Fiction

Seven Love Letters

Meditations on desire

Illustration by Marian Bantjes
“Lubyanka, 2 September 1918” by David Bezmozgis

My dear Mika,

Though you have made it clear that you do not care for me, my heart nevertheless insists that I address you as “my dear.” I know this will only irritate you. It irritates me too. My love has brought neither of us any happiness. But don’t think that I resent you for this. On the contrary, I am grateful. At a time of revolution, love is a bourgeoisie indulgence. In rejecting my affections, you reminded me of this. I am ashamed of the woman I was in Kharkov. I wanted romance so desperately that I forgot myself. For those two days, I allowed myself to imagine that I was once again a girl of sixteen. When I saw you, I saw the last man who had treated me with tenderness, spoke loving words to me, and made me feel like more than a rag dragged through the dirt. Seeing you, it was as if the twelve years of prison and loneliness had evaporated.

You will never understand, but I had lived for twelve years in permanent blackness. Even in the rare moments when my vision cleared, I saw before me only my black life in the prison camp. Many times I wished for the strength to bring about my own death. Many times I cursed myself for having survived the explosion in the hotel room. What had my survival brought me? Only misery. A girl of sixteen, half blind, imprisoned with no hope of clemency. But then came the February Revolution, the amnesty, and the doctors who restored my vision. And then, as if by fate, there you were in the street buying a newspaper. How else to explain your presence in Kharkov, standing in the street where I took my afternoon walks?

This is mere sentimentality I know, but amnesty from prison and reprieve from blindness made me foolish and optimistic. I shudder to think of the image I must have cut running toward you. I felt myself a young beauty, but what I must have looked like! Hysterical, a madwoman, coat flapping, hair wild, pale and gaunt. Like a witch from a fairytale used to frighten children. I saw the truth in your eyes but I refused to admit it. Though now, sitting in my cell, I see quite plainly the disgust on your face. I have seen much more of it in these last days. I no longer care. I accept that I am a woman who does not inspire warmth in men, and I will never again beg like a dog for a scrap of kindness.

I have no illusions, Mika. I know what awaits me. I know what to expect from the Bolsheviks. Sverdlov, Lenin’s pet jackal, has come to witness my interrogation. Naturally, I refuse to speak in his presence. They send one after another of their lackeys to pry information from me. They do not believe that I was capable of acting alone. Perhaps you also cannot believe this? But it is true. Before this letter reaches you, you will have read in the news-papers that I shot at Lenin. I do not think I succeeded in killing him. If I regret anything, it is only that. He is a traitor to the Revolution. I lay the responsibility for the treacherous peace with Germany and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly at his feet. I have told my inquisitors as much and so expect that they will not censor it from this letter. That this letter reaches you at all I have entrusted to Yakov Peters. He is the only one among them who has treated me with even a semblance of decency. In his youth, like you and me, he was an anarchist. History has turned him in one direction, me in another, and you in yet another. What will come of it all I can only speculate. But when the doctors fixed my eyes, I had hoped that I would look upon a better world. For the first days, I saw beauty all around me. I saw potential in all things, including myself. Of course this sensation did not last. It did not take long for the world to assert its true nature. The Revolution was betrayed and you confirmed my inadequacy as a woman.

For years I had consoled myself that, in prison, blindness was a sort of blessing. What, after all, is worth seeing in prison? But even liberated from the czar’s prison I recognized that I was not free. For the workers of the world, liberty remains an unkept promise. We remain prisoners of the bourgeoisie and of the false prophets of the Revolution. And so I am not sad to say goodbye to this world. I have done what I could to further the Revolution. I will die as I have lived, a Marxist and a Socialist revolutionist.

I will end here but for one request. Mika, I know I have no claims on you and no reason to make demands, but as this is the only letter I am permitted to send, I ask that you write to my brother Berl in New York. Tell him he was right, I was not made for a long life. Tell him also that I do not want our father to recite prayers for me.

Yours,

Fanny

This letter was discovered among the papers of Yakov Peters at the time of his arrest and execution by the nkvd in 1938.

Illustration by Marian Bantjes
“Give Up” by Jonathan Lethem

Dear E(arth),

I am writing to tell you to give up. You may already be a winner, the kind of winner who wins by losing, rolling onto your back and showing me your soft parts, letting me tickle and lap and snort at your supplicant vitals. Perhaps I should put this more forcefully: give up. You stand no chance. Resistance is futile, futility is resistant, reluctance is flirtatious, relinquishment is freedom. I love you and I am better than you in every way—grander, greater, glossier, more glorious, more ridiculous, energetic, faster in foot races and Internet dial-up speed, hungrier, more full of sex and fire, better-equipped with wit and weaponry. I’m taller than you and can encircle you with my lascivious tongue. Admit this and admit me. By opening this envelope you have been selected; from among the billions upon trillions of amoebic entities, you’ve been plucked up from the galaxy’s beach like a seashell by a god. Something in you sparkled for a moment (terribly unlikely it means anything much in the scheme of things); absurd that noticing you squeezed somehow onto the agenda of one such as me. But I was amused—don’t ask me why, it’s practically random, like a lottery. Yet you’ll never be able to spend the wealth of my love, to run through it and waste it like the hapless lottery winner you are. Though you may try, you’d never spend it in a dozen profligate lifetimes. My eyes settled on you in a weak moment, and you’ll never see another . No, I’m an edifice, an enigma; to one such as you my science is like magic. Don’t delay, act now, give up. You have been selected by a higher being from another realm to be siphoned from among your impoverished species to join me, to be seated in the empty throne beside me (only because I’d never troubled to glance to one side before to notice a seat existed there—not, somehow, until my gaze lit on you) where none of your lowly cringing fellows has ever resided. You’re unworthy but you’ll be made worthy by the acclaim of my notice. I say again, I’m superior to you. You’re tinsel, static, a daisy, a bubble of champagne that went to my head and popped, and I don’t even know why I want you and you’d better not give me the chance to think twice. You’ll find I’ve anticipated your responses and attached them below (see attachments, below). They’re feeble and funny, helpless and endearing, and you’ve already blurted yes take me yes how can I resist yes I give up yes. So do I as I say now. You’ve already done it, you’re in my arms like an infant, a ward, a swan. Give up, you gave up already, you’re mine.

Love,

M(ars)

Illustration by Marian Bantjes
“Love In Eight Chapters” by Juli Zeh

First Chapter
We could have been happy if only we had met. The day on which we didn’t meet was fine. Pouring rain at a time when only the rain was holding sky and earth together. You took refuge in a café, I too sat at a window in the warmth. It was the season of grog and gingerbread. We played at telling our future fortunes by pouring the molten wax of the candle on the table into water. The future consisted of flat red bloblets floating on the surface of a glass of mineral water. A woman crossed the room with small steps, holding a brimming cup with both hands. It was beautiful.

Second Chapter
Even as children we had similar interests. I gathered snails off paths so they wouldn’t crack like hollow hazelnuts under the shoes of walkers. You rescued frogs into which neighbourhood kids had stuck straws to blow them up. We liked to stand in the corner, we liked the fashions of the decade just past, we were interested in big fat books, and particularly enjoyed saying things no one understood. So we both became objects of people’s derision. That’s the best prerequisite for lifelong happiness together.

Third Chapter
You were my type, I was yours. Both of us blue-eyed with dark hair, an unusual combination. Because we were shorter than average, we liked to take holidays in Asia. Birds of a feather flock together. We loved long walks and quiet evenings at home. Out of timidity we preferred most of all to be by ourselves. We had difficulties getting to know people, and it’s particularly important to be in agreement on such a sensitive issue. But neither did we ignore the fact that opposites attract. That’s why you were male and I was female. We didn’t have any problems with that. We had been brought up to be tolerant.

Fourth Chapter
Like all true lovers we drew closer to each other in a roundabout way. We were young and nervous. We didn’t want to hang around waiting for life to begin. You slept with a bewitching peroxide-blond hairdresser, I possessed a hearing-aid technician. Soon the blond was merely a hairdresser, and my acoustic technician took deafness to be an economic blueprint. All the while we knew we were destined for something else. For being the knight in shining armour and the princess in the tower. For each other. For happiness. The days provided distraction, the nights consisted of waiting. Longing taught us to believe in true love. We liked to think of each other, particularly while masturbating.

Fifth Chapter
We also had some hard times. I grew flabby around the hips, your hair turned grey. How were we to recognize each other in this condition? A long succession of days passed in bitter silence. When the sun shone brightly we cursed as we looked into the mirror. The weather should not be lovelier than the person, when everything else—as we all know—is so relative. But the hate faded away, I knew you so well. Your despair was the salt in my soup. My suffering was the sugar in your tea. Your thoughts were mine. We had learned it was inner values that mattered—and just how much they did.

Sixth Chapter
Once I almost lost you. It was winter yet again, the whole city was treading on thin ice. You were widowed, I was divorced, snow pelted us with light from all sides. You were crossing the street on which I was driving. I was singing a love song along with the eight o’clock news on the radio when a flash of light from your glasses hit my retina. My hearing aid stopped working, your cry was lost in silence. You bent down behind some parked cars to search for your cane. The road ahead of me was empty. By a hair’s breadth—I tell you, my darling—I just missed hitting you by a hair’s breadth. For years I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something strange had happened.

Seventh Chapter
We grew old together. For a long time already sex had become irrelevant. We took pleasure in cake and falling leaves. Our rooms were pungent with the aroma of the past. The cleaning lady came once a week and mopped the floors. On her raised flowered buttocks I saw a hilly spring meadow, you didn’t see anything anymore. Together we were the lame, the blind, the dumb, and the deaf rolled into one person. We understood each other without words. We fingered similar photos, we ate the same porridge. Outside our dingy windows migratory birds revealed the future in ever identical formations.

Eighth Chapter
A great love conquers all obstacles. Great love shies away from nothing. On that very day when we didn’t meet each other we were sitting in different cafés. The future consisted of flat red bloblets floating on the surface of a glass of mineral water. A woman crossed the room with small steps, holding a brimming cup with both hands. As so often, my beloved, we had something in common. You remained alone, I remained alone. But I don’t even care about that. For time and again, day after day, my whole life long, I shall forgive you.

Translated from the German by Judith Orban, March 2005.

Illustration by Marian Bantjes
“When I Went Out” by Leonard Cohen

When I went out to tell her
The love that can’t be told
She hid in themes of marble
And deep reliefs of gold

When I caught her in the flesh
And floated on her hips
Her bosom was a fishing net
To harvest infant lips

A soft dismissal in her gaze
And I was more than free
But took a while to undertake
My full transparency

Ages since I went to look
Or she would think to hide
Torn the cover torn the book
The stories all untied

But someone made of thread and mist
Attends her every grace
Sees more beauty than I did
When I was in his place

Illustration by Marian Bantjes
“Final Fantasy” by Sheila Heti

Sweet Régine,

Come around to my neighbourhood. I’ll dig a tunnel under the city you can crawl through, to my apartment across the Parc Lafontaine. Lying in my bedroom as the day grows dim we’ll try to name our babies from the names of all our friends. When you close your eyes in my bedroom, you can sleep until the day grows dim. I’ll figure out what happens next. I’ll take you across the state line. Régine, it’s for our bloodline. We’ll wait until you’re twenty-five. We don’t have to be sons and daughters forever. I’ll tell my old man, and you tell your old man. I wonder how it is that in the darkness I don’t have to search for your eyes or your lips. And the lights are entirely out tonight.

The whole city is dark tonight. We don’t have to go out. You’re invited back into my bedroom. Take off your big coat, and take off your little coat, and all your socks and stockings. You can throw your coat into that corner, and trail in all the snow, flood this apartment with the city’s snow. You’re exciting. The way you curled into the rug, in the corner near your coat, with the coats of all our friends. You invited me down onto the rug. When you’re around, there’s no one else around. I knelt near you. And whatever happened next?

When I’m twenty-five, I’ll wash the dirt off of my knees. We’ll drink from one cup. We’ll eat noodles with one spoon, from one bowl. I’ll tuck you in every night, so your dreams won’t be so hard. I’ll stay up and you’ll stay warm, lying in my bed. You know skin grows cold, living out there in the cold.

What is our dream? Is it such a big dream? Isn’t it the smallest dream? You beside me. You’re inside me now. You sleep inside me. Is forever all that long? Why not forever, Régine? Why not the descendants of the day that we first met?

Let’s watch the country pass, from my bedroom’s window, and the windows we used to know. You’re inspiring, living in my bedroom, and my parent’s bedroom, and the bedrooms of our friends. Meet me in the town. I can drive us past the state line. I’ll carry you inside. You don’t have to speak, in the back seat of my car. I have my papers now. I have told my mom. You tell your mother, too. I’d leave my bedroom for you. I’d leave cities every month. I’d leave Oslo. I’d leave Norway and Glasgow. I’d leave Brussels. I’d leave Hamburg and Köln. I’d leave Vienna, and Manchester, and Munich, and Bristol, and Toronto, and Montreal.

W.

Illustration by Marian Bantjes
“You Would Look Away” by MG Vassanji

My Friend,

It’s drug mischief that’s brought you back… so painful. Or I would not trouble you. Again. It was so long ago. Another world. I betrayed you then, didn’t I… you couldn’t have forgotten that… wherever you are.

I see a boy walking diffidently up the curving hill of United Nations Road in Dar es Salaam, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him .… Remember?

You would look away into the sun’s glare determined to avoid me, your face scrunched up, and when you could bear it no longer you’d turn your head back, just in time to miss me passing in that glorious blue Citroën like a princess in a chariot. But one day our eyes met. I had you. Do you want a lift?—I said. And the shy dark boy dripping sweat looked startled, allowed himself just one step closer and stopped just long enough to sink his eyes in mine… and spoke in a dry voice, No thank you, and walked on. What did you feel? Your heart went thump, thump, thump, I could feel it. I, who was insulted. The next day you were not there, and the whole week; my driver sneaking sly looks at me in the mirror as I shamelessly scanned the sidewalk. I who was the insulted party. You were teasing me? No. Shy, only shy; I was so embarrassed, you replied—when you did finally appear on that road and accepted my lift. Where shall the driver drop you? Just there, opposite the mosque is fine. Here?—or closer… .? No—yes.… You didn’t want me to see your home, did you? And me, naive European girl, couldn’t understand why. How nervous you looked, each time we let you out, and without even a glance behind you ran as if for your life!

You’re so white; I mean—not pink. Is that what you first noticed about me? Not pink? No—that hair—no, before that—Yes? The car—it’s so majestic, the best car on the road. You noticed the car first and not me? But your hair—blazing, like a fire!

Flatterer. Yes, the brown head of curls, and the green eyes, how could you have missed them in the Citroën. The eyes are dimmer, but the hair is short and black, fashions change; and yes, dyed; and yes, thin too. You truly didn’t know where I came from; Sweden you mentioned once, and I pretended as if it were true; you didn’t know the flag on the car hood, the blue and white with the star in the middle that had been the badge of my people for so long, and how that endeared you to me. European, sure, but Romanian refugee, smuggled through the border aged two.

I had not a friend in town, and this boy comes along; shy, serious, thoughtful. That’s the first thought that came to mind when I saw you—what is he thinking in that head? And he’s had his hair cut. It looks funny. What is there to think about so seriously with that haircut-head of his. And dark, he doesn’t care about the sun roasting him, turning him darker. His skin will wrinkle sooner, Mummy might have said. I told her I had met this nice boy from the boys’ school who had agreed to teach me Kiswahili, and after some discussion she and Father agreed. You can bring him after school on Saturday.… The first time you came to our house you fell from the rattan chair. I laughed, I cried, for you. Almost everybody fell off that ill-designed chair, how could you have known. I could have told you but didn’t. Forgive a girl her whimsy.

You taught me calculus, my friend, I taught you Shakespeare; you did my physics for me, I gave you tennis .… And when I said let’s sit out in the sun and came out in my yellow bathing suit, your brown face turned maroon. I am sorry. But you did borrow my mother’s Lady Chatterley; just to find out what the fuss is about, you said. Sure. That too. I told her a friend had borrowed it.

Sure there was the exotic to you; the dark. And I was lonely. Not that there wasn’t other game in town. Little, but there. Hofner, also from Israel; the American twins who arranged a tryst under Selander Bridge to do the dirty on us diplomats’ daughters. But you were my special; your name I’d say over and over at night, happily; a king’s name; no, an imam’s;… but precious music all the same, always, Hoo… ssen, Hoo… ssen… , until that scud-firing monster came along and put his stamp on it.

The war came; the sixty-seven one. And we were non grata, more or less, more because of my father’s job. He was a spy. African governments did not like us anymore. And you never saw that Citroën again. I disappeared. No goodbye, no notice. How rude, how heartless. But not heartless, please believe me. I had no choice. Mother told me, What’s the point? You are going far away where he can never belong. And you are both young. Et cetera. What I might have told my own children later. And you yours.

It’s the drugs, you see, that have stirred you up like a genie from some dark recess of the mind… of the heart? .… Yesterday I saw a boy blow himself up into shreds and here I am. I am well, just shock, but it’s the drugs. The boy’s young face. And this precious thought: I wish I could send it to you, this thought of love and friendship; this sorry apology. I wish I could write it before it disappears. Again.

Tova

Tel Aviv

Illustration by Marian Bantjes
“Voice” by Margaret Atwood

I was given a voice. That’s what people said about me. I cultivated my voice, because it would be a shame to waste such a gift. I pictured this voice as a hothouse plant, something luxuriant, with glossy foliage and the word tuberous in the name, and a musky scent at night. I made sure the voice was provided with the right temperature, the right degree of humidity, the right ambience. I soothed its fears; I told it not to tremble. I nurtured it, I trained it, I watched it climb up inside my neck like a vine.

The voice bloomed. People said I had grown into my voice. Soon I was sought after, or rather my voice was. We went everywhere together. What people saw was me, what I saw was my voice, ballooning out in front of me like the translucent greenish membrane of a frog in full trill.

My voice was courted. Bouquets were thrown to it. Money was bestowed on it. Men fell on their knees before it. Applause flew around it like flocks of red birds.

Invitations to perform cascaded over us. All the best places wanted us, and all at once, for, as people said—though not to me—my voice would thrive only for a certain term. Then, as voices do, it would begin to shrivel. Finally it would drop off, and I would be left alone, denuded—a dead shrub, a footnote.

It’s begun to happen, the shrivelling. Only I have noticed it so far. There’s the barest pucker in my voice, the barest wrinkle. Fear has entered me, a needleful of ether, constricting what in someone else would be my heart.

Now it’s evening; the neon lights come on, excitement quickens in the streets. We sit in this hotel room, my voice and I; or rather in this hotel suite, because it’s still nothing but the best for us. We’re gathering our strength together. How much of my life do I have left? Leftover, that is: my voice has used up most of it. I’ve given it all my love, but it’s only a voice, it can never love me in return.

Although it’s begun to decay, my voice is still as greedy as ever. Greedier: it wants more, more and more, more of everything it’s had so far. It won’t let go of me easily.

Soon it will be time for us to go out. We’ll attend a luminous occasion, the two of us, chained together as always. I’ll put on its favourite dress, its favourite necklace. I’ll wind a fur around it, to protect it from the drafts. Then we’ll descend to the foyer, glittering like ice, my voice attached like an invisible vampire to my throat.

David Bezmozgis received a Governor General’s Award nomination for Natasha and Other Stories (2004). His debut novel, The Free World, was published in 2011.

Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. She won the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize for her writing and political activism.

Leonard Cohen was an ordained Zen Buddhist monk and a celebrated wordsmith.

Marian Bantjes is a designer, typographer, writer, and illustrator.