Twenty years ago I read Margaret George’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. I’d just started dating the first boy I ever kissed, which was a milestone and came, as difficult as it is to believe now, as something of a surprise to me.
It was a terrifying time, trying to balance this new discovery, this whole other person, the most important person in my life, who I was afraid to acknowledge when I saw him on campus but with whom I would clandestinely make out in the darkened language lab when no one was looking – trying to balance all the raging, delightful feelings with everything else, with what I thought of as my normal life. The closet does that. It makes you think – really believe – that you can go back and forth like that, which is impossible; which is why the closet is a killer.
He insisted that I read Mary. It’s the most amazing love story, he said, before reading me what had to be the most depressing poem I’d ever heard:
The wind doth blow today, my love, and a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true love, in cold grave she was lain,
You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips, but my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips your time will not be long.
Tis down in yonder garden green, Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen is withered to a stalk.
The stalk is withered dry, my love, so will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love, till God calls you away.
No surprise that he turned out to be an ass.
We never spoke again after I broke up with him three years later. He told me that life was like a chest of drawers, with only so much room. In order to accommodate new friendships, new love, old clutter had to be removed. At the time I thought it sounded callous, but with no self-confidence and even less experience, I convinced myself it made sense. Imagine my surprise when, re-reading Mary twenty years later, I came upon this dialogue, between Sir Francis Walsingham and his chief agent, Thomas Phelippes: “`And do you know what happens to something when there’s no place for it any longer?’ He jerked open one of the drawers and pulled out a letter. `This is outdated. Its contents are of no relevance.’ He tossed it out the window, where it landed in the street. Three horses in a row stepped on it and ground it into the mud. `That’s what happens. It’s very simple. We have to keep our drawers neat, Phelippes; we have to get rid of the useless.'”
So not only was he a dick, but also totally unoriginal.
Anyway, it was with no small amount of irony that, afraid though I was that someone would find out the truth about me, I spent the better part of a semester wandering around my tiny college campus carrying a 900 page novel the size of cinder block with a big queen named Mary on the cover.
It took me a good five months to get through that year, and maybe it was something about the symmetry of time – twenty years and all – that, last December, I decided to read her again. It took a little longer this time, with other commitments and distractions along the way, but I once again finished her story, her long winding saga, at the end of May. Shortly thereafter I was off to church camp to work as a counselor for the summer, and now I finish it just in time to return to France – Her adopted country, the country of her mother, of her favourite language, her sensibilities, her dress, her memories. I leave tonight, for five weeks. Back for new adventures in the country that nourished a queen.