I’d never met a metaphor I didn’t like.
I’d recently started going to the beach each night to do something I called “death practice,” an exercise that involved watching the sun disappear behind the ocean while I envisioned myself taking my final breaths. It was late summer in 2020, and it seemed perfectly appropriate to be imagining my own death every day. The world was in the midst of a pandemic. I’d just turned 40. And, though I wasn’t ready to admit it yet, my marriage was bleeding out.
That wasn’t the only thing going on. There was also the matter of the novel I’d just finished. What had started as a meditation on gender dynamics in heteronormative marriages had turned into a steamy and sweary lesbian love story. The book had taken me by surprise, which was sort of hard to explain considering I was the one who’d written it. It’s fiction, I kept telling myself, and the handful of friends who read early drafts. A metaphor, I’d explain, when pressed. But a metaphor for what? The stereotypical modern marriage? Or my own, very particular life?
My agent was more direct. “Did this stuff really happen?” she asked when she finished the manuscript, which I’d kept a secret until it was done. I’d promised myself I didn’t have to publish it unless I wanted to, which itself was a sort of admission that there was something personal at stake. But the answer to her question was, at least in the factual sense, no.
“True, but not literally true?” I offered, haltingly. I think I added something about the story’s “emotional core,” fumbling for language to answer my own questions about the novel’s realism. How had I written something so visceral and specific, and so quickly? I was struggling to understand it myself.
I knew how the story had come to me. On a girls’ trip to Mexico, ripe and delicious like the fruit floating in my tequila that weekend. Two women, 20 years between them, an unexpected spark. I sucked on a lime and wondered if I was up for it, a book about female desire and sapphic sex. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but it was a delight to have an idea to play with—any idea!—after months of creative drought. It felt, at the time, like it had come from outside of myself, one of those alchemic moments when the divine giver of ideas says, “Here, this one’s for you.” I couldn’t yet see that the call was coming from inside the house.
Fourteen months later, the book was done and its author was utterly undone. It wasn’t just the writing that did it; in that span of time the pandemic had happened, forcing my life into stillness. For years, I’d been medicating my unhappiness with busyness and distraction, all of which had gone away in quarantine. In the quiet of 2020 came a roar of longing I couldn’t ignore. There’s a moment in the novel when Merit, my main character, panics at the idea of continuing to be the person she’s always been. There wasn’t a brilliant and beautiful Danish architect named Jane waiting in my wings, but I, too, now felt stuck in a life that no longer fit. And just like Merit, I didn’t know what to do about it.
I could no longer fathom staying in a marriage that felt like a desert, not after realizing how thirsty I was. And those desires, they weren’t waiting for me to decide what to do with them. They did what unmet desires do. They grew
Maybe that’s what brought me to the beach night after night to watch the sun disappear. My subconscious was grasping for an orienting metaphor, the fading light a symbol for a death that was symbolic, too. What end was I preparing for? I stood barefoot on the sand and waited for clues.
It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that my life would change. I entertained the possibility that the desires my novel had stirred up needed to be suffocated, tamped down, stamped out. That struck me as noble work. And, frankly, it was just a lot easier to imagine than the alternative: ending a marriage, gut-punching my husband, traumatizing my three precious kids. I couldn’t see myself doing any of those things. But I could no longer fathom staying in a marriage that felt like a desert, not after realizing how thirsty I was. And those desires, they weren’t waiting for me to decide what to do with them. They did what unmet desires do. They grew.
My agent was as uncertain as I was about the ending. Not the one looming in my real life, but the one I’d crafted for the book. I’d written what I thought was the “right” ending, the one that felt safe enough to publish. Woman has mid-life crisis, falls in love with a woman, then realizes she can’t blow up her life because of her kids. Nobody lives happily ever after. The end.
“Maybe think about the last chapter,” my agent suggested before we hung up. “Make sure it’s the resolution you really want.”
What I’d written, I would come to see later, was the straight version. It was an ending appropriate for a woman who behaves badly because of marital disharmony but who ultimately “belongs” with a man. It was an ending that reinforced the value of heteronormativity, the idea that everyone is happier when the wife and mother puts her husband and kids first. It wasn’t the ending I wanted. It was the ending I thought I was supposed to want. It was my attempt to write myself back into satisfaction with my life.
Like a House on Fire