Vida, p.1Marge Piercy
Other books by Marge Piercy
The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980-2010
The Crooked Inheritance
Colors Passing Through Us
The Art of Blessing the Day
What Are Big Girls Made Of?
Stone, Paper, Knife
The Moon Is Always Female
Living in the Open
Mars and her Children
My Mother’s Body
Circles on the Water (Selected Poems)
The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing
To Be of Use
4-Telling (with Bob Hershon, Emmett Jarrett and Dick Lourie)
The Third Child
Storm Tide (with Ira Wood)
City of Darkness, City of Light
He, She and It
Gone to Soldiers
Woman on the Edge of Time
Dance the Eagle to Sleep
Going Down Fast
The Longings of Women
Fly Away Home
The High Cost of Living
Pesach for the Rest of Us
So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing
Fiction and the Personal Narrative (with Ira Wood), 1st & 2nd editions
The Last White Class: A Play (with Ira Wood)
Sleeping with Cats: A Memoir
Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt: Essays
Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now: An Anthology
© Middlemarsh, Inc 2012
This edition © 2012 PM Press
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be transmitted by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011927950
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Introduction to the New Edition
It has turned out to be far more difficult and emotional for me to write this introduction than it was to produce an introduction for Dance the Eagle to Sleep. Perhaps because I chose to write that earlier novel as speculative fiction, it felt more distanced. Vida did not. It took me back to those years. The rich details made remembering much more vivid, maybe too vivid.
One flaw I did not commit was to make all my political characters tremendously heroic, flawless. I remember that some people on the Left criticized me at the time for that. The characters are quite human. All the major characters are rounded, possessing both virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses. People have asked me over the years if Vida herself was based on a particular woman who went underground. The answer is loudly, no. She has traits of a number of the women in the Weather Underground and also other individuals who were political fugitives during that era. She also has some of my own traits both positive and negative, as I imagined what I would have felt like, how I would have behaved, if I had chosen to join the Weather faction in Students for a Democratic Society.
I had friends in all the factions, but I was probably saved by my increasing feminism. When the super militancy started, I understood it, I empathized, but I was determined by then to work only with women and on women’s issues, as I did exclusively for the next decade. A number of those people who did end up underground were my friends and remained so, whether I agreed or disagreed with their analysis and policies. I have learned over the years, after a couple of years of fanaticism during the Vietnam War, not to let differences of opinion separate me from people I care for.
This is not a novel about terrorists. The fugitives I was writing about were not terrorists. Terrorists target people, usually random people who happen to be in a market or on a bus or in any other public place. That very randomness and willingness to kill and maim anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is how they aim to produce terror. Assassins aim to kill particular public personages. They usually imagine that killing some political actor will change the policies of a government, or sometimes they imagine that a death can prevent a change they dislike or fear.
The fugitives I was writing about in Vida targeted institutions and corporations, usually as a means of making public the actions, the policies, the power of those entities. It was political education through action. They tried and succeeded in not harming anyone working in the facility they were about to attack. I never knew the people in Wisconsin who killed a mathematician, as they were not part of any group I was familiar with.1
As I reread the novel that I had not touched in at least twenty-five years, I was astounded by my grasp of detail of the political scene on the Left in every year I wrote about, and the details of life in those years. Vida has become, for better or worse, a historical novel. If you have any desire to understand the New Left during the latter days of the Vietnam War, if you wonder how people ended up forming an underground, why they bombed what they did, what led them into danger and broke off their previous lives like an ax cutting down a tree, then perhaps Vida will help you to explore what led to their choices and everything that followed from those decisions.
I still remember the shock of walking into a post office and seeing on the walls wanted posters featuring my friends and acquaintances. But Vida also brings back to me the years before Nixon’s Cointelpro had sent agent provocateurs into every group opposing the war, fighting for civil rights, fighting for women’s and gay and lesbian rights, peace groups, anybody who tried to work for change whether they were pacifists or religious opponents of war or feminists or socialists or Maoists or anarchists. A huge amount of money was spent infiltrating groups working for social change. The FBI agents increased divisiveness, pushed for illegal actions, undermined leaders.
I remember with some nostalgia how it felt before the government infiltrated groups, when we actually believed we could change the world peacefully and that a much better, kinder, and more just society could be built on the foundation we were trying to create. I have never in my life been closer to more people I cared about than during that time. We truly tried to be “brothers and sisters” no matter how often we failed. In writing Vida, I attempted not to glamorize that period or any of the other events of the ‘60s and ‘70s I have written about, as well as not glamorizing the protagonists. Ira Wood tells me I have not the slightest romantic tendency and perhaps that keeps me from making people and events prettier than they were.
I would like it if those who were active at the time I am writing about find in Vida something that brings back the excitement, the fear, the hope of that era. I would be pleased if those too young to have lived through those times might find something of value in our struggles, might learn from our successes and our failures and be inspired to imagine a movement that might again try to change the structure and direction of our country into a more humane, just and equal society.
Marge Piercy, 2011
1 The Sterling Hall bombing on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on August 24, 1970, that aimed
”No, thanks” Vida placed her hand over the top of the tulip-shaped wineglass.
“No more for me. Thank you.”
“This is a good Vouvray. Louis in the wine store recommended it” Hank tried to nudge her hand aside with the cold dripping base of the bottle.
“It’s lovely. I’ve just had enough.” She made herself smile. It felt like a date, a bad date. She had to keep smiling across the debris of the dinner for two. “The chicken was wonderful!”
“Recipe from one of my books. Skinny-Dipping, or How to Eat Yourself Slender”
“You wrote a cookbook?” Keep him talking. She nibbled another olive, although she felt bloated with the best and certainly largest meal she had eaten in weeks.
“I produced it. For Family Day. Supermarket package” Catching her as soon as she lifted her hand from the glass, he poured more wine. “Of course, what I’m really doing is the oral history of the ‘60s”
Annoyed she pushed the glass away. “How’s that going?”
“Come on, Vida, you used to love wine. Remember when I got Hill at Random House to take us out to lunch, and you startled the shit out of him by ordering the wine. A Montrachet.”
“A Puligny-Montrachet. Even I wouldn’t have had that much nerve … I wonder if you could remember to call me Cynthia?” It was not the name on her current I.D., but the name she used when she didn’t quite trust enough to expose her present cover. “I don’t drink much now, Hank. Really, the wine’s lovely.” She felt a headache starting behind her eyes.
“That’s when I was producing that tome on Students Against the War. You SAW stinkers tried to hold me up” He grinned, fingering his goatee. He had had a full beard then. Every time she saw Hank, every couple of years when she needed shelter in New York, he had a different arrangement of facial hair: moustache, goatee, sideburns, muttonchops. He was very fair and the ornamental borders never produced an abundant crop—a pale brown darker than his straw-colored scalp hair but, like it, skimpy.
”Bit of a cut-and-paste job, I recall,” she said, and wanted to bite her tongue. Don’t anger him. He can take his revenge all too easily.
“Had to get it together in six weeks. Catch the public mood on the wing … SAW didn’t last much longer”
“Till ‘71. Four years, actually … I’m not feeling up tonight. My period started, and I’m having cramps” She was not, but the wine, the tête-à-tête supper made her wary enough to start building an excuse. Hank had wanted her in the old days. She’d forgotten. In the Area Coordinating Office of Students Against the War, everybody had joked that Vida could always handle the straight media johns. She rose with the wineglass and walked to the window, away from the little table between his kitchenette and his white-wooded Venetian living room. “May I open the draperies?” She dribbled the wine covertly onto the soil of a spiny purplish plant on a plinth.
“I don’t imagine anyone can see you unless they’re in a helicopter over the river” Hank rose and strode after her, looming at her elbow. He was wearing one of those leathery male perfumes and Ivy League clothing: soft-shouldered tweed jacket, faintly striped shirt. His clothes had come full circle in the eleven years she had known him, from Brooks Brothers through suede into leather and studs into denim and back to Brooks Brothers. Welcome home, Hank Ralston! She waited while he pulled the cord on the traverse rod. “God!” She let her breath out painfully. After a while she roused herself to say, “It’s so beautiful. I forget. Manhattan! … You must have the finest view in the world.”
“The apartment’s still a bargain. Don’t come back to New York much, do you?”
Near and unreachable. Might as well be looking at constellations; might as well be gawking at Betelgeuse in Orion as across a river at the lit buildings. Towers of a forbidden world. Leigh in one of them. The WBAD studios were in Midtown, actually, and he could be taping there; he could be home on the Upper West Side in their old apartment on 103rd Street; he might even be on the air right now. She did not know his current working schedule. She would have liked to ask Hank to turn on the FM tuner to WBAD, but she did not want to mention Leigh. She did not want to prompt Hank to ask questions about whether she ever saw Leigh. She would lie, of course, but lying about her husband was especially distasteful.
“Not often,” she said, moving up to the glass. Light seemed to form clouds over the buildings. The sky was no longer clear.
“Er … what’re you in town for?”
“Just some business to take care of”‘
Now he stood away from her, rubbing the back of his neck. “It isn’t some … bombing, is it? It isn’t that?”
“Come on, Hank, I don’t do that kind of thing anymore. I’ve given it up for miniature golf and origami.” She wanted to stand and stare at the towers studded with brightness; she wanted to feed her eyes on them. She had fallen for New York the first time she had seen it. When she had escaped from her first marriage, she had come straight to New York where her sister, Natalie, was living, and there she had stayed. “I never come into Manhattan” she said softly. “Never”
“Why not? They don’t guard the bridges.”
“Too much heat. Too many people’ve been caught there. Angela Davis. Joan Little. Linda Evans. At 110th and Broadway, an FBI man sits all the time in a car reading a newspaper. He’s got our pictures on the seat beside him, and he waits.”
“After all these years?” Hank laughed skeptically, bringing up the wine bottle and pouring more.
“After all these years” She sipped her wine pro forma and put it down on an antiqued white table. Except the rare times she felt safe, she never permitted herself to blur at all, not even to get a little high. “How beautiful it is. Cliffs like galaxies” She could see herself striding up a canyon of skyscrapers to meet Leigh, strolling arm and arm with Natalie along Broadway to buy delicatessen. “Look, a freighter’s docking.”
“Do you wish you were on it?”
“What for? I’ve had chances to leave the country. I don’t want to go into exile. Exiles are so … ineffectual” “Are you getting a lot done?”
“I keep busy,” she said dryly. She almost asked him if he had heard of their pirate TV broadcasts in L.A., but ‘the Network’ had not claimed that action publicly. “I keep them busy, too.” As she slipped past him, he held out his arm.
“Where are you going?”
She put in a fresh tampon, last in her purse. Have to go to the drugstore. Not too smart. Her cheap Timex said ten thirty-five. She had never been able to replace the good watch Leigh had given her for her twenty-seventh birthday. It had broken when she was scaling a tall wire fence, the time the Network pipe-bombed the Department of Corrections. She saw it plucked from her wrist by a protruding coil of wire, watched it smash on the concrete below. That had been 1973, and she still mourned it. The watch had been a gold wrist alarm with large clear numbers and old-fashioned curly black hands. In her head Kevin snarled, “I’m glad it’s busted! Toy from your bourgeois past.” She had not bothered to argue with Kevin that her past was no more bourgeois than his, a fact he had used often enough when they were on the same side. That was already rare by ‘73. Where was he now? Thinking of him brought a wave of corrosive anger through her, an acid aftertaste.
She washed her hands, staring deliberately in the mirror. She had not examined herself for a few days of hard traveling, and she looked with a defensive wince. Surprise, she looked good. She smiled then. Yes, she was looking good—a little thin, but she was making that up here. Hank didn’t mind treating her, though he might be expecting something he wasn’t getting. Lowering her chin, she flirted with herself and then abruptly moved closer to the mirror.
Damn. That was
Wistfully she touched the inch of her own hair at the part, spreading like brushfire. Sunrise-colored, Leigh had called it in a romantic moment. She could hear his voice: Butterscotch. Cognac. Tomorrow with luck she would see him. Tears stung her eyes from the inside. In the mirror she saw she was hugging herself. Whatever stickiness, she would not sleep with Hank the very night before she saw her husband. Hank had ripped off Students Against the War for a long run of money with his instant bookmaking; he had given interviews on them, casting himself as a bearded expert. He could put her up for a night now and then without exacting payment in flesh.
She wanted to spend the night on the lumpy plush couch where she had collapsed when she arrived at dawn, before Hank left for work. She wanted the insomniac pleasure of allowing herself to feel how much she missed Leigh, to be full and empty at once with wanting and to know it would be lessened briefly by a meeting. Always she was forbidding herself to think of her family, always controlling her pain. Only at times did she let down her longing as she used to let down her hair, the huge burnished coil unwinding …
She came into the living room with her face twisted in a smile of entreaty. “Hank, I’m going to have to ask you to do me a little favor … I need a couple of things from a drugstore”
“Best thing to do is walk down to Montague. Then turn left”
Vida by Marge Piercy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes