November Rain

The Lady of Shalott 1888 John William Waterhouse 1849-1917 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894


“I’ve come ten thousand miles,” he’d say. “At least you can open the door.”

Or sometimes he’d simply stand there and say “Hello,” his eyes like swimming pools of blue pain.

She could visualize the moment: it was November and there was rain, fine needles of it, pricking the haze of her porch light, adulterating the halo around him. For he would have come from Kathmandu.

There would be an awkward moment, neither of them knowing what to say, to close the gap of five years of pain; four years of separation preceded by a year of brooding, during which he’s decided to drop out of college and “see the world,” “find himself”—and leave her waiting in Austin, Texas.

This was all of the scene she could visualize. Sometimes she tried to make up an end. They would dissolve into an embrace, like the last frame of a sentimental movie. Or she would reach new heights of strength, tell him she’d changed and point to the door. But neither resolution seemed right.

And the dialogue that would get them from the beginning of the scene to the end—that was still unwritten. There was a missing element, a probability still open.

But the moment was approaching. Sybil could feel it hovering in the atmosphere.

She wrenched herself from the daydream and back to an obligatory wedding. At the front of the sanctuary stood the singer, her best friend Jim, a willowy young man with the nervous energy of a high-strung thoroughbred.

Together they attended graduate English classes at the University of Texas. Jim would encourage her Celtic feyness as, wild and dark and full of the prophecies and passions of her Welch ancestors, she would peer into realms of past, future, and might-have-been. Often they disparaged reality and longed for the world of high romantic tragedy or Arthurian legends: the world of Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff, Lancelot and Guinevere.  Reality, agreed
Jim, was wretched, compared to the world of dreams.

Now as he sang, the sound transported her to the only dream in which she felt she belonged: the past with David.

The melody rose and pirouetted; the lyrics celebrated grand passion, storybook romance, once-in-a-lifetime destiny. Sybil closed her eyes, and the sanctuary faded. Gone were the death-pale roses. Gone were the lilies, belted in white bows. She heard David’s bewitching tenor again, as it had caressed her with the song, on every walk through green fields rushing with creeks and bursting with yellow wildflowers. She saw the crinkle at the edges of David’s eyes, felt his hand nesting in hers.

She drowned in waves of pain.

She still had such moments–triggered by a song, the glimpse of a stranger from behind–when her heart plunged as if down a cliff. Did that mean she wasn’t over him–would never be over him–even though she thought of him only several times a day instead of breathing him in and out like oxygen?

Jim sang in a lilting tenor. She wrapped her arms around her stomach and watched the nineteen-year-olds being married. She studied their fresh apple orchard faces, their Botticelli
angel curls and floral wreaths and thought, Someone should warn them.

But apparently the bride had her own warning to deliver.

For at the reception, as she leaned over with her corkscrew blonde curls and rosy skin, she advised Sybil, “You and Jim make such a sweet couple. You’d better not let him go.”

Sybil smiled wanly at the cliché she heard all too often these days. Next she expected a waiter to whisper it as he leaned over to pour the wine. “Excuse me, madam. But you had better not let him go.” Sybil loathed the cliché, with its implication that men were fish and her past implied inept angling.

As Jim drove her home in the rain, which fell in a fine mist, he said, “I don’t think I ever want to get married.”

She leaned against the car door. “Me neither.”

“Except for David, you mean.” Jim’s voice had a guillotine edge.

She stared at him in the dark. There was a space between them, and the wind sighed.

He said, “Remember that day at Barton Springs?”

There had been a moment–he plucking up lavender wildflowers, she laughing–a moment, as he’d twined the flowers through her shiny black hair–when they had almost crossed the line of friendship.

He had called her his dame aux camellias, kissed her hand, promised to sweep her off on his charger. She had laughed, then plunked a daisy onto his sandy hair. With his fine-boned faceand tall muscular build, he’d looked like one of Tolkien’s warrior elves.

Now as the lights winked through the windshield, she watched the thin line of his mouth and felt the strange, seesawing tension between them. It had begun that day in Barton Springs, this melting of their relationship from something formed and solid to something erratic, its moods changing, its shape undefined. She missed the usual, easy camaraderie of their past.

His silence indicated that he was waiting for a response, so she said, “I remember. We were all set to go a-Maying, like that scene in Camelot, but then you changed your mind.”

He stared ahead at the darkness. “Because anybody that loved you would always take second place to David.”

She felt like a kite, struggling to be free on the blasts of the wind.

At her front door she fumbled with the key, and Jim stood beside her in the haze of the porch light, diamond drops glinting on his hair and shoulders. Her family had already left for Gran’s in New Braunfels, where Sybil would join them tomorrow for the traditional turkey dinner.

She shoved open the door. The needle spray slanted through the threshold on a gust of wind that carried the odor of wet oak leaves–a decaying smell, as if of something sick that would not die.

A car door slammed–no doubt from the taxi they’d seen parked a few doors down.

Jim took her suddenly into his arms. She inhaled and said, “The rain’s coming in.”

For a moment they held the pose, as if for a picture. Then he let her go, and she turned to slam the door.

Only it didn’t close. A long, slender hand stopped it–a hand she would have recognized anywhere. Her pulse beat in her throat. A voice melodious with its Boston origins said, “I’ve come ten thousand miles. At least you can open the door.”

She stood immobile, the rain slanting into the room, unreality prickling her and shrouding the scene in white fog. She swayed–grabbed the doorknob–gazed up into the face she’d yearned for the last four years to see.

David looked much older. His light brown hair was peppered with premature gray, and his turquoise eyes stared dully, their edges networked with lines. But the square face, the turned-up nose, the firm mouth and thin moustache were just as she’d recalled them.

Oh, God, she thought, not with Jim in the room. What am I to do?

It was November, and there was rain, fine needles of it, pricking the haze of her porch light, adulterating the halo around him. He had suitcases. For he would have come from

There was an awkward moment, neither of them knowing what to say, to close the gap of five years of pain.

“Come in,” she murmured.

David stepped in, his head ducking to avoid the top of the door frame.

“You were in the cab,” she said softly.

“Not very long. I knew you’d be home soon.”

She nodded. The least reliable communication she and David had was with words.

The men regarded one another with the cheerfulness of pit bulldogs. Then they smiled and proceeded to that male hypocrisy of handshaking and pretended heartiness.



“Good to see you again.”

David laughed, his mouth twisted. He was always amused by hypocrisy, especially his own.

Sybil tried to gauge his feelings. She examined the knotted brow, the tight mouth; and she decided he was still confused. Perhaps he didn’t know the ending of this scene any more than
she did.

Like Prometheus in the old Greek legend, David was heroic in his ability to create himself pain. She thought of the Emily Dickinson poem: “I can wade grief–whole buckets of it.” That was Sybil and David, world-class bucket-waders, sure to intensify every emotion and bounce it back and forth between them so neither could tell, any more, whose pain was whose.

He was scanning Jim. David could read anyone, and he was no doubt probing to discern how much this friendship had changed. Jim looked at David, then at Sybil, then said he would go to the kitchen to make some tea.

“Come and sit down,” Sybil invited as Jim disappeared.  Tell me where you’ve been.”

David shrugged–slung his long, muscular frame down into his favorite rocking chair. She perched gingerly on the couch.


Now she could have screamed. What good was a prophetic glimpse if it picked the trivia out of her future and left the big questions unanswered?

David’s face was becoming more guarded. He had a way of closing in on himself, of folding up his face, so he could go about his reading while no one could do any on him.

But he had come back to her–she knew it. She could see the agony of the last four years networked all over his face.

David was silent. He glanced at the farm landscape on the wall, smoothed the slipcover on his chair arm–as if he’d used up all his courage and will to arrive on her doorstep and had none left to create speech.

“Why are you here?” she asked gently, to help him out.

“I’m on my way to Boston.”

“And?” She leaned forward with a smile.

“I just dropped by. To say hello.”

Her jaw went slack. She felt as if someone had hit her on the forehead with a two by four and she hadn’t yet registered the blow.

He continued quickly, “The taxi’s waiting. I’m going to be leaving in a few hours.”

She felt numb–like a victim of exposure who’d just been chiseled from a block of ice. The fire had been applied to her toes, but the thawing pain hadn’t started yet.

“You came all that distance,” she said, “for just a few hours? Texas is not on the way from Kathmandu to Boston.”

He trained and level gaze on her. His face looked confused. “I wondered why I came here. I kept asking myself.”

Of course. David had always reached out for love, then pulled back from commitment.

While he was away she could conveniently forget the hunger, the humiliation: the way he spoke of I and not we, the way he slid like pudding off a spoon, retreated and advanced like a nimble-footed tide. Now that he was sprawled across from her again in his familiar, casual, loose-limbed pose, she thought, How could I have believed he’d be that different, even with the gray in his hair?

Her world was breaking off, piece by piece, into fragments. She watched the bright shards lying near her feet. She couldn’t believe that tomorrow was Thanksgiving and she would be expected to say a prayer thanking God for all His blessings. In the kitchen the tea kettle whistled, piercing and urgent.

“Why?” she whispered. “Why did you come?”

She would force him to declare himself, like Heathcliff returning to the Moors, like Rochester sending out the psychic call for Jane.

He said, “To tell you—” he paused, then uttered the words in a rush: “Stop waiting for me.”

She listened in disbelief.

His voice was husky. “I can’t be who you want. The man you’re loving doesn’t exist.”

Sybil hugged her sides and looked down as the warm tears trickled down her cheeks.

“I don’t understand,” she said. How could he say she had made him up–she, who knew him better than anyone, who could feel the force between them as she stretched out her will and the power of her mind each day to send him love? They were born to be together, like Tristan and Isolde.

“I just keep trying to love you,” she said. “And you just keep running away.”

They were locked in a waltz of pain: Prince Charming and the Cinderella who was trying too hard to hand him her slipper. She felt as if something within her had died–like the brown crackling leaves that swept against the porch in the night.

David stood. “Don’t cry. Please.” His voice was choked. Sybil found herself in David’s arms.

Against her cheek she felt the softness of his sweater, the moisture of her tears. As the two of them melted together like raindrops on glass, she dissolved into a warmth that released
the years of tension in every cell. He held her fiercely. She would remember this moment always, she knew.

“I’ve got to go.” That had always been one of his favorite phrases.

“No!” She grasped his sweater hard.

“Take care,” he said, a catch in his voice.

Abruptly he released her and gazed down. He gave her a long, lingering look of regret; and she saw a film of unshed tears over the blue of his eyes.

He loved her. She knew it. Why was he leaving?

She watched him walk into the mist, to a cab that waited somewhere in the darkness. She didn’t know whether he’d be back. She could never see the whole picture–only a rainy day or a door opening.

She knew now why she hadn’t been able to picture this scene. It was too far from the stories she’d woven by day, the ones she’d dreamt at light: logged as “David Comes Back” or “David Makes Love to Me.” It was too far from the way stories were supposed to end, wrapped up with a neat resolution and packaged insight.

David had left again. Yet she could not give up her dream of him: it was what defined her identity. She was Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalot,” staring into her magic mirror to suffer alone over the vision of Lancelot and find her mirror cracked when reality came too near.  Would Tennyson have written his wonderful poem if the Lady had decided to “accept reality,” the way that heroines did in all the contemporary stories Sybil hated, with their obligatory clichéd obeisances to realism?

The bittersweet pain of suffering lodged at Sybil’s heart had become the core of her being. It was the emotion that created the greatest love stories. Was it even possible to step aside from one’s identity, slide it off like a husk?

Her heart answered a resounding no. But a part of her now stood aside now, watching, detached. Wasn’t it possible to change, to become someone else, to let go of a dream that would never be real? No! She rejected the thought. But now she knew that she had a choice. That was something she’d never had during the four years she’d waited, immobilized like Sleeping Beauty, form paralyzed under glass.

Jim touched her arm. Still trembling, she leaned against his breast as he held her and stroked her back.

Here was another cliché: the unappreciated suitor. But only on the surface. Jim, so much like Sybil with David, had responded to her unavailability. Since he could not have her in the flesh, he could weave his troubadour songs and dreams about her, make her his lady Guinevere, his dame aux camilias. No, she could not see the two of them together.   They—or at least the roles they had played–did not belong in reality. Is that what David had tried to tell her? That he was not the Prince Charming she had made up?

Suddenly nothing was simple anymore. The narrative line of her tragic story had blurred.

Outside, the rain pattered at the window: November rain, sharp as needles, cool and cleansing, falling softly, surely, washing away the leaves and preparing the earth for spring.

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