Joan Juliet Buck explores how her grandmother’s one regret came to shape her own history of romantic entanglements.
In the bar of Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz shortly before New Year’s Eve 1965, the dazzling British wife of a famous German baron turned to my grandmother and asked her, “If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently?” My grandmother, Nana to me, Esta to others, pulled herself up in a big black dress with the good diamond brooch so as to be a little less short, a little less fat, and rolled her beautiful green eyes to the ceiling the way she had when she was a model. She was nearing 70, seven years the widow of my unreliable grandfather, the only husband she’d ever had. She pursed her lips, and said at last—the suspense had silenced our side of the bar—“I’d have done everything the same, but I’d have been fast.”
In the language of her youth, “fast” meant loose. As a fast woman, Nana would have many lovers instead of years of patience rewarded by the occasional good diamond. I was 16, old enough to feel her longing for missed adventures, young enough to imagine that if I lived the life she craved, I would have no regrets. I’d dance through life with different men, and know love the way poor Nana never had.
My parents had left Hollywood for Paris when I was 3, and Paris for London when I was 9; I was slightly French and slightly British. My producer father was far too proud of how well I spoke French, and overwhelmed me with so much love and approval that I felt he owned me. I viewed husbands as dominant fathers, guards who fed and housed you, dressed you according to their taste, and expected you to obey. I didn’t want one of those, I wanted a transcendent complicity.
Sons and nephews were introduced, approved boyfriends, careful boys with slicked-back hair, suits, cars; I wanted the boys with hair as long as medieval pages’, poetic and androgynous in the mode of early Mick Jagger. My first sexual encounter turned out to be the collision of my hopeful fantasy with the embarrassed fumblings of an 18-year-old boy in a Black Watch tartan shirt, who quickly broke my heart with a hasty retreat. I’d like to say that I brushed it off and went out dancing with heirs, but the rejection was so stinging that I felt myself banished from normal, happy love. I sighed for three straight years, and went into a swoon at any glimpse of Black Watch tartan.
In my bedroom in London, I listened to Leonard Cohen sing about Suzanne who feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China, and fastened on the line, “You’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.” His words told me that a mind could touch a body, that sex was a profound, mystical exchange.
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