Love and Guns
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their aim.
‘A fish and a bird could love each other, but where would they live?’ — old country saying
I try and fail to work out the origin of this saying. The playwright Joseph Stein used a version of it in Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevya explains to his Jewish daughter why it would be foolhardy to marry a Gentile. It appears that Stein didn’t invent the phrase, but who did? Various memes say that it’s an African proverb. Someone on AllPoetry calls it an ‘old country saying’. I like that.
I now know that I come from ‘country’, from seven generations’ worth of modest family homesteads in Kentucky mountains and Indiana fields. Entry to the home of my grandfather’s uncle was through a window, for no one bothered to make repairs when the lintel over the door fell down and the wall collapsed. On one of my grandfather’s visits, he found his cousin limping badly. His own father had shot him in the knee with a hunting rifle in a dispute over a ‘country prostitute’.
My immediate family was far removed from guns and feuds in the holler, so I never heard these tales as a youngster. Nor was I told how Grandpa had reached his uncle’s house, or how he had sustained himself on the way. A solitary bicycle journey of 20 miles was long for a 10-year-old, so en route, he shot grey squirrels with a rifle that he kept slung across his back, bouncing against his bony young shoulderblades as he rode. Threading the squirrels onto makeshift spits of green wood, he roasted them over a fire built by the roadside.
I look through boxes of vintage family photographs, folks standing alongside mules or farm implements, casually holding their guns. Familiar-featured people against unfamiliar backdrops. I am both of them and not of them.
I was 10 once too. Sometime around that age, I spotted some boys shooting grey squirrels in the small copse across the street from our suburban house. Their soft, furry bodies twisted as they fell from what they must have assumed to be a safe haven in the crowns of the trees. Never having witnessed the death of a creature before, I clung to my brother and sister weeping as my mother ran over the road to remonstrate with the boys. They looked at her uncomprehendingly, like she was mad. Nightmares descended upon me regularly for weeks. I can understand why no one ever told me about my grandfather’s makeshift lunches en route to his uncle’s. It might have changed how I felt about him.
Am I a bird, or a fish? How does a bird know that a new creature it encounters is another bird? Does a fish always recognise a fellow fish?
Sometime in the early 2000s, I realised that my Anglo-American alliance was broken. The moment is like a scene from a 1990s transatlantic-romance chick flick — exactly the kind of film, in fact, that may have been partially responsible for my getting into this fix to begin with. (Thanks for nothing, Richard Curtis.) I’m Andie MacDowell, wearing my all-American jeans, gazing out at a slate-grey urban Chicago winter and contemplating whether to drown my sorrows at a dive motorcycle bar. He’s Hugh Grant, back on Greenwich Mean Time, brushing his felted-fur top hat to a burnished finish, shaking out his scarlet wool hunting coat, and preparing for a day of leaping the frosted hedgerows of a wintry English countryside in the gunless but not bloodless pursuit of his prey.
This isn’t the beginning of the film — it’s the dénouement, by which point there’s neither romance nor comedy left in this romcom. I had spent years in England using the wrong words and wearing the wrong shoes. I offended countless of his aristocratic friends, first by accident, then by design. Whether I was the fish or the fowl in this interspecies dalliance hardly mattered, for the fundamental point stood. He and I shared a common language but not a common ground. We never found anyplace that both of us could call home.
I’d always let Lady Luck take the reins in matters of romance, but perhaps a student of clinical psychology should be taking a more systematic approach. I read up on whether pre-maritally administered personality tests could predict successful partnerships. I wondered about eHarmony, its matching system designed by a psychologist and derived from compatibility research conducted at the Oxford Internet Institute. While it all sounded compellingly scientific, I was also aware that eHarmony had recently tried to fix up my sister with her ex-husband.
I just needed to be more careful. No more exotic men from foreign climes, no more wildly different backgrounds, no more clashing perspectives. While a male version of myself would have been too boring, too comfortable, at a minimum I needed to find someone more like me.
Somewhere between vive la différence and ‘birds of a feather flock together’, I thought, there must be a sweet spot, a point where true love and lasting compatibility meet.
I met him in a dive motorcycle bar in 2003, just as winter started to loosen its steely grip on Chicago. It was a rare connection — not sudden, like a shock of recognition, but like the calm, slow spreading of a smile. But shortly I learnt that under his bed, in the dark of a locked briefcase, lay two handguns. I had spent years in Britain, where a 1996 school massacre swiftly resulted in sweeping gun control legislation. I knew that I was back in America now, but nevertheless, I was shocked. My mind was resisting, my heart was confused. But I thought we were the same…
My new paramour drew the guns from their case. Gingerly, sitting on the edge of the bed in his tiny studio apartment, I allowed him to place one of the heavy, cold, foreign objects into both of my tentatively outstretched hands. I shifted it to my right hand. I gripped it and aimed it one-handed at the kitchen cabinets across the room. Then I shoved it back at him. Explain to me how you have these. He was amused at my discomfiture, but I was genuinely frightened, not just of the guns, but of what his ownership of them meant for the fledgling us.
Guns were as normal to him as they were abnormal to me. Once upon a time, he had limped, just as badly as my grandfather’s cousin. While no ‘country prostitute’ was involved, the incident did involve guns. He and his cousin were driving through the fields of central Florida at high speed, shooting doves from the sky as they went. Thus distracted, they didn’t see the canal until it was too late — the pickup truck nose-dived into the water, and his leg was shattered to pieces. Perhaps it was karma, I said accusatorily, revenge for all the alligators they’d illegally gunned down in those canals.
He took me to all the places where this and other events of his childhood happened. I was introduced to many kind people who were happy to see me and excited about our future as a couple. I met his stepfather, who showed me family albums full of people in camouflage, pointing bloodied deers’ heads at the camera. I met his mother, who in preparation for any solitary journey in the car would extract a handgun from a safe and stash it in her handbag.
I met his grandparents, who had a bullet lodged in the hardwood floor of their front room. Many years ago, a neighbour visited, carrying a large bucket with a live armadillo scuffling about in the bottom of it. His grandfather transported the animal into the front room. Wordlessly, and in the presence of my boyfriend — then aged 4 — he shot the armadillo in the head, splattering its guts across the walls and divan. This was a favourite family story. I can relate to precisely zero of it: not the gun, not the armadillo, not the casual manner in which it was dispatched.
Our arrival caught his grandparents in the middle of preparing lunch. Frying in a pan in the kitchen was one of his grandfather’s favourites: squirrel.
Having always been a creature of principle, I couldn’t let it rest. In high school, I broke up with my first boyfriend after he casually tossed a bag of McDonalds rubbish through the window of his car onto the road. At university, I dumped a guy when he expressed admiration for the plays of David Mamet — fully exposing my teenaged self as an insufferable cultural ideologue.
This may have been a more serious relationship, but I saw guns as a more serious matter, the embodiment and symbol of our fundamental differences. After seeing The Pianist and making our way back to my apartment through a romantic swirl of snow from a freak April storm, he commented that the Holocaust would never have happened if the Jews had armed themselves with guns. I yelled at him for twenty minutes in my dining room before I even took my hat and mittens off. I shouted with the full force of my resentment at guns for being in the way. To each of us, they were a deterrent — for him, against crime, and for me, against my belief in the possibility of a long-term relationship with him.
A bird and fish can love each other, I acknowledged, and we did. But where would they live?
Before the end, we travelled to the mountains in Tennessee. Driving up the back roads to his friend’s house in the dark, I could hear rushing streams and smell earth and trees, and when the dawn came we saw hundreds of butterflies flying near the big waterfall. In the mid-morning light, we wound our way through the woods until we reached a small clearing. He set up two old paint cans on a distant log and removed two snub-nosed handguns from their cases. Afraid as I was, I felt hope. What would happen when I suspended all my judgement and fears, when I joined him in this moment? What might I discover?
For the first and last time in my life, and for what must have been the umpteenth time in his, we lifted the handguns, aimed, and fired — a pair of star-crossed lovers taking their aim. As the gun kicked back powerfully in my hand, the paint can on my side leapt into the air, spewing arcs of white paint. We looked at each other wordlessly: me shocked, him beaming. In the millisecond that it takes for a bullet to hit its target, I knew both that I loved him more than anything and that we would never find anywhere that we could live.
When I ripped out his heart, I killed something in my own. I couldn’t find the words to explain why I did it. I just don’t think it will work, I said. I can’t picture you in my life in England, and I can’t picture me in your life in America. He was uncomprehending. When he called it a ‘tragedy’, I responded as cruelly as I knew how. What the hell are you calling a tragedy? I wrote back. This is a breakup. This isn’t a school shooting or world hunger or Romeo and bloody Juliet. Nobody’s died. Get over yourself.
Later, I went online to try and find out why the Montagues and the Capulets hated each other so much. But Shakespeare never said.
Just a month ago, I had dinner with him while visiting my parents’ winter home in Florida. I had been writing often whilst on holiday, and seeing him brought back many memories. Our evening inspired me to tweak an old piece of writing — about love, and guns, and the end of our relationship.
Sure of a warm reception, I sent the piece to my editor at Redoubtable. When he got back to me, he was uncertain and protective. Guns are such an incendiary topic, he told me. I might get a lot of negative blowback — was I prepared for that? But’s not a story about guns, I said. It’s a story about love and what gets in the way. He knew that, he said, but a lot of people might just focus on the guns. Guns are just such a divisive topic, he said.
Such a divisive topic. That much I knew.
Mimicking the behaviour of the little geckos on the rocks beside me, I sat absorbing the day’s last rays of sun. Before too long, I would be back in a London February, and everything would be different. Across from me sat my love from long ago. Once again, we experienced our companionable silences, our uncanny synchronicities. As though nothing had changed, we laughed and chatted in our easy way, unhindered by anxiety or self-consciousness. Gazing over the wide brackish river to the end of the pier and beyond, we saw the sky turn pink, then salmon, and finally violet. This feast for the senses forced us to be utterly present in the moment. You see? he joked. This is why no one ever gets anything done in Florida. Bathed in the technicolour glow of the setting sun, we sat together and watched as the fish jumped joyfully in the river and flocks of birds skimmed past them, flying low across the water, towards home.