Friedrich is reading the new chapters, and I feel as though I am going to be sick.
We have reached a point in our friendship where I can usually guess what he is going to say about my writing, particularly now that I am writing well. Well, writing for myself instead of for the reader. Well. Writing for the right reader. Writing for Beth. Writing not so that everyone will pick it up, but so that those who pick it up don’t put it down.
With this book, Friedrich has been the editor I could not be with something so close to me. Distance from but compassion for me and the life about which I am writing has allowed him to gently cut sections for me when I can’t separate what is important to the story and what is important to me personally. Friedrich has been ruthless without being cruel, suggesting the changes I know the pages need, but cannot bring myself to make when I feel as though I am taking something of Beth away. Or Marmee or Meg or Amy or anything dear to me. When I mourn the loss of a beautiful scene, crying, “But it’s such a lovely memory,” he’ll say, “I’m not asking you to forget the memory, I’m asking you to shorten the story.” Or if I say, “But Meg loves that blanket,” when he has me cut a flowery description that stops the flow of the story, he’ll say “Meg the person gets to keep her blanket. Meg the character needs to be focused on other things.”
I knew the book was good. I knew he thought the book was good. Overall. The book was good. But now, I was uncertain when I knocked on his door with ink-stained hands the morning after my meeting with Mr. Dashwood having stayed up all night infusing as much “For Beth” into a new ending that was strictly “for the publishers.”
Always the early riser, he was already awake and dressed with his cup of tea, which I assumed was his second or third.
“So I’ve rewritten the ending,” I told him, plunging past him into his tidy little quarters, crossing the rosy wooden floors and turning to face him.
“Good morning, Jo,” he said with a sigh. He was not adjusting well to the March lifestyle of having to accept being barged in upon at any hour of the day. Particularly when his quiet mornings were so treasured. But I felt I had given him plenty of time, seeing as he was already on his second cup of tea. Presumably.
“My heroine,” I declared, “Does not have a chance to learn her most vital lesson.”
“Does she not?” Friedrich asked, resigned, moving to sit on his Throne of Judgment, as I had come to call it. It was really just a rather stuffy-looking old leather chair, but it’s always where he sat when he was about to criticize my writing.
“Meg learns that the perfect family has nothing to do with material things,” I argued, “Amy learns to stop comparing herself to others, but Jo...”
“Still has a temper and a habit of interrupting the solitude of others?” he raised an eyebrow.
I shot him a look, and he hid an amused smile behind a well-placed sip of tea.
“She is still too stubborn,” I said, “Too fixed, too immovable in her idea of how her life will go.”
“She is very stubborn,” he concedes, “But I understood the purpose of telling this story was to write someone as… independent as you.”
“But, you see,” I sighed, “I’m not independent, Friedrich. I’m… I’m certainly not like any other women I’ve met in my sensibilities, but I’m frightfully dependent on my family. All my plans my whole life have always been interlaced with my family, and that is, perhaps how it ought to be when I have a family as loving and good as mine.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Jo’s problem…” I sighed, “My problem has never been that I’m too independent, but that I’m too certain about things which I cannot possibly control. If I had everything my way, none of us would have ever married and we’d be… playing pilgrims in our little attic for the rest of our lives. But just because that’s how I wanted life to go doesn’t mean that’s how it should have gone. I never would have chosen the lives that Amy and Meg have chosen for themselves, but they have exactly the lives that they should have. I turned what I wanted for those around me into what I thought they should want and have been positively immobile when it comes to seeing it any other way.”
He blinked in the silence I left when I stopped my monologue, and it was one of those moments that happens so often between us where I’m not sure if he has not said anything because he stopped listening or because he does not have anything to say.
“Friedrich?” I prodded.
“Do you know what I mean?”
“I am a very well-read person,” he said.
“Of course I know what you mean,” he sets down his tea cup and folds his hands, using his eyes to point to the papers in my hand, “But I fail to see what this has to do with the book.”
“Ah.” I straightened up a bit and faced him deliberately. “Yes. Well. I decided from a young age that I would not marry. And I have stuck to that simply out of stubbornness at times. And I don’t think that I ever will. Marry. I don’t think I ever will marry even if… even if marriage could be the right decision for me.”
“And?” he asked.
“And, just because I haven’t learned my lesson doesn’t mean that my heroine shouldn’t learn hers,” I passed him the pages with an abrupt flourish.
And he took them.
And now he is reading them. Not looking up at me. He never does. And I am chewing my cuticles viciously. Pacing on the squeaky hardwood floor of his little room. The one that was once a study in Aunt March’s grand house that we have converted into the town’s first real school. Together. And I don’t know what he’s going to say. I don’t know if he will like it. Because it is well written. It is written in such a way that I would not be ashamed to have my name attached to it. It is not shocking or out of character. It is sweet and honest and it has the same heart I gave the rest of the chapters. But this one is not honest in two crucial ways. It did not happen. And I did not want it to happen.
But the writing itself is a mere afterthought compared to my growing, bubbling, burning fear that he will be angry or hurt or confused by my choice to have my heroine… me… marry him. Love him. He knows more than anyone who has read it how much of myself I have emptied onto these pages, like a crew out at sea dumping heaving buckets of water out of an overflowing ship in order to stay afloat. That’s why I’m frightened. Because I did not have to reach very far to create a love story between us. I did not have to fabricate a word of my affection for him or invent a fraction of the importance of our connection or create and inch of the depth I feel for him.
But I am still never going to marry.
He finally replaces the last page on the pile and says simply, “Mr. Dashwood said she has to marry or he would not publish your book.”
My hands wring over each other, but cannot muster the words, so he simply repeats, “Mr. Dashwood said she has to marry or he would not publish your book. Did he not?”
I nod, and he says, “Well, it’s good. It’s not what you wanted, but it’s good.”
A long-awaited exhale escapes me, and I finally manage, “What should I change?”
“Nothing significant,” he says, removing his spectacles and placing them by my pages, “A simple polish will do.”
I nod again. I’m anticipating more. I’m anticipating an elaboration, though I do not know why for he rarely offers them freely. I’m anticipating him reprimanding me and saying I should find another publisher. I’m anticipating his scorn. I’m anticipating his distress.
“It’s good, Jo.” This reiteration is all he gives me, “I know it’s not what you wanted, but it’s good.”
“Is it because I told you I did it for literary reasons before I told you I did it to satisfy my publisher’s demands?” I ask, “That was strategic, you know, because I knew you wouldn’t be able to deny it once I framed it that way. She has to marry in order to seal her literary arc about stubbornness.”
“And you have to let her marry in order to seal your literary arc about stubbornness,” he says with a hint of laughter just below the surface. I capitalize on it and give a forced laugh that helps ease the tension I’m feeling.
“I suppose you’re right,” now I’m really laughing, because of course he is. Because he always is. And because that’s exactly why he is the only person my character could have married. He helps me see things from a broader view. He helps me step back from the paintings when I’m too fixated on the brushstrokes.
“You don’t feel…” I finally take the plunge, “Used?” It’s the only word I can think of.
He shakes his head and clips out his refrain, “Friedrich the person gets to keep his status as a comfortable bachelor. Friedrich the character...”
“You’re right,” I chuckle, “And it makes sense. We’re… we make sense.”
“In the story,” he agrees, “In the story we make perfect sense.”
“In the story…” I start. I’m keenly aware that my hands are fidgeting against each other violently behind my back.
“In the story, Jo the character marries the man who takes her seriously,” he says, “Jo the person is otherwise inclined.”
“Yes!” I cry, “I am. Jo the person does not want to marry.”
“Jo the person cannot marry,” he corrects.
“Right,” I blink, “Because I would be stifled and it would be impossible for me to give up my nature for a husband.”
“For a husband, yes,” he says. “Go and get your breakfast and we can edit when you come back.”
The Springtime sun is coming in through a crease in his moss-green curtains and dappling across the room and his hair and my scribbles. He places his spectacles back on. Is he handsome? It’s just the sun. And the fact that I’m too close to my writing. That’s all.
“Amy is convinced I’m in love with you,” I tell him before I have decided that’s what I’m going to say next.
He almost snorts.
I join his laughter. But I could punch him.
“I think it’s just because she feels guilty for having married the only man who could ever imagine himself to be in love with me,” I go on. My fingertips find a lose thread on the sleeve of my sweater and I twist it between my nails until it breaks.
“That’s probably right,” he’s returned to his book now, the one that was lying open on the desk when I got here. It’s in German. He’s tried to teach me German dozens of times now, but I never practice diligently enough to remember much. Perhaps this would be an easier conversation were I able to speak German.
“She’ll be pleased with the ending,” I say.
Why is it that the only person with whom bluntness is an absolute impossibility for me is the person in my life who exemplifies it most?
“It’s a very good ending,” he finally looks up at me, “For Jo the character.”
I want to punch him so hard his spectacles break across his nose.
“Not for Jo the person?” I don’t mean for it to be a question out loud, but the quiver in my voices betrays this.
“Jo the person is otherwise inclined,” he repeats giving me a look so pointed it may as well be my ink pen.
“Yes, yes, I know!” I throw my hands up defeated. Christopher Columbus. Certainly if he and I were in love one of us would have been able to say it by now this far in to this particular conversation. He must not love me if he cannot pick up the hints I’m very clumsily dropping, and if he doesn’t love me, how can I love him? “You’ve already said it. I can never fall in love!”
“That is not… even remotely close to what I said,” he blinks at me again. If he weren’t sitting down, I most definitely would have punched him already.
“What?!” I sputter.
“I said you cannot marry because you are otherwise inclined…” he starts.
But I’m so sick of him saying the same thing over and over as if I’m supposed to understand that I jump in, “Yes, yes, I’m not inclined to marry because I can’t fall in love. I couldn’t love Laurie like I was supposed to, and I can’t love you like I’m supposed to. I just can’t do it. I don’t even know what it would feel like to fall in love, but it wouldn’t feel like anything I’ve felt before, and I’m far too stubborn to change anything about myself that would allow me to feel that with anyone so I’m stuck trying to believe that being alone is entirely my choice when I would give anything… to feel for someone the way that I feel about you in this book,” I grab the pages from where he’s placed them on the side table and slap them because I can’t slap him, “Or for someone…. To feel for Jo the person what your character feels for mine!” I’m panting at the end of my speech like I’ve flown up a flight of stairs with the same agility I did when I was small but without any of the stamina.
He’s looking at me like I’m standing over him with a rifle. We talk, Friedrich and I, all the time. But the deeper things, the deeply emotional things, we have usually just said in looks and subtext. We have never had to have those kinds of conversations. We can understand what the other is feeling and thinking without having to know the specifics. I don’t have to tell him about the last time I held my sister for him to understand the pain behind my memories of her. He doesn’t have to tell me about the last time he saw his sister for me to imagine what it would feel like to cross an ocean for someone only to never see them again. We’ve figured these things out about each other without having to explain.
“Jo…” his voice is steady and low.
“But I am impossible to love,” tears flood down my face faster than I can wipe them away with my sleeve, “Because I cannot love anyone the way I’m supposed to.”
“That isn’t true, Jo,” he says in that same tone.
“You said…” I wail, flinging my hands by my sides. My face is red and hot and burning, but my voices teeters out, and I’m tired of being angry, so I just cry.
“I said you cannot marry, I never said you cannot love,” he looks at me, and I want to want to kiss him. But I don’t want to, not at all. I want to want to punch him, but all I really want is to be held while I cry.
“If I could love, I could marry!” I sob, “If I could love, I would marry.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” he says. “And neither would I.
“But I don’t even know how to be in love. I have tried to make myself feel what I was supposed to feel for Laurie and what I was supposed to feel for you, but I can’t…” I’m talking in circles now and drawing corresponding circles into the webbing between my forefinger and thumb with my nails.
“You are trying to make yourself love the wrong people,” he says, “When it’s the right person, you won’t have to make yourself feel anything. You simply will.”
“But Laurie… I should have loved Laurie. He’s like family. And you!” I hold up my pages, “You make sense. You are the right person, but…”
“Jo…” he says softly, “You are trying to make yourself love men.”
“What?” I choke out for what feels like the hundredth time.
“Jo, you love women,” he says. Completely. Finally.
“What?” I try to ask again, but I just mouth it.
“I’ve seen the way you look at women when we walk together,” he says, “I’ve heard the way you talk about them, the women we met at plays and parties in New York. I’ve read the way you write about them. The women in your stories are always the ones you describe. You talk about their looks and their demeanor and the way that being around them makes you feel, and the knights who rescue them usually only get a Christian name and a hair color. Jo, you love women.”
“That’s impossible,” I shake my head. I can’t comprehend what he’s saying. “It’s impossible.” I repeat. I start talking because I can’t stop thinking, and I’m afraid that if I think too hard, what he’s saying will start to make sense. And it can’t. It just can’t. “To begin, I’ve never been close to any women but my family, so how am I to love women? You’ve seen me speaking with women in New York, but have you paid attention to our exchanges? I mean truly paid attention. I don’t know how to talk to other women. I usually end up flustered and afraid she’ll think I’m strange or ugly or uninteresting or that she’ll find my staring unsettling or that I won’t be able to stop myself from running a hand through her hair. Oh.” I can’t comprehend it. But suddenly. And quite unexpectedly. I can’t comprehend anything else.
“Is that…” I whisper, feeling my face scrunch with confusion, “Is that what it feels like to be attracted to someone?"
“Yes!” Friedrich laughs at me, “Because that’s how I feel when I first tried to talk to men.”
“What!?” I cry. His eyes are bright and gleeful and devilish as he stands up to shush me.
“I thought you knew about me,” he says, “I thought you knew I knew about you.”
My head is spinning, “I didn’t know about me, Friedrich, how could I have known you did?”
He deadpans, “I thought that’s what you meant when you would say, ‘if I were a man, that’s the kind of woman I would be attracted to.’”
“I didn’t even…” I stammer, “I didn’t even know that was a possibility… I didn’t even… It hadn’t even occurred to me that was a possibility.”
“Read Sappho,” he suggests, “Come to Berlin someday. It’s occurred to plenty of other people.”
I sink dramatically into the Throne of Judgment. I don’t know what to say. I’d like to punch Friedrich still, but the urge has simmered significantly since making this much more pressing discovery about myself. Friedrich will still have a face to punch in the weeks and months it takes for me to understand this.
“What do you need, Jo?” he asks.
“I think I need some time to myself. In my attic. To think.” I decide, but I’m unable to move. “And I think I need to learn how to talk to women.”
Marmee is well used to my blustering through the house on a mission to hole upstairs all day and night. I collapse on the floor over a pile of books. Books are so much more than a sanctuary. They’ve been the blood that keeps my heart beating for as long as I knew how to read them. I’ve read Sappho. But tracing each word with my fingers, it’s as if I’m reading them for the first time. I can see where, in forgotten moments of teenage angst and solitude, I ran my fingers over the words for when I look at you even for a short time, it is no longer possible for me to speak but it is as if my tongue is broken and immediately a subtle fire has run over my skin, where I marked lines beneath them with ink that I then tried to wipe away, and where I folded and unfolded the paper inelegantly to keep the page but then changed my mind. I wonder now who I thought of. Moments in classrooms with soft, pretty, pink girls braiding my hair return to me. Moments of losing my voice when they tried to make friends. Hiding my face in powder rooms in New York when carefree young women adjusted their garments and corsets for fear I’d blush. I never gave myself the time to have many faces or names with these moments before barreling off with the boys where I could be myself and not feel as though I had something to lose. The affection and respect of girls was something I yearned for… something I longed for in a way I was too frightened to allow to crystallize as a thought in my head. Something about these poems articulated that before I allowed myself to. They stirred a familiarity inside me that I knew I had to hide but that I was never able to place long before I even knew I didn’t love Laurie. My body and my ink pen and my books knew before my heart and my mind and my words could ever even conceptualize it.
I don’t know how many hours pass of reading sitting on the attic floor, reading through the leather-bound pages with which I grew up before I realize that really, I am reading the story of my own life for the first time. The sun is gone, another day missed, three more meals skipped me, but this story, my story, the one in me, this story cannot wait. For this time, rather than creating Jo the character, I am slowly starting to unravel her so that, in the light of a dim candle, I can see Jo the person clearly.
For the rest of the night, I’m falling asleep and I’m waking up and I’m laughing and I’m crying and I’m reading and I’m writing. On the floor of the attic, the attic that has known me at my worst worst moments and held my brightest of fantasies, here, right here, I’m spiraling in and out of thoughts and dreams and the words of others and my own and the past and the future.
Because I will never marry. But I believe I am quite inclined to love.