September 25, 2022

Lady Vanessa

by Andrew Sarewitz

I finished Michelle Obama’s autobiography. It took me the summer. That’s not a statement on the quality of the memoir. I haven’t been finding enough time to read. After placing Becoming in my claw footed ebony and glass library, I went to one of the piles of dormant, unread books that crowd my apartment. I picked up Twilight London by Honor Marshall. Published in London, 1971, its origins with my family began in 1987, when my sister-in-law, Paulette, found a copy in a second-hand bookshop in Vermont for two dollars. She gifted it to my parents. After my mother’s death in 2014, it traveled to the United Kingdom where my sister lives with Paulette (her wife). In 2019, it arrived for me in New York as a birthday present. It sat in a cousin’s Lower East Side apartment for a number of weeks. Protected in an opaque plastic bag, at a Spring lunch date, my cousin delivered it to me. I’d forgotten I had it.

Not an early chronicle from the adolescent series of vampires versus werewolves, Twilight London is a sociological study on the downtrodden of London’s population in the late 1960’s. On the first page, clean of published lettering, it’s stamped, “From the library of Anthony Kray, Putney, Vermont,” with a single line drawn through the words, revoking the claim. Below, in black pen, is a hand written dedication saying, “Al and Judy, affectionately, Paulette,” dated July, 1987. Al and Judy were my parents. Underneath, in different ink but the same handwriting, it reads, “And now to my favorite NYC, love and commiseration from the incomparable Lady V.” Not dated, it was inscribed in 2019.

Lady V is what I call Paulette. The adjective inserted before her name is a creatively changing hyperbolic description. In the somewhat obsolete tradition of nicknaming those with whom you correspond, my sister has been calling me Sunshine for decades and I named her BooBoo. I soon began referring to Paulette as Vanessa or Lady V. If you met her, you might find that amusing. I think of the name Vanessa as being girly, feminine. Ribbons and bows. Paulette is unapologetically neither.

From the day we met, I took to Paulette and she has always been warm to me. In the summer of 1987, while she and my sister were visiting my parents’ home in New Jersey, my fondness for P was elevated to permanent affection. Coincidentally, this was the same summer Paulette gave Twilight London to my parents.

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In April of the same year, my boyfriend, Stephen was hospitalized with pneumocystis pneumonia. AIDS. In the mid-1980’s, the diagnosis was a death sentence. He was 30 years old. At the time, he and I didn’t know anyone young who had contracted the disease. We thought 40 was old.

My mother did not handle the news nor me very well. Being in my own cloud of disbelief, I’m guessing I hadn’t presented the facts to her with warranted gentleness. My father, who was a doctor, either hid his terror or was genuinely able to talk to me with removed concern. I went so far as to ask Dad to give me an AIDS test himself, which he did. When labeling the vial of my blood going to the lab, he printed an alias instead of my name. All positive results became shared information with health insurance companies. I knew my test would come back “negative.” That’s a tragically common delusion but fortunately I wasn’t wrong.

The week I met Stephen I got tested. In the active years leading up to our first date, I hadn’t exactly been a sexual saint. I fell in love with Stephen so quickly, I wanted to go toward whatever the relationship would develop into, knowing I wouldn’t infect him with my past. Both times my AIDS tests came back “negative.” Even so, I would only have sex while wearing a condom. I don’t say this with judgment, but we always wore them. This still was pretty stupid since we didn’t use them during oral sex (I still don’t). What was circumstantially ingenious was making the use of condoms part of the eroticism. Instead of being a chore that killed the desire, it became part of the foreplay. It still makes me laugh when I think back on Stephen telling me 6 months into our relationship that compared to his past lovers, I was conservative in my practices. I had thought I was being incredibly adventurous.

Anyone who knows me well, can testify to how close my mother and I had been. But during that era of fringe plague, Mom’s temperament was so patently volatile, I question how we survived. I know her actions were borne out of fear for her child’s life. But things she said and how she behaved were piercingly blunt and self protective. I had to turn my back. During the worst time in my life, I was not able to speak with my mother about anything I was going through. Part of me has not forgiven her. Maybe it wouldn’t have been right to expect a mother to be reasonable. She was a parent, not a friend. But I was in crisis and what I wanted was my mother’s heart and comfort. In my narcissism, I may not have been able to look at her with fairness. My new world at war was unfamiliar and completely surreal.

Stephen died less than two years later.

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1987. My sister and Paulette took their summer holiday with my parents at their home in New Jersey before traveling up to Southern Vermont. On a Sunday, while still in New Jersey, I joined them. Out by my mother’s rose garden, in the late afternoon heat, Lady Vanessa sat down next to me on the wooden steps that bridge the entrance of the house and its winding gravel path. She plainly said she knew that my partner was ill. Then she sat quietly while, for the first time, I spoke unedited about my confusion and sadness and anger and fear. Lady Vanessa didn’t give advice. She didn’t steer things to be about her or show empathy by offering examples of similar experiences, of which she had many. She just listened.

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Beyond intellect, I don’t recognize blatant similarities between Lady Vanessa and Ellen. What is more than intuition is Lady V’s love for my sister. As stoic as she can be, Vanessa is vocal, at least to me, on how she sees Ellen. To the best of my knowledge, she is always on my sister’s side. It is no secret that Ellen and I remember our childhood environment through different lenses, in particular, how we related to our mother. Lady V understands Mother as Ellen experienced her: possibly qualifying Mom’s emotional behavior by nerves and depression. Where Ellen and our mother fought to make an adult friendship not dependent on their past, Mom and I were a Hallmark movie definition of parent and child. But my mother isn’t the point.

I visited Ellen and Paulette at their home in Newmarket in the autumn of 1986. I was in England on business. The stay was significant in the broad sense to how I view my sister. It was the first time I saw Ellen comfortable in her own skin. She had found herself in the English countryside and with Paulette. Her house was a home. Her relationship, a marriage. Her friendships, many and true. Not being close as children, I’d never known why my sister likes me as an adult, but I no longer bothered to questioned it. Not because I had some epiphany. I just understood. It’s an indefinable acceptance of how to see family.

Other than when, I don’t know where or how Ellen and Paulette met. I don’t know very much about Paulette at all. In the recent past, I began sending her my writing. Lady V became a great editor and critic. Direct, sensitive, harsh, supportive. A favorite Lady Vanessa quote about an early draft of a play I wrote was, “I could cut it with a butter knife.” One thing about writing: everyone has an opinion. Take whatever criticism is valuable and once you find your voice, trust your instincts.

Paulette’s time on Earth is coming to an end. Having been a smoker, her lungs are damaged beyond repair and her heart is soon to give out. She has asked my sister to make funeral arrangements and to find a place for burial. She sleeps most of the time now. I don’t think she’ll see her next birthday. She and my sister have been together for nearly 40 years. There is no way to prepare the survivor. I grieve for the impending quiet my sister will carry as the sole survivor. And I grieve for my own loss. I won’t see my Lady V again.

Over thirty years ago, Twilight London was a gift to my parents from Paulette. The title page reads, Twilight London, A Study in Degradation by Honor Marshall. Beneath, in blue ink, is the author’s autograph. In script it reads Paulette Pratt.