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?