For Your Life by Marjorie Williams
I was cocooned in a white Toyota, blasting up I–95. Past Baltimore,
past Philadelphia. Sadness had sent me back to the cigarettes I
had given up a decade ago, and—strangely—to gobbling
Smarties, those tiny pastel-colored candies rolled in cellophane.
I was going north, as I had the week before and would the week
after, to watch both of my parents die, seven weeks apart.
I forgave myself easily for most of my reactions to the grief of
that spring, which was almost three years ago. But beneath the
thick, dark jelly in which that whole period of my life was suspended,
there was a guilty, insistent little pleasure. For along with everything
else, my scrambling, solitary trips between my home in Washington,
DC, and my parents’ homes in New Jersey brought me an escape
from my own life: from a two-year-old and a five-year-old; from
the endless bargaining over time (I’ll be home at six on Tuesday
if you’ll do it Thursday) that is the two-career couple’s
lot in parenthood; from the sensible, responsible woman, full of
ballast, that I’d somehow become in eight years of marriage.
The simple fact of being alone, bound for the town of my girlhood,
had a shocking sweetness.
In hindsight, though, the only thing that seems odd is my surprise
at this tiny pleasure. I have since come to believe that even in
the best of marriages, in the most devoted of mothers, there lurks
a thirst for solitude, the fantasy of escape.
weekend a month, totally alone,” a friend says dreamily, the
way a child talks about Christmas. Another friend has a small sideline
in real estate, buying and renting out apartments. She does it for
the income. But “somewhere,” she says, “tucked
away in the back of my mind, is the fantasy that if one of them
were vacant, I could go and live there. I could have a dollhouse
of my own.”
Women’s fiction teems with characters who act on the fantasy
of flight, from the best-seller Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood—in which the most flamboyant character runs
out of the house early one morning, wearing only lingerie under
her cashmere coat, to have a nervous breakdown in a hotel—to
Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, in which a woman stalks off
the beach during an argument with her husband and simply disappears
for a whole new life in a town down the road. “The most surprising
number of women,” a policeman tells the vanished woman’s
family, “seem to take it into their heads to walk out during
The fantasy is itself our secret refuge, the part of ourselves
we manage to hold out above the water rising around us, the way
an infantryman knows to keep his rifle dry as he fords the river.
It is the box of chocolates the Victorian lady kept under her sofa;
it is the sullen flame at which we warm our chapped martyr’s
hands. It is the passive-aggressive last resort of the outwardly
pliant servant who is secretly pissing into the punchbowl. And
sometimes we do escape. Time by ourselves is a treasure we sneak
or steal in the furtive interstices of married life. When our husbands
are out of town on business, when we are out of town on business,
between the errands we have to run. Haven’t you seen her
at your local Starbucks, the forty-ish woman alone in the corner,
nursing her latte and her 1,000-yard stare?
It goes without saying, I hope it does, that this is not about
loving, or not loving, our families. It’s about the vast
difference between who we were and the women we are slowly becoming,
and the insistent, half-glimpsed hunch that if only we could stop
and think, or something, these selves might negotiate a more deliberate
I remember that as a teenager I pitied my mother because she had
to stay up so late putting the house in order. Now, of course, I
know that the time was precious to her: time to be alone, to bring
the world around her to the order it never had when those she loved
were there. Now I am her.
“I like to stop at 7-Eleven
on my way home,” confesses a friend, “and get one of
those really horrible biscuit-and-sausage things and put it in
the microwave, and go and eat it in the car, in the dark, and no
one knows where I am.”
So what if, a new book asks, we took this fantasy seriously? What
if we actually escaped—without resentment, without the mulish
air of the aggrieved, without apology? What if we just went away
for a while?
Reprinted with permission by PublicAffairs, ©2006