I had packed and we had chatted a little in the kitchen before I left. She had smiled at me as I was opening the front door, a smile that only she could give, the kind of honest and heartfelt impulsion of kindness she never shied away from. And now I was resting on a stiff bus seat, watching Newton scrolling by in the setting sun.
Houses in the Boston suburbs were so low and flat they were dragging down the sky, making it weigh like a heavy lid. Brighton, Allston, Brookline and Newton all looked pretty much the same to me. I only knew them through my rides in the T and from the long nightly walks along the rails I sometimes took, anxious not to get lost. Most buildings were standing in line square-shaped, red or light beige. Only a few broke the straight pattern with odd, curving, tower-like corners. Ours was like that. I had been to Boston itself only twice – barely enough to marvel at the gigantic, beautiful structures and acknowledge the difference from boring Englewood Ave. Marie, however, spent her days in the city center and she would often give passionate accounts of her whereabouts, making every place sound like the ultimate wonder of the world. I would sit there quietly and listen, slightly wistful, admiring the brightness she was carrying inside and projecting into everything she would do. I enjoyed hearing about hybrid places like Beacon Hill, where the familiar red bricks blended with wrought iron balconies and Victorian lamp posts. The European touches reminded me of what used to be my safe haven: Haussmann-style Paris, dead postmodern authors, and Angèle, a tall shady figure with a floating scent of cigarettes. Angèle, crossing the Alexander III Bridge, her dark hair escaping from her hood and dancing in the fresh February wind. My head banged abruptly against the backseat in an attempt to dismiss her face from my mind. A world that lacked all pity and all understanding.
It became dark outside. We had been driving for a couple of hours when the bus suddenly ventured off the main road. Slowing down on a winding route, it stopped without a warning, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. All I could see through the window were the headlights reflecting on narrow tree trunks.
“It’s a trap,” a voice said, rising from the silence. “Remember this is the only retreat St. Ignatius College organizes for us.”
I collected my belongings and stepped off the vehicle with the others. A thin layer of ice broke under my sole as I touched the ground. Raising my head, I stared at the high treetops almost hiding a starless sky. “Lured away into the woods”, I thought. The quick, the dead, and the yet unborn. Then I noticed people waving at us and realized we had parked about a hundred yards from the retreat center.
Inside it was bright and warm. The Dean of Students gathered us in a large cozy room, along with our mentors, all faculty members, most of whom had brought their partner or family. I noticed two adorable children running around and started to feel a small glow awakening in my chest. The emcee delivered an inspirational welcome speech, then granted us some spare time to get to know each other. I lurked in a corner with a book.
A girl named Barbara, as far as I could remember, came to sit next to me.
“You’re the exchange student, right?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Where are you from?”
“Cool! And does anyone there know that..?”
“A few people.”
Given my lack of responsiveness, she awkwardly attempted to change the topic.
“So… Do you like a girl?”
“My roommate actually, the kindest person I’ve ever met. She’s with a guy.”
“Your roommate!” she laughed. “And I thought I had it bad.”
“Well, last year…” I started but stopped, unwilling to talk about Angèle just yet. I looked down. “I tend to feel a lot like Stephen,” I said, pointing to my book, “even though the story takes place in the Twenties.”
She looked about to reply when someone yelled “Free food!” Everybody started rushing to the dining room. We have asked for bread; will you give us a stone?
“Hungry?” she inquired, and we just went along with the crowd.
In the daylight, the bleak woods turned into a bright colony of bare trees, permeable to the sun, and we discovered the center to be a big wooden cottage which, they said, stood close to the sea. So they broke us into groups for a morning stroll and we walked towards the beach, through the forest, passing by large swaths of land on which snow was scattered. When we arrived, everyone gathered at the water’s edge. The mixing of colors was so beautiful I wanted Marie to see it too; each one fierce and luminous, they contrasted yet blended harmoniously. Jonathan, our mentor, frowned as I grabbed my camera.
“Put it down Alex, this is an anonymous retreat.”
A little sullen, I went to sit on a tree trunk. Barbara came to join me, putting her hood on, and the image of Angèle flashed before my eyes. Angèle, crossing the Alexander III Bridge alongside hundreds of protesters in an uproar of candy colors and self-righteous chants. Angèle, waving the infamous flag depicting a family sketched in white on a pink background. Angèle marching in defense of traditional marriage and family values. Angèle demanding that the threat posed by unconventional existences be contained. I looked at Barbara, standing before me in the backlight. Still holding the camera, my hand lifted by reflex.
“Alex, please! Alexandra!” Johnathan shouted.
The haunted, melancholy eyes of the invert. The face I saw seemed peaceful, and so did the others, at least at this very moment. There was boldness in Barbara’s sparkling eyes, confidence in that hint of a smile. They would turn first to God, and then to the world…‘We have asked for bread; will you give us a stone?’
Further behind, lurking amongst the trees, unbidden guests were carefully watching. There stood Angela Crossby, the callous betrayer, and the sweet Mary Llewellyn– two of Stephen’s unhappy loves, two cheerlessly familiar characters from The Well… . Surrounding them were regulars from that gloomy bar depicted in the book, a dark haven of misery for those of our ilk. And on the side, slightly withdrawn, stood Stephen herself. The quick, the dead, and the yet unborn… marred… with the haunted, melancholy eyes of the invert – eyes that had looked too long on a world that lacked all pity and all understanding… Her barren womb…ached with the fierce yet helpless children who would clamour in vain for their right to salvation…. ‘Acknowledge us, O God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’ She was staring at me, staring at Barbara, at our mentors, Jonathan and his husband, at Jamie, her wife and their two adorable children. She was peering at the unlikely camp-goers, students of a religious university. I looked back in her direction, looked back at the ghostly remnants. We, the yet unborn, did no longer have to live as pariahs in a Well of Loneliness.
T.D. Oren has enjoyed creating stories ever since she learned how to spell. She turned to English to try and trick the writer’s block that hit her native French writings. It worked.
Photo credit: Alexander Mils, Unsplash
All quotes taken from Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), pp.398; 399, Wordsworth Edition Limited, 2014.