I have two wives, and neither one is particularly pleased with me these days. My wife Raquel is my three-dimensional, in-the-flesh life partner. The other "wife" is a character who recurs in my short stories and in my waking dreams. Like my actual wife, my fictional wife is from Peru and has married, for better or worse, a highly fallible North American man.
Everyone knows that there is a fine line between the people and landmarks in your real life and those that get propelled into your fictional universe. For me, selecting a small piece of reality—the actual name of a town, a river, an elementary school teacher—can anchor a story and make me see it more clearly. It's a common practice for many fiction writers, and autobiographical elements vary in their faithfulness to the original raw materials. I do think writers sometimes claim, almost too blithely, to have complete knowledge and control of where reality ends and fiction begins. I used to be certain that I knew the difference. The older I get, the less certain I am.
Putting together my book, Man Receives A Letter, I chose from a range of stories, including several that are linked in tone and theme, and feature an unreliable first-person narrator and his Peruvian wife. One of the stories, published earlier in a magazine, had always been my wife's favorite. But when the book came out and Raquel read that particular story, she was very upset. She told me that I'd edited out her favorite line. It's the narrator's description of watching his wife run down the street in Lima to get home before the appointed hour decreed by a government curfew, and his realization, watching her run with wild abandon, studying the way she moved and the look of exhilaration on her face, that she would never be as free as when she was in Peru.
"That's the truest thing you've ever written about me," my wife told me, "and you just cut it out. You could have at least asked me first."
I tried to tell her that it wasn't written about her but about a character, and that I'd edited the story so extensively that the scene in which the line appeared was no longer a natural fit, and that in fact the character of the wife had become somewhat secondary. She dismissed what I said. She didn't buy it. She felt as if I'd failed her in some fundamental way, as though I'd reneged on a promise, or taken back a precious gift I'd once given her.
The whole thing has disoriented me a bit, and I've been thinking about it a lot lately. It seems to me that the stories in the book featuring this married couple are largely about dislocation. The character of the wife is physically dislocated from her country and culture and family, while the narrator is dislocated from a whole variety of things such as responsibility and sobriety. As a couple, they are separated from each other over these and other obstacles. Yet I see, now more than ever, that Raquel's relationship with the wife character is different than mine or any reader who chances upon the story. I should have known she'd take it personally.
Recently, I had an idea for another story featuring the same husband and wife characters. But when I sit down to write, the character of the wife won't come to me. I just can't seem to be able to set her in motion. Maybe I'm not sure who she is anymore, or where she's likely to go next, or why she'd even want to be with someone like me.