On Sunday November 13th, Tom Moody and I took part in an event called People of Letters, part of Wellington’s LitCrawl 2016. (The earthquake would happen just after midnight, when we were back in our sturdy hotel.)
On stage we read aloud an email correspondence that took place between Wednesday November 9th to about ten minutes before we were due at the venue – San Fran on Cuba Street – that Sunday.
This, more or less, is what we said.
Dear Tom Moody,
I have to call you by your full name, because I would never begin a letter to you with ‘Dear Tom’. I hardly ever call you ‘Tom’. Usually it’s ‘my love’, and other people find that either sickening or sweet. What they don’t know is that when you’ve had more than one husband, it’s useful to have a generic term rather than risk saying the wrong name.
We write to each other a lot because we’re often in different countries. Right now we’re just in different rooms, because I can’t stand listening to another second of US election coverage. I don’t want to know anything anymore, because the truth is so ugly. I’m wondering about disappearing, the way Agatha Christie did in 1926. She wandered off for 11 days, apparently in a ‘fugue state’ brought about by stress. She gave herself a new name and took up residence at a hotel in Harrogate. These days she’d need a credit card to check in. She’d be found in an instant.
I often dream of disappearing, but I’d rather take you with me.
In all our correspondence of various kinds over the years, I only remember once when I wrote ‘Dear Paula’, and that was when I inscribed an Edward Gorey book (‘N is for Neville, who died of ennui’). That was in 1998, at the very beginning of our relationship. Since then, I’ve addressed you as P, or with one of the many other names I have for you, which will not be mentioned here. I’ve used these terms of endearment in emails, texts, cards, and even on post-it notes I sometimes leave around to remind you to do things, like ‘P — Remember to love your husband today’.
Speaking of things we call one another, I’m wondering who wrote the online bios for this event. I’m described as an ‘acclaimed writer and academic’. Now I do write reviews from time to time, and I do teach, but I wouldn’t call myself either of those things. That phrase has proven to be very hurtful, in fact. When you first brought it to my attention, you were laughing. When we mentioned it to several friends – at different times, in various settings – every one of them, to a person, laughed. You brought it up at dinner with your nephew and his wife – they laughed and laughed; they may still be laughing. Even my mother, when I told her about it on the phone, laughed. Although I think she was laughing about the acclaimed part.
Anyway, I’m glad that, right now, we’re writing to one another from different rooms rather than different cities or countries. I’ll never completely get over feeling somewhat alien here in your home country; but, in this moment, I don’t even recognize my own home country. Maybe you and I can just pretend we’ve disappeared — the main thing is that we’ll be together.
I’m on a news blackout right now. Even before they called the election, I was no longer watching TV or listening to the radio. The news disgusts and enrages me. I believed that a woman would be elected president, but instead the worst possible man won. Our fellow U.S. citizens voted for the worst possible man.
So I’m in exile from most of the Internet, fiddling while Rome burns. The only web site I can look at is Pinterest. Pinterest thinks it know what really concerns me in life: small houses, vintage Dior, Spanish castles, glitter Christmas cards, Moroccan tiles, and austere Scandinavian interiors. I feel as though Pinterest has a narrow view of me, and that this definition gets more narrow with each visit, just as the houses it shows me get smaller and smaller. I don’t want to live in a tiny house. I’m too tall. Our book cases are too tall. I have too many glitter Christmas cards and Moroccan tiles.
Right now I can’t even bring myself to ‘pin’ an American recipe. I’ve been a US citizen since 2008, so I could campaign and vote for Obama. The George Bush video they showed at my citizenship ceremony asked: what will you do with your freedom? I went to Smoothie King. And I voted for Obama.
I was very happy living there, and if I hadn’t lived there, we would never have met. But we’re in exile from the US now, for real, and maybe forever. This week I said no to going back to teach in Iowa this summer, as I usually do.
We’re not the only ones lost at the moment, I guess.
I’ve been a news and political junkie since way before we met, so it’s difficult for me to not seek out news, even now, when it’s all so dire. But I have to say, for the first time in my life, I’m shocked, sick, depressed, embarrassed enough that I have curtailed my news reading.
Pinterest offers no refuge for me. At your insistence months ago, I opened a Pinterest account and stumbled through the first steps of setting up my board; I think I selected a few categories, including architecture, art and fighter planes. After I pinned a picture of a dollar bill folded into a P-51 Mustang, I was deluged with origami pins of all sorts. I guess I have zero interest in Pinterest. And anyway, by still reading selected news, I learned the somewhat consoling news that Hillary did actually win the popular vote, and that rats are ticklish, and enjoy being tickled.
I’ve been thinking more about disappearing, being lost, getting lost on purpose. When we get home, and I finally finish reading some overly long books and write the reviews that are already late, and finish my semester teaching Narrative Structure and Analysis – a class where I’ve maintained a one-sleep lead on my students in terms of material – I’m going to lose myself reading books I want to read or reread.
I’m thinking of a few of my favourite books by American authors, to remind myself that America has, in fact, produced some great things. I want to reread The Great Gatsby, James Baldwin’s Another Country, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. I want to reread every Deborah Eisenberg short story — that should keep my busy for a while. Mark Twain, Philip Roth, Nabokov (he became a U.S. citizen in 1945), my Library of America collection of Abraham Lincoln’s writings. Elizabeth McCracken and Joan Didion. This is certainly enough to get me past the inauguration in January.
Maybe we can form our own two-person reading group. Let’s discuss.
A reading group sounds suspiciously like a book club, and you know I can’t go down that dark road again.
At the moment I’m reading David Lodge’s novel about H.G. Wells, A Man of Parts – less a novel, I think, than a plodding biography with added dialogue and lurid conjecture. Wells is short and unattractive, but young women line up to have sex with him. He cranks out books and tries to take over the Fabian Society from George Bernard Shaw. While his wife looks after the house and kids, he nips off to Venice for a few weeks to get some work done, or to France to have sex. I’m finding it both gossipy and depressing.
It’s a distraction, at least, this week. Bad news for your family, bad news for mine, more time for me lying in a hospital bed, and then the election. I was sure we would win Lotto to make up for it all, but apparently not.
At the beginning of A Man in Parts, Wells is dying. Like my father right now, except Wells was in a grand house with whispering servants and nurses, and my father is in a retirement village in West Auckland, with a borrowed hospital bed, and carers one hour a day from Vision West.
You and I don’t have any children. We may never own our own house. When we get old, who will look after us? My niece and nephew? Matthew has just bought a house in Tawa. I’m telling you now, I’m not dying in Tawa.
You have a better attitude than me. You’re planning a summer of reading. I want to finish work on my novel this summer. Here’s my promise to you: I’m going to finish my novel this summer. My characters are all lost, so maybe it’s a good thing I am as well. We can all be lost together. I hope the noise of my typing doesn’t distract you from your reading.
It has certainly been a bad week. Last week, when you were just recovering from your surgery and not drinking because of your medication, you quoted me on Facebook: I’d said your not drinking had thrown the whole universe out of balance — the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series since 1908, and Trump remained very close in the polling days before election day. I had no idea how much darker things would get.
People who know you’ve had surgery recently offer you encouragement, and remind me — unhelpfully — that I need to take care of you. Some people know of your dad’s health, and offer their best wishes. Everyone knows about the election, and some want to know my feelings about it — some, even more unhelpfully — explain to me how it happened. At least it’s not as bad as in 2001, when we lived in Wellington, and many people felt the need to inform me that I shouldn’t be surprised, that America got what it deserved on September 11, after the way it had behaved on the world stage for so many decades.
Anyway, this week, I haven’t really had the heart or the energy to mention to any of these people that my Aunt Pat, who was a confidant and inspiration and the greatest second mom imaginable to all of us Moody kids growing up, died last Sunday. I know William Wordsworth was referring to something else entirely when he wrote ‘The world is too much with us’, but that’s how I feel right now.
Wordsworth reminds me, right now, of the Lake District. We’ve talked about this a lot, and I know we agree that, of all the incredible and beautiful places we’ve been in the world, the Lake District is one of our favourite spots.
Your typing, by the way, never distracts me from anything, although it does prevent me from listening to my Who marathons at the volume I’d prefer.
I dreamed the other night that we decided to go to the Lake District for our honeymoon, even though we’ve been there many times before, and even though our honeymoon was 16 years ago (and we went to France). Maybe my subconscious wants more honeymoons. Maybe my subconscious wants to turn back time.
One of my favourite memories of Aunt Pat was when she brought up from her basement a space project you’d made back in the early 60s, when you wanted to be an astronaut: it was that chart of hand-drawn rockets where you’d had to attach an extra piece of paper because you ran out of room for the tallest rockets. She’d kept it all those years. She was so proud of you. Maybe you can add ‘rockets’ as a Pinterest board?
Pinterest, by the way, has just told me that the colour of 2017 is called Poised Beige. That is what I intend to be by the time the summer is over. Poised Beige.
I worry that we have to read this correspondence aloud. Everyone will find out how silly we are. On Friday, at a mentoring session I was doing with Maori fiction writers for Huia, I asked everyone to write down three words that described them at 17, three words that described them now, and three words they thought would describe them at the age of 80. I did the exercise as well, and the one consistent word across all three eras was ‘silly’. The silliness keeps me sane, I think, or perhaps helps mask the insanity. One of the other words for me at the age of 80, by the way, was drunk.
Three words for you at the age of 80?
It’s difficult enough to think of words that describe myself now, never mind at the age of 80. I hope three words that would apply are active, inquisitive and aware, but those seem to me to be sort of a baseline for a meaningful life at any age. Maybe sporty, sentient and, probably, silly. I think our mutual silliness is one thing we enjoy about each other — the fact that we’re willing to say or do many things in certain situations just to make the other person laugh.
When studies are done of why our relationship is so successful, one of the things they’ll find, I’m sure, is our ability to amuse each other. Whether I’m running like the Monkey Man (copyright, trademark) along crowded pavements; or doing the robot or miming pulling on the rope in busy shops; or barking like a dog from our terrace until you turn around, often after five other people walking on the footpath have already looked at me in confusion and/or fear – these are all done to get a few seconds of a smile. It’s inevitable, in even the very best relationships, that one person is the funnier of the two – and in ours, that’s me, of course – but you do make me laugh every day.
A sense of humour is such a personal thing, not only how much of one someone has, but also, the specific kinds of things someone finds funny. I love how we find so many of the same things funny; that really is something, I think, that you can only learn about each other over time. I’m sure there are still a lot of things out there in the world – images, turns of phrases, situations – that we will both find amusing. I’m looking forward to those.
This morning we argued about whether ‘Strangers in the Night’ was a good song, and if you are, in fact, my Sherpa rather than husband - this after I handed over everything I didn’t want to carry for you to lug in your backpack. If these are our most serious arguments, then we’re in good shape.
H.G. Wells was a believer in Free Love, which meant he was free to have sex with lots of woman, and his wife was free to stay at home pretending not to mind. You and I don’t practice free love, or even cheap love. I place a very high value on it. Our love is pricey.
I don’t know what to say about H.G. Wells. I read him only as a kid, and I certainly didn’t know the details of the writer’s life then. It’s disheartening, though, that so little has changed in the world. In Wells’ time, was there a female equivalent? A successful, professional woman, admired by her peers, acclaimed by the public, who openly slept around? And are things that different now? How much of a double standard is there still? I’m afraid I might be veering close to election talk again, so I’ll stop.
I’m tired again now, and in need of pain meds – the kind where the label reads: ‘May Be Habit-Forming.’ The kind that lets me enter a fugue state, so my mind can escape even while my body is prone on the bed.
This has been a long, sad week. And now here we are, disclosing things about ourselves in public in a way we never do. Someone told me once that there’s nothing so strange as other people’s marriages, and I think that’s true. Every marriage is strange in its own way. Every marriage has its peculiar habits, its in-jokes, its sworn secrets. Not every marriage has its own circus, of course – we’re special in that way. Every time I’m walking by myself and hear a dog bark, I think: is that Tom Moody?
I know that in reading this correspondence aloud we’re revealing more than we would normally choose. For someone who talks as much as I do, I’m really quite secretive. Years ago, back in New York, someone told me that I was a hard person to be friends with. Perhaps she sensed the lack of true openness in my character. I’m guarded with almost everyone. Everyone but you.
Writing to each other this week, we could have been glib, because that’s easier than being honest. We haven’t been too bad, I think, overall, though I think for us that laughing might be a way through the darkness. As Robert Creeley said in ‘I know a man’ – ‘the darkness surrounds us, what can we do against it’. His solution, in that poem, was ‘shall we, and why not, buy a goddamn big car.’
We don’t have a car. But at some point, I know, I have to get off my sick bed and we have to do something, together, against the darkness.
You have the last word, my love.
I have much more to say, but not now, not here, not in front of everyone, and not with our 16-minute time limit looming.
But I will say these words:
‘I know a man’
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.