Parallel Fantasies

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

I saw the movie What the Bleep Do We Know?, and I think I got String Theory. There are alternate realities where I - the I's in those space-time continua - have not made the same mistakes.

    I did not let Terry Reese deflower me in the back of his father's Buick, nor did I wave my bra out the car window on my

one date with the town's teen idol, lifeguard Edgar Magee.

    Given the privilege of attending Girl's State, I did not sneak out the window of Belhaven College to meet Eddie Dorgan, who could never marry me because I wasn't Catholic, which made our gropings desperate and more poignant.

    I developed my mind instead; I held long talks with my favorite teachers, who encouraged me toward a scholarship at a prestigious New England university. I never went off to that girls school in the bleaks of Texas with my best friend, starving myself from September to Christmas so I could come home (we were also convinced the food was laced with saltpeter to suppress our sexual appetites).

    On this other string, I am not here. Following my superb education, I went into publishing back when publishing was good and editors could be mentors. After years of acquisition and merger, I find myself pushed out. From the bottom half of a West Village townhouse, I look down on the brown and frozen mat I call a yard and drink myself to sleep.

    Let's say I did go to the bad Texas school and on to Ole Miss; I did not drop out after my sophomore year to marry Fred. I graduated and went to New York and into publishing. Now retired, I look forward to years filled with interesting friends and conversations. No husband or children in this one, but there are compensations, and I plan on giving up the gin.

    Okay, I married Fred, who is quite sick now, but I stayed with him and never went back to college. My children live close by and bring their children to visit Grammy. She is their very favorite person when not pie-eyed from the Kahlua she makes on the stove with vodka, sugar and strong coffee.

    In that life, I never cheated on Fred with the Polish importer and the tennis pro, or the portrait painter who had me pose for two dreadful oil portraits, then bedded me in the woods one night, giving rise to an extremely hard to explain case of poison ivy on the butt.

    Or I went back to school but didn't get my nose out of joint when Eudora Welty said she could not detect in my stories any sign of an original voice. We stayed friends over bourbon and water in her kitchen on Pinehurst, and I have sweet introductions in my first two books to prove it.

    I never ran away to Florida with a civil rights lawyer, thereby ruining my mother's life and causing her to leave everything to my sisters except one mahogany secretary too heavy to move. I did not doom my children to 17 years with a drunken, cross-stitching stepmother.

    Or I did run away but did not become so jealous that my second husband was, according to him, forced to cheat. I would not, in that other life, hit him in the mouth with a skillet or throw raw eggs at his perfectly ironed shirts. I remained calm when he asked to divide his week between me and the much younger law student. I smiled until he "worked it through," and when he had and was safely back in my bed, I cut off his thing with a knife. Raiford is not as bad as people think.

    I may have left him, but I definitely did not get involved with Pelican Pete down in Key Largo, a sailor and former addict, who only snorted a little now. The sex was terrific, but I would definitely pack and go before he used our bed for hookers while I was up in Miami teaching.

    Nor did I chase around for four years after Dr. Brown, who in intimate moments whispered, "If only you were blond like Judy," until I bought a Farrah Fawcett wig at Burdines and scared him back to brunettes.

    I would also have passed on the Buddhist next door and the firefighter who later stalked me.

    In my alternate life, I do not waste energy on men; I give it instead to my writing. My output is prodigious. I am the Stephen King of smart women's lit. If this success means doing without love or children, it has repaid me richly in other ways. I sit behind an ornate desk in my very safe condominium overlooking the bay. From the 39th floor, I can see the true shape of Key Biscayne or, turning, watch airplanes land at Miami International. With a gold Mount Blanc, I scribble first drafts on the special blue-lined paper my stationer ships from London. I drink brandy, a very nice brandy - straight, over ice, or, when I'm feeling a tiny bit blue, warmed with lemon and honey.

    In all my other strings, I'm much better put together. These women make the most of themselves. Their clothes have labels you would recognize, and they never slack off in the manicure/pedicure department. They wear good, heavy jewelry and drive new cars. They are coifed, nipped, depilated and properly hydrated.

    In those lives, no matter how good or successful I become, I'm always a drunk. Alcoholism runs in the family. I sat through a thousand dinners with my mother slurring her way through stories while my father chewed with his eyes shut.

    Here's a darker thought: Maybe in an alternate life where I concentrate on my mind instead of men, I'm Lee Smith, writing funny, touching Southern novels and not drinking a lick. I prefer not to dwell on that.

    In this space-time continuum, I have a truly nice third husband who makes furniture and laughs at my jokes. I have four children who escaped Mississippi into interesting lives. (It's a test of intelligence; you pass if you have the sense to leave.) They at least pretend to forgive me.

    I have six - count 'em - six unpublished novels. My sole addiction is to chocolate, and when I catch my husband, Les, eyeing my rate of consumption, I tell him to lay off. Remember what happened in Days of Wine and Roses when Jack Lemmon made Lee Remick quit eating those Hershey bars?


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.