Sunday, July 31, 2011

Open Ended

By Lisabet Sarai

In my mid-twenties, I had my first sexual experience with another women. Clara was a dear friend, a plump, diminutive blonde a few years younger than I was, but, I suspected, more experienced in the realm of lesbian love. At very least, she knew more about F/F culture. While I hung out in the ivory tower of academia, taking courses and writing papers, she volunteered at the local women's center and listened to the music of Chris Williamson and Holly Near. Her free spirit and counterculture credentials sparked my imagination. Her hippie-chick beauty enchanted me. I wanted to know what it would be like to kiss her, to suckle her girlish breasts, stroke her fair skin and feel her moisture under my fingertips.

We were physically affectionate a long time before we became lovers. To be honest, I don't remember how we ended up together on my mattress, on the floor of my two room apartment. I do recall discovering that though I was incredibly excited by the notion of making love to her, the actual mechanics didn't work that well. I guess she wasn't all that more knowledgeable than I was.

After that night, what happened? Nothing. I'm really not sure why. I still desired her. Our friendship still flourished. We simply never repeated the clumsy intimacies of that watershed evening.

Clara and I are still in touch. We write and chat regularly. But we never talk about our brief experiment in physical love. She married a deeply religious man, and has become far more conservative herself. I suspect that she'd find the topic uncomfortable at best. So my affair with her remains unresolved, open ended, more than thirty years later.

Fiction differs from real life in a variety of ways, but one important distinction is that most fiction provides closure. If Clara and I were characters in a story, some sequence of events would likely take place that would tie up the loose ends of our sexual relationship. Perhaps she'd lose her husband and I'd fly to comfort her. We'd get together again and discover that our passion had grown with age (along with our practical skills). Or perhaps I'd confront her with evidence of our past lust, and she'd reject me, denying she'd ever had lesbian yearnings. Either alternative would make a decent story.

Every story needs an ending. That ending might not be happy, but it needs to leave the reader with a sense of completion. There's little that is as frustrating as a novel that simply breaks off in the midst of the action, leaving conflicts outstanding and questions unanswered - even though the world very often operates that way.

This week's topic got me thinking about closure in my own work. Five of my six novels end with the primary characters moving into a phase of greater commitment after a period of crisis or uncertainty. One (Necessary Madness) actually ends with a wedding and two other contain proposals of marriage. (I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, especially since several of these books were written before I started to officially write romance.)

Exposure is the one long work I've written that has a somewhat equivocal conclusion. At the end of the story, Stella has barely escaped death. Her home and her history have been consumed by a terrible fire. Her trust in both her lovers has been eroded by their lies. She can't decide which, if either, she'll take back into her life. Nevertheless, the novel offers closure in that Stella regains her sense of self, her confidence and delight in her work as a dancer. She moves past despair to a point where readers know she will survive and flourish, even if we don't know how or with whom.

In the real world, tragedy leaves indelible marks. One's life can be permanently diminished. My mother died of leukemia in her early fifties, younger than I am now. She never got to see me or my siblings marry. I loved her dearly. However, during the last ten years of her life, she and I could not spend much time together without doing mutual psychological damage.

I miss her now far more than I did immediately after her death. At that time, it was almost a relief to be free of the ongoing worry and guilt. I was with her when she died, but we never truly resolved the issues that had come between us. Would we have succeeded in doing so if she had lived? I'll never know.

Humans love stories. I believe that it's in our genes. Our prehistoric ancestors recited tales around the campfire. Perhaps one reason we're wired for fiction is the consolation of closure, the deep satisfaction we experience when the story draws to an end. The world is dark, dangerous, unpredictable, but in the realm of the imagination, we retain some element of control. Even if the ending is tragic, it has symmetry, structure, meaning. Stories may be our defense against a seemingly chaotic universe.


  1. What a spot-on analysis of how and why stories serve fundamental human needs!

    One way I think about it (which goes along with everything you said about control, etc.) is that a good story is just the "right size" to fit in our brains—the real world, of course, being much too big to hold in our heads.

  2. I always love the way you use your own life as an example, Lisabet. You have a wonderful way of pulling things together, the way great writers do.
    My own mother died in her 50's when I was in my early
    20's, but we had a great relationship and I miss her every day. My Dad is still alive and calls me from the East Coast every day, but was always much harder on me than he was to my brothers. I love him, but it is a much more complicated love. Actually, he gave me some insight into his life the other day, which provided a bit of closure into why he treats me so differently than my brothers. He revealed to me his own father was very hard on him and to use an Oprah coined phrase, that became a very big aha moment for me.

    I think maybe I'm unusual in that I don't need happy
    endings in life or fiction. Yes, like you, I want to see
    growth of some sort in the characters I create.
    But some of the most haunting books or movies
    are the ones with the most unresolved conflict.

    Ok, now here comes the contradiction - my short story The Girl With Sand in Her Hair, the last story in
    a second book of love stories with the same title,
    will definitely have a very happy ending. And I am
    having so much fun writing it. No wonder guys have
    such a hard time figuring women out!!!

  3. Wow, Lisabet. You've summed up just what I was thinking (vaguely) about the general search for "closure" and how it often eludes us in real life. This is a great post.

  4. Lisabet - as Jean said, you put a lot of my feelings on this subject into words. Now I have to come up with something entirely different to say...

  5. So much of life is open ended. As you say, maybe that is the appeal of stories. The good wins, the bad is punished and the events are neatly closed. I've noticed a trend in independent movies lately to have these ambiguous endings that make you go "What? That's it?" I think a graceful ending is one of the most difficult things to write.

    For me the perfect ending is one that still kind of leaves you wondering how things turned out for those people.

    Hey - just finished reading "Citadel of Women" this afternoon. I read it in an Army barbershop while waiting for my favorite barber to get to me, which gives you an idea of how long a wait that can be. It was a great read, felt sorry for Che though. Closue for him was a sad thing.


  6. Greetings, Jeremy,

    I like the concept of a story being "the right size" for our brains. However, I'd point out that some age-old stories are in fact far too big. I'm thinking of the Ramayana in particular, a huge epic tale that is the source of art, music, theater and dance all over southeast Asia.

    Usually a theater piece will pick one episode in the epic. So maybe the episodes are more like what we think of as "stories".

  7. Hello, Mary,

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    To be honest, this post started with the events from my life. I began by noticing how many important relationships in fact never do achieve closure. The comparisons with fiction actually came later.

  8. Thank you, Jean! At first, I'll admit, I really didn't know what to make of the topic. I'm glad that I finally figured out where you were going with it.

  9. Hi, Kathleen,

    Yes, there are both disadvantages and advantages to starting off the week ;^)

    I'm off to read your post now.

  10. Hi, Garce,

    Actually, "Citadel of Women" is a perfect example of an ending that achieves closure even though it's not exactly happy. In my experience, love affairs frequently do end in that bittersweet sort of fashion.


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