Dear Elizabeth –
Some years ago a man stood in my living room and picked up a book.
‘I can’t believe you’re reading this,’ he said.
‘It’s great. You like Elizabeth Smart?’
‘Oh sweetheart,’ he sighed. ‘This changes the course of things entirely.’
What he meant, I think, was that he couldn’t believe that such a silly young thing could possibly be even aware of such a book, let alone absorb it, let alone have a key to the servant’s entrance to his heart. We had been distracting each other for about a month – me, from a slowly healing heartache, him, from a dissolved marriage. It was never meant to mean anything. Perhaps he just couldn’t believe the irony.
The book was ‘By Heart: Elizabeth Smart – A Life’, Rosemary Sullivan’s remarkable biography of you. I saw the irony. Five minutes prior to this he had been lying on the floor with my cat, charming her with the same masterful blend of focus and detachment that he applied to me. She melted under his hand, purring shamelessly and I noticed this with amusement and dread and recognition.
A passionate young woman testing her powers is a dangerous thing. I was curious. He was a challenge. A tremendous, compelling challenge. He found me via online courtship, wrote to me, managed to combine Greek mythology, a photo of a dark haired man staring pensively at the sea, and the line ‘I’m sure I’m too old for you, but I had to say hello’. He was too old for me. His divorce wasn’t final. He was moving to Rome. Challenge accepted.
We wrote for a week, and by the time we met in a garden by the lake I had already decided that this would be a heady rabbit hole indeed, and that I was in exactly the mood to lose myself. And oh, I did.
It was a decision. It was a decision every time I went back, down the steps to his basement apartment. Whatever limits he had emotionally were well compensated for with other fire. He was an artist. He read poetry. Sometimes our intellectual conversation was more compelling than our physical one. But he held me at arm’s length. Sometimes I would enter his home and he wouldn’t look up, such was his focus. I tried waiting patiently. It didn’t suit me.
I got fed up. I ended it.
Two months later, though, a farewell drink before he moved to Rome. Just one drink, to say goodbye. Ay, me. Down the rabbit hole I went. We said goodbye in all of our languages, a sudden spew of longings and declarations, one huge heart surge towards each other, and a few days later he was gone.
Words from Rome, his voice on my computer, late night pleas to join him there. I was tempted. Somehow I was more under his thumb from a continent away – it was so romantic to have a beautiful, soulful, tormented artist aching for me in Rome. I was writing a lot of poetry. Ache begets ache. It’s good for the writing. I looked up plane fares.
I was a plaything. He found me charming, I think, but he didn’t take me seriously until he saw a book on my table, a book about a woman so intoxicated by an artist that she submitted her whole life to him. A man who was married. A man who would never really exist. You had decided about your poet as I decided about my painter.
We are both a bit brazen, you and I. We are educated women, artists, and uncomfortable accepting society’s usual options. It’s a dangerous elixir. It was not enough to write a narrative, to explore the world through words. No. We – you, had to live the narrative, let the words be born of your life.
You were born in Ottawa in 1913. Your family was wealthy. You went to private school. Your mother was needy, manipulative. You could have easily settled into the life of a socialite, married a nice Canadian lawyer, born him children, tended to your garden. In early photos of you it is so clear that this life would not suit you. There is always wind in your hair, fire in your eyes, love on your mouth. You look determined to make more of the world than the comfortable patch given to you. You are a woman who will plant her own seeds.
You wanted experience. You wanted adventure. You went to England to study. One day, in a London bookshop you found a volume by the British poet George Barker. You fell madly in love with him through his words. For months you made the declaration that you would meet and marry him – no matter that he was already married. I wonder how much was unhinged lust, and how must was pointed stubbornness; you tracked him down. You posed as a Canadian collector of manuscripts (well, true in a sense!) and collected funds to pay forBarker and his wife to fly from Japan to meet you at a train station in New York.
Thus began one of the most epic, twisted and fueled love affairs in literary history. You wrote a famous, firey, fictionalized account of it, the long prose poem ‘By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept’ in 1945. Your mother bought as many copies as she could find and had them burned. He fathered four children with you (fifteen in total, between other women) and even after he left his wife, many years after, he didn’t marry you. There was drinking, there were bitter fights. He left. He came back. You were devoted to him. You were a martyr.
‘He has martyred me, but for no cause, nor has he any idea of the size and consequence of my wounds. Perhaps he will never know, for to say ‘You killed me daily and O most especially nightly’, would imply blame. I do not blame.’
You raised four children alone, working as a copy editor, keeping a hand in the Bohemian literary scene of London. As the children grew older you wrote more. You moved to Suffolk, to a little cottage called ‘The Dell’, and wrote and wrote, and loved your children, and built a garden, and Barker came and he went.
‘Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain.’
I used to feel quite smug about you – yes, I loved your work. It was rich, dangerous, all the more because of its real life origins. I will admit that I judged you. How could you wait around for this jackass, however beautiful his poetry? How could you let him leave and return as he pleased? I would beat down the door for child support! I wouldn’t stand for that shit!
Or would I? Maybe I would quietly enter a room and sit in the corner, so as not to block the light he was working in. Maybe I would search every line he wrote me for a sign that he really did want me. Maybe I would feel so strung out on a man that I would hate myself. Maybe I would write about it too.
Perhaps this was your quiet revenge, this famous book of yours, this airing of passions. Maybe this was your way of making it belong to you, not just in the small shared world between your sheets, but out in the raging world. You howled how he terrorized you, how he pulsed through your blood.
If you put it all out there, it belonged to you. You owned your choice. I’ll give you that. You are entitled to that.
I did not fly to Rome.
After a couple months of spin, then silence, then the spin again, and again, I dragged a letter out of myself. A tear-stained message more full of feeling that I like to remember. It said ‘Leave me be.’ It said ‘I deserve a full love, and I need to be free from you to find it’. His reply was tender, remorseful, wine-stained. I never wrote back.
I watched an interview with you, late in your life. While the host introduces you you look down, smiling uncomfortably. You cling to your cigarette (‘I have learned to smoke because I need something to hold on to,’ you said.) The smoke half-covers your face and this almost seems deliberate. You are shy at first. Your laugh is sharp sudden, head bent down, girlish, and under the lines in your face, the wear of age, there are shreds of the beauty you were. Your confidence grows as you speak, and as it builds you seem almost pleased to be the centre of attention. You’ve waited a long time to be.
‘…this is the beginning of my life, or the end. So I lean affirmation across the table, and surrender my fifty years away with an easy smile. But the surety of my love is not dismayed by any eventuality which prudence or pity can conjure up, and in the end all that we can do is sit at the table over which our hands cross, listening to tunes from the Wurlitzer, with love huge and simple between us, and nothing more to be said.’
Two months after I cut the cord with Rome, I met my real love on a subway platform. We were going to the same birthday party. I recognized him from my friend’s photos, and though I didn’t speak to him until we arrived and were seated together, I had already decided to love him.
Oh, how huge and simple that love is.