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This is not a letter. I wrote you for the last time over a year ago to offer the little understanding I had, to say goodbye. I could have written again, but somehow your forsaking the world for the sake of the world left me nothing to say. Your vow of silence must also stop my tongue, or so it seemed. What a way to win an argument! Now I find I can't keep your vow, not having taken it. Each of us has his own way to God, I used to say; there is no direct relationship, except through Him. But also, in the last hour of an examination we were both writing, I disproved the existence of evil. You must have written on the nature of salvation, starting down one of my untaken roads as I started down one of yours. For a long time, we could call back and forth, offering insults and encouragement. Not now. This is not a letter.
I sit surrounded by your trophies and treasures: old photographs, first editions, objects of stone and bone. Relics. I, who have complained halfway round a world with you because you would clutter and burden the way with such things, now live in the little museum of what you finally left behind. What is it you want me to fall heir to? Surely you don't expect me to write with this quill pen or make real Jell-O in that seventeenth-century mold. And, as for the Milton, I will give it shelf room for your novice years, but the moment I hear you have taken your perpetual vows, into a library it goes where such things belong. I will keep the jewelry, the heavy paw of Mexican stone that lies at my throat, just as your beloved Rousseau's lion weighs down his sleeping man. And I will keep the photographs, taken in England, in Spain, in California, in New York. Why? Because I like to remember. I have not been reborn. I have changed neither my last name for a husband, as you did, nor my whole name for God, as you now have.
Funny, Monk, who seems to make a drama and a romance of you, still minds this second change of name. "She's giving up her given name. How can that be?" Given or not, biblical enough, "Esther" wasn't Christian for some time, was it? "Surely," I say, "it's no stranger than marrying any other way." So Monk tries to combine a notion of your marrying and being reborn. Soon she'll begin to call you by your new name, Mary Whatever-It-Is. And she is also threatening to send scented soap and colored sugar to that biblical address of yours in swampy New Jersey. You don't need to be called anything by me because I don't intend to call you. In these old photographs you are Esther Woolf, "E.," "little dog"; I was Katherine George, "Kate," and still am. And here's Monk, not yet twenty: Ramona Ridley. And Andrew Belshaw and Peter Jackson. I suppose I shared as few of your friends as you did of mine. And even those few we often shared uncomfortably.
"I never see why you like the men you like," you said once.
"They're all such ... brutes."
"It's not so much that I like them. They like me. I've never gone out with anyone for long who didn't bring me some sort of dead animal as an offering. You inspire poems and songs; Monk gets diamonds; I'm brought home the kill."
"How awful! What do you do?"
"I pluck, skin, clean, and cook—with wine."
There's a picture here of the small octopus Andy brought me straight out of the Mediterranean Sea, not quite dead, still winding itself down his spear. Brute? No, Andy was not a brute, as far as I knew. He had, along with his intelligence, which you did admire, simple masculine vanities and appetites, attractive enough in so extremely attractive a man. I have always been drawn to good looks in men, something quite beneath your understanding. You were serious in all your relationships. I was not. If Andrew Belshaw was a brute, I had no intention of discovering it.
And you were patient, too, which often made me impatient with you. I was ready to make a soap opera out of Monk's problems: "Will the history instructor, Richard Dick, finally leave his wife and three children for his beautiful Ramona?" "Will Ramona Ridley throw over Dick Dick for the handsome social worker who interviewed her after her brother was booked on a narcotics charge?" "Will Ramona Ridley sacrifice all her loves for a career?"
"But it's serious, Kate. A number of people are involved. Monk doesn't want to be unethical. That's very important to her."
"Then she should take her red curls to the back row and stop raising questions about historical inevitability."
"But she may be in love with him, and if she is, isn't that the highest ethic?"
You would still think so, I imagine, but I argued that, since Monk didn't know how she felt, ethics had very little to do with it.
"But it isn't all that easy to tell. He says she'll simply have to go to bed with him to find out, which is out of the question if she can't feel committed. It would just be adultery then."
"It would be adultery anyway."
"Well, and the other thing is that Monk really feels she's got to live a little first."
"And what does she mean by that?"
"Work, try for the stage. It's pretty sheltered if you're going to move right from college and your parents' health insurance policy to someone else's without ever taking care of yourself at all."
"Ramona Ridley faces life with her own health insurance policy."
"But you know what I mean, Kate."
Yes, in those days at college I almost always did know, but your truthfulness, which I called oversimplification, sometimes embarrassed me. I was not prepared to reduce ethics to practical decisions. I had a personal investment in maintaining the gap. Perhaps I still do. And so I would gesture to the typewriter set up on the sleeping porch waiting for the last paragraphs of a paper on seventeenth-century prose or to the typewriter set up in the study with, as yet, nothing but the title, "The Metaphysical Necessity of Incarnation," typed across the top of the page.
"You're getting at that early. I haven't even finished reading Whitehead for mine on symbolism. But I have an angle for it. I want to talk about symbol as analogous experience."
"Misleading. Hocking says God is first known through sensation in nature. Now, if you approach that as analogy ..."
Sometimes you were reluctant because you hadn't thought enough and didn't want so tentative an idea taken from you. The trouble was that you had to argue not only for analogy but by means of it, something I always mistrusted, moving as I do directly from fact to abstraction.
"It's all your poetic clutter," I would protest.
"And you don't care how any of it applies."
"All right, you apply it to ... let's see ... health insurance policies."
"Everything's relative ..."
"That too," you would agree. "You never get caught up in it, do you?"
"Caught up in what?"
"Believing before you think."
You were so terribly loyal, translating my unkind satire into good judgment, my bad temper into righteous indignation, my defensive arrogance into natural superiority. I won all our arguments in those days, didn't I? I won our chess games, too, played in the spring sun at the college shop where everyone could see us, a motive you would have admitted freely. Not I. For you there was a romance about scholarship which permitted gestures and poses. You called us, in all seriousness, "Artists," "Intellectuals," "Young Saints." So I wrote you Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bitch and dedicated it to "little dog." Instead of being irritated, you illustrated it, illuminated it, and claimed it would one day be a collector's item. Now it is. I have put it on the shelf by the Milton.
In that green enclosure of young women, ungenerously supported by parents who wanted to preserve our virginity and their sanity a while longer, where only a few dozen concerned themselves at all with what you quite unselfconsciously called "the life of the mind," you modeled our friendship in so lofty and extravagant a vocabulary that no responsible person could have been suspicious. There is, at a women's college, always some emancipating encouragement for those with masculine tastes for such things as mathematics, philosophy, and friendship. You had to model it. I could not. I knew better, which forced me to be occasionally condescending, protective, inadequate. But I don't want to confess to all these things. I want, rather, to describe them.
What, after all, did I know when I was seventeen and you were eighteen? Perhaps quite a lot. I knew what was right, and I knew I wanted to be right, and I knew I could not. Things irreconcilable have to be separated. I envied the flatworm, its ability to be cut in half and grow itself two new selves. I should have liked to do just that. Since I could not, I came upon a way to cut my life in half. Not quite, for winter, whatever the weather, is longer than summer. I wintered in California in the mild, academic climate with you. I went to Europe in the summer for a very different sort of life, which I never spoke of, from which I only gradually recovered each fall in your company and in work. But I had a recurring nightmare that a path through a narrow wood and across a shallow stream was all that separated those two worlds. And in that dream you were always about to discover it.
"Mother says I can go to Europe this summer if I can go with you ..."
"Is that a condition?"
"Yes," you said with such confidence that for the moment I could find no way to say that it would be inconvenient for me.
There never was a moment for saying so. All that spring while you planned our summer, I unplanned my own. It was not easy. But I didn't know, until we had actually set out, that it would be impossible.
Parts of that trip have become such set pieces over the years that it's hard to recall actually living through them. The humor was added after the fact, like salt at the table for those who must eat. I do remember clearly, because I haven't told it over and over again, the real beginning—lunch with your mother in a palm-infested hotel dining room in New York.
"You must have some idea how long you'll be away. You must have some itinerary."
"We're thinking of bicycling down the Nile in August," you said.
Seeing you there, opposite your mother, sulking in the city elegance she chose naturally for herself and unnaturally for you, I understood why you could have believed yourself to be an ugly little girl with too small a head for the heaviness of feature and hair, hands and feet too large for the slight body.
"You must promise me you won't go to Egypt."
"It's against my principles to promise. You have to learn to trust."
"Katherine, will you promise me?" she asked, turning to me in charming distress.
"That's not fair, Mother!"
"To a mother, there are things more important than being fair. You'd promise your mother if she asked, wouldn't you, Katherine?"
"She wouldn't ask," I answered honestly.
My mother—my adopted mother, old enough to be my grandmother—knew too little about the world to discover the promises to exact. In fairness, you and I should have traded guardians to pair innocence and appetite. Your mother suspected a great deal you were incapable of. Mine imagined a simplicity only you were capable of. But I did not want to trade.
"You are not a Jew," she said to me.
"Neither am I," you said, "and neither are you, except for the paranoia."
"Don't you understand that I'm concerned for your safety?"
Jason was there, too, the first of the arrogant, delicate boys who always attracted you. I can't remember that he did anything but blot the mayonnaise on his tender beard. It was Saul's arrival that did not so much break the tension as shift it.
"Have you had lunch, darling?" Mrs. Woolf asked, in a doubled mother's voice.
"Yep." He stood, refusing to give space to a branch of palm that crossed his brow like an awkward salute, his hands hanging loose, folders climbing out of his jacket pockets to his arm pits.
"Where have you been?"
"To the Cloisters."
"I love the Cloisters," you said, regretfully.
"Feeding peanuts to the unicorns," Saul answered, slumping into the chair a waiter had brought.
"I thought unicorns ate nothing but virgins," I said.
"That's why unicorns are starving in New York," Saul answered with pure, fourteen-year-old cynicism.
"Did you buy any prints?" you asked.
"Two, a little one for you and a big one for me. I don't know about taking unicorns to Britain, like coals to Newcastle maybe." Saul shrugged and began to sprinkle salt on the table in front of him.
"You're so nervous, darling."
"It's my Oedipus complex."
It was time then to feel sorry for your mother. She had two such unsuitable children, no matter how interesting. And, say what you like about the persecution of children by parents, the parents are finally the victims. They are not expected to rebel, even though they are the dominated ones for the real length of most parent-child relationships. Your mother was at the beginning of that domination, and no one had taught her any handsome or generous way to suffer. She has since learned a lot.
During that meeting, for all her failure with you, she did succeed in adding weight to the burden of responsibility I already felt. Why, with you, did I always feel responsible? You were a year older than I (that year we were nineteen and twenty), and you were neither stupid nor reckless. Impractical, yes, and trusting.
I keep speaking of your qualities as if I were writing a letter of recommendation. But people did—and probably still do—misunderstand you. Or at least they misunderstood what you have done and are doing. I should not pretend to be any different from the others. It is not that I have superior insight. It is not even that I have cared more. Simply, I was more important than the others to you, failed you in ways you could rationalize, an ability which may be one basis for a lasting friendship.
I have wondered what might have happened if you had not, from the first day we met, placed me on so high a pedestal that I couldn't get down. You were not entirely to blame. I often liked it up there, and, when I didn't, all I had to do was to move to the edge to see what a long way I had to fall. For you, I was not alone. Over the years, you had quite a number of us, self-conscious heroes and heroines, disdainful of each other's stances in your garden of honor. Jason was the first I met that day at lunch, and, if I was not impressed with his mayonnaise-threatened beard, he was as unresponsive to my raw-boned, bird-eyed suspiciousness. Your friends usually didn't like each other because embarrassment is not an interest to be shared.
If I had been a little older, a little less frightened, I might at least have been able to sit down, let my feet dangle over the edge, send you a rueful whistle through my teeth, and then say, little dog, listen. What I had to confess was no more than ordinarily grotesque. That was the trouble for me. I suffered so uncommonly from such common fears.
When you spoke of being called a Jew for nothing more than a last name and a dark complexion, guilty with wanting to reject a label which did not identify you, why did I listen in such superior, if also sympathetic, silence? I had my own stories to tell, being the illegitimate child of an Indian woman and a white man, a half-breed, adopted by an Episcopal minister and his wife who had already raised their own daughter. As a child, I was never called an Indian, a half-breed, or any of the variety of crude, colloquial terms every region has for its natives. My background was never mentioned to me by my adopted parents on the theory that I was to be made to feel no separation from them. And I half forgot it myself, growing up in the world given me. If I could have said to you, we suffer from opposite uncertainties, opposite guilts, I would have said it; but that was not really true. Yours was essentially a religious problem, no matter how else it was presented to you from the outside as a question of racial identity, integrity, courage. I believed you could establish your innocence, your freedom to choose. You wanted to. You did not secretly cherish the suffering you felt false heir to. I did.
Excerpted from This Is Not for You by Jane Rule. Copyright © 2005 Jane Rule. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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