To Flip or Not to Flip (Part 1)
To Flip or Not to Flip (Part1)
Midway through writing my previous novel Ark, I swapped the gender of my male protagonist and his mother. The story was based on a lawsuit that ensued between my mother and her sisters and their parents’ estate, and I was facing a problem which deserves no literary sympathy: I couldn’t write well about my mother, couldn’t make the sentences come off, couldn’t say the things I had to say (about her). So, I did it, flipped the genders on which our characters were based—a mother and son were now a father and daughter—and all of a sudden the book had Life.
Some life, I’ve been beating myself up about it ever since. With the opportunity to write damn near close to all I’ve ever wanted to say to and about my mother, I took an easy out, left the hard work undone. I should have stuck with Mom and Son. I would have gotten there. Sometimes I think, If only I’d gotten there sooner. Instead, I tricked my brain with a gender-flip.
Furious with myself, I set out to write the next novel, Between the Records, another fictionalization of a true-to-life story concerning, this time, me, my father, and brother. It was no less difficult finding the words to say what I had to say about these familial relations, but I didn’t look for an out. Not in the writing. I hung in, feeling every bit the marathon runner. Nevertheless, for very different reasons, every so often I would think:
“This book would really benefit from a gender-flip.”
For what reason? There were no women to be found in its pages. A father and brothers, yes, and many other men. But with the exception of one, not a single female character of any substance.
I have been in a relationship with the same woman for twelve years. Not bad.
Jenna was married when we met, I should mention. In an “open marriage.” She was married to a very good man. (He’s still alive, and he’s still a very good man.) But, she isn’t the marrying kind, and neither am I. Something else we agreed on early: “Monogamy is impossible.”
I don’t just like and love Jenna, I am in love with her. Still. Twelve years along. I don’t know much but I’m absolutely certain that this is rare.
As for the sex we have with one another—it’s good and can be very good but we’re into our second coital-decade. Not to mention, we have a child, a child in the next room over. Children can be the best form of contraceptive. They cry, they drain you of energy, they barge-in. Yes, children have roughly the same impact on the libido as an ice cold bath.
About one and a half years ago, in December of 2016, Jenna and I had a conversation in which we confessed all. What did we confess? We had both been with other people. What did we confess? That we had not intended to hurt one another. What did we confess? That it was time to bring our attention back to each other. We had grown so far apart. We were, in a sense, crawling back to one another. And we accepted the other back into our respective arms, both of us wounded, both guilty of many transgressions, but still able to see that none of it was bigger than our love for one another and our son. Our family. What did we confess? That we should probably never stray again but that we probably would.
For the next six months, Jenna and I lived side-by-side. We spent more time together than we had in years. It reminded us of something essential: we prefer one another’s company to anyone else’s. Then Jenna went back to school to earn her masters in painting. (Anyone would have told you that she already was a master of painting. But, after all, a certificate is a certificate.) And I began writing the novel about my father and brother.
At the close of a day, most of us do something to turn it off: I jog long distances, make dinner for my son, bathe him, read him a story. I see friends, I take Jenna to the movies, I take other women to the movies, I drink. But no matter what I do, I don’t stop thinking about the novel. I want to or think I want to, and Jenna definitely wants me to, and if these other women knew what I was thinking they would want that too.
I would like to turn the novel off and give my attention to Jenna and my son, my son who will eventually not need me to do anything for him and will want for nothing more than my full attention (when it’s my full attention he wants)—but it’s difficult. I don’t know what it’s like to turn off a submarine, but this is what comes to mind.
Why write? Me, I do it out of pleasure. The pain has always existed outside the act, when the work isn’t in front of me, in thinking about all the things that need fixing. Whole parts that need to go in the trash. And words—a poorly chosen word can make me feel incredible shame, even when I’m not in front of the text. If only I could get back to my desk, I would change that word. It’s as if my child were somewhere I wasn’t and he were very ill, and I only had to get to him to make everything all right but I can’t—I can’t get to him. That’s the feeling I experience: I just want to get back to my sick child, to look at him, to make him feel better…by changing the word, striking a paragraph, writing it all over and getting it right this time.
The following summer, with the first year of Jenna’s master’s program complete, the family packed up and traveled through Eastern Europe. It was in the Polish countryside in the month of August among a “Seagull”-like gathering, that I caught Jenna kissing a woman—and I lost it on her. What did I say? I said: “You can fuck who you like back in New York. But I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with you. And this is not the place, because for once in my life, I actually need someone…and that’s you!”
It took me many months to know that I didn’t really care that she had kissed this woman. (I would have kissed the same woman if she had wanted to kiss me.) But what I’d really meant to express to Jenna that night was something more along the lines of: “I guess we’ve been drifting for a while. I guess our period of togetherness is over. I guess I’m not ready for that period to begin, and I’m sad that it has...”
Over the next twelve days, while we drove through Vienna on our way to Croatia, with our son in the back seat of a red VW Beatle, I thought mostly about my novel, of how it had to get written, of how I must come to understand my father’s self-persecution, my brother’s rage, and just how I fit in between it all. The Adriatic was before me. So what. I had to get back to my sick child. What could be more pressing?
We returned to New York, and I set back to work on the novel, and Jenna and Silas went back to school. She and I hardly saw one another. You could say we were plugging back into ourselves.
Then six weeks later, Jenna told me she had met a woman, and that she would like to begin seeing her. Broaching the subject of dating another person was new, not typical of our non-monogamy of the past. Jenna proposed that this time around, we be honest with one another, open.
“All right,” I said.
“You’re sure? You can say no.”
“Yes. Let’s try this. I’m up for it,” I said.
But I had been living inside a novel. How could I think with any clarity? I’d said yes. What I’d really meant, however, was: “I don’t even know what you’re asking me.”
The next month was one of the more depressing of my adult life. I wasn’t lonely, I didn’t want for sex (I had more with Jenna than we’d had in years, and then sex with others too), I was deeply engrossed in my work, I had the support of friends and family, I had a kind of openness with Jenna that we hadn’t had perhaps ever, we were telling one another everything, all of it. So what of this sadness? Was it shattered romantic ideals? In part, yes. But what ideals? We had abandoned those long before, so we believed. Was it the sense of Jenna’s wish to identify herself with another person publicly? Somewhat. But neither one of us were or ever had been comfortable with the idea of being thought of as part of a pair. Strict individualists—that’s what we were. Was I heartbroken? To a degree. But I soon met a wonderful woman, and my heart was soothed. Mostly, however, it was that the days themselves were overwhelmingly schizophrenic: at one moment, Jenna and I would be having sex on the bathroom floor, and at the next she would be off to meet her girlfriend. The following morning, I would have an early jog, stop in at a lover’s, have sex, Jenna would be home with our son, the two of them just waking up, and I would return and then we would have breakfast as a family. Jenna and I would then walk our child to school, after which we would talk for some time about our relationship and the relationships we were having with other women. No details were spared. We didn’t fight, we listened, accepting what we could accept or else expressing our disapproval, our hurt. Inevitably, we would ask one another whether we should continue on in this way, whether we were we out of our minds and destroying our relationship, or, on the other hand, allowing ourselves to grow and therefore, as we would conceive of it, survive.
Eventually then, Jenna would leave for the studio, and I would sit down to write. Descending deep deep and then deeper below the surface in my submarine—the noise of this life ceasing, replaced by peace, order, and pleasure in the extreme—I could feel myself reaching further than ever before for the escape that writing offers its practitioners. For the making of a book, this is a good thing. Critical. But resurfacing at the end of each day was becoming more and more difficult. And before long, I could sense that I had no real wish to resurface, not just at the end of the day, but at any time at all. It was deep down in the book where I wanted to remain. The romantic in me could celebrate this point. But the part of my being sworn to reason and survival was terrified, and not a little desperate to know whether I would ever again resurface. And if so, where? And would I recognize the place? And would it look like hell?