It’s never too late to be what you might have been. – George Elliot
Years from now, long after I’m dead, a world-famous art historian will discover my body of work and write a 573-page internationally best-selling book about it.
“This piece,” he’ll write about Autoportrait de l’artiste, “was painted on 16 December 2021 for the occasion of the artist’s forty-sixth birthday. From this self-portrait, one may deduce several of her most important character traits. She is fiercely independent, for example. She is also mischievously playful, and incredibly clever. Her face, which is painted almost entirely on a smaller piece of superposed paper, is bright and joyful. The artist is in a good place.”
There was a time, however, when the artist had not been in such a good place. A time when she was too stuck in the financial comfort of marriage to be independent, too angry at herself to be playful, too dumb to be clever. The face she put forward in those days was not so bright, not so joyful.
Her name was Fanny Fox.
Fanny Fox was married to Wally Wolf, but she was not in love with Wally Wolf. Fanny Fox was in love with Eddy Eagle.
Every moment stolen with Eddy Eagle was a sunny summer day spent at the county fair with balloons and flowers and beautiful music in the air, people smiling all around, the sweet smell of sugar always in her nose, the taste of it always on her lips.
Eddy Eagle made Fanny Fox feel like a fox. He gave her what she was missing at home. He made her feel whole. He made her happy.
But it wasn’t meant to last; county fairs never do.
One day, out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning blasts them out of the Ferris wheel. Eddy Eagle lands into the arms of the woman he’ll eventually marry, Fanny Fox headfirst into an enormous pile of crap.
And then it’s the House of Horrors. For Fanny Fox, of course. But also for Wally Wolf. Fanny Fox had always been a little impatient and irritable, a little negative and critical, morose sometimes even, but this? All day? Every day? It’s miserable!
Wally Wolf is sick of arguing about the same thing over and over. Fanny Fox can keep living this way if she wants, fighting and sweeping up the pieces, fighting and sweeping up the pieces, but not Wally Wolf! Wally Wolf has had it with this pile of crap! Wally Wolf is going to do something about it!
“What was your relationship with your father like?” The therapist asks me. She’s sitting in an oversized armchair in her Court Street office, across from where I sit on the couch. My husband has just left me, I’m in crisis, there are no more Kleenex in the damn box, and the only thing this 250$-an-hour bitch has to say to me is, What was my relationship with my father like?
Lady, please! I didn’t come here to talk about my father! I came here to talk about Jerry! The same Jerry who, if you’ve been listening to me, has just blown our house down!
Yes, there are women who marry versions of their fathers, I am aware of this. My friend Bonnie from university, for example. The only jerk bigger than the jerk Bonnie married was her father. But that’s Bonnie. And I’m not Bonnie. And Jerry is not my father. Jerry is Jerry. End of story.
Or is it?
“It’s the idea of Fanny Fox that I love,” Wally Wolf will tell the marriage counselors several months after blowing the house down. She’ll be sitting right next to him, feet soaked from the rainy walk over to this office, but she may as well not even be in the room. She may as well never have been in the room. Wally Wolf’s disinterest in Fanny Fox’s body has been a reality of their relationship since the days of its inception in the wild woods of Maine. This disinterest has done nothing but make her miserable. Miserable and lonely and empty and angry and frustrated. Fanny Fox is starved for attention and physical touch and loving words of endearment! It’s not enough for her to be an idea! It is not enough to live in the same house, side by side, but not touch each other or say loving words to each other!
How many more years would Fanny Fox have waited for this to be different? Why did she ever think it could be different? What had prevented her from leaving years ago, from packing up her stuff and moving on? She’d been madly in love with Eddy Eagle, but she’d let him slip through her paws, like a stupid little fox, and now he’s gone and it’s too late and not only does she not have Eddy Eagle, she doesn’t even have the stability and the financial security that her marriage to Wally Wolf had afforded her!
“My relationship with my father,” I would tell that therapist now, “was like a book with two chapters in it. Chapter one is heaven. He picks me up, cuddles with me, naps by my side on the big brown couch in the back living room, lets me paint his fingernails and style his hair and swing like a monkey off his flexed arms. I don’t have to ask him if he loves me; I know he does. At the end of the chapter, though, tragedy strikes. We are playing as usual, but maybe a little too rough, and I kick him so hard in the balls that he sees stars and my mother yells ‘Ça bon!’ and the father I knew and loved disappeared. Forever. Chapter two is thus a purgatory of some sort. My father is there, but not there. There is none of what we had before, only confusion and doubt when I wonder if he loves me or not, only the deepest of longing for him to see me, to notice me, to pick me up and twirl me around in the air and stop acting like I don’t exist.”
“And this is how you felt with Jerry?” the therapist would ask, “Like you didn’t exist?”
“We’d get into these blow-out fights about sex,” I would say by way of response, “I’d yell, ‘You never touch me!’ and Jerry would yell back, ‘I touch you all the time!’ I don’t know anymore which one of us was right.”
“If it’s a question of perception, maybe both of you,” she would offer.
“Maybe both of us,” I would concur. “In any case, it wasn’t enough. Not in the end. Not in the beginning. Why did I do that to myself? Why did I date and then choose to marry a man who resembled in this way the father of chapter two, the man who didn’t give me the attention and the affection I craved so badly? Am I a total idiot?”
This is where the therapist would smile sympathetically. She’s seen this story played out before her so many times: women who marry some version of their fucked-up fathers and wonder later when it all falls apart how it could possibly have fallen apart.
“Tell me more about the father in chapter one,” she would say instead of answering my questions, and she would be right to do so. Chapter two is chapter two. It can’t be unwritten. Neither can chapter one, for that matter, and thank goodness! If there was to be another relationship in my life, and I wanted there to be one, the key to its success could be found in chapter one. Who are the characters in that chapter? What about their relationship made the little girl of the duo feel so alive and whole, so loved and cherished? Who might I be now if I knew the answers to those questions?
After his opening paragraph on Autoportrait de l’artist, the world-famous art historian will spend some time discussing the possible intentions behind the artist’s choice to paint most of her face on a smaller piece of superposed paper. If he knew the truth, he would certainly chuckle. She’d only made a mistake, but rather than scrap the whole piece and start over, she redid only the section that required fixing.
The mistake you made of marrying the father-like figure from chapter two cannot be erased, but it need not be what defines you moving forward. Paint yourself over, this time with a face as rich and bright as the child’s from chapter one, the one who never once doubted how much she was loved. Paint yourself as you might have been, as you know you can be.
Happy birthday, Fanny Fox. You’ve come a long way, my beautiful, clever little friend.