No socially defined term existed for the relationship between Bob and I. Sexual intimacy was there because it was such an intensive part of his being — ask anyone in town — but I was just learning. Respectable people had an almost mystical understanding of artistic success but they also mostly had strong borders protecting their daughters. When Karen Douglas was prepping for a piano competition, her father asked Bob to coach her but also asked that I stay in the room with them at all times.
I thought it was because Bob wanted me to learn about piano playing, so I listened carefully. He was talking about “interpretation” — how to feel when to hold onto a note a split-second longer, how to know whether to hit harder or lighter, when to blur and when to sharpen. The principles would have held for a painting. They were about human perception of feeling.
But since I was the aggressor in the relationship — as Bob put it to someone, “She just won’t go away!” — it was a relief to him after a lifetime of being blamed, and felt like control to me though I never threatened to leave or set boundaries. He refused the idea that I was a partner — not an equal, not a lover, not a mistress — sort of a lesser worker. “You know what you can do,” he said. “You just don’t know what you can’t do.” There were a few failures.
One that I hadn’t considered was that I was young and able, which he was not. When the fox who lived under the museum chewed through the plastic piping and flooded the crawl space, the water was three feet deep over the valve that shut the city water off. Access was through the window space we’d left for the fox to go in and out. Bob had had a heart attack and couldn’t go into the icy water to shut off the valve. So I did, even diving at the deep part. I thought he would admire me for this. But he resented me. I didn’t crow, but it offended his sense of superiority.
In the end we settled — unconsciously — on the relationship most similar, which was that I was like the son he had but couldn’t raise. Someone like him, but lesser. He was much more deeply invested in the father/son trope that is such an obsession with the English than he was with that of fucking. Women were interchangeable parts.
I liked this since I had two brothers who were always valued more than any daughter, even if I was an achiever. Even though I demanded and got privileges like my own room and support during college undergrad years. I never came close to being a genius that was expected, but being with Bob was the next thing to it.
As they say in the West, I rode shotgun — the role of the guy next to the driver who watches for hazards and fights them off with the long gun he keeps across his knees. As Bob’s work became more recognized and worth more money, the bandits came closer. My standards for art were formed by the theatre department of people who aspired to greatness. I sneered at penny ante local crooks. To me artistic success was defined by Manhattan and I activated that on Bob’s horizon. Also I respected and valued indigenous identity in a way local white people did not.
So what we settled on as my identity was a kind of teenage boy role, quite apart from teaching which got crowded out. If I had listened to my superintendent, Phil Ward, an intelligent and humane man, a Mormon, my life would have turned out quite differently. I’d be teaching in some city high school — possibly in a minor college — writing predictable mush.
In this role I had access in a way females did not in those days. Horseback, hunting, building a foundry and pouring bronze — even the more minor skills of skinning animals and casting plaster — were in my sense memory for life. I knew bobcats and foxes, their weight in my arms, their calls and hungers, the places they liked to hole up. I had put hands under the feathers of the eagle, into the down, and my arms had been gripped by her talons. I knew the feel of brittle deer fur and deep grizzly pelts. Because Bob was a judge and therefore controlled lives, I was always safe — protected.
All this poetic penetration into experience was more than enough compensation for being unconventional. Anyway, by the time I quit teaching, eight teachers — including me — had their salaries frozen because they were in sexual relationships. The sexual revolution had arrived. All left except me, and no one minded because bobandmary had been fused in their minds already. Four unmarried girls were pregnant. When I described them as the “young mothers club”, I was rebuked by the administrators who were their fathers. The girls felt proud that they had escaped control until the babies came and they realized what an illusion that was.
Bob and I got married properly for the mothers, but the basic relationship never changed, not even after the divorce, except for the few years of the marriage when he somehow thought I was his previous wife. I always kept in touch, to the frustration of wife #4. After I finished seminary and began to circuit-ride, he said he was proud of me and all I had accomplished. He married an uneducated barfly, which was what he had assumed I would become without him.
When we had first met, we spent many happy hours talking art theory the way he had done earlier with his close friend Ace Powell. Ace was having hard times, mostly because of alcohol, but was making a life with Nancy McLaughlin in Hungry Horse, on the other side of Marias Pass from Browning. One night he showed up, sleep-lagged and worried about driving home without falling asleep at the wheel.
The two men decided the best thing to do was to send me along to chatter and monitor, but it was framed to me as a special invitation to meet Ace’s family. The artist himself was surprisingly sophisticated, partly because of a previous wife who was a highly educated Russian. We talked theatre. There was a little repertory company struggling in Hungry Horse and he knew them.
Nancy and the kids welcomed me to Ace’s studio home. They opened up a folding bed from an armchair and settled me in the gallery with big windows. Exalted, I drifted off to sleep while watching the moon sail across the high jagged horizon of Douglas fir. The next morning Nancy and the kids returned me back to Bob.