My First Marriage By Susan Engel

 

 

When I was seven years old, my mother’s friend Truman gave me a fur snake.  Truman was a famous writer, and famously queenly, before others were. He didn’t like children, especially not children who kept his friend from spending time with him. So it was a surprise when he sashayed into our home and called out, in his lispy lilt, “Susie, where are you? I brought you something”, and tossing the snake at me, said, off handedly, “Here. This reminded me of you.” It was gorgeous, about five feet long, and as thick as an ermine collar. In fact, I wore it around my neck as if it were an ermine collar. Though in truth it was made of brown rabbit fur.  What made the gift remarkable was that unbeknownst to Truman, the fur snake had been fashioned by another family friend, Mab, the mother of my former fiancé, Jesse.

I met Jesse when we were five and his mother moved into a sleek modern house down the road from the farm where I lived in Sagaponack. She was going to live there with her many children, while her husband Bo toiled away writing scripts somewhere else. I can remember my parents telling amused, slightly scandalized tales about Mab and Bo. While Bo was busy writing, Mab wafted around her house, and all of Sagaponack, looking voluptuous and fecund, with her thick long dark hair, olive skin and full breasts, baking bread, sewing exotic stuffed animals out of expensive fur, and beguiling everyone. Sometimes, they said, when local tradesmen came to the house, Mab was naked. They had, at that point, four daughters and Jesse (though some time that year she had a sixth child, another little boy).

Many of the stories about them seemed ludicrous, but I believed them. The grown ups reported that Mab fixed a Martini for Jesse saying to him,  “Have a drink. You’re the man of the house while Dad’s away.” They said she asked my stepfather, Bud, who hunted, to teach Jesse how to shoot, so that he could protect his mom and four sisters when Bo was away writing plays and movies. But they also said that when she had trouble nursing the new baby, she invited Jesse to take a little swig, to see if her milk was flowing properly. So, as far as I knew, he was nursing, drinking Martini’s and keeping a rifle in the corner of his bedroom, all during his fifth year. My mother still likes to imitate Mab, from so long ago, insisting that my stepfather, who was a farmer, drive her to the hospital in his pick-up when she went into labor. But somewhere in that story, beautiful pregnant Mab also invited my handsome rugged stepfather into her home so that he could help her with some manly chore like closing windows, or fixing the electricity. I have no idea how all of that worked out- the nakedness, the childbirth, and the seduction.

At any rate, while the adults were cavorting, or fabricating stories about cavorting, Jesse and I became instant friends. We were smitten with one another from the first day of school at John Marshall Elementary in East Hampton. In my memory Jesse looked dark and stormy, bubbling with vitality, though it’s hard to imagine I clocked any of that as a five year-old. His hair was longer and more unruly than the other boys’ in our class, whose dads were fishermen, farmers, and carpenters; he had a pug nose and a slightly belligerent manner I was drawn to. I can’t honestly remember how we spent the time, but I know we played together a lot of that year.

He bought my engagement ring at Rana’s, the five and dime in the village that we referred to as “upstreet”, meaning it was three miles up the street from my home.  I think the ring cost 25 cents, but maybe not that much. It was 1964.  He offered me the ring, by way of proposal, in the field across from my home. It must have been June because I can remember all the dandelions tickling the sides of our bare feet. I remember knowing the moment was important- he with the ring and the dark bouncy curls, me with the skinny limbs, and lank pale hair.

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