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Give Her the Novel
(A Response to Joan Didion)
I was the woman on the plane. A few rows behind the writer who died last year after a long life of love, pain, and other stories. She caught a glimpse of my life during her time, our paths only crossing once, my attention during that intersection pulled away when hers was drawn most acutely to me.
It wasn’t until last year, when her final collection of essays was published and a friend recommended the small book to me, that I was even aware we’d touched each other in some way. She’d written the following of our time together during a delay on a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu,
…a man began screaming at a woman who seemed to be his wife, I say that the woman seemed to be his wife only because the tone of his invective sounded practiced, although the only words I heard clearly were these: ‘You are driving me to murder.’ After a moment I was aware of the door to the plane being opened a few rows behind me, and of the man rushing off. I do not know whether the man reboarded the plane before take-off or wether the woman went on to Honolulu alone, but I thought about it all the way across the Pacific. … I realized what I most disliked about this incident: I disliked it because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those ‘little epiphany’ or ‘window on the world’ stories … I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself.
She wanted the novel of course. And that’s what I’m here to give her, while trusting in some way that it’s not too late, that my full story will be heard, even if, I’m afraid, it won’t take much longer to tell than our delay for ‘mechanical difficulties’ at LAX.
The man was in fact my husband. I should reveal now that he still is and that he hasn’t to my knowledge murdered anyone, certainly not me. I can’t for the life of me recall what we were fighting about, only that it was terribly hot in the cabin of the plane, and that the children playing tag in the aisle were terribly loud, which all led to an unreasonably long wait at the gate for the aircraft to be fixed. I also know that we were headed to Honolulu for my sister’s wedding, an event that neither my husband nor I were much looking forward to attending, partly because I’d dated the man my sister was to be married to shortly before she got together with him and of course that’s also why she got together with him, as my husband liked to claim, marrying him only to spite me. Perhaps he was right but at any rate their wedding was attended by neither my husband nor the groom, who also, as the world would arrange, left his own flight only moments before it pulled back from the gate at SFO, exactly like my husband had done in Los Angeles.
I went on to Hawaii. I cried with my sister over the next few days, both of us careful not to drink too much, drinking, we thought then and still think now, to be a symptom of celebration rather than mourning.
When we were back on the mainland, my husband and I moved from Long Beach to a bungalow in West Hollywood (partly because there have never been a shortage of bungalows in West Hollywood), near where he took a job as a producer, and later an executive, with a major television network.
Over the following decades we were happy and we fought and we dated other people and we took drugs that opened our minds and drank drinks that numbed our souls, and that was the way of it, each of us enjoying our warm little orbits the gravity of which formed ellipses that brought us together as only people in love can be brought so beautifully.
We’re old now. We moved again from West Hollywood to Malibu, where the writer from the plane also lived for a certain amount of time I’m told. There’s a pleasant, sunny community here where the nurses care for my husband, who no longer knows much of anything, including my name.
And yet he knows me, that much is evident from the way we’re drawn together, from the way those elliptical patterns remain and continue and draw us back to a bright zero, from the highs and from the lows, and that zero is nothing but pure connection, a tether that stretches and contracts and bonds us, bone to bone, outside of time.
Without sounding vague and amorphous and horribly hippy-dippy, as my granddaughter would say, that’s what I’d like to tell the writer on the plane; that what she saw wasn’t a short story, but the Truth; not an epiphany, but a form of attraction that, if we’re patient, can expand toward infinity and open wide and become that novel we all want.