The sound of the cat jumping off the bed. The smell of lemon-oil soap. The heart with its bleats and whinnies. The sound of the rain. The traffic moving through the alley–Smart Cars, bicycles, delivery trucks. At 3, children’s shouts. The white garage across the ally. The Spanish tile roof. The turquoise biffy for the workers at the laneway house that’s going up. The smell of cedar. The pressure-treated kick-plates. The man in the blue fleece carrying lumber, his white cap, his dangling keys. I live below grade and now, with my fence gone, my windows are peepholes.
Yesterday, I wrote the crisis in my novel The Lost Boy. I had no clue the book was going where it went, exploding where it exploded, but when it blew up, I thought, Of course, of course, nothing else was possible. Now I will wrap up the denouement, then I have to go back to feed in sub-plots and image motifs.
People push grocery carts past my windows and the fencer says I need to dig up more clematis for a reinforcing pole to go in. The condo board says no vines can be grown on the new fence.
I was surprised to discover bulbs coming up now, those crazy things, in December before winter has even started–hyacinths whose tender heads have been summarily stomped.
After I didn’t fall out of the sky when my plane had an emergency landing, my friend and I sat in her living room with just the tree lights on drinking wine in the middle of a snow storm. You couldn’t see much outside except that white snow mounded everywhere, covering the sharp edges. It was minus something but with the wind chill -40, which I learned is the same in Celcius and Farenheit. Two cats, one all white and one all black, curled up beside us or under the tree. It smelled like apple cider–cinnamon, cloves, cardamom. Blue lights, red lights, yellow lights. Wrapped presents.
My friend said to me that when the Jian Gomeshi news broke, she kept remembering sexual assaults; they were like zombies breaking out of the ground. She had one of those moments where things suddenly got clearer–she realized that when women get violated, mostly it’s just another event in a long line of assaults. We get away as best we can, we brush off, we probably don’t report it (because who in their right mind wants what would happen then?), we may not even think of it for long because it’s happened so many times before. We just go on. We’re women. That’s what we do. We go on.
The white cat started climbing the trunk of the Christmas tree. My friend shooed her away. The cats went outside though I thought they’d freeze like cattle in Alberta fields, from their feet up. I told my friend that I had a cat once in Cochrane and I slammed the door too fast during a cold snap and her tail broke off. Verushka, her name was. The cats came back in and weren’t frozen anywhere. We refilled our wine glasses. For a long time, we talked about divorce court, but then after all that, we didn’t want to pour more wine; we just had to go to bed.
The wonderful poet Méira Cook is interviewing me for Brick Books about a long-ago poem I wrote from the imagined perspective of Ted Bundy’s mother during his execution. I had to keyboard in this long poem tonight because I no longer had it on a computer. What a surreal experience to be inside the imagined voice of an onlooker to violence while also being inside my young poet’s voice. I remembered that mother-blaming was even worse then than it is now. I remembered how enraged I became that Ted Bundy had caused so many women and their families pain and incalculable losses (my word, I had daughters, I could almost–), and how confusing was the struggle in my conscience when he was executed, since I remain against capital punishment.
To add to this, of course it just the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique this past weekend (along with the anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death, from whence many losses issued). Here in Vancouver, there was a Saturday vigil in response to Montreal, then a Sunday vigil for Canada’s missing and indigenous women.
I have been worrying a lot about police violence, too, as everyone has. Recently I watched Brian Lindstrom’s film Alien Boy about the Portland murder of James Chasse, and again footage of the Robert Dziekanski police murder at YVR. Did these murders presage the militarization of police in N America and the new wave of shootings of Black men across the US? A Vietnamese man in Vancouver, Du Na Phuong, waving a piece of lumber in a crosswalk, was also shot and killed by police a few blocks from here a couple weeks ago. Story here.
And even as I watch footage of these men dying from police brutality, and try to come to terms, I know that women also die in police custody, and that reporters don’t note it the way they do male deaths.
Let’s see it. Let’s name it. Let’s not look away. Can we not look away?
Can I not avert my eyes one more time?
Here’s an essay that appeared in The Spirit of Writing, Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life, ed Mark Robert Waldman, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001
Congratulations! It’s a Six Pound Eight Ounce Novel!
The plot curls inside you, hardly formed, just eight weeks along. Two months–still time for a miscarriage. Has anyone else ever had that happen? Told the world they were going to be a novelist and then had the damned book slide out slippery as a dead fish? It’s true what they say–you need a good counselor. It breaks your goddamned heart.
There’s only one thing you can do. Toss. Take a helluva big breath. Start again. Like the doctor said: You’re not too old. You can have another novel.
You don’t think it should be so hard.
Your mother says anything worthwhile should be a little hard.
Your husband is worthwhile, and sometimes he’s a little hard.
Which is why you tell him to get home from work while you’re ovulating. You can’t do this alone. You need every one of the ideas that shoot out of him. Conception is no easy business. The circumstances have to be just right. Precisely right. Basal thermometers. Pillows under your hips. OED on the bedstand. You are not the kind of woman who conceives easily.
You don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant. You’re afraid of jinxing it. You don’t want to have to say: No, I’m sorry. I’m not. No. I lost it. I know. Thanks for the sympathy. Really. I’m sorry too. I’m heartbroken. Everyone is sorry, sorry.
You don’t want to be put in that position again.
There are other concerns: what if somebody else tries to make a novel that looks like yours? If someone copies you? Tells the story and acts like it was theirs all along? You know it can happen, especially these days with the Internet. Actually, it has happened to you, and more than once. A friend called up one time and said, I just read a story you told me in Alice Newbold’s new novel. Page 172.
You found Alice Newbold’s new novel and damned if it wasn’t a good looking thing. A little thin, in your opinion, but gripping. And there on page 172, just like your friend said, your story. The central conceit of your gestating book.
And once you told a writer friend something about yourself that you’d never before confided. You swore her to secrecy. Weren’t you shocked when it ended up in one of her stories? In a story that won a prize? And the worst thing was you couldn’t tell anyone. You couldn’t trash her the way she deserved, because then you’d have to say this private thing.
Plus, plus, the title of her book was a phrase you said, that you might have used as a title yourself in the future. You searched her acknowledgements page–nothing.
Forget it. You’re not going to mention the book prematurely. You could miscarry. You could hemorrhage, die and then your story would get adopted by someone else. Get their last name tattooed on its spine.
You long to push the new one out before it’s ready. You’ve lived with it for months, for god’s sake, and you’re tired. You can’t sleep on your stomach. You can’t smoke. You can’t drink. All your friends are deserting you. They didn’t realize you could be this boring. No matter what the doctors say, you’re not getting any younger. You have grey shooting through your hair, and wrinkles (laugh lines). You have to get it out of you. All the hip authors are under thirty-five. They just are. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact. You have someone take an author photo in soft light. For god’s sake, you tell your husband. Just get me to the hospital.
The doctors examine you. They tell you it’s too early. The contractions are probably Braxton Hicks, and even if they’re real, the docs are going to give you something to hold them back. This story needs another six weeks. Minimally. This story isn’t ready to breathe on its own, they say. It’s intensely premature. Is that what you want? the doctors ask, mumbling through their masks? A story that can’t breathe on its own? A story with immature lungs? Lifelong learning problems? A story that won’t sell more than a thousand copies?
You don’t, of course. You want a famous story. A beloved story. A story that makes Oprah’s Book Club. But christ you’re sick of being pregnant. You feel like a cow. And anyhow, can’t they resuscitate even novellas these days? You’ve seen stories sixty pages long published as first novels. Sure, it’s true, they have tubes attached, cerebral palsy, they won’t ever walk, but– Just get it out of me, you say.
Go home, the docs tell you. It’s not your time. Get plenty of bed rest. See me in my office. We need to check your weight, your blood pressure. You need to get rid of some of those adjectives. I’m sorry, no. There isn’t any medication. It takes talent, skill, self discipline, compound sentences. No more adverbs. And straighten out that plot line. While you’re at it, wasn’t that piano on page 150 a guitar earlier on? Any swelling of the ankles? Any faintness on sudden rising?
You’re bloated. Your breasts are so sore you weep if someone so much as looks at them. Only why would anyone? You’re ugly. You’re fat and you’re ugly and there’s never going to be a story, anyhow. There isn’t. It’s all flatulence. It’s all wind.
Things they said the last time: You have what it takes to be a good writer.
This is good, but it’s not fully developed.
There are several awkward places.
Numerous spelling errors.
In addition, several statements that seem unnecessarily obvious.
It doesn’t seem likely to us that the protagonist would murder her husband.
Yet, we like it. We think the story has great possibility.
Intriguing characters and situation.
Maybe the next one.o
The first couple postpartum months are rumoured to be brutal. Numerous strange hotel rooms are involved, so alike that you’re said to forget where you are and say to an Edmonton crowd: I’m thrilled to be nursing my novel in Vancouver tonight. You won’t have had enough sleep. Your hormones are wildly swinging–you’re as liable to break into tears as laughter.
But those are concerns for women who have finished their books. For books who’ve scored a ten on the Apgar scale. For books with publishers. Your novel won’t ever have a publisher. Because the stupid novel is never even going to get here. Never. You’re going to be waddling like an elephant until you’re sixty and it’s too late.
You’ve already passed your due date. After those contractions early on, fighting to keep the damned thing from being born too soon, now you can’t get rid of it. Two days, a week, two weeks. If it’s not done soon they’re going to have to induce you.
C-section. Your worst nightmare. They have to rip you open to get the book out.
But then it happens. They said it would happen and then it did. It happens and there’s no way you’re prepared. There’s no way this is what you want. Uh-uh. Stop the boat. I’m getting off. The novel can stay but I’m getting off. I’ve changed my mind.
Your water breaks all over your typewriter, ruining the climax. And oh no. There’s trouble. Meconium. Black flecks–the words you already edited out. You know what that means. All the how-to books you’ve riead have drilled it into you. This story has taken a breath of its own excrement.
The buzzer has gone off. You’re out of time. You have to get to the hospital. No turning back now. If you wanted to turn back, you should’ve considered abortion. It’s choice that you got this far.
You beg your husband to tell you things will be all right. Just say you love me, you beg. Just say I’m the best thing since cell phones. Just tell me my story is going to survive this. We’ll both survive this.
He’s good. He says all that. He whisks you to the car, props your feet in his lap under the steering wheel, says all the right things. But what does he know? What the hell does he know? He’s a fucking journalist.
And anyway. Why do they say labour doesn’t hurt? It hurts like a sonofabitch. You want drugs. Why shouldn’t you have drugs? They say no drugs, a natural birth, it’s what you wanted, you told them to ignore you when you changed your mind. Your asshole husband puffs in your face like a bellows. He’s useless, useless! Why did you sleep with him to begin with? What the hell were you thinking? He said, Stay home and take nine months to write. Hah! Hah! ≤
You can do it, your husband says now. You’ve got what it takes. Way to go, honey. Good job.
You’re nine centimetres dilated. Just wait, wait a minute. You feel like pushing? Don’t push. Honey, I said, Don’t push. The doctor says she’s gotta move the lip of your cervix away from the novel’s cover page. It’s gonna hurt.
Sometimes it’s all you can do.
You could push the Empire State Building out, you swear you could. You grunt and bear down. You leave bruise marks on your husband’s arm.
But fuck it. Fuck it. Who cares about delicacy at a time like this? You’re crying, and then a few minutes later, when the doctor says she can see the title page, you’re laughing.
Okay, hold on. The acknowledgements page is out. The dedication to your husband. Hang on. Here’s the text, wailing its newborn lungs.
They’re passing you the novel, now, and it’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. You can’t stop crying, but the tears are tears of joy. Your husband kisses your face. He’s the greatest husband. Didn’t he stand by you, thick and thin? He’s whispering to her. He’s stroking the five little pages of her denouement. He’s smitten. Look. He’s starting to cry.
She looks just like you, your husband says. She’s got your fontenal.
No wonder he’s weeping. She’s the most beautiful novel you’ve ever seen. You don’t care what anyone else says, because you’re in love. You’re head over heels.
Congratulations, says the doctor. I’m pleased to say you have a healthy, six pound, eight ounce novel.
My wisteria takes my breath away. When I moved in, I thought I would haul it out by its friable roots and plant another, better one in its place—a darker one, a white one, one with longer recemes. Mine is just that common one you see around—W. sinensis. Blah, I thought.
But in the end, it was so magnificent that it made the mess of the rest of the fledgling garden that kept killing plants dead (alliums! O poppies! Delphs!) bearable.
Isn’t that the way? You think something’s going to be terrible, and it knocks you over with sweetness and flash. Or vice versa.
I thought today was a wasteland, even with all the sun, and then Clara Shandler, the Sidewalk Cellist, said, “Impromtu concert?” and I got to spend a luscious hour on unmown grass at King Ed and 25th soaking up her terrific-ness. Cello makes me soar; I lift bird-like—pumped, strong wings into cerulean sky.
I tried to clear my head while I listened, but it drifted into thought, and I ruminated about the fleshiness of our human condition, our bodies resilient and fragile. Able to take so much—or so little. The mystery of why one person sickens and another stays well. The mystery of the quick accident.
Because it was Mother’s Day, I thought of my mother, and my mother-in-law, and what missing the dead means, and I thought then about how motherhood positions women in the world. About step-mothering, or smom’ing—of my daughters.
I thought about women’s rights, and their lack.
I thought of my sister and her lost son, and the moms at Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Canuck Place who’d lost their babies. I thought about how they went forward.
Role models. Women to look up to.
There was so much sky up there, so much atmosphere, so much vacuum, so much science.
But right down here, just feet in front of me, was Clara’s music. At home was wisteria, ten feet of it dripping. Right here, right now, there was redoubtable human spirit. Thanks, women-in-my-life, for all you’ve generously given me. Hope, determination, examples, willing ears, strength, passion, incisive brains, character, depth, ready love.
You are the best.
It is so funny to stumble across old bits of writing. When I wrote this piece, I hadn’t yet joined the marriage case in Canada, which I did in September of 2000. We have had the right to wed in Canada since June of 2003, but the issue is still very current in the US and other countries.
I remember having a to-and-fro with the editor who originally published this essay about whether the parlour game was 20 Questions (as I asserted) or 21 Questions (as she asserted). See–must have been before it was easy to look things up on the web. She was wrong, but she won.
Oops, here’s another reader review I just found: