If I tell you I love you

15 Mar

This story was first published in M/C Journal

1.‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

2 .‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I heard your cry through the open window. I sat in the autumn sun, under the peach tree in the courtyard your father and I laid, brick by brick, during the hot summer before you were born. I heard your cry coming from the yellow nursery, through the white window frames and the floating cotton curtains. When I heard that cry, milk flooded my breasts. They swelled and stung, my nipples rose up hard and sprouted fountains; the front of my pink shirt grew dark and soaked. All this, at the sound of your waking cry.’

3. I offer my breast to my lover. Astride him, I lean forward and lower a round and rosy globe into his waiting mouth. He accepts only its hard tip, while delicately fingering the breast’s curves that are swollen, not with milk this time, but with desire. ‘Suck,’ I whisper and he does, noisily like the babies used to, kneading and fondling.

4. When he said ‘I’ll have to do something about it,’ he meant leave the others who had claims on his affections and take up with me in a permanent way. That was how he understood love, as responsibility, and long term goals. I was uninterested in these matters, young and with no sense of the future. ‘Fuck me,’ I whispered and he dabbled the tips of his fingers ever so slowly, in the wet flowing out of me down there.

5. He watched me. He watched me arch and open my mouth and cry a little and he flicked his tongue against mine, all the while dabbling with the most delicious rhythm, and flicking and whispering ‘Is that good? Do you like that, does it feel nice?’ until I cried out loud, and cried tears too. All that love flooding and stinging me. Stinging and flooding me.

6. The child suckled, but with less urgency, drowsy against my breasts. Milk trickled from the corner of his mouth. I stroked his full cheeks with the tips of my fingers. Counted his toes again as I did every day through the weeks after his birth. Kissed his fair brow, ran my tongue along his soft, fat arms. Fell asleep in the autumn sun underneath the peach tree in the courtyard we’d made. Fell asleep with the milky, snuffling infant heavy in my arms, and my breasts bared to the afternoon breeze. Fell asleep and dreamed I was in heaven.

7. It wasn’t always thus.

8. For example. My mother, on a carpet of bluebells in a northern forest at midsummer in soft, dappled light made love, and subsequently found herself with child. Her first sexual encounter, a stroke of bad luck if ever there was one. Family shame ensued. A short-lived marriage. A humiliating return to her father’s house with a tiny infant. My soft, fat arms, and my ten curled toes wrapped up tight in the blanket of disgrace.

9. This was only the beginning of the repercussions of that unplanned act, that reckless moment in the bluebells. My mother’s white dress stained bluebell blue and red with her blood. My father’s reassurances that came to nothing.

10. In fairy tales it is never the mother who hovers, heavy with bad intentions, around the growing girl. In fairy tales, it is always the stepmother, as if the notion of a mother consumed by dark passions towards her daughter is too abhorrent for fairy tales to bear. But someone has to bear it.

11. Children. Love blindly, and suffer, and always look out from their being with hope.

12. Grown up, I lie in my bedroom, alone. It’s late afternoon, and staring out of my window at the darkening sky I see the wicked witch of the west with her pointed hat and her black hair and her long black garments. I watch her fly across clouds made bleeding and orange by the setting sun. It seems to me that she is snarling at me, sending out rays of malevolence towards me where I lie on my white bed. ‘I did not take your life!’ I tell her. ‘I did not take your life!’

13. When finally I sleep I dream, not of the bad fairy, but of sex. It’s a long time since I’ve been with a man. My nighttime lover is a stranger. The love we make is sweet with greed. It trembles tender and dangerous between us, with lucidity too brilliant to be contained by fairy tales. I wake at dawn in the midst of orgasm. The encounter has about it a perfection that I’ve never known in waking life.

14. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but I remember to this day how her hair hung smooth, like black silk, like black satin, like midnight velvet, across her shoulders, and down the length of her back. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but to this day I imagine them as white, as cream, as milk, as soft, as perfumed, as tender, as giving. I imagine them as rosy globes within which love might dwell, waiting for me to suckle, waiting for me to drink from them the secret lessons they contain, the lessons that will set me right in life.

15. What does it mean when you have stolen your mother’s life, I wonder, as I prepare myself for the day. Is it a crime for which one may never atone?

16. ‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

17. ‘Best not, then,’ I advised and turned my back on him, the better to grieve my losses and count my blessings and dream my dreams.

18. In another lifetime, I saw him in a car park. We didn’t speak. Though I wanted to, though I made those movements towards him that signal the beginnings of an encounter, he waved me back and gestured with his silver head towards a shadowed figure in the front seat of the car. I understood. I shrugged my bag more securely across my shoulders and walked on. My head held high. That night I remembered everything from years ago, with little or no regret, and with a warm delight that I had once known these things, and yet escaped with my life.

19. ‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I took you in our bed, you slept between your father and me and in the mornings when we woke my breasts were full and aching. I offered them to you, and when you had finished, and fallen back into your infant dreams, I gave them to your father. These acts of love I count as some of the most generous I have ever performed. Your gratitude and your contentment, your small sighs, your unforgettable gaze, all these let me know the best of everything, at least for a while.’

20. The floor of my room is made of pale polished wood, and two brightly patterned oriental carpets lie across it, adding warmth and comfort. On the low table beside my bed there’s a small pile of books, a pair of reading glasses, a blue vase holding several stems of iris I bought at the Sunday markets, and a reading lamp with an engraved glass shade. I stay alone now, in another kind of love.

21. Sometimes I lie in this calm room, on my white bed, and through the window I watch the wicked witch in her long black garments that are like midnight velvet, like black satin, that flow out behind her, smooth as silk. I watch her as she flies back and forth across the darkening sky.

©Jennifer Wilson 2011

25 Responses to “If I tell you I love you”

  1. Elisabeth March 15, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    You declare your hand so beautifully here, Jennifer. This is a powerful piece that attests to the shame for women of our mother’s generation and the children they bore, when their desire could end in such consequences, not the birth of a baby per se but the judgements attached. The clash of women’s desire – maternal and sexual – and morality.

    Ths morning I read a quote in Deborah Luepnitz’s book on family therapy, ‘The family interpreted’, and thought of you and your emphasis on the importance of letting it be known where we’re coming from when we speak out as public advocates.

    “Virginia Woolfe,’ Luepnitz writes, ‘once wrote that when a subject is highly controversial – “and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.’



    • Jennifer Wilson March 16, 2012 at 7:31 am #

      Ah, that is a wonderful quote! I love it. Thank you. And of course Woolfe suffered greatly after childhood abuse.


  2. samjandwich March 15, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    I really like your stories Jennifer! But they’re not bedtime stories… more for those days when you have stayed at home with the flu and you find yourself sitting on the sofa in your pyjamas, the mid-afternoon sun streams in making you feel dirty and cold and reminding you that your free time is almost over.

    What I felt in this is the solitude that adults have at some point in their lives to acknowledge is their lot. It’s not a bleak loneliness, but punctuated as it is with moments of giving and sharing it is fundamentally a state of interpersonal austerity, the depth of which can only be felt by something that is responsible for its own existence.

    But that’s nothing compared to the loneliness that a child feels when they are forced into that state prematurely, and which they are destined to spend the rest of their lives trying to assuage. Some never get there, and the ones that do simply get old more quickly than the rest of us.

    So sleep well, sweet dreams, and I’ll see you in the morning.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

      Are you home sick, Sam? Take care, eat chicken soup, oops, maybe not.


      • samjandwich March 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

        You’d be surprised how many people make similar jokes about my poor little chickens 🙂

        But I tell you what, I’ve discovered the best cure for the flu is actually Campari! So I quite enjoy being sick these days. Alas I’m at work today though, and having to content myself with peppermint tea. At least I’m not lonely here…


  3. paul walter March 15, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Samjandwich is perservering the “treatment” until Sam wakes one morning without a headache?


  4. doug quixote March 15, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Very fine, Jennifer. A round and rosy globe, eh?


  5. lola March 15, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    Aaah, intimacy. A womans body is su perfectly made for such initimate acts of caring.
    And Georgia O’Keefe. My mothers favourite painter – ‘She does such lovely flowers, dear’.
    I bought her a calender of those flowers in the 80s, she was in her 70s then. She and my father were still dancing together every night before dinner, as they had done every night of their married life. They gave me the gift of loving, of understanding intimacy and sexuality, and of being grateful for both.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 16, 2012 at 7:27 am #

      Loving parents – no greater gift. Did your Mum notice what many of O’Keefe’s flowers represent? Though she may have, and not said so. We have two of her prints that I hauled back from the US a couple of years ago, plus books.


      • lola March 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

        My mother was very aware of the representational meaning of Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers. My father was an art auctioneer, and they both loved all things of beauty, and postive representations of sexuality.
        My sister, drat her, has an original that hung in my parents bedroom. It was the only thing we argued over after their deaths, and this was in a house full of collectables.
        We both valued our parents showing that love, a very sensual and erotic love can last a long time, and that intimacy is not always shown in sex, but in a thousand little ways.


        • hudsongodfrey March 16, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

          You do know that O’Keefe herself rejected those interpretations of her work?

          Not so sure about these guys! Maybe there’s an homage to Georgia in there somewhere…


          • Jennifer Wilson March 17, 2012 at 7:28 am #

            Oh, that is disturbing, that is, but how compelling.
            I have read that O’Keefe disparaged those interpretations, nevertheless, the viewer is entitled to make them if Barthes is correct and the text is incomplete without the interpretation of the reader!


            • hudsongodfrey March 17, 2012 at 10:08 am #

              I realised only later how much this clip is really the antithesis of everything you and perhaps many others here are I think trying to say.

              Here you have Sex turned into Fear, and at the same time the the wall goes up. Scarfe’s imagery is stunningly appropriate to Water’s exploration of a character who was deeply psychologically disturbed. What actual diagnosis anyone would offer of the narcissistic Pink, Syd Barrett or purveyors of sexual conservatism closer to home for that matter is very much a matter for conjecture more qualified than my own.

              P.S. I didn’t know at the time of posting that a link to a YouTube video would embed the video in the page. I somewhat regret that this unsubtle thing seems to want to overpower your article. Dispense with it at your whim.


            • doug quixote March 17, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

              If you had to live in the USA in the 1920s and 30s and hoped to have your work shown in major galleries, you would have denied the interpretations too!

              For that matter, in the USA of today as well.

              HG, it is an interesting clip, and the images are, as Jennifer says, disturbing but also compelling.


        • Jennifer Wilson March 17, 2012 at 7:20 am #

          An original. Wow. I would fight over that. I’m very drawn to your description of your parents. What a story it must be.


  6. hudsongodfrey March 15, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    Beautifully Written!

    I’ve not seen numbers used before in a prosaic narrative such as this one, but they weren’t intrusive. The writing seemed raw at times, gentle at others and rarely forced. But it was the content itself that really drew me in and pleasantly surprised me. Well done.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 16, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      Thanks Hudson. I like to experiment. With writing, I mean.


    • doug quixote March 16, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

      I like the avatar, HG. The pedantic might mention that ‘prosaic’ is not the right word – “a prose narrative” would do fine – but I wouldn’t. 🙂


      • hudsongodfrey March 17, 2012 at 10:19 am #

        Quid Pro Quo I’m sure 🙂


  7. Julia March 17, 2012 at 12:45 am #

    A touch of Khayyam, a shading of Grimm, & more… all sensual female. All Jennifer.
    These are not my memories; not my experience…yet as I read I remember. I was you. I was there. I heard the child’s cry, felt the warm breeze upon my naked breast, smelled his milky breath, felt satiated from the lover’s touch, saw the black witch flying across the sunset sky and felt the frisson of fright as she looked towards me…lying there on my white bed. I experienced and I remembered.

    Jennifer, you are beautiful



    • Jennifer Wilson March 17, 2012 at 7:13 am #

      The best justification for writing is when other people are affected by it, so thank you. I like what Kafka said about writing being an axe to break up a frozen sea. Haven’t got the quote at my fingertips, will look it up.


  8. Julia March 17, 2012 at 12:52 am #

    prozaic…isn’t that grafitti scribbled all over bathroom wall tiles?

    This piece sings closer to poetry than to prose narrative.


  9. helvityni March 17, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    Am I the only one who does not like the numbering of paragraphs, for me they were a distraction, they took away some of the poetry….
    It’s OK for the funnyman Richard Glover use numbers in his amusing Weekend magazine pieces,,,,

    Anyhow, I also remember reading this story before, where was it, Jennifer?


    • hudsongodfrey March 17, 2012 at 10:17 am #


      Try the link to the M/C Journal near at the top right under the title of the post. I noticed it right away.

      I think the numbers give a sense of the march of time as a sequence of events unfolding within the narrative. It’s a handy device that I also wouldn’t see overused but as a one off doesn’t detract from this particular piece for me.


      • helvityni March 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

        Thanks Hudson, I must have clicked to the M/C Journal at least once before as I remember reading Jen’s story some time ago 🙂


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