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Authors: Julia Leigh

Avalanche

BOOK: Avalanche
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Avalanche

A LOVE STORY

Julia Leigh

W. W. NORTON & COMPANY

Independent Publishers Since 1923

NEW YORK  |  LONDON

Avalanche

F
or a great many nights I injected myself with an artificial hormone produced in a line of genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I'd never have a child.

My first visit to the IVF clinic was when I was already 38. I was accompanied by Paul, the man I planned to marry and with whom I'd first been in love when I was 19 and he was 23, both of us then studying at the University of Sydney. That same year, it was back in 1989, I wrote a short story that won a student prize. This pleased me because I wanted to be a writer and, more so, because it made me look good in the eyes of my friends. I did keep a copy somewhere but have trouble recalling the exact details—except for the last line, which was “Crazy bitches.” The two women of the story were on a bridge in a park and one of them had tossed a baby into the pond below. A passing jogger, a man, had raced in to save the
child only to find that it was a doll. At the time of writing that story I had a deeply ambivalent view of motherhood. I scorned women who thought they could only feel fulfilled if they had a child. The first thing the judge said to me at the award ceremony was “I thought you'd be older.”

Our relationship began when I bumped into Paul walking from one building to another between lectures. He was wearing a polka-dot shirt and did a double-take: “Hello!” He could be like that—effusive, exuberant, the right side of comic. He was also handsome. More beautiful than handsome. Tall, dark hair, blue eyes, aquiline nose, small full mouth, a Roman. Expressive fine hands. Lady legs. I adored him. But this early love did not last long, it collapsed after a year. The end was his doing, there was no real showdown. He wanted to sleep with other people—as well as with me; he didn't want to be monogamous. This didn't come as a surprise. Early in our courtship he'd taken me aside and said he had something important to tell me: he'd been at a party and had performed cunnilingus on a girl against the living-room wall while everyone was dancing. That was the word he used—cunnilingus—very formal. He wanted to be the first to break the news. The incident did perturb me but in those initial weeks of our relationship, initiatory
weeks, I felt like a traveler in a foreign land where it was incumbent on me to observe the strange new local etiquette. It was after we had agreed to the lovers' contract, the body seal, that I couldn't bear the thought of him being intimate with another. A girl was lurking around and the revelation that she had been secretly hurling herself at Paul made me ill. I said he could sleep with the interloper for two weeks. He wanted longer. And so that was it.

We stayed friends. We each fell in and out of love with ten thousand people. Every time I saw him I would be delighted. More than delighted—overjoyed, reconnected. I know exactly how I felt: I witnessed that same feeling the first time I picked up my niece, Elsie, age 2, from day care. This was a long way down the track. About six little ones were sitting in a circle with their teacher, waiting patiently for their parents to arrive. When I entered it took Elsie a split second to realize I was there in her mother's stead—but once she did she leapt up, arms stretched high to the sky, and ran away from her group of playmates, forgetting them forever, rushed toward me.

Paul made me laugh; I made him laugh. We were conspirators. Beneath that was a bone-deep sense of
recognition
.
Yes, I was always slightly jealous of whatever new girlfriend he had; I regarded her with unfriendly close attention. When I was 24 and we were at the first wedding of our peers—a gay wedding, not legal—Paul said we should get back together, get married. I was drunk and turned him down. There's a picture of me in the wedding album—I'm wearing kitten heels, fifties-style black shorts, a men's shirt, and I'm sitting down, unable to stand, my wasted youth, a champagne glass emptying onto the ground. Not long after that wedding Paul met his Irish beloved, a costume designer, and soon they were married and he was a father. He hurried to leave the country.

To this day I know very little about what he was up to in those years away: I never really asked for more than the broad brushstrokes. He worked at an executive level in mortgage finance, earned a good salary. Supported his wife and child. Went on fancy European holidays. He had completely stopped composing music, something at which he had earlier excelled. I recall meeting him once: he made the trip from Dublin to London to see me reading from my first novel at the Southbank Centre. It was a dreary affair cooked up by Australia House to promote Australian literature . . . or maybe I'm remembering it wrong and my publisher
organized the night with other Australian writers in their stable. Either way, I felt embarrassed because I was new to the literary world and considered readings an awkward kind of pantomime. I desperately wanted Paul to think well of me, to be impressed, but the circumstances were underwhelming. When the reading had finished we walked together by the river. I noted that under his suit he was wearing the exact same T-shirt he used to wear when we were together. It couldn't have lasted that long so he must have bought a new one: gray marle, with a stick-figure man doing the splits. I was crushed when he said he had to go, didn't ask me to dinner.

In October 2007 I was living in New York, working on a screenplay and a novel. Paul and I reunited. By now he had the marriage and a garland of girlfriends behind him; he was also a loving father to a 12-year-old son. I was 37 with my own trail of tender affections. I received an email announcing he was passing through town. Would I like to meet? He knocked at the door of the miniature studio I was subletting in the West Village. All the chemicals of love spilled through my bloodstream. We spent the day together. Walked around the neighborhood, talked, saw a documentary about mass-produced corn. Talked and talked. Ate
and talked and nodded and laughed and stared and smiled and talked and smelled and grinned and I was 19 again, he was 23, and we parted, chaste, my heart thumping, and I realized—joyfully—that it was too late, our soulless souls had flared, whatever doubts I'd ever had about him I no longer wanted to protect myself, I just didn't care.

“OK. Time to be direct. I adore you. I always have and always will whatever happens.” He took decisive action. When he returned to Australia he wrote to me from the Southern Highlands, just outside of Sydney, where he now lived in a small house while his ex-wife and son lived in another small house nearby. A warm and civil arrangement. He expressed his fears that our chance may have already been lost; that he had grown dull and hard; that we could hurt one another. He worried about what I wanted: did I really want him or did I just wonder what it might be like to be together? Did I want a child? He promised that there was nothing he would not do for me if we met each other full and open. “Could you bury me? Can you see yourself with me until then?” he asked.

The child, the child. The child was there in that correspondence, nestled in among words of fear and hope and promise.
Our child
. Our beautiful child, our destined child was called forth as a possibility, conjured out of the ether. I told him that yes, I wanted a child very much, and that I did understand the magnitude of that commitment. I no longer wanted to be responsible solely for myself, I wanted to be intimately involved in the care of another. And I also said—it pains me now—that I needed to safeguard “my hard-won creative life.” Why was I so quick to add any sort of caveat? Why did I set the two ways of being—motherhood, writing—at odds? The truth, which I knew very well at the time, was that many women had gone before me and found ways to lead a creative life and also be a mother. There were countless prams in countless hallways. It wasn't “rocket science.” It wasn't either/or. There was enough space. The universe was expansive. Universe? Old-fashioned. Didn't we live in a multiverse? I could have multiple centers of being; I already had multiple centers of being. Or no center at all. So I wrote to tell all of this to Paul—as best I could—assuaging his anxiety and mine, adopting the tone of someone much wiser than myself, emanating the invincible power of love. I drew strength from the future. From
our child
, the treasured child-to-be. “Darling, darlinger, darlingest,” I said. “We only have this one life to live so we are obliged to be magicians.”

There's another email worth mentioning. November 6, 2007. That day
The New York Times
ran a story on page 4 titled “A Foul Menace, Ready to Burst Again onto Gaza.” It was reported that a LAGOON OF SEWERAGE (I used all caps at the time) had broken through its embankments and flooded an impoverished village. Five died, along with scores of sheep and goats. There was a real threat of another sewerage deluge. It's the only news story on the entire page, I told Paul. That report of abject misery is surrounded by huge ads for luxury goods. Diamond earrings; a zebra print handbag; a Philippe Starck candleholder; three bejeweled rings. So perverse: I suggested we frame it. I can see that even though I was already enthralled with our new-old love I hadn't yet completely lost perspective. No matter how miserable things could ever be for me I was not at risk of
drowning in a lagoon of sewerage
.

Early December. At the airport we kissed for the first time in eighteen years. We went home to my tiny apartment in South Bondi. I showered; we made love. We entered what we called our feral period, lovefucking day and night. It was so much better than when we'd been young. A couple of weeks later he asked “May we marry?”
I said yes without hesitation. The sun exploded then reformed. I remember that instead of an engagement ring he gave me a golden wedding band he'd bought from an antique store in the Southern Highlands; he knew I thought the prestige of a diamond ring was a hoax. I noticed an inscription on the inside of the band. “Oh it's engraved,” I said, touched. His face fell in horror: I realized he had never noticed this himself. There was a moment of silent mutual panic. But it was all right; I read the inscription aloud—a jeweler's mark, “18ct Rodd.”

I suggested we should be engaged for a year. We decided to marry on the solstice, December 21, 2008. Since we both wanted a child we felt we had to be sure our relationship was truly solid, that it could take the beatings of dirty nappies, dirty dishes, sleeplessness, sexlessness, and whatever else a new baby ensured. Actually, it was a stupid formality. I didn't have time to be cautious. I knew him; I recognized him; I truly loved him. He had offered everything. Our union was
inevitable
. One of my inner eels had slipped loose, an eel that took the guise of reasonable caution but which really was a small wriggling mistrust.

We drove to the highlands for the New Year. On the radio there was a discussion about the death threats once made against a Danish newspaper cartoonist who had unfavorably depicted Mohammad. In response, we decided to devise the most offensive, the most grossly offensive cartoon image we could possibly think of. I took pleasure in our playful transgression. My sweet husband: the same breed of monster. It was certain he would never bore me—and wasn't this the Holy Grail of marriage . . . or so I'd been told. (Misinformed.) We spent a cozy New Year's Eve together; we cooked a meal and watched Ermanno Olmi's
I Fidanzati
,
The Fiancés
, on DVD. He wore a sea-green Chinese silk dressing gown that I'd found for him earlier that day in the local antique store; it was more like a wonder emporium than a store. For myself I'd picked out some hand-embroidered oyster silk shorts. My predilection for soft silky clothing turned out to be something we didn't share: he thought it slippery. When I used to wear my UGG boots, tracksuit pants, and a pink silk T-shirt around the house he'd ruefully shake his head and say, “You look like a jockey.” That New Year's Eve, laying my head on the warm hairy pillow of his chest, I was a tiny baby. At long last, rested.

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