dangerous propinquity

My aunt writes to tell me about a fire in the apartment complex she lives in: 

The fire was on the second floor and the smoke just kept rising. At first those of us with balconies were told to go out and stay there. Then it kept getting worse and at one point I could not see my front door from the balcony door.  

Then because my neighbor is away, they broke her door to get in and inspect the apt. I told them I had the key but they didn’t want to hear it.  All in all, they broke 13 apt. doors.  Most of the people were right outside the bldg. We don’t understand why they told people to go out and then broke into their apartments.  

Let’s hope that this is all the excitement for a long time.  I think I’d rather go back to my little quiet life.

One night in the late summer, there was a fire in the apartment building I grew up in. I remember being ushered down the two flights of stairs to the lobby and then out the front door to the street in my nightgown. We stood on the sidewalk and faced the building, watching while smoke billowed from the roof. Someone had thought to bring a tin of cookies and she moved through the clusters of us holding out the tin with both hands. What I wanted most of all was the one shaped like a small pretzel, sprinkled with sugar crystals. I eyed the fluted white paper cups as she approached my mother, my sister and me. My mother declined. My sister was sitting on the ground, slumped down, her head resting on my mother’s leg. The tin came to me, was lowered to my eye level. If the woman spoke, made encouraging sounds, I do not recall them. The tin was in front of me, the cookies so close I could smell their sweetness. I had only to reach out with my hand. I stood there for a long time, silent, immobile. Eventually, the woman moved on. 

I pick up a book that I have not read in many years. In graduate school, it had been recommended to me - a way to look at some of the things that I myself had been trying to do. A way to talk about desire, passion. A way to interrogate the complexities of love. 

The book, By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down and Wept, is a fictionalized account of Elizabeth Smart’s 18-year love affair with the married poet George Barker. The language is at times so ecstatic and the imagery so vivid that it can be difficult to read. To read it can feel like holding a beating heart in your hand - the rawness of it, its pulsing. 

As it opens, the narrator is waiting to meet the poet and his wife who have traveled from London to Monterey, where she will be hosting them for a time. She and the poet are to be working on a manuscript together. She describes passing time with the two of them together, watching him interact with his wife, who unaware of their intentions, laughs and “smiles happily across the room with a confidence that appalls.”

There is no shortage of beautiful prose. Here:

Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain. Then he kissed me and went down to his cottage. 

Absolve me, I prayed, up through the cathedral redwoods, and forgive me if this is sin. But the new moss caressed me and the water over my feet and the ferns approved me with endearments: My darling, my darling, lie down with us now for you are also the earth whom nothing but love can sow.

And I lay down on the redwood needles and seemed to flow down the canyon with the thunder and confusion of the stream, in a happiness which, like birth, can afford to ignore the blood and tearing. For nature has no time for mourning, absorbed by the turning world, and will, no matter what devastation attacks her, fulfill in underground ritual, all her proper prophecy. 

Gently the woodsorrel and the dove explained the confirmation and guided my return. When I came out of the woods onto the hill, I had pine needles in my hair for a bridalwreath, and the sea and the sky and the gold hills smiled benignly. Jupiter has been with Leda, and I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars. All legend will be born, but who will escape alive? 

With the critique of my knees and posture now suspended, the physical therapist moves on to my hips. “They are weak,” he says. “We need to strengthen your hips.”

I try to form a joking response, but only the phrase “childbearing hips” leaps to mind and I open my mouth, but say nothing. 

“Stand comfortably,” he says. I am facing the mirror, he is standing just to the side of me, facing my side. “I’m going to try to push you over.” I tense.

“Just relax,” he says. He pushes his finger hard against my hip and I lose balance. 

“See that?” he says. “You should be more balanced. I shouldn’t be able to push you over just like that.”

For excuse, for our being together, we sit at the typewriter, pretending a necessary collaboration. He has a book to be typed, but the words I try to force out die on the air and dissolve into kisses whose chemicals are even more deadly if undelivered. My fingers cannot be martial at the touch of an instrument so much connected with him. The machine sits like a temple of love among the papers we never finish, and if I awake at night and see it outlined in the dark, I am electrified with memories of dangerous propinquity. 

I take a walk with K. along the tree-lined boulevard and we catch up on the weeks since we’ve last spoken. 

She tells me of the man at work, who, over lunch one afternoon, informs her that if she is looking for a liaison without complications, he is available to her. Would be. We laugh. As if any such thing could be without complications. 

I ask: “So, will you?” She shakes her head no. He is older than us, by quite a bit, but that, really, is not the issue. Married now, though twice divorced, his children grown and living far away. 

A fat squirrel darts in front of us on the path, and we pause to let it pass. “He seems so burdened,” she says, “so tired. It makes me sad just thinking about it.”

“He is looking for something to lift him up,” I say. 

“Yeah, well, it’s not going to be me.”

The doomed nature of their affair is present from the novel’s opening. It is this inevitable catastrophe that lends the early chapters their fevered energy. Smart’s narrator speaks of it in biblical and mythological terms. “It is coming,” she says. “The Thing is at hand. There is nothing to do but crouch and receive God’s wrath.”

Despite this, despite the internal torment such that “the idea of dying violently becomes an act wrapped in attractive melancholy, and displayed with every blandishment,” she persists, believing that:

To deny love, and deceive it meanly by pretending that what is unconsummated remains eternal, or that love sublimated reaches highest to heavenly love, is repulsive, as the hypocrite’s face is repulsive when placed too near the truth. Farther off from the centre of the world, or all worlds, I might be better fooled, but can I see the light of a match while burning in the arms of the sun?

One can not linger too long in that prose. One must emerge from beneath the waterfall, untangle the pine needles from one’s hair, avert one’s eyes from the brightness of such burning. I close the book with a slip of paper marking my place. A little lightheaded, a little melancholy, I head down to meet my friend for coffee and we sit at a little table in the crowded cafe. The afternoon is gray and cold. She has hovered in the final stages of divorce for many months now. “This time,” she says of the upcoming court date, “I think we’re just about done.”

And there’s the irony, isn’t it? That love can end. That even a fire that burns as brightly as the sun - that blazes across a landscape consuming everything in its path - even a fire such as that - cannot burn forever.