I moved here mere days after my husband’s timely demise (he was 93), and now Mother Eve, whom I’ve never actually met, wishes to evict me. I thought I could depend upon the kindness of strangers, as my dear departed friend, Tennessee Williams, once advised in the living room privacy of my three-story Victorian Boston home. It was a snowy December day, that afternoon of my first encounter with Tennessee; a touch of hellfire crackled in the marble hearth while I waited for my husband to trudge home through slush from his Beacon Hill law office. My booted feet (those drafts!) were propped coyly upon a blue velvet ottoman, and Tennessee shifted from resting closed on the Chippendale coffee table to lying open upon my lap. He fed me lines which I spouted as though they had been written solely for me, notions of loneliness and turmoil and need. I know that his name was, in fact, Tennessee, because I saw it written so there on my lap and many a time after; however, he always struck me more as a Kentucky, having little of the country music about him but so very much of the ambiguity that is border terrain. Or purgatory.
So random the boundary between one faith and another. Not fully fashionable to be Back Bay Methodist as we were, my husband and I, so we pretended ourselves Episcopal and attended luxurious Trinity Church each Sunday with its rich stained-glass renderings of all those Catholic usuals. So arbitrary, definition. So random the boundary between the life and death of soul.
Initially I felt grateful to my distant relative, Mother Eve, who, in absentia, granted me use of her garden apartment in Santa Barbara, California, a place hailed as God’s Paradise, but whether it’s Mr. John Milton’s Lost or Mr. John Milton’s Regained, I have yet to determine. No, I was not personally acquainted with Mr. Milton the way I was with so many other literati, perfect reader that I am and always have been, as Astrid Lingren dubbed me after our meeting in Stockholm where I traveled alone at age eight in order to meet the creator of my adored Pipi, a free spirit if ever one was.
No, I did not know Mr. John Milton personally; however, he was a friend of the family on my husband’s side, the insightful side.
A coolness has been settling over the garden, Mother Eve’s garden, the bougainvillea-laden terrace bearing improvements from my imagination—orange pansies, pink dahlias, sweet-fragrant star jasmine. The blue morning glories, rippling brooks, and bright yellow finches were surely here as far back as Mother Eve’s day, but the abundance of apple trees to scandalize Johnny—they are my creation. I often cautioned Johnny against spreading his seed so liberally lest Church or Oliver Cromwell Civil authority intervene, but he never listened. No one ever listened. Some say apples do not grow in Santa Barbara, but I see these apples in my garden paradise because I have written down that I see apples, and what I write exists. And red grandiflora roses, yellow digitalis, blue lobelia, cascades of pink bower above the blue hydrangea all so clearly visible even as the sun begins to set uncharacteristically early for a paradisiacal day. What is that distant light growing even as the day darkens?
Mother Eve’s lush garden apartment on the documents, but mine in the actuality of presence, despite what is written. Legal writing is not truth. After all, whose naked feet splashed oh so biblically in the cooling water out back a mere moment ago? Cleanliness is next to godliness said Methodist founder John Wesley—not, as far as I know, a friend of the family, yet definitely a man with Hamletish method to his madness I might say were I inclined to puns of dubious jocularity.
I adore sitting in the garden at the Indonesian all-weather teak table with its daisy-flower umbrella so reminiscent of F. Scott’s Gatsby Newport days. Charming fellow was F. Scott; took too many a snort of the evening cough syrup if you ask me, but a charmer nonetheless in his straw fedora and white suit with white tie and white shoes and, eventually, white mustache. Or am I thinking of Marky Twain, whose vice was cigars rather than spirits? There’s a bar in Venice, architectural heaven on earth, where Mr. Hemingway sponged spirits or where they named an aperitif after him, or some such. So I’ve read. Apparently not far from the Doge’s Palace, so la-de-da-if-you-please. No gentleman, that Ernest, although he was a good lion in the boudoir, at least in the florid renderings I’m inclined to scribble at the Indonesian all-weather teak table in Mother Eve’s—my—garden. I self-consciously experience and simultaneously enscribe in a fashion not unlike that of Pamela, who epistolaried to her parents with one hand while bracing the door shut with the other in protection of her eighteenth-century virtue. The little fool.
My husband sometimes declared me unbalanced, so absorbed in the world of letters as I’ve been these last 87 years, but I assert that if I am unbalanced now, I was not upon birth when I commenced my undertaking. It is the profession drove me mad, if mad I be. Madness is relative, after all, simply another slot on the human contemplation-perception spectrum, and writers who truly immerse themselves both within their own essences and within the inherently Kabbalistic world of letters (kindly read my late friend, Sr. Borges), such mystical writers cannot be expected to function as ordinary lumpen. We inhabit the realm of truth, a space fenced off from muddy-shoed trespassers by publisher-mediators who know everything of commerce, but nothing of truth, two mutual exclusives. How oddly the sky darkens even as a beacon of light glows in the distance, far beyond the Santa Ynez Mountains. Impossible contradiction.
I have always adored the light over Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara where, decades ago, I experienced watercolor for the first time. Rows of artists wearing Frenchie berets and struggling to capture nearby mountains, palms and sea, to set paradise on canvas so as to pretend they owned it and belonged there, all the while their blues and greens and yellows bleeding into one another like so many slit wrists.
As I have been these past 87 years, I am still working upon the next great American you-know. Every writer I’ve known has claimed to be writing the next great American you-know, whether Edith and Henry over fried clams out back on Edith’s Berkshire estate, or Dottie way back when at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Now there was a hotel. Persian carpets with red swirls and green curlicues of inspiration! (Didn’t those Persians know how to imagine Paradise!) Crystal chandeliers chiming at every breath of wit and genius that floated up from our conversations. How Dottie loved taking me there for lunches of smoked salmon and caviar blini…or was that Vladimir (Vovochka, as he begged me to call him) at the Russian Tea Room? One does incline toward confusion of gliterati; so much sparkle can blind. All these forays taking place during my husband’s working hours, and he never knew. Had he known, he would have objected to my continued “immersion in the false,” as he declared my obsession for hunting truth in fiction. If only they had written me, one of them, not even as protagonist, just as a secondary character, or an incidental, a mere name, something to point to on the page so I would know, so that I could know truth and thereby linger for eternity on some shelf other than here on this coroner’s, thinking myself in Paradise as a means of clinging to the last vestiges of a human consciousness.
Does truth exist here, in this garden sought for reclamation by Mother Eve? Possession is nine-tenths of the law, some great judge—Holmes, perhaps (was that you, dear Oliver Wendell?)—once declared and although I do not believe in Law, I believe in judges, it’s the American way, so this garden apartment which I possess by my body’s very presence is my own. How cruel for us to be permitted only to housesit gardens, never to own. Back to the dustbin, a ritual since ancient times. The demand for housing exceeds supply.
And after all, Mother Eve is prohibited from returning, she and Father Adam. So why does she not relent, but insist upon sending me telepathic messages of intentions to evict? An old woman’s bitterness, perhaps—if she may not spend eternity here, neither may I. Is that it? Or does she wish to evict precisely because I have improved the garden, imagined it more vividly, eliminated skinks and other evil reptiles? Does not one own the right to possess what is of one’s own imagining, even if imagined previously by another? This sort of blasphemy on my part is precisely why we were asked to leave Trinity Church, my husband and I, one fine Sunday morning as Arthur Miller Crucible faces crowded round us in our pew, and index fingers pointed toward the front doors. Because I had dared stand and challenge the priest, asserting my right to read Bible as metaphor for the soul, not literality for the flesh. Those Hawthornian dours insisted Mother Eve’s paradise a pin-pointable location on a Middle East map, whereas I insisted all paradise entirely a state of mind, an available innocence in which to forget the surrounding droughts and floods and pillages. Acquired knowledge of reality was both crime and punishment for Mother Eve because she confused the tangible real with the imagined true. I have always immersed myself in stories, thereby refusing to suffer the real, tolerating sufferance only of the true, well aware of the distinction.
I am a writer. I exist within imagination, the happy places, Santa Barbara. I can forestall or perhaps defeat physical oblivion by imagining, creating that innocent space Mother Eve once owned and lost and seeks now to reclaim after having been remodeled per the bride-innocence of my imagining. My innocence, not Mother Eve’s.
I know this garden is mine because I write the fact in my notebook, and writing, whether in blood or even in pre-affixation thought, is the key to all consciousness as my many dear friends could attest were any still alive so to do. Whether clay tablets or papyrus, ink or digital code, the result is identical, the impulse the same—to take possession of truth by writing it down and affixing it for future generations the way I now do at the Indonesian all-weather teak table beneath the ornamental pear tree, as the sky darkens despite the looming beam of light approaching from afar, all while I hear hummingbirds whir their farting sounds. I know they make farting sounds because I write in my imagination that they make farting sounds. Writers must be bold during moments of extremis. Fart fart fart…the hummingbird or me?
Unwritten thought fleets by like Santa Ana winds, but the written page—now that sits neatly in a notebook on the mantle of my Santa Barbara garden apartment next to my husband’s urn and will one day sit in a protected display case in Harvard’s Houghton Library, as soon as the inestimable value of my creative genius has been duly estimated according to the terms of my last will and testament. Although I shall never become a writer as great as Tennessee. How did he grasp the essence of his women—that compulsive floozy, the gentle limper, the undesired wife? No, I never suffered disability or moral laxity, yet I understand those women. They were all me, filled as they were with suppressed innocence, self-doubting despair. A terrible thing, despair. It eats at the hearts of 87-year-old widows, the cores of our worldly knowledge, eats much the way snakes swallow apples and spit out the seeds which might rot or, if a breeze whims, be passed along to Mother Eve’s other children. I always thought Tennessee’s reality extreme and untrue; but now, three days after my husband’s passing, I for the first time grasp truth. I dare not lose my innocence, for if I do, then…certain eviction, just as Mother Eve herself was evicted so long ago.
I bore the blame of barrenness, as is woman’s lot; yet would not parenthood have been more likely had my husband chosen to share my bed with greater frequency? With any frequency whatsoever? Innumerable nights in my oak four-poster, I lay beneath the silk down-filled quilt reading so as to fill my mind with fluffy thoughts rather than angers at the bedroom cold. He was so close every night, I could hear him through the wall, his bedsprings creaking with the shift of heavy buttock and thigh. I loved to imagine his buttocks and thighs, chunky and hair-covered.
So sweet, our honeymoon in Santa Barbara clear across the nation, a fantasy place removed from the real, and thereby so true. Paradise on earth where newlyweds sleep in one bed together, fanning innocent embers into conflagrations of understanding the true nature of art’s passions. Desolate, the artist who has known spark once and only, never to know it again, innocence sacrificed never to be reclaimed although, with the passage of time and memory, one forgets the sensations one barely knew. So perhaps the paradise of innocence can be regained, after all? Neo-virginal.
My husband always refused to read Tennessee’s work. He read Eugene’s and Arthur’s with avidity, but never Tennessee’s. “Obscene,” my husband maintained. And at those moments, I whispered beneath my breath the brilliance of Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Yes, I understood in my own way, and felt rather sad for my husband. So muscular and manly and capable of loving during those two Santa Barbara weeks, every night, but never after, no matter how I’d wheedle or plead, even slinking shamelessly into his bedroom on occasion, dropping my flannel night dress from shoulder to floor in the sort of shimmy I imagined shore-leave sailor boys to adore. “If the neighbors could see,” my husband would say, scolding me as I assume he too frequently scolded himself. He would then turn on his side and pull covers overhead, leaving me to wonder, as I quickly covered my biblical nakedness, what I, legally declared wife, had done wrong. Mother Eve, you of all women understand. If only you had taught me your temptation skills! Perhaps then I would have known his nakedness as a wife should.
At cocktail parties and law firm Christmas dinners I watched his eyes, how they never strayed to fish-net stockinged legs, bared shoulders, or to exposed midriffs on beaches, bikini lines. But I was never present to watch those eyes at the club where he played racquetball and squash. Where he took showers with the boys after, sat in steam rooms and sweated with them. Half-naked? Did men in steam rooms cover their shames? Or did they display them like baboons in the jungle, asserting dimension as the measure of male authority. How did my husband measure up? Was he the one who did the measuring?
Shame on me. He was a good provider, my husband, a good companion who never shamed me in public. His forearm always extended to my gloved hand at drawing room parties, and he routinely offered the requisite public compliments on my brunette ringlets and even a whispered naughty to the men about the amplitude of my décolletage, spoken loud enough for me to hear, yet soft enough for me to pretend not to have heard.
I spoke frequently to my husband of returning to Santa Barbara for a second honeymoon, thinking that the minerally water or temperate air might re-inspire lapsed interest and transform Massachusetts shame-prudery, if that was the culprit, into California innocent-dreamery. But my husband forever refused, perhaps fearful of being singed by the very flames I hoped to fan. Everyone knows that Santa Barbara is subject to summer wildfire. Instead, we summered in Cape Cod’s sandy-respectable Wellfleet and Truro with my husband’s law partners. Group ladies’ outings to the beach where I read, much as usual back in town alone, but at least able to enjoy the light on Cape Cod, so reminiscent in early morning of the light over Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf.
I can just hear the neighbors, the lawyers, the Trinity Church deacons coating my chosen, and therefore blasphemous, demise with widowhood myths of sweet loneliness and despair. Only Tennessee would fully appreciate the true cause: regret at having spent too much time in innocence without on-going knowledge of garden lushness, sinful though it may well be.
Once the sun descends as it has begun to do, darkness will surround the garden and permeate it, I fear. Not a mere veil or curtain but a thickness to impede movement and thought. I feel the thickness even as I think that I feel the thickness even before I imagine writing that I feel it; a rare, unwritten truth, the inevitability of darkness. Despite the glow of a seemingly beckoning distant light.
I still know things. I know that the garden’s Indonesian all-weather teak table is teak because Andy Warhol has stuck a Post-It on the table declaring it such. I’m grateful that my dear friend Magritte, the jokester, didn’t label hardware products, or I’d likely have brushed my teeth with a hacksaw all these years, have tinkled into the toaster. Words mean nothing unless written down, but once written—beware their power!
I write, I write mental notes furiously so that something within me shall last beyond the instant it fills my brain. Notes of fantasy love, of a man who would respond to my smile with a wink, and gently rap upon my door each night, or who might, in bold act of passion, remove the door permanently from its hinges, or wolf-like, huff and puff and blow it down. A man to climb over the garden wall and lie me back upon the Indonesian all-weather teak table, cover me in kisses as one should in Santa Barbara.
I knew things once. How quickly memory fades. But I do recall that I knew fancy things, cultured things. The difference between Matisse and fingerpainting, Monet and awakening without one’s spectacles, Picasso and the chaos of the Lord’s firmament a-comin’ for to carry me home. I once knew whom I knew as distinct from whom I’d read, Gertrude or Alice, Henry David or Ralph. They all feel both real and true. If only I could be so real and true.
I break from writing my thoughts; instead, I write in red felt-tipped pen all over every white stucco garden wall, every inch of every white stucco garden wall, the way one of Mr. Albee’s Zoo Story friends might have done. (I could never bring myself to call him Eddie, as Mr. Albee repeatedly begged, because he always looked so stern and because I did not wish to show him disrespect as homosexual. I could love a homosexual. Tennessee, on the other hand, merited whatever disrespect came his way; not because he was homosexual but because he drank so as to obliterate the very truth he wrote to preserve and was therefore, in my estimation, a hypocrite. Truth is all. I love you, Tennessee, but you shall never hold my respect.) I write “Home Sweet Home” in red on the white stucco garden walls because to write it so is to make it so is to prove Mother Eve’s garden my own permanent paradise.
Très cliché, light in the distance, as if at a tunnel’s end, yet there it is, each flicker beckoning, drawing me in unto itself like a pair of red hot manly arms enticing into embrace. I can barely flutter resistance. Who would have imagined departing souls to be so akin to dumb moths? This light. This fire. Is this the very light my husband saw? This same light? The irresistible, seductive light of red hot manly embrace? Is this the fire-light that drew him? Something, perhaps, we share.
I write that I am not ready for eviction, even as the growing light demands my departure, demands in a voice as powerful as legend. I wish to stay a while yet, to write of flowers and colors and men, of so many men, I wish to write all these things on my naked arm and breast and cheek and thereby create knowledge of innocent truth, converge reality with truth. My truth. The truth. Yes, I shall stay in this garden a bit longer. I shall—