I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, 1990.
I wake to the gurgle of the near-empty humidifier. It must be around six because there is the faintest of light in the room. In my sleep I was content. Ignorant. Now I look for the morning light and dread seeing it.
It is our anniversary. Fifteen years together and these past six months have been filled with mornings just like this. I am obsessed and I know, monotonous, even embarrassing. But I am sure I am losing the only person I will always be looking for.
I don’t have to reach out in the darkness to know that Moira is beside me. The bed is full of familiarity even in its stillness. I know that she is on her side, her back to me, as surely as I recognize when suddenly I open my eyes at three or four AM and feel the bed is empty that Moira, unable to sleep, is upstairs before dawn, writing.
“Moira,” I whisper. But the only sound is a hiss as the radiator begins its day. I can set the clock by this: 6:10 AM—predictable—year after year. I am contented by that notion until I realize that I am awake.
To touch Moira would be pointless, but I am filled with early morning desire. Her smell is all over the bed, even on the edge of the sheet which balances across my nose. It is her soap or her perfume—I can never tell the difference—and her cigarettes; the internal smell that blows out of her at every breath. I want her to turn and want me. I concentrate on this for a long while, but Moira is still.
Fifteen years ago I was in Cambridge, England on sabbatical from Columbia University and my building—the Markham Center for Sciences—was right across the courtyard from Moira’s. I would see her come and go with her satchel and wonder why a beautiful woman would dress herself in those heavy tweeds and cardigans. The sun rose, the sun set, and outside my office window Moira was always on time, always careful to stay off the grass.
When we met, officially, at a dinner party a few months later—I was alwaysintroduced as the only American female physicist ever to teach at Cambridge—I was sure that I knew her, really knew her. I’d already found out her full name: Moira Louise Carney, knew her address on Hope Road, knew her habits, and was now attending, unbeknownst to her, services at St. Eustatius Anglican, her church. I was aware that she was married, had two little girls, even knew their names: Helen and Ivy. But none of this made any difference. It would never impede what seemed inevitable.
I’m still convinced that Moira took one look at me and recognized the same. She says no, that I somehow talked her into it, wooed her, and was shamelessly seductive in her office until she couldn’t control herself any longer.
It was a typical chilly British day, rainy and grey but comforting in its sameness; three weeks since we’d met. We had a ploughman’s lunch at The Jolly Ram, two pints each and a cognac. I asked. She nodded. We took a room at The Elizabeth, which was not exactly a first-class place. But the room was very white, warm and unforgettable. Under the tweeds I found silk and lace everywhere and the most delicious, soft body.
It was All Souls’ Day, 1975: a day of solemn prayer for all dead persons, and the bells rang.
I reach down between my legs and wait. My cold hands warm up slowly and the radiator begins to tap. As the room becomes more comfortable a smell fills the air. I grimace and hope that it won’t wake Moira. The newly painted radiator—which really wasn’t dry the day the heat came on for the winter—is no doubt spewing poison into the bedroom again. It has been a constant source of admonition. “You bloody well knew it was too late in the season [for paint].” Moira’s cutting British animosity was something she used to save for her visiting cousins from Cornwall or one particular housekeeper. Now there is a daily altercation between us.
Or an indifference. The tender notes I leave on the kitchen table or scratched in soap on the bathroom mirror are tossed aside. Ignored.
Or an accusation. She says, “You smell.” [“But I always eat garlic,” I said. “I’m Italian.”] And, “You dress improperly.” [“You used to love this sweater.”] But now the balls of fuzz under my sweater’s old arms are an irritation to Moira.
The Elizabeth, The Elizabeth, ah The Elizabeth. Heaven was the room with its worn rug and oilcloth covered table. We went there so often the proprietress, Mrs. Ames, began bringing us tea afterwards. Her timing of the moment revealed a great clairvoyance and a kindred spirit. You hear about the Brits being so tight; this was not the case with Mrs. Ames, although we never spoke about the reality of it, exactly. But it is impossible to ignore or deny or to plead blindness when you are standing with your tea tray over two women laying naked and flushed in your own cotton percales.
I wonder, is my life so empty now that I can only reminisce about those damp, blissful days in Cambridge? Or is it the soreness of my present place in time?
About a year ago I came into my office to hear my colleagues passionately discussing a new interactive physics software program primarily designed for think tanks. One of them had gotten hold of a bootleg copy. Someone out at Stanford had done it and it was about to be public.
I took it home to have a look at it that night. It was mine. No, not stolen, just a parallel thing. I’d been working, completely in secret, and independently on this same project for years, edging toward the courageous day when I would reveal it, bugs and all, and end up with my fantasy—a chair, here at Princeton, and set up financially for life. It had everything mine had—full simulation: electrostatic and dynamic; mass, friction, inertia, resistance—even physical constraints were part of the package.
What had made me wait so long? Why so private? That evening I started the barbecue up in the backyard and threw my notebooks and all my discs into it just before the shish kebabs went on, and I never looked back.
Then my mother died, very quickly—pneumonia—just a month later. All of a sudden she was gone. I have no siblings, my father died long ago; what an unexplainable feeling to have her just … gone.
These events took something out of me. They changed me. I noticed that I was looking over my shoulder a lot. Keeping things secret that were not secrets. I started going to Church again. Then, during this hard time, Moira began to disappear, too.
After years of seeing my path stretched out before me—the life of a practical physicist living with a successful and expansive writer and our two children—the picture perfect vision is obscured like a grey and drizzling day at the ocean. It seems ominous, the water is threatening. I look for safety.
My life is evolving into something I don’t want. I lie in the company of Moira who seems unnaturally separate from me. It is not just the retreat—like the wave that will come back in again, often stronger. No. This retreat goes on and on.
I am convinced that there is someone else.
When you have lied as I have; when you have seen someone lie, as I did 15 years ago—for Moira fabricated many things to accommodate our clandestine year-long love affair—you see a trait you hope has died. Out of practice, perhaps it has. Inherent, it never will.
If I envision the face of her new lover, it is everything I am not. It is never belligerent or impatient, never tired, never puffy, never lost. It is a creative face.
I can see the body of an ardent and daring lover. A new style of rough and tumble. Young. The girls in her writing classes stare up at her. I’ve seen them at the Fish ’n’ Chips nights she has for each new group. Girls can have an interest in a teacher that is suffocatingly attractive. It seems like they would let you do anything to them. And the boy students have a stamina I no longer can compete with. Young. Spare me, we are nearly 50 now.
From under the covers I try to regain some control. I see myself slip out of bed, though in fact I never move, and step into the middle of the quiet grey bedroom. There is a dance I do: to the left on the right foot, to the right on the left, jerking my elbows down and to the front of me. I watch myself and smile. I can only guess its effect by the glee I’ve seen on Moira’s face as I danced at the presentation of her PhD, on that champagne night she left her husband, and at the close of that endless day we got custody of Helen and Ivy.
I dance in an aging, sleepy body.
I think I hear Moira say something. “Laura,” she says in a dry voice, “Why do you always leave your goddamn glasses everywhere?” I turn to answer her but she is in the same position. Quiet. Dreaming. What is it about my glasses? The silver chain from Woolworth’s? Maybe that I never clean them; they are sticky and scratched and bent with lack of care. Are they the epitome of everything that is wrong with me?
“I see,” I say.
Panic fills me. I turn and slide over to her. The smell of the burning paint fades as her smell takes over. The radiator’s hiss gets louder.
The heat from her sleeping body is so familiar. I love it summer or winter. I pull her panties down just under her ass. There is no response. I put each buttock into my hands and squeeze. Nothing. I push myself against her. She turns a little toward me and then away again.
“Moira, let’s talk,” I whisper.
“Sleeping. It’s Saturday.”
Once this was our room. I felt so sure of that. Now I feel so alone in it that it isn’t ours and it certainly isn’t mine. I am nowhere.
“Moira, aren’t we here anymore?”
“Who is it? Are you in love with someone?”
Her voice comes up over her side, very clearly. “No.”
The noises on the street have begun. It is a cold November day. The amber ‘empty’ light clicks on the humidifier. I get out of bed quietly. There is just enough light to see.
The girls are in their room, asleep. Their door closed, the way they like it. They must have the dog, otherwise he would have joined me by now. They will all—even Moira—sleep as long as they can.
There is a mirror on the wall near the bathroom. I am hazy in it and as grey as the air is around me. I step in front of it and out again repeatedly but can hardly see the difference. Cold, I pull my robe from behind the bathroom door and take the narrow stairs up to the third floor.
Up here there is one big room: Moira’s study. Along the way are family pictures, favorites of hers that she has framed herself. I can barely make them out as I climb up into the dark room. The last picture at the top is one of the two of us in England. We are standing in front of a house that was connected to another house. There are hedges and a small path up to the front door. The milk bottles are on the step and full, so it is morning. The house was named Wyvern and the street, Hartington Grove; Cambridge 1976, and we rented it from a Miss Titmouse, who was very tiny and dainty and who had, in fact, the biggest bosom either of us had ever seen.
There is no light at all except the bit that comes up from below. I don’t like to put a light on so early; it always reminds me of someone being up sick. So I pull up Moira’s shades.
On the street, the day is coming alive. As the garbage men and their truck pull away, the milkman takes their place. He leaves his van running and with precision, reaches behind himself for two milks—one chocolate—leaps out and in again. It is remarkable that we have, in this day and age, retained a milkman who delivers, like in Cambridge, but that was years ago.
This memory takes me to other memories of green courtyards and the tulips along the River Cam in May, and to other thoughts and then milkman jokes and Moira, again. She is sensational looking, auburn hair, wise, wise face and hands. Perhaps she is seeing someone who drives a truck, who delivers; that would be easy to manage while I’m at work. Perhaps the man who paves driveways around here, who looks as hard as stone; or Joy, the UPS delivery person with the headful of dreads. She’s a looker. Have we had any deliveries out of the ordinary, I ask myself, and remember a day when Moira—dressed, oddly, in a bathing suit—accepted a package from Joy. And we don’t have a pool. No, no, I do not need to know who it is.
Wyvern was our first home. We both smoked then. I drank gin and Moira, rum. No one drank rum in those days. There were three floors to that house, like there are here; a sentimental reason, in part, for buying this house. And, as in England, she got the top for her own.
I was often out of my element there; stumped by the nomenclature—even in a sweet shop. I was suddenly bathing Moira’s babies and shooing them off the gas heaters. I was such an American and except for physics there was nothing very different or daring about me. Well, I preferred women, but I hadn’t yet realized there was any problem with that. My mother, who had been such a good friend to me, always told me to follow my heart.
Think of the dedication it took. For me to feel so sure I urged her to leave Herb and her country. For her to actually leave him and deal with the gossip and talk that I understand is still a topic in Cambridge, 15 years later. It was so bad, old Herb had to leave town. For me to take on two children when I hadn’t so much as ever held one. For her to trust me with them. Not dedication, love.
I still think it wasn’t really up to us. Not that I spend nearly enough time believing in God or trust fate entirely, but we were just meant to be together. What took me to England anyway? I got off the boat with a pounding heart, never doubting for a moment that something big was coming my way.
With enough light now from the window I begin to examine the surface of Moira’s desk. Although tempted these last months, I have never been a snoop. There are clippings, notes, and many letters—all of which are perfectly understandable or meaningless to me. No secrets here.
All her drawers are neatly arranged: pads of paper, pens, a mechanical pencil and leads, staples, pushpins; all, her carefully kept supplies. There are files full of drafts and rewrites; pages upon page of these.
On the wall is the shelf of china and glass animals I’ve given her over the years; the little collection she used to enjoy dusting: serpents, vipers, dragons, mostly. And on the floor, the Persian I gave her for her fortieth birthday.
Then I see it. There on the typing table near the window. She is at work on another novel. Number five! I should have known. Perhaps I did, intuitively sensing something from the way things have been in the past; an absence, her preoccupation with nothing. Yes, it’s the subtlety in her behavior that has brought me up these stairs. After all, she says very little about that part of herself and I am rarely in this room.
There is that familiar double-spaced scrawl of her first draft. There are the yellow pads, the pages of notes. So this is the culprit, not me, not my recent losses, my dullness.
Ecstatic for a moment, struck with how well I know her, I am utterly relieved. All things are part of her and then, in turn, part of me. Even these pages, stacked together in some order I will never understand, are somehow understandable. Or are they? Because included in this pile of papers I notice a magazine and pull it out. It is a copy of Big Girl, an English rag. I am shocked and amused simultaneously, flipping through it until I am stopped by a turned down corner.
A glossy pictorial article fills the page. It runs three or four pages more, featuring one woman: “Glenda: Your Big British Maiden.” Glenda smiles down at her spread open and well-oiled vagina which seems to fill the entire page. Her breasts are high, tight, and massive. Written with a sweeping strong hand, in blue ink, across Glenda’s stomach are the words: Moira—Remember, life is not a dress rehearsal. Yours, “Glenda”
I see then the title—in bold type—staring up at me: Betrayal: A Novel of Forbidden Photographs. And on the dedication page, in Moira’s longhand: Dedicated to R. I know before I have even absorbed the words that I will spend hours, days, maybe weeks identifying that single initial.
Shivering, I pull my robe close to me refusing to look any further. I do not understand the creative process. Not truth nor fiction; not this morning nor any other.
I straighten up everything I’ve touched. I do this with great care because I admire these ideas of Moira’s. Where does she come up with them? And what do they really mean? Perhaps I am better off, after all, having created nothing. I am less threatening; I go along in the grey light.
Some relationships, some people, are dead although they walk around and you can see them. Some are truly gone. The truth is, that on this, our anniversary, All Souls’ Day, I always pray for the dead and try to find hope for the rest of the living. Now I pray for myself as well.
The morning light is getting brighter. Across the road, beyond the other houses, is a field. It seems to go on and on in the low thin fog. If I’m quiet enough I could get the dog and take a walk before anyone else is up. Clear my head.
Hilary Sio is the manager of Three Lives & Co. Bookshop in Manhattan. She is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.