In a Word: Love
I went on vacation a few weeks ago – eleven whole days away from home. With me were my husband, son, daughter, daughter’s best friend, and three off-kilter dogs. Up on Orcas Islands in the San Juans of Washington State, one isn’t exactly cut off. The FedEx plane makes its daily trip to and from the airport; the post office is as functional as any counterpart on the mainland; our rental home had Wi-Fi; cell phone coverage was adequate, if occasionally disrupted. What we lacked were our regular newspaper and magazine subscriptions, principally the New Yorker.
I have a special fondness for that publication. When my parent married in 1945, in a civil ceremony in Washington, D.C., leaving no photographs of that day, and certainly no wedding dress stashed in a cedar trunk with moth balls, my grandfather bought them a subscription to the New Yorker. Every week it arrived faithfully at whatever home they made during their first years and then later, settled in Ithaca, in the mailbox at the end of our long cul-de-sac. My father faithfully bound the thumbed-through issues and put them in our basement. Later, when he and my mother split up and the house was sold, they went off in a junkman’s van, along with a lot of other things that marked the abrupt end of my childhood.
As an adult I’ve always subscribed to the New Yorker, and it arrives as regularly today as it did for my parents all those years ago. When I got back from the Islands, there were two new issues waiting for me. I read the short stories, first, as I always do.
I began with T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood.” This story is set in the past, a very recognizable one for people my age, which I’d say is the late Sixties, or early Seventies, when we listened to records, not CD’s, had no cell phones, and were fairly loose about substance abuse and sexual relationships. Our protagonist, Keith, is a substitute school teacher living in poverty in a converted chicken coop with his girlfriend, Nora. They’ve just gotten back together after a break-up. They stay on after they’re supposed to have moved out, and the landlord turns off the utilities. The romance of roughing it fades fast, and by luck they secure a new, much nicer place to live with real amenities. The idyll of late summer carries them along for a time, then that, too, moves on. Nora gets a job hostessing at a restaurant. Keith continues to substitute teach when needed. Their lives are reasonable and balanced, if not overly exiting or fabulous. And this is where Keith screws up. It’s as if he can’t stand all that comfort and predictability. He hangs out at the bar where Nora works, drinking the night away. He meets another young man there, also drinking. They talk and banter, with a competitive undercurrent. Nora swings by to say hello. The drinking companion, Steve, finds her very pretty and asks, when she’s gone on her way once more, if she’s Keith’s girlfriend. His exact words are “That your old lady?” Suddenly, Keith feels tied down, trapped almost, caught in a suffocating sense of permanence. He downplays his relationship with Nora, hinting that they’re on the way out, just hanging on until one of them makes the final move. The two men exchange phone numbers. Keith goes on drinking. He and Nora drive home through the snow. They prepare for bed. The phone rings. It’s Steve, asking for Nora. Keith lies and says she’s not there. Not long after, Steve shows up with a bottle of tequila. Nora knows nothing of the conversation that took place back at the bar. When Keith says she’s tired, trying to get Steve to leave, Nora says she’s not tired at all. Keith leaves them alone and roams the neighborhood. He finds a house, and spies on the occupants who aren’t doing anything very interesting, just preparing for bed, as Nora had not long before. He watches their cozy, domestic, dull world for a long time until they turn out the light.
Then I moved on to Alice Munro’s “Amundsen.” Like so much of Munro’s work, this story is set in rural Canada in a much earlier time – the Second World War, to be precise. The protagonist is a young woman from Toronto who’s taken a job teaching at a sanatorium. Her pupils are young tuberculosis patients. The place is overseen by a doctor, a crusty, plain-spoken, occasionally cruel man who soon fancies her. Vivien, our young teacher, is smitten, head over heels in love, though Munro doesn’t use that word, not yet, at least. We know Vivien’s heart because she blushes in the doctor’s presence. When he offers her the use of his house as a quiet place to come and read when he’s not home, she can’t accept because she knows it would drive her wild to be there, among his things, without him. Her exact words are “. . . his past and future presence in the house would draw all ordinary comfort out of the situation and replace it with a pleasure that was nerve-racking rather than expansive. I doubted whether I’d be able to read a word.” Eventually they go to bed. Vivien is a virgin, which comes as no surprise. The doctor is practical to the utmost, providing both a towel and a condom. The surprise – for both of them – is Vivien’s passion. The doctor offers marriage. Arrangements are made, and off they go. Yet all is not well, for the doctor gets cold feet at the last moment. All he says is that he can’t go through with it, that it would be a mistake. Vivien hides her agony, and gets on the train and leaves. Years later they meet by chance, crossing a street. Vivien is married by then, not altogether happily, but acceptably, or so we assume. She is stirred by the encounter, the past relived. “That was all. I went on home. Feeling the same as when I’d left Amundsen. The train dragging me, disbelieving. Nothing changes, apparently, above love.”
For both of these writers, love is a core, a pull that cannot be escaped, even if we manage it badly, or have very bad luck with it. While nostalgia and an evocation of the past amuse us and carry us along in these pieces, it’s that shattering truth we remember by the end. Love may not conquer all, but it will alway rule our hearts.