The Highland Park Woman [April 1976]
Some are born into the club, others never quite make it.
THE HIGHLAND PARK WOMAN is thirty-two or thirty-three. She says she honestly forgets sometimes. She’s not particularly afraid to tell her age (she’s not that old) but she seldom does. It’s not really necessary: a ten-year-old son in St. Mark’s and a seven-year-old daughter in Lamplighter, three bedrooms and three baths on one end of Beverly Drive, her station wagon, his 98. Although she isn’t young young anymore. Last summer, in Acapulco with the Frasers, she gave up her bikini. And came back and enrolled in Louise Williams’ exercise class. She like ballet better but thinks it doesn’t keep the tummy quite as flat.
Early thirties, but downright good-looking, seated in Houlihan’s and having a Bloody Mary—one Bloody Mary—with Judy and Anne. She easily passes for late twenties, although the men who eye her probably don’t demand that kind of youthfulness and girlish charm. She’s the woman they have in mind when they get back to Detroit and Denver and tell their associates about those wonderful Dallas women.
Her hair is, or was, blond, but that was a good many streakings and tintings and tippings ago. Pulled back, short, cool. Her eyes are blue or hazel according to whether or not she has on her tinted contacts. Or prescription sunglasses. Big, oval or round. She never leaves home, summer or winter, without her glasses, of course, so unless you know her very well you don’t know what color her eyes really are. Probably not even John, her husband, remembers. Her figure is much more important, and it’s still competitive. Although the Highland Park woman hates to compete, if you want to call it that. There’s something so lower middle class about competition. Dallas is full of young stewardess types. It would be foolish and wasteful at her age to compete with them. And she certainly does not consider waitresses and bar girls to be competition at any age. God forbid.
The Highland Park woman is on a permanent diet, of course, and the only reason she doesn’t go to Louise Williams’ as often as she’s paid for is that she can’t always get one of the other girls to go with her. The Highland Park woman rarely does anything alone. She would never, for instance, go to a movie alone, even Cinema I or II. Neither would she drive all the way out to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts unless she was meeting someone there for soup-and-sandwich. One of her friends, Laura, drives alone to Fort Worth from time to time to see an exhibit at the Kimbell or the Amon Carter, but the Highland Park woman would never do that. She can’t remember, since she was little girl chasing butterflies, when she didn’t like doing things in groups. Oh, there were one or two special close friends when she was in Hockaday, but they were in Cotillion and Junior Assembly like everyone else. Even in college—at The University—her sorority was mainly girls from Highland Park she’s known all her life.
“Maybe it’s some kind of social phobia we have,” she says of this insistence on doing things together. By herds, her friend Dick says. Dick says things like that and she’s never quite sure how he means it. She’s not sure he does either. Dick doesn’t work in an office and he didn’t grow up in Highland Park. Or Dallas. But she likes him despite the cynical way he has of teasing and referring to her social instincts. But alone too much, she becomes uneasy. It’s not the fear you read about in newspapers of muggers and rapists. It’s a funny little constant fear of being caught out in the open without an umbrella when it rains. A fear that one of those women who wears rollers to the grocery shop will suddenly push in line. Will invade, Dick says. Oh well, she supposes it comes from her mother’s narrow social views. The Highland Park woman vows secretly and sometimes sincerely she will not rear her daughter the way she was reared. She stops just short of vowing she will not rear her daughter to be a Highland Park woman.
The Highland Park woman is married, like most of her friends, to her first husband. If she divorces John, if she’s widowed too young, or if he deserts her—thinking the unthinkable—she can rarely get another one in Highland Park. She must be willing to leave for a happier hunting ground. That is, if she convinces some married girl friend she is safe to have around at Cozumel or La Jolla. Eligible males between the ages of 35 to 55 are few to nonexistent in Highland Park. Or gay. And the men control the money. Knowing this, even if she has a bad marriage a Highland Park woman will put up with the husband she has much longer than will, say, her Houston counterpart.
Her younger sister, who is 28, is what the Highland Park woman calls “a fix.” She is currently unattached, unhappy, and sleeping around. Although to hear her tell it, it’s simply divine. She has made all the mistakes younger sisters usually make, but in spades. She had a abortion in high school—wouldn’t go to Hockaday because there were not boys—then dropped out of The University to get married (slightly pregnant, of course) and never got her degree. Instead she got Bennie. Then Bennie, Jr. Then Earl. And for a while thought there’d be another name to inscribe in the family Bible. But the Highland Park woman told her, “Get rid of it.” And she did. “Just don’t think about what it was. Or whose it was, if there’s any doubt.” Well, there was some doubt, perhaps, because Bennie moved out on her. Although now he’s always trying to patch things up “for the good of the kids.” The Highland Park woman doesn’t like to think about her younger sister or her two darling boys or her abortions or Bennie or whomever she’s sleeping with currently. Which is generally an airline pilot or somebody from television.
But why does John act as if there’s something decadent and rare about her younger sister? Look at his sister. Older sister, too. Third husband meekly sending her $2500 a month and her supporting a lover somewhere in France and who is Jewish. Or, as if John hadn’t ever indulged. As if they hadn’t. Well, even her own mother pretended there was something evil about being attracted to men. Thank God, she’ll never be that way with her daughter. She doesn’t think it necessary to go back and recall certain times and certain boys but she’s too straightforward to believe they never occurred. Well, at least, both her children were planned. And when she watches her younger sister, alternately in love and in depression, having a quiet marriage doesn’t seem all that dull.
The Highland Park woman’s husband earns $40,000 a year, which is nearly three times as much as he earned when he went into business with his father and his brother. His family isn’t one of the old, old Highland Park families—neither is hers—so they’ll never be really rich. But they’ll have enough to live a certain way. And herd or not, she likes it. Better than the alternatives she grew up with. John isn’t a lush, like her father was, and even though she’s never able to buy all she wants at Marie Leavell’s, not to mention Neiman-Marcus, life could be worse. But it’s almost impossible to save, really save, anything. If she didn’t have her trust fund, small though it is, well, they might be peering over the edge the way some couples their age were. Thank God for that quarterly check. And thank God for Daddy, even if he was a lush and spent more nights in bed with prostitutes than with mother. According to mother. It gives them a slight edge and keeps her from having to take a genteel part-time job. And keeps John III (whom they already call Trey) in St. Mark’s and Missy in Lamplighter. The house will be theirs in twenty more years and fortunately they inherited a Dallas Country Club membership—through John’s parents—and don’t need a swimming pool.
Domestic relations? Okay, there’s John’s mother and her mother. That’s quite enough. Sometimes she just wants to point to them and say, “Take your pick.” Her mother lives in a condominium off Reverchon Park, and John’s mother, God knows how, stays at the Gold Crest. Or rather, flits down on her leathery bat wings two or three times a week to tell her how to run her home, run her children, run John, and run herself. Of her own mother she sighs and keeps quiet. A face lift and silicone injections. At her age. The silicone injections, that is. The face lift isn’t so bad, the Highland Park woman says. In fact, the day may come—may—when she’ll want a couple of tucks here and here, too. But silicone injections, at 56? “You just don’t know men. They don’t change that much when they get old,” her mother told her. “I’m still a relatively young woman, dear. Your father never knew it, of course. But there are those who do.” It disturbs her, the Highland Park woman says. Her mother and her younger sister might as well be in a race. What might she think if she knew some of the things her own mother did?
Domestic relations. Ha. There is, or was, the matter of John and Miss or Mrs. Nameless. The little bitch. But it is over now, the Highland Park woman says, and forgotten if not totally forgiven. Nobody ever mentions names or anything else. Except, oh, about once a year. And John, damn him, asks for it when she does. “All right . . . all right. Take off,” she says she told him, “take right off. But don’t take anything with you. Not one damn thing.” Or words to that effect. But she didn’t. She was scared and sick and frightened—lonely, depthless fright—and went from mirror to mirror asking herself questions, wondering what had happened. And John acting guilty, mean, harsh. The Highland Park woman cut him off at the source when she found out. Click, like that. Except, she discovered herself wanting her husband worse than ever. Maybe to prove to him she was as sexy as Miss or Mrs. Nameless. Maybe to prove it to herself. But she didn’t solve it. The “other woman” solved it. She married an oilman from West Texas. Money enough to do things for her and with her John couldn’t have done. He says that ended it, but sometimes the Highland Park woman wonders if it might not happen again. Sometimes she can’t believe it won’t. When he acts discontented and blames things on his career and talks about getting older without having done any of the things he wants to do. The Highland Park woman wonders.
She’s never been involved herself, not really. The crowd they run with, their Highland Park herd, gives lots of parties. Flirts a lot and touches. Kitchen kisses and hugging in the hallway after enough scotches and sodas. Some are worse than others. The women, too. Martha, who is so calm and sweet and Eastern finishing school. Give her a few drinks, which she won’t turn down if there are enough men around. And Shuggie. Shuggie’s the only grown woman she knows of who smokes pot. The Highland Park woman wonders about Martha and John sometimes. Martha’s much nearer the kind of woman John thinks he likes than she is, hi sown wife. oh, John denies it if she makes some veiled reference to him and Martha in fun. But it’s a matter of style. Martha’s his style. Shuggie might be even more his style, but the Highland Park woman suspects Shuggie has wider worlds to conquer than John. Shuggie is so chic, so sleek and superior. Thank God, John isn’t really up to something like Shuggie—whom she really likes, the Highland Park woman says.
Personally, she’s on the pill—has been since college—and there are no problems. But the problem with no problems is the simple fact that there is no problem. She thinks she and John make love twice a month or so. If she kept track of it. Sometimes it may be longer. He works hard and thinks about his work and sits up late and gets up early and plays hard—golf and tennis—and stays on the job, really stays on the job, plenty of evenings. And with all that they just don’t make love very much. But no one she knows, except her younger sister, does.
And there is Dick. If Dick were a little younger—he’s 44—a little more, should she say, aggressive? Anyhow, if Dick were a little more . . . , well, something. There have been lots of kisses and hand-holding and dates for lunch and desires freely expressed. By Dick. But not involved. Would she get involved? Well, she isn’t the type who plans that sort of thing. The answer would have to come simultaneously with the opportunity, and the opportunity has not come. Yes, she might even become his mistress, although she hates that word. But Dick is as caught in it all as she is. Everyone they both know they see constantly. Dallas is small enough: Highland Park is like living in a retirement home when it comes to knowing what everyone is doing. Let Dick take her to Kuby’s or Arthur’s for lunch and their whole circle would know it by nightfall. Going to bed with him might turn out to be the same thing. If Dick took her to bed. She wonders about Dick, if he’s as passionate for her as he says he is. But he’s sweet and very clever. And not many men pay the personal attention to her he does. Not even John.
Several hours of every day are spent in the car, driving carpool with her daughter every third week, taking John’s shirts to the laundry he likes, picking up the maid at the bus stop three times a week, shopping, shopping and going, going. She’s not fond of it, she says, and, the Highland Park woman confesses, she’s not a superb driver. But she can still talk a policeman out of a traffic ticket. Especially one of the Highland Park police. Not that she gets that many tickets.
She finds plenty to occupy her time, regardless of what Women’s Lib says. Volunteering at the museum or Old City Park. Going to ballet and exercise class. Taking Trey to his soccer games. From time to time she enrolls in some continuing education class at SMU. Languages or art. Right now she’s taking backgammon lessons at DCC as a sort of lark Dick suggested. Nobody in her crowd plays bridge anymore.
Two days a week she shops. With someone. Sometimes Anne, sometimes Martha. Shuggie’s taste is too rich for her, but it’s fun going shopping with Shuggie. Fun to watch the saleswomen at Marie Leavell’s and Lou Lattimore fall all over her when she walks in. They will have lunch at the Chimney or the Upper Crust at Olla Podrida, or if it’s one of the girls’ birthday they’ll take her to the Zodiac Room at Neiman-Marcus. They never talk about men. Well, only their husbands and how hard they work. Nobody ever says she’s unhappy. Just frustrated. They talk about their children most of all, and about new things they’ve bought, or some change at home they’re planning to make. If they gossip it will be sympathetic and not caustic.
Well, she belongs to a book review club, one her mother helped start, that meets once a month in some Highland Park home. If it’s a particularly interesting home, she’ll go. She seldom goes to the DCC. She doesn’t play golf. Not that age yet, she told Rachel, who’s 40 and plays twice a week. And didn’t like her remark. The Highland Park woman tried to play several years ago when John wanted her to learn, but that little piece of newly married togetherness dissolved with her first pregnancy.
She makes the mothers meeting at Lamplighter and St. Mark’s but never says anything. The super-rich gals run that show and the best she can hope for is to be asked to join a committee with one of them. She wanted to go to the SMU Film Festival last spring but she had an appointment with her hairdresser the morning they showed the Warren Beatty picture, and she had to take Missy to the dentist another afternoon. And she couldn’t get anyone to go with her, regardless.
She reads a lot, but it’s not very deep. They’ve been members of Book-of-the-Month Club for years and she automatically reads what they send unless it’s too thick. John reads about one book a year, if it’s about business or money. He says the Wall Street Journal tells him all he needs to know about books. She has an account at Preston Books and the Bookseller at Willow Creek and sometimes she will come away with $20 or $30 worth, and John will say, “When in God’s name do you plan to read all that?” John watches more television than she does, although he claims he doesn’t have time. She likes an old movie late at night—the only time she can watch TV in peace—and she tried to follow Upstairs, Downstairs but gave up because of the kids. A number of magazines come to the house, but the only ones she reads much are The New Yorker, Vogue, Time, Texas Monthly, and D. Sometimes she finds something in Harper’s or Atlantic someone’s said she should read, and she looks at the pictures in House Beautiful and House and Garden every month. She wishes she had read more of the classics in college; learned to read modern poetry and drama. But she didn’t.
All right, so she passed over The Time. He was a lawyer but she met him in a night French class at SMU and he said he was giving up the law and was going to get his PhD in American literature at Harvard. He was divorced. His wife had been from a famous Houston family and was so dumb, he said, he had to remind her every month when it was time for her period. The Highland Park woman went to his apartment at 3525 after their third class and he had champagne in the refrigerator. It hadn’t been like a college affair. It was more deliberate on her part. A man can’t take off panty hose. He was passionate but no better in bed than John when John is interested. And the whole time she kept thinking she needed to go to the bathroom. After that he begged and begged her to sleep with him again and when he left Dallas to go to Boston he begged her to leave John and marry him. He seemed to have a lot of money and drove one of those little Mercedes 450s that cost so much. But she couldn’t picture herself married to him. Not really. He’d never had children and acted as if she could simply take her children along, the way people take poodles with them to Aspen and Santa Fe. For a while he called her once a week, then every month or so. But that was four years ago, and there’d been no more phone calls since, oh, year before last. Except, the Highland Park woman says, thinking about him now makes him seem terribly exciting. If she lets herself she even wonders how long it might have lasted.
What about the future?
“I don’t know exactly,” she says. “I want a better life for my children, of course. I love my children and I think I’m a good mother. I don’t spoil them.” Would she like for her children to do more or less the same things she’s done? Live the same life? “Well, I expect them to live a certain kind of way—a certain lifestyle, if that doesn’t sound too hackneyed.”
What about herself?
“I’m happy,” the Highland Park woman says. “One thing sure. I’m not ending up like my mother getting silicone injections at 56. Or like John’s mother completely wrapped up in her children. I’m going to be a person.”
Last week the Highland Park woman and her husband and their children flew down to South Padre for a short vacation. They had a nice room with an ocean view and there were supervised play areas for the children and she and John had, for the first time in years, a few days completely to themselves. They had dinner in the dining room the first evening and sent the kids to a nature show, then returned to their room and had drinks. Later, John sat at the window with a scotch and soda and said, “I ought to call the office, I guess,” and shook his head a few times and turned to her and said, very seriously, “Shit.” She sat in bed with the sheet around her, feeling deliciously nude, and smoked a cigarette while he stared out to sea.
The sunset faded in a positively gorgeous pile of pink and gold clouds and the sea birds swirled and darted across the view. The sound of the surf came through the wide window and John finished his drink, dropped his cigarette butt in the glass, and said to her, “We’ve had dinner, we made love, we had a drink. What do we do now?”
The Highland Park woman, who only smokes with her husband, lit another cigarette and thought about it.