Twenty years ago, at the hysterically young age of 47, I fell in love for probably the fifth time.
The feeling came upon me in the middle of a spring mood. One was whimsical. One was shy. One was vulnerable, lonely, and the first appearance of the soon-to-be-loved was enough to make a grown man weep. Old Goat at the Grey Goat Tavern, surrounded by his students, one older, more assessful than the others, and certainly dangerous.
God damn she was beautiful! "Who's that movie star you were with last night," the pub friends would ask, but I wasn't telling. Wasn't telling because she was married to a very nice man, or so he seemed to be. And aye, that was the rub.
I almost became a rub, an alcoholic over the next two decades just dealing with the strangest love in Central Ontario. It was certainly the season of the witch, me bewitched. Alpha male. Alpha woman. Two Greek wrestlers on the canvas of a magus in a night full of April rain and bad light. And a ghostly audience.
For ten years the circle looped, and for another ten years the circle would loop and I knew already that this was very nearly the end. No one was winning. I had become spiritually married to her, and if marriage was in the end a power struggle, we were caught up in it, had our noses rubbed in it. Each would make a dash to get away, but always pulled back. We could not let go of the string and we were suffering damnably. To me, there was only one way out. Paint her. Write about her.
Use the painting as a shield to ward off the glances. Medusa glances.
Maddened by love, sick of love, disgusted by love, I finally decided to write a book about this love, put my very being against it, break the incubus or it would break me. And so I began to compose The Fire In Bradford.
The scene of the crime was in a Central Ontario farming community. It was where the windmills, the birch trees and the icons were, full of eccentric White Russians in the marshes and plains, scratching out a living in almost 19th century conditions, out of a drained marsh. Celia certainly drained my marsh. And I hers?
Well, here is how one version of the book came out.
Celia appears before you while you're rolling your own cigarettes, the 1920's Vogue face, the bobbed hair, a beautiful flappers not yet fallen into the winter rye on one spring day, though I would know in future spring days that she had a predilection for opium or cocaine and that would make her thoroughly modern, like My Lady of the Papers.
I was in fact a newspaper man with a predilection for French authors because they were so maddeningly thorough, the mark of real writers, and so well did I get to know twentieth century authors in French that I soon got to teach a night course in it. Ah, the French penchant for the absurd, the splayed out mysticism of an Andre Malraux and that incredible clarity of image and idea that only the Frenchmen possess, and they'd be the first to tell you. The French are somewhat superior and they know it. Enough that I was a teacher of French authors and she walked in one day with no hint of the Vogue beauty that I would later know, no inkling as to the heaviness of spirit that would later come to oppress me, no clue at all as to the beautiful woman who resided in the suburban Mam's bib overalls, the little white tee shirt with the green-and-red apple on it, or the closely-cropped hair of the liberated, funky suburban young woman.
It was later, much later when she would come to her full Vogue cover girl fullness that I would come to know my Lady of the Papers. Hash papers and hot knives.
But there was another visitation, a flashback from the days I'd imagined myself as a Goethe scholar, abandoning French altogether for a while, the image of Katschen Shoenkopf, Goethe's first love, the nice high forehead so many girls from Ontario possess, the hair r severely back in a bun with the neatest little bonnet atop, large haunting eyes like your mother's, straight nose, somewhat probing, delightful little crooked lips with the overbite.
That too is an image of Celia, but this time with a pre-Victorian dress exquisitely corseted, nice breasts, waist hardly existent at all. And granny boots! There were at least two Celias that I knew about--those schizophrenic women--and after the years, many, many more.
But on this particular evening, she was in to study French authors, a fascination for the Bastille, I guess, the French Revolution, socking it to the Bourbons--who would return a generation later to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, guillotine chokers and all--this stuff of drama for a fairly active imagination constrained somehow by a husband whom she imagined as pesky.
She did seem to know her French authors, but largely of the Victor Hugo mold and a lot of Dumas, the adventure, misery, suffering, cell-to-cell signaling through stone. Was there a dungeon in her life?... Lord knows what the suburbanites in Bradford were up to these days.
I always found myself so charmed to find out that in spite of possibly rococo lifestyles up there in Riveredge Park, hardly anybody in my class, largely women, had ever read real novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, the substance of all those adventurous, adulterous wives who think their problems will end by leaving on Hubber, only to find with Chekhov that their problems were just beginning. Or was old Mr. Chekhov just a prig and a spoilsport, who knew nothing about swingers, an early Wayne Newton, Casino Rama star, who really didn't know the first thing about being hip. I don't know how I'd ended up at Celia's house.
A somewhat raffish professor who enjoyed drinking with his students after class, I had no objection at all when she asked through a third person if she could come to one of the pub nights, and could she bring her husband.
Hubby was handsome as the night is long, like a European Wayne Gretzky but continental in manner, though no accent at all. Dracula in a hockey jersey, liked immediately by all, sweet as a pimp.
I could not help but marvel at the Vogue beauty of Celia now before me. What had happened to the closely-cropped hair? How did it reach lovely 1920's straight back-cut modishness in the scant three weeks that I'd last seen her, just before she had begged a little time to go on a "camping trip"? I could imagine, years later, just what the joys of RV really were.
I was lighting my cigarettes backwards. I had no idea how this present-day Julie Christie out of the Twenties had ever walked into my life and wondered why she seemed interested in me. I also wondered, as a veteran of not a few affairs how many others had been pole-axed in the same way. She'd obviously been charming men for a long, long time, the blue eye shadow, the absolute blondeness, pint size and everything about her fashioned, turned, just so. Sheer elegant femininity and you could bet your granny boots there were at least three other guys playing here besides old Hubber. Unnatural elfin beauty. A set-up for loners and stoners.
The husband's name was Lief. Lief the Lucky. Or was he? I balked at first when they poured me into their red SUV to be carted home with them. Drunk, I was babbling, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his goods, nor his ass. Somewhere in my studies I had come across Kant's study of a' priori / a' posteriori, which I found somehow funny, like the Diet of Worms in Luther's time. The Diet of Worms I would later have in my relationship with Celia, but I knew for sure the way Lief was moving into my gesticulating hands at every opportunity, that he might well want to go a' posteriori with the mad professor, with the old prof perched upon his wife.
Enough that we somehow got to a neat white cottage in Holland Landing and that Lief made a move for neither one of us, too much to drink, passing out rather suddenly in the bedroom and Celia and I were left to ourselves in a shag-rugged and Danish-style living room with its U-shaped chesterfield facing an immense picture window with the drapes not yet drawn. And the chess table in the corner.
And suddenly I became aware of how lonely I was, me the divorcee' and frequently separated one from my subsequent live-ins, the man of many wives and master of none. It seemed I was suddenly curved up in a ball of loneliness through the drink, vulnerability, want. I just wanted her, anybody gorgeous like her to hold me. "Just hold me," I was beginning to keen.
Very deliberately, she put an open palm and extended manicured fingers right to the seat of where she saw the trouble to be. Maybe just a lonesome woman not sure of herself, or someone used to certain kinds of men, or maybe this had to be a wham-bam-thank-you ma'am and that would be my fifteen minutes.
Earlier, she had gone to the hi-fi to put on an LP and I noted she kept bending over to reveal a beautiful pear-shaped derrierre that she seemed rather anxious to display. Was she a virgin, the wife of some Ruskin who was found year later to still possess her hymen after a lifetime of marriage? A lesbian? A lady of the night? Or maybe a lonesome woman. A lonesome woman suddenly not sure of herself because of a hudband's embroglio, or homosexuality, or extramarital affairs, or all of the above.
In any event, we settled down. She had put on, of all things, my favourite Bob Dylan LP, the "Bringing It All Back Home" one. Pop nihilism, but what an articulate and haunting nothingness.
"Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows the sun, the new-born moon
The hand-held toy, the child's balloon
Makes you understand too soon
There is no sense in trying"
Nihilism on the CD rack.
"It's all right, Ma, I'm only crying," the great American genius rasping it all out, sharp trick-of-the-trade F-chord penetrating the D tonic, then quickly to a G and then back to the D. Da doom-da-doo-da-doom.
Holy mackerel! She was right on my frequency.
Yes, yes, it's all the same. Only the names are changed, as Bon Jovi was singing at that time.
"And every day, we're just wasting away.
Some times I sleep
Sometimes I think for days
And people that I meet
They just go their separate ways."
What a rollercoaster. What a process of self-discovery. And a final discovery of Celia. But that's in another story on this web, where, along with Bon Jovi, "Only the names were changed."