This is one of three writings by Mary Meigs, published in Geist 17, 20 and 26, that eventually became part of her novel The Time Being (Talonbooks, 1997).
The real story is truer than fiction, Marj once thought. But where is the truth in an imaginary love story that grows from a correspondence between two old women, separated by the distance between New South Wales and Quebec?
This much is true: Kate, the woman in Australia, writes a letter to Marj, the woman in Canada. She has read Marj’s autobiography and has felt the writer as a kindred spirit; she has seen Marj in a semi-documentary film about eight women who, stranded in the wilderness, exchange their life stories (seven of them are over sixty-five) and become friends. Marj tells one of the women that she is a lesbian; this candid announcement has brought tears to Kate’s eyes. She writes a fan letter, she feels that she and Marj are already friends. She mails a blue airletter full of Australian sunshine, with Ayer’s Rock burning red in the desert in the upper left-hand corner. The name and address in blue ink run lightly along, lean forward, hold back in the six printed letters of CANADA. Marj, who dabbles in graphology, stares at the blue letter and sees a woman whose exuberance is tempered by a lifetime of discipline. The contents of the letter have sent Marj’s spirits soaring in the June air. It is from an invisible woman named Kate, both impersonal and warmly personal. Kate praises the film, which has come to Australia, and Marj’s autobiography, with the authority of someone used to analyzing and judging; she keeps herself out of it but is immediately alive in Marj’s mind. Kate has thought hard about the words of her letter and how they must contain the right amount of praise, not fulsome but studied; she writes from her experience as a teacher responsible for the opening of minds, who has handled the dynamite of judgement with tactful care.
Kate waits with a certain impatience, turning to a sense of being rebuffed as the weeks and months roll by with no answer from Canada. Seven months. She cons herself into thinking: So she doesn’t answer; that’s cool. And suppresses the voice saying, Marj is thinking: Just another fan letter,—I won’t answer right away. And rises to a crescendo: Who does she think she is? Kate sees the slightly bent, tall body of Marj, hears her diffident speech, drawling a bit. After the seventh month has gone by, Kate consigns Marj to a dark corner of her mind where Marj’s silence lives as a small rejection.
Summer slips into autumn and into the winter of a new year. Kate’s letter has sifted downward in a pile of unanswered mail and Marj discovers it, rereads it, feels guilty, answers, sends her new book.
The real story, the love between two old women, can begin now with a rush, powered by the seventh-month wait. Each of the women, Kate in her late sixties, Marj in her mid-seventies, thrives in the warm medium of their letters and is rejuvenated. Their phantom bodies grow close to one another, touch precisely with imagined hands. Soon they know the awful daring of imagined mouths joining lightly, then with passion that sends tremors coursing down the two bodies, some 15,000 miles apart. They are separated by a continent, by the Pacific Ocean and the International Date Line, an imaginary line, in obedience to which real people turn their watches forward or backward and re-tune their bodies, temporarily upside down. They lose or gain a day because of a nonexistent line in space. If one of them outraces the sun, the next day is the day she left; somewhere, in Australia or in Canada, that day has been lived or is going to be lived. "It’s your yesterday," Kate, the first to telephone, will say, and Marj will answer, "It’s your tomorrow."
Each in her separate life listens to music and breaks into a spontaneous dance; in one of her correct premonitions, Marj sees Kate put on a tape and dance to it. Kate with her mind’s eye sees the lively but disjointed efforts of Marj and smiles indulgently. Visions are released by the letters, as close to the truth (the truth of love, all-noticing, all-remembering) as human beings can get, with no ill-effects or hangovers. As Marj rereads the letters, she is struck by the perfection of their falling-in-love, the high-soaring duet they sing, in which their old voices sound like young voices and each tries to outdo the other by demonstrating her purity of heart, each in an innocent rivalry which holds difference in suspension, biding its time. Kate is the first to notice the cloud just below the surface, recognizes a familiar trouble, differing views about the demands of true love. To Kate, true love demands readiness to sacrifice in its name: self, the very thing that Marj has cultivated, a letting love take second place. It is her creative self, closely guarded; Kate knows this from Marj’s books, in which the writer falls in love and temporarily yields up her soul, only to snatch it back. And here is Marj writing, six months before they meet, " ‘Being in love’ with you means that I yield up to you without regret my solitary autonomy, that we hold each other in trust and literally. . . ." It occurs to Kate that this is a load of codswallop (an Australian word for nonsense) and that Marj isn’t going to yield up a thing. But she wants to believe and she loves Marj’s naive eloquence; she herself dreams of a marriage of true minds in which each yields and blends into a single mind, greater than the sum of its parts, and a single consenting body. She puts on her tape of Cabaret and belts out her signature song. "Maybe this time I’ll be lucky," she sings. "Maybe this time he’ll stay," and holds out her arms in yearning. Hasn’t she herself yielded up her decision never to fall in love again, hasn’t she put aside her knowledge that, after ten years, she is still spooked by the loss of her younger lover, is suspicious of love and its inevitable disappointments? But she lets joy possess her and rides the crest of the big wave which rolls in so triumphantly, and tries not to think of the flotsam almost hidden in Marj’s hyperbole.
Loud! Loud! Loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
The pace of their letters quickens until each is writing the other every day. At first they have waited for answers; now the letters crisscross in the vast space, the half a world between them. Identical thoughts cross; they quote the same poets, they love the same composers, they have read the same books. Now they are dwelling in the Shangri-La of their much younger selves when they greedily soaked up the father-culture and were possessed by the voices of its great love poets. In no time at all, it seems, they are talking about love. "Have I gone over the top, I wonder?" writes Kate, and Marj answers, "There is no top." It only takes Kate’s photograph and her first telephone call, her musical voice and purring laugh, to release a dammed-up flood in each of them, rolling over time and space. "You draw out of me green leaves and flowers," says Marj. They speak with the tongues of women and angels, their new speech, and with the old vocabulary of love. "It seems to be coming from somewhere deep inside, some dark warm cavern from which no sound has issued for a very long time," says Kate. She trembles when she sees a letter from Marj in the mailbox; is that a sign that she is in love? Kate addresses the question, am I in love? (for Marj has come out with it,—"I’ve fallen in love with you," on the telephone) just as she addresses every important and difficult question; she seeks evidence and logical explanation. She trembles, and is it love to tremble? She tries to hang on to the rational, sceptical part of her mind, she reminds herself and Marj that they are "two elderly women," perhaps a subject of ridicule?, and braces herself against the torrent of Marj’s response. " ‘Two elderly women’ in whom reside the great lovers in their prime," Marj answers. Marj loves the sound of her own voice, thinks Kate; she has read Marj’s books and knows her unreliability. She throws herself into love and slithers out of it. Take it easy, says Kate to herself, reaching out for a handhold. "I’ve been telling myself for years that I’m not capable of something quite as exciting and zestful as falling in love ... and I’m sticking to this safe belief, that I’m past it! But I’m certainly capable of LOVE."
Kate loves the woman who has had the "huge courage" to come out publicly as a lesbian, she says, and she loves Marj’s "scary honesty about the oppressive obsession that is (or isn’t?) love." Honesty. Marj thinks about it; in her books, she tells Kate, there is always "a precious remnant of dishonesty." To herself she says that the precious remnant is what the writer leaves out that would tip the scales; the measure of it is the measure of her cowardice. "What one feels it’s safe to be honest about," she explains to Kate. "The dishonesty lies in what I’m ashamed of, that might compromise the reader’s liking for me." Each believes that nothing can compromise their liking for each other. "I’ve been thinking about security," says Marj, "feeling secure in your care, what that means. It means everything. It’s the deep meaning of love. . . . It’s our arms around each other even when they’re not."
"I yield up to you without regret my solitary autonomy . . . we hold each other in trust and literally." "That says it all," Kate writes. Marj, four months after her first letter to Kate, has soared over the top that has no top and believes every word she says. She is sure that she has never in her life felt so joyfully incautious. "This morning May 21," Kate writes, "she has said she’d put her arms around me and kiss me on the MOUTH. There’s a wicked little part of me that wants to chuckle at our mutual ‘properness,’ our mutual avoidance of the three-letter word . . . But we’re already there," she says and quotes Marj again: "Profound tenderness," "a sharing of all our identities," "tes mains dans mes mains." "There’ll be a wonderful physical closeness" says Kate. "We’re not going to disappoint each other, because by the time we meet (if not already) we’ll know each other and have appropriate expectations. I’m not in need of ‘Wild Nights’"—(she quotes Emily Dickinson)—for Marj has been suddenly cautious in her letters: "no tearing of our pleasure with rough strife," she counsels. "Age will save me from desire in its usual sense," she speaks of her "love-angsts." So Kate sends tender reassurance and with it, the certainty for Marj of the warmth of Kate’s knowledgeable body. "We speak the same language of love in all its manifestations," Kate says. "We’ve sort-of made love already . . . and orgasms are not compulsory." Reading this, Marj laughs out loud.
"Tu es bien dans ta peau," Marj writes. She has read signs in Kate’s relaxed handwriting which fills each page from edge to edge, and in her voice, mezzo-soprano, tenderly sensual yet unalarming—to Marj who is easily alarmed. Her reading of signs tells her that Kate has been at home in her body since the day she was born and that she knows as well the power of her radiant eyes. She has never felt the misery of a body that doesn’t know what to do with itself. "We were a touchy family," Kate will tell Marj. "Touchy-feely." Their parents did not instill in their children a sense of bodily shame; rather, a sense of ease, unlike Marj’s parents, who were not bien dans leur peau and thought it improper for anyone else to be. Now Marj yields to Kate, body and soul, she says: "I of little faith am full of faith in us. I embrace you with prolonged tenderness, this all in the passionate fullness of time." Marj is "a passionate Puritan," says Kate. They begin to describe their bodies. Kate says that she is "over-endowed in the boob department;" she adds that this "may reduce the arousal quotient." She says that Marj has a "boyish" body. Marj answers that her body is "under-endowed in most departments. Some would call me flat-chested." She says that Kate seems to have an inexhaustible power to arouse.
The hubris of love. Marj has a severe case of it, she feels invincible. Now and then, to be sure, her ear has been struck by a bass note, the note of fear, that sounds at intervals in Kate’s letters while the melody races and tumbles above it. Sometimes that one note grows in volume to a crescendo of unbearable intensity silently sounding in Marj’s head. It intrudes on the space of trust, their safe haven in which agreement is assumed. In the course of their long telephone calls before they meet, Kate may suddenly fall silent with a silence as vast as the space between them, and Marj recognizes it as the mute and stubborn speech of disagreement. She has said something that triggers fear in Kate and danger for herself. Their words have stopped running impulsively toward each other, joyfully innocent words, Marj has supposed, without any power to hurt. It is her first lesson in Kate’s vulnerability, how it can scramble a sentence Kate hears and make it lethal for herself. Agreement has been assumed, for two women who love each other think that because of all their proven identities, each can know the other’s thoughts. "Our duet for two voices in unison," writes Marj from her state of hubris. She dares to tell Kate what she is thinking and why she is thinking it. She knows from experience but chooses to ignore it, that she is treading in one of ego’s sacred groves. Now, however, on the telephone she has the sense to be afraid. The next evening (Kate’s morning) she calls Kate, and Kate’s voice enters directly into Marj’s left ear; it vibrates and Marj sees a bow drawn lightly over the strings of a superb old violin and sees the high-glinting polish of the wooden skin. The musical voice is calm and warm, a little sleepy at this time of the morning, though Kate has been sitting waiting for the telephone to sound its double ring of metal on metal. She says, "Hel-lo!" in welcome, as though she knows that it can be no one but Marj, and Marj’s cells do their quick change, recharged with happiness.
They will never quarrel, they tell each other. They will be able to discuss everything; it has always been Kate’s deep belief that differences can be solved by patience and the power of reason. "I irritate people," Marj writes, "I explain them to themselves and get carried away." Kate answers, "I’ll know you so well that you won’t feel the need to irritate me." They have been, with love in their hearts, preparing a map for disagreement: this is where you begin, where you diverge at the fork of the road, the moment when each takes a different road. Then somehow they are facing each other and collide before there is time to stop. At first the collisions are cushioned by the distance between continents and Kate’s unmistakable silences on the telephone, caused, Marj will learn, by the wind going out of her.
"I’ll know you so well," not "You’ll know me so well." Kate will anticipate Marj’s need to irritate and direct a scene in which it is deflected. We yearn to be known, but only on our own terms? In our own language, perhaps with a precious remnant of dishonesty? At love’s beginning the lovers are twin transparencies; they exchange the fine material of identities. It is the time of dazzling intuitions and conspiracies of agreement. Marj, lighter than air, exhales Kate’s love, she spreads her glad news of the miracle, the love between two old women who live on different continents, who have never met. She babbles to her friends, "It’s a long-distance love story!" and describes it so joyfully that the friends, too, fall in love with Kate. She is alive for them through her photographs and through the optimistic complicity of astrology and runes.
Marj notices that in her letters Kate takes out insurance policies against disappointment. Unnecessary defences against possible criticism. Every joy must be tempered by caution. Kate is looking at herself as she dances to the tape of Cabaret: "Boring? Funny? Tragi-comic?" she writes to Marj. Just in case, she turns to face an enemy. "I’m only a ‘sort-of’ writer! . . . too tired, too easily diverted." She was, she says, a good teacher, "promoting young talent instead of my own? But did I have any? I’ve always needed quite a lot of solitude and that’s when I’ve written my best stuff. . . IN MY HEAD." She strikes down her own confidence, which takes its other form—doubt. Its doppelganger. She is writing an autobiographical novel, she says, about a woman named Frances. Frances, too, is paralyzed by doubt; she knows "failures and tantrums." Kate looks at her mirror-image with wry humour. Part of Marj’s hubris is her belief that she can give Kate the confidence that life keeps draining out of her. Kate’s repeated runnings-down of herself are all part of a ritual dance, Marj says to herself—of preparation for their meeting. She herself, along with her showing-off, as she calls it, has issued some warnings: that she looks older than Kate’s image of her; that she is relatively unpractised in the art of love, that Kate, who is deep and thorough, and can recite reams of poetry by heart, will discover her "lacunae." The word "lacunae" makes her shake with irrepressible laughter.
Kate sends Marj a photograph of herself. Marj examines it with a magnifying glass, studies the white hair that frames Kate’s face, gossamer-fine, brushed back from the forehead. The head is tilted and Kate’s questioning look seems to ask, "Who am I? Do you like what you see? I come empty-handed and I am sad and uncertain about myself." A vertical line between the high arched eyebrows, one more arched than the other, speaks of love’s ironies, the fluctuating balance between giver and receiver, of love unspent and love ungiven. In a second photograph, taken for a passport, Marj recognizes the same look in the woman forty years younger, with dark eyebrows and dark hair. The higher-arched right eyebrow is drawn emphatically, the eyes look beyond the photographer, the mouth is the perfect mouth of late Greek sculpture, of an athletic youth, proud and tenderly sensual. Kate, on the brink of the unknown, is going to England to seek her fortune. "Is your expression yearning?" Marj asks her on the telephone. Kate thinks back; was there someone at whom her mind’s eyes were looking, a face out there beyond the photographer, that she yearned to see? She was worried about her leap into space without a penny, she says.
Marj makes a composite portrait from the batch of photographs that arrive,—Kate Now. Here she is standing in the terraced garden below her apartment, against a background of hibiscus in full scarlet bloom; her hands are clasped in front of her, her smile beams kindness. Marj commits to memory Kate’s radiantly healthy face, her strong and delicate hands, narrow hips and small feet, shod in ankle-height boots, her striped black and white cardigan and pink turtleneck shirt. She makes one of her scenarios, an exactly imagined rehearsal for a time shortly after their meeting, their vibrating intensity of touch and the pas de deux hands that will never say, what do we do next? Marj runs her second finger over the high crescent of Kate’s right eyebrow, along the snowy hairline down to the hollow in front of her ear, and then, if Kate obligingly keeps her mouth open in a smile, traces the step down that her right front tooth makes before it joins the others. Just at this imaginary moment Kate’s teeth close as gently on Marj’s thumb as a mother alligator’s do when she positions one of her hatch-lings to safety in her mouth.
Marj practises her imaging wherever she goes. Her eyes fasten on a woman in the supermarket or on the street; something about her reminds Marj of her idea of Kate; perhaps it is the decided way the woman walks and her white hair, ruffled by the wind. The woman always has a healthy, sun-browned face and a confident air; sometimes she is standing in line at the bank and Marj scrutinizes her; sometimes the woman speaks, graciously (the globe-trotting film has made strangers into instant friends for the eight members of the cast) but coolly, since Marj, with Kate in her mind, has become a mite too friendly. Or even a little rude? For Marj sometimes stares so hard at women who remind her of Kate that they think that she knows them, or that they know her. She is happy when the most promising look-alike is a friend of friends; she is small and impetuous and listens to Marj’s love story with infectious merriment.
"The obsession that is (or isn’t?) love," Kate writes. Benign or dangerous? It dictates the quality of days, shortens or lengthens, darkens or brightens them, charges the mind with manic high spirits and reckless laughter. It coats the soul with wicked equanimity toward the horrors of life. Unfeeling. Or an imbalance of feeling; it is an overgrown garden in full flower, fed by laughter that bubbles from its centre. The backlash comes with a vision of some transcendant wrong that focusses the misery of the world into a single burning-point. Marj, in her state of headlong joy, is brought up short when she reads the story told by a woman journalist who has just come back from Somalia. She watched the burial, she says, of a child who died of starvation. As he was being lowered into a grave dug out of the desert sand, she saw him open his eyes, she saw a tear roll out of each eye.
I’ve been tranquillized, Marj thinks. She is no longer the pre-love self who mourned daily the outrages committed by the human race and denounced those who committed them. She is unable to feel angry or even impatient. She holds the perilous belief that she and Kate are sufficient unto themselves; together they will make their love into a work of art as they live it. For they are old and wise and experienced, aren’t they? In the course of her life Marj has made precipitous leaps into the unknown and has gleaned from them, if not always happiness, at least useful knowledge about life and love. The leap she has been mulling over is the greatest and most daring. She will go to Australia.
They have been moving toward each other so rapidly that the only space left to cross is the geographical space between them. Kate has written Marj about the converging of omens, and destiny’s insistent hints; now she describes her apartment with its view of Sydney Harbour, and the "waterside park immediately below me—there are trees and some birds—and I’m quite a good cook, (am I?)" She "would want it to be absolutely wonderful," and the thought makes her nervous. They will meet; it will be the once and for all meeting between imagination and reality. Marj has no fear of this, it will be exactly like their scenarios, the imagined has become real in their pre-meeting, their long mutual introduction. They are ruled by destiny at the heart of being, Marj thinks; their certainties indivisibly include the future. With destiny in mind, she decides to make the arduous trip.
Now, secure in the confidence of a meeting, they leap to the future beyond it, when each will be incapable of living without the other. Will one of them change continents, and which will it be? Kate loves problem-solving; she tackles this one by making a list of possibilities, with advantages and disadvantages in separate columns. Marj in imagination leaps from the British Isles to a mid-point island in the Pacific, sees herself and Kate somewhere in eternal summer or in an imprecise bone-chilling winter; she looks at a screen in her mind and calls up an image: two women, sick with nostalgia, have turned against each other. "It’s your fault!" each cries. They are engaged in bitter warfare. No more moving, says Marj to herself. In the course of her life she has changed continents twice. We are old, she thinks, we are rooted in the ground of Australia and North America, in the elements and seasons, even in the position of the sun, moon and constellations. Everything can be worked out, Marj thinks, in the context of their staying right where they are. "We mustn’t build on unreal hopes," she writes Kate.
How hard, how chilling Marj’s certainty is! It leaves no room at all for Kate’s hopes or for the exercise of her powers of persuasion. "We might think of living in England," Kate says on the telephone. Marj answers, "I don’t want to live in England." Silence. One of Kate’s silences. Then she says, "I can dream, can’t I?" Kate is staking out her space of dreaming; she wants Marj to enter it, to roam there with her freely, and Marj refuses to set foot in it. Is this her profound yielding of autonomy? What exactly are you going to give up in the name of love? Your time? Your space? Your home?
"I have wondered about our meeting—and the pain of separation," Kate writes. "And the distance again but I still want that meeting. . . . It’s as though we’ve known each other for ages and at the same time it has the elation of new love." Marj tells Kate that she is teaching her the real meaning of love. Their thoughts are dancing together again, the dance of multiple veils, the two of them alone in a magic circle of light. They will meet; the imagined will become real. They write pre-meeting scenarios: "the sudden privacy of the car," says Kate, "eyes meeting eyes in wonder . . . the touch of hands. That moment of seeing, . . . and touching." They both see themselves being seen,—by a "surprised truck driver high in his cabin, catching a glimpse"; he takes his story home to the wife, says Kate. "We don’t say hello," says Marj, "we may not say anything at all; we may just embrace in a decorous and formal way; we may walk in silence to your little car; you may say, ‘I’ll just put your bags in the boot.’ And, seated on your right-hand driver’s side, you’ll take a quick look-around and say, ‘Marj?’ And I may take your hands and kiss them . . . ."
At the Sydney Airport Kate will be leaning outward from a wall, scanning the passengers as they come out with their baggage-wagons. Marj’s eye will be caught by a white-haired woman whose face is both familiar and unfamiliar, and in a fraction of a second the real Kate will, once and for all, displace the imagined one. The real Kate will wait, perhaps with sudden anxiety, for Marj to make the first move. "Would Madam like a taxi?" They will laugh together in joyful relief, embrace like long-lost friends. Their imagined scenario will be translated into reality. People will smile at the two white-haired elders, at their repeated hugging, while Marj, the taller one, will plant kisses on every handy part of Kate’s head. They will go off, carrying Marj’s bags with their free hands, while each wraps a possessive arm around her new-old friend.