In 1972 I published a novel. It was well received, particularly among gay women, but with some cross-over success as well. I wrote it without premeditation. I was almost thirty, and for seven years I had taught nineteenth and twentieth century English literature at a small college in the state university system in New York. I did not want to write a novel about college politics, or adultery, or anything else in academe, so I imagined a life which, though emotionally true, would take place far away from anything I knew. However, to achieve emotional truth, I knew I also needed the story to be objectively accurate. How does one write about a life one has not lived? By doing research. I spent a summer in a cheap cottage in the San Juan islands off Washington, and paid a local fisherman to take me out. My novel was about an older woman, the widow of a fisherman, who has an affair with a waitress from Seattle.
I never wrote another one. When I reread it today, a quarter of a century later, I think it is beautifully written, but very naive, and a wish fulfillment. It is a dressed up cheap romance, a bodice-ripper for well educated lesbians.
The name of that book was Fish Wife. I loved the levels of the title. First, an old hag covered in scales, argumentative, alone. Then a fluid, glinting woman, changing shape in the water. Fish. Wife.
I wrote it on that island, in a month. Three weeks fishing, four writing and revising, then I went home to Hopeworth. The novel had been nascent in me like a kidney stone for some months, but (like the woman who Doris Lessing said doesn't know what she wants until she has it) I only thought about writing it three weeks or so before I went to Washington. Until that moment I had no fixed idea what to do with my summer. I thought of the book and arranged the island in a feverish burst.
I showed the manuscript to one editor I knew, who pronounced it "beautiful" and bought it for a venerable New York house. It appeared eight months later, got supportive reviews everywhere, and sold out a printing of twenty thousand copies. I had received a $5,000 advance on it and even my friend, the editor, was startled by its success. It has been translated into French, German and Spanish, is again in print (albeit reissued by a newer, more marginal house) and provides me with enough income that I could live in genteel poverty without working, if I had something else to do.
When I wrote it a door opened: I would be an Important Woman Novelist of the late twentieth century, and always be writing a book. Instead, I became the lesbian Harper Lee: I had one book in me, wrote it and shut up. I think that is more dignified than being the lesbian Joseph Heller, don't you?
It took a good four years for me to figure out I would never write anything again. I made numerous false starts, then was three-quarters through another novel, Jardin|Venin, when I realized it was trash.
I understood this at four in the morning in Montauk, New York, in the Memory Motel, where I had gone to spend a few weeks scribbling. Again I was writing about the coming together of two women: an older lawyer and a young graphics artist. Again I had done research: I had spent the first weeks of the summer in New York City, sitting in courtrooms, interviewing two lawyers I knew, and then hovering over the shoulder of a young woman who designed logos for a branding firm.
The title and the idea had come from a set of "French Poetry Magnets" I bought to put on the refrigerator. Each tiny clinging tile bore a French word. They had been stamped in a block and some of them still were attached to one another in the box until one broke them apart. "Jardin | Venin" were a pair.
I put the manuscript aside for two days and went fishing, so I could have a fresh look at it. I stayed up all night reading it and at four in the morning I knew several things.
First, I had written the same book again. Old girl gets young one, loses her purportedly forever: then the unexpected sound of wheels on the gravel, a key in the lock, returning at four in the morning. The old girls were a little too noble to be true, while the young ones were a sensual fog, bimbos with an overlay, not exactly of brains, but the mysterious manners which pass for intelligence in this genre.
The second thing I knew was that I could get away with it. The book was good enough that a publisher would buy it--for more money than the first. It would get respectful reviews; most of the people who bought Fish Wife would buy Jardin|Venin too. I wouldn't be thrown out of the Late Twentieth Century Woman Novelist club.
Third, I knew I wouldn't publish it. I was the reader most important to me, and I understood how thoroughly I had failed even if no-one else did. Certainly there must be a discriminating few out there who would see what I already had: my prose style had failed to change. There was none of the growth, the improvement, the increasing command you would expect from an author who had been silent five years. A smart, observant reader who had loved Fish Wife would now see that the style which she had thought finely honed was really a parlor trick. In places I knew the prose was worse. The words in Fish Wife had poured out of me like breath, like the glorious panting of a long distance runner. Some of the sentences in Jardin|Venin were lumps which sat on my table-- no, on my chest--inert and heavy.
I needed the attention, and also the money. If Jardin|Venin succeeded, as I thought it would, I might be able to retire in genteel comfort instead of poverty. Perhaps, I thought, Jardin|Venin could be redeemed if I changed the ending. One demanding critic, who had loved the prose of Fish Wife, had commented that the happy ending seemed tacked on, that she did not believe Stella would return. I had always felt there was truth in this; perhaps if I ended the book with the artist's departure, and the lawyer commencing an irreversible decline.....But then it would be said I had simply turned Fish Wife inside out for my second book.
I hesitated for most of a day before I went down to the beach and, alone with a startled surf fisherman, burned the three notebooks. But the moment when I knew I had made my decision was when I said to myself: those mythical readers, the two or three who know, will think less of Fish Wife after reading Jardin|Venin. And I saw I could not take the chance.
It was a falling-away, but when there was nothing left but some ashes and chunks of the marbled covers, I felt peaceful. I knew I would not write fiction again--and I have not to this day, nineteen years later-- but what I had left was not bad. I had written one beautiful book that people remembered. I had dignity, friends, rewarding work, and a woman who loved me.
Aileen had arrived eighteen months before. I met her in an unusual bookshop in the East Village called Woman in Flames. She was behind the cash register as I wrote a check for eighty-seven dollars and fifty cents. I still remember what I bought: Three used copies of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, which I was constantly giving away to friends. Simone de Beauvoir, The Mandarins. Marguerite Yourcenar's Coin of a Dream and Memories of Hadrien. I had that satisfied feeling you get when you find a book for which you have been searching a long time. It was the first Yourcenar, which was out of print in the United States. It was the book of a dream and Aileen was the girl of a dream: she looked at my name on the check and said, "You're the author of Fish Wife."
Her voice was remarkable, her appearance not. Round-faced, bad skin, black stubby hair, and then a voice which grabbed me around the knees and travelled upwards: a throaty, cigarette-ridden, blues-singer voice, designed to say things like "It doesn't matter anyhow" while the voice's owner leaned forward in a Wyeth shadow. I had never been so aroused by a voice before. We had a moment of perfect equality: she was open-mouthed that I was Helen Langley, and I because of that Voice.
I am only courageous once every few years, but every act of courage results in a relationship. I said, "What are you doing later?" She was quite startled, but said, "I'm off at eleven."
"I'll come back."
"I love your voice," I said. "I want to listen to it."
When I came back she was waiting in front of the store. I saw her first and perfectly understood her expression. "Helen Langley will not come," it said. "For a little while I believed she would but I was foolish. And it is really all right. I and my cat will go on and I have my job in the bookstore." Then she turned and saw me and still she did not dare to look any different.
I was in a terrible hurry--I had been alone for a while--and three nights later, at my urgent insistence, we made love. Aileen would have waited longer. She had a wonderful sense of timing. We will serve no kiss before its time. She was clumsy and twenty pounds too heavy but had beautiful breasts.
"You flashed into my life like a meteor," she said later. The line reminded me that I had mislaid my talent somewhere I would never find it, for I could not tell if the phrase was wonderful or trite. I wanted to think it was trite, but I felt it was wonderful. There are certain things an author must never say, because they are worn out ("her heart sang like a lark"). But there are others which stay current and "flashed like a meteor" might be one of them. On the other hand, it might have been her delivery that beguiled me. Perhaps Aileen could have sold "My heart sang like a lark" for that Voice of hers could sell me anything.
She never tried to. She had modest goals: to be loved and to be the companion of an author. She followed me back to Hopeworth where we took a house together. I was already out when I published Fish Wife and Hopeworth of course had hired me partly on the strength of it. A community that would not yet tolerate gay men thought lesbians were cute, especially if they were literary and not completely unfeminine. Aileen was my wife: she took care of our little house, cooked and read manuscripts. "Yeats and the Mystic Imagination." "Yeats, the Theater and 'Road Metal'." She stood silently behind my writing chair and exerted a powerful gravitational attraction, intended to wrench another novel from my womb. It would be dedicated to "Aileen, without whom this child could never be."
I broke her spirit twice. First by not writing the novel, then by my infidelity. I'll anticipate: when my dreary affair ended I went to see her. She had gone back home to Seattle. She agreed to receive me but was strangely quiet. The worst discovery was that I had broken the Voice: she was off an octave. Too high. "Are you nervous?" I asked. She said: "I've had a cold." But colds don't make people's voices higher.
(So as not to be too romanesque--after all I'm no longer a romancier--I'll reveal: she got it back. We are still friends. I visit her and her husband every other year or so.)
I asked her forgiveness and she said, "I'm not angry at you any more." The woman who was speaking was the same one whose private face I had seen in front of the bookstore: the one who believed that no-one could love her. I said that if she would come back I would be better. "There are no second chances," she said. I wasn't expecting that and it threw me badly off balance. I was an utter fool and began giving her examples of women we knew who had forgiven each other and were happy. "I didn't mean there are no second chances in the world," she said. "I meant with me. You shouldn't be surprised, because I told you." I remembered that she had, the first night: don't ever hurt me because I will not return. We can stop now and it will be all right. But if you go on, if I meet you again tomorrow night, you will have me and the owning engenders a responsibility. "I'm ready for it. I want it," I had said.
Aileen's epilogue: she decided she was hetero after all, about five years later, and she married a smart fat boy. He was smart in one way only: he could write computer software and he wrote it for Microsoft. Which makes him smart in two ways. Five hundred shares of Microsoft in 1981 were a million some years later, and today he is retired and they live on a farm in Hawaii. Every other year she invites me--she pays for my ticket. I stay two or three weeks. David dislikes but tolerates me; after breakfast he tools off on an all-terrain vehicle and Aileen and I talk. They tried to have children but couldn't; they own a dozen dogs.
I said to her one day, "So you decided to choose a man. If I hadn't harmed you, if we'd stayed together, isn't it possible you would have made the same choice? You'd still be with David and I'd be alone."
Aileen didn't answer me, and later in the day, as we watched the shadows sliding over the dense treetops like dreams pregnant with sorrow, I said, "You are too honest not to answer my question."
"I've thought about it before, and I don't know the answer." There are some things we may not know about ourselves. I do not know why I wrote nor why I cannot.
"It doesn't matter anyhow," Aileen said, leaning forward in shadow like the old black man in A Crow Flew By.
In 1980, I had been with Aileen just more than three years when a meteorite flashed across my life: it was you.
I had taken a sabbatical to write my book on Yeats and was spending it mainly at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. Aileen was in Seattle for the summer, with her mother; her father had died six months before. A group of young Barnard women with literary aspirations invited me to speak about becoming a writer. I declined on the grounds that I wasn't one any longer and had no advice, but Sara Murphy, the senior who organized it, was flattering and insistent and I agreed to appear.
The rest is the story of how I turned out to be even less than I thought I was.
Here is what you saw: a slender woman of thirty-eight, of medium height. Runner's body, small breasts, muscular calves. Fading blonde hair, and one grey streak I tolerated in sympathy to Aileen's premature grey. Sharp nose, blue eyes, firm precise manner. I wore a light colored pantsuit and a white lace-collared blouse with the top button open. Sentences running in grooves: I had given this speech before. "Writing is not a verbal art. Not in the same sense as brief-writing by lawyers, for example. It is the act of planting a steel pipe into your heart and directing words, as they gush out, onto the page." I advised them to tear up their work if they didn't love it as something higher than themselves. "Did you ever tear anything up?" my host asked.
"Only everything I've written since Fish Wife."
Sara was a tall blonde girl with a high forehead, an intellectual beauty of the worst type, Christina Rossetti reborn. I could see she was skeptical and disappointed. If the other girls were unhappy, they would hold her responsible.
"Maybe your standards are too high. Maybe if you gave us something to read we would tell you not to tear it up."
"Then you wouldn't be my ideal reader."
I had insulted her now. I looked to the woman sitting next to her: it was you, Caitlynn O'Hara of my destiny, five foot four with your curly brown hair, liquid brown eyes and cat's face. The first thing I noticed about you was the one feral tooth that stuck out over your lip: the only flaw in your appearance. No, you were not beautiful, but something better: a confection of sugar and spanish fly. On the tops of your breasts, exposed by your tank top, a sheen of sweat. I wanted to eat you up, take little bites of your breasts and face.
"Do you have anything for us to read?" you asked. "Because I really would like to."
"There's only Fish Wife."
"All of us have already read that," you said, looking around as everybody nodded. And to prove it, several of you quoted sentences I could no longer write, the same ones everyone says to me:
"In the late autumn of Stella's childhood...."
"But there were no longer any oranges in the world like that."
"'I think you were formed at the intersection of a goddess' heel and the bubbles rising from the kelp. A goddess swam and you were born.'"
I thought of a gum-popping fat girl from Queens, shoving Fish Wife at me at La Guardia airport: "Write, 'To Bryony. A goddess swam and you were born.'"
I saw that I had almost lost them but, optimists all, they had steered me back to safe ground. We spoke about the book for another hour; I came down off the podium and sat among them in the hot classroom. Then they all left, my host holding my hand just long enough to raise a stir of interest, and I was left alone with you, my black dog of fate.
"They all have classes," you said, "but I'm not in summer school. I'm just living here for the summer."
"Would you like to go for coffee?" I asked. But that was not my act of courage, which came about an hour later, when I asked, "May I draw you?"
I could spend five or six hours a day reading the sources but I needed other activities after. I had taken up drawing, perhaps as a consolation for the lost art of fiction. I wasn't very good; I would never exhibit or sell anything, because, though technically I could make a very reasonable likeness, the work lacked innovation and spark. Still, I had made considerable progress in a few months. The biggest triumph: learning to shade.
I had the small sketchpad out of my large canvas bag as we sat under the awning in the cool sidewalk cafe on 110th street. You had been telling me a strange story:
"My father knew an editor who had an apartment a block away from here. He was desperately in love with a woman twenty years his junior and they lived together. One day she disappeared and a few days later her body was found on that median, there, in the middle of the street, under that bench, dismembered. The crime was never solved. The editor was completely broken-hearted and he died a few years later after publishing a novel about her, in which the murderer was caught. Today, now that ten years have passed, no-one remembers him and the novel is out of print."
"That is one of the uses of fiction, yes," I said, as if talking to a student. "But it doesn't work very well."
You didn't ask the obvious follow-up but instead, reached out your hand and snatched the sketch-pad from me without permission. You flipped the pages, sticking your tongue out a little over the feral tooth, and looking at the well-shaded nude men and women I drew in the life class at the 92d Street Y.
"You can draw me," you said, "but not now."
You took my phone number--you wouldn't give me yours, I remember-- and two days later, you called. By that time, like Aileen, I had simply given up.
By the way, I would never have picked you out of that group as the one who liked women. It took a while before I felt certain why you sought me out. I am not courageous and I would not assume that a twenty-one year old comes to the apartment of a well-known lesbian with any intent.
You came over on Saturday and looked around my clean and comfortable, well-planted place. "Where do you want me?"
I placed you on a stout wooden kitchen chair, built to last a hundred years, the kind they don't make any more, with your elbow on the table, hand under chin.
"This is not like the people in your pad."
My heart was pounding furiously as I said, "That is a life class, and I don't know them."
"So you think you know me?"
Your statement was so childish that I laughed. Your eyes narrowed: you hated to be thought simple or young.
"Let me see," you said.
I showed you what I had been doing for a half hour. I particularly loved drawing your hair, the little wild ringlets.
"Its very good," you said.
"Keep it." I saw I had hurt you.
"You don't want it?"
"Yes, but I thought you should have something for your time." I tore it from the pad very carefully.
"I could come back on Wednesday and you could do another."
"I could do one now."
"I have to leave," you said, with a French twist of your lip. "You know, Bruce will be home...." As if you were embarrassed to have a man.
At that moment I knew you were not available and I began to want you badly.
You returned on Wednesday and this time you said, "I could take my shirt off. Would you like that?"
"Yes," I said, "I'd like to draw your breasts."
I drew only your breasts and showed you the page, a masterpiece of my shading technique. We were inches away and I could smell your clean, soapy scent and the shampoo-smell of your hair. I was courageous then and I said, "If I kissed you...." but you put your palms on my cheeks and drew me to you.
The next morning I woke feeling an unclean happiness. I had satisfied my desire for your beautiful body and felt wonderful, but had placed myself in a false position with Aileen. I had either to lie to her or to tell her the truth. If I told her she would leave, but if I lied she would know.
I felt that I needed to discover in the course of the day where this was going. If we were going to continue, I must tell Aileen. If it was a one night stand there was no point in losing her over a single indiscretion. I would organize myself to tell the first major lie of my adult life, and do it cheerfully and with bravery. Once I was over that hill, of course I would never lie to her again.
Everything seemed to be in your hands: it never occurred to me that I should not want you, only that you might not want me. I was great with you at the time.
You came by for an hour at lunch, stolen from your mysterious schedule. You sat on the couch with me and held my hand, and I felt everything in me flowing out to you, while I became smaller, until I was no bigger than child-sized and you were huge.
We didn't do anything--there wasn't time, you said. You asked if I had ever been with a man.
"No, I always knew what I wanted."
"Then you're a virgin."
You seemed young and silly again, just for an instant.
"No, I'm not. A virgin is someone who has never had sex."
You told me about Bruce: a college athlete, very straight and with a temper, who desperately wanted to be the right man for you but wasn't sure what that was. He always asked you and you claimed not to know. If he caught you looking away, at a cafe table when he raised his glass to you, or while making love, he was furious.
When you told me this I understood it to mean that you wanted something more than a man, that you wanted me. But it wasn't long before I caught you looking away from me as well, and asked myself: did you want something more than either of us? More than a man or a woman?
You admitted freely that you desired something badly but did not know what it was. Every time you thought you knew, you ended up dissatisfied and casting about for something else.
"I might want to be a writer."
I now had a second ethical dilemma: based on our early conversations I was certain you were not an artist, and that any work you showed me would be embarrassingly trite. When you asked, should I refuse to read your sophomoric manuscripts? Should I read them and lie?
In those first conversations, you also told me about your daddy, the banker from Boston, and how he doted on you. You told him you wanted to spend a year living in New York after graduating from Barnard, and he wrote the check without asking any questions.
You liked your body and enjoyed being naked, and at the start our relationship was organized around nightly visits during which you stripped, I drew you for an hour or two, and then we made love.
I have wondered since about the balance of power between a naked person and a fully clothed one. One would easily assume that in any such grouping, it is the clothed person who is in control, especially if she is older. Viewing a painting or photograph of an artist drawing a nude model, one would readily think that the artist is a figure of authority and that the model is fungible. But I found that the opposite can be true. You expressed your authority over me: yours was an arrogant nakedness. I was the vulnerable figure of the pair.
In those days, I usually drank a few glasses of wine every night, wherever I was. It was part of my ritual even at home with Aileen, who did not drink but brought me my first glass at five o'clock.
You liked pot and always had some with you. I had experimented a bit but hadn't used it in ten years. Now we sat on the couch, after drawing, before sex, and shared a glass of wine and a joint: you were nude and I clothed, like the woman and man in Dejeuner sur l'herbe.
I began talking to Aileen less often, missing our nightly phone call sometimes when I was with you. After a long silence in our fourth conversation, Aileen said:
"You sound so strange. You've met someone, haven't you?" And I admitted that I had.
Then I had only you, and I told you so, which was a mistake.
I was intoxicated with "you", defining "you" as a sweet neck half-exposed by curly brown hair, a tanned breast, thin shapely lips capable of fascinating twists of expression, or a smile presenting a feral tooth. You were my first addiction, precursor of the cocaine habit which followed and was also associated with you. When you were there, I couldn't keep my eyes, hands, and lips off of you, but drank and ate you daily as my only sustaining food. When you weren't there I felt a sweet hunger for you. If you made me spend a day without you I hugged the pillow you used or a blouse you had left, so I could inhale you. I would feel myself beginning to panic and would make up mantras of calm: "You are really all right; Caitlynn will be back tomorrow."
I had never felt this way about anyone before. I saw that the love I thought I had for Aileen was really the mild regard returned by someone who feels flattered. I was used to having her there but if Aileen left for a day I felt only a mild irritation at having to get my own wine, coupled with a certain relief at not having to talk to her.
So perhaps you were right that I had not loved before. But I knew this must be love, because it was just as the Romantic poets described it. You were indispensable to me and without you I felt sure I would die.
I realized I had no idea who Caitlynn O'Hara really was. You didn't speak much, and what you said (like Aileen's line about the meteor) was poised exactly on the edge between convention and originality, so I had no idea if you were intelligent or not. I thought you probably weren't, except that you seemed to have a kind of worldly shrewdness that was a substitute, so that you could navigate in the world more effectively than I, who was so much smarter than you. Soon, you became concerned to illustrate your superiority to me at every opportunity.
It began when at last you asked me to read one of your stories, in our third week. I put you off for a few days, making excuses, some quite strange: I said I could not read other people's work when I was writing, or I would risk my style conforming to theirs.
"You said you like me."
"You know I do," I said, entwining both your hands with mine.
"Then prove it. Read one story."
So I had no choice. It was a short one about a beautiful girl, Innocenta, set in an unspecified Latin American country, who is hounded by older men with designs upon her. She is protected by a mythical rectitude which causes each of them to lose their bad intentions in proximity to her; but no one could have sex with her either, so she never marries or bears children, but dies at an advanced age without having experienced life.
My worst fears were realized: the prose was adequate but there was not a spark of art in it; you had stolen your character and her setting from One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I decided to tell you a version of the truth, canted slightly in an optimistic direction. I started by praising your prose, then said there was very little originality in the story, and that you would be better off writing about your own experiences. Though I knew you hadn't yet had many.
My heart beat hard for a moment because you were already indispensable to me and I did not know if you would be so angry you would walk out forever.
Your face hardened and you seemed resentful, but you took the story back, left the room for a moment without a word, then came back falsely cheerful and ready to discuss a different topic. We never talked of your writing again and you never asked me to read anything more.
After that, you were tougher with me. We seemed to be in a contest: I realized that I wanted you to acknowledge that I was seventeen years older than you and knew more about life, and you would not. For your part, you seemed intent on illustrating that I had led a sheltered existence: no men and the comforting pink clouds of academe. "I would never be a professor," you said. "All that knowledge with no application."
We had a very silly argument one night about whether my store of information on W.B. Yeats enabled me in any way to live better or more wisely.
Six weeks into the relationship you already seemed to be in a foul mood most of the time. For the first few days you said you were drawn to be with me every day, and felt sad if a plan with Bruce, or with your father, prevented you. Not so much later, you would cut me off for a week at a time, pleading how busy you were, and becoming sullen and quiet if I begged or reproached you.
You had again realized that what you wanted lay elsewhere.
You said you had never been with a woman before, but I didn't know whether to believe you, as you did not talk readily about your life and when you did, often contradicted yourself. You had been with eleven men, or twelve. You told me once your mother was French, but I heard her voice on your answering machine and knew she wasn't. No, you said; you had told me her mother was French.
You had a hard voice, sultry verging on practical, which came to a grating hard stop sometimes when you asked a question. When you were happy (a condition I saw less often now) you talked volubly, radiating heat, and the feral tooth flashed; when you were angry, now more common, you became dark and even muddy and would not speak.
I began to think you were completely heartless, not in the usual sense of someone who is cruel, but in the pathological sense of someone who is incapable of affection for others. When I told you I loved you, you shrugged and said irritably, "No you don't. You just love the idea of being in love with someone."
When I accused you of incapacity to love, you said, "Oh, and you think you can?"
You reminded me of a beautiful little coral snake coiled in the roots of an ailanthus: the venom in the garden.
I waited for Bruce to shrivel up and fall from your tree, as Aileen had from mine. I was hopeful because it seemed like you were ducking him, and treating him irritably, as you were me. Of course, it seems insane in retrospect that I derived hope from the fact that you were as nasty to Bruce as to me. I had you much more of the time; but every two or three weeks, you would slip off to him for a Friday night. When you came back I knew you had had sex with him; you had an off-handed manner and wouldn't talk about it, but I could sense the residue of it rising from your skin like steam.
I broke down one night--I was not proud of myself--and told you that I wanted us to be exclusive and I was very hurt you still saw Bruce. I knew it was what you called my "heavy, Germanic" mode. You shrugged, said, "I like a dick in me every once in a while," and rolled over to sleep, your back to me. I imagined picking up the vase of sunflowers that stood on the night-table and killing you. It was the first time I wanted to do you harm.
We had another conversation about love. I no longer had any of my cards concealed; they were all turned up on the table for your disapproving inspection. I had asked if you would consider returning to Hopeworth with me in the fall. You looked startled and displeased and would not answer. The next day, I said, "Caitlynn, I'm so much in love with you, that I don't think---"
You interrupted and said, "No, you definitely don't love me."
"Why do you say..."
"Because"--you were sitting cross-legged on my bed, in your t-shirt and panties--"you don't know shit about me. You can't love someone you don't know."
"I think it happens all the time. I had a pretty good sense of you the moment I met you."
"Anyway, I don't see you as a lover."
"How can you say I'm not..."
"I meant I don't see you as someone who can love." You abandoned two or three false starts on a sentence--very unusual for you, whose speech was always so measured--and then made an angry face. "There's something wrong with you. You don't see it, do you? There's this terrible loneliness inside, and you're searching everywhere for a solution. It wasn't lucky for you you met me, was it? I'm not the answer to your problem."
I was not aware I had ever felt lonely as an adult, till I came to New York for my sabbatical. Perhaps for short stretches, as before Aileen and after her predecessor. I had the thought then, which recurred often later, that my first and fundamental mistake had been to leave Hopeworth, let Aileen go off for the summer, and come to New York City. I hadn't been up to it.
I said I didn't understand.
You continued: "You have an image of a young woman who you think will fill your loneliness, and you chose me without stopping to ask if I was that person. You've done everything you can since then to force me into that identity, and nothing to change yourself. A lover would change into anything for her loved one, like your waitress in Fish Wife. You would have been better off with Sara. I could tell she was a little turned on by you, and she's the kind who would twist herself into any shape to keep her lover. Why didn't you go after Sara?"
I said, idiotically, that I liked short passionate brown women, not tall blondes.
"You had a lot of nerve to think that just because I walked up to you after your talk, I would come back to Hopeworth and keep house for you."
I hadn't said anything about keeping house.
I slept on the living room couch that night. There is no verb in English to explain how I felt: "disheartened" is closest but not vivid enough, unless you imagine it to mean "violent removal of the heart". I could not bear the way you could say horrible things, stretch, yawn and turn over to sleep. I could not be in the same bed with you.
Daddy came into town in September and you vanished for a week. I wanted to meet him and you looked amused and said, "No, daddy will never know about you." We spoke on the phone once and I asked if you could not slip away from daddy for an afternoon--or just an hour--to see me. You said, "Daddy is very demanding," but you did not sound like you were disappointed.
I wasn't getting any work done and I was drinking more wine than ever, but it wasn't satisfying. I went in to a quiet green bar in the West Village, a few blocks from the house, at eleven in the morning and I asked a friendly middle-aged bartender named Frank to mix me his favorite drink. He made me a martini and it was so wonderful I had several. After that I drank them to console myself when I wasn't with you or to make it bearable when I was.
I had been in New York for three months and done nothing since the first weeks. There was still time to get back on course. I could not return to Hopeworth in the fall without a manuscript to show for it. During my week of reflection, I decided that you were in my way. The answer was to use the week as the commencement of a break from you. I could not bear the idea of staying in New York without you, so I thought of returning to Hopeworth or of going abroad. But the only decision I made was to order another martini and another after that one.
You had still not given me what I regarded as an answer about Hopeworth. You had said I was foolish to imagine it, that it was unfair to you, but you had not actually said you refused to come. Once, right after love-making, when you felt very good and were a little pleased with me, you said you would visit and then decide. "Maybe its as good a place as any for me to write my book," you said, "and I could always come in to the city on the weekends." But later you never repeated or even acknowledged that remark.
I imagined that if I created a beautiful surrounding for you in the house in Hopeworth, with a room of your own in which to write (I would have to give up my office and set up a desk in the bedroom for myself), I might attract and somehow keep you there.
By the second day of daddy's visit, your sentence returned like a bee in a nightmare: "Daddy will never know about you." You would have to give that up; daddy must know about me, or you would always keep away, with Daddy as your excuse.
When Daddy left, you said you had some other things to take care of, and you spent the next night with Bruce, as I later discovered.
In mid-October, you introduced me to cocaine. A neighbor of ours in the next building, Tom the cocaine man, sold it to us, and after that we were regular visitors to his apartment. Once he got to know me, I could go there without you. Between October and Christmas, I inhaled a sum of money it had taken me more than a decade to save.
Martinis were for mornings, and coke for evenings. You were nicer to me for a while when we were high, and the sex was great. We began spending more time together again.
I lay alone in bed one evening when you were out and felt like an elderly newborn: small, weak and old, yet born for the first time into this life on the afternoon of July 15, 1980, the day I met you.
We went to parties--you had one set of friends you weren't worried about exposing me to; Tom the cocaine guy was a leading member--and at one I stood back and watched you work the room. You were wearing that maroon tank top, your favorite, and stood too close to several men, who stared at the sheen on your breasts the way I had.
"That's why we call her Kate the Cat," Tom said, and I understood I had delivered myself, hands and feet bound, to a predator.
I saw that the mystery was not that you did not love me, but that you had stayed this long. What value did you discover in a dry bone so thoroughly chewed, that you kept returning to it?
One day you brought a tape recorder from your apartment and taped me talking at the end of a martini day. You played it back to me the next morning before I took my next drink. I sounded like an habitual drunk.
"Why did you do that?"
"I wanted you know what you sound like," you said, your eyes wary. "I think you're overdoing it. You can't take it the way I can."
I felt hopeful the day Bruce broke up with you. You weren't spending enough time with him and he had found someone else who would.
"Its my turn to sniff shit for a while," you said, as if I did not exist.
We were angling up on Christmas--five months of my year gone, and I had still not done any work. In a drawer were two airline tickets to Ireland for January 5; Aileen and I were supposed to spend a month there, while I checked on some details of Yeats' life and enlivened my dry manuscript with the fresh air of his surroundings.
I asked you if you would come to Ireland with me and you said you might; you would let me know by New Years'.
I began to cry. I was drunk and stoned and not very coherent. "I would just like to have one plan with you," I said. "I would like to know just once what we're going to be doing three weeks away."
"I don't live that way," you said.
I never drew you any more, because you would no longer sit still for it and because my hands shook.
A few days before Christmas, I came in from a martini day and found you packing a suitcase and your overnight bag that you took to Bruce's.
"Are you leaving me?"
"I'm leaving you for ten days," you said in your steady way. "I'm visiting a friend for the weekend and then I'm heading up to Boston to spend Christmas with Daddy."
"You're going to leave me here alone for Christmas?"
"I can't exactly take you to see Daddy, can I?"
"Then stay here with me."
"And stand up Daddy? That would be an excellent idea." You continued to pack and said, "I'm leaving this one here, and I'll be back to get it on Monday, so I might see you for a few minutes then."
"Do you know what time?"
"No, I don't."
I must have been crying again, because you said as you left, "Don't be an idiot. I'll see you after New Years'."
I called Bruce's that night on a hunch and when he answered, I asked for you.
There was a startled pause, then he said, "Who is this?"
He considered lying to me, then said, "Hang on."
You got on the phone absolutely wild and said, "Why are you calling me here? How did you even know I was here?"
"It was an easy guess, Caitlynn."
"You don't own me." You hung up the phone.
The next thing I remember, your suitcase was gone. I don't know if I saw you when you got it, or if Bruce came with you. Some of your things were still in my apartment, so I decided that meant you would be back. Christmas day came. For my Christmas dinner, like the festive meals of the days before it, I ingested only the marvelous, redolent products of Frank and Tom. I have no recollection of your coming home, finding me, taking me to the emergency room at NYU Medical Center.
I had pneumonia, dehydration and the shakes. I was in NYU for a week before I was aware of myself. The nurse, Tamara Henshaw, looked like Sara Murphy, backlit, the light glinting in her short blonde curls. "Thank you. You are an angel," I said, as she held a child's drinking cup, with the built-in straw, to my lips.
It took me a day or two to understand the position. You had brought me in but had not returned. You had filled out paperwork identifying my employer as Hopeworth. Since there was no caretaker to present an insurance card, and I did not have any of my things with me--no handbag or wallet, no ID--the billing office had called Hopeworth to verify my coverage. My only visitor had been Professor Hilda Colbourne, who was also on leave in the city; Dean Stockwell had asked her to check on me. She came back once more and sat for a half hour, severe but sympathetic. I was too hideously embarrassed to speak with her and she did not return.
Tamara telephoned you once at my request, but your phone in the 110th street apartment you shared with two other girls had been disconnected, no further information available. Tamara called Bruce too, but said that she never got him and he didn't return messages. After that, she was still friendly but a bit more remote. "I'm not a private detective agency," she said. "If your friend wanted to see you, she'd have been here by now, wouldn't she?" The fatuous fat doctor offered a referral to a psychiatric social worker and to a twelve step program. On the eleventh day I checked myself out and went back to my apartment.
All of your things were gone. There was no note. It took me a few hours to discover that you had rifled through my sketchpads and removed every drawing I made of you. There was no way to know if you had kept or destroyed them.
I spent most of the spring imposing on a female cousin in Maine who did not ask too many questions. I waited until I was absolutely sure, around May, before I resigned from Hopeworth. I could not go back there without Aileen or a book, and everyone knowing I had snorted my sabbatical up my nose. I could have sent the letter before the end of January, but I think I kept hoping that I would have an epiphany revealing a way to get back on the track of my life.
I moved out to Seattle, where Aileen was still living. She couldn't give me too much time but I am proud to say I didn't throw myself at her doorstep either. I worked at a number of minimum wage jobs, clerk in a convenience store, filing on the night shift in an insurance company. I was in a twelve step program. When I completed it my sponsor took me aside and said I was really smart and there was no reason why I couldn't do something more interesting and responsible. One day I might even teach again. She asked if I would consider manning the phones in a crisis center she ran.
I said I was certain that I could not bear the slightest amount of responsibility, other than that of showing up at nine and working the register until five. I felt like the main character in Whack the Gopher, who must expect a mallet every time he pokes his head from his hole.
One serious relapse, three years later, proved I was right. In general, these nineteen years have involved rising and falling, rising and falling, like a chip in a billow. I have floated up to the point where I have my certificate and teach English as a second language, but I expect one day soon to be drowned again.
I never forgot you; I think about you every day, and not just once. Sugar and Spanish fly and a gleaming tooth. How you broke my back with one swat of your paw, and I didn't even know it for five months.
I never heard anything about you; I suppose you never had that glorious career you wanted but did nothing to attain. Does Innocenta yellow in a drawer or have you torn her up as I advised?
I saw you three years ago in an outdoor café downtown. You were twenty pounds heavier, and your skin was blotchy, and you were glancing anxiously at a beautiful young woman, a thin tall blonde with a peevish expression, who sat across the table looking away from you. I am fairly sure it was you, as certain as one can be after nineteen years.
Whenever I thought about writing anything I would start to shake as if I was sick again: writing equals death. And I have never been able to draw again.
I have just a little bit of a voice, a little still voice but not unmelodious, and I sing in a women's choir at the Baptist church. Those are my best moments, and you do not (nor Hopeworth, Aileen, New York City, Fish Wife) have any part in them.
Fish Wife was out of print for many years after my publisher was acquired by a German conglomerate.
Then last year I got a letter from Sara Murphy, who is an acquisitions editor for Howling Woman Press. She said she had no easy time finding me; my Maine cousin had finally provided her with my address. She said she would like to acquire the rights to the book and bring it back again. We spoke on the phone and she was so patient, friendly and humble I said yes, though I began with no intention.
"How did your life turn out?" I asked, after I had bent her sympathetic ear about mine.
"Not so bad," she said. "I soon realized I wasn't a writer, of course, but working with writers is the next best thing. I met a woman in 1982 whom I've lived with ever since, and seven years ago she was artificially inseminated and we have a girl, Daphne."
"It sounds very nice," I said.
I asked if she had stayed in touch with you, but she didn't remember you from Barnard.
Fish Wife came out the next year in a beautiful paperback, was rediscovered by critics and again I have a small income from it. It has eased my life immensely but I am out of my hole again and fully expect to be punished for it.
Sara called back a year after Fish Wife was published and said, "I know you don't write any more but we are doing an anthology of short stories by prominent lesbian writers and I really wouldn't feel right if I didn't ask you...."
So I have written this, and am still sober, though I believe I am going down.
I had a dream about you last night. I was flying a beautiful antique biplane with leather wings over fields of wheat. A tiny meteorite holed the wing and at first I was not sure anything had happened, except the plane bucked.
I looked to my right and saw the miniscule opening, and I thought "It is only a little hole and I can still fly." And for a grim, merry moment, I was still all right, and the little plane chugged on. But the leather tore, and I began to lose altitude. I saw a road and said, "The wing is mainly intact and I can land." The leather tore and the wing was a wooden frame, which ripped away. As the plane nosed down I stood up in the seat and sprang gracefully away in the air.
The Meteorite, by Helen Langley, Annotated by Kate Bloom
The Statue, By Kate Bloom