In keeping with the Valentine’s Day theme of the past two days, this video is based on a recording of Julie Showalter1 reading her sultry short story about her parents’ romance, It’s Not The Heat, for the 7 February 1997 edition of NPR’s This American Life Valentine’s Day Special.2
The first version of the short story itself, which was somewhat adapted for the performance, is posted under its original title, “Parents’ Love,” below the video.
Parents’ Love by Julie Showalter
For a long time, when asked if my parents loved each other, I would arch my eyebrow and say, “Love? Well, I guess by their standards,” thereby implying that I knew more about love, neurotic dependency, and the difference between the two than they ever did.
Here are the facts: They married in 1944 – high school sweethearts from Dimmitt, Texas. He was a dashing oh-so-young sailor, she a college beauty queen. When he died, 41 years later, they were still married. In the interim, they had three daughters, and they divorced each other twice.
He got cold feet before their first wedding. Just didn’t show up before he was shipped off to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Or at least that’s her story. Other relatives, when pressed, allow as how maybe he wasn’t as sure they were getting married as she was. Whichever way it was, she considered herself jilted. Out of spite she married the next man she met – a flyer. Like a character in a novel who’s only needed to move the story along, this husband disappeared – shot down by the Germans a month after she married him.
She tracked my father to San Diego where he was about to ship out. She was ready to forgive, and he was ready to be forgiven. Never mind that she’d been a widow for about six weeks. They were married less than three months after the alleged jilting. When my sisters and I learned about the flyer after we were grown, she said, “I never loved that man. I loved your father.”
Because she was beautiful, he wanted her to be glamorous. When we were the poorest we ever were, living on a turkey farm in a four-room house with linoleum floors, he bought her a silver tea and coffee service for Christmas. We’d just gotten television then, and I think he saw her as Bess Meyerson floating in mink on “The Big Payoff,” or Arlene Dahl pouring coffee for her guests on “The Home Show.” Another year he did buy her mink – a cape from Sears. She exchanged it for a new gas range.
They were hot, an embarrassment to growing daughters. She’d put her hand flat against his cheek after he’d shaved and just hold it there while he moved his lips against her thumb. When guiding her into a room, he put his hand on the small of her back and you could see his fingers flex, see him feeling her back under her dress, see her responding. Sometimes in the evening they’d have a drink, put on an old record and dance to Glen Miller. My sisters and I would watch them – handsome, graceful, sex-charged. Then they’d go to bed early leaving us trying to concentrate on TV and popcorn.
When I was eleven, I saw her reach up from where she was sitting and zip his trousers. Then she patted him just below the belt. This is marriage, I thought. This is sex. This is knowing another body. They were hot.
But he would drink and she would bitch. Or maybe she would bitch and then he’d drink. Drinking was his weakness, and sometimes when he was drinking, there’d be a woman – “a certain kind of woman finds your father very attractive,” Mother told us.
Their second divorce may have been the shortest in Missouri history. The day after it was final, a week after she’d sent her diamond rings out to be reset – rings, by the way, that she was still paying for, another one of his flamboyant gifts – the next day, she took him back. Literally took him.
I was nineteen, the oldest, so she made me drive. “We’re going to get your father,” she said.
We knew where he was, he was with Lorna, one of those women. When we pulled up, Mother shook her head at the degradation. Lorna’s house had no grass in the yard, just hard-packed dirt. An old wringer washer that someone had tried to make into a planter sat on the sagging front porch. Mother sent me ahead, “Make sure he’s in there.”
Through the screen door, I could see half a dozen men playing cards. My eyes adjusted enough to pick out Daddy. He looked loose, happy. Drinking, but not drunk. Lorna came in from the kitchen carrying a bowl of potato chips. “Julie,” she said, “come on in. Look, Bill,” she turned to Daddy, “Julie’s come to see us.”
He started to get up, but his attention was drawn to the front porch. Mother stood in the open screen door with the sunlight behind her. She was wearing a white summer dress, cut straight and close to her body, and high heels that showed her long slim calves. The sun made her red hair seem almost to vibrate. She looked cool, beautiful, elegant — like Suzy Parker, the model in the ads for Revlon’s Fire and Ice. All the men in the room stared at her without talking. I looked from her to Lorna, a blowzy woman with ink black hair and mascara smeared under her eyes. Mother walked over and put her hand on Daddy’s arm. “Come on, Sweetie,” she said, “we’re taking you home.”
And just like he had been waiting for her to come, he got up and walked out with us. Not a word to Lorna, nothing. I thought of Mother’s brief engagement during their first divorce, when I was six: “I didn’t love that man,” she said. “I just did it to get your father back.” He had known she wouldn’t let him live with another woman.
They got married again on April Fool’s Day, 1967. They didn’t have a wedding or engagement ring because hers were still at the jewelers being made into cocktail rings. The next week she would have to have them re-reset. She wore a red skirt and jacket. He wore a tweed sport coat. He bought a gardenia corsage for her and a carnation for himself. They drove to Miami, Oklahoma, where there was no waiting period for a marriage license.
My sisters and I were invited, but we all found reasons not to go. We were fed up with both of them by that time. “They’ll be divorced again in a year,” we thought. But they weren’t. This time they stuck. For eighteen years.
The last time I saw them together, he was in the hospital, dying. She came in, still beautiful. “They haven’t taken care of you today,” she said. She shaved him herself. She wet and combed his hair. Then she put her hand on his cheek and said, “Now. There’s my good-looking man.” This is marriage. This is love.
- Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman and prize-winning author with whom I had a outrageously wonderful 20 year marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. Many posts on this blog are about her, our unlikely romance, and our life together, and still others consist of her writings. Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ. [↩]
- This reading was first posted as an audio file at Not The Heat; A Reading By Julie Showalter on May 6, 2006. [↩]