notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
Water is best. – Pindar
Memory is of the past. – Aristotle
No, that’s not her. – My father
Surely the world is full of simple truths that can be obtained by asking clear questions and noting the answers. “Who is that woman?” I overheard my father ask my mother one night when I was coming down the stairs to the kitchen. It took me a moment to realize he was asking about me—not because I did not know by then that he was losing his mind, which was obvious in other ways, but because he used the word woman.
I was not “woman” to him. I stopped halfway down the stairs. It reminded me of a night when I was twelve or thirteen. Coming down the same stairs, I heard him in the kitchen talking to my mother. “Oh, she won’t be like them,” he was saying with a sort of glow in his voice. It was the last time I heard that glow. Because soon afterward I did, to my dismay, begin to be like them—as the Chinese proverb says, “There was blood in the water trough early one morning.”
I am not a person who feels easy talking about blood or desire. I rarely used the word woman myself. But such things are the natural facts of what we are, I suppose we have to follow out these signs in the endless struggle against forgetting. The truth is, I lived out my adolescence mainly in default of my father’s favor. But I perceived that I could trouble him less if I had no gender. Anger tired him so. I made my body as hard and flat as the armor of Athena. No secrets under my skin, no telltale drops on the threshold. And eventually I found—a discovery due, in fact, to the austerities of pilgrimage—that I could suppress the natural facts of “woman” altogether. I did so. Unfortunately by then his mind was too far gone to care.
I lived alone for a long time.
What happened to me after that takes the form of a love story, not so different from other love stories, except better documented. Love is, as you know, a harrowing event. I believed in taking an anthropological approach to that.
Even now it is hard to admit how love knocked me over. I had lived a life protected from all surprise, now suddenly I was a wheel running downhill, a light thrown against a wall, paper blown flat in the ditch. I was outside my own language and customs. Why, the first time he came to my house he walked straight into the back room and came out and said, “You have a very narrow bed.” Just like that! I had to laugh. I hardly knew him. I wanted to say, Where I come from, people don’t talk about bed, except children’s or sickbeds. But I didn’t. Humans in love are terrible. You see them come hungering at one another like prehistoric wolves, you see something struggling for life in between them like a root or a soul and it flares for a moment, then they smash it. The difference between them smashes the bones out. So delicate the bones. “Yes, it is very narrow,” I said. And just at that moment, I felt something running down the inside of my leg. I had not bled for thirteen years.
Love is a story that tells itself—fortunately. I don’t like romance and have no talent for lyrical outpourings—yet I found myself during the days of my love affair filling many notebooks with data. There was something I had to explain to myself. I traveled into it like a foreign country, noted its behaviors, transcribed its idioms, prowled like an anthropologist for the rare and unwary use of a kinship term. But kinship itself jumped like a frog leg, then lay silent. I found the kinship between a man and a woman can be a steep, whole, excellent thing and full of languages. Yet it may have no speech. Does that make sense?
One night—it was the first winter my father began to have trouble with his mind—I was sitting at the kitchen table wrapping Christmas presents. I saw him coming down the stairs very slowly, holding his hands in front of him. In his hands were language and speech, decoupled, and when he started to talk, they dropped and ran all over the floor like a bag of bell clappers. “What happened to you to I who to? There was a deer. That’s not what I. How many were? No. How? What did you do with the things you dripped no not dripped how? You had an account and one flew off. That’s not. No? I. No. How? How?” He sat down all of a sudden on the bottom step and turned his eyes on me, clearly having no idea in the world who I was, or how he came to be there with me, or what should happen next. I never saw a human being so naked. His face the face of a fledgling bird, in what fringe of infant evening leaves, in what untouched terror lapped.
Sometimes you come to an edge that just breaks off.
The man who named my narrow bed was a quiet person, but he had good questions. “I suppose you do love me, in your way” I said to him one night close to dawn when we lay on the narrow bed. “And how else should I love you—in your way?” he asked. I am still thinking about that.
Man is this and woman is that, men do this and women do different things, woman wants one thing and man wants something else and nobody down the centuries appears to understand how this should work. “Every day he’d come in from the fields and throw his old flighty hat on my clean tablecloth that we’re going to eat off—sweatband down!” says my mother, still furious, and he’s been gone how long? years now.