Annotated by Kate Bloom
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 loved Fish Wife. Girls who wanted to know whether other girls would consider sleeping with them were lending it out my senior year. I think I got it from Sara Murphy. Well, what do you think? the giver would demand. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? Would you ever consider...
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.
I think you're being unfair to Fish Wife.
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?
The general idea of what follows is that you were fine and that I destroyed you---but don't you think this shows you had a problem in the first place? I think you frightened yourself with Fish Wife and spent the rest of your life until now blaming other people.
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.
Our affair was reminiscent of your one theme. Did you ever think of that, that you were trying to live Fish Wife?
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.
"Mysterious" was a favorite word of yours, I remember. As in, "Kate, why are you being so damned mysterious?" Did you think of me as a "bimbo with an overlay"? Personally I'm sure of it.
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.
There's something going on here. Why not let an editor, or several friends decide?(if you had any; you didn't seem to know anyone at all when I met you, at least in New York.) I see you burning your notebooks, all arrogant and fearful--actually a good description of the way you fronted life in general.
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--
Except for this? Its in an anthology of lesbian fiction. You don't set the reader's expectations very clearly: the reference to Fish Wife makes it out an autobiographical essay--which it definitely is not.
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.
How nicely you've built the house which will be incinerated by Kate the meteorite.
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,
How cruel you are. I know Aileen exists, because I remember you agonizing about her (endlessly) and the day you broke up with her by phone. Her name was actually Laura, I think. Won't she read this and be hurt by it? You present such a well-rendered portrait of Helen Langley as victim, but you yourself evidently think art is a license to harm people.
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.
I used that line in the story you call "Innocenta." I was very young.
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."
For a little while, I also thought I might help you write another book. Even at twenty-two I was not a romantic like Laura, I suppose. At the end of a few days with you I saw you were hopelessly stuck. Your entire emotional economy was based on never writing anything more, and endlessly mourning for it--like some young Catholic woman whose husband died and who settles down to be a widow the rest of her life.
I broke her spirit twice.
I've always had the idea you thought I hurt Laura, not you. You probably don't remember that one day when you were very drunk--one of your "martini days", as you call it--you reproached me for breaking you up with her when I wasn't serious about you.
First by not writing the novel, then by my infidelity. I'll anticipate: when my dreary affair ended
Thank you very much.
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.
I remember you used this argument with me: that somehow I had taken you on and become responsible for you. But exactly what did I do? I walked up to you after a speech, came over to your house, and yes, had an affair with you. I wasn't exactly wearing a sign around my neck which said, "Available for the rest of my life." Its actually reminiscent of your arrogance to your readers. You want them to place themselves completely in your hands without knowing for sure if this is fiction or autobiography. You wanted me completely at your disposal even though you had never given me any signal which said "Don't come over unless its for life." Obviously I wouldn't have come; I was twenty-two years old and it was just an experiment.
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.
Good for Laura, if this part is true. At least she got a happy ending out of it.
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.
You can't write because you scared the shit out of yourself with Fish Wife. It didn't take a genius to see it. Probably everyone around you knows this.
"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 think the phrase is trite, not wonderful.
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.
You told me once that every emotion has motivated a great novel except self-pity. But you are really sorry for yourself here, aren't you? Its Helen Langley the victim all the way.
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.
What I saw was a handsome woman with a firm, strong manner and a roving eye (I saw you looking at my breasts). I liked your skin but also your apparent command of the world. You told me later that day or next "I have the mind of a man"--something that turned out not to be at all true.
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.
You were obsessed with getting everyone else to destroy their work because you yourself couldn't make any.
"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.
Sara was thrilled to have you there; getting you was the social triumph of her year and she never stopped talking about it. She was so full of herself that day I doubt she heard anything you said.
"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,
I'm Italian and French, as you well know, and I don't really appreciate your decision to make me Irish in your story.
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.
I've spent a lot of time looking in the mirror since reading this. I had no idea what you are talking about. Do you know that you invented this, or is there something about my teeth I never noticed?
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.
You spoke frequently of how you detested mindless male desire for young women, especially when dressed up as art. But you describe me here as if I were a pastry.
"Do you have anything for us to read?" you asked. "Because I really would like to."
I was definitely flirting by this point.
"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.'"
Your arrogance shines here: you hated your readers; case closed.
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,
It should have been Sara who took you for coffee. She wanted to. You've made this a passive scene. In reality, she hung around hoping, you kept looking over at me, and finally she got the hint and left. Part of my agenda--I was very immature--was to knock Sara out; I had the idea she had behaved snobbishly to me. Looking back across twenty years, I think I just mistook her patrician way of speaking and a moment of inattention; the girl was too nice to live, and I probably couldn't bear being around her for that reason.
and I was left alone with you, my black dog of fate.
You borrowed that one from a book about the violence in Yugoslavia, I think.
"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?"
Your act of courage? I had been shoving myself at you for two hours.
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."
You certainly didn't get this story from me, as I've never heard it before. My father is a lawyer in Chicago and didn't know any New York editors. I'm not sure if this was an artistic choice or an error of memory--as with numerous other points.
"That is one of the uses of fiction, yes," I said, as if talking to a student. "But it doesn't work very well."
From the first moment I detested your supercilious way of talking down to me. I certainly did not want to destroy you but I admit I wanted to take you down a notch.
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.
I never had any particular leaning in that direction and after careful thought had made a decision to try an experiment. It was part of a general search for what would make me happy. I had a Catholic upbringing, had only been having sex for two years and had not yet had an orgasm (I didn't with you either, as you know, though you never mention it here. Is that due to your own embarrassment at not making me ecstatic or was it a decision to respect one shred of my privacy?)
When I decided to try an affair with a woman, I wanted to find someone who wasn't from school, or my circle of friends back home, so that when I broke it off I could return to my own life and never see her again. You seemed perfect for the part--someone who had been with a lot of women and probably wouldn't be able to remember my name a week later. I had no clue you were so damn fragile.
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.
Oh come on, you weren't that naïve. "Mind of a man" indeed.
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?"
I couldn't have said anything this obvious and dumb.
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.
I was very baffled that I came to your apartment and sat there for so long without the slightest attempt on your part. You were older, had proclaimed you had a man's mind and I was waiting for you to play the masculine role. I was pretty sure you were attracted to me--you kept looking at my breasts--and I was wondering if I would have to wrestle you to the bed.
"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.
It was an act; I wasn't embarrassed to have "Bruce" (real name: Dan Bloom).
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?"
I was so annoyed with you that I almost didn't come back; I thought you were making me work too hard and I was starting to think about other possible people for my experiment.
"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,
You obviously had a better time than I did, and I resented the fact that you seemed unaware. I admit the sex was intriguing; it felt very different from being with Dan, and also reduced my dependency on him, which is what kept me coming back to you for a while.
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 quickly understood that your life was a complication machine. I was immature and did whatever I wanted; I admit I didn't care whom I hurt, but anyone else I injured was young and plastic like me, and got over it in an hour. You seemed at first to be like me: you also did whatever you wanted, but right afterwards you shouted "An ethical dilemma!" and fainted. It was a hell of a way to live: if you were that sensitive to Laura's feelings you shouldn't have had me, and if you were as tough as you pretended you would have recognized I was out for a one or two week fling, lied to Laura about it and continued with your life together. You reminded me of a slow, cautious driver on a flat road who somehow manages to hit the only obstacle in the landscape.
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.
A good plan. I certainly didn't force you not to execute it. I just wanted a week or two with you, not a lifetime.
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.
Another steal, this one from Joyce: the woman in The Dead, talking of the young boy she loved, who died of consumption.
You came by for an hour at lunch, stolen from your mysterious
There is that adjective.
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.
If I'd known you were going to get so damn tiny I would have avoided you. Your moment of destiny was when you chose me, not Sara. She was born to nurse you. I was not.
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."
I did say that and I still believe in some significant way it was true.
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.
Dan was my black dog of fate. He was very domineering and I wound up marrying him without ever being certain what I wanted.
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?
To this day I have very little idea what would make me happy. I just stopped searching for it once I had two daughters to raise and no man to help. There, you've elicited some self-pity from me, hope you're happy.
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."
And I have become one, no thanks to you.
I now had a second ethical dilemma: based on our early conversations I was certain you were not an artist,
You didn't want me to be. You wanted everyone else to burn their work, remember? Most of all you needed to be the big dog in any relationship, which is why you selected a series of Lauras until you met me. Whether you were writing or not you couldn't have tolerated another artist in the environment.
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.
I was (and am) very close to my father, but I never called him "daddy" to you and I don't think I ever presented as father-bound in the way you describe me.
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.
This was very pleasurable because, for a nice Catholic girl, it felt quite sinful without doing anyone any harm.
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.
I wanted equality, which you withheld, not authority over you.
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 ordered wine when I had my coffee the first time we went out. You seemed to spend most of your time mildly drunk from the day I met you.
You liked pot and always had some with you.
I used it regularly but never needed to buy any, as men always provided it. I don't really remember but would have thought the pot we smoked at your place was yours, not mine.
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 never offered to break up with Dan nor asked you to dump Laura. I liked having you as a secret escape from Dan, and the fact that you had Laura reaffirmed it was temporary and that you would not become too demanding of me--another Dan. Which in the end was exactly what happened. I was startled and embarrassed when you broke up with Laura and it was then that I knew things weren't going to go well between us.
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.
I was just a pastry to you.
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."
Your reserved manner concealed the truth for some weeks. I was really astonished to discover you were into me that much. Dan was the only other person I knew who was that obsessive.
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 felt sorry for Laura because you spoke of her as if you didn't even like her--like a servant not quite bad enough to be let go.
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 you admit you're an arrogant asshole.
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.
How do you reconcile these two statements? You weren't in love with me either, just suffering from some kind of meltdown you had scheduled for yourself: premeditated as the car hitting the only obstacle in the landscape.
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,
You made it clear many times you thought I was an idiot.
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.
I was a competitive youngster and we did get into some kind of ridiculous contest. You started it.
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.
Admittedly it was a bad early effort. Did you never write anything when you were twenty-two you were ashamed of later? Or did Fish Wife emerge full grown from your forehead without your having served any apprenticeship? I am not proud that I published Innocenta (slightly rewritten to take place in Chicago and retitled Erin) and other early stories, in my last collection. (The Statue, which as you know was about you, was one of them. When you sent me a marked up copy--how venomous were your comments!--you clearly had no idea that I had written it six months after we broke up and that it doesn't represent my mature work.) I have been in a bit of a dry spell for some years, since my youngest, Dara, started having emotional problems. I needed the money. These "sophomoric" stories, all of which you would have detested, were well-received; Frank Dunham wrote in the L.A. Times that "Kate Bloom consolidates her reputation as a mistress of light, deft American magical realism".
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.
Everyone steals, you included; I've caught two of your thefts so far. The clue to you is that you aspire to be Edith Wharton but are more a sort of sub-Emily Dickinson (Though I think knowing this would upset you very much.)
I decided to tell you a version of the truth, canted slightly in an optimistic direction.
If you think you were at all nice you're dead wrong. You were at the height of your supercilious, superior nastiness.
I started by praising your prose,
Not that I remember.
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.
Here's an example of your complication machine: on the one hand, I was a bimbo pastry to you, on the other, you felt the need to tell me harsh truths?
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.
What did you want me to do, fall on the floor weeping uncontrollably? I am happy to say I didn't even lose confidence in my writing, as I had already figured out you couldn't tolerate another artist and could never give me an honest opinion.
We never talked of your writing again and you never asked me to read anything more.
After that, you were tougher with me.
I was very angry at you.
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."
I said things like this to you all the time but you were the one who started the competition, by laughing at me and bragging about yourself.
Why somone with an eggshell skull would put on boxing gloves I'll never understand.
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.
I had only intended to spend three or four nights with you and I wasn't sure why I kept coming back. The sex was intriguing but not all that great. In retrospect I think I needed you to continue to balance Dan, because I sensed he might pull me in entirely if I didn't have someone else as a counter. Which is what happened in the end.
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.
I was very immature. I should have broken up with both you and Dan but I had no idea what I would do if alone.
You had again realized that what you wanted lay elsewhere.
True--and I still don't know what it is.
You said you had never been with a woman before,but I didn't know whether to believe you,
It was true, and I've never been with one since, either.
as you did not talk readily about your life and when you did, often contradicted yourself.
Yes, I lied sometimes, but within normal tolerances for a twenty-two year old.
You had been with eleven men, or twelve.
I had been with two including Dan. I probably told you three or four, which I regarded as making me "experienced." I could not have said eleven, which would have classified me as a slut according to my own standards of the time.
You told me once your mother was French, but I heard her voice on your answering machine and knew she wasn't.
My mother was born in France but came here when she was nine years old and has no accent.
No, you said; you had told me her mother was French.
I don't think so.
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 am often sulky even today.
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.
I was just very young.
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."
I am proud that I had this insight, which I believe was correct.
When I accused you of incapacity to love, you said, "Oh, and you think you can?"
Love means knowledge and equality, far as I can tell (I wasn't lucky enough to have either in my marriage, which provided the bulk of my sentimental education--it lasted fifteen years).
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.
You completely missed the point. If you'd had the least insight into me you would have understood that I needed both you and Bruce in order to feel I had a bit of independence.
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 had never said I wanted to be exclusive with you or promised that I would be. You were seeing someone else too.
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,"
I doubt I phrased it this way but I was certainly not interested in giving up men.
and rolled over to sleep, your back to me.
I clearly wasn't operatic enough for you--but neither was Laura, I think. Perhaps you needed a younger Helen Langley, who would cry and scream and writhe on the floor?
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.
Its creepy to think I slept in your bed in perfect ignorance of these thoughts.
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.
No, some of your cards you wouldn't even turn up for your own 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."
I was right about this.
"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."
I meant this in both senses.
"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 understood that you were a woman looking for an accident; you were already falling when I met you.
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.
You are right. You should never have come to New York. I believe you came in order to destroy yourself.
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.
I think I said "You're setting up a straw woman."
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.
Very interesting that your fisherwoman didn't have to adapt at all. Stella did everything, including coming back at the end to someone who arrogantly had refused to change.
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?"
This was in fact your great misfortune. After some early experiments with men, Sara came out a year or so later, and has been in a successful monogamous relationship with another acquaintance of ours ever since. I think Sara has actually had the best marriage of anyone I know. You needed her, who would have waited on you hand and foot, a super-Laura, and you chose me instead.
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.
You were always putting your feet up and asking me to pour you a glass of wine.
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."
I was being honest. Again, I never misled you. If I fell in love and wanted permanence I would have had a reason to brave my father. But there was no need for him to know about a fling. In fact, I only told him about Dan that week, and I had been seeing Dan for ten months.
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.
You were already a mess, and I knew I should break up with you but couldn't decide to do it. The fear of dissolving into Dan was not my only motive: I had become afraid of the consequences for you.
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.
If we charted your life like the Dow Jones average, there was a major drop that day.
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.
This would by far have been the best thing for both of us.
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.
I thought it was pretty clear, but since I wasn't sure what I wanted I was unwilling to say it could never happen, any more than I would tell Bruce I would never marry him.
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."
This was a mistake. It was one of our better days and I was being nice to you.
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.
This was never in the cards.
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.
He was your rival, not my father.
In mid-October, you introduced me to cocaine.
I would say we discovered it together. In your typical egotistical fashion, you miss the fact that I had a problem too. But you are really the only character in your story.
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 a mess.
You were nicer to me for a while when we were high,
When I was high I didn't notice so much what a mess you were.
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.
This was so grandiose, it had nothing to do with me or our objective shared reality. The day I met you you seemed self-confident and solid; you certainly weren't wearing a badge which said "I need a shot of redemption".
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,
I thought people called me that because I was small, lively and amusing. I first got that nickname at age 13.
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.
I've now thoroughly explained this.
What value did you discover in a dry bone so thoroughly chewed, that you kept returning to it?
This reeks of self-pity.
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 was really trying to help you, though I was by now so fucked up myself that the effort was abortive.
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.
This was a big shock for me. One day he was still hounding me about marriage, the next he had someone else. I think he figured out that the best way to get me was to throw me off balance, and the best way to do that was to drop me.
"Its my turn to sniff shit for a while," you said, as if I did not exist.
I already knew Dan was my future and you were not. I had decided to break up with you by Christmas, whether or not I got Dan back.
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 was very immature. I thought it would be nice to go to Ireland and get away from Dan; I immediately started thinking I might go to Ireland with you and break up afterwards.
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."
My resolute indecision is still today very hard on other life forms, including my daughters.
"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.
Actually, I felt badly that you never drew me any more. I don't remember refusing to sit for it. I do remember you were drinking too much to do anything.
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."
I was extremely confused. I thought I would probably not come back but it seemed cowardly, even by my relaxed standards of youth, to walk out on you without telling you. I still hadn't decided not to go to Ireland. In any event I thought I would probably come back for a day or two to break up with you.
"You're going to leave me here alone for Christmas?"
You never seemed to have any friends. There must have been someone you could have gone to; what about that cousin in Maine?
"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'."
You were such a mess that I decided I would not go to Ireland and would break up with you when I came back on January 2d.
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?"
Dan had called two days earlier to say his new girlfriend would be out of town for a few days and did I want to come over. If I had said no I would have avoided a bad marriage but my two beautiful daughters would never have existed.
"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.
Dan came, because you were making me highly nervous. You were fast asleep--apparently normally--and I did not try to wake 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.
Dan came back with me; I was planning to break up with you, and urge you to get help, while he waited in the other room. We found you and drove you to the emergency room together; he had his car downstairs.
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.
I was frightened. Also, I had never signed up to take care of you in the good times, so what made you my responsibility now? Still, I don't feel good about this behavior. The visit with Dan had not been a particularly good one; he hadn't agreed to relinquish the other girl. We also snorted a lot of coke together. The first thing I did after dropping you off at the hospital was run home to Chicago to get straight. Dan came to visit the next summer. We broke up twice more before we got married in 1982.
You had filled out paperwork identifying my employer as Hopeworth.
I didn't know what else to do. I'm sorry the result was that your employer found out you had a drug problem.
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'm sorry. I wasn't very clear-minded when I did this. I went back right after I dropped you off. I was coming down off a several day high myself, and I thought you might die in the hospital and get written up in the newspapers, so I destroyed the evidence of what I now regarded as a dangerous experiment. I would rather have kept your drawings but by now I had so l ittle independence from Dan that there was no place I could store them where he wouldn't find 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.
You wield the mallet.
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.
I'm still a pastry to you.
How you broke my back with one swat of your paw, and I didn't even know it for five months.
You almost broke mine and you still don't know it.
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?
This is really cruel. I am sure you knew perfectly well when you wrote this that I have published three novels and a collection of stories (which included Innocenta, retitled Erin.) It is remotely possible you didn't know of my career because I published as Kate Bloom. Obviously you found out, because you marked up a photocopy of The Statue and sent it to me; it is in the same collection as Erin.
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.
I'm astonished you didn't come over and say hello. You saw what you wanted to see: undoubtedly an alcoholic, disappointed lesbian being tortured by a young lover. What w as really before your eyes: a nervous, doting mother, wondering why her older daughter, Robyn (17), hates her.
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'm really sorry.
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.
I'd love to hear you sing.
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.
This is a lie (more likely yours than hers, unless she just didn't want to upset you.) I have stayed in touch with Sara; we trade letters every few years.
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.
I was very pleased for you when I heard it was back in print. I wrote you a congratulatory letter but never sent 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.
Just refrain: don't throw yourself to the ground.
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.
I didn't do this to you. I imagine we could sit and talk for hours and you would never see it. You had some complex and self-destructive dynamic already well in play the day you met me. I was an immature and selfish young girl, but I meant you no harm.
Written a day or two later: I went to the bookstore and found Fish Wife and re-read it. It holds up; I think I enjoyed it more than when I was twenty-one because I brought more to it. You can be very proud of that book. And when I finished reading it I realized that I miss you. I am sorry for you we ever met, but not sorry for me: as selfish and cold as I was it was still good for me to have you as a friend, however briefly. If you had been a little more steady, and I more mature, I think we could have been great friends, whatever happened. I don't think that friendship ever had a chance to get started. I've written my phone number at the bottom of the page. I'm going to put this away in a drawer for a few days, and think about whether I'm going to send it to you. I'm a little frightened, for you and for me, but I think I would like to see you, and talk about old times (or not, as you prefer.) If you get this in the mail it means I would like you to call me.
The Meteorite, by Helen Langley
The Statue, by Kate Bloom