The Nobel Prize For Shoes
hey love movies and see many of them, but one night after a very long,
dull Slovakian movie in which every character eventually dies, they
figure that they have probably made love more times than they've seen
movies. Lots of times they begin sex in this way: she strokes and rubs
and kisses his penis. It is quick and easy for him, but it has become
harder for her to reach orgasm, maybe because she is older, maybe
because she is depressed. He had seemed for a while not to like to
touch her, especially last year during his affair. This year, after the
affair, she is interested in one thing only, his happiness. If he had
been happy, the last terrible year wouldn't have happened. Maybe, she
worries at night and sometimes on drives when she plays loud music and
cries, it isn't in her power to make him happy. Maybe she's never made
him happy, or maybe she's lost the power since he met someone else. But
here he is with her, where he wants to be, he assures her. So it is her
mission to think of ways to please him.
She knows she isn't as smooth as he'd like, as calm. She thinks of
ways to be smoother. She listens to a message on his ex-lover's phone
and hears her delicious, smooth voice. She considers lowering hers,
breathing differently. She practices talking more slowly. Once she'd
read that before we speak, we should think through what it is we want to
say. That way it won't come out rushed or forced or out of control.
She practices slowness and grace.
But there are certain things she can't change to make him happy. She
can't, for instance, get taller or shrink her breasts which some men
love—she knows from how they glance at her. She can't be someone he's
just met and chosen by himself within a gap of life that didn't include
her or their difficult children. She can't be new and surprising.
He told her that the other woman hadn't understood his art, and that
pleased her. But maybe it meant that he didn't want her to understand
it either. Maybe all these years of listening to him and helping him
with his work hadn't pleased him. Maybe she needs to be less smart.
Maybe he wants someone who understands nothing, someone whose
understanding amounts to opening her legs. But she knows it isn't that
simple. They had been close, he said. It wasn't ending when she
learned of it. It might have continued who knows how long without her
So she tries to please him in all the small ways she always has. She
brings him Bing cherries as soon as the season begins and takes his
shirts to the laundry and requests light starch and presses the small
of his back when it hurts. When he can't find a book he needs, she
looks for it. When he seems he might require chocolate milk, she brings
it from the store. When his father dies, she comforts him for weeks. Is
that enough, she wonders? Or does he want a happiness she doesn't know
how to provide? All she can do is be herself with some notable
changes, some rounded edges, more sweetness.
But what is the proof it is working? If only he would hold her in his
arms and tell her how much he loves her body. She wants to hear that
her imperfect self is the one he wants. Although it isn't new or
capable of everything, it is the one she has for him. If he will accept
that from her, she knows she'll feel happy again. She doesn't know if
he'll be happy, but she knows that she will.
Maybe he doesn't want happiness. He wants, to crash and burn, to tumble
over a cliff, to end it all in a glorious, flaming moment of
destruction. Maybe he'll take hostages or commandeer a tank and run
over bicycles, compact cars, and old ladies. Maybe he wants a lonesome
recklessness, a reckless loneliness that has nothing to do with what
holds them together. Maybe she is of no consequence to him. Their kids
have become old enough not to need her. Maybe he has too. Maybe she's
useless, like a bustle, or a photo of people no one living recognizes
any longer. Maybe she should ignore how he feels, his sudden fits of
anger, his sighs, his sad dark eyes that she loves more than anything.
Marcello Mastrionni's eyes remind her of his. She will drive away and
disappear so he can decide on his own what he wants. If it isn't her,
if it's a rendezvous with death, who is she to stop him?
Maybe it isn't her and it isn't death or even the woman who'd seduced
him and doesn't understand his art. Maybe he wants random wild sex,
Thailand, massage parlors, lap dancers. So let him. What does it have
to do with her? She is about listening and sleeping at his side and
doing what people do for each other. When his father died she said,
"You have me, Sweetie." But maybe what he wants is a tall heroin addict
with lots of tattoos and a penchant for violence, a sweet school girl
with knee-length hose and a mouth full of chewing gum, a female police
sergeant, nightstick and all. Sometimes they joke about these things as
couples do, but maybe, in the words of a girl who used to chase one of
her sons in the school playground, it isn't a joke. Maybe she should
buy some outrageous shoes—red with spangles and ankle straps, or a whip
or the Bad Wives Video that Redbook suggested along with its lowfat
recipes, adoption stories, and bondage gear. It seems that this is
maybe a national crisis judging from women's magazines with articles on
blow jobs, S & M, and the right kind of dildo. Maybe one of the major
parties will take up the sex toy issue as part of its platform. What do
Bill and Hillary, Al and Tipper, George and Laura use? Maybe they need
cocaine or crack or a little introductory dose of heroin to patch things
Her dreams are always about responsibilities to others. Sometimes
people, sometimes animals. The worst is her recurring dream of an
aquarium (she is a Pisces) which she forgets to look after. There are
skeletons of fish and a few miraculous survivors which she guiltily
feeds. Since his father died, she's had a recurring dream of him. She
is in a bathtub being fondled by two young boys while his father looks
on. His father hadn't been unkind but he'd been unaffectionate. She
never knew whether she was supposed to kiss him or shake his hand, but
the last time they saw him, a week before he died, she had kissed him on
his skull as they left the room. Maybe happiness is circumspect.
Maybe it is furtive, sidelong, a slant of light as the sun travels
elsewhere. Thinking this somehow calms her. It is reassuring to know how
small and deliberate a thing it might be.
Maxine Chernoff is the author of five collections of poetry and two collections of short stories including
Signs Of Devotion, a New York Times Notable Book of 1993. Her three novels are Plain Grief
(Summit, 1991), American Heaven (Coffee House Press, 1996), and A Boy In Winter (Crown, 1999).
Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, she co-edits the literary magazine
New American Writing.