In Praise of Strong Women: The Wild One

Behind every great man—or miles ahead of him—is a great woman. Here, six celebrated writers talk about the powerhouses they’ve known and (sometimes cautiously) loved

By Andre Dubus III
Photograph: Geof Kern

IT WAS A COLLEGE THEATER, most of the seats taken, the air close with the smells of perfume and old fabric. My girlfriend of three years had never looked more beautiful; she sat straight in her seat, her blond hair feathered away from her high cheekbones. She wore a tight wool sweater she’d just bought at a ski resort out West, and in the dim light from the stage there was the glint of her gold earrings, her neck long and graceful. She turned and smiled at me, but it was a smile only skin deep. We’d been fighting again. It’s all we ever seemed to do anymore. Because she’d grown up rich, I accused her of being from the Land of Yes, a place where all things were possible: If you want that wool sweater, you buy it. If you need a new car, you write a check for one. If your teeth are crooked, you write another check to make them as even as the playing fields at the private schools where she and her friends played field hockey and lacrosse, where they lounged around the Porsches and BMWs they were given in their teens.

But I and everyone I’d grown up with, I constantly reminded her, were from the Land of No; we didn’t even see that sweater in the window, we’d never been near a ski resort, and the only Porsches we’d ever seen were in commercials on old TVs in the houses our single mothers couldn’t afford.

But my girlfriend had always been warm and kind, generous with the money she knew full well she hadn’t earned, and I’d often felt like a bully for shoving her social class in her face like some beloved pet she’d forced me to kill. And now she’d smiled at me. It was a mask of hers. Somewhere along the way she’d been taught that women are nice to men, always. Especially pretty women like her. That nice was pretty, even now, after I’d called her an elitist as we walked into the theater for this modern-dance performance I didn’t want to see. With her, I was never quite sure if yes meant yes and no meant no. But she couldn’t hide her sadness behind that smile in the theater, and I wanted to reach over and touch her hand; yet that would be false, too, and she would know it, so I stayed still.

First Published April 25, 2011

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