The poet Cynthia Zarin has just published a book about love, work, family, and the passage of time, entitled An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History. Because she writes a poet’s prose, we offer a sample from the opening chapter, called “Real Estate.” In this first section we meet Zarin as the college graduate who has come back to New York City and is navigating the terrain of new jobs, borrowed apartments, and confusing young love. But we also meet the middle-aged woman (a writer, wife, and mother), who tells the story of that earlier self with a rueful sense of the unfolding outcomes, the choices that can’t be altered. Following the prose, we offer a poem by Zarin from those years of youthful drift—the early 1980s. (“Now” appeared in The New Yorker, and in her first book of poems, The Swordfish Tooth, published in 1989.)
from “Real Estate”
In the apartment where we used to live, the front door opened to a long hall. At the end of that hall was a window, a fire escape, and beyond that the view opened up like a painted fan. In the middle distance was the green copper roof and steeple of a huge church. Beyond it lay the low flat rooftops of Harlem, the elevated train, and a narrow bright wire of river. I never learned the name of that church, although every day I admired it. I thought it looked like a church in Prague. When once I said that to my old friend, who has been to Prague—she, unlike me, has been everywhere, while I, who live three blocks from where I was born, am the most provincial person in the world—she told me I was ridiculous, it looked nothing like churches in Prague, it looked as little like a church in Prague as it was possible to look. Nevertheless, I continued to think that in my mind, like a child who has been told that the words she is singing to a song are wrong, but continues to sing them.
Not everyone had kind words for this view. After we moved out, the woman who bought that apartment came to see me. It was a winter evening, and she had on a violet wool coat that I immediately coveted. At that time the cost of heating was astronomical, and we kept the house to which we had moved so cold that the tiny stars of snowflakes on her coat stayed frozen. She told me that a month after moving into the apartment she had discovered that her husband was having an affair with a younger woman. Now less than a year later, they were divorced. When I first met this woman, whom I will call Joan, I felt I already knew her, because she so reminded me of the mother of a boy I had once loved. She had her long, wide, flat bones and straight brown hair that fell in a comma over her forehead. Both of them were from the South, and decisive. After I had left school, and my friend and I had parted, his mother came once to visit me in the small grimy city where I was bored and unhappy. She was on her way back to India, where for half the year she sat at low wooden tables in houses that flooded during the rainy season and taught women to read. The other half of the year she lived in an apartment in New York near Carl Schurz Park. At that time her life greatly appealed to me, and I imagined that someday I too would do good work, crouching in mud, and bestowing beneficence. I had no idea that I was entirely unsuited to selflessness. As a way out of my boredom and unhappiness and the slight fear I felt every time I walked out the door in this city (once on the way home from a store a car had followed me), I was learning to cook. I had picked up a paperback in a used-book store. It was Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. Standing in the bookstore, I’d read, in the section on sweets, the words, “Everyone knows the recipe for chocolate mousse.” I did not, but I wanted to. I wanted to be a person who knew things, and I believed then that there was a programmatic way to do this. I was in this city, accompanied by a boyfriend with whom my exchanges had become increasingly rancorous, because I had been given a fellowship to spend a year writing poems, but month after month, I couldn’t think of a single poem. Out the back windows of the apartment I could see the blank windows of closed-down red brick factories, and the huge hands of the electric company clock. The hands of the clock were lit day and night, and folded and unfolded like a giant’s pocketknife. I had counted the recipes in the book; if I made one recipe a day, the year would be over. By then, I was sure, I would know what to do next.
It’s spring out, and the acrid
hiss of rain on Madison
heaves in the wake of the buses.
Such a long time we’ve been sitting here.
The dusty fronds are old green loden coats,
heavy around us, the crushed
clouds of tissue roses are
light-resistant, and a little torn.
Watery, thin, the daylight
is whittled down by the revolving door,
becoming another day
entirely: a scrimshaw of “Later on,
when things get better,” that is always in front
and also behind us, junky and bleached,
like the word now, that small atom, that pearl.
Excerpts from AN ENLARGED HEART © 2013 and THE SWORDFISH TOOTH © 1989 by Cynthia Zarin. Both are excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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