I’ve been thinking a lot about hate reads lately, and about the importance of staying far, far away from them. Better to celebrate the positivity that’s out there in the world, right? Not in, like, a put-blinders-on-and-look-at-nothing-that-doesn’t-involve-otters-taking-a-bath-together kind of a way, but in a more substantive celebrate-the-great-things-that-people-have-created kind of a way. And that could mean anything from a pretty essential shopping guide containing the best description of what to look for in a bra that I’ve ever read, to a profile about one of my favorite authors, which hits on all the wonderful, complicated things about his latest book. But could it also include a Modern Love essay from the New York Times‘ Sunday Styles section? I would not have thought so! But I would have been wrong.
I mean, I know what you’re thinking: Something from the Styles section? Those are usually the very definition of a hate read! Which, I know! You are right. They usually are. And, in fact, my introduction to this particular essay was not exactly auspicious, as the people I saw linking to it on twitter were prefacing said link with nothing more than an evocative “UHHHHHHHH.” And yet, I decided to read it anyway, if only because, hey, I believe in love! (No, but really! I do.) And I also know that very few writers come up with their own headlines, so it wasn’t the essayist’s fault that this piece was titled, “An Itemized Marriage Proposal, Via Voice Mail.” I decided to give the writer, Diana Frank, the benefit of the doubt, and see if this wasn’t actually a hate read, but actually that rarest of things: a pure, unadulterated joy read of the sort which would have me thinking about literally every single word that the Times editor allowed to be published and released into the world. And, you know, as it turns out, that’s exactly what this Modern Love essay was—something so pleasurable and provocative (I have so many questions) that I can’t stop thinking about it and need to share the most insane parts about it. So here they are, in a very particular order, the 11 craziest things about this Modern Love essay.
1) It’s explicitly stated that this love match was purely transactional: Ok, sure, to a certain extent, all marriage is transactional, and maybe even all love is. But! The relationship that Diana Frank describes is founded on a voice mail in which her romantic pursuer, John Basso, attempts to entice her with the estate of his bedridden, elderly mother, which includes, “half a million in stocks and bonds, a pension, two properties in Crystal River, the house in Gainesville, a fur coat, two diamond rings, antique furniture, rugs from Panama and Wedgwood china.”
2) It’s strongly implied that Basso is asking for Frank’s help in killing his mother for the inheritance: Right after Basso lists all the things that he will get once his mother dies, he finishes the voice mail by saying, “I’ll send you a plane ticket, and you can help me take care of her.” Take care of her? How?!
3) Basso’s mother dies within a year of Frank’s arrival: The voice mail was pretty compelling stuff for Frank, who quit the legal secretary job which apparently paid so well that she could afford a “pristine condo” in Marin County with a view of Mt. Tam, to move out to Gainesville, Florida, and help Basso “take care of his mother” who, Frank describes, then “lived for a year after I arrived. She left us her trust fund, her home and three wooden trunks filled with crocheted hats, plus the items John had listed in his voice mail proposal.”
4) Frank tries to make Basso’s mother sound crazy, but it is Frank who sounds crazy: It’s totally understandable that Frank would try and make her mother-in-law sound unreasonable in the way that many of us think elderly people are, but the reasons Frank thinks her mother-in-law is loony are, well, not really all that loony. Case in point: Frank writes that her mother-in-law “objected to leaving lights on, turning the A.C. below 80 and throwing away unused napkins.” Which, ok, elderly people like hot weather, this is why they live in Florida, and sure that’s a pretty high threshold for A.C. use, BUT, what kind of lunatic would want to throw away unused napkins? That only proves the old lady’s sanity, not the other way around.
5) Frank rather glibly describes driving drunk across the Golden Gate Bridge: Yeah, I’ll just leave this here without comment: “We… ended up getting drunk at a dive on Broadway. It’s a miracle I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and made it home to Marin after the bar closed.”
6) The biggest favor a high school-aged Frank could dream up asking of Basso was to take her to Burger King: So, as we learn pretty quickly, Frank and Basso have known each other since high school, and their relationship has been transactional from the beginning. But what exchanges were actually taking place? Um, Frank would ask Basso to take her to get a Whopper. This makes me sad. I’m sorry, but it does. There’s some really good food in south Florida! Burger King isn’t it.
7) Frank actually remembers the beginning of one of Basso’s high school poems, even though it’s years later: This was impressive and wildly alarming to me, because I barely remember my own phone number. But mostly it’s wildly alarming to me because this is the poetry that has stuck in Frank’s head for years and years: “There is just a tincture of me until I strangle the fissioning cougar that stalks my jungle night in a neon city of flashing, clicking streetlights.” Read that again: “I strangle the fissioning cougar that stalks my jungle night.” No wonder Frank is insane. I would be too if that was in my head for years and years.
8) Insane or not, there is no excuse for Frank to compare Basso to Dylan Thomas: When Frank reconnects with Basso as an adult, she finds out that he is a painter (and also a street hawker for a topless bar, so) and laments the fact that this upsets her “image of him as an incarnation of Dylan Thomas.” Hm. Here is a line of poetry written by Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rage at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
And, lest you had forgotten, this is a line of poetry written by John Basso: “”There is just a tincture of me until I strangle the fissioning cougar that stalks my jungle night in a neon city of flashing, clicking streetlights.” So.
9) After Frank’s initial displeasure at how decrepit Basso’s mother’s house in Gainesville was, he remodels it completely for her: So, the thing is, that even though Frank knows she’ll be inheriting tons of money, she is “revolted” by the fact that Basso’s old mother is in possession of some old things, so she flies back to Marin in a huff, and helps Basso redecorate from afar. And he does it! Even going beyond the suggestions of maple cabinets, cobalt blue walls, and stainless steel appliances, to add chandeliers in every room (even the bathroom) and a bonsai garden out back.
10) But Frank is STILL not happy: Apparently there’s too much traffic nearby, which makes “conversation tense.” (???) So, as soon as Basso’s mother dies, they move to Amelia Island, where Frank is now a real estate agent (because, of course) and lives the good life, which consists of “a nest egg of stocks and bonds, diamond rings on three fingers, fur coat in the closet, china, rugs, antiques and a poet/artist who greets [Frank] with, “Hey, gorgeous” no matter how rumpled, mismatched or disheveled” she is. Um, so all’s well that ends well? Unless you’re the dead mother?
11) Well, NO. Because craziest of all? Frank mentions at the beginning of the essay that she’s a single mother AND THEN NEVER TALKS ABOUT HER CHILD AGAIN: No, but really? What the fuck happened to her kid? I know precisely how many diamond rings this woman wears on her fingers, and that her ex-boss wanted to open up an ice cream parlor, but there was one mention of being a single mother and then nothing else. I need to know this. I really do.
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