After I sent my goodbye email to Nellie, I had dinner with Melinda at home and told her the whole story. She took it well and sympathetically. She had known about Nellie, but didn’t know how things had come to a head at our last dinner and about our breakup.
In 2019, I had a moment similar to that in the 1958 film Vertigo
That’s what it was—a breakup, the end of an affair that never happened. In effect, we had been dating (at least in my mind, if not Nellie’s) and now weren’t going to date anymore.
As I talked to Melinda, I realized how glad I was that I still had her, that she still loved me despite my dalliance with Nellie. What I lost with Nellie wasn’t that valuable compared with what I had with Melinda. Maybe I had turned a corner, and things would start getting better now. I had had no future with Nellie. I didn’t know what the future held, but at least now I had a future.
That night when I took the garbage out, I looked up at the sky from my driveway and the stars seemed clean. It was as if my sin with Nellie had made them dirty and our breakup had cleansed them. I felt liberated, as if from a prison. Loving Nellie had been a kind of prison, one I couldn’t break out of directly because I wanted to be in it. So I broke out indirectly, by confronting her in such a way that the only thing she could do was release me.
Even so, over the next couple of weeks my emotions were turbulent. At home, at work, in Paris—where I had once dreamed of taking Nellie, and where I tried to forget her for a week—I tossed and turned between feeling light and feeling dark. After returning from Europe, I wrote this poem:
I took my broken heart to Paris
hoping to leave it there,
but when I got home found it in my luggage
I felt stupid for having told her about my short story, since that story had made her decide to reject me. I felt ashamed for how I had lusted over her and deceived her about my real intentions. I worried about how low her opinion of me had fallen—whether she now saw me as the sexually harassing creep she had originally said I wasn’t. I wished sadly that we could have been friends, even though I knew that friendship with her would have been exquisitely painful, since I would have kept longing futilely to have her as a lover. I raged at her, thought, Fuck you, Nellie; I loved her and she couldn’t appreciate that because of her prim devotion to her boyfriend. I fantasized that someday she would email me, maybe after reading about my love for her in some publication. Mainly I longed to see her again, hear her voice again—goofy, plain-spoken, saying things like, “See you soon.”
I wondered what had gotten into me. The Greeks had a goddess of delusion and folly, Ate, who walked on the heads of men and made them do crazy things. She had influenced Agamemnon into demanding Achilles’ girl, thereby sparking the wrath of Achilles and the action of the Iliad. Now Ate had possessed me, making me mad for a woman thirty-two years my junior, almost losing me my job and my marriage and leaving me with nothing for my efforts.
On my first day of work after returning home from Paris, Monday, April 15, I fell into depression, not only over going back to work but from the desolation of a world without Nellie. I longed to walk down the back stairwell to the sixteenth-floor terrace and throw myself off. Sitting alone in my office, I muttered, “My baby, my baby.” I usually whispered this phrase when thinking of Martha, but now I was saying it of Nellie—or perhaps I was saying it of both. And I had an uncomfortable moment of insight. For a moment, I couldn’t tell Martha from Nellie. Martha and Nellie were one.
Martha and Nellie were one.
In the movie Vertigo, the leading man, James Stewart, tries to reincarnate his dead beloved in the person of another woman who vaguely resembles her. He dresses her like the dead woman, dyes her hair blonde to make it like the dead woman’s. In the complicated plot of Vertigo, they actually are the same woman, but leave that aside. What struck me at the moment was that, as in Vertigo, I had tried to reincarnate Martha in Nellie. Nellie had vaguely reminded me of Martha—not so much in appearance (though their eyes were similarly sad and soulful) but in other respects: age, literary talent, big-heartedness, bipolarity, suicidality. Part of my attraction to Nellie was paternal—wanting to protect her, mentor her, watch her grow. This had been disguised by my overpowering sexual attraction, an attraction I couldn’t fully explain, a pull so strong that just looking at her in her flower-print dress dazzled my eyes, almost blinded me.
A small difference between me and Stewart’s character in Vertigo is that I had done nothing to try to remake Nellie. I hadn’t changed her hair or clothes to make her look more like Martha. I had wanted to possess her just as she was. A much larger difference is that Stewart’s character had actually been the dead woman’s lover. In his act of reincarnation, he was trying to restore a sexual relationship that had existed in the past. In mine, I was trying to create a sexual relationship that had never existed.
Or had it?
For two weeks, I pushed the question aside. I kept on thinking about Nellie, mourning her, obsessing over her. Then, on another Monday, April 29, while I sat at work, it came to me.
I was in love with Martha.
I was in love with her. That was why her death had affected me the way it had, why seven years later I was still a mess of grief and confusion when her mother had made peace with her death long before. This was the complication in complicated grief. I loved Martha with more than paternal love. I loved her as a soulmate, a girlfriend, a betrothed, a spouse. My weakness has always been lasciviousness—it is why my manias characteristically take the form of lusting after a woman not my wife. Naturally, with a girl in my house growing into a young woman, I would have loved her too.
The idea seemed crazy, one more bipolar delusion. I had never been conscious of any erotic pull toward Martha. I hadn’t found her hot, hadn’t fantasized about having sex with her, never touched her sexually. True, we were close. Our minds were similar, our souls alike. We shared many tastes; I introduced her to many of the books and movies and songs she liked. We admired each other and liked talking and spending time together, reading each other’s writing. But how was that sexual? After all, we were never alone. Melinda was always with us.
Not always. I remembered the one night Martha and I spent alone together in a hotel in New Port Richey while my mother was dying, a month before Martha died. Martha lay on her bed in her knee-length black skirt and I lay on my bed, and we looked at each other and talked, and I felt titillated—as if this were cool and racy, and kind of wrong.
Now the strangest things started to make sense. Right after Martha died, the first extended piece I wrote about her was a novel, The Kids from Queens, in which a character based on her had a love affair in Queens in the 1970s with a character based on me. I wrote a sex scene for them, just before her suicide scene. Of all the ways I could have commemorated my dead daughter, why did I choose that scenario?
And what about my peculiar behavior toward the novel Lolita? After I knew I would be having a daughter, but before she was born, I reread that tale of pedophilic love—then deliberately put it away for eighteen years, as if to keep myself from temptation, as if there were something of Humbert Humbert in me. In Martha’s last summer on Earth, thinking she and I were both safe, I reread it with pleasure, just before she died.
Then there was the time I tried to draw a sexy nude based on the bamboo plant among the photos of her in the living room. It turned out to look like Martha. And the time in One South the love song “Hey There, Delilah” pierced me with longing for Martha, as if she were Delilah.
In this light, the family dynamics of the Corey-Ochoa household now cast different shadows, longer ones. This was partly why I had been so intent on spending time with Martha as a child, why I insisted on devoting to her care a share of hours equal to her mother’s. It wasn’t just feminism. If she’d been a boy I might not have bothered. I wanted to be in Martha’s presence, wanted her mind to mix with mine through all her years of childhood, because I was in love with her. I competed with her mother for her affection, tried to find time alone with Martha. This was why my happiest memory of Martha was being with her at Typhoon Lagoon, apart from her mother. The memory was sexual because it included the beautiful young women in swimsuits who surrounded us—with me thinking that the most adorable girl of them all was Martha in her swimsuit.
This was why Melinda was always jealous of the bond between Martha and me, knowing she could never be that close. And this was why Martha as a teenager belittled Melinda, treated her with disrespect, pushed her away, while staying, for the most part, close to me. She had acted like this even though I was the one who forbade her to love Aleksei, the one who forced her into psychiatric treatment to try to crush that love—as if I were jealous of a rival. Melinda had not initially opposed Aleksei.
And what about Aleksei? If he wasn’t actually the ghost of a dead Russian prince but something formed in Martha’s mind, how and why did he take that form? I don’t think Martha was conscious of an Elektra complex, of sexual desire for me. But as a toddler, she had enunciated the basic Freudian attraction of a heterosexual child toward the parent of the opposite sex when she looked up to me from the kitchen floor and said, “You will marry me.” If I had been repressing my desire all this time, maybe she repressed hers. Maybe Aleksei was her father.
But that seemed too simple. Aleksei was like me in some ways—intellectual, melancholy, religious—but he died young, younger than the age Martha knew me. He was never a father figure to her, but more like a boy. Yet there was a dominant father figure in his story—his father, Peter the Great. What had first fascinated Martha about Aleksei was that he was tortured to death by his father.
Now I saw the meaning of Martha’s interest in torture. It had begun with fantasies of corporal punishment, in which being beaten by a parent gave her sexual pleasure. I never beat her, but I was the one who administered discipline in the house. I gave her time-outs; Melinda never did. In her mind, the punishments I gave her—the difference between how I treated her and how her mother treated her—became sexual bonds between us, disguised under the aspect of physical pain. When she learned that Aleksei was tortured to death by his father, she identified with Aleksei—became him in fantasy. His father’s henchmen penetrated his flesh with the cords of the knout to the point of death, which in her mind was orgasmic. She loved Aleksei because he was her other self, intellectual, melancholy, religious—her other self forever experiencing sexual agony and bliss at the hands of her father. In loving Aleksei, she sexually satisfied herself in an image of herself having sex with her father.
I can never know for sure if this interpretation of Aleksei is true, or whether Martha ever really felt unconscious desire for me. The only witness who could corroborate the theory is dead. But as I sat in my office, I felt sure that I had unconsciously desired Martha. That was why my first real replacement purpose for her had been beauty. She was my beauty—my beautiful beloved. When she died, beauty left the world, until I found it again in abstract form. Nellie made beauty incarnate again, as it had been with Martha. When I lost Nellie, I mourned her as I had mourned Martha.
It was always strange to me that my first thought of saving Martha on August 27, 2012, the night she called us with suicidal feelings, was to go and spend the night with her. Not to call 911 or talk to her psychiatrist or the head resident, but to go personally and sleep in her room. I said I couldn’t do it because of work, but maybe it was because I was ambivalent. I wanted to sleep with her, but I also thought it would be unseemly. I took no other real action because the one action I wanted seemed barred. Maybe she took my not going as a rejection, and rejected me back by killing herself.
If all this was true, then maybe the loss of Nellie was therapeutic. It revealed that what I lost in Martha was not just a child but a lover. With her death we broke up, a breakup I had refused to accept because I had not even acknowledged the relationship. For eighteen years Martha and I had had an affair, but now the affair was over. And the time was long since past to accept that it was over.
The next morning began deep in suicidal grief. That became depression and heartache. More than ever before, I felt that Martha was gone. My new knowledge that I had loved her as a lover made her recede even further, as if that love had been the last finger of a skeletal hand holding me to her. Unwittingly, Nellie had broken that finger. Martha was dead, long dead. And the only question was what to do now that I accepted she was dead.
Walking through the crowds in midtown at lunch hour, I wondered if maybe, at last, I had to reorient myself toward life. Since Martha’s death, I had been oriented toward a dead girl, openly or under one disguise or another—The Kids from Queens, Cleave Land, antipsychiatry, beauty, Supernova Girl, Nellie. But while I had pointed toward death all these years, life had been going on around me, was still going on, would continue to go on. Every bit of life, every individual, was fragile, passing, but in the aggregate life would continue for ages probably, maybe for eternity. Life was worth orienting toward because every process of my being aimed at it—my breath, my pulse, the flicker of my neurons. Life was magical, mysterious, beautiful. It was tragic and transient, but also comic and enduring. It encompassed all pleasure and pain, good and evil, complexity and simplicity. Even inanimate things, rocks and sky, were living in the sense that only a living mind could comprehend and appreciate them—their being sensed depended on me, or someone, being there to sense them.
When I went back to work, I momentarily lost the taste for life, because the office seemed to be trying to be as lifeless as possible, with its bland walls and computer screens and pointless tasks. But I recognized that even when I sensed no life around me I could sense life within me—my breathing, my ability to perceive. As long as I lived, life was always in me. That was a tautology, but meaningful, because if I oriented myself to life it would be available to me all my days.
This made me feel better for a day, but, as often when I get a new philosophical idea that seems to fill me with joy and hope, other thoughts crowded in and plunged me back into depression. The worst thought was that, with Martha gone and Nellie gone, the only woman left for me in the world was Melinda. After thirty-one years of marriage, after all we’d been through, I couldn’t say for sure that I loved Melinda. I searched my heart and didn’t know.
But if I didn’t love her, maybe I’d never loved anybody. If love is measured by how much you do for someone, I’d done more things for Melinda than I’d ever done for anybody—gave thirty-one years of my life to her, dwarfing even the eighteen I gave to Martha. I’d shared more with Melinda, in conversation and action, than I’d ever shared with anyone. I’d had more sex with her than I’d had with anyone, and I’d refrained from having sex with any other woman since Melinda and I became a couple. I’d been passionately attracted to other women, including (as it seemed) my own daughter. But all those attractions had come to nothing, whereas whatever I had with Melinda had survived even Martha’s death, and showed every indication of lasting until she or I died.
Thinking about it on the train home on Friday, May 10, I realized with surprise that not only did I love Melinda—she was the only woman I’d ever really loved. To be real, romantic love must transcend time, and every other romantic love of mine had been passing. Even whatever unconscious erotic longing I had for Martha had dimmed to the point I had to replace her with Nellie to keep it going, and already Nellie was beginning to dim. But year after year I loved Melinda, no matter whom else I thought I loved
In those days, the commuter shuttle bus was no longer running, and Melinda used to drop me off for work at the train station every morning and pick me up at the end of the day. That evening at sunset, she was waiting for me in our silver Honda as I walked out of the train station. I got in the car, looked at her hard, and told her she was the love of my life, the only woman I’d ever really loved. She’d always been first for me, nobody else. I told her heatedly, with pressure, because I’d been afraid she would die before I got home and I wouldn’t have the chance to tell her. I sounded manic, but sometimes I’m most truthful when I’m manic. “I’ll love you always and unconditionally and never leave you,” I said.
“I feel the same way about you,” she said.
We were both pleased and excited, me fifty-eight, she sixty-two, both of us plighting our troth like teenagers.
Acknowledging how I felt about Melinda seemed to lift a burden from me, as if I’d been under a compulsion to feel my love for her as a heavy weight rather than as a source of pleasure and a place of rest. Maybe I’d been afraid that if I loved Melinda too much it would be a betrayal of Martha. But I was finally coming to accept that this was impossible. To betray is to desert someone in her time of need, and Martha couldn’t need anything. Only the living need.
It took some days for this realization to penetrate. It seemed to strain against a wall I had built around my heart. Finally, on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, the wall broke. I was on the Metro-North commuter train, coming home after the usual day’s work, writing stream of consciousness on my iPad tablet. (Stream of consciousness writing was a trick for freeing the emotions I had learned from Martha.) And, just like that, I stopped mourning Martha.
For eighteen years, she was the light of my life; maybe she will turn out to have been one of the brightest lights of her time. I was proud of her; she did all right for herself. She was a good writer, a great soul. I would always love her as my daughter and cherish the memory of her as long as I lived. But she was dead, and the point of grief is to get you to accept that your beloved is dead. Now that I accepted it, there was no further point in grieving. The grief fell away like the scab from a healed cut. Every moment I wasted in unhappiness over what I could never have back was a moment I didn’t spend enjoying what I do have and have yet to find or create.
That night, after taking out the garbage, I leaned against the car and looked up at the stars, the way I used to do with Martha and have done all the years without her. This was the point when I used to pray for Martha’s soul, pray to see Martha again when my life is over. But I was finally confident Martha’s soul was fine without me, and at the moment I was unconcerned with what would happen to me after my life. I wanted only to have a good life on earth, a happy life, for however many days were left to me.
For seven years, because of the loss I had suffered, I had thought of my life as over, with a tragic ending that happened the night Martha died. But I no longer wanted to see my life as a tragedy. I wanted it to be a comedy, with a happy ending. So I prayed to God, “Lord, make it so at the end of my life I’m happy to be alive.”
God never speaks to me directly, but sometimes I get a thought that seems to come from him. And the thought I had then was: to get to an ending where you’re happy to be alive, start getting in the habit now of choosing to be alive.
I went into the house where Melinda was waiting and got started.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.