If You Still Hate Birds
by Laura Goode
It took us about four hours to trade poems, and less than 24 to start writing letters. I met her at the going-away party for our mutual boyfriend’s roommate. We eyed each other from across the circle of people all night, parrying, each trying to prove herself bolder, each trying to appear more indifferent to the other’s presence. It was probably clear that I was terrified of her, and it was obvious she loathed me: I made a bad joke at one point, wondering aloud if smoking too many cigarettes at a single party could give you instant cancer, and she rolled her eyes and replied in a voice electric with disdain, “I think cancer requires a lot of cell mitosis.” She’d broken up with our boyfriend the summer before, I’d dated him in the fall, and by the time he dumped me two days before my nineteenth birthday, it was as pungently apparent as cat piss in carpet that he was still in love with her.
She swigged vodka straight from the bottle, and if she had something to prove by it, she proved it; when she spoke, you believed her. I came to blame him much less for still being in love with her.
The elephant in the room is one of my favorite people: where others tend to avoid the obvious and uncomfortable, I tend to walk up and introduce myself. The tension in the room was like a fog, opaque, narcotic. At some point in the intermediate stage of the party, she got up and went downstairs. I saw, in the calculations of manipulation and charm I spend my life computing, that if I wanted to find her alone, all I had to do was follow her.
A decade later, I find myself wondering who I would be if I had never walked down that staircase—it feels as though I would be a shade less myself. But I did walk down those stairs, and maybe I even knew a little bit at the time, though I couldn’t have known entirely, that the earthquake was coming, the one that would crack open a chasm that separated my life Before from After. Everything feels momentous and nothing feels serious at nineteen. Nothing like this has ever happened to anyone else before, and it can’t possibly matter in the long run yet.
I found her in the bedroom, her back to me, squatting as she examined the back of a book. Her pinstriped black pants gapped just above her ass, exposing an ivory stretch of back, like that Man Ray photograph of the violin girl.
It would be cruelly dishonest of me to continue without revealing one key detail. After the boy and I broke up, I spent my birthday being consoled, more nakedly than I’d intended to be, by one of his friends, who dropped the password to my new ex’s email account so casually it could have been a penny. For an excruciating month thereafter, I read my ex’s email so compulsively that I veritably lived inside it, becoming a spy of the worst psycho-ex-girlfriend variety. I didn’t even try to justify it to myself then, nor can I now.
But I did it: I read them. At first I read only the letters he wrote to her, searching for evidence that he had betrayed me as I was currently betraying him, searching for the reason for my rejection. But shortly thereafter, the letters she wrote to him began to hold considerably more interest. She was not only a better writer than he was, and a better writer than I will ever be: she was the best writer I’d ever read. I was ensorcelled by her, or by the persona of her I discovered in those letters. If I ask for any understanding, it gleams weakly here: I didn’t keep reading out of a desire to hurt him. I kept reading because I wanted to know her.
All this I knew as I faced her back, her pale flesh the apparition from the other side of the screen. I spoke before she turned to look at me.
“He loved you more, you know,” I said. “He was in love with you the whole time.”
This was true, and also a manipulation: telling someone exactly what you know they want to hear is always a manipulation.
When she turned, the look on her face was no longer the proud defiance I’d watched her carry all night—it was a kind of grace, an agreement to breach the distance between us, a concession to the commonality of having been hurt by the same person.
“We should talk, you and I,” she said.
We ended up back in her room, in the dorm that everybody said was built as an insane asylum, even though it was actually built as an orphanage. She showed me the poems she wrote about him and I showed her the poems I wrote about him. Hers were better.
“I thought I’d like you, you know,” I said. “I knew, somehow.”
“I hated you,” she said bluntly. “I was glad you were just a freshman. I was glad you were blonde.”
“Why?” I asked, laughing, shocked by her bluntness.
“I thought you were probably really dumb,” she said, as if that made sense as a justification. “And I like my hair very black. It’s a source of my peculiar pride.”
“Well,” I said, “in your position, I’d probably have thought the same thing.”
“Actually, you’re a lot smarter than I thought you’d be,” she said.
It was inevitable that we would write letters. Years after the last time we talk, I assemble all of the letters, realizing they total almost 200 pages. It is evident both from what we learn about each other, and from the letters themselves, that our approaches to writing are completely different. She agonizes over every word, taking a whole afternoon to write a paragraph, and thus achieving an exquisite precision that leaves professors in thrall and wins her awards, the diction of one destined to be an academic star. I write then, and now, in a kind of ecstasy, in love with the explosion, less attuned to every grain of the gunpowder. She hardly drafts, anguishing over every word to write exactly what she means to say in the first expulsion, no matter how long it takes her; I veritably vomit onto the page, routinely discarding in the second draft half or more of what I’ve written in the first.
Her letters are like precious stones, marbled, jagged, luminous. It emerges to me that she is in love with pain: the pain that comes from loving people you will never save, the pain that comes from dashing yourself on the rocks of language, the pain that comes from living constantly on the edge of ruin, paycheck to paycheck, paper to paper, lover to lover. She is voracious, hysterical, and unforgiving, as well as unimaginably kind. As she gives love she demands exhibits of mine, tests its limits. I test her in return. It does not seem strange to either of us to write letters almost as frequently as we see each other, to craft elaborate, passionate missives to a pen pal three blocks away.
Incredibly, I tell her about my email transgression on a cold night in January and she does not balk. She is surprised but hardly shocked; one of her greatest virtues, I learn, is that she is virtually unshockable. By now we know we are the same kind of addict, to language, to information obscured, to the magma of things, and she seems to understand my motivations for doing the worst thing I’ve ever done. She almost defends me, with a resignation something like who in your position would do anything else? She is allied with me, in being hurt by the same person, and if my actions are defensible, so are hers. The very fact of our friendship, in a way, is a betrayal, one she alone is forced to defend to him, having fallen back in love with him. Her loyalty, I learn, is fiercely absolute even when it tends in diverging directions; she picks up strays and stands beside their flaws and injuries and matted parts, and I am her favorite stray, newly.
Over months, our diction begins to twin. In my early letters, I am glib, trying badly to be witty, pretending not to take the task of writing her too seriously. I write about boys. The way she writes shames this sensibility: every letter, to her, is an artifact, handcrafted, grammatically pristine, unabridged. This gives me permission to invest myself in the discipline, to unleash the melodrama lurking beneath the surface, to write to her about psyche, illness, poetry, pain. Like her, I become unapologetic in drama, welcome it into the house of our correspondence with a rush of wind. Like her, I begin to drop personal pronouns: in our diction, we don’t write, “I am back from the library and feeling a little sick. How are you?” We write, “Got back yesterday after a nightmare. Call.” She writes, “You speak my name in incantations when you are not well.” I write, “I am wearing no underwear; you’ve stolen it.” Language is our pet pathology, our third twin. She begins to call me this—“twin”—knowing how deeply that designation resounds in me, the ultimate of that which I have never had.
She has adopted me. We take weekend trips to her family’s house in Massachusetts, sharing a bed in her attic room, visiting the Gauguin exhibit at the MFA, drinking red wine with her mother in the kitchen. It is around this time, several months into our courtship of correspondence, that I realize I am in love with her—not just with the apparition of her I once discovered in letters sent to someone else, but with her, the woman who reads in my bed, who wears my clothes, who makes me instant couscous in an electric teakettle, who returns at night to the man I loved before.
I tell her in late summer, in a hysterical cross-country phone call from San Francisco. I think it is very late; I think I am probably a little drunk. It seems strange not to remember the details of such an occasion—the first time I confess my love for a woman—but they elude me nonetheless. I think at the time that she accepts this as gracefully as any of my other small psychoses, but I look back and realize that during that time, she does not write me a letter for three months. And we are lovers in letters, language our entanglement, our propinquity, our act of devotion.
Of course by now this earthquake has become irresistible to my creative mind. Of course no writer can transgress a single time; we double the portraits of our trespasses by writing about them, dumb attempts to find catharsis, or to atone. At nineteen I do not realize that finding catharsis and asking forgiveness are very far from the same thing; I know only that there is a sick feeling and a winding, overwhelming story and I have to get them both out. Over the summer, I start to write a play, which I finish a few weeks before my twentieth birthday. By now the boundaries have gotten so bunglefucked that I show her drafts as I’m writing about her, explicitly asking her opinion of the writing, tacitly asking if I got her right.
I told you already how we tested each other. How we demanded exhibits of the other’s love. I showed her mine in the best way I knew how. By now love and trespass had seemed to conjoin as their own set of twins.
It is a betrayal to write the play, both of her and the man she still loves, and their only vindication is that the play is bad, so bad I can’t read it years later for the way it humiliates me. In the play I shoplift her letters, her love, her skin. I plagiarize everything she has given me, trying to cement what she has become to me, degrading her in my attempt to do the opposite. The play, which I was then so proud to finish, later becomes the only piece of writing I’ve completed that I ever consider destroying entirely. As awful as it is, I can’t do it. I never burn love letters.
She is in Europe for the year when I send her the finished script. We write more often in these days, being actually apart, instead of only hungering for every shard of each other we can ingest. This is a bad year for me and I write her of it, pulling her into my own hysteria as she has pulled me into hers. She joins me eagerly, too eagerly, and we continue to confuse hysteria with acts of love. To be irrational, to us, is to love irrationally, which is the only way we know how to love. This is the first evidence of it all coming apart, the valentine cast over the brink.
She calls me over the ocean after I send it to her; I am walking on campus when I receive the call and the streets are loud in the way New York is always loud, in the way it has made us loud. I can hardly hear her as she lectures me in how wrong it is to write people this way, to appropriate through art, to write the man she loves as an emotional criminal. I hold the phone to my ear and let her talk and realize only later that to remain deaf, however inadvertently, to her in this protest is another betrayal. She tries to warn me that my attempts to go too far, to match her in this ability, are beginning to succeed. I can’t hear her.
By now you must be wondering about sex. Though at this time sex feeds a bottomless hunger in all other corners of my life, with her, it seems beside the point. I don’t want to fuck her. I want to live inside her skin, for her to live inside mine, for us to liberate from the way Tennessee Williams calls us all prisoners in our own skins. In the play, I write, “I could never bear to impale you,” not realizing that to penetrate is my attempt in everything I write to her, about her, for her.
In my letter to her after I tell her I love her—that I am in love with her—I write, “I can never kiss you, because to kiss you would be to accept a gesture of weakness from you, and I would rather have—I cherish more—your strength.”
But it is the weakness for me that I cherish in her, her soft spot for lost creatures, her outlandish forgiveness. We wear each other’s clothes, we sleep in each other’s beds, we shower together, we emote everything it is possible to feel for another person, but we never so much as kiss.
It is possible to destroy a stunning number of boundaries without ever fucking, she teaches me.
She comes back from Europe. We talk often about our futures, about the books we’ll publish, where we’ll live, where we’ll teach, who we’ll marry. The apparently foregone conclusions of the future seem to be that we will both stay in school endlessly, will both marry men, will always be friends, always correspondents.
By now I write with the carefully intellectual air of malady she has taught me: “Yes, I need,” I write to her in the summer. “Yes, I fear.”
At school, she is close to a husband-and-wife professor team; she is always beloved by professors.
“At office hours today we were talking about the future,” she tells me in my room, or hers, “and he said to me, ‘Get a PhD, become an academic, marry an academic.’”
“Is that what you want?” I ask, still so unsure of what I want.
“I can’t imagine anything else,” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Sometimes I wonder if I could sustain it, marrying another writer. I think I might be too competitive for that.”
“You will marry a writer,” she says, like a command. “A non-writer could never possibly understand you.”
What once seemed a sibylline quality to everything she said now begins to ring solipsistic, presumptuous: what she wants is not necessarily what I want, and who the hell is she to say who could or couldn’t understand me?
I have begun to grow tired of love as the edge of the knife.
It ends, not so much ironically as inevitably, because of the boy. I fall back into a war-buddy camaraderie with him after he and she have ended things, and this she cannot abide. She follows him to my room one night, hysterical. She marauds me in the library, ranting over my crime, making it clear that she has forgiven me as much as she ever will by now. This is the end of sharing skins. It is another critical conversation that I cannot hear fully at the time and cannot remember now; my subconscious has banished her banishing. I refuse to believe, then, that we will never speak again. But it is true, as true as the persistence of my love for her: we never speak again.
There are a handful of letters in the coming years, the content of which is mostly my begging her to relent, to forgive me yet again, just to talk to me. She refuses. Once lost, her loyalty cannot be restored, no matter what I say, what I write, what I feel, which were once to us all the same.
The last letter I write her with any hope of her answering is in the spring I am twenty-one. In the last line of the last letter I write her while we still know each other, I write, “Please write, or call, and tell me if you still hate birds.”
Even when it was all too serious, when it was catastrophic, untenable, the fact of how seriously she took me, how seriously she took the written me, embosses itself on my life. To her, as to me, it is a sacred thing to be a poet, a correspondent, a woman of letters. It is a sacred thing between us to be a woman writer, to become the daughters of the authors we read and quote so devoutly: Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, H.D. Even where we flatter ourselves by the comparisons, they are only a measure of how impatiently we want to inherit the destiny laid out before us. Our narcissism is a desperate kind of aspiration, steeped in the serious pain of becoming.
What we are, she teaches me, is nothing to apologize for or diminish; after all, we are what we are out of no act of choice. She teaches me that who I am becoming is an inevitability, that the very fact of becoming itself is a transformation I am tasked with charting. Our becoming is the fish caught in the net of language: we have to harness our experiences with the words we cast, and we learn that to do so is also to suffer a little asphyxiation unto the memories those experiences become. I can hardly remember the unfiltered conversations we had, because they were so long ago, and also because my literary mind has nearly wrung them dry by now. The loss of those memories, I suppose, is the cost of transmuting them through language, the way she taught me to do. The price I pay for this becoming is that now I have the work, and lack her.
What I mean to say is that she made a writer out of me. I mean to say that we were girls who scribbled in notebooks before and we became woman writers together. We wrote ourselves into each other; our relationship did not exist without the impulse to write about it. We mapped the precipice of our own becoming constantly, obsessively, ruthlessly—we gave each other permission not to apologize for that which we had always been, or at least she gave it to me. Perhaps she needed no such permission; perhaps genius like hers permits itself. What I mean to say is even though I lived nineteen years without her, she gave me my genesis, and she told me to write it down.
She haunts me for years after the end; if I am to be really truthful, she haunts me still. I see her everywhere, on two coasts, the knowledge of how close we still live to one another no bridge across the distance. I convince myself that she is passing me in the grocery store, or two cars away on the train; she is on the street, at the university, another guest at the wedding. She is the dancing girl in a short film I see in someone’s backyard. Every time I see her my heart stops for a moment, adrenaline surging through my veins, as I wonder if she will stop to acknowledge me, and what I will say if she does.
It is never her. It is only her in the dreams I still have, meeting her back as she squats to reach for something, seeing her turn around and recognize me and smile. An apparition, again.
The last time I did see her, years ago, we passed each other on campus. I was in graduate school by then, and I’d heard that she was working at the bookstore a few blocks south. I saw her all the times I’d seen her before: a black-haired figure in the distance, pale, petite and slightly slouched, like a Brontë sister, anachronistic, Victorian, outside time. She was on a cell phone, which at first convinced me that it couldn’t be her, proud luddite that she’d always been, the last person I ever knew to use a calling card. But it was her, and she saw me too. We approached each other, me waving dumbly, she making no motion to end her call or stop, but giving me a faint, familiar smile all the same, one that said I wish you well, but there’s nothing left to say, no matter how much I wanted there to be.
Laura Goode lives and writes in San Francisco. She produced the feature film FARAH GOES BANG, which she co-wrote with Meera Menon; FGB premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and won the inaugural Nora Ephron Prize. Her first novel for young adults, SISTER MISCHIEF, was released by Candlewick Press in 2011. Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, The Millions, BOMB, The Rumpus, Boston Review, The New Inquiry, and other publications. Laura was raised outside Minneapolis and received her BA and MFA from Columbia University. @lauragoode / www.lauragoode.com
Image: “Wired Birds” by bixentro