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Gail Joyner had been born in Detroit while Mason Prewitt was in high school on the west coast. Her name until she had gotten married had actually been Gail Marie Tindell. Her father, Charles Tindell – who was not receptive to being called Chuck or Charlie – worked as an engineer for one of the giant corporations that made cars. He and his wife, Dorothy, often talked at breakfast about the rising crime rate in Detroit, the congestion and pollution, the poor educational opportunities for their only child, and the way that all those things some how seemed to relate to what her father termed the “influx of jobless Negroes from the south.”
Although Gail was only four when they moved to Texas, the site of her father’s new job with the rapidly developing space industry, she had retained childhood memories from Detroit. She had seen on the streets of Detroit those black people whom her father identified from the driver’s seat of his locked and air-tight Chevrolet as “jobless Negroes.” For him, that description applied to all blacks. It didn’t matter that most of the Detroit blacks actually held jobs in the auto factories and that many of them had been born in the city where they still lived. Gail carried with her into adulthood an imprint of her father’s notion that black people did not work and were all displaced from the south. Her parents had moved to Texas because of Charles’ opinion that the Negroes there were a different kind who worked, were relatively responsible, and didn’t intimidate white people. Gail did not feel she was prejudiced in her regard for black people, only uncomfortable around them and conflicted by being imprinted by her father’s opinions.
She had grown up in Texas and liked it. Her father was stern, but he could also be generous and, most comforting of all, scheduled the family vacation at the same time every year – usually a trip to the gulf coast. As she approached adulthood and heard stories from other girls whose parents had split, she was comforted by her father’s apparent lack of interest in women other than his wife. Although there was a cold formality in her parents’ treatment of each other, Gail witnessed no arguments. In an era of unstable families, theirs was an anachronism. It was not particularly loving, but it held together like concrete in the face of an opinion commonly held by acquaintances that the Tindells were boring.
In adolescence Gail and her mother formed a closer bond as Dorothy Tindell tried to vicariously relive her own youth. In fact, Dorothy believed that her life was empty, that she had missed opportunities because of what she had not realized as a girl. At the root of her problems were men. They had never lived up to her expectations. She was not bitter toward them, because she was convinced that for the most part they were only misguided and self-deluded. From her own years of marriage she had decided that her particular talents had never been given an opportunity to develop. She did not have enough time to paint the landscapes that she enjoyed so much, and she was certain that with more devotion to her art she could have become good enough to exhibit. She had security, but she also had the usual chores of a housewife, which she believed had been imposed upon her by marriage and which had wasted her.
Sipping hot chocolate at midnight with Gail, then a high school student who had just returned from a date, the mother cautioned the daughter that men most often did not know what was good for them and never could make decisions that included any proper consideration for a woman. Men were self-centered because they couldn’t help it; it was up to women to help them around this defect.
Although Dorothy tried not to interfere with her daughter’s social life and her development into womanhood, she was pleased that Gail frequently sought out her opinions of boys. Dorothy never saw any of them as boys but rather as potential husbands, so she always bestowed her most favorable opinions on those she thought carried within them the promise of becoming the kind of man she would have married if she had known better – the best qualities being a combination of intelligence, ambition, parents who were wealthy and generous, a modest measure of sycophancy, and of course an absence of glaring physical defects. She encouraged Gail to distrust her passions because if she made the mistake of marrying for love or sex she would probably end up unhappy and eventually divorced. If she married for comfort, everything else would just fall into place. She managed to convey this philosophy in inoffensive words that to her did not sound cynical, even if they did sound a little bit regretful. As Dorothy had said on more than one occasion, “Things are the way they are. We want what we want. And all the love in the world won’t change any of that, especially after it goes away.”
“Do you love Dad?” Gail had once asked.
“Of course, dear. But it’s not the same kind of love that girls experience when they’re seventeen. It’s more…” she paused to think of the appropriate word, “… accommodating.”
“Did you ever wish you’d married someone else?”
It was a perceptive question. Although Dorothy did sometimes wish that she had, she assumed that all married women wished the same thing, which she did not expect her adolescent daughter to understand, any more than she might understand that sex is sometimes best done when one is alone.
Dorothy took care to avoid any betrayal of the girl’s father when she finally spoke her answer.
“Oh, I suppose there might have been other men who would have treated me as well as your father, and maybe at the same time been able to provide us with more comfort than his circumstances have permitted. But he’s done as well as he could for us, dear, and all the ‘what ifs’ in the world can’t make our lives any better today. Remember, he and I chose each other. No one made me marry him. At any given age we can’t know what we will learn as time passes. Hopefully what we learn will confirm the wisdom of our choices, but it doesn’t always work out that way.” It was an evasion, and the daughter instinctively pressed for more.
“Would you marry him today?”
Dorothy was pleased with the question. Even if Gail did not yet have all the answers, she was at least beginning to ask the right questions. “Oh, I should look for a millionaire today,” Dorothy said laughing; but they both knew she was serious.
As Gail matured she did not become a beautiful woman. She was better described as “attractive.” Her hair was a little on the wild side, her shoulders a touch too broad, her rump a little too prominent, her knees tending toward a knock. But she had beautiful eyes and a sweet smile that accented her apple cheeks. On the whole she was what most would regard as average, which her mother told her was a benefit because she would be less inclined to become vain from the attention of arrogant men who only wanted sex; and that could lead to pregnancy or to a mistake in choosing a marriage partner. Dorothy realized she had probably said too much.
“Do you think I’m attractive?” Gail once asked her mother after a date in high school with a guy she did not find appealing but who told her he wanted her. She wasn’t entirely sure what that expressed desire encompassed.
Dorothy answered carefully. “My observation has been that women who look average don’t get fooled as easily as the beauty queens and they are less inclined to become infatuated with their own looks. Males are drawn to appearance first, until they realize the female has something better and more substantial to offer, assuming she does. Some of the best looking females are empty shells. It doesn’t take most men long to figure that out. Then they either exploit or exit.”
If divorce defines one’s marriage as a mistake, then that is what had happened to Gail despite her average looks and all of her mother’s warnings. Afterwards, with more maternal counsel, she decided that her marriage had failed because she had done that one thing that obscured good judgment – she had married because she thought she loved Mark Joyner, without sufficient attention to other, more practical considerations. He was handsome, he had appealing friends who admired him, and he treated her courteously most of the time. He was what “help wanted” ads referred to as a junior executive, manager of a branch location for a paint store.
He was the first male with whom she had any sustained sexual relationship. While they were dating he had been routinely aggressive, settling his hand over her breast when they kissed goodnight the first night, then inside her blouse on the second date, and inside her pants on the third occasion, although she would not let him have intercourse until the fifth time they dated, after which it became a relatively routine event. She had experienced sex before, never more than twice with the same person, and regarded it as a messy obligation. Men seemed quick and brutish in sex and did not give her orgasms except a few times by hand. Mark was not really any different in that regard while they dated, but since she didn’t expect him to be and was not overly influenced by her own sexual desires and had never had any experience with any male who was much better than Mark, she didn’t really care. There was something about him that she loved. He fit some preconceived image of the kind of man who would suit her, and that was enough.
After they were married, sex not only did not improve but actually got worse. In about the sixth month Mark began to have problems staying erect, which quickly progressed into an inability to even get erect initially. He induced her to try oral sex, which she loathed but acceded to it as an emergency remedy to his problem, and that seemed to work for him but gave her no pleasure at all and consequently resulted in strained relations.
One month they had sex only once. About a week later she awoke after they had retired and discovered that she was alone. She slipped out of bed and found the light on in the bathroom and the door not completely closed. Thinking that Mark might be sick, she pushed the door open the rest of the way.
“Shut the door!” he yelled at her, and she quickly pulled it all the way shut, too late to avoid an image as glaringly persistent as the unexpected brilliance of a flashbulb – Mark sitting on the edge of the bathtub, his legs straight out in front of him, his pajama bottoms crumpled on the floor and his hand pumping a stunning erection.
She was overwhelmed with a variety of emotions, shock because she thought that self-indulgence always ceased after marriage, embarrassment because she had seen something intensely private, self-doubt arising from her concern that she may have failed him in a way that drove him into his current state, and even a bit of fear that she might have married a pervert. He gave her enough time to fall asleep before he got back in bed, lying near the edge, facing away from her. When he didn’t speak, she did.
“What were you doing?”
She wanted to give him the opportunity to present her with a credible explanation. She needed to hear something that explained away what she thought she had witnessed.
“Nothing. Go to sleep.”
After a few minutes she decided that his silence was an affront to her that she could not ignore. She had never been reluctant to assert her displeasure over something that impacted her and was not her fault. “Why were you doing that?”
“Maybe if I got more out of you I wouldn’t have to,” he said and moved even further across the bed away from her at the risk of falling on the floor.
“Me?” She said indignantly. “I’m not the one who has trouble functioning and won’t see a doctor or somebody about it.”
“I function fine when I’m interested.” Those were his last words that night. She asked more questions and made a few more comments, none of which got a response, until he finally left their bed to finish the night on the sofa.
The unexpected collapse of their relationship fed the worst doubts and uncertainties of both of them, so that in ensuing months he became more insecure and she became more intractable. This later led to a terrible impasse of about two months during which they did not even attempt to say a pleasant word to one another. After that they both mellowed but still didn’t recover any intimacy. She didn’t want a failed marriage and she offered herself to him a few times, thinking that he might become interested enough for them to try again. But it didn’t happen.
They reached a common impasse. He was afraid to move out, thus acknowledging that he and the marriage he had undertaken were failures; and she was too stubborn to leave, convinced that the cause of their problems lay entirely with him.
When her mother, witnessing the sullen atmosphere that had descended upon the young couple, became convinced that her daughter’s marriage was not salvageable she watched for an opportunity to again provide Gail with advice. And when Gail seemed ready, Dorothy told her that it was time to kick Mark out. It did not surprise the mother that Gail’s marriage had come to this. Rather than gloating on the accuracy of her assessment of love matches, Dorothy consoled her daughter with the intimate companionship that only mutual victims can share. The separation from Mark and subsequent divorce went relatively smoothly.
Imagining that her divorce was a starting point instead of an ending, Gail resolved to move to the west coast and to pay more heed to her mother’s advice. Having been through a marriage, even if it had lasted only sixteen months, she now saw a greater degree of wisdom in her mother’s words. She could only wonder how she had overlooked that before.
She went by car, a little Fiat sports car she had bought with some of the settlement from the divorce and which she always drove over the speed limit. She carried only a few necessities, primarily favorite clothes, planning to buy new things with the rest of the divorce money and the income from the job she planned to get as soon as she was settled somewhere. She was 26 when she met Mason. She had gotten a job and had signed a contract on a condominium. Her mother had told her over the phone only a week earlier that it sounded as though she had regained her balance. Everything was back to normal.
She liked Mason from their first encounter. Her original assessment was that he was handsome, had money – judging by his clothes and his Heuer watch with its multiple dials – and he was at the same time noticeably shy and conspicuously outrageous. It was this latter quality that confused her, as she quickly discovered that she could not tell when he was teasing her and when he was serious. At least he always identified the joking as soon as he saw that she had been taken in by it again.
From the beginning, she was also suspicious of him. He seemed to encourage it with his absurd lies – for instance, once briefly convincing her that he had been a priest – but it was their difference in ages that initially aroused concern that he was outside her own experience, causing her to feel uncomfortably vulnerable. Why wasn’t a man in his late forties happily married and staying home instead of attending parties and meeting a girl almost twenty years younger? Was he too old to be anything but irrevocably self-centered? Despite her doubts, she felt the capacity to come to know him in ways that all men were knowable, to love him, to inspire his love. She immediately recognized that he wanted to be loved, and she was prepared to give him that while emphasizing a sense of reciprocal obligation. It was something she had learned – from her mother and from former husband Mark Joyner. Rule number one was to find a man who had something to give; the second rule was to teach him that he could not ignore or exploit women. Gail reasoned that love would flow naturally from application of these rules.
Perhaps more than she could admit, she was flattered by his attention, regarding him and his occupations as the same thing. He was a lawyer, a college professor, and a municipal court judge. She regarded those as prestigious professions. Beyond that, he was confident in sex, he smoked a little dope, and he drank. Altogether he was fun. It was easy for her to fall in love with him. But she waited to tell him until she had coaxed him into making an initial declaration of his own, thus denying him the opportunity later to dismiss his words as being only an agreeable response to hers. It was what she regarded as the “you first” principle.
“That was very nice,” she told him after he had settled down beside her again. They were in her bed.
“Did you think so?”
“I thought it was great.”
She rolled on her side to face him and ran a finger through the hair on his chest. It was mid-summer. She had been dating him for about two months and they had begun sleeping together after about three weeks, despite his earlier requests.
“I had to feel right about it,” she reminded him.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” she shrugged coyly. “I guess I’ve always figured that sex was supposed to be saved for really serious relationships. I see it as a kind of commitment. If people do it too casually then it doesn’t mean much anymore. Don’t you think so?”
“Do you think we’re serious enough?” He sounded a little hurt.
“I guess so. But I’m not sure. Maybe we’re going too fast. I only met you two months ago. I suppose I’m a little suspicious of men. Remember, I’ve been married and I’ve dated a few guys. I’m really not sure what you think of me.” She waited for him to construct his response.
“You know I really like you, Gail. You don’t have any doubt about that, do you?”
She pouted a little and took a deep breath. “No, not that you like me. I guess I can see that.” She rolled away from him, onto her side so he could not see her face. A minute passed before he broke the silence.
“Hey, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she muttered. “Just a little disappointment. But I think I’m getting used to it.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “Did I say something?”
She rolled back toward him and studied his face for a few moments before answering. “No,” she said. There were tears in her eyes, arising from the thought that she might have misunderstood him and maybe should give him up, move on with her life. When she saw the tears that also glistened in his eyes, her doubts evaporated and she decided she had been right about him all along.
He hugged her to his chest. “I love you,” he whispered.
And there it was, successfully extracted from his mouth, as resistant as a molar to a dentist’s efforts to pull it. Out at last, palpable, something small but stony hard.
She felt a need to reinforce his commitment.
“You do? I mean you don’t have to just say that or anything else.”
“No, I really do.” he was laughing. They were both laughing. “I guess I can’t help it.”
“Wow. I guess I love you too. You’re so great, Mason.” They hugged and kissed and she brought in a bottle of California champagne. After they toasted each other and drank half the bottle they made love again. Mason noticed that Gail was more sexually responsive than she had ever been.
He was proud. He had done the right thing. Perhaps he was still capable of leading a moral, loving life. It surprised him. He had thought that the last remnants of righteousness had been burned out of his soul, but here was this Texas belle causing him to adjust his self-image. He might be useful. He might be altruistic. He might be loved.
She was strong. And with only slight trepidation, he decided that he liked that quality.
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