I always provide some accompaniment to my poems and stories, so here is a scene from Wings of Desire (one of my favorites of all time). I was thinking of the soundtrack (specifically “Der Himmel über Berlin”), when I first imagined my father’s hallucinations during a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia several years back. Part of me sometimes returns to St. Mary’s Hospital from two separate long, lonely stays there as a child, so, true story.
First: wow. What an age we live in, when a man can go into the hospital on Monday morning, have a third of his right lung removed by remotely operated robots, be discharged the very next afternoon, and be walking around like nothing happened a day later. (This would be my husband, who has just been declared cancer-free, huzzah!) I’m still sort of coping with the sudden relative normality of life after a month of constant anxiety… but I’m not complaining.
Second: I have to admit, anxiety has been good for the book. Anxiety and connection, with both of my romantic partners. Mortality has that effect, and ain’t none of us getting any younger or healthier. I will say that it’s a wonderful thing, when you’re writing about romance, to feel like you’ve got a firm grasp of what you’re writing about.
I have at least seven love arcs in my book, running all across the spectrum from friendship to erotic obsession. And I tend to stress over whether the relationships are as realistic as they can be. One thing I’m keen to avoid is “instalove.” When I workshopped the first chapter of this story a few years ago, I asked for help in fixing that with my central couple, and I got some game-changing advice: if you make them already in a relationship, you can track back for the development at a more leisurely pace. Seems like such a simple solution now, to the point where all of my arcs are actually already in play. I have a favorite one, but it took a long time to feel like I got it right.
Nix, the brother of my protagonist Chalcy, is demisexual and (like all my characters in this world) very comfortable with his nature as it reveals itself over time. His relationship with Najet, a musician in the band for which Chalcy was a songwriter and Nix played violin (and also sewed costumes), is the slow-burn romance of the book. But because I have so many characters with SO MUCH GOING ON, there’s a limit on the amount of time I can devote to their story. A challenge, and I may not actually be pulling it off, but this couple is super satisfying to write.
This is just a little excerpt of what happens when they’re reunited after half a year — an epoch when you’re newly in love, and during which time they’ve been exchanging letters while Nix is leading a revolutionary movement a few hundred miles away. You should probably also know that Nix usually suffers from serious haunting by his ancestors, who’ve pinned their family hopes on him now that his even more radical sister is clearly never coming back to tend the family business. Tonight, however, which happens to be the first time he’s experienced physical attraction to Najet, the ‘mothers’ are mysteriously absent. (FYI: this is a matrilineal society.) Oh, and some vocabulary: ‘svai’ means sexual compatibility; ‘yasvai’ is the lack thereof, or asexuality in general. Taravi is one of four official languages in this civilization including sign language; code-switching is a way of life.
Nix must concede, as he’s divesting her of her stage clothes, that The Swell’s new tailor is quite good.
“But not as good as me.”
“Jikaro,” Najet pronounces, mock-disapproving. Pride, in Taravi, generally means vanity. But there’s a reverence in the way she undresses him in turn, her fingers lovingly tracing seams that she knows were laid down by his own sewing machine.
The memory returns to her, not half as distant as it feels, of watching him at work, on a set break backstage, quickly mending a skirt she’d torn when the lacy hem was caught under the stand of her bass. Breaking off the thread with his teeth and tossing the garment at her with a blithe, mildly intoxicated Good as new! Even half-drunk, Nix was better at such things than she was dead sober. What a match he would make, she thought, hearing her mother’s voice in her head (because gods knew she was miserable at the family lathe). And what a fool she was for abandoning that thought when she’d realized, standing purposely close in her knickers while he worked, that there wasn’t the faintest glimmer of lust in his eyes when he looked at her. Even when he’d reached out and put his hand on her hip, moving her an inch to the side, his boyish smile apologetic: You’re in my light.
Now, as his eyes caress her in advance of every touch, she feels as if she is his light. Mothers be kind, she prays as they sink into her bed.
Nix, for his part, has decided his ancestors have nothing to do with this seeming miracle. Nothing feels more natural than his instincts at this moment, and he finds himself thinking of something Ferruzadi said to him the night they learned that he could know pleasure without desire… but that he preferred a good massage. Yasvai has its own spectrum, you know? Svai may arise with some requisite condition or conditions – or it may not at all. Either way, it’s beautiful. You are as Karst made you. And Karst, apparently, made him for Najet Turner.
The one thing he wishes, with what’s likely to be his last rational thought as Najet’s soft-downed thighs encircle him, is that he might have had a little warning. The last time he took contraceptive herbs was years ago – and though there are different herbs for women, no honorable Coruscarian male would expect his partner to attend to such things.
“Where are you with the moon?” he asks. “I didn’t prepare for this, but we can be careful.”
Najet’s languid gaze clears with a blink. It holds him with tenderness for a long time before she speaks, cautiously choosing her words.
“Must we? Be careful? I mean… I think I’d be so happy. In that event.”
An unspoken question hangs on her parted lips. And it stuns him, how little he must consider his answer. Such a responsibility, now, would be madness. But all he can feel is longing, and all he can see are the faces of the children who take lessons with him in Sphene – the daughters of his apartment concierge. The shy perfectionist who reminds him of Chalcy. The brash, so-called unteachable one who reminds him of himself.
“If there’s a child,” he tells her, “I’ll come home, Naya. And I’ll stay.”
There is something Najet urgently wants to say to this. But it’s a long time… hours, hours of love and heat… before she does.
To think I didn’t even know they’d end up together at first! I find them very sweet and refreshing to write, compared to my main couple (Chalcy and Mica) who are so intense. Hopefully I manage to make them all believable.
Oh and there’s a third thing! The Chamber Magazine was nice enough to publish a little interview with me, if you’re interested in writerly process type things. (And they’re still accepting submissions!)
Now let’s see, what is the perfect Nix and Najet song… Ah.
Photo via Pixabay https://pixabay.com/users/pasja1000-6355831/
If we wrote what we said, one might think it a code
and so we seem already to outsiders, speaking in
anacoluthons, clear enough to each other, mostly–
this page, torn from an obscure imprint, is what
I saved from that voyage of lost images, and I am
by being there again, a ghost in Taos, looking up
that ladder that led to nowhere, and into the red,
weeping eyes of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, and
listening to Blue Spruce Standing Deer’s memories
of his grandfather, bringing us into so many worlds
all at once.
This page from Gertrude Stein’s portrait of Mabel.
There were more but I kept only this one — why? —
and why these lines to spark just one poem of us,
that code to speak our language which is also bent
and alone and abandonment and not vanishing,
from some synchronicity, from one of our alternate
eras; I still want them to find one day a trove of clues
to our escape, that last great joke on civilization, that
masterful plan we hatched in Glenwood Springs,
that would with your luck and my art leave them
The image is of a souvenir from the 2016 exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West at the Harwood Museum in Taos. The poem is dedicated to my husband, Steve, who’s going in for surgery for lung cancer on Monday. A hospital is a terrible place for an alcoholic; I don’t envy what he’ll go through if he has a prolonged stay. But I also renounce the guilt of not having done enough to make the experience easier. I happen to believe in free will, for better or worse. He’s always said “That’s your luck” whenever anything good has ever happened to us, but he’s got to have plenty of his own to have made it this long as an unrepentant rocker. Here’s hoping it holds out a little longer. I’d like us to make it back to Taos one more time.
Reading about geology and deep time
and Norse mythology before bed
apparently means that I wake up
with a line like this in mind:
There were tardigrades
in the Ginnungagap.
I blink into the before-alarm dawn,
pondering insanity, and the vision
of the great Primeval Cow licking
a little water bear into being.
I hope everyone’s winter rituals have been restorative and strengthening for the season ahead. My Yule, which is not precisely the same Yule celebrated by my Wiccan friends but some of the work is the same, felt like an unusually important one, and the magic was powerful because I actually slept. (Alas, the drug I mentioned a few posts ago ended up being utterly useless, so we’re back to more ancient practices and potions.)
The year is closing on a difficult new prospect: they found cancer in one of my husband’s lungs last week, so surgery will be among the first adventures of 2021. We have our consultation Tuesday to set the date and generally prepare him for an experience that he’s not in the best shape to deal with. My task for both of us is to recognize the outcomes that are subject to influence, and manage expectations, and generally continue to be the one friend sturdy enough to have lived with him for 20 years. We’d both like there to be at least a few more of those, so we’ll see what we can do. My consultation with the Tarot, as I promptly showed him, was favorable.
The little poem above is of course a true story. The books are Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (incredibly, you can listen to the whole audiobook (read by the author, 6.5 hours) here). Very different books, superb in very different ways. Macfarlane’s is unforgettable — though I must admit I can’t be completely sure he mentions tardigrades… I think maybe they were just in the news while I was reading the book. So if you’re interested in the book solely for water bears, don’t be disappointed. There is much more to amaze you, and make you deliciously claustrophobic, to be sure.