From The Time Being (Talonbooks, 1997). The story begins when Kate (age sixty-seven), who lives in New South Wales, writes a fan letter to Marj (age seventy-five), who lives in Quebec. Kate has read Marj's autobiography and has seen her in a film that celebrates old age. Through their correspondence, the two women fall in love, and Kate invites Marj to visit her. This chapter is about their first flesh-and-blood meeting, and about the subsequent celebration of their love.
In the pre-time being, in the rehearsal period for the real, Marj wrote to Kate, "I’ve been doing exercises between visible and invisible, between imagining touch and really touching." At the moment of meeting they are not surprised by the alchemy that instantly changes imagination into reality. They don’t say a word; their two dissimilar bodies recognize a long, predetermined assent. They are speeding away from the airport in Kate’s little car; Marj's right hand closes over Kate’s small, sunburned left hand. "If your left hand is on the gearshift," she had written, "will you practise turning it over briefly so that I can kiss your palm?" Kate releases her hand to change gears and slides her thumb into the valley of Marj’s palm. "Hello, my darling," she says. She is looking intently at the road, squinting into the sun with narrowed blue-gleaming eyes; her hand stretches out to come lightly to rest on Marj’s thigh. They drive into the sunny courtyard of Kate’s apartment building and stop at one of the entrances, flanked by flowering oleanders in big terra-cotta pots. A lean grey and white cat, Kate’s cat, Oliver, comes to twine around her legs. Kate fixes him with a hypnotic stare, moves her hands in lazy wave-motion over his head; his jade eyes gaze hack at her, his body weaves to her hands’ rhythm and to her murmuring cat-talk. Then he leads them upstairs to the door of Kate’s apartment. "We will drop my bags just inside the door," Marj had written in her pre-meeting scenario. They drop the bags, silently look each other up and down with a serious, confirming look, and kiss each other with delicate greed.
In Marj’s scenario, the first meeting with its impetuous embraces was suspended in the question: and after that? Will they move toward a bed, fall on it and engage in passionate love-play? Kate was able to imagine, better than Marj, the reality of two white-haired strangers meeting. "Perhaps I’ll put you to bed," she had written. "And let you sleep," she added with brisk good sense. Her schedule for today, already planned, holds a nap for Marj, a walk down to the harbour’s edge, lunchtime, teatime and drinkie-time, when each will toast the other, looking lovingly over her glass of brandy and soda. Kate has already made sandwiches and prepared a casserole. Even before they met, both knew that they would feel instantly comfortable with each other. Now, standing just inside the shelter of the closed door, the imagined scenario comes to life in their eager familiarity and hunger for more. They stand for a moment at arms’ length, swaying to the inaudible music of delight. "You must be tired, darling," says Kate. "We must get you settled." Their hands slacken and drop, and Kate leads Marj into the shipshape room that looks over the gleam and dazzle of the harbour. Like an obedient child, Marj puts herself into Kate’s care, yields to her sense of timing. There is plenty of time to linger in the exciting place between desire and fulfillment, where passion burns with a steady flame; they will stay here for a while before they venture on to the less certain ground of lovemaking. They will improvise every few minutes on the theme of embraces and deep kisses.
They are on Kate’s stage, in Kate’s theatre. "It must all be perfect," wrote Kate to Marj, and the skills of a lifetime have gone into the preparations for Marj’s arrival. Kate has cleared out her own room and squeezed everything under the bed and on upper shelves of the little room across the hall. Instead of Marj’s splendid view of the harbour, Kate sees only the leaves of a tree just outside her high window. Marj luxuriates in Kate’s space and view and is happy to accept Kate’s denials that her life has been turned upside down to make Marj comfortable. She and Kate love each other too much, Marj thinks, to get on each other’s nerves. She reverently contemplates the few clothes that Kate has left at one end of the closet, and a tidy platoon of colourful sandals and moccasins drawn up below.
By the end of their first day together, Kate has caught a whiff of Marj’s austere discipline. Marj is terribly polite. She likes to eat but cannot be wheedled into eating an ounce more than she wants. She is indifferent to the rite of drinkie-time. She even oversees the pouring of her drink: fourteen drops of brandy, she stipulates, only partly joking.
But Marj has never felt less austere, and is entranced by the flesh-and-blood Kate, who, in the middle of dinner, puts on a tape of Cabaret and sings, high-kicking her way from living room to kitchen. She turns a joyful face back toward Marj, her eyes flash blue, she blows Marj a kiss and holds out her arms in an invitation to dance. Marj has already imagined this, how their bodies would lock together; her sure sense of the hills and hollows of Kate’s body against her own was enough to send tremors coursing through her. How gracefully she glided around her kitchen when she danced with Kate in imagination! Now her feet stumble and step on Kate’s feet, and she almost loses her balance. They both stop. "You’d better just do your own thing," Kate says. Kate danced as soon as she toddled; her mother held her upstretched hands and bounced her little feet up and down. "Dance-a-baby-did-it!" her mother sang and Kate shouted her glee. What ecstasy at school to place her warm hand on a schoolmate’s waist and draw her close into a magic circle. Now she is looking at Marj coolly,—as the adjudicator, Marj thinks, the dispenser of impartial justice. Marj wants to apologize for her self-conscious body suddenly aware of its own awkwardness, longing for another chance. But she has failed two tests today: she can’t drink, she can’t dance. And Kate’s inscrutable look, new to Marj, seems to say, "It’s too late to teach you how to dance. But I want you to learn me. Are you capable of learning me?" Marj will happily learn Kate. And aren’t they dancing together in another way as they move up the scale of before-play? They will know soon when the day will have a single unstated purpose, when its beginning will make haste slowly toward the end—lovemaking, how the end will suffuse the day with tenderness.
Today is that day. Marj opens the patio door of her room and looks out at the broad, white-gold stripe the sun casts on the water, and on its blinding reflection in the windowpanes of a distant skyscraper. The cloudless day has begun to warm up. Across the water, the bow of a robin’s-egg blue container ship with a yellow funnel and cranes is being pulled sideways by an invisible tug, and in no time tugs appear at bow and stern to coax the ship close to the quay. After breakfast, Kate and Marj race downhill to catch the ferry; it arrives at the dock in a flurry of foam, of waves splashing on the rocks, and then lies waiting, trembling to take off again. "Hello darling!" Kate says to the woman who takes their tickets, launching her whole body forward like the Winged Victory. It is an example of her singular gift for instant seduction: she can bale up a stranger, wrap someone in sheer charm, as fast as a spider can package a fly. Kate and Marj make for the upper front bench and sit pressed together; their hands are clasped, with interwoven fingers, in the warm crevice between their bodies. Kate is in her reckless state when she seems to be saying to the whole world, "Look at us. We love each other!" Contagious love that enters into the astonishments and epiphanies of the day.
They disembark at Circular Quay and join the throng in the unending promenade; people look at their joyful faces and smile back. A space is cleared for a family of wound-up toy pandas toddling across the quay. Sacred ibises stroll along, stiff-legged; their long curved beaks snatch up bits of fallen bread, potato chips, ice cream cones; they sidestep with a flutter of wings as Kate and Marj sweep by arm-in-arm. Kate is an Australian microcosm; people step gladly into the sunshine and blue sky of her embracing laugh which animates her entire body. Her laugh can set off the incredible merriment of babies in their strollers and bewitch their mums; it says, "Come, I’ll show you how to be happy." She invites people to laugh by imitation, just as she invites Oliver to dance, hypnotized by the movement of her two hands and the weaving of her body.
Now it is evening and Kate, entering Marj’s room, leaves the door partly open, with a light beyond in the corridor, diffused to twilight around the single bed. She pulls the shades down over the two halves of the patio door, over the intrusive lights from the street: headlights rounding the corner and coming up the hill past the apartment, harbour lights, bright ribbons of colour reflected in the black water, big lamps on the dock where the container ship is tethered. So love’s space is a narrow bed bounded by a book-covered table on one side, a small desk on the other side, a bureau, a chair with Marj’s clothes lying tidily on it. This is their circumference, with the soft bed at the centre, silky sheets, a pillow for each, edged with a fluted ruffle. With due modesty, they have taken off pyjamas (Marj), a nightgown (Kate), and Kate on one elbow is looking down at Marj. "You are beautiful," she says. Marj in the twilight half-sees the pale rise of her hip turned toward Kate. They are young, they are going to make love with the lithe movements of youth, they will forget the daytime facts of age, their young faces will approach each other. Kate’s eyes are half-closed; the blue glance, the chiselled lips, the slightly longer tooth are tenderly revealed. Marj has barely time to think, how can you look so young, and what makes this glimpse of tooth so enchanting? when their mouths, passionately meeting, engage in a sinuous dance of tongues, each with a foreknowing of response, for these kisses happened before they met and have happened since their meeting. They are likely to happen whenever Kate and Marj meet, even across the dining room table, and to cause them to look at each other with surprise. "I thought you wrote, ‘Old age will save me from desire in its usual sense,’" said Kate on one of these occasions. "Oh yes, so I did," Marj said, "but I didn’t know." Know the strange magnetism of a body accepted, much more natural and accepted than her own flesh. Know the tug toward the strong, uninsistent hands that draw their bodies together. Together they seem like flocking birds or fish to know when to turn in unison, to rise, to wheel or sink to earth or water. The consenting identical flight, dark or pale suddenly flashing. Lovemaking. "We both know that it will happen," Marj wrote to Kate, after months of skirting around the subject in their letters.
Now it is happening, for Kate, in her theatrical persona, has set the stage and planned the lighting. There is a shade of anxiety in each; each knows about the watershed of sex, about the impossibility of ever going back to the innocent passion of sex-suspended. They know that desire is unpredictable and that its captious temperament is tied to egos and self-esteems. They have written each other about the dangers and vowed to keep their sense of humour, no matter what, thinking to foresee and outwit the traps of both success and failure. "I’ve been told that I love splendidly," wrote Kate. Now their interlaced bodies spread molten heat, share tension and shudders of delight. Orgasm, when the body bursts its bounds with a glad cry. "Orgasms are not compulsory," Kate wrote before they met, and Marj laughed with foreknowledge. Not compulsory but inevitable. How could they have thought for a minute that they would not need this as the affirmation of their embodied life together? They are lovers now. Will they look at each other differently? Do they know each other better, now that they know how their hands and mouths can wander over the unfamiliar landscape of a new body, restlessly moving like a new world in formation? Now that they know how the hands, the mouth can greet and take possession of uprising nipples, and move confidently down, deep into a widening valley, and bathe in a warm flood of welcome?
Each is newly known and unknown to the other, each is exploring a new world with old maps, has suddenly urgent questions about wants and needs. Each is learning new inflections of yes, no, here, there, now, shades of silence. When it dares, the English language timidly translates a universe of signs. There are presages at the heart of their lovely closeness: for Marj, old beginnings with their endings, like a crescent moon holding the old moon in her arms; for Kate, the long shadow of her secret over her life, and the fear that it will be guessed. Next morning she takes the two pillows which Marj has placed side by side on her bed and puts one on top of the other. "Pillows side by side suggest two people," she says with a little laugh. As if to say, "I know you understand these sillyniceties; you, too, have lived through the Terror."
"We are lovers now." Marj likes this momentous phrase. Later, when she is back in Canada, a friend who has done her own imagining will ask, "Did you make love?" "Of course you’ll make love," she had predicted. Marj was wary. "It’s under discussion," she said. Post facto, she will smile, a smile tinted with the old ineradicable guilt and, because she is seventy-five, a small new fear—that she will provoke smiles herself.
But it is this day, this day after, and Marj inhabits her new-old body uncritically, spreads herself from the inside out, freed from her ingrown imagination which has exaggerated the sharpness of her bones and the irreversible signs of old age. Their two dissimilar bodies, impalpable as warm summer air, passion-laden, have met and merged; their gestures in slow motion have found each other by echolocation, each the mirror of the other. They have played the love scene according to their imaginary rehearsals which left plenty of room for improvisation. Kate, an old hand at directing love scenes in the theatre, has felt the responsibility of getting this one right,—a scene between two old women, who by daylight are as modest as nuns. From their first day together they seemed to have agreed wordlessly to rules of etiquette, which required each to dress, to undress, in the privacy of her room.
The light of day contains subliminal messages about the correct position of pillows. Prudence will dictate Kate’s wariness with friends, a necessary blurring, she thinks, of the great truth which Marj wants to announce to the world. Marj would like to take a megaphone and shout over the harbour, "Kate and I are lovers!" The harbour amplifies sound and spreads light into every corner of Marj’s room. Diamonds of light sparkle on the water. Kate is in the kitchen giving Oliver his breakfast, and Marj, under her potent spell, understands that today too has its timetable.
There are possibilities for interruption: the plaintive mewing of Oliver, a ring of the doorbell or the telephone, an eruption of furious barking in the street below and the anguished cries of Miss Muffet, dressed from head to paws in beige curls. She is pelting down the street (everybody who has a view has appeared at windows or on balconies) just ahead of her persecutors, a nondescript pair of dogs whose dearest wish is to tear Miss Muffet to pieces. Behind them, Kate’s neighbour Janet waves her arms and shouts. By now Kate in her peignoir is hanging over the balcony railing and Janet, under hypnosis, it seems, looks up, and her fierce look fades. Her eyes are as blue as Kate’s; if her look is fierce it is because life never tires of tormenting her with its dirty tricks; for solace she has a big calico cat and the two dogs. Today, Miss Muffet, swift as a wind-driven tumbleweed, will outstrip the others and they will wearily climb the hill and bend their heads while Janet fastens on their leashes. On other days, Miss Muffet is caught unawares and pandemonium breaks out in the courtyard, the entire population of the apartment house spills out, shouts, waves canes . . . But this today with glorious sunshine holds the memory of last night’s lovemaking; today Kate and Marj adore each other and live the bodily peace, the confident joy of newborn lovers.