She possesses me, body and soul. I thought I had been exorcised of this weakness, this ache in the darkness, this all-consuming void that takes and takes, demanding an ever-unachievable satisfaction. But she is a ghost that clings to my skin like sweat I cannot wash away.
That is the heart of the problem. I don't want to be rid of her. I want to bathe in her, swim in her. If I could have her here now, spread out on this desk, if I could worship her, hold her, fuck her with my words, with the strokes of my pen -- is there any doubt that I would?
That's why it's insufficient. I rely too much on words and words cannot capture her, words will never be enough. I write for her, I shape sentences like fishhooks to catch and bring her closer. I wrap words around her to keep her bound to me. But in the end she shifts her shape and twists out of the reach of them: they are weak and simple things to hold down something so complex.
How can I describe in words what I can barely understand?
It was a small class of ten, a good size for discussions of craft. Not too big to make critiques impossible but large enough for a healthy exchange of ideas. Ned had been somewhat reluctant to accept the offer -- he was no teacher, he did what he did and had never given much thought to how he did it -- but he could bullshit with the best of them and somehow the offer seemed like validation, like admittance into the Serious Writers Club. It was only twelve weeks, after all, twelve classes, and he was starting fresh anyway, the past dead and buried back home. He'd uncoiled the ropes that had bound him, burned them, watched them float away on the wind with his father's ashes, and now he could move and change and try something new. So there he was, every Thursday evening, leading a class of aspiring writers and relying -- as he had always relied -- on charm and improvisation to make it through each session.
He was used to women fawning over him. Used to eye contact that lasted a little longer than it should, of chairs drawn up a little too close, of hands lingering on his arm and laughter pitched too highly. In the past he had let himself be flattered by it; more often than not he had accepted such invitations, only to face the uncomfortable consequences he had not taken the time to consider before. The pre-dawn departures, the calls he never made. But now he was the new Ned Kendall, prodigal son made good, absolved of his sins and no longer at the mercy of his animal instincts, the ones that had for so long dictated his every move. So he feigned obliviousness or, at least, disinterest. Which wasn't hard to do. The girls who gathered up close held no fascination for him.
She was the one who caught his eye.
She sat at the back of the room during each session, but there was nothing about her that suggested a lack of engagement. Everyone in the class listened to what he said, but she was the one who actually heard him. The keen gaze of her dark eyes, the clever half-smile that lifted the corner of her lips, had more than once made Ned feel like he was being undressed as he lectured: not stripped of his clothes alone, but of skin and bone and the walls he'd built to hide his thoughts behind. To her he was not merely a name or a reputation. Under the challenge of her stare, the blast of her fierce self-confidence, he had never felt so unsure of himself. All his words seemed like hollow spaces of sound. She punctured every pretense, saw through every faulty syllogism.
And it was intoxicating.
Then there was the note she'd scribbled at the bottom of the first piece of writing she'd submitted for critique. He'd had them read and discuss a chapter from his last book, then rewrite a particular scene in their own style, from their own perspective. Beneath three paragraphs of sharp and witty dialogue she'd thrown down a gauntlet in blue ink:
"You know very little about women."
It's the same old mistake, the one they all make. A woman is either a virgin or a whore. All the female characters in his novels are that way: virgins, innocent and radiant in their purity; whores who aren't women at all but voids, insatiable appetites in woman-shaped forms. The virgin becomes the whore, the whore tries pathetically to regain her virginity, but they are always distinct, delineated in crisp black type, never blending one into another. Bimbos or femme fatales, harpies or shrews or climbers, mothers or girls-next-door.
He believes he understands women. But like most men, Ned Kendall doesn't have a clue. That a woman may be both at once, and a thousand other things besides. The virgin and the whore. The saint and the sinner. The nightmare and the dream.
I'm going to blur all his lines.
I expected it to be my last evening in class, the evening he found my note. It was cheeky of me, maybe rude, maybe wrong. But I had to be honest. I’d watched the simpering women at the front of the class and I had wondered: had any woman ever confronted him about it? Had any woman ever had the nerve to say - you can do better than that? So whatever it cost me, I’d be that woman. And he could class me with his whores and harpies if he wanted, if that was the way he really saw the world. I braced myself for the fuck you and the gesture towards the door.
He asked me out for coffee after class instead.
Every man believes he’s an expert on the subject of women.
Ned Kendall had never been a victim of that particular delusion. He’d only played the part.
It was a convincing performance for many people, but it had left her cold. She was the truest kind of admirer, the fan whose praise was all the more valuable for the unflinching sharpness of her criticisms. Ned had met no one else like her. Sycophants he could deal with, haters he could outright dismiss. But she was different. No one had ever expressed as much faith in his talent as she did. No one had ever called him quite so bluntly to account in almost the same breath.
There are only ever two women in your stories, she’d said.
And Ned had laughed with genuine amusement and told her how wrong she was.
There’s only ever been one.
Someone you knew once, someone you loved. Someone you hurt, someone who hurt you? she asked.
All of the above.
And so you’ve split her in two, she said, painted one half of her black, one half of her white. And you canonize and demonize her, over and over again, just using different names and different faces.
Holy water and fire: yes, he admitted it was true. Maybe that was the only way to deal with this particular woman, and wasn’t that his right as the writer? He challenged her as she’d challenged him, eyes meeting eyes.
But she was having none of it.
You can’t treat any woman like that. No matter who she is or was, no matter what she did or does. Accept her, deal with her. Keep her or reject her. But describe her as a true woman, messy, scary, and whole.
They had leaned towards each other across the table, only inches and styrofoam coffee cups and wisps of steam apart, and she had sighed and expressed her frustration as Ned had lost count of her dark eyelashes, they were so plentiful and so thick.
It pulls us right out of a story, you know? We keep wondering why, why can’t a man recognize a woman’s complexity?
Ned held his tongue. He didn’t say what he could have said, that it wasn’t that men failed to recognize it. Men always saw it and it scared them.
I’ll give you an assignment, she’d said, her smile teasing. Let go of that woman and find another muse. Write her. Write her whole and real.
Fair enough: she had her assignment, he had his. But he pleaded for time, for the duration of the term. He had to find the woman; he had to figure out how to attempt it.
Maybe he would never get it done.
She’d written her phone number down on a piece of paper, pushed it across the table into his large, coffee-warmed hands. When you find a way to write her, call me.
When I find a way to write her, Ned said -- scribbling his address on the inside cover of her notebook -- come.
I don’t pursue her and she doesn’t chase me. She just is: a constant, like my heartbeat, running just beneath my conscious thought. We talk and drink coffee and the weeks pass, her bright eyes pin me and the challenge is constantly renewed. Write her. Write her. Write her whole and real.
So it’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m at my desk, in my robe, pen in hand, trying. Failing.
Is there another way to write without ink or type, a way without words? Strings of letters are insignificant. There are no lines on any page that can contain her. No print on white paper that can capture her fire, the ferocity of her mind. I can’t describe her, I can only feel her: the heat of a bushfire, the electric thrill of a coming storm. There is no term in any tongue for the shape of her lips. No character that can represent the thrill of frustration, the rage of joy she raises in me.
I must regress, go back to painting pictures in ochre and charcoal on cave walls. Once upon a time I drew constellations on tender skin, wrote lullabies along a spine with the tips of my fingers. But these were the fumblings of a child without a vocabulary, and the pictographs led me to places I shouldn’t have gone.
To hell with words, then. She can’t be rendered in letters. She has to be lived.
The final class had met and ended, and she lingered over a second drink, the crowd in the bar thinning as the hour grew late. It was past one-thirty when the call lit up her screen, sending her outside into the warm night air.
Ned greeted her at the door, a piece of yellow tablet paper in his hand. He was dressed in a flannel blue robe, his silvered curls mussed by the rake of thoughtful fingers, cigarette smoking in one hand.
I found a way to write her.
She took the paper and walked over to the lamp on his desk, beginning to read. After a few minutes she looked up, those keen eyes locking with his.
“This isn’t her. The half-sinner, half-saint. Who is this whole woman you describe?”
She defies every rule, has from the moment our eyes met in that first class. There is no structure to this story: no beginning, no middle, and there will be no end. Not this time.
Here’s how I’ll write her:
With my hands upon her hips, holding her atop me.
With the pitch of my cries when I call out her name.
With my tongue speaking slick upon her skin.
With my fingertips, tracing the words tattooed on her flesh.
With my longing and my impatience, my smile each morning and my kiss before sleep.
With my devotion and my attention and my time.
With my body, every inch of it.
With my mind, no secrets stowed away, the whole of my ugly history laid bare before her.
With no equivocations, no fear.
Hands open and heart offered up to her, take it or break it.
She is the wild wind and the calm sea, she is hot sin and sanctified blessing.
I write her in the motion of my body and the beating of my heart,
The hardening of my cock and the catch of my breath,
The hunger of my mouth and the pulse of my blood,
The surrender of myself.
I go to him and touch him and drink him in, his ice eyes and his silvered curls, and I press my mouth to the hard line of his lips and feel him give way to me. He smells of cologne and soap and cigarettes; he is warm to my hands, firm muscle and soft, wet mouth. I untie the robe and push it open and find him naked underneath, bare and ready for me, and I touch the tip of one finger to a single freckle just beneath his right collarbone. I draw a line, connecting to another and another, creating a letter, the secret alphabet of a lost language we will rediscover together.
Let the writing begin.