Sunday, February 13, 2011

AS YOU LIKE IT: A lesson in love from Mrs. Wembley

"Love abhors a zipper," said Mrs. Wembley.
     “Valentine’s Day,” said Mrs. Wembley, stroking Camille with one hand and finishing off the Times crossword, in ink, with the other. “Right. Only holiday to celebrate a bodily organ, refined sugar, thorny plants, primitive weapons, and a pathological state of mind. Love abhors a zipper, Worfle.”
     “Primitive weapons? Zippers?” I asked, trying to get comfortable on her all-convex, sun-yellow plastic sofa, designed with a protractor and crayons by disciples of the Memphis School of design.
      “Bows. Arrows. Cupid. That sort of thing,” she said from the other end of the sofa, clarifying weapons but adding nothing about zippers. Much of what Mrs. Wembley says dwells forever in the realm of the unexplained. She threw her pen and the Times on the coffee table, which was a bigger-than-life, laminated plastic replica of a standing slice of watermelon. A rose (the “thorny plant” referred to above) stuck out at an oblique angle from one of the apertures of a plastic vase on the coffee table. Everything in Mrs. Wembley’s house is hard, geometrical, and avant garde except for Camille, her soft, flatulent, eclectic dog, who has been pretending to die for going on eight years and is spoiled senseless. “I like plastic” is how Mrs. Wembley explains her taste in furnishings. “I like Camille” is how she explains her taste in dogs. I had brought her the rose for Valentine’s Day.
"Love runs in a two-tap sink."
     Mrs. Wembley lives down the street from me, and I often go to her for advice, particularly on matters of the heart (the “bodily organ” referred to above). She has been married twice, but claims to have spent the last fifty years happily single. “Right. I tested the waters. Too hot once. Too cold once. Love runs in a two-tap sink,” she explained, adding delphically, “Love starts at the end, Worfle, and reads backwards till it’s done.”
     Most of our neighbors claim Mrs. Wembley is dotty, but I don’t think so. It was Mrs. Wembley, after all, who notified me many years ago that the Successful Single had given up hard soap for liquid soap, and toothpaste tubes for push-button toothpaste cans, and who alerted me to the switch back before it happened. On my few dates during my Single Life, her advice was borne out in the bathrooms of Modern Women. It was Mrs. Wembley also who advised me in my Single Years that it is permissible for a man to take his contact lens equipment with him on a date, just in case. “Better to be presumptuous and prepared than polite and stupid,” she said. “Love isn’t blind, Worfle. It’s nearsighted, though.”
     I don’t know how Mrs. Wembley knows about these things, but she does. She is wiry and tan, with short white hair and a clipped accent. She spends a lot of time in her garden. Women like that often know about things.

St. Valentine
     Anyway, I was in Mrs. Wembley’s living room, and we were discussing Valentine’s Day and love (the “pathological condition” referred to above).
     “Right. Birds,” she was saying.
     “Birds?” I asked.
     “February 14—the day the birds mate. That’s what Chaucer thought. Also the day before Lupercalia. L-u-p-e-r-c-a-l-i-a. Roman festival. Wolf destroyer and all that. Boys drew lots to see which girl they’d get. Medieval church said whoa— made the boys draw saints’ names, instead. ‘To expect a woman and draw a saint is ever a disappointment to mortal man!’ wrote the wag. Right. Then a Saint’s Day for Valentine, whoever he was. Beaten to death with clubs and beheaded. Right. Perfect saint for love.”
     I was, as usual, having trouble keeping up, and I was still uncomfortable on the sofa, on which I kept slipping toward the sides. Large Camille, lying between us, whined insincerely and rolled over on her back to be scratched. I accommodated her. She showed her gratitude by silently expressing her flatulence and falling asleep. Mrs. Wembley picked up some knitting. She is rarely still.
     “Listen, Worfle,” she said, “never love if you can like.”
     “Excuse me?” I said.
     Mrs. Wembley shot me an impatient look over the needles. “Love never forgives,” she continued. “Like forgives anything—pimples, tics, ugly laughs, even whiskers in the sink. Same things that drive Love to fury. Love won’t survive the toilet seat, Worfle. Love doesn’t give coupons. And listen, Worfle, Love is permanent-pressed: once wrinkled, always wrinkled.”
     Fat Camille, dreaming now, legs twitching, was chasing a rabbit in a field, imagination her only exercise. Her head was in Mrs. Wembley’s lap. Again, I was having trouble following Mrs. Wembley’s train of thought, and as usual I was convinced the fault was mine. She was looking sideways at me, still knitting. I kept quiet and let her go on.
     “Right,” she continued, looking back at her knitting. “Like’s the better thing. If Quixote had only liked Dulcinea. If Romeo had only liked Juliet. No one is ever like-sick. No one is ever like-lorn. Like’s labor’s never lost. Better to ask, ‘How do I like thee? Let me count the ways.’ Right. Longer list. Like conquers all.” I grinned. Mrs. Wembley never grins. Instead, needles flying, she dipped a ladle deeper into her boiling pot of aphorisms.

"Love is plaid," said Mrs. Wembley.
     “All love is puppy love, Worfle,” she said. “Love never runs out of detergent. Love runs on direct current. Love won’t watch reruns, Worfle, and Love can’t read a watch. Love carries in its pocket a slip of paper with a smeared number on it, and Love listens to Beethoven’s Sixth. Love is not a shopping mall, Worfle. Love is plaid, not pink, no matter what they say. Love doesn’t own a cell phone and can never write its signature the same way twice. Love cannot make correct change to save its life. Love is a many-splintered thing, Worfle, and Love means always having to say you’re sorry.”
     Finally, she stopped and caught her breath, the paroxysm over. I had understood almost none of it. “And I?” she asked suddenly, dropping her hands and looking off into the distance. “I suppose I’ve loved not well but too wisely.” At this she sighed, a rare act for her. Camille, sensing she was being upstaged, awoke, licked the hand that feeds her, coughed softly, and whined. Mrs. Wembley petted her affectionately, and with an absent mind. Camille gazed at her mistress adoringly, upside down. I took a handful of candy hearts from a plastic tray and let myself out.

(The original version of this story originally appeared in the February 1985 issue of Memphis magazine and others.)

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