I am drinking Darjeeling in a blue bookshop in the West End. I am seated at a small round table that is set with Wedgwood china and a silver service polished to gleaming. I am engaged in conversation with the rotund proprietor. He is remarkably pleasant company, though I’m fixated on his red beard and the jiggle of his belly as he chuckles at his own jokes.
I’ve never seen him before in my life, yet he tells me we are cousins despite the darkness of my coloring contrasted with his translucent skin and flaming hair. He recounts the same tale – that I am a relation – as a pair of Bobbies pop into his shop and ask for proof of my identity.
I do not speak as my ersatz cousin offers reassurance that I am who he says I am, so therefore I cannot be the foreign woman they are hunting. I am suddenly unconvinced.
The Bobbies politely bid us good day and withdraw.
I hide from my mother’s rages and complaining and even her ebullient bouts of brilliance, taking comfort behind closed doors which I hope she will respect at least for a few hours. In the quiet I cling to each stanza of Me as if my life depends upon it. And perhaps for a time it does. I torque and tinker the verses so I may configure a workable poem: the writer, the woman, the lover. As for wife, I assess the probability of that particular occurrence, and deem it statistically insignificant.
As to the expectations of other forms of female fulfillment, I do not imagine myself as a parent. I cannot conceive of loving generously enough to do the job justice, and thus in my mind I set aside that privilege. Instead I tend to definitions and construction of my many selves, which requires that I practice the art of setting the stage for the life I do not lead – just in case I manage to achieve it.
So it is that I acquire the trappings of that life, hoping they offer portage all the same and as a result I may approximate feeling it as I continue to create it – the journey to this Me, to this Her, to this confounded Us.
My daydreams are suffused with the insistence of unrelenting detail, just as my nightmares are populated by realizations: I understand the need for the tiny waist and otherwise rounded contours of Woman; “body first” is an indisputable given. The violet eyes that I covet will be affixed to my own, modeling my views of beauty on Elizabeth Taylor, and provided courtesy of the proper contact lenses.
Naturally, I will master the tones and timbre of a seductive voice, throaty and provocatively pitched when speaking French; I will bask in the beloved books lining my shelves, admittedly to excess; I will come to compassion, generosity, and attentiveness easily – that which I will cultivate as integral to my operation of the female arsenal, also of assistance to my spectating stance as a writer.
But where do I accommodate the innocence of the child who simply seeks love? If not love, at least to be seen?
If I cannot be loved and I cannot be seen, then the curtains will part and I shall perform my roles well. And it will be enough.
For now, I practice in the mirror like any other girl. The silver screen and Great Novels guide me, as my own mother is not the image I seek to emulate.
In the dream I stand in the country of my husband’s heritage, and though it is ten years after the divorce my face does not reflect my fifties but thirty-something, as when I meet his family and come to love them, as when I welcome their warmth, as when I take them appreciatively as my own, as when I give myself to them as much as to him, and do so through vows and fragile affection.
These are his people and they are told stories I will never know precisely, and they are persuaded that the dissolution of the marriage is my doing and their son’s undoing. But here and now in repeated awakening I am increasingly lucid and aware: truth flickers, like candlelight. We must circle the source and back away to understand its magic, and likewise, its uneven burning.
We are milling around a table in the old farmhouse warmed by the stove. His grandfather who was the first to love me is now dead yet he sits placidly in the red wool sweater, the one that I give him. I am told that he wears the sweater long after the divorce and long after I am banished from the family I love, knowing the melancholy of that abandonment as more pervasive than the loss of the man, the loss of the marriage, the destruction of belief in marriage itself, in the symbols of marriage, in the tolerance of marriage, in the necessity of respecting three thousand days of joining as worthy of the good fight.
Now we are gathered in a larger space at a massive table and it is the dining room in the home of my in-laws and the entire clan is present to witness the delivery of a small package. The man I married is as he appears today: what is left of his hair is silver, he bears a modest paunch on his tall frame, and his expression remains inscrutable.
He unwraps the package and reveals the wedding ring he removes as a punishment for disloyalty which is nothing more than disobedience, the ring that is a marker of commitment, the ring that breaks my heart in its absence, the ring that is not the most egregious of gambits in a battle of wills that knocks me breathless, and as I see the ring that I slipped on his finger more than two decades ago I am dumbstruck, and more so as it transforms into a delicate band which resembles one I stored away in a vault.
He holds the sliver of gold up to the light and pronounces in an indifferent tone: This is a ring I ordered for you once, with an inscription of love. Now I am going home to my second wife.
He pockets the ring and walks away as I revisit the colors of cruelty.
I must have hurt him deeply once.
There is the child that grows like an insistent and final flame and then dissolves as I am alone in my grieving, and even this is not the end of it. The child returns in my dreams for moments, and then abandons me in various states of distress.
I note that he is unafraid and oddly intact. I admit to solace in his occasional appearance.
There are walls and my facility for building them.
There are walls and my inability to scale them.
There are glacial incidents that cap years of containment: weddings, meetings, weekend trips, cocktail parties, the empty bed night after night. We are neither of us without blame but blame is pointless and finds no place in my observations. Yet I seem unable to finish the job of letting go.
There are walls and his apparent comfort with them.
I am tasked with becoming better acquainted with distance, with disassembly, and more importantly, with intimacy.
I am reinventing myself before I have an inkling of what the words entail or how they apply at any age, much less their popularity some forty years later. I am determined to unfasten and examine, then to rivet and knit, to squeeze and solder, to shape from and into, as part of a lifetime process of design and fleshing out.
Eventually, I inhabit my inventions and discover unexpected pleasures: I name their countries, I take them as lovers, I offer words as blossoms in exchange.
There are years when I beat my fists against unyielding doors to reach my mother, then something like a husband, then institutional battlements I have never encountered before but I somehow survive by waving a white flag. Worse are the habitual hauntings that strip night of its healing if not its dreaming. I continue to whisper my questions and listen for responses, some of which extend an instructive hand while others signal the need for greater patience.
In the dream my in-laws are looking at last, and with compassion. In the dream they do not cross the room to approach me, but nor do they turn away in contempt. In the dream they do not speak a word, but I sense there may be blossoms.
My origins as a woman lie in the body politic, in the acquisition of beliefs that are self-perpetuating like cells expanding wildly, in toxic beginnings that we cannot observe as they are microscopic in their spread and nor can we pinpoint the moment of their surrender to health.
Years pass and then decades and we come to realize that we were once darkened by fears that are lifting – strictures of thinness or prettiness or roundness or flatness that fade into a strange new ease in our flesh distended by births, scarred by the surgeon’s knife, bruised by the falls that are inevitable, and spotted by the signs of age.
If only marriage were so kind.
Now we make love to the Adult with abandon that is not abandonment. We release old ideals and smile at the gracious emergence of stronger and more accepting selves we need not name. We kiss tenderly in the shadow of failed commitments and squandered conversations, anchored as we are to the tissues of divorce and its unborn child carried like a stone.
Yet there is also this: unanticipated hours without performance, giving and taking without tally, freedom in the flesh as it is and its celebrations, access to alphabets and to their bustling, jubilant, noisy, effervescent and infinite arrangements.
This spinning seems much about me and yet, my eye has always been fastened, lovingly, on you.
I contemplate these days of my sons at home and a man who is not their father in the kitchen and around the table. We debate and we discuss, we listen and we laugh. The mood is energized and fueled by a mix of cultures as is the food and I find myself unexpectedly connected to early days in my marriage: my husband seems to be who I think he is, and there are nights in the kitchen and talking around the table. The boys are little. The feelings are good.
Then the children are sent to bed, the curtains are closed, and the house is suddenly chilly and silent.
Perhaps marriage is the ultimate performance as we wish to command it: dependent upon the talents of its actors, impacted by the supporting roles, never quite the same twice, applauded on opening night, taken for granted as time wears on, and playing out through habit and a strong script or possibly a sketchy one, surely the more precarious for lack of authoritative direction.
Letting go becomes the dream as much as insisting on it becomes the nightmare.
I am drinking Earl Grey in a taupe study in a quiet suburb. I am seated at a small round table with a red cloth, and engaged in conversation with myself.
My sons, the product of a marriage and divorce like so many, are entertaining themselves nearby. They are remarkably pleasant company at times, and at others, distant. Lately, there is a man in my kitchen who will not go silent after the curtains close.