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She took my blue silk scarf. I guess she thought she had a claim on it, since she had given it to me, but still it feels like a small cruelty.
It was long, long as vestments, long enough to wrap around my neck twice and still be trailing, to wear as a sash with a long dark skirt. The fabric looks like marbled paper, patterns like the residue of waves.
I have been taking inventory. The scarf, the bedside lamp made from a bottle, probably a kit, something she brought home from the flea market. The “Women are the World” poster. The rag rug which I liked, but which was hers. The Blue Danube dishes, half of them cracked, also from the flea market, also hers. The cactus, including the prickly pear which I always thought was about to bloom, though it had been all budded up for months. I used to sneak water to it: she said it would only bloom if it stayed dry.
Nothing that wasn’t hers; she was meticulous that way. Nothing but the scarf.
Of the jointly acquired items, she took precisely half. She took the stereo, left the chain saw, thinking I’d need it, I can almost hear her thinking. Left, reasonably enough, the wood stove, left the oak table with its white cup rings, took the cedar chest, the rocking chair, left the butane tank. She left me the half that was essential for this life here: she was not only meticulous, but thoughtful.
I went down to Redding over Easter, told her if she wanted it done, she could do it. I knew I could trust her with it. When it came to dividing, she was the expert. On ethics, on fairness, on practicality—the expert. My half was the less tangible world: the rosemary planted to fall over the garden wall, just for the smell of it as you brushed by, just for the look of it over granite. The yerba buena under the outside faucet, watered by the drip, crushed when you moved the hose, the bitter mint smell rising in the heat.
Houseguests teased us about playing old roles, but there was nothing male about her practicality. Rachel was provident like a pioneer woman. She canned, where I would have left the plums for the birds. She figured out budgets. She knew that three and a half cords of wood would get us through the winter.
It is not because I didn’t can plums that she left me. It was not my legendary spaciness, my disproportionate devotion to work, my ability to disappear into a book or some other family’s tragedy.
She left, she said, because she wanted a new life. As fully as she had devoted herself to this “life in communion with nature,” as she had taken to saying in italics, so did she give herself over to leaving. She stayed with Jan and Laurel in San Francisco until she found a job as a legal assistant, then methodically bought herself three suits, they told me—black, blue and brown—and nine blouses out of the money I had begun paying her for her half of the land. She might have left me her flannel shirts, except that I couldn’t button them: even left open, they bound my arms—I had gained weight and some muscle in the six years we had been in Trinity County. I keep hearing things in her slight sarcastic tone: Our own back-to-the-land movement, I could hear her say. Our two-woman commune.
I do not know whether to believe her that it was the life she left, more than me. She did not ask me to go with her, which suggests it was me she was leaving. In these recent weeks, I have started to think like she does, legalistic, weighing the evidence. I cannot help thinking that saying she was leaving the life was her way of saying she was leaving me, my rectangular body, next to which she was like a ground squirrel, neat and quick. My long silences. My ease with our isolation. I could have lived as we lived forever, growing old, burying three sets of dogs, putting our long grey hair up in braids on top of our heads, like our own great-grandmothers. For me the life of the land was endless occupation, the way the pampas grass, with its blond and red plumes, carried out its war for space, crowding out the original grasses; the bottlebrush blooming red fortuitously at Christmas; the ant, climbing over and over the same faded puff of flower.
My days were spent in the tangles of family life, wet and intestinal, where as the county’s only school psychologist, I tried to figure out which kids were in documentable danger, which just inadequately loved, tried to negotiate between one-room schoolteachers worn thin by stress and kids maintaining their faint sense of themselves through sass.
So at home, particularly in the spring or early fall, when the low light at the end of the day sharpened every color, even the dull olive of the deerbrush, all I wanted to do was sit on the front step, knee to knee with her, drinking cinnamon tea and watching the clouds lose their pink.
“They should pay me,” she said one such evening, “for putting you back together every night so you can go do it again every morning.”
“Yes”—and they should pay our property taxes, too. Should truck water up to us in a drought, since without the land, I couldn’t keep going, I thought but didn’t say.
“But they don’t even know about me.”
“Well, they know about you but they don’t KNOW about you.” They think we’re roommates, spinster ladies. By 48, which we both are, women up here are grandmothers already. They are in their third marriages, most of them, or looking to make one, looking hopefully at the strutting loggers, jeans caked with dirt, who come into the cafe at the end of the day.
In my mind, I am trying to sort out when it ended. She told me in March, well before we could get a shovel into the ground but after the last snow. Two months ago: two months! But she must have been thinking about it early last summer when we had fights about whether to move back down to the Bay Area or up to Eugene, or what. Or rather, she fought with me: I didn’t know what to say. Sometimes I’d say, “OK, go.”
Other times I’d say, “I don’t want to live without you.” If I’d known what the stakes were, I would have started packing, maybe I would have. But I’m not sure that I’m transplantable anymore—San Francisco seems tight and crazy, with everyone in categories: the bar dykes, the goddess dykes, the Marxist dykes who hate the Trotskyite dykes. I’d rather just live like we live, people visiting on weekends, our turf. We quiet them, feed them plum jam on homemade bread, let them sleep by the fire.
Like we lived. I still can’t believe the life we lived is over. It seems like some mistake, like I ought to be able to file an appeal. Even addicts can file appeals, when they are about to be locked up away from their families. Even child beaters can appeal losing their children.
Think, I would say, of us reading Emily Dickinson to each other in the early evening, like vespers, the invitation to dusk. Think about dinner by kerosene lanterns, the shadows shifting on our plates, our faces soft in the yellow flame. Think of us eating our own blackberry pie, the berries made sweet with local honey. Think of days of hard work outside—splitting wood, clearing brush—and then the hot bath together, me soaping your sweaty breasts, the way our muscles feel after hard work, hot water, and love. Think of love, a low hum rising in pitch, a chant sung responsively.
I cannot imagine how she can leave this, unless this was something different for her than for me. If this were not this, then what was it? Her leaving makes me wonder whether it was all some dream I was living in alone. Say she had given up on it last fall: what did it mean in October, when we made pumpkin pies all one Saturday and then had a few of the people from school over, her flashing glances at me—ah, this one, I know what you mean. That one, I think you’ve overestimated. This other one knows about us, may be one herself, but figures if you don’t want to be out, you don’t have to be.
What did Christmas mean—the scarf, the night by the fire, the phone calls to our parents? What did New Year’s, making love till midnight, caught mid-gasp by the alarm we had set? All those months of making love while she was planning to leave me: what was she thinking? Was she patient, restless, tolerant?
Rachel is slow to fight—it might have been as long ago as the winter before, the winter before that. Considering how long she might not have loved me gives me nightmares.
Dear Persistence, she wrote. (We used to joke about the names of virtues that women were given in centuries past—Charity, Hope, Faith, Patience, Prudence, Constance. I was Persistence. She was Reciprocity. She was Clarity. I was Ambiguity. And so on.)
You have asked me how I could have loved you once and not forever, or rather, how I could have ever loved our life together if I could leave it now? Or something like that. I am not sure I completely understand your position.
Oh Persistence, oh Petulance, oh Perspicacity, of course I loved you. Of course I loved our life. But there never really was a place for me in Trinity like there was for you. Oh yes, the town needed a bookstore, and I gave it one, spending many fine days trading Harlequins with Mrs. Savalli and Mrs. Whitman, had the same conversations every week with Mr. Douglas at the feed store where I recited the instructions you gave me.
If I’d been a writer, all this would have been fine. Mr. Douglas, greatly aged, would have made a fine figure of a corpse in my third novel, and Mrs. Whitman would find her fingernails, her chirping accents, on the villain’s wife. But I am not a mystery novelist. I am not a recluse or a housewife.
I don’t think you know, my dear Insensitivity, what it cost me to stay closeted all those years—however scenic the closet, however sweet the company. Of course I understand about your job, about school districts in small towns. And even if we had been out, I still wouldn’t have felt real. You would have been harassed, maybe fired. We would have been turned into some kind of cause for every lesbian from Eureka to Seattle, and you stop being a person if you’re a cause. All those small interactions you love so much—talking to some farmer about some alfalfa and wet weather, exchanging plant cuttings with the neighbors—all this was possible because I agreed to pretend to be somebody else.
If there had been any kind of community up here, it would have been different, even one living room where I could have seen my own true face reflected back to me. You didn’t need that, I know. You could see three deer and a rabbit and feel you were one with all things.
Just moving would not have done: you would not be you in the city. You will say that you also cannot be you without me, but I can’t help that. I expect you will grow to fill in the gaps.
P.S. I have your blue scarf.
P.P.S. Do not, please kindly, try to carbon-date our demise. I loved you last winter; I loved you the winter before. I loved you the day I left. Loving you and wanting to leave you existed simultaneously.
I started sleeping on her down vest, which she had left behind. At first I read her leaving it as a message, then as a gift. It smelled like the sandlewood soap she always used. I reread her old letters, even the little notes that turned up in books and drawers, notes like “fed the dogs—6 p.m. R.”—admiring the neat, bold curves of her handwriting.
When I started lighting candles in front of her picture, I realized I was in trouble.
I left two weeks before school was out, took sick leave for the first time in anyone’s memory. I let the vice-principal’s secretary think I was having some arcane gynecological reconstruction done, something beyond the scope of our county hospital. When she patted my hand, I felt like a criminal. But I had to get out.
I tuned up the truck, left the dogs with a neighbor, and drove to the city, showing up at Lisa’s door like a lost pup.
“I wondered when we’d see you.”
“Me too,” I said, hugging the breath out of her. “I’m here for some big-city life.”
I followed Lisa and Marie around in their lives, as they sometimes followed me in mine. I drove through traffic jams, holding my breath. I drank every espresso variation in Noe Valley. I spent all one day in a bookstore. I went to a rally for a lesbian teacher who had been fired—Rachel had been doing volunteer work on her case, but the rally was on a weekday, so Rachel was safely at work.
I had come in time for the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day parade. Before we left for Trinity County, the parade was a small, decorous event. Now it out-ran New Year’s for sheer raucousness. Men in evening gowns, men bare in leather chaps, men in sequined jock straps—it was looking to me not like gay freedom day but like gay fetish day: I should have brought Rachel’s vest. I expected to see Rachel herself—had dressed for her in a white cowboy shirt and embroidered jacket. I could hardly sleep the night before—making up dialogues, most of them ending up with her falling into my arms and asking to come home. But after several hours, I realized that Lisa and Rachel must have conspired: Lisa was very definite about when we would arrive and where we would march: under the lesbian teachers’ banner.
After a while I forgot the spectacle—the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the dykes on bikes—and just watched the mothers, sturdy but still camera-shy, the nervous courage of the gay schoolworkers, the tired resolution of the people with AIDS. I began to think about being part of a community that had earned this march, even this flagrancy, earned it in isolation and in blood, and some of the winded feeling I had had since Rachel moved out began to lift.
Lisa had planned a barbecue for after the march—partly, I think, hoping I’d meet enough interesting lesbians to shake me out of my celibacy. I was a good sport about it—I couldn’t imagine meeting anyone, would have rather gone to my room and relived my life with Rachel for a few hours—but instead I made hummus, cut pita to dip, gossiped with Lisa about which of our old friends was or was not with whom.
When women started to arrive, I wanted again to leave and dream, but I rooted myself to a picnic table, and made myself talk. Lisa had been careful—she hadn’t invited anyone who had been friends with Rachel and me—only friends of friends. Still, everyone knew our story, and curiosity glowed on them like a thin layer of sweat.
A group of four or five women arrived late, just as we were running out of food, laughing with a kind of edge. Country mouse though I was, I could tell they had not exactly been invited, but had been told about it by friends. Lisa was gracious, but more tense than I had seen her. Driven out of the backyard by the fog, we sat on the floor in the living room with carrot cake and coffee, while women rehashed the march or argued points of doctrine.
One of the latecomers kept looking at me and pretending she wasn’t, pretending she was staring out in space while others talked and joked. She reminded me a little of Rachel—small, pale, fine-boned, her brown hair cut at a sharp angle away from her face. I wondered whether that look was interest, or whether I knew her from before we moved away. I smiled tentatively, not wanting to seem not to know her if I should know her. She stood up, heading for the kitchen. Her jacket fell open. Under it was coiled my scarf, the blue scarf Rachel had given me and then taken back.
I tried to persuade myself that it must be another, though I knew the woman who had made mine, knew each one was different, the waves of oil and dye dancing in patterns of opposition.
It was like being suddenly drugged, the way I felt. Everything seemed unreal—the conversations tinny, as if heard through a transistor radio, everyone looking small and robotic. Wind seemed to be roaring in my ears—I felt altitude-sick: breathless, headachy, disoriented.
I went into Lisa’s room, lay down, shut my eyes. I tried to recreate the life Rachel and I had lived together, as I had recreated it so many times, but like a badly done Mass, it seemed hollow, disconnected. Rachel in the rocking chair, appliquéing a quilt square for the museum raffle. Rachel sitting sideways in the easy chair like a teenager, legs dangling, listening to a Holly Near tape. Just out of a bath, Rachel lying down, pale against the dark blue comforter, her hip bones making shadows in the candlelight, in those shadows the hollows of her pelvis. Rachel’s skin, soft as rose petals. Rachel’s warm hands and cold feet. The smell of her breath, like sweet straw. Her breasts, fallen a little, like half-moons.
Like pictures in an old album, the color had gone out of these scenes, though not the grief.
Dear Consistence, she wrote. I’m sorry. I’m terribly, terribly sorry.
I had no idea she would show up at Lisa’s. She didn’t mean for you to know who she was. She thought the scarf was mine, borrowed it out of my drawer. If knowing why does you any good, she wanted to get a look at you, not out of morbid curiosity, but because she’s somewhat in awe of you. You’re rather a myth, you know, and not just in my life. People think of you as the amazing mountain dyke who did what everyone’s talked of doing—had the nerve to leave the city and declare somewhere else home. You must know people talked about us, how we took people in during their hard times, sent them home put back together. She wonders how she can compete with the memory of the legendary you. I should have handled it better, told you myself, I don’t know. But I’m not sure what this is, this Catherine and I, and I didn’t want to hurt you over something that might be nothing.
Dear Ambience: There’s no point in tearing your heart out over this. We had a wonderful life, but I couldn’t live in it any longer. You have got to think about rebuilding, about being whole in and of yourself, not thinking that I’ll come back, or imagining that someone like me will just fit in where I left off. Anyone who fit that well would have to leave, sooner or later, don’t you understand that yet?
Rachel’s letter was in the mailbox when I got home—I couldn’t stay in San Francisco, thinking every woman with abrupt brown hair and a denim jacket was Catherine, every phone call signaled Rachel’s change of heart.
The garden—Rachel’s garden—had survived under the neighbor’s watering, but the lettuce had bolted in the late-June heat—flowered and gone bitter—and the squash lay like tumors on its own leaves.
I spent days trying to put things right. One of the lessons of country life: every day of neglect requires a double day of care. Everything in the house is blurry with dust—I am wiping everything down, soaking the fruit trees, all at the judicious pace I had to relearn—one day, careless, I pumped the well down to the silt, and had to go to bed with my legs streaked with dirt. I have picked ticks off the dogs, ordered wood, wrapped the new faucet we put in—and was unreasonably pleased that I accomplished these tasks before Rachel’s letter came reminding me to do them. I can get another crop of lettuce before the first freeze if I start with seedlings, can compost the swollen squash, too woody to eat. Coming back from being away, I see what we left undone for too long—the barn door, sagging on its hinges, the wood walls of the house aching for oil.
In the life we lived, one person requires as much maintenance as two, and the work takes twice as long. But as I watered in the late afternoon, I lost myself in the sweet smell of well water on dry ground, in the acrid odor of marigolds. In just a few weeks, the garden lost its sprawling, diffident look, and I began eating what I had planted once again. The land does forgive us, if our sins against it are slight.
Enclosed is your vest. You left it on the hook behind the door to the mudporch—I thought you might want it as it gets toward fall. I am also returning the scarf: I appreciate the gesture—but you can understand that it would be hard to have it around. Also enclosed is this quarter’s land payment. Could you send me some deposit slips so I can send it directly to the bank? I can’t face writing to you four times a year for the foreseeable future.
I wish you happiness—I wish you wholeness—
I have thought a lot about what you said about the need to become whole, thought about what whole means. I am not sure that I would recognize the “whole” you would make of me if you were to make me whole: rather than approximate your creative hand, I am simply trying to love life without you—to love the tenacity of the fragrant ferns that survive through a drought year, to love the aspen whispering its two shades of green, the song of the river over dredged stone and mine-tailings. To love the white shower of honeysuckle blooming over the arched gate, apart from who planted it, the lobelia along the flagstones, the squeaky board on the porch, the stenciled patterns on the front door.
To love the ritual each day allows—the doxology of winter mornings: waking in the dark, cold water on the eyes, the blue flame of the butane stove, the coffee cup’s warm breath. The psalm of driving through the wet winding valley to Hayfork, in silence or in sleet; the psalm of work, not an insult to life but the very heart of it—the children’s bitten fingers, their willingness to hope. The psalm of community, which you needed but which we never made. Even evenings, which I thought I could not survive without you, carry their own benediction—in the piping of frogs, from now till the frost; in the way the dark rises, lifting from the ground upward; in the body’s release from work clothes; in the communion of soup. Life is indeed charmed—and not simply because you are in it.
Roz Spafford grew up on a cattle ranch in Northwestern Arizona, where much of her work is set. “Life As We Knew It,” however, is located in Northern California and is part of a series inspired by country music songs. After graduate school at San Francisco State University, she taught writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she also served as chair of the Writing Program and coordinator of journalism; she now teaches writing at the University of Toronto. Her stories and poems have appeared in various literary journals; her first book of poetry, Requiem, published by Writers & Books, received the 2008 Gell Prize. A story, “Drought,” received the 2010 David Nathan Meyerson prize for fiction from Southwest Review and also appeared in Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest, an anthology from the University of New Mexico Press (2013). “The Season” received the 2014 Obsidian Award from High Desert Journal, and “Watering Stones” was awarded the short-fiction award from New Millennium Writings.