How did Selena get here? This is a question Richard is in the habit of asking himself, as he sits at his desk again, shuffling his deck of filing-cards, trying again to begin.
He has a repertoire of answers. Sometimes he pictures her drifting down towards the mundane rooftops in a giant balloon made of turquoise and emerald-green silks, or arriving on the back of a golden bird like the ones on Chinese teacups. On other days, darker ones like this Thursday – Thursday, he knows, was a sinister day in her calendar – she wends her way through a long underground tunnel encrusted with blood-red jewels and with arcane inscriptions that glitter in the light of torches. For years she walks, her garments – garments, not clothes – trailing, her eyes fixed and hypnotic, for she is one of those cursed with an unending life; walks until she reaches, one moonlit night, the iron-grilled door of the Petrowski tomb, which is real, though dug improbably into a hillside near the entrance to the also-real Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
(She would love that intersection of the banal and the numinous. She once said that the universe was a doughnut. She named the brand.)
The lock splits. The iron gate swings open. She emerges, raises her arms towards the suddenly chilled moon. The world changes.
There are other plots. It just depends which mythology he’s cribbing from.
A factual account exists. She came from the same sort of area that Richard came from himself: old pre-Depression Toronto, strung out along the lake shore south of the Queen streetcar tracks, a region of small vertical houses with peeling woodwork and sagging front porches and dry, mangy lawns. Not quaint in those days, not renovated, not desirable. The sort of constipated lower-middle-class white-bread ghetto he’d fled as soon as he could, because of the dingy and limited versions of himself it had offered him. Her motivation was perhaps the same. He likes to think so.
They’d even gone to the same constricting high school, though he’d never noticed her there. But why would he? He was four years older. By the time she’d come in, a spindly, frightened Grade Niner, he’d been almost out the door, and none too soon for him. He couldn’t imagine her there; couldn’t imagine her sauntering along the same faded green hallways, banging the same scratched lockers, sticking her gum underneath the same cage-like desks.
She and the high school would have been destructive opposites, like matter and anti-matter. Every time he placed her mental image beside that of the school, one or the other of them exploded. Usually it was the school’s.
Selena was not her real name. She had simply appropriated it, as she’d appropriated everything else that would help her to construct her new, preferred identity. She’d discarded the old name, which was Marjorie. Richard has learned this by mistake, in the course of his researches, and has tried in vain to forget it.
The first time he saw her is not noted on any of his filing-cards. He only makes notes of things he is not otherwise likely to remember.
It was in 1960 – the end of the fifties or the beginning of the sixties, depending on how you felt about zero. Selena was later to call it ‘the white-hot luminous egg/from which everything hatches,’ but for Richard, who at the time was slogging through Being and Nothingness, it signalled a dead end. He was in his first year of graduate school, on a meagre grant eked out by the marking of woefully written undergraduate essays. He was feeling jaded, over-the-hill; senility was rapidly approaching. He was twenty-two.
He met her on a Tuesday night, at the coffee-house. The coffee-house, because as far as Richard knew there was not another one like it in Toronto. It was called The Bohemian Embassy, in reference to the anti-bourgeois things that were supposed to go on in there, and to a certain extent did go on. It sometimes got mail from more innocent citizens who had seen the listing in the phone book and thought it was a real embassy, and were writing about travel visas. This was a source of hilarity among the regulars, of whom Richard was not quite one.
The coffee-house was on a little cobbled side street, up on the second floor of a disused warehouse. It was reached by a treacherous flight of wooden stairs with no banister; inside, it was dimly lit, smoke-filled, and closed down at intervals by the fire department. The walls had been painted black, and there were small tables with checked cloths and dripping candles. It also had an espresso machine, the first one Richard had ever seen. This machine was practically an icon, pointing as it did to other, superior cultures, far from Toronto. But it had its drawbacks. While you were reading your poetry out loud, as Richard sometimes did, Max behind the coffee-bar might turn on the machine, adding a whooshing, gurgling sound effect, as of someone being pressure-cooked and strangled.
Wednesdays and Thursdays were folk-singing, the weekends were jazz. Richard sometimes went on these nights, but he always went on Tuesdays, whether he was reading or not. He wanted to check out the competition. There wasn’t a lot of it, but what there was would surely turn up at The Bohemian Embassy, sooner or later.
Poetry was the way out then, for young people who wanted some exit from the lumpen bourgeoisie and the shackles of respectable wage-earning. It was what painting had been at the turn of the century. Richard knows this now, although he did not then. He doesn’t know what the equivalent is at the moment. Film-making, he’d guess, for those with intellectual pretensions. For those without, it’s playing the drums in a group, a group with a disgusting name such as Animal Fats or The Living Snot if his twenty-seven-year-old son is any indication. Richard can’t keep close tabs though, because the son lives with Richard’s ex-wife. (Still! At his age! Why doesn’t he get a room, an apartment, a job, Richard finds himself thinking, sourly enough. He understands, now, his own father’s irritation with the black turtlenecks he used to wear, his scruffy attempts at a beard, his declamations, over the obligatory Sunday-dinner meat and potatoes, of The Wasteland, and, later and even more effectively, of Ginsberg’s Howl. But at least he’d been interested in meaning, he tells himself. Or words. At least he’d been interested in words.)
He’d been good with words, then. He’d had several of his poems published in the university literary magazine, and in two little magazines, one of them not mimeographed. Seeing these poems in print, with his name underneath – he used initials, like T. S. Eliot, to make himself sound older – had given him more satisfaction than he’d ever got out of anything before. But he’d made the mistake of showing one of these magazines to his father, who was lower-middle-management with the Post Office. This had rated nothing more than a frown and a grunt, but as he was going down the walk with his bag of freshly washed laundry, on his way back to his rented room, he’d heard his old man reading one of his free-verse anti-sonnets out loud to his mother, sputtering with mirth, punctuated by his mother’s disapproving, predictable voice: ‘Now John! Don’t be so hard on him! He’s only a boy!’
The anti-sonnet was about Mary Jo, a chunky, practical girl with an off-blonde pageboy who worked at the library, and with whom Richard was almost having an affair. ‘I sink into your eyes,’ his father roared. ‘Old swamp-eyes! Cripes, what’s he gonna do when he gets down as far as the tits?’
And his mother, acting her part in their ancient conspiracy: ‘Now John! Really! Language!’
Richard told himself severely that he didn’t care. His father never read anything but the Reader’s Digest and bad paperback novels about the war, so what did he know?
By that particular Tuesday Richard had given up free verse. It was too easy. He wanted something with more rigour, more structure; something, he admits to himself now, that not everybody else could do.
He’d read his own stuff during the first set of the evening, a group of five sestinas followed by a villanelle. His poems were elegant, intricate; he was pleased with them. The espresso machine went off during the last one – he was beginning to suspect Max of sabotage – but several people said ‘Shhh’. When he’d finished there was polite applause. Richard sat back down in his corner, surreptitiously scratching his neck. The black turtleneck was giving him a rash. As his mother never ceased telling anyone who might be interested, he had a delicate skin.
After him there was a straw-haired older woman poet from the West Coast who read a long poem in which the wind was described as blowing up between her thighs. There were breezy disclosures in this poem, off-handed four-letter words; nothing you wouldn’t find in Allen Ginsberg, but Richard caught himself blushing. After her reading, this woman came over and sat down beside Richard. She squeezed his arm and whispered, ‘Your poems were nice.’ Then, staring him straight in the eye, she hitched her skirt up over her thighs. This was hidden from the rest of the room by the checked tablecloth and by the general smoky gloom. But it was a clear invitation. She was daring him to take a peek at whatever moth-eaten horror she had tucked away in there.
Richard found himself becoming coldly angry. He was supposed to salivate, jump her on the stairway like some deranged monkey. He hated those kinds of assumptions about men, about dipstick sex and slobbery, pea-brained arousal. He felt like punching her. She must have been at least fifty.
The age he now is himself, Richard notes dejectedly. That’s one thing Selena has escaped. He thinks of it as an escape.
There was a musical interlude, as there always was on Tuesdays. A girl with long, straight, dark hair parted in the middle sat on a high stool, an autoharp across her knees, and sang several mournful folk songs in a high, clear voice. Richard was worrying about how to remove the woman poet’s hand from his arm without being ruder than he wanted to be. (She was senior, she’d published books, she knew people.) He thought he might excuse himself and go to the washroom; but the washroom was just a cubicle that opened directly on to the main room. It had no lock, and Max was in the habit of opening the door when you were in there. Unless you turned out the light and pissed in the dark, you were likely to be put on exhibit, brightly lit as a Christmas crèche, hands fumbling at your crotch.
He held a knife against her breast
As into his arms she pressed,
sang the girl. I could just leave, thought Richard. But he didn’t want to do that.
Oh Willy Willy, don’t you murder me,
I’m not prepared for eternity.
Sex and violence, he thinks now. A lot of the songs were about that. We didn’t even notice. We thought it was art.
It was right after this that Selena came on. He hadn’t seen her in the room before. It was as if she’d materialized out of nowhere, on the tiny stage, under the single spotlight.
She was slight, almost wispy. Like the singer, she had long, dark hair with a centre part. Her eyes were outlined in black, as was becoming the fashion. She was wearing a long-sleeved, high-necked black dress, over which was draped a shawl embroidered with what looked like blue and green dragonflies.
Oh jeez, thought Richard, who like his father still used the laundered blasphemies of the schoolyard. Another jeezly poetess. I suppose now we’ll have more pudenda, he added, from his graduate-school vocabulary.
Then the voice hit him. It was a warm, rich voice, darkly spiced, like cinnamon, and too huge to be coming from such a small person. It was a seductive voice, but not in any blunt way. What it offered was an entrée to amazement, to a shared and tingling secret; to splendours. But there was an undercurrent of amusement too, as if you were a fool for being taken in by its voluptuousness; as if there were a cosmic joke in the offing, a simple, mysterious joke, like the jokes of children.
What she read was a series of short connected lyrics. Isis in Darkness. The Egyptian Queen of Heaven and Earth was wandering in the underworld, gathering up the pieces of the murdered and dismembered body of her lover Osiris. At the same time, it was her own body she was putting back together; and it was also the physical universe. She was creating the universe by an act of love.
All of this was taking place, not in the ancient Middle Kingdom of the Egyptians, but in flat, dingy Toronto, on Spadina Avenue, at night, among the darkened garment factories and delicatessens and bars and pawnshops. It was a lament, and a celebration. Richard had never heard anything like it.
He sat back in his chair, fingering his patchy beard, trying as hard as he could to find this girl and her poetry trivial, overdone and pretentious. But he couldn’t manage it. She was brilliant, and he was frightened. He felt his own careful talent shrivelling to the size of a dried bean.
The espresso machine did not go on once. After she’d finished there was a silence, before the applause. The silence was because people didn’t know what to make of it, how to take it, this thing, whatever it was, that had been done to them. For a moment she had transformed reality, and it took them a breath to get it back.
Richard stood up, pushing past the bared legs of the woman poet. He didn’t care any more who she might know. He went over to where Selena had just sat down, with a cup of coffee brought to her by Max.
‘I liked your poems,’ he managed to get out.
‘Liked? Liked?’ He thought she was making fun of him, although she wasn’t smiling. ‘Liked is so margarine. How about adored?’
‘Adored, then,’ he said, feeling like an idiot twice over – for having said liked in the first place, and for jumping through her hoop in the second. But he got his reward. She asked him to sit down.
Up close her eyes were turquoise, the irises dark-ringed like a cat’s. In her ears were blue-green earrings in the shape of scarabs. Her face was heart-shaped, her skin pale; to Richard, who had been dabbling in the French Symbolists, it evoked the word lilac. The shawl, the darkly outlined eyes, the earrings – few would have been able to pull it off. But she acted as if this was just her ordinary get-up. What you’d wear any day on a journey down the Nile, 5,000 years ago.
It was of a piece with her performance – bizarre, but assured. Fully achieved. The worst of it was that she was only eighteen.
‘That’s a lovely shawl,’ Richard attempted. His tongue felt like a beef sandwich.
‘It’s not a shawl, it’s a tablecloth,’ she said. She looked down at it, stroked it. Then she laughed a little. ‘It’s a shawl now.’
Richard wondered if he should dare to ask – what? If he could walk her home? Did she have anything so mundane as a home? But what if she said no? While he was deliberating, Max the bullet-headed coffee hack walked over and put a possessive hand on her shoulder, and she smiled up at him. Richard didn’t wait to see if it meant anything. He excused himself, and left.
He went back to his rented room and composed a sestina to her. It was a dismal effort; it captured nothing about her. He did what he had never before done to one of his poems. He burnt it.
Over the next few weeks Richard got to know her better. Or he thought he did. When he came into the coffee-house on Tuesday nights, she would greet him with a nod, a smile. He would go over and sit down, and they would talk. She never spoke about herself, her life. Instead she treated him as if he were a fellow professional, an initiate, like herself. Her talk was about the magazines by which her poems had been accepted, about projects she’d begun. She was writing a verse play for radio; she would be paid for it. She seemed to think it was only a matter of time before she’d be earning enough money to live on, though she had very little conception of how much enough would be. She didn’t say what she was living on at the moment.
Richard found her naive. He himself had taken the sensible course: with a graduate degree he could always make an income of some sort in the academic salt-mines. But who would pay a living wage for poetry, especially the kind she wrote? It wasn’t in the style of anyone, it didn’t sound like anything else. It was too eccentric.
She was like a child sleepwalking along a roof-ledge ten storeys up. He was afraid to call out in warning, in case she should wake, and fall.
Mary Jo the librarian had phoned him several times. He’d put her off with vague mumbles about overwork. On the rare Sunday when he still turned up at his parents’ house to do his laundry and eat what his father called a decent meal for once, he had to endure the pained scrutiny of his mother. Her theory was that he was straining his brain, which could lead to anaemia. In fact he was hardly working at all. His room was silting up with unmarked, overdue student papers; he hadn’t written another poem, another line. Instead he went out for gummy egg sandwiches or glasses of draft beer at the local beverage room, or to afternoon movies, sleazy double features about women with two heads or men who got changed into flies. Evenings he spent at the coffee-house. He was no longer feeling jaded. He was feeling desperate.
It was Selena who was causing this desperation, but he had no name for why. Partly he wanted to get inside her, find that innermost cave where she hid her talent. But she kept him at a distance. Him, and in some way everyone else.
She read several times. The poems were astonishing again, again unique. Nothing about her grandmother, or about snow, or about childhood; nothing about dying dogs, or family members of any kind. Instead there were regal, tricky women, magical, shape-shifting men; in whom, however, he thought he could recognize the transposed outlines of some of the regulars from The Bohemian Embassy. Was that Max’s white-blond bullet head, his lidded ice-blue eyes? There was another man, a thin intense one with a moustache and a smouldering Spanish look that set Richard’s teeth on edge. One night he’d announced to the whole table that he’d caught a bad case of crabs, that he’d had to shave himself and paint his groin blue. Could that be his torso, equipped with burning wings? Richard couldn’t tell, and it was driving him crazy.
(It was never Richard himself though. Never his own stubby features, his own brownish hair and hazel eyes. Never even a line, about him.)
He pulled himself together, got the papers marked, finished off an essay on the imagery of mechanism in Herrick that he needed in order to haul himself safely from this academic year into the next one. He took Mary Jo to one of the Tuesday poetry evenings. He thought it might neutralize Selena, like an acid neutralizing an alkali; get her out of his head. Mary Jo was not impressed.
‘Where does she get those tatty old clothes?’ she said.
‘She’s a brilliant poet,’ said Richard.
‘I don’t care. That thing looks like a tablecloth. And why does she do her eyes in that phoney way?’
Richard felt this like a cut, like a personal wound.
He didn’t want to marry Selena. He couldn’t imagine marriage with her. He could not place her within the tedious, comforting scenery of domesticity: a wife doing his laundry, a wife cooking his meals, a wife pouring his tea. All he wanted was a month, a week, a night even. Not in a motel room, not in the back of a car; these squalid venues left over from his fumbling youth would not do. It would have to be somewhere else, somewhere darker and infinitely more strange. He imagined a crypt, with hieroglyphics; like the last act of Aïda. The same despair, the same exultation, the same annihilation. From such an experience you would emerge reborn, or not at all.
It was not lust. Lust was what you felt for Marilyn Monroe, or sometimes for the strippers at the Victory Burlesque. (Selena had a poem about the Victory Burlesque. The strippers, for her, were not a bunch of fat sluts with jiggling, dimpled flesh. They were diaphanous; they were surreal butterflies, emerging from cocoons of light; they were splendid.)
What he craved was not her body as such. He wanted to be transformed by her, into someone he was not.
By now it was summer, and the university and the coffee-house were both closed. On rainy days Richard lay on the lumpy bed in his humid, stifling room, listening to the thunder; on sunny ones, which were just as humid, he made his way from tree to tree, staying in the shade. He avoided the library. One more session of sticky near-sex with Mary Jo, with her damp kisses and her nurse-like manipulations of his body, and especially the way she sensibly stopped short of anything final, would leave her with a permanent limp.
‘You wouldn’t want to get me knocked up,’ she would say, and she was right, he wouldn’t. For a girl who worked among books, she was breathtakingly prosaic. But then, her forte was cataloguing.
Richard knew she was a healthy girl with a normal outlook. She would be good for him. This was his mother’s opinion, delivered after he’d made the mistake – just once – of taking her home with him to Sunday dinner. She was like corned beef, cottage cheese, cod liver oil. She was like milk.
One day he bought a bottle of Italian red wine and took the ferry over to Ward’s Island. He knew Selena lived over there. That at least had been in the poems.
He didn’t know what he intended to do. He wanted to see her, take hold of her, go to bed with her. He didn’t know how he was going to get from the first step to the last. He didn’t care what came of it. He wanted.
He got off the ferry and walked up and down the small streets of the island, where he had never been. These were summer homes, cheap and insubstantial, white clapboard or pastel, or sided with insulbrick. Cars were not permitted. There were kids on bicycles, dumpy women in swimsuits taking sunbaths on their lawns. Portable radios played. It was not what he’d had in mind as Selena’s milieu. He thought of asking someone where she lived – they would know, she’d stand out here – but he didn’t want to advertise his presence. He considered turning around, taking the next ferry back.
Then, off at the end of one of the streets, he saw a minute one-storey cottage, in the shade of two large willows. There had been willows in the poems. He could at least try.
The door was open. It was her house, because she was in it. She was not at all surprised to see him.
‘I was just making some peanut-butter sandwiches,’ she said, ‘so we could have a picnic.’ She was wearing loose black cotton slacks, Oriental in tone, and a sleeveless black top. Her arms were white and thin. Her feet were in sandals; he looked at her long toes, with the toenails painted a light peach-pink. He noted with a wrench of the heart that the nail polish was chipped.
‘Peanut butter?’ he said stupidly. She was talking as if she’d been expecting him.
‘And strawberry jam,’ she said. ‘Unless you don’t like jam.’ Still that courteous distance.
He preferred his bottle of wine. ‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘but you’ll have to drink it all by yourself.’
‘Why?’ he said. He’d intended this to go differently. A recognition. A wordless embrace.
‘If I ever started I’d never stop. My father was an alcoholic,’ she told him gravely. ‘He’s somewhere else, because of it.’
‘In the Underworld?’ he said, in what he hoped was a graceful allusion to her poetry.
She shrugged. ‘Or wherever.’ He felt like a dunce. She went back to spreading the peanut butter, at her diminutive kitchen table. Richard, wrung dry of conversation, looked around him. There was only the one room, sparsely furnished. It was almost like a religious cell, or his idea of one. In one corner was a desk with an old black typewriter, and a bookshelf made of boards and bricks. The bed was narrow and covered with a swathe of bright purple Indian cotton, to double as a sofa. There was a tiny sink, a tiny stove. One easy chair, Sally Ann issue. A braided, faded rug. On the walls there were no pictures at all.
‘I don’t need them,’ she said. She’d put the sandwiches into a crumpled paper bag and was motioning him out of the door.
She led him to a stone breakwater overlooking the lake, and they sat on it and ate the sandwiches. She had some lemonade in a milk bottle; they passed it back and forth. It was like a ritual, like a communion; she was letting him partake. She sat cross-legged, with sunglasses on. Two people went by in a canoe. The lake rippled, threw off glints of light. Richard felt absurd, and happy.
‘We can’t be lovers,’ she said to him after a time. She was licking jam off her fingers. Richard jolted awake. He had never been so abruptly understood. It was like a trick; it made him uncomfortable.
He could have pretended he didn’t know what she was talking about. Instead he said, ‘Why not?’
‘You would get used up,’ she said. ‘Then you wouldn’t be there, later.’
This was what he wanted: to be used up. To burn in divine conflagration. At the same time, he realized that he could not summon up any actual, carnal desire for this woman; this girl, sitting beside him on the breakwater with her skinny arms and minimal breasts, dangling her legs now like a nine-year-old.
‘Later?’ he said. Was she telling him he was too good to be wasted? Was this a compliment, or not?
‘When I’ll need you,’ she said. She was stuffing the waxed-paper sandwich wrapping into the paper bag. ‘I’ll walk you to the ferry.’
He had been circumvented, outmanoeuvred; also spied on. Maybe he was an open book and a dolt as well, but she didn’t have to rub it in. As they walked, he found himself getting angry. He still clutched the wine bottle in its liquor-store bag.
At the ferry dock she took his hand, shook it formally. ‘Thank you for coming,’ she said. Then she pushed the sunglasses up on to her hair, giving him her turquoise eyes full force. ‘The light only shines for some,’ she said, kindly and sadly. ‘And even for them it’s not all the time. The rest of the time you’re alone.’
But he’d had enough of gnomic utterances for one day. ‘Theatrical bitch,’ he told himself on the ferry.
He went back to his room and drank most of the bottle of wine. Then he phoned Mary Jo. When she’d negotiated her way as usual past the snoopy landlady on the ground floor and arrived on tiptoe at his door, he pulled her inside roughly and bent her backwards in a tipsy, mocking embrace. She started to giggle, but he kissed her seriously and pushed her on to the bed. If he couldn’t have what he wanted he would at least have something. The bristles of her shaved legs rasped against him; her breath smelled like grape bubblegum. When she began to protest, warning him again of the danger of pregnancy, he said it didn’t matter. She took this as a marriage proposal. In the event, it was one.
With the arrival of the baby his academic work ceased to be a thing he did disdainfully, on sufferance, and became a necessity of life. He needed the money, and then he needed more money. He laboured over his PhD thesis, on cartographic imagery in John Donne, interrupted by infant squalling and the dentist’s-drill whine of the vacuum cleaner, and by the cups of tea brought to him by Mary Jo at inappropriate moments. She told him he was a grouch, but since that was more or less the behaviour she expected from husbands she didn’t seem to mind. She typed his thesis for him and did the footnotes, and showed him off to her relatives, him and his new degree. He got a job teaching composition and grammar to veterinary students at the agricultural college in Guelph.
He did not write poetry anymore. Some days he hardly even thought about it. It was like a third arm, or a third eye that had atrophied. He’d been a freak when he’d had it.
Once in a while, though, he went on binges. He would sneak into bookstores or libraries, lurk around the racks where the little magazines were kept; sometimes he’d buy one. Dead poets were his business, living ones his vice. Much of the stuff he read was crap and he knew it; still, it gave him an odd lift. Then there would be the occasional real poem, and he would catch his breath. Nothing else could drop him through space like that, then catch him; nothing else could peel him open.
Sometimes these poems were Selena’s. He would read them, and part of him – a small, constricted part – would hope for some lapse, some decline; but she just got better. Those nights, when he was lying in bed on the threshold of sleep, he would remember her or she would appear to him, he was never sure which; a dark-haired woman with her arms upstretched, in a long cloak of blue and dull gold or of feathers or of white linen. The costumes were variable, but she herself remained a constant. She was something of his own, that he had lost.
He didn’t see her again until 1970, another zero year. By that time he’d managed to get himself hired back to Toronto, to teach graduate-level Puritan literary theory and freshman English at a new campus in the suburbs. He did not yet have tenure: in the age of publish-or-perish, he’d published only two papers, one on witchcraft as sexual metaphor, the other on The Pilgrim’s Progress and architecture. Now that their son was in school Mary Jo had gone back to cataloguing, and with their savings they’d made a down payment on a Victorian semi-detached in the Annex. It had a small back lawn, which Richard mowed. They kept talking about a garden, but there was never the energy.
At this time Richard was at a low point, though it was Mary Jo’s contention that he was always at a low point. She fed him vitamin pills and nagged him to see a shrink so he could become more assertive, though when he was assertive with her she would accuse him of throwing his patriarchal weight around. He’d realized by now that he could always depend on her to do the socially correct thing; at the moment she was attending a women’s consciousness-raising group and was (possibly) having an affair with a sandy-haired, pasty-faced linguist at the university whose name was Johanson. Whether it existed or not, this affair suited Richard, in a way: it allowed him to think badly of her.
It was April. Mary Jo was at her women’s group or screwing Johanson, or possibly both; she was efficient, she could get a lot done in one evening. His son was staying overnight with a friend. Richard was supposed to be working on his book, the book that was going to do it for him, make his name, get him tenure: Spiritual Carnality: Marvell and Vaughan and the 17th Century. He’d hesitated between carnal spirituality and spiritual carnality, but the latter had more zing. The book was not going all that well. There was a problem of focus. Instead of rewriting the second chapter again, he’d come downstairs to rummage in the refrigerator for a beer.
‘And tear our pleasures with rough strife through the iron gates of life, Olay!‘ he sang, to the tune of Hernando’s Hideaway. He got out two beers and filled a cereal bowl with potato chips. Then he went into the living room and settled into the easy chair to slurp and munch, flipping through the channels on the television set, looking for the crassest, most idiotic thing he could find. He badly needed something to sneer at.
This was when the doorbell rang. When he saw who it was he was very glad he’d had the sense to click off the item he’d been watching, a tits-and-bums extravaganza posing as a detective show.
It was Selena, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat and a long, black knitted coat, and carrying a battered suitcase. ‘May I come in?’ she said.
Richard, amazed and a little frightened, and then suddenly delighted, stood back to let her in. He’d forgotten what delight felt like. In the last few years he’d given up even on the little magazines, preferring numbness.
He didn’t ask her what she was doing at his house, or how she’d found him. Instead he said, ‘Would you like a drink?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t drink, remember?’ He did remember then; he remembered her tiny house on the island, in every clear detail: the pattern of small gold lions on the bedspread, the shells and round stones on the windowsill, the daisies in a jam jar. He remembered her long toes. He’d made a fool of himself that day, but now she was here it no longer mattered. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, hold her closely; rescue her, be rescued.
‘Some coffee would be nice though,’ she said, and he led her to the kitchen and made her some. She didn’t take off her coat. The sleeves were threadbare; he could see the places where she’d stitched over the ravelled edges with mending wool. She smiled at him with the same acceptance of him she’d always shown, taking for granted that he was a friend and equal, and he was ashamed of the way he’d spent the last ten years. He must be absurd to her; he was absurd to himself. He had a paunch and a mortgage, a bedraggled marriage; he mowed the lawn, he owned sports jackets, grudgingly he raked the autumn leaves and shovelled the winter snow. He indulged his own sloth. He should have been living in an attic, eating bread and magotty cheese, washing his one shirt out at night, his head incandescent with words.
She was not noticeably older. If anything she was thinner. He saw what he thought was the fading shadow of a bruise over her right cheekbone, but it could have been the light. She sipped at her coffee, fiddled with the spoon. She seemed to have drifted off somewhere. ‘Are you writing much?’ he said, seizing on something he knew would interest her.
‘Oh yes,’ she said brightly, returning to her body. ‘I have another book coming out.’ How had he missed the first one? ‘How about you?’
He shrugged. ‘Not for a long time.’
‘That’s a shame,’ she said. ‘That’s terrible.’ She meant it. It was as if he’d told her someone she’d known had died, and he was touched. It wasn’t his actual poems she was regretting, unless she had no taste at all. They hadn’t been any good, he knew that now and certainly she did too. It was the poems, the ones he might have written, if. If what?
‘Could I stay here?’ she said, putting down her cup.
Richard was taken aback. She’d meant business with that suitcase. Nothing would have pleased him more, he told himself, but there was Mary Jo to be considered. ‘Of course,’ he said, hoping his hesitation hadn’t shown.
‘Thank you,’ said Selena. ‘I don’t have anywhere else right now. Anywhere safe.’
He didn’t ask her to explain this. Her voice was the same, rich and tantalizing, on the edge of ruin; it was having its old devastating effect on him. ‘You can sleep in the rec room,’ he said. ‘There’s a sofa that folds out.’
‘Oh good.’ She sighed. ‘It’s Thursday.’ Thursday, he recalled, was a significant day in her poetry, but at the time he couldn’t remember whether it was good or bad. Now he knows. Now he has three filing-cards with nothing but Thursdays on them.
When Mary Jo got home, brisk and defensive as he’d decided she always was after furtive sex, they were still sitting in the kitchen. Selena was having another cup of coffee, Richard another beer. Selena’s hat and mended coat were on top of her suitcase. Mary Jo saw them and scowled.
‘Mary Jo, you remember Selena,’ Richard said. ‘From the Embassy?’
‘Right,’ said Mary Jo. ‘Did you put out the trash?’
‘I will,’ said Richard. ‘She’s staying overnight.’
‘I’ll put it out myself then,’ said Mary Jo, stomping off towards the glassed-in back porch where they kept the garbage cans. Richard followed her and they fought, at first in whispers.
‘What the hell is she doing in my house?’ Mary Jo hissed.
‘It’s not just your house, it’s my house too. She’s got nowhere else to go.’
‘That’s what they all say. What happened, some boyfriend beat her up?’
‘I didn’t ask. She’s an old friend.’
‘Look, if you want to sleep with that weird flake you can do it somewhere else.’
‘As you do?’ said Richard, with what he hoped was bitter dignity.
‘What the hell are you talking about? Are you accusing me of something?’ said Mary Jo. Her eyes were bulging out, as they did when she was really angry and not just acting. ‘Oh. You’d love that, wouldn’t you. Give you a voyeuristic thrill.’
‘Anyway I’m not sleeping with her,’ said Richard, reminding Mary Jo that the first false accusation had been hers.
‘Why not?’ said Mary Jo. ‘You’ve been leching after her for ten years. I’ve seen you mooning over those stupid poetry magazines. On Thursdays you are a banana,’ she intoned, in savage mimicry of Selena’s deeper voice. ‘Why don’t you just screw her and get it over with?’
‘I would if I could,’ Richard said. This truth saddened him.
‘Oh. Holding out on you? Tough shit. Do me a favour, just rape her in the rec room and get it out of your system.’
‘My, my,’ said Richard. ‘Sisterhood is powerful.’ As soon as he said it he knew he’d gone too far.
‘How dare you use my feminism against me like that?’ said Mary Jo, her voice up an octave. ‘That is so cheap! You always were a cheap little prick!’
Selena was standing in the doorway watching them. ‘Richard,’ she said, ‘I think I’d better go.’
‘Oh no,’ said Mary Jo, with a chirpy parody of hospitality. ‘Stay! It’s no trouble! Stay a week! Stay a month! Consider us your hotel!’
Richard walked Selena to the front door. ‘Where will you go?’ he said.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘there’s always somewhere.’ She stood under the porch light, looking up the street. It was a bruise. ‘But right now I don’t have any money.’
Richard dug out his wallet, emptied it. He wished it was more.
‘I’ll pay you back,’ she said.
If he has to date it, Richard pinpoints this Thursday as the day his marriage was finally over. Even though he and Mary Jo went through the form of apologizing, even though they had more than a few drinks and smoked a joint and had dislocated, impersonal sex, nothing got fixed. Mary Jo left him soon after, in quest of the self she claimed she needed to find. She took their son with her. Richard, who hadn’t paid that much attention to the boy, was now reduced to nostalgic, interminable weekends with him. He tried out several other women, but couldn’t concentrate on them.
He looked for Selena but she’d disappeared. One magazine editor told him she’d gone out west. Richard felt he’d let her down. He had failed to be a place of refuge.
Ten years later he saw her again. It was 1980, another year of the nothing, or of the white-hot egg. He notes this coincidence only now, laying out the filing-cards like a fortune-teller across the surface of his particle-board desk.
He’d just got out of his car, having returned through thickening traffic from the university, where he was still clinging on by his fingernails. It was mid-March, during the spring melt, an irritating and scruffy time of year. Mud and rain and scraps of garbage left over from the winter. His mood was similar. He’d recently had the manuscript of Spiritual Carnality returned to him by a publisher, the fourth rejection. The covering letter informed him that he’d failed sufficiently to problematize the texts. On the title page someone had written, in faint, semi-erased pencil, fatuously romantic. He suspected that shrike Johanson, who was one of their readers, and who’d had it in for him ever since Mary Jo had left. After a brief interval of firm-chinned single coping she’d moved in on Johanson and they’d lived together for six months of blitzkreig. Then she’d tried to hit him up for half the value of his house. Johanson had been blaming this on Richard ever since.
He was thinking about this, and about the batch of student papers in his briefcase: James Joyce from a Marxist perspective, or garbled structuralism seeping in from France to dilute the student brain yet further. The papers had to be marked by tomorrow. He had a satisfying fantasy of laying them all out in the muddy street and running over them with his car. He would say he’d been in an accident.
Coming towards him was a short, thickish woman in a black trench coat. She was carrying a large, brown tapestry bag; she seemed to be looking at the numbers on the houses, or possibly the snowdrops and crocuses on the lawns. Richard did not understand that it was Selena until she’d almost passed him.
‘Selena,’ he said, touching her arm.
She turned up to him a blank face, the turquoise eyes dull. ‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s not my name.’ Then she peered more closely. ‘Richard. Is that you?’ Either she was feigning pleasure, or she really felt it. Again, for him, there was a stab of unaccustomed joy.
He stood awkwardly. No wonder she’d had trouble recognizing him. He was prematurely grey, overweight; Mary Jo had told him, on the last, unpleasant occasion on which he’d seen her, that he was slug-coloured. ‘I didn’t know you were still here,’ he said. ‘I thought you’d moved out west.’
‘Travelled,’ she said. ‘I’m through with that.’ There was an edge to her voice he’d never heard before.
‘And your work?’ he said. It was always the thing to ask her.
‘What work?’ she said, and laughed.
‘Your poetry.’ He was beginning to be alarmed. She was more matter-of-fact than he’d ever known her to be, but somehow this struck him as crazy.
‘Poetry,’ she said with scorn. ‘I hate poetry. It’s just this. This is all there is. This stupid city.’
He went cold with dread. What was she saying, what had she done? It was like a blasphemy, it was like an act of desecration. Though how could he expect her to maintain faith in something he himself had so blatantly failed?
She’d been frowning, but now her face wrinkled in anxiety. She put a hand on his arm, stood on tiptoe. ‘Richard,’ she whispered. ‘What happened to us? Where did everyone go?’ A mist came up with her, an odour. He recognized sweetish wine, a whiff of cat.
He wanted to shake her, lead her to safety, wherever that might be. ‘We just changed, that’s all,’ he said gently. ‘We got older.’
‘Change and decay in all around I see,’ she said, smiling in a way he did not like at all. ‘I’m not prepared for eternity.’
It wasn’t until she’d walked away – refusing tea, hurrying off as if she couldn’t wait to see the last of him – that he realized she’d been quoting from a folk song. It was the same one he’d heard sung to the autoharp in the coffee-house, the night he’d first seen her, standing under the single spotlight in her dragonfly shawl.
That, and a hymn. He wondered whether she’d become what his students called ‘religious’.
Months later he heard she was dead. Then there was a piece in the paper. The details were vague. It was the picture that caught his eye: an earlier picture of her, from the jacket of one of her books. Probably there was nothing more recent, because she hadn’t published anything for years. Even her death belonged to an earlier time; even the people in the small closed world of poetry had largely forgotten about her.
Now that she’s dead, however, she’s become newly respectable. In several quarterly reviews the country has been lambasted for its indifference towards her, its withholding of recognition during her lifetime. There’s a move afoot to name a parkette after her, or else a scholarship, and the academics are swarming like botflies. A thin volume has appeared, of essays on her work, shoddy stuff in Richard’s opinion, flimsy and superficial; another one is rumoured to be in the offing.
This is not the reason Richard is writing about her, however. Nor is it to cover his professional ass: he’s going to be axed from the university anyway, there are new cutbacks, he lacks tenure, his head is on the block. It’s merely because she’s the one thing left he still values, or wants to write about. She is his last hope.
Isis in Darkness, he writes. The Genesis. It exalts him simply to form the words. He will exist for her at last, he will be created by her, he will have a place in her mythology after all. It will not be what he once wanted: not Osiris, not a blue-eyed god with burning wings. His are humbler metaphors. He will only be the archaeologist; not part of the main story, but the one who stumbles upon it afterwards, making his way for his own obscure and battered reasons through the jungle, over the mountains, across the desert, until he discovers at last the pillaged and abandoned temple. In the ruined sanctuary, in the moonlight, he will find the Queen of Heaven and Earth and the Underworld lying in shattered white marble on the floor. He is the one who will sift through the rubble, groping for the shape of the past. He is the one who will say it has meaning. That too is a calling, that also can be a fate.
He picks up a filing-card, jots a small footnote on it in his careful writing, and replaces it neatly in the mosaic of paper he is making across his desk. His eyes hurt. He closes them and rests his forehead on his two fisted hands, summoning up whatever is left of his knowledge and skill, kneeling beside her in the darkness, fitting her broken pieces back together.
Image © haco-otoko