manifest themselves:
Why hadn’t Eleanor called him the second she escaped the conversation? He wondered if seeing Raye in person had been too much reality, if it had made her rethink stealing Raye’s husband. Or if she had only been waiting for him to hear about it. He wanted to jump up from the deck chair and call her now; it was agony to be still.
“She had a spark,” Raye said, musingly. “I mean, she’s too old for Gavin, of course. She had great tits, my God.”
“She doesn’t anymore?” he asked. Almost anything he said might be held against him later on: anything that suggested that he hadn’t seen Eleanor could be construed as an outright lie. He had not expected to be talking about her tits.
Does Fielding worry about discovery? Does he worry about feeling guilty about leaving his partner of many years? Does he worry about what the children will think of him? Does he worry if Eleanor will change her mind? Yes and no to all these questions. In the dark, on the deck, Raye looks like herself, thirty years ago:
[A] lanky, tender college girl, the wanton defender of the poor. Three minutes ago he had been desperate to call Eleanor, to dissect her conversation with his wife, but now he had settled back into the habit of his marriage, of talking in the dark about the children, of his wife’s expert hands. He tried to determine if he was paralyzed with indecision or only mired in comfort.
It is remarkably easy for Fielding both to mire himself in comfort and to paralyze himself with indecision. The natural love of his wife and family seem neither more nor less attractive than his desire for the younger Eleanor. His mind drifts to “[t]he sweetness of lying against [Eleanor’s] bare shoulder, the softness of everything about her.” Fielding and Eleanor had recently crossed paths at a hardware store; the second time they meet at a diner where they’d be unlikely to be recognized. Meloy effortlessly sketches the very sweetness of this moment:
When [Eleanor’s] embarrassment seemed to have reached a peak, with the waitress coming by and the big glass door opening every few minutes, when she was practically vibrating with nervousness, he sad that he had a house at the lake that was empty and quiet, and they could go have a drink there. They went, and once they were all alone, all her anxiety was gone. He had been so happy, with her lying naked and safe in his arms. All he wanted was to preserve that feeling, of the two of them alone together, and make all obstacles to it go away.
The story seems reluctant to pass judgment on Fielding, either to condemn him or to sympathize with him, for the very reason that Fielding’s affection can be so swiftly redirected – rather, not so much swiftly as ambiguously redirected. He is doomed, he knows,
to ambivalence and desire. A braver man, or a more cowardly one, would simply flee. A happier or more complacent man would stay and revel in the familiar, wrap it around him like an old bathrobe. He seemed to be none of those things, and could only deceive the people he loved, and then disappoint them, and worry them when they saw through him. There was a poem Meg had brought home from college, with the line “Both ways is the only way I want it.” The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?
It had started to grow cold, on the deck. The stars were impossibly clear. The bats were out in force. He held his wife and felt himself anchored to everything that was safe and sure, and kept for himself the knowledge of how quickly he could let it go and drift free.
What kind of fool would only want it one way? What kind of fool would ignore the and that makes us, as Fielding, both guilty and giddy? That holds us both to ambivalence and desire?
|Certainly no fools in Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. In “Two-Step” (in a plot twist that Meloy doesn’t make much of an attempt to bury), Naomi comforts her friend Alice, who is pregnant and afraid her husband – whose name is rather tellingly never revealed – is cheating on her. “We used to do this thing,” Alice tells Naomi, “we would dance a little two-step, to make up, any time we had a disagreement. We did it in the grocery store, and at people’s houses. They must have thought it was so obnoxious. But the dancing dissolved the fight, it meant we could never stay mad.”
Alice has good reason for her fears: for example, her husband left his wife for Alice just after that wife had given birth. Alice tells Naomi she’d called this ex-wife for advice:
“She wasn’t very compassionate – I mean, obviously. I don’t know what I was thinking. She asked me if I thought I was so special that I could change him, and make him faithful. She said she was still breast-feeding their baby when he left her, so she had trouble feeling very sorry for me. And she said he’s a pathological narcissist, and would leave whenever he felt like it.”
Naomi takes this news as impassively as she is able – for, it transpires, she’s the one having the affair with Alice’s husband, who will soon leave Alice for her. Enter the husband, sweaty from the gym. With Naomi standing by, Alice begs to be told what’s going on; nothing, replies the husband, except that they are having a baby:
“A baby,” Alice said plaintively, and she reached for him again. This time he conceded, and took his wife in his sweaty, sweatshirted arms, and they started to dance. He steered her toward the refrigerator with a little hitch in their glide, then toward the dishwasher. She looked as pleased as a child as he spun her around and brought her back in. Then they headed back across the kitchen floor as if they had always been dancing like this, and always would be, and anything else was only a vivid hallucination.
Oh, Naomi, we might want to say to her at this point, you’re a smart enough woman to know that this is the sort of man who will always want to have it both ways. Yet when she slips out of the kitchen, away from the dancing couple, it is to go to sleep and to wait in Alice’s husband’s car. “He wasn’t going to dance with Alice all night,” she reasons.
“Two-Step” could easily be the same story as “The Children,” simply viewed from the other end of the looking-glass – we see in the first the anguish of women, and in the second the ambivalence and desire of the man who is the cause of their suffering. It is, weirdly, the men in Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It who want it both ways. The wanting even manifests itself physically. For example, in an unsettling scene in “Red from Green,” a teenage girl has an almost-sexual encounter with an older man; she observes that his eyes are “cloudy and intent, focused and unfocused, and she’d never seen a man look that way before.” The women, though they may, as Naomi and Eleanor, transgress as easily as the men, nonetheless realize one can’t have it both ways: they are willing to sacrifice, to be responsible, to be realistic.
Some of the women in Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, one could argue, exist solely as sacrificial-responsible-realistic foils for the ands of the men. In “The Girlfriend,” Leo questions Sasha, the girlfriend of Troy Grayling, the man who has raped and killed Leo’s daughter Emily. Grayling has been, after a two-week trial, given a guilty verdict. Leo and his wife Helen had gone to the courtroom every day:
Each morning in the gallery, confronted with the blank, mildly surprised look on Troy Grayling’s face, Leo thought about charging the defense table and prying the young man’s eyeballs out of his skull with a ballpoint pen. Or of bringing a knife in Helen’s expensive handbag, which no one ever searched, to draw across Grayling’s throat: the satisfying pop of the trachea, the sudden flow of blood. No conviction could be satisfying like that. He had touched his own throat during the testimony, feeling for the right spot.
Leo, despite his un-ambivalent urges in the courtroom, nevertheless expresses tortured ambivalence when confronted with Sasha. What Leo appears to want – and equally, not to want – are the details of his daughter’s death, and the reason behind it. His daughter had been house-sitting in Montana, and had been on the phone with her father, when suddenly she had stopped, said “Give Angela my love,” and hung up. Leo had immediately realized something was amiss (neither he nor his daughter knew anyone by the name of Angela) and called the cops – who, days later, found his daughter’s body in a tunnel in the mountains.
(This story is one of the weaker in the book: Meloy doesn’t bother with explaining how Leo has stopped himself from acting upon this particular un-ambivalent desire, for example. And the point of Leo’s questions to the girlfriend is never entirely clear – he wants to know how old Sasha was when she first slept with Grayling, what sorts of things Grayling liked to do in his spare time. Leo’s yearning for very physical vengeance seems difficult to reconcile with his interest in humanizing the object of his vengeance.)
And what Leo appears to want – and equally, not to want – are the details of his daughter’s death, and the reason behind it. His daughter had been house-sitting in Montana, and had been on the phone with her father, when suddenly she had stopped, said “Give Angela my love,” and hung up. Leo had immediately realized something was amiss (neither he nor his daughter knew anyone by the name of Angela) and called the cops – who, days later, found his daughter’s body in a tunnel in the mountains.
Perhaps, he thinks as he questions Sasha, he might have intervened in some way:
If he had objected to Emily’s house-sitting in a remote house. If he had tried to keep her on the East Coast for college. If they hadn’t sent her at fifteen to the outdoor course in Wyoming that convinced her to want bigness, ruralness, westernness. Leo designed sky-blocking office buildings for a living, and wondered if forestry was a direct challenge to him. But he had loved her adventurousness, amazed that he and quiet Helen…could produce such a fearless girl.
But what Sasha reveals makes the prospect of Leo’s part in his daughter’s death horribly clear. As Sasha explains, Grayling had abducted Emily to rape her and then was planning to return her to the house when he saw the police cars, panicked, and drove Emily off to kill her. Leo realizes “he had cracked Emily’s code, he had called the cops, and he had killed her.” This realization weighs heavily on his soul: “Ignorance had been bad, but it had been infinitely better than this.” Leo’s and, his desire to know and not to know his daughter’s end, is a torment – here is a kind of fool who does not want it both ways, but has both ways thrust upon him.
Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, despite its seeming austerity, has its moments of lightness, too. “Spy Vs. Spy” chronicles a fraught holiday skiing trip in which two brothers come to emotional and intensely physical blows. Aaron, an orthopedist and the older more grounded brother, is invited with his family to a ski resort by George, the more wayward of the two. Aaron seethes at what his brother’s apparent disdain for family life, and at George’s chummy familiarity with Aaron’s college-aged daughter. As they ascend a mountain on a ski lift, Aaron ponders how he, too, might have it both ways:
Aaron imagined taking his brother’s parka in his hands and swinging him forward off the chairlift. He was strong enough, and had surprise on his side. They hadn’t brought down the safety bar over their legs. The only danger would be George pulling Aaron down with him. Aaron might break a leg, tear an ACL, become one of the miserable patients he saw every day, facing the loss of their mobility and their youth. He could be arrested, even. But at least it would all be over between them, no more attempts at family vacations, no faked brotherly love.
Naturally Aaron doesn’t through his brother off the chairlift – but he and George do undergo a cathartic tumble down the slopes and end up licking their wounds, being tended to by their respective partners, and sipping spiked coffee. “We should do this next year,” George concludes. “We should do this every year.”
True, a fistfight wouldn’t normally appear to be a ray of levity – and I don’t want to suggest that reading Meloy’s writing is so soul-exhausting that the prospect of arguing brothers is good for a laugh. But while Meloy deals with hefty issues (the death of a best friend, adultery, murder), she does so with a deft hand. One feels the weight of the stories really only after reading them, only after wondering about Ammons’ and. I sped through them quickly, eagerly, even greedily, because there’s a certain fascination to be had with peering into domestic tragedies, major and minor. Meloy’s prose is clever and tidy, and her stories motor along.
Perhaps I myself wouldn’t want it both ways – I certainly recognize I can’t have it so – but I found a voyeuristic pleasure in watching other people suffer through the ambiguity. That, at least, was the way I wanted it.
Lianne Habinek is an Assistant Professor of English at Bard College and a long-time Open Letters contributor.