Ina Chadwick’s biggest addiction? Addicted men. She thinks her dad had something to do with it.
In a motel overlooking Route 55 in dreary Poughkeepsie, New York, I slid a pounded-thin veal scallop into an iron skillet. It was April 1976, and I was preparing a meal for my lover, a married professor. The butter was just turning brown.
He was the guest poet at Vassar College, so I called him Dr. Poem. I drove him up to Poughkeepsie from the Upper West Side every Sunday because he didn’t know how to drive. I left for home on Monday mornings; he took the train back on Fridays. On Sunday nights, in the down-in-the-heels efficiency space he rented by the week, we were deliciously alone.
As I cooked for him, pulling out ingredients from the pillowcase of kitchenware I kept in my car, he rewarded me with adoring glances. He smoked a pipe and swigged bourbon from a flask. I lay a picnic blanket down on the orange shag carpet; we had a tradition of eating on the floor. Just as I finished lighting the half-burned candle left over from last Sunday’s date, Dr. Poem pranced out of the bathroom—naked.
“I have a few surprises for you,” he said.
He pulled a Bell & Howell movie projector and several tin cans of eight-millimeter film out of a duffel bag, and I watched him in the buff as he threaded the film into the sprockets, trying to focus the light on a bare wall. He then handed me a silver box with a satin ribbon. “Here,” he said, blushing. “I bought this for you to wear tonight.”
Dr. Poem was the editor of a prestigious magazine. He had published one of my poems before he met me, and when we were introduced at a New Year’s Eve party in 1975, we shared an instant recognition.
Right off the bat, he told me he was married, but not “classically”—and at that word I felt a jolt of 220-amp current zap my left lobe. He was brilliant, witty, powerful.
I had a good job in New York, and three kids I supported by myself in a house I owned and would soon sell. I was divorced and much younger than he was. My modest success helped him believe in himself—in his power to attract a woman without having to give her something tangible besides love. Over 40, he was insecure about his status on campus. He told me he was grateful I wasn’t one of the nubile young ladies who pursued him for favors.
He was known for catapulting one willing female disciple into the highest echelons of publishing—when he was done with them. Me, I couldn’t even think about finding the time to write—Dr. Poem took up as much time as having a second job. But he was an amazing lover, and I was perfectly able to handle the responsibilities of owning a genius.
My father had been dead for 12 years, but when I was with Dr. Poem I felt exactly the way I’d felt with Daddy. Both men needed a woman who knew what she was doing, who could play multiple roles at once: a cook, a brain, a savior, a nurse—someone to encourage him to come home.
My own father never once joined us for dinner—not in the 16 years I knew him. My sister and I ate our suppers without him, and without my mother. There were three stools at the counter, but she never sat down. She stood near the sink, whisking dishes into the sudsy water, racing against the clock to clean the kitchen before her 7:00 p.m. bedtime.
If Daddy hadn’t phoned by 5:00 in the afternoon, it meant he was in various and escalating stages of inebriation in one of the bars cursed by my mother in her screaming tirades. If the time got to be 6:30 or later and he still hadn’t called, it meant he was set on getting dead drunk.
From the time I was 5 years old and until Daddy died, I was consumed with fear that he would never come home at all—that he’d wind up a dismembered body somewhere along the Bronx River Parkway. When I heard his key in the door after midnight, I would get up and help him in. I was so happy to see him. His snores were my lullabies.
The summer I was 16, I read Gone with the Wind and thought I had figured out why my father didn’t want to come home to eat. Daddy loved food, loved it so much that he bought my first “real” boyfriend a cashmere suit and overcoat so he could go out to nice restaurants with us on weekends. If I wanted to keep a man, I realized, I didn’t just have to cook—I had to create a luxury experience worthy of wearing good clothes. And my mother’s kitchen—that utilitarian, sterile feeding area—just didn’t cut it.
The right side of my brain, my intuitive side, needs a jumper cable. It never registered that like my father, Dr. Poem was always intoxicated.
He had worked his way through graduate school as a porn-film photographer and eventually became a respected newspaper art critic. He had told me about the movie “collection” he would like me to view with him one day. He wanted my honest approval.
Tonight he had brought the reels. This explained the weight of the duffel bag he had when I picked him up on 88th Street and West End, the intersection we called “Decorum Corner” because that was a block where his wife never walked.
I worried about the veal turning glutinous. On the dishtowel I had tucked into the waistband on my jeans, I dried off my hand quickly. I took the box and smiled. “I want to wait to open this after dinner,” I told him.
I was intent on keeping the romantic ambiance; I knew our after-dinner entertainment was going to be black-and-white porn that my lover had shot in person, 20 years ago. I was scared of what I might see, but also giddy with the feeling of sexual danger. I quaffed some wine to dull a voice in my head, repetitive and taunting, growing louder: Dr. Poem is a madman—a drunk who might be the death of you.
He looked furious that I had rejected the box, so I relented. I sat down and unwrapped it. Inside was a French maid’s uniform, fishnet stockings with blood-clotting garters, a tiny, ruffled organza cap, and, what took me a minute to figure out, a sex toy.
The meal went uneaten.
This is what he wants? I asked myself afterward, as I peeled off the annoying outfit. Costumed subservience, not the real subservience itself? Not the meal? I was Scheherazade of the Stove. I was the woman who regaled uncatchable men with her culinary repertoire. I had outrun my mother and her inability to keep my dazzling father’s attention.
If each man I loved upped the ante and challenged me, I’d sooner cook soufflés on a hotplate without a beater—or my clothes—than admit defeat.
As I packed up my peddler’s sack and started for home that Monday morning, I wondered if my mother once dreamed of cooking fairytale meals for her prince. Maybe she had the chance to, and maybe she failed anyway. Nothing she did could keep Daddy sober, and our three-seat dining area—and those punishing dinners—was her armor against raging disappointment.
A year later I got away from Dr. Poem once and for all. At the time, he was writing an award-winning poetry collection about us, about me, how often I spurned him, how often I crawled back. Never once did he pen the fact that he was married. Never once did he write that when we were together, if there was a stove, I was cooking.