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Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan' - Psycho-Sexual Therapy in Action
This essay originally appeared in the Notes on Modern Irish Literature.
W.B. Yeats's heavily anthologized poem, "Leda and the Swan," can be read in
endless ways: as a political poem, a poem influenced by Nietzsche's idea of "Will to
Power," a poem of knowledge ultimately achieved through violence. Is the poem simply
referring to a myth? Is it addressing historical determinism? Critical methodologies
attempt to address these issues and more in their treatments of "Leda and the Swan."
However, to understand fully the poem and its implications, a formal close reading of th
e text must be combined with supplementary biographical information to inform a final
psychoanalytic reading of the poem. An understanding of the events surrounding Yeats's
life, then, will contribute to a textual analysis to show that the poem can be re ad as
Yeats's own particular rape fantasy, in which Maud Gonne is Leda and Yeats himself the
swan; and in displacing his frustrations into the poem, Yeats turns destructive impulses
into a constructive thing of beauty.
"Leda and the Swan" is a sonnet, one of the most precise forms of literature
known. An interesting paradox emerges, however, at first glance. The poem is written
in a traditional form (sonnet), using a traditional rhyme scheme, yet the subject matter
i s extremely non-traditional (violent rape as opposed to the usual love sonnets). This
paradox is representative of the many oppositional elements which abound in the text and
which help form the basis for understanding the oppositions which influence bot h Yeats
and the poem.
The rhyme scheme is traditional (ABAB CDCD EFG EFG) yet interestingly imperfect
in that four of the rhymes are not perfect: "push" and "rush," "up" and "drop"
(Hargrove 244). This again is another oppositional element, typical of Yeats, and could
be seen to symbolize the opposition between Yeats, the last Romantic, and Yeats, the
A transition exists in the poem's language, from an aggressive intensity to a
vague passive distance. The language in the beginning of the poem sets the tone of an
aggressive sense of urgency. Priscilla Washburn Shaw makes an excellent point when she
The action interrupts upon the scene at the beginning with 'a sudden blow,' and
again, in the third stanza, with 'a shudder in the loins.' It may seem inaccurate to say
that a poem begins by an interruption when nothing precedes, but the effect of t he
opening is just that (36).
The effect of this device is that it draws the spectator/narrator, and subsequently the
reader, into the action and into the poem.
The action continues for the first three lines of the first quatrain. Yeats
doesn't bother with a full syntax until the final line of the quatrain, at which point,
the urgency relaxes (Hargrove 240). The language in the first full quatrain is
represent ative of the opposition inherent in the poem; in this case, between intensity
and distance (Hargrove 240).
The imagery, and wording in general, in "Leda" is also representative, in an
initial reading, of oppositional elements within the text. A first reading shows Leda
described in concrete terms and the swan in abstract terms. Leda is "the staggering
girl" and the poem refers to "Her thighs," "her nape," "her helpless breast," and "her
loosening thighs." The swan is never actually called Zeus or even the Swan (in fact,
Agamemnon is the only name mentioned in the body of the poem). The swan is described as
"great wings," "dark webs," "that white rush," "blood," "indifferent beak," and
A second reading of the poem, however, shows that ambiguities do exist. The
concrete and abstract merge. Generalized terms are used for Leda ("terrified vague
fingers") and concrete terms for the swan (wings, bill, beak). The purpose of this
ambiguity could be, as Nancy Hargrove explains, "to stress that the god is, after all, a
real, physical swan engaged in a physical act" (241). Regardless, this ambiguity is,
again, representative of the conflict within the poem.
Verbs play a major role in understanding "Leda and the Swan." They are present
tense through the octave and the first part of the sestet ("holds," "push," "feel,"
"engenders"). They then shift to past tense in the last part of the sestet ("caught,"
"ma stered," "Did") (Hargrove 241). The verbs in the present tense imply an intense
immediacy while those in the past tense distance the reader (and perhaps the aggressor
as well) from what has just occurred. Additionally, as Nancy Hargrove points out, ther
e is a juxtaposition between active and passive verbs so that the active verb forms
("holds," "engenders") belong to the swan while passive verb forms ("caressed,"
"caught," "mastered") belong to Leda (241). The verb forms, then, play an active role
in c ontributing to a close textual reading.
Yeats continuously makes use of various devices to further heighten ambiguous,
oppositional, and dramatic elements within his poetry. "In his minimal use of the
possessive adjective, and the consequently greater use of somewhat unusual alternative
for ms, Yeats achieves effects which are curiously suspended between the concrete and
the general" (Shaw 37), thus highlighting the ambiguities in the text. Further still,
"the linguistic suggestiveness of the absence of any qualifiers for 'body' is consider
able" (Shaw 37). It is considerable in that it makes us even more aware of the
ambiguities (whose body?). It linguistically suggests the lack of an identity; it is
essentially a dehumanizing element.
While the subject matter of the poem is violent and disturbing, the structure of
"Leda" conveys feelings of safety and beauty. Hargrove submits that the intensity of
the rape is controlled by the narrow confines of the sonnet, an aesthetically pleasing
and heavily structured art form (242). Douglas Archibald asserts, "The sonnet form
achieves for 'Leda'" this: "violence and historical sweep held in one of the most
tightly controlled of poetic forms" (196). The violence of the rape is then controlled
within the constraints of the sonnet. Additionally, the sonnet itself is brief, thus
ensuring the rape will be brief as well.
While the rape is controlled through the structure of the poem, the organization
of the poem "reflects in an orderly manner the progress of the rape" (Hargrove 243).
The first quatrain presents the assault. The second quatrain reflects Leda's emotions.
The first half of the sestet presents the ejaculation scene. The cut line represents a
dramatic moment in time: a death-like silence. The final part of the sestet shows the
act receding into memory while posing the question of meaning (Hargrove 243).
Yeats makes use of several technical devices to convey the intensity of what is
being portrayed in the poem. Among these devices are alliteration ("brute blood"),
iambic pentameter, and the meter in general. Bernard Levine notes that "no regular
metric al pattern" exists but "there is a pervading rhythmic base in which verbal stress
displaces the accent-guided line" (116). Nancy Hargrove elaborates by showing that the
imitates the gasping and throbbing pulsations of the rape by its irregularity,
its sudden sharp caesuras, its sentences spilling over from line to line, its
dramatic broken lines in the sestet, its piling of stressed syllables (243).
The ambiguities in "Leda" imply a confrontation both real and imagined, physical
and intellectual. Bernard Levine addresses the ambiguity surrounding "the staggering
girl" in line three. "Staggering" as intransitive participle means that the girl is li
terally physically staggering, but the transitive verb form shows that she "staggers"
the mind (of the swan), so to speak (115). Levine addresses another ambiguity in the
connotation of the word "still" in line one. The bird is described (we assume) a s
having just dropped down on Leda, yet the word "still" implies a timeless continuity
The text, then, presents the rape scene, painting a vivid and terrifying picture
of its aggressive violence and its subsequent transition to passivity. The text also
shows a pattern of oppositions and ambiguities which are manifestations of a series of
conflicts between the material world and the spiritual world: the physical and the
intellectual. Nancy Hargrove remarks that the apparent opposition between abstract and
concrete is representative of that between "human and divine" (235). Shaw views it in a
more personal light: as the opposition "between self and world" (35).
The oppositions inherent within the text, and the subsequent series of conflicts
which they represent, are important in that they are manifestations of and parallels to
oppositional conflicts occurring in Yeats's own life. The violent textual rape is th e
result of his inability to reconcile these personal conflicts and the poem, then, is an
example of Yeats displacing his frustration, and doing so in a positive and safe manner.
If this assertion is indeed accurate, "Leda and the Swan" would be consiste nt with
Yeats's later poems. Edmund Wilson writes, "The development of Yeats's later style
seems to coincide with a disillusionment" (17). Cleanth Brooks argues that Yeats
"proposed to substitute a concrete, meaningful system, substituting symbol" as a way of
combating harsh, technical reality (69). "Leda" is consistent with the assertions.
And, the key to the reality Yeats is attempting to address is Maud Gonne.
Maud Gonne was a militant Irish nationalist with whom Yeats was very much in
love, and who appeared as a tortured image in much of his poetry. She gave herself
completely to her country and expected the same type of nationalistic dedication from
Yeats. They loved one another deeply but were never able to reconcile the differences
in their feelings. Maud Gonne loved Yeats in a platonic sense; Yeats desired a more
Both Yeats and Maud Gonne considered themselves mystics. They belonged to the
Heretic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society in which they attended seances. Maud
desired a "pure" spiritual life and felt that type of life precluded physical contact
(sex) w ith Yeats. Yeats aspired to a like belief system, but was unable to live up to
these idealized standards. Under these conditions, Yeats and Maud Gonne entered into a
"spiritual" marriage. Bernard Levine explains that "The marriage was based on a commun
ication through dream correspondence and astral vision (controlled release of spiritual
tension)" (127). Levine suggests this spiritual marriage was "the background and
psychological excuse for the writing of 'Leda and the Swan'" (125). Well before the
poem was written, Maud Gonne had become an identifiable entity in Yeats's poetry. In
fact, Geoffrey Thurley refers to the poem as another "Maud/Helen" poem (165). Levine
also states that Maud had become identified with Helen (the mythological daughter of
Leda) as early as 1908 (125) and goes on to identify Maud with Leda as well (126).
Consistent with his penchant for myth-as-metaphor, and mythology in general,
Yeats declared sexual desire to be a myth. Yet, at the same time, he wrote that he
"used to puzzle Maud Gonne by always avowing ultimate defeat as a test" and he believed
that his "spiritual love for Maud could never be consummated except through sexual
union," supporting the idea that the "'mystic way and sexual love' are inextricably
related" (Levine 125, 127). This conflict serves as an example of the type of
opposition Yea ts could never reconcile and which would later manifest itself in "Leda
and the Swan."
Yeats viewed Maud Gonne as having achieved purity and felt as though he too
should be above sexual longing. Levine argues that, unable to overcome his sexual
needs, Yeats had little alternative but to interpret his continual sexual longing as a
betrayal of Maud (128). Interestingly enough, Yeats "kept" a woman in London for a
time. Perhaps Yeats provides a good example for us of a man suffering from the
Virgin/Whore syndrome. The "pure" women in his life are untouchable and are
romanticized in his po etry while those who succumb to his needs are referred to as
"harlots" ("Presences") (Levine 128).
Yeats's sense of betrayal, coupled with his failed attempts to suppress
unacceptable desires, conceivably led to an enormous amount of guilt. In reference to
sexuality and guilt, Francis Oppel suggests that Yeats understood the psychology of
tragedy, in that orgasm (which engenders life and also equals death of sexual desire)
enables one to overcome pain and, by extension, guilt and death (122). This
overwhelming sense of guilt resulted in a disillusioned and angst-ridden Yeats, and the
resultant frust ration led to, as Joseph Hassett terms it, an "overwhelming
preoccupation with hate" (Introduction viii) and a sense of self hatred. This (self)
hatred led a despondent Yeats to contemplate suicide. Levine quotes Virginia Moore as
stating, "Yeats dreame d that, walking along a path by a broken wall a precipice, he
felt dizzy and longed to throw himself over" (130).
By "Leda and the Swan," Yeats was preoccupied with death, both consciously and
unconsciously. Bernard Levine states simply that "Because his relationship with Maud
Gonne remained unconsummated," Yeats's "imagination fastened quite decidedly in his
later years on the themes of sex and death" (126). A bridge that Levine doesn't seem to
wish to cross, however, is the idea that Yeats's later themes do focus on sex and death
out of this sense of self hatred engendered by the guilt over his inability to live up
to Maud's standards and, initially, by the frustration he felt over Maud's unwillingness
to comply with his desires.
Some critics even contend that hate is Yeats's generative principle. Joseph M.
Hassett contends that Yeats "used his hate to penetrate the uncharted depths of his own
mind" (Introduction viii). Ashok Bhargava (156) reaffirms this love-hate antithesis f
ound in later Yeats. Quite simply, Yeats consciously attempted to suppress his physical
desire and failed. This failure led to an unconscious resentment of the figure (Maud)
perceived as responsible for this resulting guilt/self hatred. This (repressed )
resentment resulted in violent tendencies and the rape scene in "Leda" is, finally, the
sublimation of sexual impulse.
Several instances exist to support the correlation between aspects of the
spiritual marriage and elements within the poem. Levine, again, cites Moore in noting
these instances. During the summer of 1908, Yeats saw a vision of Maud and himself
"joined b y a 'sort of phantom ecstasy,'" which was accompanied by an impression of a
swan floating in water. This was followed by a dream in which "Maud reproached Yeats
because she could not break down some barrier" (127). Another time Maud wrote that she
and Y eats had "become one with ecstasy" and Yeats had appeared to her triumphantly in a
dream, after which she woke to a gust of wind blowing in her room and a voice of "an
archangel who announced that from her union a 'great beauty may be born,' once she had
been 'purified by suffering'" (127, 128). There is evidence of other such examples.
Yeats, the idealistic Romantic, could not let go of the hope that Maud would one
day become a willing participant, physically. Yeats must have hoped that his persistent
passion and intensity would eventually persuade her to give in. Elements from the j
ust-noted example would support this hope and are found in the text of the poem: the
swan image, barrier image, the idea of unity through sexual union. At this point, could
Yeats's unconscious have been softening the tone (and implications) of the rape in the
poem? These examples suggest that is indeed the case. Additionally, as previously
mentioned, the tone of the poem moves from aggressive to passive. Furthermore, a clue
which supports the idea of a hope Yeats harbored lies in the revision process . Richard
Ellman informs us that the poem went through several stages of revision. In earlier
versions, Yeats portrayed the scene as an inarguable rape in which Leda is mounted
(177). In the later, anthologized version of 1928, Leda has been given "loo sening
thighs," suggesting a type of acquiescence on Leda's part. The implication for this
shift, then, in language and tone in the final version of "Leda and the Swan" is that
the change is an example of Yeats displacing his fantasy that Maud Gonne woul d
eventually be swayed to engage him sexually and would become a willing, if passive,
participant. In the earlier versions, Yeats was displacing his aggression. In the
final revised version, Maud Gonne as Leda takes an active response role.
Finally, "Leda and the Swan" is a violent poem and can be seen as Yeats's own
particular rape fantasy; however, it remains an object of beauty. A close reading of
the text focusing on the oppositions inherent within the poem, combined with an
understand ing of the circumstances surrounding Yeats's spiritual marriage to Maud Gonne
shows the poem to be a manifestation of the conflict between reality and ideal, human
and divine that Yeats spent years trying to reconcile. The poem allows Yeats to
displace h is violent fantasies concerning Maud, yet it does so in a structured,
controlled manner (ensuring safety), and it allows Yeats to, finally, retain a certain
amount of romantic hope. "Leda and the Swan" was Yeats's only realistic alternative to
the conflict in his life, and as a form of self therapy, it remains a nearly perfect
work of art.
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This piece originally appeared in the Notes on Modern Irish Literature.
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We came across this story in the 2005 edition of the anthology Best New American Voices (Harcourt), which collects the finest unpublished writing from college writing programs and workshops around the country. We weren’t the only ones who fell in love with it, and by the time we inquired about a reprint, it was already part of Eric Puchner’s first collection of short fiction, Music through the Floor (Scribner). We’re reprinting it here for the benefit of readers who haven’t yet discovered Puchner’s unique voice. “Essay #3: Leda and the Swan” is excerpted from Music through the Floor, by Eric Puchner. © 2005 by Eric Puchner. It appears here by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY.
Although the swan is not a delicate creature like a butterfly, and is not cuddly and cute like a kitten, it is a living thing that can feel pain and hunger just like any other living creature. In “Leda and the Swan,” by William Butler Yeats, a perverted sort of swan ends up performing sexual intercourse with a loose girl named Leda. The motive of the swan is shown when he performs only a few foreplays, like caressing her “thighs” and gripping her “helpless breast,” before revealing his “feathered glory.”1 He’s got only one thing on his mind: shuddering his loins. This swan is clearly a sex-starved animal that doesn’t belong in Ireland, let alone a city park! In this essay, I will argue that Mr. Yeats is actually a mentally ill person who lives poetically through swans and furthermore knows nothing about swans and their gentile mating habits.
Cow, what do you chew?Big peace, bothering no oneWho later chews you.2
Turkey, my cousinWe fail to be beautifulPunishment: oven.3
Franz was upset because he felt like Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t the best time for the reading of poetry, especially when he was eating a wing belonging to the protagonist of the poem. He said that Jeanie and the turkey must really be related if she would ruin a family get-together by reading a poem about the stupidest animal on Earth. Franz said that turkeys were so stupid you couldn’t leave them out in the rain or else they’d drown. In fact, his family had lost a perfectly good turkey in Bavaria because his father had left it out in a thunderstorm by accident. Jeanie asked him if we should kill retarded people too because they’re less intelligent than us, and Franz said no, we should leave them out in the rain first and see what happens. This made me laugh, but Jeanie didn’t think it was very funny. She called him a Nazi. This was very bad, and mentally ill, because Franz is not a Nazi even though he thinks Germany’s the best country in the world.
Actually, Jeanie was upset because I’d invited Colin, her ex-boyfriend, to dinner. I didn’t feel too bad because they’d only dated for two months before Colin dumped her, and surely Jeanie should have seen the perfect destiny of our match. Later Colin told me the truth, which was that he’d only gotten to know Jeanie in the first place because he was in love with me on account of my facial beauty. I can tell you right now that my sister’s not so facially victorious. She’s got our dad’s nose, which is a shame because my mom’s been married three times since my dad and all of our stepfathers have had noses that didn’t say from across the street hello I’m a nose.
Anyway, Colin’s dumping her for my less-visible features may have had something to do with Jeanie’s mental collapse. Poets are very unstable people who often go crazy or die, and I should say that Colin is very handsome and popular and we were all surprised when he decided to date Jeanie in the first place. He is in a band called Salacious Universe and has long hair and these perfect gold arms like when you put honey on toast (except there aren’t usually hairs in your toast). He is a construction worker on the weekends and looking at his arms kind of makes me wiggle my toes in an unvolunteering way until my sandals fall off. The wiggling was inaugurated at my first Salacious Universe concert. As it turned out, Jeanie couldn’t go to the concert because she was attending a Vegan rally in front of the Safeway near our house. The concert was in the school auditorium (maybe you remember, Mr. Patterson, the flyers with Colin’s hands shooting thunderbolts?), and I went with my friends Tamara and Tamara. It’s a little weird how they have the same name, but neither of them wants to be called Tammy or Tams or Mara or any nickname I can think of because that would mean the other one got to keep their real name and she didn’t.
All you mortals, I can and will bendCuz I’m the father of gods and men!4
Believe me, everyone was screaming and wanting to intercourse him if they were either female or homosexual.
Then something happened that wasn’t in the program. Right when Colin was achieving the height of his genius, there was a blackout and everything went dark. You could hear the band playing in the dark, but the electricity was gone and it was just a ghost sound and not the real thing, like when you’re talking to your step-grandparents in Germany and your voice comes back to you all small and distant on the phone. Then the lights went on again and Colin was shocked. I mean “shocked” in the electrical sense, because the microphone made a weird zapping sound and Colin’s hair stood up into a punk-rock hairstyle and he flew across the stage like a migrant bird. Everyone was concerned about his general health, including me, and I ran up onstage to give him mouth-to-mouth. By the time I got there, though, he’d already half recovered and was blinking into space with a very sedated expression that said I’m having a one-on-one interview with the light.
That’s how we ended up backstage, me and Tamara and Tamara. We were delighted to be official Salacious Universe groupies, even though I was clearly the main one and they were really just groupies of me. It was cooler behind the stage and I furthered the recovery of Colin’s head by resting it against a papier-mâché stump. He knew who I was, of course, but I had to introduce him to the Tamaras since they were persistent in their appearance. He found it supremely cool that they had the same name, and Tamara and Tamara were both sort of nonplucked because they did not secretly believe it was cool at all. Tamara asked him why the song was called “Pagan Liver” since it had nothing to do with body parts, and he explained that it wasn’t supposed to be a part of the body at all but a person who lives, like you’re a Pagan and you live that way.
After packing up his stuff, Colin asked me if I wanted to walk with him to the pay phone on the other side of campus. (I didn’t offer my cellphone, because I’d never walked even a few feet with a famous guitarist.) The stars were shining like distant balls of gas, and you could see the janitors sitting on the roof of the library, sharing a cigarette. It was all very peaceful and beautiful with the janitors talking in Spanish and the imported words floating on top of our heads. Everything was really quiet except for the inside of Colin’s pocket, which jingled with coins on account of his pinball-playing habit. That was when he told me that he liked the way I looked. His hair was still sticking magically from his head, all bright and glowing, like each hair was partaking in photosynthesis from the moon. He said he was going to call Jeanie and tell her he couldn’t take her to Hailu’s Tofu Palace because something had come up, something unexpected, without telling her of course it was a secret crush on my face.
So that was how I ended up stealing Jeanie’s boyfriend. I know it isn’t cool to steal other people’s boyfriends, especially if those people are your flesh-and-bones sister, and as a general rule I try to avoid it — but this was destiny and you only get one chance to fill it or else it flaps away into the starry universe. When I got home from the concert, I found Jeanie waiting on the porch in her favorite skirt and leather-free high heels. I realized that Colin had forgotten to call her on account of his fingers being so talented. Because I’m a very honest person, I told her in a considerate way that Colin had fallen in love with me, that he was very sorry for the misunderstanding about dating her to begin with. Jeanie just stared at me with this little smirk on her face, like she was experiencing some gas in her stomach. Jeanie’s got these very smirkable bee-stung lips that kind of complement the humongous bee that must have stung her nose. She had an unburning cigarette in her hand and she started to tear off little pieces from the end of it, sprinkling the pieces on the porch like she was trying to grow a tobacco tree. (Even though she’s a Vegan, she smokes about five hundred cigarettes in her bathroom every day, which seems a little contradicting to her cause.) This was about when I started to appreciate her mental illness. I mean, if you’re mentally all right, and you’ve just found out that your boyfriend’s dumped you for your sister, possibly because you’re nasally obese, then wouldn’t you be a little upset? An hour later, when I went downstairs to get some water before bed, I looked through the window and saw Jeanie sitting out there in the exact same place as before, hunched there in her skirt, even though Franz said it was cold enough to freeze the testicles off a brass monkey.
Jeanie didn’t speak to me at all until Thanksgiving, when I invited Colin to the house and she read her Vegan haiku out loud before taping it to the refrigerator. To be honest, I was very hesitant to invite Colin at all, not only on account of Jeanie but because my mom is not a very gifted cook and likes to serve Bavarian carp salad as a tribute to Franz’s ancestors. After Jeanie called him a Nazi, we were all sitting there very much alarmed because she stomped around the room and said “Hi Hitler!” until our plates shook and the saltshaker tipped over on the table. I knew she was really directing her Nazi-bashing at me and Colin, even though she’d ignored both of us since the beginning of dinner. She was wearing a Salacious Universe T-shirt with no bra underneath and her hair was very oily and Jamaican-looking. Franz grabbed her by the arm and forced her to sit down, saying he’d have her delivered to a mental institution if she didn’t stop mistaking his identity. Hitler was a very evil man, but my stepfather is just a bald person who owns a tire shop and likes to watch women’s volleyball on Channel 39. My mom was incredibly pleasureless because she’d made Jeanie a special turkey-free dinner with Not Dogs and thought it would be nice to put some gravy on them, not thinking that gravy is made from the destruction of living creatures and their boiled necks. She finished her glass of white wine and started to get very sympathetic with the turkey’s plight, apologizing to the neckless bird when Franz broke off a wing or a drumstick. We all kind of lost our appetites, even Franz, who just sat there silently chewing without looking at anyone.
The next day Colin took me to get a tattoo, my first ever, which I designed myself because I wanted something totally original if I was going to beautify my ankle on a permanent basis. Of course I didn’t tell Jeanie, who avoided me the whole week, even when she came downstairs one night to watch a sleep-inducing documentary about the Animal Liberation Front. I couldn’t help noticing that she was boycotting brassieres as well as meat. When the scab came off my ankle, though, I was so excited that I forgot about Jeanie’s green-eyed jealousy and actually stopped her in the hall to show it to her. She lost her smirk for a second and seemed genuinely very surprised. After a brief silence, we had a conversation that I’ve tried to record here for prosperity:
JEANIE: You received a tattoo of a TV set?
ME: It is not a TV set. It’s a cobra.
JEANIE: I know I’m a mentally ill person who suffers from hallucinations, but it looks just like a TV.
ME: In reality, the cobra is coiled up in a basket. Like a snake charmer’s. That’s its head.
JEANIE: Why the [intercourse] does it have antenna?
ME: Those are bolts of electricity. From its eyes.
JEANIE: Ha ha ha ha! (mentally ill laughter)
A couple weeks after Thanksgiving, I asked Colin if Jeanie had ever been a slut with him, because frankly it was bothering my peace of mind quite a bit. We were sitting behind the Church, which was Colin’s name for the big electric plant where we sometimes went to pet heavily in his Wagoneer. It did kind of look like a church, with its big voltage things sticking up like spires, but I felt like Colin meant it another way as well. Like there was something churchy about its relationship to his head. He looked at me all serious with his face shining in the lights from the electric plant and said he wasn’t interested in intercoursing Jeanie, that he’d been waiting for her beautiful younger sister to turn sixteen, which made me feel better to the third degree. Then he said he wanted to show me something special. I was in reality a little nervous because of his incredible manliness, and because his eyes were gleaming in a weird way from the sulfur lights, like those reflector things on the pedals of a bike, but then he looked down and started to undo the buttons of his shirt with one hand in a very sexy method.
I was very stunned by what I saw. Starting near Colin’s Adam’s apple, and getting longer with each button he undid, was a big scar dissecting his otherwise perfect breasts and going all the way down to his bellybutton. It looked like a little pink snake crawling down his chest. He told me that when he was eight years old he had become very sick and unable to breathe, and that the doctors had had to give him open-heart surgery and repair his heart. What they did is take one of his valves out and put in a new one, except the new one was bionic and made of metal. I put my head to his chest, because he told me to, and I heard the buzzing of the electric plant all around us but also a little sound under Colin’s ribs, a secret ticking in his heart, like a watch when you put it up to your ear. It made me very sad and amazed. I asked him if he was still in any danger, but he told me that his new valve worked perfectly as long as he didn’t go bungee jumping or scuba diving in some really great barrier reef. I closed my eyes and didn’t see Colin the famous singer of Salacious Universe but Colin the sick boy who couldn’t breathe, a little shivering boy thinking he might not live past age whichever, sitting by himself in the cafeteria or library or boys’ locker room, and it made my insides melt into Natalie soup. That’s when I said I thought I was in love with him. Colin looked at me very carefully, like he was deep in thought and maybe remembering the suffering of his childhood. Then he said that he didn’t ordinarily do this, not after knowing me such a short time, but that he felt an “electroaffinity” between us and thought that we should finalize our love in the back of the car, especially since the Wagoneer had collapsible seats.
The truth is, I was a virgin and therefore the anti-Jeanie, but I didn’t really want to admit it out loud. I didn’t want to intercourse anyone who didn’t love me in the biggest, most eternal way possible. I told Colin I wasn’t ready to go all the way, and he kind of smile-frowned and said that he loved me, he just wanted to prove it to me — that’s all it was, a way of proving his love — but I said it was extremely important to me and I needed time to think about it before yielding to his loins. I got home late that night, because Mom wants to empower us with our own curfews, and then stopped in front of Jeanie’s door, listening for sounds of sexual abandonment. I knew Jeanie was a mentally ill slut, but I felt kind of bad because we used to be best friends when we were kids and now she was just a human sex appliance with no moral fibers. I remembered how we used to play orphanage every day and pretend to scrub the floors to please the evil housemother, two orphans with very miserable histories, but then we’d escape from the orphanage and find a tree to sleep under in the backyard and sneak back into the house like it was a rich person’s mansion, filling pillowcases with whatever things we could steal, candlesticks and spaghetti tongs and big hunks of cheese. We’d sit under the tree and take each stolen thing out one at a time, saying Oh how beautiful! until we were close to tears.
I saw that Jeanie’s light was on and knocked on the door and she opened it in an extra-small T-shirt, one of those slut shirts that have numbers on them like football jerseys. She stood there smirking in that mental way, holding her stuffed hippopotamus under one arm like she was performing a touchdown. She asked me what I wanted and I told her I just wanted to see how she was, which was actually kind of true, though I also wanted to know if she could tell me anything about Colin’s sexual résumé. She didn’t invite me into her room so we stood there in the hall. I wanted to ask her if she remembered being kids, how we used to cry like stupid babies over spaghetti tongs, just to turn her mouth into something less smirky — but I didn’t, of course. Instead I peered into her eyes and asked her if she loved the boys she intercoursed, except I used a less ethical word.
She seemed very unshocked and even laughed. Love’s a joke, she said. Do you think Mom loves Franz? Do you think the President loves the First Lady? Do you think anybody loves anybody? I told her that love had to exist. Why else would people keep getting married all the time? Jeanie seemed to find this very smirk-inducing. Mom’s been married four times — do you think she ended up loving any of them? How many of your friends’ parents are still married? I didn’t know what to say to that. It’s true that almost all of them are divorced: Tamara’s parents are divorced, and so are Tamara’s, and actually I couldn’t think of any original parents who seemed very much in love. And certainly Mom hasn’t excelled in the romance category, seeing how we’ve had a new stepdad every four years — and now she and Franz’s heads weren’t exactly over their heels either, if you take into consideration that they yelled at each other every night about who should have put gas in the car or did she recycle the newspaper article about American children having lower IQ scores than Europe.
Still, I felt like I had to defend the most important part of my life, even if I had my own doubts about the future. I looked Jeanie in the eyeballs and told her that anyway I was in love, and that nothing else mattered. This actually did end Jeanie’s smirk, because she looked at me kind of like she was the rich mother of the mansion pitying a starving girl orphan. She dropped her head a little bit and said that she needed to tell me something about Colin, that he’d never actually broken up with her completely. In fact, ever since Thanksgiving, he’d been visiting her room in the middle of the night while I was asleep! It wasn’t just to relieve his loins either: they’d talk until morning sometimes, about the universe and its general lack of meaning and how they were the only people at school who knew that we were all just animals. He could never dump her for good, because their brains were conjoined. Jeanie was staring at Hippo and wouldn’t meet my eye, and really I had to guess that she was speaking to me at all.
You don’t even know what’s real! I said.
I felt very depressed after our conversation, even though I knew Jeanie was extremely diluted and making up stories. I went downstairs to see if I could locate my mother. Instead I found Franz sitting in the TV room watching beach volleyball on Channel 39 and eating a carton of Häagen-Dazs vanilla-fudge ice cream. He did what he always did when I discovered him watching women’s volleyball, which was to get a blushing face and then tell me how he enjoyed the game of volleyball because of its “strategic nuance.” I didn’t see much strategic nuance, whatever that means, except that the players kept having to brush sand from their buttocks after they dove, which meant that there were four buttocks on each side to de-sand. I sat down with Franz to try to appreciate the game of volleyball, but when I asked him what the score was he said he wasn’t sure.
So I went upstairs and knocked on my mother’s door. As usual, she was drinking white wine because of her nerve-wrecking marriage and lying in bed with the covers pulled up to her waist. I asked her if she was all right, and she said that yes, of course she was all right, if you call being married to a Nazi tire salesman with one ball all right, then I should send my congratulations to Eva Braun. I had no idea what she was talking about, at least with the congratulations part, and I was worried that she might be getting mentally ill like my sister because I’d heard about these things running in the family. She asked me if I knew who else had one testicle, and I said no, and she said Hitler! I was very upset that Franz had the same testicles as Adolf Hitler, because I wasn’t even aware that he was disabled. I wanted to make her feel better, so I crouched beside her and took her glass of wine away and then kind of tucked her into bed like she used to do when I was a girl. It’s a weird thing, tucking in your own mother, and I don’t really recommend it unless you’re a professional nurse and have a diploma in drunk-mother-tucking. Before I turned off the lights, I asked her why she’d married Franz to begin with, was she in love with him, and she looked at me sadly and said she didn’t remember now if she ever was, wasn’t that the bee’s knees?
I went into my own room after that and took out this picture I have of my father, my real and un-German one, who died when I was six in a car accident. I sat down at my desk and took it out of the CD case I keep it in and held it at the corners so I wouldn’t vandalize it with fingerprints. In the picture, my dad and I are in a boat together, one of those ferries you can take to Alcatraz to avoid the sharks. He looks young and very smart in his glasses, and you can see this funny detail above the enormousness of his nose, how his eyebrows kind of join forces in a unibrow. I sat there at my desk and stared at the picture for a long time. Our hair is levitating from the wind, which seems very fierce and bone-chilling, and by the way I’m tucked into my father’s lap it looks like he’s protecting me from the cold.
The next evening, Colin and I went to Mr. Pizza Man so he could play pinball on his favorite machine, which had a scoreboard featuring women in costumes from the future and very true-to-breast cleavages. I sat in one of the booths, watching him dominate the machine with his perfect skills. Then we drove to the Church like always and parked in front of the big transformer with the sulfur lights brightening the sky and putting the stars out of business. He tried to pet me for a while, but I guess I wasn’t in the mood because I didn’t return his advances in a right-away fashion. He stopped advancing and frowned for a second and then looked at me seriously, his eyes shining in that weird way they had. That was when he told me about his secret powers. He made me promise not to tell anyone and then explained that he could see into the future before it happened, which was why he could play pinball forever without losing a coin. He knew the itinerary of the pinball before it occurred. I was very startled and didn’t speak for a long time. I asked him if he could see into my future like the pinball’s. He said yes, he could see my whole life and even beyond that, but that the knowledge was in his body and the only way to share it was to pass it directly. The Gift, he called it. I didn’t really believe him, but probably I was so in love with his Colinness that it didn’t matter what was true or not. I thought for a long time, about how he used to be a sick boy with no power even to give his heart enough kilowatts to beat, and about how I thought of him twenty-four hours a day until I couldn’t sleep, and how if I knew my future for real, I might stop being so scared about everything in this great and mysterious world founded by God — about my own helpless feeling and my mom being an unrecovering alcoholic and Jeanie being mentally ill when she used to be my friend — and then I told him that next Saturday, not the coming one but a week from then, December 18, 2004, I’d be ready in my room at 9 P.M. sharp.
When Saturday finally arrived, I couldn’t wait all day in my room without becoming mentally ill myself, so I drove to the construction site in El Cerrito where Colin was working. It was a very warm day for December, and I parked behind a trailer where no one could see me. Colin was up there on top of the house he was building, kneeling like a Japanese person and hammering nails into a two-by-four made of wood. A radio on the ground was blasting hard rock from the eighties, all metal all the time, so I don’t think anyone heard me pull up. It was kind of weird that Colin was working, because I saw the other guys on the crew taking their lunch break on the gates of their pickups in a very chummy manner. Colin had his shirt off, and when I first saw him from the back, the way his muscles kind of remained invisible until he bent down to hammer a nail and they came up like a secret promise to Natalie Mudbrook, a volt of longing went through me and all my doubts about intercourse were exploded. It didn’t matter to me that I was only 99 percent sure of his devotion. I fantasized that Colin and I were already married and that he was building us a house, a big beautiful mansion where we could live out our days in endless eternity.
And then something very strange occurred. This woman walked by in one of those running tops that show your bellybutton, walking a big dog in front of her, and the crew started yelling at her in this very discriminating manner. They were wiggling their tongues and making their hammers into phallic symbols and even performing air intercourse. I glanced up at Colin and wondered if he’d come to her rescue, because I knew he was very respecting of women. Instead, he put his hand on his sewn-up heart and called her a mamacita in Spanish and asked for her phone number in this loud voice that everyone could hear. Of course, I knew that he was just trying to impress his co-workers, that he didn’t really want the little mama’s number at all, but it gave me this weird feeling like my own heart was struggling to beat.
I left the construction site and drove around for a long time, sort of without knowing where I was going, like a ghost or something, until finally I stopped at a random Burger King for a Pepsi. I sat in one of the booths by myself and stared through the open window at the neon sign, which said HOME OF THE WHOPPER in big buzzing letters. I remember thinking how everything was supposed to have a home, even the Whopper, but what if you weren’t the Whopper but just a girl whose mom and stepfather couldn’t get along and everyone you saw or loved — even a beautiful boy you were about to intercourse in a couple hours — seemed to belong to a secret home somewhere you couldn’t find? I mean it was out there, but no one had bothered to tell you where it was? So you had to go and sit in the Whopper’s home instead, like a burglar.
When it was dark, I drove around some more to unwind my head and then went up the back way of the house like always, passing by Jeanie’s room on the way to my own. I was feeling a desperate need to talk to her and started to knock on her door, but then I heard her plowing her slutdom and froze in midknock. I pressed my ear against the door. Jeanie was talking to someone in a strange voice, kind of loud and whispery at the same time, like she was trying to melt an ice cube in her teeth. Now and then a deep voice would interrupt her in a very personal fashion. It wasn’t a slut-a-thon, I realized, but just a conversation. Then the deep voice said something and she laughed. It was a woman’s laugh, un-girl-like and beautiful. The weird thing is, I felt kind of jealous. Not because I wanted to be a full-time premier slut, or because a boy had never made me laugh like that — but because I wanted to be the one making her laugh. Then whoever it was she was talking to got up and walked around and I lost my breath for a minute, because his shuffles were united with a faint sort of jingling, like coins.
I went to my room and lay in bed, trying not to think about nine o’clock almost arriving. It was storming pretty hard outside, and for some reason I thought about all those turkeys stuck out in the rain, all soaked and miserable, drowning maybe because they didn’t know enough to get out of it. It made me very sad. There was this little worm of rain moving on the window, kind of wriggling for no reason, and I watched it for a long time.
Then I heard a knock and the room’s energy changed completely. The energy collected around my body and seeped into my own skin too, like I was a giant battery getting charged. Everything seemed connected: the rain squirming, my heart pounding, the earth turning on its axle. Colin opened the door. He looked more beautiful than I’d ever seen him, face glowing with confidence and his hair kind of floating around him like a commercial. His clothes were only a little damp, despite the undry weather. I was very scared. He walked over to the bed and knelt beside my face. He didn’t say a word, just reached down and touched my lips, which made my eyelids sparkle at a very high frequency. I knew I wouldn’t stop him from transmitting me the Gift. He stood up all of a sudden and walked over to the window — I guess to close the curtains so no one would witness my conduction. His jeans were kind of slipping down like usual, and I could see this strip of skin below his tan line that was all bumpy and wrinkled from the elastic force of his boxers. I imagined it was one of those Braille messages for blind people to touch that said BELOW THIS LINE IS THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
But just as Colin was turning around to come back to bed, we heard a sound on the stairs that sounded like my mother’s coughing lungs. This was very unusual, because she almost never came to visit me, and when she did it was generally during the daytime when I wasn’t being deflowered. But sure enough, her steps began coming up the stairs. For a second, I just lay there like an embalmed person. Then I grabbed Colin’s arm and put him in the closet, telling him to wait there until the coast was cleared.
I was glad to see my mom wasn’t completely drunk yet, because she didn’t have the sniffling nose and bare feet she got when she was inebriated. There was just a frizz of gray hair like a piece of tinsel hanging into her eyes for Christmas. She walked over to the bed and looked at me with a sad expression. She said she was sorry, and I said what for? and she didn’t say anything but just kind of looked around the room, like she sensed Colin’s energy. Then she bent down and hugged me. I held her back and didn’t let go right away. Her hair was soft, and I could smell the maximum dandruff control of the Head & Shoulders she uses. She said, My god, sweetie, you’re trembling like a leaf. I wanted to ask her some questions about what it was like to be a full-grown woman with gray hairs in your face. Like, had a man ever solved her problems even for a week? Was being a woman, at least, something to look forward to? But I didn’t. I just hugged her until I could feel her heart beating through my sweater. I was squeezing pretty hard because she eventually had to peel my arms from her neck on account of her historic back trouble.
And then she left, except I didn’t tell Colin that she was gone right away. Instead I just lay there by myself and thought about this song Jeanie and I used to sing, the one with the double intenders in it. “Miss Lucy,” it was called. I lip-synched it in my head, picturing us under our favorite tree and clapping each other’s hands in a fast-motion rhythm like we used to:
Ask me no more questions, I’ll tell you no more lies,The boys are in the bedroom, pulling down their . . .Flies are in the meadow, bees are in the park,The boys and girls are kissing in the . . . D-A-R-K D-A-R-K D-A-R-K Dark Dark Dark
When I was a kid, I always loved the ending, how you spelled out “dark” with all its letters, like you didn’t want the song to end and spelling the last word was a way of putting it off for as long as you could. Sometimes, when my mom used to tuck me into bed, I tried to do the same thing in actual life and spell out the words of whatever I saw in my room, saying the letters in my brain, like it could maybe stop her from leaving and turning off the lights. C-L-O-S-E-T. There was a noise against the door, like the rustle-around of an animal. C-L-O-S-E-T. Soon I would know everything. C-L-O-S-E-T. I stared at the thing I didn’t want to say, listening for Colin’s breath behind the door, trying in my wildest brain to imagine what he’d look like when it opened.
Love exists. It has to.
I’m sorry, Mr. Patterson. I know I’m going to fail this essay, and probably the whole course, but it seems like William Butler Yeats has a lot of very talented groupies to explain his poem — but who’s ever going to explain my story except me? Who’d ever waste their precious time to sign up for Natalie Mudbrook 101?
It’s been two months now since Jeanie and Colin disappeared. Franz thinks they were in a conspiracy and ran off together, but perhaps it’s just an accident that they vanished at the same time. My mom and Franz filed a Missing Jeanie report with the police, even though her duffel bag is gone and she clearly packed up her own things because she remembered to take Hippo with her. Some guys at school say that Colin kidnapped her and took advantage of her mental unfitness, or else that they’re both crazy and made a suicide pact like those Davidist people in Texas. But I try not to listen to anyone else. Sometimes I think about Colin’s face that night after we’d become single backs again, when it wasn’t so wild and unhuman but more like a little boy’s in the hospital, looking sad and far off and not known by anyone — which was the way I was feeling too. On the weekends, I drive out to the construction site where he used to work and watch the crew nailing our house together. I just sit there in the car, watching it get taller every week. Sometimes I close my eyes for sixty seconds like a game, imagining that when I open them again I’ll see Colin walking toward me with his long hair and tool belt and glowing tan arms, the house finished and waiting to be peopled with newlyweds, like a movie version of my destiny.
But the weird thing is, with my eyes closed, I don’t see Colin at all. I see Jeanie’s brown eyes and size-challenged nose, which aren’t the movie features I was thinking about. We’re sitting in the half-built house, all hunched together because of the wind, pulling candlesticks and egg slicers and curtain-tier-uppers out of a pillowcase. Our eyes are crying at the beautiful objects. That’s how I know Jeanie’s really just run off like an orphan, except this time for real — that she’s waiting under a tree somewhere, living out of her duffel like a duffel-bag lady, except I don’t know where.
Meanwhile, Franz hides in the TV room after dinner, and my mom complains to me every night while I tuck her in, and the elm in the backyard where Jeanie and I used to play is invested with bugs.
I wonder, Mr. Patterson, if you can change something that’s not assembled yet. If you know the future, can you keep it from happening? The Gift is very strong, but actually it hasn’t come all at once like you’d think. Instead, I’ll be sitting in European-history class with my eyes half closed from boredom, or just staring out the window of my room while Tamara bitches about Tamara on the phone, and suddenly I’ll see a whole scene flash through my head, a perfect smellable dream-picture except I’m awake, like I could walk into my own brain and take a photograph. Sometimes they’re people I don’t recognize, but usually it’s someone I know pretty well or at least have seen before in my regular life. I’m trying to make sense of the dream-pictures as they come. Like my mom with a black eye and slippers on her feet, hiding on the roof of our house while it’s raining out. Or Rogelio, the school janitor, staring out the window of an airplane with his hands trembling a little bit under the tray table in its unlocked and downright position. Or one that I’ve seen more than once, which is Jeanie lying totally alone in an apartment somewhere without furniture, her ear pressed to the rug and listening to music through the floor. She’s wearing one of her extra-small T-shirts with stains under the arms, like maybe she hasn’t changed it for a while, but she’s smiling with this little-girl look like the music is the Secret of Everything and making her extremely happy, reminding her of something else, like maybe the secret really has to do with the past and not the future, but I can’t get close enough in my head to hear it.
8.You: Hi, Maria. This must be your mother.
Mom (drunk since dinner): He doesn’t look like your dad one bit. Where do you see it? He looks like a . . . teacher!
You: Ha ha ha. Maybe I should get a tattoo or something to disguise myself better.
Jeanie (smirking): Natalie’s got a tattoo. My sister, Natalie. Go ahead and show it, Natalie.
You (lifting your glasses): Wow. Look at that. A microwave?
Me: It’s a cobra.
9. Unless by “strange” he means like everyone else’s and therefore alone under their swanny feathers, in which case I’m not going to argue with that. (back)
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Eric Puchner’s short stories have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Zoetrope: All Story, the Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, and the anthology Best New American Voices 2005 (Harvest Books). His new short-story collection is titled Music through the Floor (Scribner). He teaches at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco with his wife, novelist Katharine Noel.More From This Contributor ▸