If I’d read the voice of Holden Caulfield as a teenager, I’m sure I would have fallen in love like all those other boys and girls did before me.
Mercifully, though, Catcher was one of those staples I somehow missed, probably for focusing on whatever other staples a teacher was force-feeding me at the time. A gap in my syllabus, if you will. So I didn’t ingest the voice of Caulfield till I was almost thirty. As a result, a fleeting fondness, a weak glimmer of nostalgia, was all that registered.
It wasn’t until today that I stumbled on Joyce Maynard’s recounting of the affair she had with “Jerry” in the early seventies, when she was 18 and he was 53. I’m also now aware of all the accusations leveled against her as a result of her coming out with it in 1998. All the old classics: artistic vampire, professional victim, dumb bitch.
Of course I can’t verify every piece of Maynard’s story – though parts of it have been vetted – but I can’t deny that certain choice bits were sickeningly believable and made me feel a special kind of discomfort. To the point that, today after work, I actually dismantled a long-term fixture of my physical environment because of it. (Honorable mention goes to an article on the Ryan Adams saga, which served as chaser.)
I’ve always been the sort to reflect kindly on old flames, even if we no longer speak. I’m acutely aware of the various pleasures I wouldn’t know about if not for these individuals, and I’ve tended to keep the good times memorialized in various ways. Case in point: for six years the ledge atop the low wall separating my kitchen from my living room has been decorated with an art installation. Four mason jars, each representing a person I considered to be a great love (including my current partner). Inside each was a photo (sepia-tinted, of course) I felt summed up my time with that person, and each jar neck was ringed with a carefully selected song quote. I inserted coils of LED lights to backlight the photos. (I realize this sounds wanky as hell, but it looked cool.)
As we’ve all seen and heard to death, the past couple of years has brought increased scrutiny of the actions of entitled men. Now and then, as revelations angrily and laboriously rose to the surface like long-brewing zits, I’d hear or read a piece of testimony that made me cringe in a more personal way than others. But as I read Joyce Maynard’s account today, something in me – a past way of seeing – finally broke.
She writes, “Having read an essay I’d published, accompanied by a waiflike picture of myself in my blue jeans… [Salinger] told me I was brilliant and perfect, his soul mate, and that we would live out our days together…
“When he sent me away less than a year later with words of contempt and disdain, I believed the failure was mine…”
Elsewhere, she discusses the vitriol men tend to direct toward a woman who exposes their idol:
“You could almost think, reading the words of some of them, that they must be confusing [her] with the first woman who broke their heart, or a sadistic kindergarten teacher, or maybe their mother, if they hated their mother a whole lot.”
Also this, comparing Salinger and another problematic cultural icon who is trending lately:
“Both possess the outlook of aging cynics who idealize and seek out innocence and–having done so–destroy it.”
I thought of two of the Jars. One, when we were fifteen and sixteen (I was the older but less experienced one), love-bombed me and then abruptly cut me loose, leaving me emotionally blue-balled and thirsty… then years later made his way back to me only to keep me at arm’s length and ladle out unsolicited paternal advice. Another wore his issues outwardly like a cloak of radical vulnerability and honesty, only to enact a dynamic (not wholly unlike the virgin/whore complex) where I was first idealized, then regarded critically as a big disappointment. (It was his copy of Catcher I finally read.) It shakes me each time I remind myself that, once, when he was still worried about losing me, he even stooped to a version of that phrase often attributed to abusers: “No one else will understand your issues like I do.”
So it was that, today, I finally had to question what I was memorializing with those jars.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the jars as an institution were a childlike thing I needed to outgrow. I’m an artist, and I think in symbols, and I stand by my original intent. Also, I have nothing against staying friends with exes, if one can do so healthily, which I know some people can.
But in this case, the toxic elements suddenly seemed to outweigh the rest.
Then I thought of my Good Egg, the Fourth Jar. Though he isn’t without his issues (who is?), it struck me that one word I could never apply to him is “manipulative.” He doesn’t have a manipulative bone in his tender, lanky, ridiculously unweathered body.
That alone makes the others pale in comparison.
True, for years, I equated manipulative with intelligent, charismatic, and thrilling. But sometimes you have to experience an alternative to really know what’s up.
I should state that none of this is to play the victim. Arguably, with the third, heretofore unmentioned Jar, I was the manipulator a lot of the time, and I crossed lines I shouldn’t have. Also, in all of these relationships, unlike in the one between Joyce and “Jerry,” there was no imbalance in age or influence. I was thoroughly responsible for my own behavior.
All I mean to say is – some mistakes don’t require a monument.
Here, have a song I didn’t know before tonight, that serendipitously started playing when I was writing my “old flames” paragraph.
Aimee Mann - The Moth
The moth don't care when he sees the flame
He might get burned but he's in the game
And once he's in he can't go back, and
Beat his wings 'til he burns them black
No the moth don't care when he sees the flame
The moth don't care if the flame is real
'Cause flame and moth got a sweetheart deal
And nothing fuels a good flirtation
Like need and anger and desperation
No the moth don't care if the flame is real
The moth don't care if the flame burns low
'Cause moth believes in an afterglow
And flames are never doused completely
All you really need is a love of heat
No, the moth don't care if the flame burns low
So come on let's go ready or not
'Cause there's a flame I know hotter than hot
And with a fuse that's so thoroughly shot