One night, after our kids are in bed I make Kerry, my oldest friend, watch Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid with me. I insist Butch is the sunny one and I’m jealous that Etta Place, played by Katharine Ross with her blank dollface, has two boyfriends. Kerry decides Robert Redford is hotter, it’s true that his silhouette is lithe as a cat when he draws a gun. But I’m stubborn about Butch being the better catch, because he’s played by Paul Newman with such twinkle and easy largesse before it ends badly in a blaze of non-glory in Bolivia.
Except I’m barely watching the movie, I’ve already seen it multiple times. I’m making Kerry watch it because Paul Newman reminds me of Luke, the car and drum n’ bass enthusiast I keep listening and looking for out the window. In case he drives by my house with the telltale pa-choo pa-choo of his car with its massive spoiler. I’ve become an engine connoisseur, I can tell the difference between a Subaru and Mitsubishi just by the rumble of the motor.
A few days before we watch the movie Luke lies in my bed after some unsatisfactory sex and chuckles when I tell him, with sudden amazement, that even though I’ve known him for over a year I still don’t know where he lives. He replies that he’s too ‘subtle’ for me to know where he lives. I’m frozen because he’s also told me I’m a pretty girl but he can’t see it working out for us. He says I’m too intelligent for him. Luke runs a finger through my hair when he says this but it’s a ginger gesture and proves far harder to forget than the sex. Back then I’m as proud of my brain as I am of my looks so it’s brutal news he views being smart as a social impediment. I’m not a prize to him, I’m a small town secret, that impossible, oxymoronic thing.
Instead of writing him off as a creep I obsess about Luke for the next two years. I tell myself I’m in love with him. I devote entire days to watching traffic and counting the colours of cars with my son, turning it into a game he doesn’t know the rules of in case Luke drives past. I jump on the trampoline I assembled by myself to show the small town where I live that solo mothers can do anything. But I jump on the trampoline so I can check if Luke’s coming down the road thanks to the view I gain from my son’s double bounce. Luke can’t help but drive past my house because I live on a main road but I refuse to let logistics get in the way of my love story. I tell myself he must love me because when I’m driving the ordinary blue of the sky and the wheaty hills out the windscreen match his colouring. Like nature was involved. You see, I had the vaguest material to go on in Luke which was probably fatal as I prefer a blank canvas, a mirage rather than actual men with their upsetting personal habits.
I write him a poem that begins ‘Where I live there’s a piece of rock sticking out of the sea like a sphinx/ I wonder what he thinks of it/ I wonder what he thinks’. Except when I confess I’ve been writing poems about him he tells me he doesn’t know what a Sphinx is. Luke is a bit too blank. No matter, a year after the ginger gesture I figure out where he lives and confront him on his driveway. See, I tell him, I do know where you live but he responds by telling me he’s moving in with his girlfriend. A subtle guy, funny even, slightly anxious as he smokes rollies with no filter in a way which reminds me of my mother but is maybe not worth two years of watching cars. I start lying on the trampoline when my son’s at school staring at the blue nothing inside my head.
I’m not sure where my tendency to obsess comes from, whether it’s culturally produced, or inherited, or both, and I tend to associate it with being creative which means it’s a state I tend to romanticise too. I’m also not sure that knowing where it comes from, that locating the headwaters, would make it go away or help me change it. I emerged out of eight years of therapy with the same bad, self-punishing set of ruminations. Therapy only helped me to run slightly better angles on my obsessions, it magnified my ability to crack myself up.
Despite successive and confusing waves of feminism, romance still means a lot to so many women I know. I talk about all kinds of things with my girlfriends but our relationships and the hook ups that don’t turn into relationships is the topic we reserve the most energy for. Even so, it’s mortifying being the person that can’t stop talking about something no one else is invested in, my friends care about me, they don’t care about my love life, not really, it’s a crucial distinction. If I had been honest with myself, or rather if I had listened to my therapist, I would have realised if the person you want doesn’t really want you then you have to find other sources of fuel to feed the fire.
Some friends tolerate my self-obsessed unanswerable queries because I accommodate theirs. ‘What do you think he meant when he didn’t text me back, does it mean he wants to marry me?’ I ask while they ask me if I’ve had a look at her profile, is she better looking, and so on. But it’s like burning paper instead of wood and leaves me feeling empty at the piles of ash in the grate.
I don’t know how people do Tinder, or any form of online dating, I find them very brave as I would surely die when ambivalence is my asbestos. And appearing not to care seems to be the modern condition of finding love and frankly, I do give a damn so I find this ridiculous. The oddest statement people make about love to me is that it was just sex. The other terrible thing about this statement is that it’s usually true.
Luckily literature is riddled with much more compelling and tragic figures to feast on. Madam Bovary eats arsenic like its icing sugar because she is ghosted. Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train after Vronsky comes on strong but proves to be a cad and a dilettante. Anna is turned into an outcast for making an open mockery of her marriage while others around her get off much more lightly. The downfall of these fictional married women is substantial, it wears corsets and has an ermine trim. They are victims not just of themselves but of the age; their psychic wounds are obscured by layers and layers of petticoats and bizarre social etiquette. They go from being coveted to discarded, for a woman whose power resides in her looks it’s the worst kind of fate. In White Oleander the narrator, Astrid, has a gorgeous sociopathic artist mother, Ingrid, who poisons her lover with the flowering tree of the title for the crime of getting sick of her. It is frightening how much I admire Ingrid for this because she goes to prison and Astrid is made a semi-orphan.
But it is Hagar from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon who reminds me most of what a waste my late twenties were, mooning over Luke. Milkman, Hagar’s cousin uses her as the ‘third beer’, the one you can take or leave if drinking isn’t your problem. Driven insane by his ambivalence she keeps attempting to kill him, but fails. Milkman is not interested in commitment, but Hagar can’t commit to the act of utu that will release her from him, she imagines she loves his sorry self too much. It’s not low self-esteem that drives her to violent fantasies and holding a knife over Milkman while he pretends to sleep. Rather, as Morrison tells it, this spoiled, used woman, can’t understand a world where she doesn’t get what she wants.
Jane Austen is different, her heroines tend to get what they didn’t know they wanted but fulfils them nonetheless, at least this is where Austen often left the story. Darcy watches Lizzie Bennett and Knightley watches Emma with the benevolent eye of the author. Despite Morrison’s occasional heavy-handed allegories—Hagar is named after one of Abraham’s discarded pregnant handmaidens—and her turgid soap opera plots, it’s Austen that’s much closer to Mills & Boon. Don’t get me wrong, the heavy hand was part of Morrison’s genius, a word that is rarely applied to Black women, even to Beyoncé.
When I was little, my two favourite story books had nothing to do with men. They were both a bit twee but offered another kind of feminist vision. In Tilly’s House a wooden kitchenmaid is kept as a drudge in the attic of a Victorian doll’s house. She longs for another kind of life, and uses an umbrella to slide down the table to escape from the miniature bourgeois prison. At the end of the garden she fashions a room of her own, she’s resourceful, anything ugly is covered with a pleasing scrap of cloth. A teddy bear tells her it’s the prettiest room he’s ever seen and despite being made of wood she swells with pride.
The Maggie B by Irene Hass was the other story, a slightly more surreal tale which involved a little girl looking after her baby brother on a boat after wishing for an adventure on the North Star. There is a pet toucan too, an apple tree and a goat on the crammed, fertile deck. Maggie covers peaches with cinnamon and bakes them for her brother, she learns to survive a storm. Essentially, they are books about keeping ship and keeping house, but they make the place nice for themselves, not for any man.
I can’t stomach romantic comedies and was late to Fleabag but I eagerly watched the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. And the terrifying moment in it when she’s asked how it felt to walk into a hippy house and discover a child on acid, a scene she described in the essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. She is honest and replies that the moment was gold. This cold, snake-worshipping old woman waving her arms at nothing tells the truth, and her eyes glint. The first time I watched it she horrified me, the second time I respected her honesty, to write about what’s in front of you it’s sometimes necessary to stay detached. If she had picked up the child and rescued her there would be no record of the shadow of the flower generation with its children as the compost, or at least not one that wasn’t compromised by sentiment. But that level of detachment can rarely be applied to the self, it’s the shadow of all that nothing Didion alludes to with her ancient arms.
In the essay she published in Vogue in 1961 titled, “On Self Respect” Didion uses the example of Jordan Baker from F. Scott Fritzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a woman who knows her own measure, who watches the collapse of everyone around her without being particularly touched by it. But Daisy is the one people remember because for the doomed dreamer and fake, she’s the light at the end of the pier and the reason he floats face down in his beautiful pool.
I also watched a Breakfast panel segment with John Campbell in which Ella Henry rightly thundered about the uplifting of our babies by Oranga Tamariki [Ministry of Children]. She was so disgusted she refused to call the agency by its name. But she lost me when she said that our wahine, our girls, need to have their self-esteem raised up if they want to find good men who won’t hurt their children. She said they need to see themselves as princesses
No we do not, that kind of fairy tale ends in horror stories. In the media I regularly see men standing in the dock who fill me with disgust because they killed another man’s child. Odd then that it’s the evil stepmother who represents malice and danger.
A woman doesn’t need better self-esteem it’s a neoliberal conceit, she needs to know her limits and have some self-respect. It is normal to want to meet someone and fall in love, but society is too full of these broken pathological men. Money matters too, plain economics. It’s hardest for the solo mothers at home with small children and it’s not exactly naive to think having a man around might help. Until he starts stealing or coercing the benefit from her that’s meant for her tamariki to subsist on rather than thrive.
And I’m no better, no less subject, that’s really the source of my loathing. The last man I dared to dream in told me so many lies about his heroin habit it’s left me homeless. I knew he was an addict and lying is their means of survival yet I was still vain enough to believe in his version of my specialness despite the sirens.
But I think of Tilly and her resourcefulness and I know if I adhere to what I’m trying to assert about self-respect I’ll have a room of my own again. I’ll be able to watch as many Paul Newman movies as I like enjoying the luxury of my solitude and stop testing the patience of friends with my monologues as my Jack Russell stinks up their couch.
Katharine Ross, with her big Keane-like eyes was also the actress on the back of a bus with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, suddenly foolish at running away from her wedding with someone she barely knows and has been fucking her mother. I’ve always disliked that ending because it’s so true to life and music videos have destroyed my taste levels.
But what of the real Etta Place, the woman lucky enough to have two charismatic but doomed boyfriends, one her husband and the other her former lover, maybe? Her death is unrecorded and she disappears in South America. No one is sure if she was a prostitute or a music teacher when she meets Butch and Sundance, perhaps she was both. She seems to have been attracted to dangerous men anyway. I’ve only just been able to admit I’m the same. I was not interested in the man I was with for years until he told me he’d been to prison for shooting near, or at, caravans of sleeping children. Before that calculated confession, he’d been a balding square in a business shirt with excellent weed that lived around the corner from the person I was really in love with.
I published a poem about Luke just after I met the others and we started sending each other messages on Facebook because I made the mistake of sending him the link. My messages were poetic and wispy and his were fairly direct. He came to the house where I’d spent three years pining for him but once I got over the novelty I realised I didn’t like talking to him. I preferred the long involved conversations I was having with the balding man, who pretended he knew how to listen, who pretended that none of the other men were a problem and the benign attentiveness won me over.
Even though Luke was the most beautiful man I had ever seen there was nothing in it, he was not the same actor in my dream. Before he left he told me he really respected me for not sleeping with him, which was disingenuous because he wasn’t there for my personality, just more bad sex. How stupid the straight game of chase really is especially when someone who doesn’t even know what the Sphinx is still gets to set the rules.
Women talk about being ghosted and how maddening that can be but men are usually the ones who kill an ex for rejecting or leaving them. Murders which are propelled by the insane sense of entitlement Hagar fails to embody; she’s just a silly, spoiled woman that is unable to dig herself out of her own hole. Hagar dies broken instead. At her grand but empty funeral Pilate, her grandmother, laments that her baby girl was loved.
What would have helped her? But maybe this is the wrong question, I mean what is that would have soothed her, what would have let her out of the cage of being herself?
I find reading Alice Munro always helps because I don’t know how to help myself either. She is the high priestess of thwarted heroines but often resorts to O Henry-like coincidences when the pressure of identification with the women becomes too much. Nor is she afraid of making her women slightly ridiculous and grasping, because so often, they catch themselves in the act.
And this was a situation she had created, she had done it all herself, it seemed she never learned any lessons at all. She had turned Simon into the peg on which her hopes were hung and she could never manage now to turn him back into himself.
This is Rose from The Beggar Maid and Munro’s story “Simon’s Luck.” Rose drives for miles across Canada to escape her fresh infatuation with Simon, a man she meets at a party. Even though he seemed so keen on her he doesn’t show to help her in the garden like they planned. After driving for hours, she sits in a diner with her coffee, resolute in the hard light of morning. She’s an actress and decides to move out west, to act the part of her own escape. The twist comes when Rose learns years later that Simon died of cancer, that his presence at the party was luck. Alice Munro gets away with these corkscrew endings because who wouldn’t wish for their obsession to be resolved by means outside of their control and independent of their failure? Narratives move toward closure in a way that is nothing like life and are so satisfying because of it.
Even my whakapapa is full of stories of aggrieved women, those headwaters I was so keen to avoid. Hinepoupou of Ngāti Kuia was the first woman to swim Cook Strait. She departed from Kāpiti having been abandoned there by two husbands. It’s the Māori version of Butch and Sundance but the plot is driven by her lust for vengeance. She is accompanied on her epic swim by our dolphin taniwha, Kaikaiawaro but her kurī start hanging off her and she turns them to stone. An aquatic Māori medusa, I wish that was my big bitch energy. I wrote a poem about her and in it she cries, “I’m Grace Jones motherfuckers, I’ll hunt you down. I’ll eat you like you’re the oyster, I won’t give in…”
Silence though, what if it’s better to stay quieter than a shark? I mean imagine watching Jaws with the sound off, maybe it would be even more frightening without the warning?
I don’t want or particularly need a man to make me feel like a woman, I will keep telling myself this until intentionality becomes the reality. I will tell myself this not just because that antique version of gender is being replaced by people who don’t fit the definitions of either and the natural inflatable woman keeps leaking air. By inflatable I mean she has existed as the floating projection of men’s desire for too long; instead of being defined by her own fantasies.
And I’ll tell myself this not just because these literary women are such cautionary examples. It’s embarrassing to care about romantic love so much when the world is cooked but what if the aftermath of all the useless yearning I’ve indulged in makes for a plainly honest kind of cave?
My collection of man trophies on the wall and their cured leathery skins stretched out by the hearth is, maybe, the right kind of mood for the apocalypse I hear such gleeful reports of. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, Australian journalist Irina Dunn said this, making a mockery of a male philosophical equation, but now it just sounds like a daft, improbable meme.
A woman needs what she needs and has to survive not always getting what she wants. I don’t want to be Anna or Daisy or Hagar I want to be Etta —holding my cards close and flush with mystery—no one knows what happened to her, no one knows who she really is.
About the Author
Talia Marshall is a New Zealand poet and essayist. Her work explores, with lyricism and courageous honesty, aspects of her life as a woman, a Maori, a lover, a daughter, a mother, a friend and a writer. Toni Morrison, in her 1993 Nobel Lecture on Literature, advised authors to “tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and the light” and Marshall’s mastery of this revelatory principle lends her writing unusual lucidity and power.
Other similarly shimmering works by Talia Marshall include the following:
- “Did You Ride a Horse to School? Then You Are Not from Ruatoria”
- “This is the Way He Walked into the Darkest Pinkest Part of the Whale and Cried Don’t Tell the Others”
- “Wild Swans: Talia Marshall on Janet Frame and the Seacliff Asylum”
Glossary of Maori and New Zealand words
rollies: hand-rolled cigarettes
taniwha: a mythical sea monster
utu: the concept of reciprocation, which includes revenge
wahine: woman or girl