The village is situated in an odd enough configuration of the natural landscape to have fostered, over the four or five generations of our existence, a unique culture even as we've been able to coexist quite happily, and without inordinate self-consciousness, with other communities in the region. Many of us commute for work long distances to nearby cities, not suffering conflict or value clashes with the people we encounter. There's no particular taboo against disclosure, no fear that by openly talking about our distinctive approach to love, sex and marriage, we will bring the wrath of the outside world down upon us. There isn't even so much as a tacit prohibition of such disclosure.
Yet, as a matter of civic discretion, a collective preference for keeping our own counsel, we simply don't talk much about ourselves. We're not a cult. We just don't instinctively seek coverage in the Sunday supplements.
It's a fairly prosperous community, founded rapidly in the wake of area-based corporate growth. The valley is a perfect setting for long ranch-style homes, yet limited acreage for building, and the concourse of land narrowly sandwiched between the mountains that define our borders, have meant virtually no commercial development other than a minimal scattering of grocery stores, convenience shops, and gas stations. We don't even buy our clothes locally.
Over the years some families have moved out. Other families that moved in gradually became very much a part of us. But a few who live here aren't even aware that this community is unique. At least I see no evidence that they're aware.
The valley is so placid, so utterly green in the spring, and noiselessly brown in autumn—winters sheltered by the mountains, without much snow or bluster—that it may be said to have had a churning effect on us emotionally. Once we return home from wherever our work or outside obligations or relationships take us, we confront such a palpable quietude that people actually talk about it. We talk about it as of a commonly vouchsafed beneficence. How about the quiet today, I'll say to my neighbor. And the air's really clear, he'll respond in kind, as if the air here is ever anything but. Consequently, we look to love for the turbulence our environment denies us.
For as long as I've been alive, marriage here has been intensely, passionately sanctioned. Most of the adults over thirty are married and a majority of those in their mid- to upper-twenties are too. In this community, husbands and wives take their vows very seriously. But adultery is commensurately venerated, or at least a sense of awe surrounds serious intimacy between a man and a woman when both supposedly belong to someone else. It fills us with dread and longing, you can feel it in the clean air, so much so that we have institutionalized both marriage and adultery—and have found the sacrament for both in language.
Not everyone here is particularly sophisticated. Yet we really are a community of poets in that words not only express our individual destinies, they are those destinies. That may sound like a grandiose thing to say about a community without a local college in over a hundred miles or even a bookstore selling works by poets other than Wordsworth or Robert Frost. But I think you'll understand my meaning when I describe just what power, affirmative at the altar and subversive later on, we allow language to have over us. I don't know how it happened, or how it became such a standard practice, especially since it's the sort of thing one would assume to be naturally clandestine, never shared at a communal level, but in this village men rename the married women they sleep with.
It may have started as a way to accentuate a relationship. Or maybe it began just playfully with a man calling his woman by some pet name, as a man anywhere might express his affection. But our words grew, they took on immense depth and design. People now openly refer to the renaming of certain women. In certain cases, those renames have become public. Sometimes husbands find out that their wives have been renamed, and sometimes they even learn what those renames are. If you don't think language is potent, I can tell you that there have been instances in my own lifetime when public disclosure led to high tragedy and low comedy.
To understand just how potent, understand how many ways the renaming can happen. During the act of lovemaking, a woman may use a word or words in a tone that especially delights her lover, and that will suggest a rename. Terry Campbell's wife went that way. "Lay me, lay me," she exhorted Jack Enright as he mounted her one night, so now her name is "Laid." At least that's the way Jack told it to Lou Riordan, who told it to me.
The urge to tell at least one other person, either the man's need to divulge or the woman's to confess, is very strong. In some cases, it's only male bragging rights. Often, though, it's much more. Often, there's a need to confirm love via second marriage rites. The confession is a definitive public utterance that supplants the original vow. A bold new reality is forged as a result.
By allowing the name to take root in the community, even if only one other person hears it, the lovers testify. What an undercurrent to our lives as well, that this ceremony of revelation may transpire in the fervid whispering of two close friends sitting alone together at a neighborhood barbeque or driving to work in the morning. Dave Flannery was helping me with my taxes the day he told me that he'd renamed Margie Quinn "Monkey Fuck."
Imagine, too, how charged a marriage celebration can be. In your world, it's not unusual for men to grope women, and for women to be less resistant, because the nature of the occasion as well as the champagne loosens their inhibitions. In our world, marriages trigger disclosure. When Joan Bell married young Sam Gilbert, Jim Hubbard called Arlene Parker by her rename, "Hot Box," right in front of everybody. Jack Parker was drunk on the dance floor at the time.
If a word or gasp or plea from the lady doesn't do the deed, some distinguishing physical characteristic may. Hot Box is apparently an example of that. Or, one common name palpably more emblematic of the woman may replace her given name. I knew a Jane who got renamed "Gertrude." Something about "Gertrude" did indeed better suggest the likely reality of that lady, hot and ungainly, in the throws of secret passion. Or, a man just picks a lovely word to be his beloved. After just a few months of marriage to Charlie Fitzpatrick, Yvonne was renamed "Dew Drop" by Jeff Baron.
In most societies, husbands and wives come to accept each other as the years go by, often very gracefully. It is, to be sure, a wisdom that comes from living. With that wisdom, however, much gets lost or is buried at the outset. Dangerous as our way can be, a fierceness of the heart never gets lost. Words preserve it.
Dangerous it can certainly be. Aaron Jay committed suicide with carbon monoxide after learning Julie had been renamed "Fuckpot" by Dan Kurstein. Julie left the community; Dan still lives here, but he keeps mainly to himself these days. It's too naked a life, really, when the whole world can grossly speculate on what your love must have been like with a woman you'd call "Fuckpot." It certainly casts some women in a startlingly different public light when, for example, the somewhat prim, very professional Marie Burgida was renamed "Bush." Jay Burgida is a gregarious sports enthusiast proud of his cars and two popular sons. He doesn't know we know.
Women who haven't been renamed are comfortable enough in our community. Many of them would be horrified at the thought of themselves transformed. A rather quaint by-product, though, is the close relationships that can develop between renamed women and others who know about them. My friends and I treat Bush a lot differently than we treated Marie Burgida. We joke with her, sometimes we're even a little bawdy with her. When Jay's around, we go back to the old way of relating.
There is, to be sure, constant danger of a slip-up. That too is part of what makes this community unique. Double entendres are a dangerous game many here like to play. At little Eddie McDevitt's first communion, with Jay Burgida standing right there, Mary Buchanan—who probably heard about the Burgidas from her husband Ralph, who no doubt got it from Bob Snider—mischievously complimented Marie on her hairdo.
Instances abound. Bob Marvin confirmed that John Sarley's wife was renamed but Bob obeys his friend's wishes and won't disclose the rename or identify the lover. He won't even say if he or John actually know those details. It's tough enough on Sarley, for his wife is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, at least by conventional standards. She's statuesque, her face a perfect mould from Botticelli. Long blond hair dances down her shoulders. How heart sickening, to lose such a one to the full play of another man's imagination. (Keith Norris readily admits he masturbates while conjuring up her image and then trying to guess the rename.)
There's a lot of texture to life in this valley. It may be from some instinctive fealty to the mystique of love, or at least acquiescence to the wicked will of language, that we actually have fewer divorces than the national average. Many of our husbands accept their fate. Some men may enjoy it. Others are too embarrassed to publicly acknowledge that their wives have been renamed. Yet, in the last analysis, I think there's a unique acceptance here of the bi-polarity of life, an unwillingness to tamper with elemental forces that could create such distinct marital and post-marital realms.
It's an odd world to include a church, which ours does. But Reverend Claypool is a very smart man, as anyone familiar with our community would have agreed listening to a sermon of his some months ago. "In the sin of Adam, we sinned all," he began, gently. "That, of course, means many things to many people. Usually, it means that Adam's weaknesses are our weaknesses because we have inherited his flaws, his tragic will to be disobedient. From that one sin in the Garden of Eden, all the carnal mishaps of mankind have flowed. So it is therefore our faith that only God, in the form of a man, could redeem the centuries-old sin by being crucified on Golgotha, the ancient place named for the skull of Adam himself."
Reverend Claypool paused as if to focus on a particularly germane message for this congregation. You always know with Claypool when he's about to say what he really wants to say. "But so much is contained in the life of Adam, and there's so much there to help people understand their own lives. We should look carefully at every facet of his experience, and Eve's, if we are to find in this one story the clues we need. I don't know of any story in the Bible, unless it is the story of the great second man, the new Adam renamed Jesus, that can tell us so much about ourselves."
He leaned forward at his pulpit, a spiritual guide, perhaps, but also a friend and member of the community. "What, for example, was Adam's life like before the fall? Well, his life was determined by his work. The great John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, and I've never known this to be a matter for dispute, that Adam's work was to name the things in Paradise. He was the first great biologist, the first Linnaeus, and also, it might be suggested, the first poet—for what does a poet do but describe in new ways the things that already exist?"
Claypool's eyes narrowed and a darker vision seemed to fill his voice without changing its kindly tone. "But, friends, what happens after the fall? What does the poet do then? He does many things. He laments his fate and begs forgiveness, and thus the spiritual work of the imagination finds a strange and disquieting harmony as the ongoing atonement of man sounds forth in song and prayer and verse."
A thrill of imminent recognition hovered among the pews. "But the great task must also begin again because Adam and Eve have been exiled east of Eden . . . and all the things that were are no more. The flowers are wilted because shame and guilt and blame are afoot. The devil is afoot. The buds and petals, the small lovely little creatures that knew no pain and death before now know pain and death.
"Adam, the namer of things, looks about him in that strange place east of Eden, and the old language he and Eve spoke before the fall has become a hollow and meaningless thing. Once again, though all the heavens groan with longing for the simpler, innocent life, Adam must let loose the torrent of his imagination, however soiled by time and tide, and find a new language, pregnant with love, by which to consecrate the world and the creatures that live in it. Adam the namer must begin anew . . ."
I renamed a woman once.
A man sometimes thinks of a woman's husband when choosing her a new name. Not always competition, a kind of intimacy may develop instead. Sad and sexy all at once, for instance, the way Phil Barlow renamed Sally Gunn, "Please." How Jared Gunn learned of it, and the self-acceptance he grew to, was all pathos and dignity. These days everyone calls her "Please," including Jared himself. There are other men who've acquiesced to such an extent that they refer to their wives by the names lovers have bestowed, but Gunn is the most poignant case I've heard about.
In my case, I hardly ever knew or thought about the husband. The woman I fell in love with was in her late 20s, married five years, a dark beauty with curly long hair, although her flat nose and broad face and full body weren't admired by everyone.
She used to be Annemarie Gresto. Her family had only been in the valley for a few years; Annemarie was resolute, working hard to fortify the slow gains of past generations. No more the scruffy track homes close in by the city, never again! It may be that Al Gresto wasn't much of a next step up, but Annemarie was self-reliant in any event.
I was, by her lights, unconventional, and she was intelligent enough to appreciate that, despite an insular upbringing. Through weekend afternoons at the tennis courts, she'd find occasions to look my way and smile. I imagined how she might have been wrestling with my image at night, unsettled by desire. Once I envisioned Annemarie as I made love to my wife and I knew then, if ever I'd have her, I'd rename her for sure.
Our love affairs are better than yours. When we rename a woman, the passion stays on. She doesn't just go back to her husband, yank up her pants and move on with her life. Even if we never sleep together again, the second name endures. The second woman is forever. There's never a third. And, some people are always there to know and bear witness. They know her real name and call her that from then on.
So it was with Annemarie. We stayed home from work and made love in her bedroom. She unbuttoned her dress and was naked except for her panties, a frail last modesty swaddling her crotch. They weren't meant to be sexy panties. They were simply bright white cotton panties but full of her curly bush, full of her. She tried to smile, but she was very nervous. There would be a renaming; she must have known it herself at that moment, because, standing there like that, she had to know I'd spread her wide and screw her to the quick.
When it was over, I saw, as I rolled over in bed, Annemarie's panties on the back of a wooden chair; she'd dropped them there stripping off the last of her clothing as if in a trance. For the first time in my life, I felt like a Svengali. The panties drooping, white without sexual veneer, yet wet with love, embodied Annemarie no less than Annemarie's smile or the way she walked or the easy wet give of her cunt. I got out of bed, held them up to my lips and kissed them.
I returned to bed and put my hands on her forehead. Oh, like a warm wine filling my head, the ur-power of this love we practice! It was exhilarating. "Panties," I intoned. "Panties."
"Panties," she repeated, accepting the named fate that was hers. I hoped she liked it. Time would make love harder, we drifted apart, but, still, she knows who she is. There will always be a half-dozen friends of hers or mine who do too. Whenever alone with her, it's not Annemarie they'll call her.
I'm still so much in love. Look, you can't, like Dr. Johnson, or Bernard Shaw, praise Romeo and Juliet, and at the same time decry what Johnson calls its "unexpected depravations," and the persistence with which even characters in extremis muster a "miserable conceit" or two. If it's quibbles Johnson disdains, then he must disdain the play itself, if only for the sheer volume of puns in every mouth.
Sampson and Gregory begin with a pun, and it never stops. Love is a lexical game. Love is play and names define it. Romeo and Juliet is meta-writing, writing that has to be about writing because it's also about love. Romeo, the "fairly bound" book that, because he's killed Tybalt, contains for Juliet "such vile matter," is full of thesis and antithesis, as all language, being virtual puns, is at last a repository of opposites. Paris' face is a "volume," as Lady Capulet calls it; delight is "writ there." It's all a "certain text," says Friar Laurence, and so forth. The rose might smell no sweeter, perhaps, but love unfettered in syllabic disport would rename these Montagues and Capulets in the image of their own sweetest desire.
True, in our community, only the desire of men impresses itself upon the clay of language. Women do not rename men, at least not with such serious sexual finality as may transform their own identities. They are thus objects to some extent, although, once renamed, they burn in the heart's memory beyond object and subject. However decidedly female the rename, love's residues are disembodied. Some days I may see her face. Other days, I merely feel a presence.
It is utter husbandry, though. We compel women through a word or two to imagine themselves as we imagine them. What more can the beloved do for her lover than to solemnly accept his defining vision? It is a large part, for me, of the terrible beauty of the rite. On the other hand, I've heard some women were disgusted at how they were renamed. They fled their love, in some instances leaving the community altogether, yet one suspects the effects are inescapable. These renames are profoundly adhesive.
The scales of power are balanced to a degree by the susceptibility of men to the poetry of other men. I know. At the very moment of thrall to the woman I renamed, my own wife of twelve years was vulnerable; in fact, as I realize now, she was ripe for the taking. Poets use language like lawgivers. But they're also used by it, like sluts.
Hugh Arnson decided to tell me because he'd heard it from Fred Carter and, trying honestly, I guess, to be helpful, he figured, well, Fred's a talker, so I'd want to know about it if everybody else was going to. "Panties," I whispered my beloved's name as I went home alone that night, but the name "Sheila" I also whispered, and plaintively, because Sheila was a woman I had loved as well, but she now existed suddenly no more.
"I know what's happened," I said that night as we sat at the corners of the bed.
"Oh," she said, rather sadly, for she had no animus toward me.
"Who?" I asked, mouthing the next line of the predictable script.
"Glenn Simmons," she said.
"And . . . ?"
"You need to know?" she asked.
"Sweetheart." I would rather it had been "Gulps" or "Wet Spread" or "Butthole." With "Sweetheart," the sense of loss I knew that moment I knew at once would last always. "Sweetheart" meant Glenn Simmons had achieved easy familiarity with my wife. He could roll the big ruby red nipples in his fingers and murmur "Sweetheart" because, having imbibed her, he could revel now in the more deeply personal, casual pleasure of just being with her. Hot desire was, hot desire will be. But, in the here and now, the profound relaxation they knew together meant enviable, tangible happiness.
So this is life in our community or at least one most important part of it. I'm a typical example, I suppose, of how we both gain and lose tremendously, sometimes on the very same day. I think we're better people for it. Some of these men here, Doug Rhodes, or even Danny Miller, would be pretty mediocre guys if they were living someplace else. They'd sleepwalk through life. They'd sell stuff. They'd drink too much on Saturday nights. They'd take things for granted, and not have much to show for it or care one way or another. But this life at least forces on them a nonpareil vocabulary.
Just a footnote: I don't know of any specific examples but it's always possible that two women could get the same rename. Imagine the likely kinship were they to find each other. See them grin with delight just to be in the same room. Outside, as they stroll the narrow leas between blocks of houses, they hold hands. They're full of guilty knowledge and innocent delight. Their eyes sparkle. Once in awhile, giggling, they sneak a kiss on the lips. They confide no secrets; they know enough without having to ask. Smell them. They smell like daisies, both of them. Oh, there's always something in this world to dream about!
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