He: This isn’t going to turn into one of your rants, is it?
She: The need to rant comes from the feeling of not being heard.
In 2007, Germaine Greer published the spirited Shakespeare’s Wife, a book about Ann Hathaway and the life she might have led. The word ‘might’ is important in this context, because next to nothing is known about her. There are a few documents that offer a detail or two about her family. There are Mr Shakespeare’s poems and plays, of course, which must not be read as being too heavily autobiographical. And there are the successive, generally negative views of scholars and historians. That’s all.
Greer wades though everything. Everything. At the heart of her investigation is the simplest question: Why, when so little is known, should nearly every reference to this woman be negative?
For example, for four centuries Ann Hathaway has been considered an illiterate, unattractive older woman who slyly set about to lead astray and then entrap the naïve, teenage Will, future Bard of England. And yet, only a badly preserved pencil sketch remains to hint at whether she was lovely or plain or downright ugly, hardly enough to inspire such vitriol.
The only thing known for certain is that Ann Hathaway was 26 to his 18 years. That’s it. Nothing about their courtship is known, though Greer draws context from songs and ballads of the time as well as some of Shakespeare’s early poems, which are surprisingly positive about relationships between slightly older women and younger men. Greer makes a case for the Hathaways being better established in the world than the Shakespeares, who were heavily in debt. Indeed, it might even be surmised that Ann was a good catch for the talented young man without an income, whose skills as a poet and playwright remained largely untested. No one could possibly have imagined at the time they were married that Will Shakespeare would go on to be the most celebrated writer in the English language.
What, then, have these scholars to gain by being unceasingly unkind to someone they know nothing about? Greer invokes the long line of so-called “rhapsodists of bardolatry”, of whom Thomas De Quincey was first of many. Shakespeare had become a national treasure and, as such, the facts of his life as the basis of an ‘image’ were considered public property.
Greer intends to set the record straight, questioning each document, every reference, and each individual assumption at a breakneck pace, exposing in the process a long tradition of scholarly chauvinism and misogyny. “The Shakespeare wallahs,” she writes, “have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women.” Ann Hathaway has existed too long as another silenced woman: Greer seeks to restore her reputation, the barest facts of her life, her face, her voice.
Reading Germaine Greer has always had the effect of opening the floodgates of suppressed indignation in me. I’ve traveled the world and know for certain that sexism may be encountered— overtly, covertly, or otherwise—on every street corner. But to have it documented so thoroughly and by one so unblinking has got me thinking.
Soon after I arrived in Australia, I needed to get an Australian drivers license. With opposite-side drive, roundabouts, and unfamiliar road rules, it was a prospect that filled me with anxiety. On he appointed day, however, I never had the chance to get behind the wheel. The examiner determined that the car—less than a year old—was “unroadworthy”. Without another word, he failed me.
“Hold on,” I confronted him. “Please explain how the car could be unroadworthy today when it was perfectly roadworthy only two days ago during my husband’s driving test?”
The man answered my question by turning his back and returning to the building. I was effectively silenced and dismissed.
Later that day, I expressed my indignation about this to one of my first Australian friends, an intelligent, well-educated woman.
“That’d be right.” She shrugged. No protest, no outrage, no need to rant. She discouraged me from writing a letter of complaint. “They’ll just laugh at the letter over a pint at the pub.”
Apparently, I had a few things against me: I was an American and a woman; I scored 100% on the written exam and all my documents were in order, which made me a ‘tall poppy‘ (another new concept). In the end, I did write a letter, not to his boss but to the head of Queensland Transport. They eventually investigated the matter and added my complaint to thirty others in the file of this particular examiner. Twenty-nine women and one gay man had already spoken up.
Anticipating justice would be served, I asked the investigator what they were going to do.
“There isn’t much we can do,” she replied. “We aren’t allowed to fire him or demote him.”
“But he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this!” I cried. “It’s egregious! It’s unconscionable! It’s obviously sexist! With so many complaints on record, that man shouldn’t be allowed to deal with the public.”
“I’m sorry. The only way we can get him out of his position is to promote him.”
“In what kind or world is that okay?” I asked pointedly.
The investigator shrugged. This was my first encounter with sexism as it is manifested in some Australian institutions.
Culturally determined ‘mates’
This was also my first look at the idea of ‘mateship’ and the stoicism with which Australian women respond to it. Mateship is a concept of friendship endemic to Australian identity, so powerful that, in 1999, Prime Minister John Howard pushed to have the term enshrined in the Australian constitution. There have also been attempts to have it part of the Australian citizenship test.
The only problem is that it can and often does exclude half the population, something even more apparent lately as the shadow of Tony Abbott and his cocky opinions loom ever larger in the political sphere.
In fact, it’s been my observation that women are frequently accused of coming between ‘mates’, something I believe has conditioned their silence about it.
As the Australian poet Judith Wright observed in 1965:
The ‘mateship’ ingredient of the Australian tradition … left out of account the whole relationship with women.
There are many good things to be said about strong bonds between men. However, while such bonds are crucial perhaps in establishing a colony, on the battlefield, and even on the playing field, there is a shadow side to mateship. It can be both predatory and bullying, a state of being in which women are excluded, not respected and, in essence, stripped of humanity.
Men behaving badly on the town…
On my daughter’s 18th birthday, we celebrated with a small dinner party, after which she planned to go out ‘clubbing’, something that has become a rite of passage among young Australians.
That day there was a news item about Dianne Brimble, the Brisbane woman who had died aboard a P&O cruise ship. I remember thinking with some alarm, “Hasn’t that been resolved yet? It was so many years ago already.”
For anyone who doesn’t know, Dianne Brimble embarked on a nine-day cruise in 2002. On the second day, her lifeless body was found naked on the floor of a cabin occupied by four unknown men. The coroner’s investigation, which shockingly began only four years after the event, uncovered a number of dreadful circumstances surrounding her death. She died of an overdose of the date-rape drug GHB. She had been sexually abused. Awful, disrespectful photographs surfaced. At least four and possibly as many as eight men were involved.
Sadly, in all these years, there has been no justice for Brimble. Despite the inquest and the investigation of eight men considered to be implicated in her death, the criminal trial that followed almost eight years after the 42-year-old’s death resulted in a hung jury. The plea deal entered into with Mark Wilhelm, the man who supplied the GHB, was subsequently dropped. None of the men involved has been punished or expressed remorse for what happened to this woman. They seem to believe they were entitled to behave the way they did that tragic night and the way they’ve behaved since. In fact, as recently as September 2010, investigators caught them on tape discussing how the case could make them millionaires.
With this story fresh in my mind, I kissed my daughter goodbye as she left with her friends, Eddo, the designated driver and self-appointed body guard, and Julie, an exchange student from France. They met up with others they knew, danced, shouted to each other over the noise, shared jokes. Then something happened.
As my daughter related to me when she returned home, Julie had gone out to the courtyard for a cigarette. She was joined by a group of four young men who flirted with her and offered to buy her a drink. She demurred. One of the men handed her a bottle of water, and she took a sip. That’s the last thing she remembers.
Luckily, at that moment my daughter and Eddo were looking for her and happened to see her fall. They rushed toward her, shouted for security. Julie was limp, in some kind of twilight state, speaking nonsense, eyes opened but not really ‘there’. Eddo left with security to look for the men she’d been speaking with, but they had already fled the club.
…and at home
It’s after dinner with the dishes cleared away and the last glass of wine poured. As frequently happens, one of my husband’s friends is over, a man I consider to be my dear friend too.
We’re on the patio, surrounded by the lime trees, the palms and the lillypillys I’ve lovingly planted. There’s a cool breeze, the buzz of cicadas, a rising moon. If there is any place and any moment I should feel safe, this is it.
I mention my daughter’s experience at the nightclub. At first, we’re in agreement that it’s complicated, terrifying, harrowing, full of peril to raise a daughter nowadays. Before I’m aware of it happening, the conversation shifts. We’re now discussing all the ways women have hurt men – abandonment, deceit, betrayal.
“Wait a minute,” I protest. “It’s not at all the same. We’re talking about two different things here. Men do those same things to women, but there’s the risk of this other crime too.”
They don’t listen, insist the playing field is level, declare men and women are equal in the world, in Australia, in their minds. They assert that women have the same opportunities that men do and, in many cases, are even given preferential treatment, suggest that it’s men who are discriminated against.
Whatever I say remains unheard. The vapour of mateship has rolled down the hill and over the garden wall, enveloping these two men in an atmosphere from which I’m not only excluded but erased.
My only options: to ‘rant’ or to leave.
. . . At ten, I haul in the heavy mirror from the front room and lay it on the floor. I cover it with an old towel, lift a hammer and strike.
I yank the shards apart, glad there are larger pieces than last time. I seem to have the knack, exactly the right amount of force behind the strike. I stare at the wall where I’ve glued other shards in a mosaic that begins in the centre with a mottled trapezoid and progresses outward with other bits all shapes, all sizes, all quality of glass. It’s a puzzle, this new project, a huge puzzle, and that’s the point.
I glue a piece, then another and another, working with intensity until there are none left. Midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock. Mirror, mirror, I chant. On the wall, my mind drums. I stand back.
My image is reflected a hundred, a thousand times. I am fragmented, the whole of me there in pieces. I grin, and my crooked face grimaces back in numbers. I raise my arms above my head, stand on tiptoes, stretch, and my broken image flashes a cubist self.
I’ve heard that breaking a mirror breaks the breaker’s soul. What if you break many mirrors? What if you break a piece of mirror already broken? I’ve heard a soul may be caught and trapped in a mirror. Does breaking it then set it free?
And what of the seven years of bad luck? Is it multiplied seven-fold for every break?
I’ve heard you can turn fortune around. If you wait seven hours before picking up the shards, then bury them in moonlight, or submerge them in south-running water, or grind them to dust. I’ve heard it’s possible to wave a mirror at Kali and appease her need for human sacrifice; to trick her, in other words, with a reflection.
I’ll re-create all this. Broken pieces waiting to be picked up. Pieces buried in moonlight, submerged in water, ground to dust. I’ll mould a clay Kali and surround her with mirrors. I’ll make a mobile of shards each carrying a soul.
I take a breath and then another, beginning a yoga routine. Trancelike, I stretch, move, breathe and pose. A thousand versions of myself move and pose within the wall.
Three o’clock. The rain intensifies, drawing my attention to the window, another view of myself. Oddly, there is more solidity in the image there, not a mirror at all, but something to look through.
Staring at my faces and broken bodies in the mirrors, I force my mind to sing the list of interconnecting muscles. As I beat out the academic syllables, I see the machine they make—my body, muscles hooked to strings of tendons, tendons controlled by synapse and neurons, fired by chemistry, and mysteriously, marvellously, encasing a soul.
Tomorrow I’ll paint my self-portrait like this. In the warrior’s pose trapped in the mirrored wall. . . .
The Invention of George Eliot
Birth of a Persona
George Eliot did not exist before 1857. The pseudonym appears first in a letter to John Blackwood dated 4 February, 1957, after the appearance of The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton in Blackwood’s Magazine, and its subsequent positive critical and public reception. Marian Evans writes (through George Henry Lewes):
…It will be well to give you my prospective name,
as a tub to throw to the whale in case of curious inquiries,
and accordingly I subscribe myself,
best and most sympathizing of editors,
Yours very truly, George Eliot
John Cross, the man Evans married at the end of her life, later wrote that she chose this name because “George was Mr. Lewes’s Christian name and Eliot was a good mouth-filling easily pronounced word”. It can be argued that it was through Lewes that a pseudonym came to be required at all, since it was “a consequence of [his] friendly urgency that she wrote the Scenes of Clerical Life“; and the fact that living openly with Lewes required a certain delicacy towards the audience to whom her work would most appeal.
That is not to suggest that Evans would not have written novels without Lewes’s “friendly urgency”, or that she would have felt comfortable publishing them under her own name if they had not been romantically involved. Undeniably, the name George Eliot and the fiction of a clergyman-turned-novelist somewhere in Coventry were part of a convenient cover for an unmarried woman concurrently living in sin and embarking on what might be seen as a somewhat risky career change after a successful stint as a translator and a journalist. But the social and literary environment was potentially far more hostile than suggested by the playfulness with which the newly created George Eliot writes to Blackwell.
As recounted earlier, Evans was indignant that her readers speculated that Adam Bede could only have been written by a country parson. When Joseph Liggins stepped forward, pretending to be the novel’s author, Evans revealed her identity. While this shocked many readers—because of her gender and her relationship with a married man—strangely, it didn’t affect her popularity as a novelist.
For the next twenty years, Evans lived quietly with Lewes writing novels under the name of George Eliot. The pseudonym served her well, providing a mask for those who did not know her situation and a nod to discretion for those who did. Her fame rose and times changed. In 1977, Evans and Lewes were even introduced to Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria.
George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876, around the time Lewes’s health began to fail. He died in 1878, leaving Evans bereft. Her career as a novelist was intimately connected to Lewes and his encouragement. Though her final work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), is fictional, and also her most experimental work, she was never again to write another one of her expansive social novels. She returned to non-fiction, editing Lewes’s last work, Life and Mind.
Her grief was overwhelming during this period; and, consequently, her health began to fail. It’s likely Evans anticipated her own death during the months she work on this final project. As she was working to honour and perpetuate the memory of her lover, it’s likely that throughout the process of editing Lewes’s work, she gave some thought to how she would be remembered and how her work would be thought of in generations to come.
Many, including Henry James, have said her marriage to John Cross in 1881, a year and a half after the death of Lewes and eight months before Evans’ own, was an act motivated by the wish to have her memory ‘administered’ by a sympathetic friend after she died.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot:
The Invention of George Eliot
The Authorial Persona
An authorial persona is not exclusively the version created in the author’s lifetime. It also includes versions perpetuated by every new biography and every critical article that comes after. When we read a novel by George Eliot, the persona stares back at us from the page; when we read a biography about her, the persona is there in between the lines; when we look at criticism, there it is again. Assuredly, the critic’s task is not an easy one, nor is the biographer’s. While an artist like George Eliot uses acute observation of real events as the spark to ignite her imaginative creation of a realist fiction, a biographer takes the multitude of fictions created over a lifetime in letters, journals, and manuscripts, and strives to construct some semblance of the ‘real’ subject. A biographer too far distant in time is at the disadvantage of having to wade through an inheritance of opinions and attitudes shaped, changed, and perpetuated by intervening generations, an inheritance that might at any time colour the interpretation of raw materials and affect the ultimate construction of the ‘life’. On the other hand, a biographer situated too near in time or relationship to a subject, while free from the influence of a reputation’s history, is bound by codes of delicacy and respect or perhaps even a more intrusive agenda.
All biography is therefore suspect; no life can be exactly reconstructed. It will always be, in fact, a fiction. A look at several biographies of George Eliot sheds some light on the effect they might have had on her literary reputation, as well as on the development of her literary persona. The first of these, George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (1885), was written by her husband John Cross, and must be viewed as a public relations document. In reaction to this, Mathilde Blind published a biography of George Eliot in 1888, which took issue with the vast amount of detail Cross suppressed. However, Blind’s biography is widely considered to be the view of a contemporary who “politely looks away”. Over a hundred years later, Rosemarie Bodenheimer published a biography with the cheeky title: The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Her Fiction, which calls into question from the first how much of the ‘real’ might be found in constructing the life of another. She also points out that even the friendly letter is a work of fiction.
It’s additionally instructive to look at the relationship of these biographies to criticism of George Eliot’s work. Critics rely on biography to inform readings and interpretations of literature; often, however, the biography is read less critically than the fiction. In this way, they are complicit in perpetuating inaccuracies and the emphasis of certain events over others. It’s through criticism as much as through biography that an authorial persona is created and sustained.
Reading through the major criticism of George Eliot’s works, patterns emerge that mesh with themes offered in biography. One of the most prominent themes, which was also crucial for critics contemporaneous with George Eliot as well as for those of the present day, has to do with George Eliot’s masculine persona. In fact, the idea that George Eliot wrote wearing a male mask so dominates the body of criticism that theories of gendered narrative strategies have appeared in relation to her. Other critics focus on the issue of renunciation present in most of her novels, hinting that there was a psychological need for George Eliot to create characters who enact what Evans did not do regarding her religious beliefs and her love for Lewes: submit to societal pressure. Still others unkindly make much of Evans’s unattractive looks and suggest that her beautiful, ennobled heroines are projections of her own desires to be thought lovely and noble. In these examples and others, the criticism is tied to biographical information. But there is almost universally a prima facie acceptance of the scant details, without analysis of the historical and cultural context within which the events occurred.
It’s impossible ever to know the life of another with any certainty, particularly of someone so intent on wearing a public mask during her lifetime as Mary Ann Evans; but it is fascinating and illuminating to look at how George Eliot the persona was constructed.
Mary Ann Evans was herself concerned with the idea of the real versus the imaginative and, at the onset of her career as a novelist, was determined not to be thrown together with the ‘lady novelists‘ of her day. Not knowing the fame she would achieve, the decision to use a male pseudonym almost certainly arose out of the immediate circumstances of publishing a first novel. Later, however, Evans worked hard to protect, prune, and perpetuate the image she so carefully constructed over her lifetime.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot:
I learned too late about Carl Jung’s mysterious Red Book, or I would have featured it in the “in search of whales” list. Over several decades, Jung used the Red Book as the medium within which to explore his deepest unconscious, giving the earliest glimpses of his best known concepts–that all of humanity shares a pool of ancient wisdom he called the collective unconscious. Jung saw the psyche as “an ocean that could be fished for enlightenment and healing”. The Red Book is both the place where Jung originated this idea and where he situated his own soul for such enlightenment. There, he sought and battled and tamed many unusual creatures.
The evening before they sailed, Guy insisted they take a tram from their hotel to a beach not far away. Helen was filled with excitement. They had gone earlier in the day to see the steamer, the Malolo, on which they would live for the next few weeks.
While the tram stopped and started, Guy recited over and over to Helen the phases of the journey.
“First you sail to Wellington, then it’s six days to Raratonga.” This name he pronounced with the flourish the consonants seemed to demand. “Then it’s two more to Tahiti.” He sang the word ‘Tahiti’. “And then twelve, I said twelve,” holding up his two hands, followed by two fingers, “more days to San Francisco. There you will disembark from the boat, find your land legs again,” (here Helen looked down at her legs in wonder), “and then you will go by train to Chicago. That’s four days more. On the very last day, you will take a bus to your American grandparents’ house.”
Staring out of the window, Pauline listened quietly, thrilled by the exotic names but also filled with dread. She wondered how she would manage all those long days without Guy there beside her. She appreciated his buoyant cheer; but she was also confused.
She thought yet again, “Why is he letting us go like this?”
She twisted the strap of her handbag round and round. For the last several weeks, she avoided thinking about the conference and the change she felt upon his return. She brushed off the tension between them, attributing it to work, to financial worries, to concerns for the political unrest in Europe and Asia. But now in Sydney, so close to her departure, she was constantly reminded of her misgivings and aware that they had originated with his trip here. She turned to him, wanting to ask if there was something she should know, but he smiled at her and kissed the top of Helen’s head with such tenderness that she couldn’t bear to think of an ugly accusation intruding on their last hours together. She bit her lip and turned once again to the scene out the window.
They disembarked at the beach, wandering on a trail that led through the dunes. Helen danced in excitement, making up a little song out of the words Malolo and Tahiti. Guy joined in, his bass joining with her baby tones.
“He’s happy we’re leaving,” Pauline decided.
As they climbed down the rocks and stepped onto the sand, Guy swung Helen up. He held her up with one strong arm and untied her shoes with his free hand. Putting her down, he kicked off his own shoes and placed him off to the side, stripping off his suit jacket and laying it across a low rock. He bent over and rolled up his pant legs one by one. Pauline stood watching.
“This is no time for formality, Paulie. We’re at the beach,” indicating with a wide sweep of his arm the stretch of golden shore. He led her over to a boulder, insisting she sit. Then he knelt before her and took off her shoes.
Helen was near the water looking for shells. She came running back to show her parents. Guy took out his handkerchief, found a stick on the beach and fashioned a useful little bag for his daughter’s treasures. She ran off again, jubilant.
Guy took hold of Pauline’s hand and they walked along. She felt a pang. This was how they had been in London all those years ago. Together, side-by-side. How long had it been since they had walked together like this? She couldn’t remember.
When they reached the water, a wave rushed up and swallowed their feet. It was cold, but Pauline was glad. It pushed away every other sensation.
There were a few others on the beach: a man with a dog, some young lovers completely entranced with each other, an older couple, grey-haired and wizened by the sun.
Guy bent to pick up a piece of driftwood. It was a rich golden brown, a colour Pauline imagined could be found only in the sand of the Saraha. She must have said so, although she didn’t recollect speaking, because Guy, with the cheerfulness he’d been exhibiting all day, elaborated on her image.
“That’s because it spent many a long year traveling through the desert as the staff of a nomadic chieftain. And this, of course, was after it spent several months touring the ocean in the belly of a whale, and after it touched down on a few uninhabited islands, sometimes for decades, other times only until the next tide.”
Pauline fell under his spell and laughed in spite of the knot in her belly.
“And what had it been originally?” she asked entering into the game.
“Why, it was a mast from Captain Cook’s ship, of course. And if my sources are correct,” he added with a touch of academic posturing, “Cook’s mast was remade from an old ship of Magellan’s. So this lost piece of driftwood witnessed the bumping into of two new continents.”
He handed it to her with a flourish and a bow, like a knight handing a scepter to a queen. She took it from him slowly and gazed at the soft whorls in the wood. The fun drained from the moment as tears filled her eyes. She clutched it to her breast and raised her eyes to look into his, choking.
“Paulie.” He reached out his arms and pulled her to him. All the coldness between them melted away. He stood with her the way she had always known him, a beautiful loving soul, her man, the one she’d chosen.
“It’ll be okay,” she heard him saying. “I promise you.”
He kissed her temple and held her for a long moment until Helen raced up with her bag of shells and pebbles. Guy lifted his daughter up onto his shoulders, and they walked along in silence.
Inwardly, a succession of thoughts and emotions swirled. Pauline felt first that she shouldn’t go, that she belonged here beside him. He was letting her leave. But why? That kiss, the embrace, she was sure were genuine. He loved her. She did not doubt it. But why, then, she wondered, was he encouraging her to leave? And why had she proposed such a thing in the first place?
Guy was dangling Helen’s feet in the incoming waves, jumping when they rose too high and threatened to wet her clothes. With a stab, Pauline felt certain that something had indeed happened to come between them. But she knew too that she wouldn’t ask. Not tonight when she was about to leave and be so very far away. And maybe not in three months when he joined them in America. They might just be able to pick up from here, from the kiss on the beach, and be healed slowly without ever having to face what really happened.
“Wouldn’t that be best?” she wondered.
(To be continued….)
From The Tower of Forgetting
The scrawl on the envelope told her she’d been found. It didn’t matter that she was in a foreign country or that it had been awhile since the last letter. He’d pursue her to the end. She thought for a moment about alerting the authorities. In case he tried to enter the country. But they told her before there was nothing they could do, until he actually commits a crime. They told her to relax. People like him, they said, are more bark than bite. But she knew better. He could be here already. He might have even watched her take the letter from the mailbox.
She shut the blinds. She packed an overnight bag with shaking hands and tried to think. It was an hour until school pick up, when the streets would be busy again. She’d go then, hop on a bus to the train station, head south. She’d keep to bigger towns until she got to Sydney.
There was money in a shoe box in the closet, enough to keep her comfortable for a while. She opened the lid. Next to the envelope of cash was stack of letters identical to the one she just received. There were so many.
Half an hour until she could leave. She made a cup of tea. At the kitchen table, she took out the letter. It was strange to see her latest name in his handwriting. She cut open the envelope and read:
I am not irritated with you even though this life is not what I thought it would be….I am not because I do not empower you to irritate me…. I come with good intentions…I come as me…no disguises….it was meant to be goodness and it was not goodness for you…..nor for me…but I’m not disturbed by all this…..when things don’t work for me I have my way of dealing and you have yours…..as far as your comment that day about me being incomprehensible…. your inability to understand is your problem……I know a lot about you…. a lot…if you only knew something about me…how I angst over every word….intention and reception…I think one has to have serious scars in their being to be as careful as I am…but remember this, while you pronounce judgements so shall you be judged…..I gave you more than you were entitled to….and I don’t forget…emotional abandonment is a thought that comes to mind…you left a lot of people with emotional disruption and you never returned to the scene of the crime…..no goodbyes…..no remorse….not even a friggin postcard…. this is the third edit and the brakes are coming off… I think you confuse the difference between exile and escape… you don’t know where I am….but I know where you are….If all this comes under the heading of nonsense…buy a dictionary or go back to school….I know all about anger…it can be for lack of another tool… a way to get through the day…. too bad you don’t get my jokes….I don’t get yours…I don’t get you at all…maybe I never did….but I know what compelled me to stay with you…and you have no idea why you were there…the world doesn’t need any more people in denial…..all this sounds like an escape clause if I ever saw one… I know a lot about you…… I know you need to expand your horizons….open that steel trap of yours….and for G-d’s sake …get a friggin sense of humour….it’s such a good friend to have…like I was a good friend… and don’t forget, I come as me….no disguises….and I know where to find you
Before opening the front door, just in case, she tapped the number for emergency into her cell phone and tucked it in her pocket within easy reach. She stepped outside into the sunshine, locking the door behind her, and there it was, the blade against her neck.
She’s silenced by the distance of one computer connected to another, not directly with cables and wires but by unseen forces she can’t understand. Not solid, like the movement of limbs powered by muscle and bone, but a mystery guided by invisible forces. Electrons sent one by one, meaningless bits of on and off, of light, of energy. These cannot be seen with the naked eye or heard or felt. They can pass through one magically, something she’s never questioned before.
But now. She sees that these tiny pieces of information mean nothing except at their point of origin and their ultimate destination. They go about their journey through so many way stations, through so many transfers, alighting in queues, passing by other fragments of information made up utterly of the same ons and the same offs, the same energy, the same electrons and protons, the same atoms; each message going its own way, following its own direction, to swell some heart or break it.
She has some glimmer then, as she reads the words again on the cold screen, that her joy was mostly made up, conjured from distance and drama as much as from desire. The different continents, different time zones, his other attachments, these obstacles had made it more exciting and more glamorous.
They were star-crossed. They had mountains to climb. They needed to walk through fire to prove their love. It would be a long, hard road, but they’d get there. These had been her thoughts.
Now this. It was all make-believe. She made him up.
Ruby counts on her fingers the months she’s known him, numbers the days and nights they spent together. Not many after all, when you get right down to it.
She wishes for something solid to grab onto. A fact apart from this harsh email that seems to have arrived in her apartment from the coldest reaches of outer space, something to show her what they shared had indeed been real.
She reminds herself that if she wanted to, she could sort her inbox and count the number of messages from him. She could easily reread the text messages he’s sent. She saved them all. She could take out her phone bills and count the times she called him, add up the minutes they spoke, long distance across the ocean.
Curled up on the daybed, she hugs a pillow. She’s hollow, gouged out, nothing but an empty husk. He doesn’t love her. There will be no dance.
She sits at her glass table—the one he dislikes—sorting through the pieces of a new jigsaw puzzle. She sorts by pattern, colour and design. She lifts a piece, judges it with squinted eyes, moves it to a pile, and lifts another. He often teased her for this pleasure, rolling his eyes and letting out a huff of air that sounded like a hog’s snort whenever he saw a puzzle laid out. In those happy times, she’d giggle and slip her arms around his neck, nibble his ear and whisper, “What else am I to do when you’re not here?”
Most of the edges are in place. That’s the easy part. And so satisfying too, to mark out a territory, leaving a blank interior to be filled section by section, piece by piece, until a picture emerges after a great labour.
The puzzle is part of a vigil. She’s lit a candle too, and in the flickering light, her wine glass shines. She takes a sip, savours it, makes a toast to him. It’s a wine he likes, one they’ve shared together often. And the music that plays, his favourite too. With enough details and enough concentration, the spell will work. She’s certain. The phone will ring and it will be him.
“Ruby-rube,” he’ll say, “it’s me.”
She works for an hour, fitting together a section of the puzzle that forms a swirling skirt. When this passes, she thinks, and we’re together again, I’ll dance for him. She shuts her eyes and creates a dance in her head.
From her computer at the other end of the table, two flat notes announce a new message. Her eyes fly open. She leaps up, bangs her knee against the table and puzzle pieces skid.
Never mind, she thinks, it doesn’t matter.
Nothing matters except the message.
She clicks on New Messages and taps her fingers. Her heart sings, Let it be from him, let it be from him.
His name appears at the top of the column, and she sinks into the chair, choking back a sob.
Aloud, she cries, “Oh, thank you, thank you,” hurriedly dragging the mouse to his name. Click. In the moments of waiting, her heart beats wildly and a flush covers her cheeks.
She reads. “Hey—I’m writing now after these couple of months because I think it’s time for closure regarding this stupid thing we’ve been doing.”
She reels. Closure? Stupid? What does he mean? What is he saying? She reads on, each word a stab.
As she reads it on the computer screen, as she drags the mouse, finds the arrow in the corner and clicks, she wishes fervently that it had come in the mail. Not like this. She wants something to hold that she might crumple and throw across the room. She hides her face in her hands, wishing that when she came to raise her head, the crumpled page would be there lying on the unswept floor. A physical presence. And if she so wanted, she could cross the room, pick it up and unfurl it, smooth it out to read again. She might then rip it into pieces, hear the crisp sound of paper tearing, hold the pieces of her romance in her hands, a solid thing, his offering to her. She could watch the pieces fall to the floor, her hope turned into so many hard words, so few words in the end.
A moan escapes. It’s over. Just like that.
If his words had come in the mail, if he had sent a proper letter, if she had something solid to rip and shred, she might after a while gather the fragments, a confetti of sorrow, and press them to her cheek wet with angry tears. She might then even burn them and hear the hiss of her tears as the fragments blaze.
But this. The cool glow of the computer screen. The words there untouchable. The requirement that she must scroll downward every few lines, drag the mouse, place the arrow in the corner, click. Drag and place and click all with her shaking hand. Pressing too hard. Going too far. Missing something.
There’s no satisfaction in this. Her tears freeze under the spell of the screen. Anger fills her, flows through her veins and chokes every nerve cell. She feels each organ overtaken—her heart, her brain, her stomach, her spleen, her womb—but what she feels has no expression.
She can only receive.