“Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” —From The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
When I was 33 years old, thick in the hips and wild in the mind, I was born again in the pages of a book.
There are desperate times, restless times, times in your life, when all the world around you seems to be hinging on the brink of something, waiting for a sign. These times come at 13, when the world first unfolds to you, petals of some forbidden flower you are drawn to pluck away. These times come again, in the sandwich of space after an ending and before a beginning.
When you feel the air of summer weighted with all the questions unanswered, when every song on the radio reminds you of what you do not know, when every relationship seems flat, sweltering, unsatisfying. At 33, this was such a time.
It was, for me, such a time.
And because I am a woman who is never satisfied, I looked everywhere for answers.
I looked in bottles. I looked into the thick rim of old fashioned tumblers, and beyond them, into a liquor dark and cloying. I looked for answers in the eyes of tall men with soft voices and on the mouths of short men with big-faced wristwatches. I held my children and buried my nose in the hair. I pushed them away and sat alone in my room, down on the hardwood floor, my shoulders against the closed door. Leave me alone, please, leave mama alone for just a little while so she can…just be.
And on the floor, my back against the wall, is exactly where I found her. Or rather, where she found me.
Of course, Brett was not my first.
I had fallen hard for other women before her. There were other fictitious love affairs, craftily imagined and sensually configured. At seven, there was Laura Ingalls Wilder the heroine of my beloved Little House on the Prairie, at thirteen there was Elizabeth Bennett. At seventeen I loved Francie Nolan so hard that I made her come to life in my bedroom at night. I could feel the peeling wood of her framed window, smell the lye she used to wash her hair, as we stood shoulder to shoulder in her tenement, looking at the Tree, her tree—our tree, that grew in Brooklyn one century before I was born.
But with Lady Brett Ashley, it was different altogether. I did not love her, this character from a book of fiction, because I wanted to be near her.
I loved her because I wanted to be her.
Women of 33 do not transition well. Habit may be the well of our drowning, but also the drink of our comfort.
And so there I was, feeling my way around in the thick air of a post divorce haze, wanting to be wanted and then suddenly, wanting never to want anyone again. There were “screw them all” mornings intermingled with afternoons of “crying and regret”.
I knew nothing, I needed everything.
But Brett Ashley was divorced too. She sauntered and swaggered. She stumbled drunkenly from the pages of my borrowed copy of The Sun Also Rises, a female character from a 1920’s novel. She was all at once so very harmless and incredibly dangerous. She was desperate and crazy and certain and “damned good-looking”.
She said things like: “I never make plans.”
And things like: “He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing.”
She was one of the boys and they alternated loving and despising her; sometimes she cared, sometimes she did not. She was free.
She was hopelessly imperfect, but she was so certain.
And since I myself, was so very uncertain—-
I lose myself in what I thought it meant to be “free”.
I lost myself in her.
And I felt unafraid for a little while.
And though I came to feel a sense of peace in being alone—
I still was not completely happy.
Can a woman be free, truly free, if she joins her life with a man? The character in my favourite novel, The Sun Also Rises—the beautiful and complicated Lady Brett Ashley, does not think so. And because I found her at just the right time, after my divorce, I tried to be like her, to eschew love for freedom, simply for freedom’s sake.
It is nice to be free, the way Brett was free.
To eat ice cream from the container in bed, to never answer to someone elses demands. It is nice to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. To live for yourself and only yourself.
But it was very lonely.
Brett would laugh. She’d call me a weak bitch.
I am not free anymore.
Or I am completely free, in so much that I have chosen, willfully and with meaning, to share my life with someone else.
I am his wife and he is my husband.
We just celebrated two years of marriage.
This is what he gave me for our anniversary.
One book, one Brett, one character—two different definitions of what it means to be free.
Because I am a woman never satisfied, I still search for answers.
And the answers come, in places least expected and most obvious too.
On the flesh of my arm, when I wake up in the morning—the words I had tattooed, there, greeting me. The Sun Also Rises, Nicole. Nothing is lost, there is everything to gain.
In the faces and places I know and the ones who love me.
And in the pages of a book, that I first read alone on the floor of my bedroom, when I was most lost.
And in the pages of that same book that was given to me, again, as I sat in an anniversary dress with champagne on my tongue.
Freedom, I’m starting to think, is so much finer when you are brave enough to share it.