Tenacious Magic ~ Chapter 5
Before meeting G and H, Katherine and S both in their heydays
Tonight’s installment took me a while to write. I had a lot of Katherine’s piece already written. These scenes at Garsington seemed like a strange sidebar when they came through, but several readers have commented that they want to know about the womens’ lives before their spiritual seeking started—What did they care about? What were they like? What brought them to the path? Why were they so ready to believe, to follow?
So, here we meet Katherine at nearly the height of her literary career. She is on the rise and she won’t be diagnosed with tuberculosis until later that year in December of 1917. As soon as the diagnosis came, it dominated her existence until she died five years later. Her movements revolved around treatments and convalescence and avoiding harsh winters. I like to think this summer of 1917 was a high time for her, but also the very last hurrah before the decline. She would continue to write, but accompanied by the specter of death.
I wanted to share a little about my own heyday/high time in my life as it was before the seeking started in earnest. I reflected on my years in advertising and the demons of status and power, I met there. What came to me was a particular night I write about below. It marked the beginning of the end.
What strikes me for both women is how they achieve some degree of power in “a man’s world” by being man-ish or playing the masculine game. Both sacrifice something of themselves to do this, though they also gain. They get a taste of the high, the power. Both have come from provincial backgrounds and have suffered in ways that made them insecure and uncertain of their talents. Their striving and achieving was a means of attaining safety and a dream of being “someone.” They are conflicted. Is this how you win? Is this all there is? Both women end up leaving their conventional success behind because they sense there is something more to life and…speaking for myself…I didn’t like the person that form of power was making me. I needed to get out before I used it in ways that broke something fundamental in me.
I hope you enjoy and thank you for your comments. They really help me know where to go next. I was torn this week because the other thing I am eager to do is get deeper into the work both women begin to do with their teachers. I decided to hold onto that and the plan is to tackle it next week unless you all have a better idea.
Thank you for reading and for helping me see the way.
“They lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.”
–Dorothy Parker of the Bloomsbury Group
It’s late June and the apartment is stifling. Katherine stands in a blue kimono looking out the window at the busy London street and bustling sidewalk below. Even with the window open, barely a breeze stirs. She fans herself with the chapbook of poetry she has been reading. Though she gazes out, her mind is fixated inwardly.
Sweating, with her shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, LM, glances at Katherine and laughs, “My dear, it’s an invitation to a weekend in the country, not conscription to the front. You seem absolutely despondent.”
“I am,” wails Katherine. “I can’t take it: arguments, lies, gossip, who’s written what, who’s published where, the pugs, the peacocks…you know I hadn’t thought about it, LM, but there it is…it’s a weekend with a bunch of peacocks. Wouldn’t you be despondent?”
“Murry’s going, too?” LM asks unsure whether the question will provoke Katherine further.
“Of course. Ottoline adores him. But, he’s been so tiresome. Murry is on a high…on his own momentum and on mine. He’ll be bragging, as usual, about things we haven’t even done yet.” She is stopped by a thought and sits up abruptly, “How will I share a bedroom with him, LM? He’s a cheater and a louse.” She looks alarmed.
“You forgot dull and arrogant.” LM supplies.
“Well, you make him sound just awful!”
“He’s your fiancé, not mine.”
“Not yet. Anyway, we’re a package deal. You come with me wherever I go…even down the aisle.”
“I’m not marrying John Murry. But, you probably should. You need someone to make an honest woman of you,” LM teases her old friend.
Katherine reflects, “‘An honest woman’…What does that even mean? It’s a good name for a story…” She suddenly remembers, “There’s a pool. Don’t forget my suit and cap.”
“It’s here, but you won’t be using it.” LM rifles through the bag and touches the woolen swim suit then looks back at Katherine whose expression is once again pensive, “What now?”
“Virginia and Leonard might be there. Do you think they’ll like Prelude? I should have given them something else, don’t you think. It feels so provincial…compared to what I’m working on now…” Katherine stands and paces, gathering her hem in her hands and waving it back and forth to create movement, a breeze. Her bare feet pad softly on the rug.
She plops down in front of the vanity and dabs her face with a handkerchief as she looks in the mirror. “I dread these weekends, LM, I do. A bunch of arrogant artists tear each other to shreds under the guise of intellectual critique…Really, it’s all jealousy. This one is jealous of that one’s imagination; that one is jealous of this one’s social circle; that one jealous of this one’s money; this one jealous of that one’s lover. Everyone drinks to excess just to tolerate themselves and then the trouble really starts. One weekend away and we deal with the fallout for weeks,” she brushes her hair roughly and then stops with the realization, “And these are supposed to be my friends! I’d rather spend the time writing.”
“Don’t go,” says LM flatly, “You’re a free woman.”
“Don’t go?! That would be suicide. It’s part of my job. I consider this work, LM, and it’s hard work…whatever it looks like.”
LM looks at her slyly, “I think you want to go. I think you’re thrilled you get to go. I think you know what a big deal this is, but you won’t admit it. I know how you hate the games…but also how you can’t do without them. You love to win.” LM goes to Katherine and rests her hands on her thin shoulders. She speaks softly to her reflection in the mirror, “You’ve wanted to be famous since the day we met. And we were only girls then…Look at you…going to Garsington.”
Katherine melts a little and smiles appreciatively at LM. She nuzzles her hand, “You know me so well…it’s true. One must find the positive in it…” She grabs LM’s hand now and holds it, “I do love the gardens; being out of the city, in nature. I wish you could come with me…Then at least, I’d have a real friend to enjoy it all with.”
“Darling, an invitation to Garsington may not require social standing, but it does requires a literary pedigree.” LM pats her hand and returns to the job of packing.
Katherine rolls her eyes, “Snobs. What about a kind heart? Generosity of spirit? Loyalty? Oh, LM, you are a true friend. I’d die if you left me!”
“You’re more likely to leave me.” LM says with a trace of bitterness.
Katherine walks to the divan and retrieves the pamphlet. She throws her arms around LM’s waist from behind and whispers a reassuring, “I’ll never leave you.” She squeezes her companion in a gesture of gratitude and affection and drops the pamphlet on top of the clothes in her travel bag, “It’s the latest poem by Eliot.” Then she lets the kimono slip to the floor, steps out of it and walks naked into the bathroom, “Pack that, will you?”
LM shouts after her, “Bah!” but finishes the job…as always.
Garsington Manor, Oxfordshire, UK, the next day…
Katherine and Murry arrive at the manor house frazzled—the train from Paddington was late. They’re sent up to the blue bedroom on the second floor where they unpack their things and lie awkwardly together on the big bed. Periodically, one or the other asks an innocent question. Neither knowing how to cross the actual gulf between them. There’s not enough time to get into it before dinner anyway.
As they descend the stairs half an hour later, Murry grabs Katherine’s hand and gives a squeeze. She recoils a little at his touch. Lawrence’s thickly accented voice rings out from the drawing room. Katherine’s heart gives a little leap. Murry chuckles and whispers, “Second whiskey or third?”
She feels the heat of attention as they cross the threshold into the drawing room. Bored and bright eyes turn towards them from all corners; though no one stops the conversation they’re engrossed in. Virginia and Leonard Woolf sit in one corner with Virginia’s sister, Vanessa and her husband, Clive Bell. Ottoline’s husband, Phillip, D.H. Lawrence, and Lytton Strachey stand at the mantle. Nearby Frieda Lawrence, Maria, and Ottoline chat conspiratorially; Frieda with one eye on her husband. A young couple unknown to Katherine cuddle on the loveseat under the picture window, open onto the garden. The woman giggles affectionately at something her handsome beau has said.
The room is lit orange by the setting sun and everyone looks in fine health; glowing from a day spent swimming and sunning. Cheerful jazz music plays on the Victrola; permeating the atmosphere with an exotic quality. Katherine can feel New York all the way across the Atlantic. Her heart tugs a little. Will she ever see it for herself?
Ottoline spots them, touches Frieda’s arm to excuse herself, and scurries over. She is dressed in a hand-painted and patterned tunic procured in Morocco by her husband; her red hair recently dyed with henna to an unnatural orange and piled messily on top of her head. She looks like a Rosetti painting come to life as she slides across the room, self-aware and confident. Katherine smiles and offers herself up to the hostess for an embrace.
“John, Katherine. Delighted you could join us! How was the trip?” She doesn’t wait for an answer, “Nevermind, let’s not talk of travel. You’re here! That’s enough. I hope you have all kinds of news to share. I haven’t been to the city in ages. I feel I’m missing it all, but also happy to hear the gossip from afar. Summer is too much in the city. Too much. I’m happier out here…oh, and happiest when the city comes to me!”
“ Lady Ottoline,” says Murry smoothly, taking her hand in his and steadying her. “Thank you for your hospitality. It’s been too long.”
“Yes, yes. Christmas was ages ago, John. What are you up to?”
“Working at the Rhythm offices night and day, even through the weekends. We’ve just put out a new issue and…” he sees her attention straying, “Katherine’s had several stories out this spring, Ottoline. Have you read them? She’s been published twice in The New Age.”
“Of course, I’ve heard. You must read one for us, my dear. I know I have a copy here somewhere…Virginia’s here for the weekend, too. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.”
Katherine smiles and says honestly, “She isn’t usually.”
Lawrence, finally noticing the new guests bellows across the room, “Ah. My favorite ingrates!” He comes around the sofa to embrace Katherine in a bear hug and pounds Murry on the back.
A servant comes with gin and tonics on a tray. Cigarettes are lit. Katherine takes it all in while Ottoline monopolizes Murry. Lawrence teases her with a sly whisper, “Why…Mrs. Murry! Lovely to see you looking so well.”
“You know I hate it when you call me that.” she reprimands.
“Well, I do it to keep you from forgetting your place when there’s such fine prey afoot,” he nods in the direction of the young couple.
“Him or her?” Katherine asks pointedly. Lawrence laughs. This is what he loves about her.
“You pick. I’ll take the other,” Lawrence winks and bounds back to his conversation at the mantle.
Katherine stands sipping her drink and listening to snippets of conversation: war, the Romanovs, rituals for writing, lines of poetry, gossip, America…As the alcohol finds its way to her head, she has a grandiose feeling that also feels legitimate. She feels that she is at the very epicenter of the civilized world—standing here in the doorway to the salon at Garsington. She could be the axis itself. For a few brief moments she convinces herself that she’s made it, that this is the life she’s always dreamed of. Her mind flashes back to New Zealand, provincial and raw. She makes a hasty and unfair comparison that serves to increase her sense of self-importance. Her mood lifts, but something deep inside is still unsettled. A rattle in the chest, that cough. A heavy veil threatens to descend. Anyone watching her would have seen the darkness flicker across her face.
Frieda comes and rouses her from the reverie and takes her over to the Victrola. They sway to the music and talk loosely; singing here and there when they know a lyric. Katherine entertains with stories from the London and Paris social scenes, complete with shameless imitations. The small group around her laugh and egg her on. She is at ease performing; a skilled mimic.
When they’re finally seated in the dining room, it’s dark outside and the air has become still again. They sweat in the candlelight and marvel at the lavish spread. In mock humility, Ottoline insists on calling the meal, “a light supper.”
Katherine finds herself seated between Murry and Virginia. She pours the wine for them in turn. Virginia stops her at half a glass with a gesture of the hand that says, “just a little.”
“Such restraint,” Katherine says as she fills her own glass.
The conversation is disjointed, chaotic, and wide ranging. Lawrence and Frieda have begun to fight across the table. Lawrence pounds it with his fist to make a point. Ottoline is too absorbed in Bertrand and the wine to keep order. Her hair has fallen out of its clips and she looks quite the Magdalene at the head of the table.
Katherine turns to Virginia who has been eating quietly, politely, “Are we missing the point?”
Virginia raises an eyebrow at the enigmatic question. Katherine continues, “I mean, every one of us is famous in our own way and still we posture and preen. Will it ever end, this search for acknowledgment? This longing to be truly…seen? This desire to be appreciated on some deep level, not for what we can do, but for who we are.”
“That’s precisely the problem…none of us really likes who we are. How can we expect others to like us? Meanwhile, the writing is quite good and important. It’s easier to love the writing than the writers.”
“But doesn’t that leave you feeling…lonely?”
“Oh, Katherine. Where is your breeding? Do you have to be morose at the dinner table like this? Save it for the late night conversation with the boys.”
“You know I can’t talk to them about this. I want to hear from you. I want to know how you feel, Virginia. I want to confirm my suspicion that you’re just as in need of a friend as I am. I can be that friend for you. I feel we can truly…understand one another. Don’t you?”
Virginia’s face is lovely in the candlelight—delicate, fragile, serious. She looks at Katherine and contracts under her penetrating gaze. She wants to say yes—her defenses, momentarily disarmed—but she stays silent.
Katherine presses on, “We must be friends. Don’t you see? Virginia, you and I have more talent than any of them and our voices must be heard for the stories we have to tell and for the fact that we’re women. I mean…I hate to bring it down to that, but it’s there. We can’t go on ignoring it. What we’re doing is twice as heroic as any of them. Only you can understand my frustrations and also the significance of my victories. John toasts me and announces my publications to the world, but he can’t really understand what it means to me. You can.”
Virginia smiles slightly and confides, “I write to escape my reality, Katherine. Not to change it. I’m not political. My writing is my sanctuary, the muse is my friend. She is the one I can really get naked with, the one I trust.”
“I know. I know. I feel that when I read your words. I feel you. And yet, I have to disagree…you’re not yet fully naked. You’re still just teasing…like all women. But, not the men. I want to be able to know all of you through your writing, Virginia. The woman sitting here with me now, isn’t in it. And that’s not a criticism because I know how challenging it is. I can’t manage it either…The part of me that can write a jolly good story is only part of me. There’s so much more to me. And you, too. I sense that. Women are infinitely more complex than men. I want to invent a whole new form of writing—one that makes space for the real woman, for all of her feelings and thoughts. That might actually be fulfilling.”
Katherine puts down her fork and turns to face Virginia fully. They have entered a space of intimacy and she is aware that this requires more attention. She applies herself to the conversation.
“I don’t want to put more of myself in the story. I want to get out of the way of it. I want to be the vessel; to merely pour it out,” Virginia insists.
“But, being a vessel is something. The vessel must be whole, complete…or else it leaks. We’re leaking our stories right now. I feel that and I want to do better. Don’t you?”
Virginia thinks before answering. “There is something that holds me back…I will admit that. But, I feel it disappearing with age and practice. I do feel I am working towards that state of wholeness…that one day I will look back on my writing and feel…if not fulfilled, then at least satisfied.”
“In the future?”
“Yes, in the future.”
“Why not right now?”
“It’s true, I guess. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. The war has certainly shown us that. But, I do feel I’m practicing for something, or warming up somehow. I imagine the writing I do later will be more fulfilling in a way.”
“But, I want to live fully just as I want to write fully. The two are related. And not in some distant future when I finally become the writer I wish I was, but now. I’m tired of believing the lie that I will be better in the future, that it will all be better in the future. The whole country…the whole continent…is caught in that delusion. Things will be better once this war is over, once the dust has settled. What’s going to make a better future? Doing something different right now. I want to take a risk. What is there to lose?”
“I suppose…” Virginia is struck by Katherine’s urgency and considers, “But everything is changing so quickly now…already without our doing it…Sometimes it feels it’s changing out from under us. Our readers are changing. That young woman,” she gestures to the other end of the table where the nameless woman sits talking gaily with her beau and several of the men, “is already a different creature than you or me.”
“She’s a child. And you sound like an old maid, Virginia.”
“I feel like one. I don’t have anything keeping me young, like you do. Your lovers take energy, but I know they also feed you. I’m envious of that. Oh, I have so many resentments in the now, Katherine. I guess I see my future self as having cleared those, made some kind of peace with things. That would be real progress. As a woman and a writer.”
“I just think…” Katherine pauses to consider her words, “perhaps we’re trying to write our way out of our sex when we should be writing our way deeper in. That I am a woman is part of who I am. Not all of it, but it does seem to me significant.”
“Oh, Katherine! You’ll set us all back a hundred years. Wollstonecraft is rolling over in her grave. Lawrence writes more like a woman than you do.”
They both laugh. A spark of kinship flashes between them in the space created by the laughter. Katherine asks with intensity, “Do you consider me an ally, Virginia?”
Virginia answers immediately, “Not for a minute. I consider you competition. But, I do consider you. Every time I put pen to paper.”
It’s Saturday morning and Katherine and Murry are walking through the orchard slowly. She holds her straw hat in hand, enjoying the feeling of the sun on her face. Her other hand is in his. They walk easily, though their gaits are different. The grass here is high and her skirts swish pleasantly as they walk. Though they arrived yesterday she realizes she is only now relaxing.
“Far from the maddening crowd…Hardy had that right,” she says.
London has been a whirlwind the past few months. Her fame has grown and the demand for her work has been both flattering and exhausting. She feels she can’t complain to Murry, at any rate, he loves her success.
“Indeed,” he responds distractedly.
She glances at him as they walk. He’s so handsome out here, she thinks. Slightly rugged, his youth and strength palpable. He seems more at home here than in the city where the crowds quickly bring him down and thoughts of work consume him. She seeks his full attention and without knowing how to ask for it honestly, she resorts to a topic of conversation she knows will draw him in, if only to protect his own interests.
“Bogey…do you ever think of having children?”
“We’ve talked about this,” he says curtly. “Must I remind you, my dear, you’re still married to another man? Anyway…we don’t want children. Remember?”
“I know…I just worry that somehow I will have failed you if I don’t give you a child. I worry we’ll be lonely…or useless. I want to be sure. You’re alright without them?”
“Alright? I’m perfectly content…thrilled even. I have too many ideas and life is too short, my dear. Besides, do you really think you could be a mother at this point? You’re nearly 30. And with your work as it is? You’re just starting to get the recognition you deserve. You’d have to stop writing with a baby in the house. I can’t see you happy like that. It’s a foolish idea.” And then, really thinking about it he murmurs, “And the the more I think about it, the more foolish it gets.”
She’s wounded. He’s touched the part of her that had once wanted desperately to be a mother—had even tasted motherhood. “I could do it!” she protests with the vehemence of someone who never got the chance.
He stops and looks her in the eyes, “It’s not for us, Katherine. Look around,” he gestures to the grand gardens ahead, the house behind, the party of friends seated on the lawn. “We have such a good life. Why ruin it with children?”
She wants to keep the peace. She wants to not live in the past. She takes a few stiff steps and then turns to him smiling ruefully, “I guess you’re right…You won’t leave me for someone who can give you that? Someone younger? Or more…maternal?”
He laughs, “No. I want to be a great writer and I want to be married to an even greater one.”
They walk on in silence. At the side of the big pond, they find the party arranged across the grass on blankets. Lawrence and Frieda gesture for them to join the foursome. They’re sitting cozily with the young couple from the night before. Plates of half eaten sandwiches, cucumbers, chicken legs, and strawberries sit precariously on the grass. Wine is flowing.
Lawrence introduces them, “John, Katherine…have you met the Bulls, yet? Peter is a distant cousin of Ottoline’s, I think. Isn’t that right?”
“On my mother’s side,” the young man says brightly. “Peter Bull. And this is my wife, Flora.” They shake hands as Katherine and John take a seat on the brightly covered throw, one of Ottoline’s finds, shipped from Mexico.
Flora, fresh-faced and beautiful, gushes as she holds Katherine’s hand, “Mrs. Murry…”
Katherine corrects her, “Miss Mansfield.”
“Sorry, Miss Mansfield, you have been a great inspiration to me. I want to be a writer, you see. I want to write stories like yours, stories that deliver a slice of life…especially the real lives of women.”
“Ah, that’s a bold objective.”
“I have a copy of ‘German Pensione’ with me here at Garsington. I carry it everywhere.”
“She means it…everywhere,” the reinforcement from her earnest husband is unnecessary, the girl’s sincere admiration is clear to them all. Katherine is aware of Lawrence smirking beside her, enjoying the show.
Katherine changes the subject, saying to Frieda, “Are you swimming?” Frieda looks out, scrutinizing the dark pond and looking up at the bright sun in the sky.
The landscape and the wine soften Katherine’s initial guardedness. She begins to enjoy the girl’s deep and perceptive knowledge of her work. She asks thoughtful questions and Katherine responds generously. Lawrence and Murry chat with the young Mr. Bull, but have half an ear to the conversation of the women. Lawrence, as usual, watches Katherine like a hawk.
“Lawrence, I swear to God, if you steal my soul, that’s the end of us. I can see it in your eyes: you’re writing me into your next book. People say you write women so well…it’s because you want to be one. Admit it.”
He laughs heartily, “My dear, you have to stop fascinating me. Can you be a little more boring. If I was a woman, you know…I think I’d be you.” He’s teasing her and she knows it.
“And if I was a man, I’d be a real man’s man.”
Lawrence sputters, “We don’t know a single man’s man. You have to go to America to find those. Besides, you’re already more than half a man, Katherine.” He winks at the young woman in her thrall, “I’d be careful if I were you, Flora. Once Katherine sets her sights on you, there’s no escape.”
Everyone laughs at this. Around them, dragonflies swoop and swirl in the meadow. Small white butterflies flit about and the ants arrive to finish off what the humans have left behind. The sun is lower in the sky as Frieda stands and stretches.
“Well, it’s now or never. It will be cooler when the sun disappears,” she says in her thickly accented English. She peels off her dress and stands boldly as an invitation to the others. The men follow suit and strip, running wildly towards the river. Katherine and Flora watch with amusement as the bathers dive in and hoot in the cold water.
Flora looks at Katherine, uneasy. Between them a surge of electricity passes. She feels her own courage in relation to the girl’s timidness. There is a difference, Katherine thinks, between having a modern sensibility and having the guts to live as a modern. She sheds her light dress and camisole. The girl seems to be waiting for the moment to pass or for some kind of permission. Katherine laughs to put her at ease and teases playfully, “Come on now. Don’t fret. We’ve seen it all before.” The girl begins to unlace her shoes. “How do you expect to become a great writer if you can’t bear your soul?”
“My soul is invisible! It’s bearing my body that frightens me.”
“You think there’s a difference?” Katherine turns away and walks languidly towards the water. Her feet steady on the warm earth. Her suffering, more than her pleasure, has made this body her home. Loss, disease, more loss, grief, and the perspective living through a war can bring, all of this underpinning a growing success she’s having as a writer, there’s been so much life lived already in this body—lovers both men and women, young and old. She’s been indiscriminate. Partly, because she’s sensed from a young age that this life is fleeting and what is the point of being in a body if you don’t use it to the fullest. Only…these damn lungs. Her achilles heel; a weak spot. What she wouldn’t give to run now, run to the lake and dive in. The shock of it might kill her…or at least, send her into a coughing fit through the evening. She, of all people, knows that the body and soul are inextricably linked. Her soul chose this body and she has to accept that…try to enjoy it while she can.
At the edge of the pond now, she turns and looks back to the blanket. Flora is still sitting there uncertain.
“Do you want to come in?” Katherine shouts.
The girl nods and yells back, “Yes!”
Katherine turns to the water, “Alright mermaids, avert your gaze!” The swimmers oblige. Katherine dives into the dark cold water and swims across the pond. As she surfaces, she hears laughter and sees Flora’s pale figure as she hurls herself into the water.
That evening in the drawing room, Katherine sits reading. The clock ticks loudly as the light fades outside the window. In the salon the men have been arguing for an hour. In some misguided attempt at male bonding, Lawrence is trying to convince Murry to become his blood brother. This has sparked a discussion about the war and how it is or isn't a way for men to find deeper bonds with each other. Ottoline, Frieda, and the others are resting in their rooms and dressing for dinner.
“Katherine?” Flora appears in the doorway. Her face is either pink from the sun or she blushes as Katherine meets her gaze. She advances into the room and stands awkwardly next to the sofa where Katherine is perched.
“I want to thank you for today…”
“For…protecting my modesty.”
“Don’t thank me for that. I’m not the guardian of your modesty. Or anyone’s for that matter. I just thought I’d give you the space you needed to pursue what you really wanted. Sometimes we need a little push in the direction of our desires.” Katherine pats the seat next to her. The girl sits down and smiles, relaxing a little.
They chat easily now about Ottoline and her house guests. The girl enjoys Katherine’s wit and insight, “You’re just like your writing,” she gushes, “I almost feel we’re in a story now.”
Katherine is amused, “What’s this story about?”
“It’s about a young woman who happens to meet her idol at a country house and the more time they spend together, the more she gets pulled into the idol’s irresistible orbit. She can’t stop thinking about her.”
Katherine raises an eyebrow, “Sounds like an obsession.” The girl looks boldly at Katherine and they sit in silence. Katherine feels into what is presenting itself.
“I think there’s another story here,” she muses without looking away. “It’s about a seasoned woman, a writer, who is not yet old, but has already lived many lives. By chance, she meets a younger woman—also a writer—who admires her though in fact she knows nothing about her; cannot even imagine her inner life and would be shocked to know her true thoughts. Ultimately, we see that the young woman believes she is falling in love, when what she really wants is to live in the halo of the older woman’s courage and certainty. Her own ambition is creating the affair.
“And how does the…er, seasoned woman…feel about the younger woman?” the girl asks breathlessly.
“She’s jealous of her innocence, inflated by her adoration, and wants to devour her whole. She thinks perhaps she can recover her own innocence or youth by taking her. So, the attraction is mutual, though neither is really seeing the other at all. And both will be disappointed in the end.”
“Is the end truly written? We’ve barely gotten through the beginning.”
“A tip…always know the ending before you begin. The last step determines the first.” She puts her hand on Flora’s knee. Flora melts into her and lifts her face. Katherine considers the possibilities and brushes the girl’s lips with a fingertip, when the silence is broken.
“Katherine?” It’s Ottoline’s voice from the hallway.
Katherine plants a lingering kiss on the girl’s cheek and smiles at her, “I’d never take advantage of you this way. But, I hope you find your passion. You’ll need it to write anything worth a damn.”
As she walks towards the door, a coughing fit comes over her. The girl jumps up to help, but Katherine gestures for her to sit. She reminds herself to get to the doctor as soon as she’s back in London.
New York City, 2006
The Tribeca Grand had just been renovated. Celebrities lounged in the lobby and at the bar nightly. It was the perfect choice for a book launch party.
The book was a big deal for the agency. The authors on the cover were my boss, Madeline, and her partner—two big advertising executives. But, I’d written the book with the help of a talented editor. It was my first book and I was thrilled; grateful for the experience. It hardly mattered to me that she was getting the credit.
Madeline trusted my instinct for trends…it’s why she’d hired me to write the book. And it was why she had me organize the party for its launch—locating the venue, hiring the party planner, and finding the band. She gave me a big budget to do it, too. “Treat yourself to hair and make-up if you have extra,” she’d said. As it turned out, I did. Now, I was sitting in a room on the 6th floor with Cleo and Hannah. Cleo was putting the final touches on my make-up. Hannah was keeping me company.
We were in high spirits—listening to music, drinking champagne, and speculating about the event. I was feeling high, almost manic, as I could be in those days. I knew even then there was something unreal about the way I was heading into the evening. I could feel how far I’d propelled myself, the effort I’d made. There was something so evident in the way my talent was being used, even abused. Sometimes this bothered me, but it seemed a necessary exchange for success. Tonight I was in the illusion of reward and I was happy to be there—at least on the surface of things.
Hannah was a talented, but struggling actress, and my best friend. I’d gotten her a job at the agency when she needed the money to pay rent. She was a passable strategist, but bored to tears by the work. For an actress, she wasn’t very good at faking it, either. Every once in a while I passed her office and caught her nodding off at her desk. Poor thing, she worked on a consumer packaged goods account. Mayonnaise and mustard, just weren’t cutting it for her. But, she was loyal, smart, and funny. We’d grown up together and we’d do anything for each other. I used my power to protect her in the system and she reminded me who I am.
‘Blink…blink…” Cleo was putting the final touches on my make-up. Holding a mascara wand steady, her face was inches from mine. She’d been the front woman for a female punk band in the 90s and now did my make-up for special occasions. She was going to stay for the party. She’d helped me find the band.
“The paparazzi are coming,” I said with excitement and some trepidation, “We could make Page Six.”
“That’s exciting…” Cleo drawled as she stepped back and studied her work appraisingly.
“Not for me. I hate being photographed,” I said.
Cleo frowned at me. “Why? You look hot. The camera will love you. Just channel your inner cunt.” She struck a pose and flashed us a devastating glare. I flinched and smiled shyly. Hannah laughed. I don’t know if it was the word or the way she owned her power, but her inner cunt was beautiful and fierce.
Hannah topped off our glasses and raised hers, “I want to make a toast.” We were already a little tipsy, eyes gleaming and skin flushed. She looked at me lovingly and brought her full stage presence to the task, “My dearest Dolly, may this be the first of many, many book launch parties for you.”
I smiled adoringly at her and lifted my glass to drink. She stopped me with her hand and an emphatic, “But…”
“But, may it also be the last precious thing you give to this shitty industry. You are not an executive. You are an artist. You’re really good at playing the game to win. But, it’s just a game. And I will be here to remind you of that until our dying days…So, let’s drink to being REAL.
I felt seen. I felt held by my friends. I also felt the pull of the party six floors below.
The band was squeezed onto a small stage—a drummer wailed on the drums while two women dressed like harlequins stood back-to-back singing and playing with the audience in their thrall. “Channeling their inner cunts,” I thought.
I moved through the room watching, calculating, charming. I’d shifted into my work persona which was less cunt and more hawk. Everyone from the industry was there plus some of the influencers I knew and worked with. The mix of truly cool and want-to-be-cool, status and striving, predator and prey, money and opportunism was a microcosm of the culture of New York in those days…maybe New York always.
Madeline was soaking in the spotlight. She was moving quickly through the room in her characteristically effervescent way. Shaking hands with CEOs, hugging their wives, taking in the praise. She was pleased with what I’d managed to pull off and she let me know it. She introduced me around…a kind of reciprocity was flowing. But, she could also turn on you quickly, which kept me on my toes.
As the evening progressed and the open bar flowed, the adults in the crowd thinned out. Those who were left seemed to be taking the night into the next gear. I was among them. Something had destabilized in the atmosphere, in a decadent way.
Madeline grabbed my arm as she moved towards the door to leave. She pulled me aside and thanked me again for a successful night. Then she got quiet. She told me she’d been offered a big position at a PR firm. She was going to take it and she would recommend me for her position. It was a big jump for me; several rungs up the ladder. She’d been grooming me for the job. And she was happy because I’d made her look really good…good enough to become a CEO, the job she’d wanted from the start. I could see she was trying to help me walk the same path.
She said with a thrill, “Congratulation, you’ll be one of the top women in advertising. We’ll call Adweek.”
I thought about it for a minute and realized I’d be the only female executive at my firm, a major one. I felt my heart drop. I knew what this would take from me…I saw the sacrifice in other female executives, including Madeline…no kids, no life outside of work, no joy.
“Your salary will be double…maybe triple. You can buy an apartment. A big one.” she continued to offer facts like they were delights, bon-bons, or crystals of crack cocaine.
At first, I didn’t know how to respond. The split in me caused me to freeze. It was exactly what I’d been working towards, but now that it was in reach, I saw that it was not what I dreamed of for myself. I hadn’t set out to become an advertising executive. Something had snagged me along the way and I’d let myself be taken by it. Hannah was right: I was winning. But, it felt a lot like losing. I was losing part of myself—an essential part, as it turned out.
Madeline stood there rattling off details about her new position, her offer. She had clawed her way to the top. I knew because I watched her, still clawing, every day. It had become a habit. I sensed she was granting me a favor, one that was not granted to her, so I acted pleased. This was the correct response. She hugged me and a cold shiver ran through me as I felt the transfer, the bequeathing of power.
As she stepped away and headed for the door, I stood surveying the room from a new vantage point. Whatever was bothering me was out of sync with the night, the party, the news, so I pushed it aside. Soon, the spotlight would be mine. I wore the awareness like a new garment, like a designer overcoat. I tried it on for size. I felt myself morphing into something else, someone else. Maybe it was the alcohol, but I was definitely intoxicated. If the night had ended there, things might have gone differently for me. I might have become an advertising legend. Luckily, it didn’t end there.
The party at the Tribeca Grand was winding down, but some of my friends were just getting started. The next few hours was a blur of taxi cabs and bars. Around three in the morning, as I was leaving a spot at the corner of Rivington and Ludlow on the Lower East Side, I tripped and fell flat on my face. Tottering on stilettos, I missed a step exiting the bar. My arms, loaded with extra goodie bags from the party hours before, were useless to break the fall. I remember the feeling of the uneven concrete meeting my face, but I was drunk enough and stunned enough to feel mostly nothing…numb.
A friend picked me up and took me home. It was pain that woke me up a few hours later. In horror, I walked to the bathroom. I looked like I’d been beaten—dried blood was on the bridge of my nose, my eyes black and blue, scratches and cuts. I did my best to wash the wounds and then put on some clothes and took myself to the emergency room.
I was 32 years old and I had just fallen flat on my face. It wasn’t even subtle. I knew that morning was the beginning of the end of the life I’d been living the night before.