Martha Cooley: “I Liked Marie”

01/31/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

It’s all too easy to condemn cheaters: how dare you start an affair! How unfair to your husband/wife, especially when they’ve been diagnosed with a major illness. How selfish of you! And yet, while there are certainly people who cheat out of spite, out of lust, out of what you might call “base” desires, there are also those who are simply missing something from their lives, something they can’t address or talk about, and how dare they have to hurt the person they love and have married by confessing to an arrangement they can keep quiet and on the side? The power of Cooley’s story is that it manages to make you consider these things without sermonizing: Denise and her lover have a routine, one that’s been going on for four years, and they both know that it’s never going to be anything more than sex; he’s never going to spend the night. (“A deal: that’s how Denise viewed what they had, a deal whose provisos, though never articulated, were self-evident. Sex was the deal’s centerpiece; it was why they met weekly, what they wanted from each other, what they did together.”)

Except, it’s not really sex for Denise: it’s a matter of loneliness, which she (probably accurately) ascribes to him, as well. “A married person’s loneliness had to be greater than an unmarried person’s, she figured; an unmarried person got used to it, whereas a married person couldn’t acclimate so easily. Her lover’s loneliness was as clear as the way he liked to come: with his hands locked tightly at the small of her back.” She sees this, too, in the fact that he now no longer brings his wife to visit his mother in the old-age facility; instead, he brings Denise, whom his senile mother mistakes for Marie, the original other woman whom he didn’t marry, the one from where this story gets its title. His mother liked Marie; does he also regret, on some level, losing her? And of course, she sees this in herself: “Being alone was strange: it was invariably fine until it wasn’t, and then–for a little while, unforeseeably–it was the worst thing imaginable.” I think all of us, no matter how popular, can relate to this: there’s always going to be a moment at which everything that’s fine abruptly isn’t, though thankfully most of us understand that it’s going to be better shortly. (For someone depressed, like David Foster Wallace, then, it’s the suspicion that it’s actually not going to be better, that you’re never going to shake this pain you’re currently in.)

The extended metaphor Cooley pursues, in this case, involves sleep (and that, on some level, is associated with sex):

Denise imagined the two of them awake at night. Did they toss and turn in bed? Or did they wrap one another in an embrace that pulled them both under, so they could eventually drown together in sleep?
Drowning in sleep: that sounded good, Denise decided. She should try that for herself. A snuffing-out of thought; no waking up in the middle of the night, no 3:00 A.M. wrangling with fear or anger. Unimaginable! Yet wouldn’t someone have to push you under, hold your head below the surface? How could you drown in sleep if there was no one to perform that service for you?

Although Denise knows the deal, the loneliness comes to a head after her lover takes his wife (who is recovering from a mastectomy) to Montauk and asks Denise to refill the cats’ food and water bowls while they’re away. Until now, she’s been able to step outside his personal life, musing only about her lover’s wife’s “jaunty white” SUV. But now, learning the names of the cats he’s never mentioned before, seeing the intimate interior of their brownstone — their bedroom, with the matelasse coverlet — and familiar objects, like his favorite coat, out of the ordinary context (“on the floor next to her bed, alongside his sneakers and sweats”), she may need to cut herself off. “She wrote I liked Marie on a piece of paper, slid it beneath the stack of underwear in the husband’s armoire, turned off the lights, went back downstairs, picked up the keys, and locked herself out.” There are probably multiple ways to read this final line, but to me, “I liked Marie” isn’t a renegotiation of their deal, it’s a severing of it, a calling back to the woman that he doesn’t see any more, in favor of his wife. And then there’s that final phrase: she “locked herself out.” Out of his house, sure, but out of his life, too. She needs a man who will be there in bed with her — even though this has never helped her insomnia before, since she’s been married herself — she needs a man who will help her drown her sorrows in sleep. And if it takes an affair to do so, who among us can really cast a stone?

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