This Is My Problem…Should Love Come First?

True Confessions, March 1951, the Slave Wife Issue?

The big score in my search for the collage elements of Robert Rauschenberg’s lost painting, Should Love Come First? was the magazine clipping that said just that.

It turns out to be from True Confessions, a women’s sex and relationship advice magazine. The article was written, apparently, by a reader named June soliciting advice for handling her man. I gave a brief recap of the article in Panorama, and there’s a picture which shows the pullquote, which does

My Problem: Should Love Come First? image: a freakin’ multiyear search

seem to resonate with the situation of Rauschenberg, his new, pregnant, wife Susan Weil, and Rauschenberg’s new squeeze Cy Twombly, at the moment the painting was made:

Will I be able to find happiness married to the man who once jilted me? Or will I always remember that I was second choice?

But I have transcribed the whole thing here. And I now feel sort of compelled to look for the responses that True Confessions readers gave “June” about taking her man–and his new baby–back. What do YOU think she should do? Leave your answers in the comments!This is my problem…Should love come first?

When I gave Frank my promise to wait for him, I was sure he loved me even as I loved him. I thought he’d wait, too. But it didn’t work out that way. As a result I have a problem which is too big for me to solve alone, but it’s one I must solve right away.

I’m 23 years old and considered attractive. I live at home with my parents. Frank is four years older than I. We practically grew  up together, went through high school together, but it wasn’t until Frank was discharged from service that we began dating seriously. Then that same year, Frank decided to go to college under the GI Bill. The schools here were overcrowded, and as he had not close ties he enrolled in a college almost two thousand miles away.

I remember his sweet good-by as though it were yesterday. Gathering me close in his arms, he whispered, “June, sweetheart, you know I love you. I wish we could get married right away, but I can’t help feeling I have nothing to offer a wife. That’s why I want an education. You understand, dear, don’t you? We’ll be married as soon as I get my degree. That’s a promise.”

I was so filled with joy at the thrilling prospect of being Frank’s wife that I didn’t stop to think how it would be waiting four long years. I only whispered back, “Of course I understand, dear. I’ll be right here waiting. There’ll never be anyone else for me–ever.”

So with Frank’s ring on my finger and a last tender kiss on my lips, we said good-by. Someday we’d be man and wife, never to part again.

The first and second years Frank was away, his letters came regularly. I passed the time sewing for my hope chest and going out with unmarried friends. Though I had offers of dates from other boys, I turned them down. I was content just waiting or Frank to come back, secure in the thought of his love for me.

The first summer he came home and got a job. The second summer he found work near the college and didn’t come home. Just after the beginning of the third year, Frank’s letters suddenly started coming less frequently. His explanation was that he’d taken a job to supplement his GI allowance and didn’t have much spare time for letter writing. I didn’t mind, because I wanted him to keep up with his studies. However, when several weeks passed without so much as a word, I began feeling all was not as it should be. I was frantic with worry, thinking he must surely be ill. It never occurred to me do doubt his love.

Then the suspense ended suddenly when I received a phone call from Frank’s cousin, asking me to dinner the next evening. I accepted her invitation eagerly, hoping she would have some news of Frank for me. Our conversation during the meal is vague in my memory now, except that I remember it seemed forced and strained. We were doing the dishes together when she said abruptly, “June, I don’t know how to tell you, but there’s no use beating around the bush any more. Frank’s married. I’ll show you his letter.”

The cold, cruel words Frank wrote are stamped indelibly on my mind:

Dear Ethel,
I want you do to me a big favor. I guess I’m not man enough to do it myself, but June keeps writing to me and she will have to know sometime. Three weeks ago I was married to a girl here in town. I met her at a garden party and it was love at first sight. We are very happy. Please break the news to June. I’m sorry, but I guess we weren’t meant for each other. She’s a swell girl and will find someone else more worthy.

There was more, but I couldn’t see. A huge lump rose in my throat, and scalding tears blinded my eyes.

I don’t remember much about getting home that night, or about the days that followed. I couldn’t believe this awful thing had happened to me. I’d been jilted by the man I loved and promised to wait for. Another girl was his wife. How could Frank have hurt me so? How could he have forgotten our love and all that had been between us?

There weren’t any answers to the questions which kept crowding into my mind. My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but nothing could ease the agony of my heartbreak. Yet as hard as it was, I had to accept it. There came a day when I drew Frank’s ring from my finger and stuck it in the back of my bureau drawer. Later, I mailed it to him.

As the days turned into months, my hurt grew less and less until finally the time came when I resumed a sort of social life again. I began dating other boys, one of whom I liked a lot.

Two years slipped by. Frank’s cousin had moved away from town, so I had heard nothing of Frank since that awful night. I thought I had managed to cast off my love for him. But I was wrong.

One evening as I was coming home from work, I noticed a familiar figure swinging down the street toward me. Before my eyes could confirm my suspicions, my heart told me it was Frank. I wanted to run, but my feet were glued to the spot. He was coming closer, his hands outstretched in glad greeting.

Then as he stood before me his arms dropped suddenly in embarrassment. After what seemed an eternity, he spoke. “I didn’t realize what it would be like seeing you again, June,” he said softly.

The blood seemed to rush riotously through me, but I couldn’t betray any emotion. “Just what do you mean by that remark?” I said, trying to sound scornful.

His face showed anguish. “It would take ages to explain just what I do mean. May I walk home with you, June?”

Frank did all the talking as we walked along toward my house. I was relieved, as it gave me time to get hold of my emotions. As soon as I’d laid eyes on Frank again, I’d known I still loved him and always would. Only he had the power to make me feel really alive. The sound of his voice was music in my ears. Yet some of the things he was saying were like a knife twisting in my heart.

He told me about his sudden marriage to a girl named Nancy. I felt sorry, yet somehow wickedly glad, when he told me his wife had died giving birth to his daughter. I couldn’t explain what was going on within me.

I wanted so hard to believe Frank when he explained his reason for marrying someone else. “I was terribly lonely,” he said. “Nothing but the four walls–eat, sleep, study. The boys persuaded me to go on social dates. That’s how I met Nancy. When I first laid eyes on her, I was seeing you before me. She had your blue eyes and wavy brown hair. Somehow I couldn’t wait any longer. I wanted to feel important to someone near.” Frank turned to me and his eyes seemed to beg me to forgive him. “I asked her to marry me, June, and a few hours later we eloped. After it was over I knew the terrible thing I had done, but I decided I must try to be a good husband to Nancy. I promised myself she’d never know she wasn’t the one I really loved.”

Ignoring most of the things he’d said, I sympathized with Frank on his wife’s death. When I inquired about the child, he took out a snapshot and handed it to me. Then I was looking into the face of an adorable baby about six months old. I couldn’t help thinking she should have been mine–mine and Frank’s.

“Nancy’s aunt is caring for her, ” Frank was saying. “But Aunt May is too old to be burdened. When I get a job, I’ll arrange to send for the child.”

Wordlessly, my heart full of regret for what might have been, I handed back the snapshot. By that time we’d reached my home. Pride caught up with me. Extending my hand, I said, “I’m sorry you’ve had so much trouble, Frank. Good-by now, and good luck.”

Frank’s fingers closed over mine, and I felt a tremor go through me. “June, would you go out with me for old time’s sake?” he asked. “I’ve felt so at loose ends since finishing school. It’s pretty rough getting adjusted to things. I hope when I find a job it will be different.”

He sounded so lonely and confused I couldn’t find it in my heart to say no. What harm could there be in one date? I reasoned.

I suppose what happened was inevitable. Frank found a job. Our first date led to others. Then one night he said, “June, I love you. I’ve always loved you. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way, but it’s true. Nancy was the only girl I ever dated after I left you to go to college. Since seeing you again, I realize there has never been anyone else for me.”

I didn’t speak, and he went on. “Nancy was a substitute for a while, but not the real thing. I swear it, June. It’s you I really love. Honey, can’t we go on again? I still have your ring. No one else has ever worn it. I don’t deserve you, June, but I want you for my wife.”

Oh, the glory of those words! A feeling of peace stole over me as Frank’s lips found mine. It was like coming home to where I belonged, that feeling of being safe in his arms at last. My kiss was my only answer that I still loved him. I said nothing about marriage or taking the ring back. Not yet. I needed to be alone to think.

Later, when I told my folks Frank had proposed, Mother said, “After jilting you once? I hope you’re not that crazy. Now that Frank has a child he’d like to saddle you with the problem of making a home for both of them. Did you tell him off properly?”

“No, Mother, I haven’t given him my answer yet. The truth is, I want to be his wife as much as I ever did. I still love him.”

“Fiddlesticks!” Dad cried. “Love isn’t enough. What about trust? What about mothering the child of the woman he cast you off for? It’s not fair to you or the child. Better go slow.”

When I told Frank of my folks’ reaction, he said, “Darling, I don’t blame them for feeling that way. I mistook infatuation for love, but can’t I be forgiven for my mistake? I tried to make the best of my marriage. I have no regrets on that score, anyway. Nancy never knew she was a substitute wife. Now that she’s gone the child is my responsibility, but I need a woman’s help and love. My child needs a home, a mother. June, we both need you. I’ll make it all up to you because I love you so.”

I wonder if my folks are right. Ordinarily I love children, but could I ever take Nancy’s child into my heart? When my own children came, would I give Nancy’s child my wholehearted love? Or would she be a stumbling block to Frank’s and my happiness?

The words of Frank’s letter still burn in my memory: “It was love at first sight. We are very happy.” I still can’t think about that letter without being tormented by doubts. Did Frank mean those words he wrote or was that his way of accepting the consequences of his act? If he’d loved me as he says, why didn’t he write me to come to him when he was lonely? He didn’t let his education prevent his marrying Nancy, yet he’d used it as an excuse to keep me waiting.

Do your reader think Frank really loves me, or do you think he’s using me to solve his own problems? Mother keeps saying, “Don’t be a fool. You’re young and will have other chances. Forget Frank and marry a man without a past to hurt you. Start clean.”

Mother doesn’t seem to understand that I love Frank dearly and always have. I couldn’t forget him. Now that he’s come back, must I turn my back on love? Perhaps some of you readers have had a problem similar to mine. I need your advice. Please help me decide what to do. Could I love another woman’s child? Will I be able to find happiness married to the man who once jilted me? Or will I always remember that I was second choice?

[Now about that cover story. I feel like there’s a whole essay to be written about Rauschenberg NOT using it?]