I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
There is nothing to fear but fear itself Emily mused as she put on her clothes. The cheap record player, which she turned on the moment she turned off her alarm clock, having punched the snooze alarm five times, got stuck on that part in Baby Love where it goes “breaking up … making up … ” It’s better never to have reasoned than to have reasoned badly. She wanted to conduct her life through the mail. The phone was ringing in its insistent way. She knew it would be Christine, needing her help with something or other. Okay, Emily said, I’ll be over soon. Breaking up with Richard had happened at a distance, through letters, so perhaps she shouldn’t trust her personal life to the vagaries of correspondence. Their breakup was civilized, she supposed someone might say that about it, and while she liked the notion in an abstract way, the idea was better suited to English movies celebrating WWII that came on at 3:00 AM.
Lying on Edith’s bed, the television on, Emily was explaining to Edith what had happened in art class. While she didn’t consider herself an artist, or consider that she might become one, Emily liked to draw and to paint. It’s a different way of thinking, she continued during the intermission. She told Edith that the handsome male drawing teacher—there were no women teachers in the art department—had asked the class to copy two drawings of interiors from their Janson History of Art book. “I copied one of a room, I forget who did it. And the other one I chose was by Leonardo, of a fetus in a womb. When I showed them to my teacher he stared at the womb one for a while, and then he gave me a look. He said, ‘I said interior.’ I said, this is an interior. He didn’t say anything for a minute and then he said, ‘When you’re an old woman, you’re going to be very eccentric.’” Emily laughed as she told Edith. Edith took another cracker and didn’t speak. The Kent commercial ended and the movie came back on. Emily was supposed to be reading her friend’s book on raising children, though he hadn’t, a fact that Emily held against him. Young people could be such purists, Edith mused—the womb as an interior. It made her smile inwardly. She liked being around young Emily, but she was happy not to be young, a feeling that she thought she’d never have, having heard about it years before, when she was young. In this way the body prepares for death, she thought as she rubbed hand cream on her fingers and patted the excess economically on both elbows.
Christine phoned Emily. Emily went right over. “He’s violent,” she reported about Peter, her Slavic, as she termed him, lover. Slavic, Christine inferred, she being, as she put it, a poor white from Westchester, implied violence. What do you mean, violent? Did he hit you? Christine showed Emily the bruises on the upper part of her body. “I’m afraid of him,” Christine said. “Of course, you are,” Emily reassured her, “he’s crazy.” Christine had already lived with a man, though the two young women were only 19, and because they were only 19 and Emily a young 19, Edith told her, it seemed a mark of great maturity to have already lived with a man, a man ten years older too, who was a sculptor. But then, considered Emily, Christine had lost her father when she was 11, and he had been a painter, and so it made sense that she would quickly live with a man. At 19 things seem very simple. “You don’t know what this is like,” Christine continued. I’m afraid of what he’ll do.” “Can’t you stop seeing him?” Emily sensibly asked, pouring herself a glass of wine, drinking and pulling at single strands of her hair. “You don’t understand,” Christine uttered, in a kind of moan, and looked at Emily, at a loss, desperate to return to her small room and read. Christine often chided Emily for wanting to avoid life. I have plenty of time for that, Emily thought as she walked home from Christine’s apartment, which was only five houses from hers, closer even than Nora’s had been. Is proximity the best basis for a friendship, she wondered?
Her parents said she didn’t call them often enough or visit them enough. It wasn’t normal, they said. Emily had a hard time remembering she had parents; they weren’t in the picture, as no one from her former life, as she liked to put it, was, as if she had led a dangerous one. While she had been fastidious in high school, Emily lost all concern for what she looked like, she said. The tyranny of changing clothes, of wearing something different each day to school was overthrown. It’s not exactly criminal, Edith thought, although that very phrase did come to mind; she was sure that Emily could be such a pretty girl, if she wanted to. She didn’t say this to Emily; she would of course have said that to her own daughter.
Christine was to do battle with Peter one night and Edith and Emily took in a movie, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Christine never minded if Emily went out with Edith, because Edith was so much older, but she bristled when Emily wanted to see any of her other friends, and gradually Emily didn’t. She spoke to them on the phone. Edith said nothing about this either. They didn’t go out together often, but Edith especially enjoyed it when they did, especially because Emily could have been her daughter and wasn’t, a fact which meant more to her than she thought it should. She felt a certain irresponsibility, almost collusion with her young tenant. She felt they made a bizarre pair and when they bumped into people Edith knew, she introduced Emily proudly, as my tenant, the poet or the student, a young person who was visibly different from people she knew for 30 years. She wondered if her husband would understand this enjoyment and decided he would. Emily was struck by The Exterminating Angel, figuring it had to do with neurosis in general, and that maybe she too couldn’t leave her room in the ways that Bunuel meant. You think there’s something out there and there isn’t, except for what you think is there stopping you. She turned to Edith as they entered the dark apartment and quoted Kafka. “My education has damaged me in ways I do not even know.” Edith argued briefly, defending the necessity of education, and let it go, glad that she didn’t think about Kafka anymore, and never had just before bed.
Emily wrote a poem about receiving and sending letters that was so romantic, it surprised her. She was aware of this tendency in herself, but it was usually mixed like a salad dressing with lots of other tendencies and wasn’t so naked. The naked truth: the oil separates from the vinegar. She laughed and shoved it into the drawer she called, optimistically, “to be published” and shut it. She never showed her work to anyone, although she didn’t consider herself a secret writer. She said she wasn’t ready and squirreled her poems away, keeping them to herself, even keeping them from Christine. It was another thing they forgot about. You’re not a writer, Christine intoned, if your work sits in a drawer and no one sees it. When it’s ready, I’ll show it, Emily would respond, as if her drawer were an oven in which her poems were baking. Christine and Emily fought and made up, fought and made up. Generally, they fought about intangibles, the ineffable. When Emily realized that she hadn’t seen one of her very closest friends in nearly a year, she, startled, called her and made a date. Christine acted like a lover betrayed. Emily went anyway. “You don’t have to obey her,” her other friend told her. “I don’t understand what she wants from me,” Emily added, to which her friend countered, “What do you want from her?”
Are we lesbians and we don’t know it, Emily deliberated when walking home, walking fast to speed up her thoughts. Her mind sorted things back and forth, a shovel digging up stuff and separating it into discrete piles. Except nothing was discrete. She’s too demanding. On the other hand, I can’t stand it when she disappears for weeks with a new guy. That means I’m possessive about her too. She felt as if she were in a cave and she had always hated the dark. She visualized herself: a child lying in bed, the blanket up to her eyes, no light in the hall, no light anywhere. What bothered her most was that there was no way to determine right and wrong, or to determine if those categories applied to relationships. She supposed that this was what was meant by mystery.
They made up, they made up as they always did. They spent as much time as they could together. Movies, bars, school. They went to see Persona. When the two actresses’ heads merged, Emily screamed. Several people turned to look at her. “You’re so emotional,” Christine teased. “Me?” Emily asked, defensively, deciding in her mind that poets should be, a thought she kept to herself hopefully.
For Emily was hopeful, it was astonishing how much hope she had, Edith reflected as she washed the dishes, carefully drying the paper towels though she knew Emily thought that was cheap. Emily hadn’t grown up during the Depression. Edith always thought that thought and sometimes decided that that thought might be too convenient for all the questions it was supposed to answer. Well, it certainly was a part of it she continued to herself as she put each dish away in the yellow-painted cupboard. This was a rent-controlled building and she blessed the day she’d moved in, a young woman, with a husband and two small children, over twenty years ago. Finding herself staring at the cupboard, she shut it, conscious that the way her arm moved now was the way it moved then. She was never going to move. She could be very stubborn; her husband could have attested to that. And her children. “They’ll have to take me away,” she had said to her husband, who had been a sociologist. “You can’t stop change, Edith,” he had answered. “I’m not stopping it, I’m just not going to be a party to it.” Then, she remembered, he touched her on the arm and laughed. He had such a wonderful laugh, Edith thought, and left the kitchen.
“Make-up,” Christine smiled, “makes some of my imperfections more obvious. More perfect.” They had just eaten an enormous bowl of salad and tuna fish. “I like you without make-up,” said Emily, who wore less of it. She was considering letting her eyebrows grow in. First, she thought she looked too much like Bette Davis playing Queen Elizabeth. Second, they looked like parentheses on her forehead. “I look like a clown.” “Of course, you don’t,” Christine insisted. “Your face is perfect.” They smiled at each other over the big bowl. “Dare I eat a peach or wear my trousers rolled,” Emily mimicked. Christine smiled again, encouragingly … Emily had had a man over the night before—”Let them grow,” she urged, as if growing one’s eyebrows signified activity.
It was Valentine’s Day, a fact the two young women noted, cynically, over the tuna fish, mentioning having received valentines when they were young, in grade school, Emily remembering her love for Johnny. Dressing up. Kissing games. My mother taught me never to lie. She’d received this day a card from Richard who was in Italy, driving around the hill towns, with someone, probably, she commented to Christine. Emily did not want to talk about last night. It was disappointing. Oddly enough, Edith had had a man over the night before too. Emily had gone in the back door—the maid’s entrance—and Edith had used the front one, as she always did, so, in a sense, they had missed each other. Emily heard a man’s voice in the morning. Edith saw a cigarette on her dining room table. Both were made aware, but neither spoke of it. It was something they didn’t enter into with each other. Emily would never discuss sex with Edith, that was reserved for Christine. The subject with Edith was skirted; she amused herself with the image. We pull in our skirts so as not to appear like flirts. Emily never wore skirts anyway, which her mother found difficult to digest, like Mexican food. “And she always wears the same things,” she complained to her husband. “Those army pants that are falling apart. And she never tells us about her boyfriends. If she has them.” Her parents couldn’t decide which was worse—her having them or not having them. Emily’s father threw up his hands like an evangelist enlisting God’s aid. “It’s not normal,” he said. Both parents shook their heads in unison.
“My mother walked right out of the room when I walked in.” Emily was reporting to Edith about her latest visit with her parents. “She couldn’t stand the way I looked.” Emily started to cry then stopped, suddenly, just turning it off. A leaky faucet in Edith’s bedroom appeared like a cartoon in the older woman’s mind. She didn’t want to be emotionally involved, she kept telling herself, using those exact words. I do not want to be emotionally involved. The two women walked into Central Park and sat on a large gray boulder that stuck up from the land, a tough couch for Emily’s sorrows. “That’s how life is,” Emily kept thinking, “she’ll get used to it.” She restrained herself from saying that your mother can’t help it. She had parents too. But she didn’t because she didn’t want to be an apologist for parents. Stretched before her she saw long lines of children and their parents and then their parents and their parents. “It must have been awful at the very beginning of time,” she said, ending her vision. “I’m just thinking out loud,” she told Emily.
They watched walkers and bikers and runners. They stayed for three hours. A civil rights march that had begun in Harlem passed right in front of them. In fact it stopped in front of them, allowing Nelson Rockefeller to get out of his black limo and join its ranks. He walked by them; he was so close they could have slapped him on his back. Rockefeller forced himself between two black men in the front of the line whose arms were tight around each others backs. Their arms relaxed trunculantly, and he took his place between them, as if he were born to be there. Emily was astonished at his lack of feelings, maybe it wasn’t a lack of feelings. She was astonished at his wanting to get his own way and knowing that he could and would. She concluded that a great fortune makes people indifferent, imperious. He had acted like an emperor. Nearly having forgotten about her mother when she opened the door to her small room, the phone rang. She said, “I didn’t realize I could hurt your feelings.”
As for Edith, it was Sunday, and on Sunday, she did not want to think about her children and their feelings. She wanted to read the New York Times and make herself a sandwich. That night Christine’s mother called her daughter. She called faithfully every Sunday. “Your father left me nothing. I’ll have to work for the rest of my life in a dentist’s office,” recited litanously tonight, as it had been over the years. Mixed with her complaints was a sense of the absurd, the absurdity of their situation, mother and daughter, together, against the world, a sensibility that Christine comprehended and inherited, so to speak, rather than money.
Emily never worried about money; they had always had enough and her father wasn’t dead. It irritated but also pleases Christine to be close with someone who didn’t care night and day, day and night, about how she was going to survive. Emily never seemed to think about it. She’s not very realistic, thought Christine, who was herself practical and wary, not the optimist Emily was, not by a long shot. She explained to Emily, “I became a fatalist at an early age.” But somewhere Christine comforted herself with the belief that life, like the end of a fairy tale, would present her with a happy ending, a man to support her. It was a belief deep inside her, but being practical she set about to become financially independent. The fantasy was a base-relief, a flight that raised her above everyday exigencies. It was another thing that Emily didn’t really understand about Christine, this dread of poverty, fueling her friend into action more often than Emily would ever realize.
Still later, Edith read into the night, restless with denial; Christine decided again never to see Peter; and, having buried her mother’s phone call into ground that is not conscious, Emily worked on a poem that began:
Leo strides in a field of men
like a motorcycle passing cars.
She is too different to be used yet.
That cat wears its coat
mindless of any beauty
because beauty is only a word.
Tired and not tired, Emily stopped writing and placed the piece of paper in the drawer, turned off the light, and stared ahead into the dark space that was not completely black. There was light coming from a small window in her bathroom. She always kept the bathroom door open, to let that little bit of light in.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee