Meet Me in the In-Between
320 pages by Bella Pollen, Grove Press,
Bella Pollen, the middle of three children, craved her parents’ attention. She looked for interesting facts and amusing anecdotes with which to regale them — and courting danger was part of her repertoire. Once, when she was ten years old, she orchestrated a ride home from Central Park with a strange man in order to scare them and get her sister, who had left her there alone, in trouble. She was a little British girl living an elite life in the big city; her father was an executive at an auction house, her mother an educator. When they got divorced and moved the family back to England, Pollen’s world came apart. This hindsight revelation is the core trauma of her memoir, Meet Me in
the In-Between, which Pollen was prompted to write when, in her middle age, she began having nighttime visitations from an incubus — a shadowy, ethereal being she describes as a sex ghost made of metal filings.
From the beginning, Pollen revels in self-absorption that should be off-putting, but her clever way with words is so self-deprecating that she is immediately likable, if not particularly relatable. “The only oppressive regime my parents had fled was marriage, and though the grace with which they handled their separation was matched by the diplomacy of their subsequent divorce, a bloodless coup is still a coup, and we three children had been exiled to English boarding schools,” she writes. She starts a fashion business at age eighteen and marries an Italian man with a Mafia-connected family a few years later. She thrills to the fear she feels for her father-in-law, which seems to be the main reason she appreciates her marriage. It ends soon enough. Though she professes to love her children (she eventually has four), they are an afterthought when it comes to looking at her life — and they continue to be so, in ways Pollen becomes increasingly aware of but no less distanced from as the book goes on.
Meet Me in the In-Between is long on wit and charm yet short on the sort of childhood chaos that often drives memoirs, especially given the carnal demon she introduces in its first pages. Pollen includes a few illustrated passages that summarize some of the major turning points in the story, but these stabs at elements of graphic memoir do not add much to the narrative other than some resting beats. After her first marriage ends, the story centers on Pollen’s wanderlust, her love for the American Southwest, and a growing attraction to risky situations. She goes to a movie matinee instead of the hospital when labor begins during one of her pregnancies; she fancies herself a gonzo journalist and makes plans to cross the Sonoran Desert from Mexico to the United States on foot in order to get a firsthand immigrant experience.
Pollen’s memoir is populated by vivid supporting characters, many of whom hail from the southern Colorado village where she and her second husband — who we do not get to know — build a home out of reclaimed barn materials. Pollen has a way with caustic description that evinces a love for the evocative qualities of language, if not for people. “Over the next hour, Pamela laid claim to a tough life, and there was no question that it showed in her slate-coloured teeth and mottled gums,” she writes of a woman she hires to clean the house and look after the children. “I swear this woman had wrinkles in places I’d never seen before. She alluded cheerfully to halfway houses, a daughter long since given up for adoption, and an old flame living in a Detroit penitentiary whom she liked to visit from time to time.”
Just as Pollen’s amusingly hollow cynicism begins to slide into criminal meanness, she realizes — for the first but not the last time — that she might not be a very good person. She has had pretty typical ups and downs in her life. Though not everything has been simple or easy, periodically and in retrospect she understands that she has enormous privilege — including financial security, white skin, good looks, and a willingness to always use her femininity to her advantage. She is sometimes shocked by her own tunnel vision, her knee-jerk assumptions about other people’s lives, and her desire to play a significant role in the worlds of people she does not genuinely care about. But even when there is comeuppance, the consequences of her actions still affect others more than they do her, rendering her epiphanies rather minor. Pollen’s insight into the fact that other people suffer, and that her actions can affect them, skate along a surface so icy-hard and glittering that, in the right light, it might be mistaken for depth.
— Jennifer Levin
Bella Pollen reads from “Meet Me in the In-Between” at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 16, at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226).