What I’d Been Afraid Of

What I’d Been Afraid Of

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Alice Mattison is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Mattison’s novel The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman. 

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Someone I stopped knowing many times was the man I eventually married, Pekko Roberts. Pekko is a New Haven native, a noticeable man in his sixties: sturdy, white-haired, with a big, white beard he brushes daily and a tidy but prominent belly. More often than not, I broke up with him when we had dated for a few months and were talking about living together. I don’t know why I kept leaving him, since I claimed to be tired of being single, and pointed out to myself that a variety of partners isn’t inherent to the pleasures of sex. Pekko was in love with me, which made me a little restless, but he wasn’t so in love that he couldn’t see my faults, about which he was frank. “Daisy, you’re not making sense,” he’d say when I wasn’t; I’d get angry. He wasn’t imaginative in bed, but sex with Pekko made me happy; with him, I didn’t experience what often took place after sex with other men: a half hour of dismay, even loathing, about my middle-aged body, my habits, my friends, the way I lived my life. I could talk myself out of that unexplained despair, but with Pekko it didn’t come. He was moody and often silent, gruff but not unkind; he knew himself well enough not to blame others for his bad days. His caring—about me, about others—might be expressed in grunts, but I never doubted it. He was a lake I could swim in, in which the drop-offs and rocks were what they were, but the water was clean and not too cold, and there was intense pleasure to be found by swimming out to the center, turning on my back, and closing my eyes in the sun, whatever that means in terms of a guy.

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Four years ago, in 1998, Pekko and I bought a house together in Goatville, a nineteenth-century New Haven neighborhood of small houses with steep roofs and long, skinny backyards, where dogs bark through chain-link fences. (We also bought a dog, a standard poodle called Arthur: a dog should be able to pronounce his own name.) The narrow two- and three-story houses on our block look like kindergarten drawings. It’s a cityscape best seen in winter twilight, when the peaked roofs of different heights are scribbled over by the bare branches of maples, oaks, and sycamores. Our house isn’t covered with ugly aluminum siding, like some, and after many discussions, we had it painted light gray with dark and light blue trim. Pekko said the color scheme was fussy.

So we lived together, and even held an offhand wedding. We tried to control our exuberant young dog, and we talked about our house, Arthur, our experiment in not breaking up, more than we talked about what we each did when we weren’t together. I didn’t mind Pekko’s moods as much as I’d expected to. Sometimes I’d suddenly feel alone again, but I’d never minded being alone; it was restful. I established moods of my own.

What I did when we were apart was teach, with decreasing interest. Then one day, I stopped my car at a traffic light next to a red Audi driven by a young woman. The entire backseat and front passenger seat were filled with paper—old newspapers and mail from the look of it—all the way to the bottoms of the windows. I couldn’t stop thinking about that car, and a week later, when I saw the Audi parked not far from where I live, I taped a note to the windshield. “I’m expensive,” I wrote, as if I’d done this before, “but I can help.” The clutter stopped at the windows: the owner liked light, not darkness, and was cautious and disciplined enough to observe some limits. She called me, I figured out what to do, and it worked.

This was work I couldn’t stop talking about at home. I was non-threatening, I explained to Pekko. Neither the owner of the Audi nor I had a driveway, so we moved the car to a parking lot and surrounded it with cartons. Only one was labeled “Keep.” Then we undertook a long process of sorting and deciding. I was so conservative, so hesitant, that after a while she became impatient—and nervous because I charged by the hour—and she threw away armloads.

“You like this,” said Pekko. “Quit your job and start a business.”

“How will I live?” I said, but I had stopped what I was doing—glancing at the paper in our kitchen—to think how much I’d like to have such a business.

“I make enough for both of us,” he said.

I was incredulous. “If you support me, you’ll start ordering me around. You’ll expect me to cook.”

“It’s an investment,” he said. “I don’t care if you cook. When you get rich, I’ll do something new, and you’ll support me.” Pekko had enough money, I was pretty sure, that he could do whatever he liked, whether I was rich or not. He’s had many businesses over the years. Now he buys and manages real estate in New Haven’s inner city.

(“You’re a slumlord?” I had said, when we got together after one of our gaps, and he described his new work.

“Without me they’d be homeless.”)

I liked teaching, but I’d had that job for decades—I was tired of it. Still, I’d never considered letting a man support me. “I’d be like a whore,” I said.

“What?”

“You’re offering me money for sex. You pay, I go to bed with you.”

Pekko sighed. “It’s different when you’re married,” he said. Then he added, “I won’t make fun of you if you fail,” and I understood what I’d been afraid of.

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The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman by Alice Mattison
William Morrow, 2004
Where to buy: RJ Julia | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

© 2004 by Alice Mattison. Reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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