Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Forever Yours"

In early 1953 John D MacDonald had marital infidelity on his mind. Of course I'm not talking about his personal life then (of which I know nothing about) but about his writing. He was either finishing up or had already delivered the final draft of his first "mainstream" novel Cancel All Our Vows, which was all about unfaithfulness among the upper middle class of America, and he probably had some things still left unsaid. That novel ends uncertainly after both husband and wife admit their mutual infidelities and face the necessity of making a decision about their future. In "Forever Yours," MacDonald presents a similar couple who are in the throes of attempting a reconciliation. In was published in the February 1953 issue of McCall's, which makes it likely that it was written at the same time.

In "Forever Yours" we have only one unfaithful partner, husband Mel Dennis. He and his wife Carol live in Utica, New York where Mel is an attorney and Carol stays at home raising their seven-year old son Donny. Mel has been naughty. While working on a case he traveled to nearby Syracuse to meet with a witness who could wreck a case his firm had a lot invested in. His job was to convince her not to get on the witness stand, but he ended up convincing her of something else entirely. As he is meeting with her in her home an ice storm hits, downing power lines and making the roads too treacherous to drive on. With her electricity out and her furnace not working, Mel builds a fire to keep things warm, then... well, things get too warm. What began as accidental togetherness becomes an affair when Mel continues driving out to Syracuse week after week, telling Carol and his boss that the witness (never named) is getting closer and closer to agreeing to a settlement.

Unfortunately, Mel and the woman are spotted together at a Syracuse bar by an old friend of Carol's, when Mel was supposed to be in Albany. Busted! Hurt and bitter, Carol reluctantly accepts Mel's apologies and agrees to an unusual means to try and heal their marriage. They send Donny off to camp and rent a remote lakeside cabin about an hour-and-a-half away from town. Mel had said it was their only hope, to talk it out over a "quiet summer" away from everyone. Carol stays at the lake and Mel drives up after work for weekends; Carol's sister Jeana comes up when she can to keep Carol company.

MacDonald gives us lots of sympathetic, realistic dialogue between Mel and Carol as they try to work things out. Sitting on the cabin porch one Friday night, Mel insists that the affair meant nothing, that he was about to end things right before he was caught, and that love never had anything to do with it:

Mel: "The important thing is to get over it -- somehow.Rebuild trust and confidence."

Carol: "And love."

Mel: "Love is still there. You know that, Carol. A thing like this smashes your pride, but it doesn't kill love."

Carol: "I hope you're right, darling."

Mel: "Do you see how helpless I am? What a stupid thing to say: 'Dear, it won't happen again.' I know it won't, but it sounds so asinine to try to say it."

Carol admits that she has trouble trying to forget it, and gets pictures in her mind of Mel and the woman together. "It's like a madness. I can't turn my mind away from it. I hate you then." The fact that the woman continues to try and get in touch with Mel is not helping. On it goes, through most of July, going over the same ground, saying the same things in different ways.

"They had happy times some weekends. Too happy, it seemed. Gaiety had a thin edge of hysteria, and once, in the middle of laughter, her tears came and he could not comfort her."

By August Carol has made a personal decision that she is somehow going to get through this and get things right again. With Mel's birthday coming up she decides to surprise him with a week-long vacation in Bermuda. She has Jeana make the arrangements in Utica and asks that the travel agent mail the confirmation to the local post office so she can surprise Mel with the letter. But as she picks up the mail from the small village post office, there is a square envelope in her bundle, postmarked in Syracuse and handwritten in a woman's hand. "It was another evidence of treachery," she thought, for Mel to have told that woman his birthday and to have given her the address of the cabin. "Sick at heart," she returns to the cabin to await Mel's arrival.

In this era of cretins like Elliott Spitzer, John Edwards and Mark Sanford, the modern reader can be forgiven for laughing out loud at the sentiments of "Forever Yours." It was written 56 years ago in what now seems like another world, but one where men and women were really not so different. MacDonald is at pains to make clear that Mel Dennis is basically a good man who temporarily "went off the beam." Yet in addition to addressing the essential qualities of forgiveness, JDM is really exploring and expressing the essential sadness that an affair brings into a relationship, the permanent scars it leaves and the real struggle there is to try and move on. As Carol tells Mel, "Mostly it's a feeling of something very special having been lost." Still, "loss" for a moralist like MacDonald does not necessarily rule out redemption, as imperfect as it may be. Despite some obvious and perhaps heavy-handed symbolism near the end, this is a sympathetic and well-written story.

In virtually every John D MacDonald story or novel I've discussed so far in this blog, one can point to a setting based on a real-life location where the MacDonalds once lived or where JDM served in the military. The Northeastern city locations are almost always a stand-in for Utica or Syracuse, so it was a great surprise to see both cities named specifically for once. And the lakeside cabin was, of course, Lake Piseco, although that particular location was not named.

"Forever Yours," which MacDonald submitted to McCall's under the title "Don't Look Too Closely," has yet to be anthologized.

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