Monday, April 17, 2006

Love Among the Birches and Pines

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."

Mawkish, no?


Anonymous said...

As long ay hou have a good relationship with your various body parts you'll be okay.
Call me before you head up. I'm in and out.
We all make our own cross, don't we?


ivan said...

Well damn.
A ray of light at last.
Thanks "Ed."
About the only thing I have in common with journeyman writers these days is that I put on my pants more or less the same way in the morning....So out of the loop!
The last story "bought" from me was by great and good Aaron Braaten, over at
Actually, Aaron was kind enough to run all of Light Over Newmarket on a link. So nice to have your stuff over on somebody elses site besides your own.(And I think Aaron's site rocks, BTW).
I have always held that if you reach one person, that's enough.
But it ain't Alfred A. Knopf and Borzoi Books. It ain't New York.
But then I have just read something by a Canadian writer.
Shouldn't slag published material, but WTF?
There is still hope.
Comin over to see you, Ed.

ivan said...

Good thing I didn't use "ed"s real name.
I screwed up in the retyping of his letter. First line should read
"as long as you have..."
My mistake and not his.

Erik Ivan James said...

I knew a Celia once.
No, I've known a few.
"It used to bother me," I'd say,
"that you're married; have a beautiful rich husband."
But what the hell, they were lonely, and they were young.
So was I.
In the day they loved their husband, his money, and "the friends".
But in the evening, when he was high and away, they loved me, the horse of me.
I was only half drunk, I'd washed, and nobody was watching my back door.
I wanted them, I dreamed of them.
They knew it, they understood.
They wanted me, they dreamed of me.
I knew it, I understood.
Let us have our fantasy we'd say, and it felt good to us.
They'd sneak away to me, or me to them.
They smoked their pot, they sniffed their coke.
I drank my scotch.
They were of free spirit and horny.
I was of free spirit and horny.
We made passionate love.
They smoked and sniffed.
I drank.
We fucked.
We would fall in love.
We would cry.
In the day they loved their beautiful husband, his money, and "the friends".
They would stay away.
I'd cry.
The next one would come.

ivan said...

Hey man.
What a riff.
Reminds me of Catullus or some other great poet of love.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the fascination in reading the accounts of others who have had similar life experiences is how sometimes these stories seem to be my own story, and sometimes the stories take a turn 180 degrees from what I did.

Ivan, you will probably think me a Boy Scout, but I never fooled around with women who went home to a man. Married and split up was fair game. Fewer complications and not appearing in a newspaper story with violence as a theme was a consideration. Have lots of memories despite this.

But, like a Boy Scout, I was usually prepared. Wasn't always, at least not before the age of 32. The Big Bang, the earthquake, an escape, various ways of describing an epiphany that happened then. Youth is wasted on the young, but I discovered that neat things happen when one least expects.

Life IS a carnival, and one's memories can be replayed for amusement. (better write them down, for as one ages, memory is the second thing to go; I forget what the first thing is!)

ivan said...

Spanish word for doubt is Dudas. Kinda triangulated you; too much time spent among the Mexican pyramids, I suppose...All our Pliedes, all our Seven Sisters and the right time to plant. Plant the sisters? Well we sure did, didn't we.
Yep, adultery does lead to the hanging man in the Tarot.
My book is complete now even if I am unhappy at the point where I almost ran out of gas at the ending. Yes, there was violence, near-murder and all the things that happen when you think the Commandments are just there for somebody else.
I remember getting into the heavies, reading Joyce's Dubliners to come across a line: "The snow falls on the living and the dead."
All the dead are still frozen in their quest? Maybe their adulterous quest? There are times when Joyce could actually be understood.
Thanks for the comment.
Somehow, you made me realize that I had escaped.
My doctor said it was intelligence, but I think it was just dumb survivalist luck.

Anonymous said...

Ivan, and all the rest of you that come to this salon, it were me that writ yesterday, but because of the waning moon, forgot to affix me nom de plume. (Does it excite you when I try speak Francais?) Let me count the ways. Dudas, kind of like Dundas, the street to Cooksville and beyond.

If you're still looking at the grass from the green side, count your blessings and remember to thank people when they do you a kindness.


ivan said...

It's spring. Pritepts. And the young folks are gay.

Anonymous said...

And we are gray.


ivan said...

Whoops. Forgot to check my French dictionary. I think it's pritempts, you savage gipsy, you. Lol.

Erik Ivan James said...

Thank you for the good words. Your work does inspire mine. My goal is to approach your ability.

ivan said...

Why thank YOU, Erik.
It is not so much ability but a lot of research, and, to bring out that old chesnut, reading like a pig.
Looking over some of your work, you might want to find an old copy of Norman Mailer's AN AMERICAN DREAM. You may be surprised that in this, one of Mr. Mailer's not very best efforts, you might be following the tracks of a master.
But the reading, the reading. Read any American classic you can find.
I just thought of Herman Melville's wife's response when he lost his government job: "Why, Herman, now you can write your book!"

Anonymous said...

What a site!
Ron g.

ivan said...

Thanks a lot for visiting.
What took you so long?
House and printing press move, I suppose.
Hang on to that press.
After all, it was Ron and Karen who printed my political book,
Storm and Stress on the Campaign Trail.
Now, would you take a used novel from this man? Anansi has been sitting on the book for eight months. It's publish or perish!

Hope new digs/office in Brampton pan out.
Thanks, old publisher. Great to hear from you.