When Phil Potter decides to divorce his wife, Jessica, after a few difficult years, he imagines he’s in for a wild jaunt through the sexually liberated 1970s. But his new start—Phil has also left behind his job in PR for a teaching gig at a junior college—is more solitary drinking and TV dinners than raucous orgies. Even the women he does manage to connect with are equally disaffected with their own divorces or failing marriages, and Phil begins to understand the harsh, though often darkly funny, realities of starting over and searching for love the second time around.
Capturing both the excitement and struggles of feminism and the sexual revolution, Starting Over depicts the pleasures and pitfalls of dating in the seventies with humor and a deep understanding of how relationships work—or, more commonly, don’t work. Replete with spot-on cultural references and rendered under Wakefield’s careful journalistic eye, Starting Over is a stunning reminder of the hardships of love in the modern age.
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By Dan Wakefield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Dan Wakefield
All rights reserved.
Potter was lucky; everyone told him so.
"You're lucky," they said, "that you didn't have any children."
Divorce wasn't any bowl of cherries, of course, but as long as there weren't any children involved it wasn't an irreparable damage, like the sundering of a full-blown family. Just the busted dream of a couple of consenting adults. When Potter met new people and the subject of his recent divorce came up, he was congratulated so often for not having any children, he was tempted to start passing out cigars of celebration, saying heartily, "It wasn't a boy — or a girl!" But instead he did the appropriate thing, which was to shake his head in a kind of thoughtful wonderment and breathe a relieved whew. Nobody loves an ingrate.
Potter indeed was glad that he hadn't brought any innocent parties into the mess, but the fact that things could be worse is little comfort when they're bad enough. The truth was, divorce had disappointed him. Maybe, like marriage, he had expected too much of it.
He naturally assumed that when he got the divorce he would feel a sense of relief and release. He had spent five tumultuous years with Jessica, the last four of them in a state of holy matrimony, the last one of those in a state of desperation that he felt sure could only be alleviated by divorce. It took that year to persuade his wife it was best for both of them, and she finally agreed to go down to Haiti for one of the quickie splits offered there. It was one of the popular spots for such transactions since Mexico had, in effect, gone out of the business.
A lawyer told Potter the Dominican Republic would be better, legally, but Jessica said since the whole thing was his idea anyway, and as she was only doing it as a favor she ought to get to go where she wanted and stay on afterward for a vacation. Potter had offered to give her the household goods and three thousand dollars from his savings account of $4,172.37 so that she would have time to re-settle if she wanted, and take a break from work for a while. They both agreed it was fair for their own circumstances, though sometimes Jessica mumbled the word "alimony," which made Potter very nervous and anxious to accede to her wishes. As to the divorce site, she explained that the Dominican Republic sounded drab and official, while Haiti had "color." Potter privately imagined that she wanted to go to Haiti in order to offer herself as White Queen in some voodoo ritual gang-bang, just to spite him, but he couldn't raise that as an argument and so gave in. He got a postcard from Port au Prince, with a beach scene. It wasn't signed, it just said, in Jessica's carefully manicured script: "You're free now."
The word sunk into him like a stone.
Instead of relief, he felt a kind of interior pain that varied from dental-drill intensity to a secondhand ache.
"What you're feeling," said Arnie, "is only natural."
Arnie was a hip psychologist who lived on some sort of commune around Nyack, and came in three days a week to the Hotel Royalton in midtown Manhattan, where he held office hours, counselling the numerous theatre and music people who liked his informal, wide-ranging approach to their hangups. The public relations firm that Potter worked for handled a lot of show business clients, and through them he had heard considerable praise for Arnie Freiheiter, and had met him informally at parties, so that making an appointment with him didn't seem like such a big deal as going to a regular shrink in an Upper East Side office. It just seemed like dropping around for an hour or so to chat with Arnie. Still, Potter was somehow annoyed by the fact that Arnie sat cross- legged on the couch, without any shoes or socks on. Potter felt that if a guy was going to deal with your problems he might at least put his shoes on.
"What the hell is natural about it?" Potter asked. "What I'm feeling?"
Arnie shrugged. "Like," he said, "any kind of split. Like you leave home when you're a kid, you feel homesick."
"But I wanted to leave," Potter said. "My wife, I mean."
"Right. Just like the kid may have wanted to split from the scene at home and go away to camp, but then when he gets there he's homesick."
"You mean to say I'm homesick for my wife?"
"Look. When you split from someone, no matter how bad it was, you feel a loss. You were used to your marriage. It was comfortable."
"Fuck it was comfortable."
"I don't mean like that. I mean in the sense that it was familiar."
Potter felt like thanking Arnie for his time, but he knew the hour wasn't nearly up and it would have seemed rude to leave. He would have given his left nut for a stiff belt of Scotch, but he knew that Arnie didn't drink. In fact, Arnie was in the process of rolling a joint.
Potter shared it with him, as he always did when offered grass, because he had learned it was more of a hassle to refuse and have to hear lectures about the glories of the weed and how you just weren't getting it down in your diaphragm if you weren't getting high. Potter was a drinking man and grass only made him sleepy, but he smoked it to be sociable and forestall people from preaching at him.
Potter took a deep drag, coughed, and passed the damn thing back to Arnie. He concentrated on holding it in, tried to think it into working, and began to think of all the other times he'd been through this — picturing people, places, rooms — when he realized Arnie was asking him something.
"I asked," Arnie repeated, "if you'd ever read Doris Lessing."
Potter admitted he had not, and Arnie explained that more and more of his women patients had been laying her books on him, and he'd really begun to get into her stuff. He advised Potter that if he wanted to be able to have a meaningful relationship with a new woman, he would do well to get into Lessing himself. Potter nodded, squelching a yawn.
"Lessing," he said, as if making a mental note.
Cabs were battling below, on Forty-fourth Street. The Algonquin, with its marvelous cocktail lounge, was only a stone's throw away. Potter figured he might just stop off there for a quick one on his way back to the office. Arnie had uncrossed his legs, stood up, stretched, and reached into his shirt to scratch at his belly. He said he'd be happy to see Potter again next week, his fee was forty dollars. Potter wondered if that included the joint. For the same amount, he could buy five fifths of good Scotch. Which is what he would do from now on.
Olney and Sheperdson, the PR firm Potter worked for, was holding a cocktail party at Sardi's to introduce the press to the cast of Serenity!, a new improvisational musical based on the Bhagavad-Gita. Heskel, the man from Billboard, was nudging Potter and pointing at one of the girl Serenity! singers, all of whom were dressed in mini-saris. "I could meditate on that little ass of hers for quite a spell."
"Nice," Potter commented, "very nice."
Bud Olney, the firm's senior partner, was passing out paperbound copies of the Bhagavad-Gita. "Here you go, Heskel," he said, winking, "this'll elevate that mind of yours."
"My mind is elevated just to the level of all these twitchy little asses."
"Seriously," Olney said, his voice lowering a register, "you ought to talk to some of these kids. This isn't just a hype, you know — every member of the cast has studied meditation in India for at least three months as a prerequisite for joining the production. Tell him about it, Potter."
"That's right," Potter said. "Three months."
Olney moved on, and the Billboard man shook his head at Potter with an envious grin. "You lucky bastard."
"Heard you got divorced. Got nothin' to tie ya down."
"Oh — yeah."
"Me with a family at the wrong fuckin' time in history. Hey — look at that one."
"Nice," Potter nodded.
He didn't want to disillusion anyone by mentioning that even though divorced he felt generally miserable, and the prospect of screwing a Serenity! singer didn't do much to dispel the gloom. No matter what went on in his head, though, Potter looked the part of a guy for whom things came easily, and that aura was good for his business. He moved with a casual grace and style, and his curly black hair invited the fingers of girls who liked to tousle it. He had a charm that was partly Irish, from his father's side, and a tinge of southern from his mother and from growing up in Washington, D.C., and going to college at Vanderbilt. His father was a career man in the State Department, and it might be said that Potter inherited or assimilated traits of "diplomacy," though he never thought of his old man's stern demeanor as being "diplomatic" in the ameliorative sense of the word. Unlike his father, Potter talked glibly, and had a knack for tuning into other people's feelings and outlooks. Businessmen trusted him instinctively, and the far-out clients he handled from the world of Rock soon came to accept him in spite of his consistent Brooks Brothers dress. Everyone thought him pretty dashing.
It occurred to Potter — as a man who dealt in images — that perhaps he'd feel better if he tried a little harder right now to behave according to his own image, and so he stoked up his charm, and asked a Serenity! singer to lunch.
Her name was Cressy, and she had big, dewy eyes. "Are you sure you're not married?" she asked.
He assured her he in fact was officially divorced (he had the postcard to prove it), and she seemed to relax.
"It's not a moral thing with me," she explained. "It's just bad karma to make it with a married man."
Potter assured her he understood, and things went pleasantly enough for a while. Then Cressy began picking at her chicken salad in a laconic manner. Something else was on her mind.
"Why do people get divorced?" she asked, her eyes large and vacant.
"Why — uh — it's different," Potter said sweetly. "Every case is different. You know — like Tolstoy's 'unhappy families.'"
The literary allusion was lost on Cressy; Potter stared intently at a tiny dab of mayonnaise on her lower lip, which was pouting slightly outward. He imagined leaning over to lick it off, but only smiled, patiently.
"Why did you though? Do it?"
"Simple," Potter said, lifting his palms upward. "My wife and I couldn't live together."
"Didn't you love each other?"
"Madly and passionately."
"Well — what was the problem, then?"
"I just told you."
"Loving each other?"
"It's a hard thing to live with, day in and day out."
"I guess I don't understand," she said.
"Maybe you will. Sometime."
Cressy grew despondent and grumpy, refusing dessert and monkeying with the strap on her watch. Potter called for the check.
The next morning he woke around ten with a specially bad hangover. He was not in the small, cluttered apartment on Christopher Street he had sublet from a girl at his office who had moved in with an electric guitarist on the Lower East Side. But he knew from the noise he was still in Manhattan. The garbage trucks were gorging themselves in the street below, making that high metallic groan as they swallowed the muck that the city had prepared for their morning feast. Potter thought of them as a herd of mechanical dinosaurs that would someday take over and rule the whole island. And, just down the block, came the headsplitting rapidfire bursts of a pneumatic drill that was ripping up the street again. Potter turned and looked beside him in bed, groggily expecting he might see his wife — now former wife — but saw instead a stranger he had picked up the night before at Julius's. She was a secretary somewhere or other. She was not especially pretty, and had vomited on the stairs. The girl moved toward him under the sheet, yawning. He put his hand gently on her shoulder. "I'm going," he said.
"Hmmm? For breakfast?"
"No, for good."
She jerked up, as if slapped, blinked her eyes, and pulled the sheet around her shoulders, protectively. "Well thanks one hell of a lot."
"I'm sorry. It's not you. I mean I've got to get out of this whole damn thing."
He flung himself out of the bed and started pulling his clothes on, frantically, as if he were leaving a burning building.
"What whole damn thing?" the girl demanded.
Potter waved his arms, wildly, trying to encompass what he meant. All he could say in explanation was: "New York."CHAPTER 2
Instead of going to work that day, Potter went to Boston. He often fled there when things seemed to be closing in on him, took a train or a shuttle flight and holed up at Max and Marva Bertelsen's fine old brownstone in Louisburg Square, the ritziest part of Beacon Hill. It was a haven, a place to unwind and calm down from the jangle and rush of New York.
He caught a one o'clock train from Penn. Station. It was New York spring and the day was warm and drizzly, the tops of the taller buildings shrouded in smog. Potter didn't like to fly in that weather — but even more important, he wanted the luxury of slow, suspended time that the train would afford. He went to the snack car — a compromise combination of diner and club car, and ordered a club sandwich and a beer. He finished quickly, then settled back to enjoy a series of slowly-sipped Scotch and sodas. He was calmed by the rocking motion of the train, the rain slurring the windows, and the wet towns and cities he could watch from the safety and warmth of the car, isolated. He had bought no papers or magazines, but chainsmoked and sipped his drinks, not exactly trying to "think things out," but hoping something would come to him, some new idea or answer.
Around New London, Connecticut, he recalled a magazine article he had read a month or so before in his dentist's waiting room. At the time it meant little to him, but now seemed extremely significant. It told how different guys in middle age had completely changed their lives, had left lucrative but unsatisfying jobs and careers and even professions and set out to find true fulfillment, even though it meant less money and prestige and more hardships. A veterinarian who had built up a terrific practice in Beverly Hills had thrown it all up, including his house with kidney-shaped swimming pool and Jaguar XKE, and gone to Oregon to work in a lumber camp. An auto executive who was rising up the corporate ladder and leading the good life in fashionable Grosse Point, Michigan, had chucked everything to become a male nurse. The owner of a textile mill in West Virginia had sold out to some conglomerate and taken his wife and children to live on a commune outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they learned to make pottery and tie-dyed bedspreads.
All over the country, it seemed, growing numbers of people were giving up the grind, getting out of the rut they were in, and doing what the hell they pleased. It wasn't just the kids anymore. It was solid, respectable people like auto executives and veterinarians. Not many perhaps, but a growing trickle, a discernible stream. Potter himself knew a couple who had left the publishing business and bought a working farm in New Hampshire. They had sent out a mimeographed newsletter to their old friends in New York, reporting how happy they were and explaining they were "into crop rotation."
When Potter graduated from college in '58, nobody did that stuff; at least nobody you knew, nobody who had a good education and a chance of making it in business or the arts or professions. Only the weirdos, the copouts and dropouts who couldn't cut it anyway left the mainstream of American opportunity, spurned the golden current of success, and really meant it. But now, if you left a good job in a leading law firm and went to northern Vermont to tap maple sugar, you were sort of envied. At least you weren't scorned. The truth was, as far as Potter could figure it, nobody gave a shit anymore. There was something nice about that. But it was also a little bit scary, as if in the middle of a game you were playing the rules had been changed, or just forgotten about, and you had to pretty much make things up as you went along and pretend you knew what the hell you were doing. On top of that, Potter was uncomfortably aware that for him a good part of the game was already over. He had just turned thirty-four. That was pretty near the halfway mark, or maybe even way past it, the way he was boozing. Time to shit or get off the pot if you were going to make a new move, really start over. And what better time than now, the first year of a new decade? The Seventies. Stretching ahead, as yet only four months soiled.
Excerpted from Starting Over by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 1973 Dan Wakefield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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