London never looks more beautiful than the day that Mara tells you she’d rather be with you than with him.
It has been a year since you moved in with her and her husband. You were a college dropout twice over by then and more than slightly adrift. Come and stay with us, she’d said; you and I can work on poems.
In the period that followed, she slowly remade you in her image, until you were twin shadows in ostrich-feathered hats like musketeers, walking hand in hand down the street in the late-afternoon light. But she modeled herself in your image, too. She was fascinated by your dreams. She asked you to write them down for her and used the images in her poems: a dream where instead of humans she was mother to a bevy of tiger whelps. You looked older with your hair pinned up dressed in her draped blacks, like a crow’s coat of feathers, but she looked younger with color in her cheeks, a red pen clipped like a corsage to her shirt collar.
I get the sense that you’d like us to do—more things together, she had opened the conversation. You immediately burst out Of course! and then blushed when she said, I’m fifty years older than you! After a pause, she added: It’s unusual, is all I’m saying.
The thing is, Martyn is going through some personal stuff right now, she says; we have to give him a wide berth. He’s jealous of our connection, she explains, and so it’s best if we have our relationship away from him. He has PTSD from his time in the army, he’s experienced such terrible violation in his life; he has to be handled with kid gloves. You nod, flattered that she is confiding in you. As she speaks, their relationship is somehow transformed into a testament to your empathy and magnanimity; it’s something you’re letting her have, because you understand it’s best for everyone involved.
If it came down to it, if I had to choose between you and him, it would be you. You know that, don’t you? He knows it.
On the steps outside the Cadogan, she kisses the corner of your mouth on a July day pregnant with rain. Afterward, you walk through all of Mayfair in the downpour to clear your head, Peter Gabriel’s breathless murmur in your ears: Oh, I wanna be with you, I wanna be clear. You feel like you’re hearing her voice—or your own.
That summer, London is yours. You meet at the hotel where Oscar Wilde was arrested; then you meet at the hotel where Kate Middleton stayed the night before her wedding, where for ten years Mara and her Great Love came every afternoon for a glass of champagne and a salmon platter. You wait for her in a little garden somewhere behind Piccadilly, reading a library book about primitive jewelry. After half an hour, she texts Sorry, can’t get away. Mx. You reply, Shame, I had Egyptian amulets to show you, trying to sound breezy, but feeling you’re coming off over-eager all the same (see? remember how smart and weird I am, how much fun?). Yes shame! comes her artlessly breezy reply.
She’s from a different era. When she left her husband in 1950s Missouri, the sheriff turned up at her door. She thinks that ‘marriage’ should be printed in a different color in the paper when it refers to two people of the same sex. I feel something for you, she keeps saying, but I don’t know what it is, and so you meet at Café Richoux for Black Forest gateau to try and figure it out.
I feel something for you that I’ve only ever felt for my father, she says. When she was five, she got a splinter and had to be taken to the New York Memorial Hospital. He picked her up and said, I’ll give you a piece of gum if you don’t cry.
Her favorite movie scene is Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club punching himself in the face. That’s the epitome of strength, she says. The great power women have, she says, is subterfuge. She has some sense that ‘feminine power’ is something that appeals to you, and so she alludes to that line of reasoning to justify a swath of different decisions: it’s why you should help her run an illegal B&B out of her apartment; it’s why you should sneak around meeting in the city; it’s why the two of you should never speak openly and non-circuitously about what you’re doing.
For a while, you think this is power. You feel plump with secrets, smug and exalted, striding down the long dark hallway in a seashell-shimmer cream silk slip, the apartment seeming to undulate toward you like a coral reef. You are the mistress. You decide to play the role to a T, coming up with the most extravagant outfits in which to meet her: a yellow asymmetrical Aquascutum raincape with a ruffled black dress and lace-up witch-heels. A man on the bus tells you you remind him of “a character in an Agatha Christie story.” When, after your meeting, you go for a walk on the South Bank, kicking off your heels on the beach down by Gabriel’s Wharf, a kid nudges his friend in the ribs, points at you and exclaims “Look! A lady!”
You stopped writing poetry after you moved in with her because her voice eclipses everything: her poems stenciled on the walls, silkscreened on the bedding.
You hide: in other languages (you discover that you can’t talk about your life in English anymore, and so you rekindle friendships with people from your time abroad); in magic. The more you feel at the mercy of the situation, the more you feel a need to appeal to primal, deeper things. You check out books about Druidry, runes, Egyptian magic. You feel that she has robbed you of speech—turned you into a Sphinx, beautiful and mysterious. You visit the sphinxes in Crystal Palace Park and allow yourself to be cradled in their laps, telling them what you can’t tell anyone else.
You go to the Greenwich foreshore one night, intending to do a ritual to banish him from your lives, but you chicken out at the last minute. It shouldn’t be up to magic to break them up. It should happen of her volition.
Martyn once said to you, My father always told me: if you have a secret, you can tell two people, but they have to both be dead. You note down the plot number of her Great Love’s grave in your journal when the annual renewal notice arrives in the mail. You consider visiting the headstone and asking him for guidance, but you never go.
At the end of the summer, you travel to Europe together. You leave two days later than her so as not to arouse suspicion; you tell him you are going to see your parents. You take a night train across Germany. Curled protectively around your luggage, you let the rumbling wheels rock you to sleep as Peter Gabriel sings in your eyes I see the doorway of a thousand churches. This is how you know yourself, this is how you know love: a pained straining, a religious fervor.
You meet her at midnight under a Medieval city gate—her sequinned top like chain-mail, she looks like a battle goddess from Celtic mythology. Over the winter, you will revisit the image of her waiting there for you as a way to reassure yourself of her love. You travel to Switzerland to do her banking business and then spend several days in her cousin’s holiday house on Lake Maggiore. When the cleaner asks if you are related she tells her, “We are sisters at heart,” thumping her fist on her chest for emphasis. You laugh because it’s such a lesbian cliché, or it would be if your situation weren’t so absurd.
You go into tiny churches; you watch her cross herself and you think on top of everything else, a Catholic—although she cares more about the pomp and circumstance of it than about genuine faith, genuine piety. Every day you go into the village to buy red wine, cheeses, meats, and have hot chocolate by the lake. She calls him and you’re afraid to even clink your spoon. Walking down the cobblestoned street, she can tell you’re downcast and puts an arm around you, asking, Does this help? You leave early because you have work, and you cry all the way to the airport.
Of course, these stories never end well. Love whispered becomes love hissed in anger, becomes hands flung up in desperation: what do you expect me to do? That winter, you argue on street corners in the biting cold and you can’t even stalk off, because you’re afraid she’ll fall on the ice and break a hip. You sit at night and his voice from the other room is like barbed wire digging into your skin; an assault on your existence.
By January, you decide something must be done. You book a cottage on one of the Dutch islands for a few days to think. You bring a stack of CDs, including So, and her poems, but instead you spend all your time on the freezing beach, walking with the wind.
You’re lonelier than you’ve ever been. You can’t stop singing.