Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; Propeller Quarterly; HER KIND, a blog powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts; Brain, Child and elsewhere.
The Sparkling Future
D. and I had been together for a little over a year, balanced on that fine point where the slightest inclination—a breath of feeling—would push us into forever or nothing. We were standing on a bridge over the Kennebec River in Maine when I realized this. The phrase entered my head whole but uninvited, as if someone had swooped down to whisper it in my ear, and I played with it, turning it over and over in my mind until, like an engine, it caught life. That fine point. Forever. Nothing. Now that this thought had come to me, what would I do about it?
It was summer time. Beneath our feet the river swelled and raged, swallowed itself and spat back up. Tree branches and chunks of Styrofoam and other trash thrashed through the water, curling around the rocks before being swept away to the unknown, to the sea.
I leaned into D., my back against his chest; breathed into him as his arms, as if by habit, encircled my waist. There was comfort there. He was always warm, even when it was coldest, and I steeped myself in his warmth as if in a hot bath. But there was something wrong, some tinge, some tint of distance even as I laced my fingers through his, my palms over the backs of his hands. How could this turn into nothing? But forever ... ?
We had fought the night before in our hotel room, each sitting on one queen bed, the headboards facing each other like mirrored images. I had laughed when we first saw the beds. A bed a night, I joked. But we only slept in the first, uneasily, after I squirmed away from his touch, after I apologized and cried, apologized again, not sure what for but it seemed the thing to do, his voice frustrated, mine turning from regret to anger until I suddenly sat up and wrenched the covers from the end of our bed, wrapped up and faced him left naked, startled, dark and alone against the smooth white sheet.
“What,” I demanded, “do you want from me?” He couldn’t answer, of course, but he didn’t have to. His answer was mine. Everything and nothing. The next day, on the bridge, I remembered and weighed.
We had met in New York, in graduate school, in the English department. It was early fall, and he was tan from the summer sun. His teeth were perfect —white and square—and his easy smile lit up his hazel eyes. His head was round, and his high forehead seemed to showcase the brain behind it. I was immediately glamoured.
During that first meeting we talked while draped over the couches and stuffed chairs in the department lounge. Then we had lunch in the East Village at the Rose of India underneath Christmas tree lights and tinsel, even though it was September. Occasionally we met for coffee, sometimes dinner. We prowled used bookstores and watched three card monte games on street corners and looked at antique fountain pens at the Chelsea Flea Market. At night we called each other, talking for hours without realizing hours had passed, until once one of us saw that it was 5:30 in the morning so he rollerbladed up Broadway to meet me for breakfast. We talked about the books we read. We compared notes about our professors and gossiped about our fellow students. We talked about our future plans to get doctorate degrees, post-doc fellowships, travel grants, Fulbrights, and then perfect teaching jobs at small liberal arts colleges where we could live in white colonials with gardens out back. Or maybe we would stay in New York and have river-view apartments with balconies full of potted herbs and a membership at the Met. Or maybe we’d move to Paris—or Prague. Anything was possible.
Then, as fall edged towards winter, I went over to his apartment for dinner. After the spaghetti and candlelight, after we had talked ourselves out, it was too late for me to go home. He said he’d sleep on the floor and hugged me goodnight. But this was not a street-corner hug, a just-outside-the-apartment-door hug, a see-you-later hug. We were inside, alone in his bedroom. Suddenly it was very hot, and the wool of his sweater stuck to my cheek and my body prickled with sweat and even though I didn’t want to I had to let go; I was dizzy, reeling. This was not the moment I was hoping for. As I drew back, he kissed me on the cheek, a kiss that was meant to be the beginning of so much more, but my vision was tunneling and I knew I was about to faint. I was wrecking our moment. I remember meaning to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to pass out now,” but only getting as far as “I’m sorry, but—” before my vision grayed over and my knees buckled. I wasn’t sick, it wasn’t food poisoning, and I wasn’t the fainting type. But the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor, half-supported by his arm, his warm hazel eyes looking down at me with fascination and something else. What man could resist the power of making a woman swoon with a kiss? And what woman could fail to succumb to that power? Not him, not me.
Our first summer together was full of small adventures – wandering through obscure museum exhibits, hiking in upstate New York, kayaking in New Jersey, riding the Wonderwheel and the Scrambler at Coney Island. But summer also brought our first fights—about a cache of Playboys I discovered in his bedroom, about his flirtations and my jealousies, about the way we treated each other’s families, about ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends who wrote or called or showed up unexpectedly and what we did or didn’t do about them. In the fall he worked on his dissertation on childlessness in early American literature while I wrote papers for Elizabethan Drama and Introduction to Middle English. Winter brought head colds and a letter from his most significant ex-, the one he had thought he might marry, the one, it turned out, that he had broken up with only days before we met. This led to a rash of new arguments and reconciliations between cafés and classes and movies and walks around the city. But still, in those cold winter months our reconciliations were as heated as our fights. By spring, though, we were in limbo—he hadn’t gotten a teaching job and I hadn’t gotten into a PhD program. All our talk about fellowships and grants and our bright, sparkling future evaporated. We didn’t know where we’d be in the fall, or if we’d be together. Summertime would bring the answer.
Back on the bridge I said, “Let’s go,” and we clung to the rails to try to get back to where we were before, back to the bank and the car and the road. Stepping off the bridge we felt the ground pitch beneath us but couldn’t laugh at our staggering—not yet. It wasn’t until we were back on the highway that the talk spilled from us: Wow, it began. Can you imagine? Swimming in that? Or trying to? We were still charged by what we had seen and felt on the bridge.
The next morning was humid, rainy, and the glass of the car fogged up as we sat in the parking lot behind our hotel. My coffee sat in the cup holder, steam curling between us, ready for the long drive home.
“It’s not for that long,” he said.
“Just the summer,” I said.
“And then we’ll both be back in New York.”
He kissed me goodbye and left. I drove home, back down Route 95, through New Hampshire, around Boston and down again through upstate New York, trying to frame what had happened, trying to find words and phrases that fit, and realized that I would have to wait. Wait and see if he would end it when I couldn’t, or if, after all, I could.
He was the one, two months later, who had made the call.
I had been in London for three weeks. I was a teaching assistant for a Shakespeare class in a study abroad program for American students. I lived in a single room in John Dodgson House with a balcony overlooking Bidborough Street. I spent my mornings in the classroom with its oak desks and creaky chairs and my afternoons under the bright lights of the reading room of the British Library and, throughout the day, drank far too much tea – out of china, out of porcelain, and out of Styrofoam cups. I was in love with the city, the country and its history.
I had gone to graduate school to study Renaissance drama, and fed myself with not only plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kidd and Webster, but also with stories about Lady Jane Grey, queen for only nine days before being executed for treason; Mary Tudor, nicknamed Bloody Mary for the many Protestant heretics she executed; Elizabeth I and her own precarious rise to power, the fatal rivalry between her and Mary Queen of Scots, and her own Parliament’s numerous attempts to see her safely married to produce an heir for England. But I was especially fascinated by the history that preceded and informed all of this: the story of Henry VIII and his many wives.
“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” This is the rhyme I learned to keep them straight. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr. But the wife that fascinated me the most was the second one, Anne Boleyn, the one who caused such a burning fascination in the king that he divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry her.
This is the wife I would have wanted to be. “Anne of a thousand days,” she was called. But what days! She captivated the King through her dark good looks—her brown hair, her black eyes, her slim neck and slight build. Thomas Wyatt called her “Brunet” in his poetry, describing her as “wild for to hold” though she seemed tame. This wildness intrigued the King—she had a keen mind and a sharp tongue and a quick temper – and she kept him in pursuit by constantly twisting away from his sexual advances; she refused to be his mistress. Within a year of their meeting, the King decided that it was his destiny to have a second chance in life: he would put away his first wife, marry Anne Boleyn and start a new family.
This is the power that I admired – the power to captivate a man, to enchant him, to possess him so fully that he thought of little else. Henry had been married to Catherine for 18 years. They had a daughter, Mary, and had mourned the deaths of their other five children; Catherine had been seriously ill and Henry had been badly shaken by a jousting accident; together they had faced war with France and attacks from Scotland and intrigues and rebellions within their own court. But now Catherine was in her forties, five years older than Henry, and her plump blonde prettiness had faded into something broad and bland. She was wise, loyal and still very much in love with Henry, but she was a given—not a challenge to be met or a game to be won. Anne Boleyn was just that—a challenge, a game—and because the outcome was far from certain, Henry played all the harder. To cast this kind of capricious power over the most powerful man in England – the King – must have been another kind of seduction for Anne, where you seduce yourself into believing that, with your charm and skill and ability, anything is possible.
This is the power I had wanted to wield over D.—and had, briefly, in the first few months of our relationship. Just before we met he had broken up with the woman he had thought he would marry; she was blonde, loving and solid, as I imagined Catherine must have been. In her youth Catherine was described as plump and pretty with red-gold hair and a bright complexion. Her chosen motto was “Humble and Loyal,” her badge a pomegranate. (In contrast, Anne Boleyn’s badge was a falcon, her daring motto “The Most Happy.”) An early portrait shows Catherine’s eyes demurely downcast despite her elaborate headdress; in a later one her mouth is set – as if to confirm her stubborn loyalty to the king. All her life she was praised for her coloring – her creamy complexion and honey-colored hair – but a poet could have called me “Brunet.” I was slim and sharp, fair-skinned and dark-eyed, with long dark hair I could toss over my shoulder after a fight. I fancied myself a passionate Scorpio, loving fiercely, turning suddenly; loyal until crossed, then a force to be reckoned with.
Henry and Anne built their relationship on this kind of capricious attraction, full of conversation and temptation, commitments and reversals. They flirted in front of the whole court – where no one knew if this was a kind of courtly love or the beginning of a serious affair. They talked and teased while eating, while dancing, while walking the broad halls of Whitehall, and then, presumably, in darker corners, private rooms, and then, finally, in bed.
Words seduced Henry and Anne before touch took over. Words seduced us as well. Our talk was bolstered by what we read in our classes, and we argued about the influence of Lady Macbeth and the stubborn silence of Hester Prynne; we applied Freudian and feminist theories to the cross-dressing in Twelfth Night and Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the real-life erotic adventures of Henry Miller and Anais Nin. We cast ourselves in the roles of characters, authors and critics, and read our own lives against their plotlines and analyses. The more I read about Henry and Anne’s romance, the more I started to hold my life up to hers, to see where the edges overlapped, to see what I might learn from her slow rise and rapid fall.
After three years of marriage and only a daughter to show for it, Henry and Anne’s relationship began to founder. One of her waiting women—Jane Seymour—had caught the King’s eye, and it was all too easy to make him believe that his marriage to Anne had been a mistake—she was incapable of giving him the heir she had promised, she had committed adultery and even incest to try to conceive a son behind his back; she was a witch, a traitor, a monster; she had ensorcelled him. Her enemies rallied against her and in the spring of 1536 she was arrested and tried for treason. Three weeks later she was dead.
By the time I left for London, I suspected my days with D. were numbered. A young blonde woman, new to the program and already acting as his protégé, seemed all too ready to take my place. The ocean between us was 3,500 miles wide. Long distance phone calls were few and far between. We were young and uncertain of our future—together or apart. So when the phone rang its foreign pulse in the middle of the night, I picked it up already knowing who it was and fairly sure what he would say.
“I don’t want you anymore,” D. said.
After which I said, with a truth and simplicity that surprised me, “I know.”
It was one in the morning London time and I laid the phone gently in its cradle, lay back in my bed and stared at the ceiling, listening to the vague traffic on Euston Road. And when some internal clock ran out, I turned on my side, pulling the covers with me, and slept.
The next day I toured Hampton Court Palace. What I remember most is the guide dressed as a courtier, and how he showed us, at someone’s request, his codpiece—even though he said he felt uneasy about wearing one and tried to hide it behind his purse. And then there was the hallway that the guide claimed Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, who actually was guilty of adultery, ran down to beg for mercy from the King, and I thought about how many times I have pled for love against the inevitable. There was the gift shop with a silver tray full of little paper cups of mead to sample, and I kept drinking them until I was stumbling around the post cards, the needlepoint pillows, the Henry VIII pencil sharpeners. There were pencils that had a picture of each wife—Catherine of Aragon near the point, Catherine Parr near the eraser – so you could sharpen them away in the order that they were divorced, beheaded and died. I went back for more mead before I found the watch that showed Henry VIII in the middle of its face, with a second hand shaped like an axe that cut through the pictures of his wives at 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 o’clock, so every minute all of them would be dispatched. It all seemed so inexorable. I drank a last cup of mead, bought a bottle, bought the watch and the pencil sharpener and some pencils too. Back in my room I sharpened away Catherine of Aragon, and listened to my new watch tick as the phone didn’t ring and no one stopped by.
The next day I toured the Tower of London—stopping for a long moment at Traitor’s Gate, the way to nearly certain death, where barges took prisoners over the Thames’ yellow-gray water. I saw Henry VIII’s enormous armor, 57 inches at the chest and 54 at the waist, and thought about how he protected himself against even his own conscience, ordering his wives away days before their divorce or execution, distracting himself through hunting or by spending time with the woman who would become his next wife. I charmed one of the guards into letting me slip behind the altar of the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula so I could stand over Anne Boleyn’s grave. There was no stone or statue, no sculpture of the queen in repose; instead there was only a small square slab set in the floor with her name and dates and coat of arms. I tried to feel something but didn’t. Instead I wondered what her corpse looked like now, and if her head was buried separately from her body, wrapped in cloth, perhaps, and what it would be like to be beheaded, and if she was still conscious for at least a few moments afterwards, and if so, what she thought.
Later that long weekend I walked south to the Thames, crossed Waterloo Bridge, and walked east along the bank to a bench that sat apart from the rest. I sat and watched the tide come in, rising to cover the small rocks and tires at the edge of the riverbed, the watermarks left on stone walls, the dark mosses staining the pilings of each bridge.
A tidal river. How odd. I thought back to the last river I had stood over, the Kennebec in Maine, and how furiously it ran along its banks, how whole trees had coursed through the churning water like monsters, how safe and warm D.’s arms had felt around me. I thought of the stagnant ochre water outside Traitor’s Gate, and all the pleading of those doomed to pass through it. I sat watching the Thames rise with the tide, and I knew the tears would come, not now but soon, and that the loss would hit me, not hard, but hard enough to remind me that sometimes, not always, you get nothing. But sometimes nothing is better than forever. Anything is still possible.