James is scared about his work. Every time he finishes a piece, he’s scared he won’t get another one. When he gets another assignment (he always does, but it doesn’t make any difference), he’s scared he won’t make the deadline. When he makes the deadline, he’s scared his editor (or editors—there are always faceless editors lurking around in the dark little offices at magazines) won’t like the piece. When they like the piece, he’s scared that it won’t get published. When it does get published, he’s scared that no one will read it or talk about it. If people do talk about it (and they don’t always, do they?—in which case he’s scared that he’s not a great journalist), he’s scared that he won’t be able to pull it off again.
But most of all, James is scared of his wife. Winnie. She doesn’t seem to be scared of anything—and that scares him. When Winnie should be scared—when she has an impossible deadline, or can’t get people to cooperate on interviews, or doesn’t think she’s getting the assignments she wants, she gets angry instead of scared. She calls people and screams. She faxes, she e-mails. She marches into her editors’ offices and has “hissy fits” (his term, and he’d never too her he uses it).
“I hope you’re not implying that my work isn’t good enough,” she says to editors. “Because I’ve already done a kazillion [that’s one of her favorite words, kazillion] stories for you and they were good enough. So if suddenly you don’t want to give me the assignment …” She lets her voice trail off. She never says the word: “sexism.” But it hangs in the air, like a glass ornament, threatening to break and draw blood.
Everyone is just a tiny bit scared of Winnie, and James is scared that one of these days, she won’t get the assignment, or she’ll get fired.
But she always does get the assignment. At the potluck suppers (“our salon” they call it) they host every other Tuesday night (they invite other serious journalists like themselves, and discuss the political implications of everything from the V-chips to rent hikes, to what’s happened to the journalists who were fired from New York Newsday, to the scandal of 60 Minutes pulling its planned segment on the Clinton Whitewater book), Winnie will discuss whatever story she is working on. Everyone will be sitting with Limoges plates on their laps, and they will be eating iceberg lettuce with fat-free salad dressing and skinless chicken breasts, and maybe some rice, and then there’s fat-free frozen yogurt for dessert, and Winnie will say, “I want to know what everyone thinks about the new NBC 24-hour news channel. I’m doing my column on it this week.” When she started doing this, a few years ago, James thought it was cute. But now he gets annoyed. (He never shows it.) Why is she always asking everyone else what they think? Doesn’t she have her own thoughts? And he looks around the room to see if any of the other men (husbands) are sharing the same sentiment.
He can’t tell. He can never tell. Maybe if people got drunk—but they only drink little, wee glasses of wine. No one they know drinks hard alcohol anymore. James often wants to ask these other husbands what they think of their wives. Are they scared of them, too? Do they ever have fantasies of pushing their wives down on the bed and ripping off their underpants and … (James sort of tried something like that with Winnie, but she slapped him and wouldn’t talk to him for three days afterward.) Mostly he wants to know: Are other men scared of Winnie?
Sometimes, James thinks Winnie is scared that he’s going to leave her. But she never says she’s scared. Instead, she says something like, “We’ve been married for 10 years and have a child. I’d get half of everything if we ever got divorced and it’d be awfully hard for you to live on half of what we owned and only your income, minus child support.”
There are times when James doesn’t feel like the man in the relationship. But then he asks himself what Winnie would say if he told her that. She’d say, “What does it mean to ‘feel like a man,’ anyway? What does ‘a man’ feel like?” And since he never can answer those questions, he has to agree with Winnie.
On their second date, Winnie told James that, in the 70’s, she smoked marijuana (age 14), let boys feel her up and down (16), lost her virginity (17) to a neighborhood boy (18, very good looking). They did it in the basement of his parents’ house, where he had a cot set up. After, he drove her home, and she can still remember him singing along to the radio (R.E.O. Speedwagon), oblivious to her wounded, yearning presence. He wasn’t impressed that she was going to Smith in the fall, and he didn’t care that she was No. 3 in her high school class (tolerable only because the two students above her were boys). That night, she learned that achievement and intelligence were not a guarantee against being treated badly, and vowed never to be in that situation again.
Winnie’s birthday is coming, and James is scared. And excited. Because of Winnie’s sister.
Winnie has a sister and a brother. Everybody loves Winnie’s brother. He graduated from U.C.L.A. film school, just finished a serious documentary about rice farmers in China.
Everybody “worries” about Winnie’s sister. Evie (“Evil,” Winnie call her sometimes) is two years younger than Winnie. Eight summer ago, Evie had to go to Hazeldon. Since then, she’s changed her mind every six months about what she wants to do: Actress. Landscape architect. Singer. Real estate agent. Novelist. Movie director. Painter. Now she wants to be a journalist. Like Winnie.