You smooth the hem of your dress over your knees



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Aura

Storm.
You smooth the hem of your dress over your knees.


Again.
You are sitting across from me, on a tall stool, and you smooth the hem of your dress over your knees.
Again.
An orange dress.

It is an orange dress.


You smile and say something I do not remember.
You smile and say something and then you smooth the hem of your dress over your knees.

It is an orange dress.


Orange. Red. Ice blue. Your eyes.
A mischievous, happy smile.
Wind.
Rain softly pressing against the window.
Softly.
L___ stands nearby, next to the office desk, looking down.
“They said . . . They said they’ve done all they can for her.”

“What does that mean?”


“What does that mean?”
“What does that mean?”
Wind. Rain.
“It means they have done all that they can for her.”
(What?)
“What does that mean?”
“It means . . . it means they’ve sent her home.”
(What?)
“It means It means It means”
Wind. Rain.
“It means”
A sound like thunder that is not thunder.

No

A sound like thunder that is not thunder.


No
Not
Storm.
Storm.
Something blank goes blank behind the eyes. A small shock spreads like a wave. Gathering power.

Not

A swell heading for the continent.


No
No
No
Yes. She starts crying and you hug, in the corner by your desk in the office, and you wonder what it is you have just been told.
The voice leaves and the eyes return to the screen. But something has disappeared from the screen. The eyes cannot see anything on the screen. There is nothing there on the screen. There is nothing to be seen. The eyes cannot see anything there. And then you realise that it is your eyes that refuse to see what is there they do not connect to what is unmistakably there, on the screen, and furthermore they do not connect to the mind which in its turn refuses to connect point to point to point shade to color sound to sense form to meaning action to purpose letter to word nothing penetrating any longer but a glare of light in the cold and gray penetrating the window of the winter storm.
And a pain at the bottom of your spine grips the ligaments and bone like the jaws of a dog.
When you open your mouth to speak, you start shivering as though the temperature in the room had suddenly fallen or your bones were freezing you from the inside.
You stand up, turn off the desk lamp, turn off the computer, you can’t stay any longer between these walls, among this brick, you walk across the office to your supervisor, you have to leave now, your teeth are chattering, you have to go home, you explain that you will probably not be in to-morrow, you have to see her, and you walk to the first floor by way of the fire-escape out the building into the rain and wind through the storm lashing the streets with gray thinking nothing feeling nothing noticing nothing hearing nothing seeing nothing but em-ptiness howling against emptiness the rain beating the streets in flails of wind the streets covered with huge black flowers unfurled from metal spines clustering in dark bouquets at the street cor-ners or moving down the gray ar-royos of pavement or skittering across impatient intersections un-til you reach the apartment house where you live and rise up the stairs to what you call, when you think of it, home.
She turns smiling to you, rising from her chair.
She turns smiling to you, rising from her chair.

No

She mugs across the dinner table, gaily grinning into the imaginary air, mocking her old classmates and their reckless lives, inspired, zany, frivolous:


“I’m im-mor-tal!”
You slam the door behind you.
Where is the number? You find the number you just received be-fore leaving the office and look it over several times before calling it, you push in the numbers and wait, there is no answer, you were warned they were not answering the phone, you leave a message, friendly, cheerful, silly, making mock of the rain and the storm, hissing your anguish and fear into silence.
Then you return the phone to its cradle and wait.
Time. Our enemy, as a friend said.
As the storm rolls into the night and batters the windows with wet blackness.
In your mind a space has been hollowed out where words, noises, images ricochet at ran-dom fading in and out without order or sequence melting into one another constantly changing constantly the same. Constantly. The same.
A carousel.
The childlike empty public square where you met her with . . .
You sit and stare into the pit in your mind where you see her face and eyes and her hands and arms and neck and her funny big feet and her knees and her big-girl calves and thighs her body in all the shapes you saw in all the forms you remember and every shape that you saw you remember now with joy you saw what now you remember with a sense of weakness with panic
no not with panic with dread so that is what that means what dread means with dread
no not
no

No

Yes
A dry hollowness inside


And a sudden brief shaking when you remember those words “It means”
Not three hours ago

How many centuries ago


Now
Yet worse now because now its meaning meets you like a head-light cresting a hill on a night road
Storm

Silence

Silent storm storm of silence . . .
Why don’t they call?
The bed stretches around you in its flatness like an abandoned lot.
Why don’t you call? Please call me. Please call. Please let me hear the sound of your voice. Please. Please. Just once. Once again . . .
Rain. Wind. Storm.
As the night curls around you and takes you in.
*
Quartz clock ticking on the bed table.

Flat gray light in the room.

Morning.

In the radiator the water rattles.


The ceiling catches, in its corners, some of the darkness of the night.
When was the last time you saw her? Six weeks ago? No more. She had cut her hair, that orangy slash of off-red, which saddened you a little, you so liked her hair long, how it framed her strange and old-fashioned beauty, a face from the ’40s, Irish, clever, winsome, pale, childlike, with ice-blue eyes, yet Indian, Cherokee, epicanthal, strange and fabulous and impishly bright. Her terrible pure smile.
You can remember the sound of her voice but not her words. Murmurous undulations from a phantom of air.
Her coffee on the counter next to yours. She grips it, sloshes it, sips it, returns it.
She smooths the hem of her skirt over her knees.
She grips is, sloshes it, sips it, returns it.
“I’m looking forward to it like a vacation, I’m taking my pj’s and lots of books.”

You trust your doctors?”

I love my doctor! When he isn’t saving me, he’s out saving neighborhood cats.”
She grips it, sloshes it, sips it, returns it.
Why don’t they call.
Dim brightness at the window panes.

The cold almost penetrating.

You remember: today is the beginning of winter.
You go blank.

Then you curl up on the bed and shake with crying.


Don’t cry, she’s still alive, stop crying.
You pull yourself up.
Oh God please save her oh God be kind to her heal her save her please God
I don’t know who you are I don’t know what you are I don’t know if you are but if you are there please . . . please
Studies have shown that prayer has helped patients recover from bouts of serious illness, even cancer! From thousands of miles away! Even unknown to the patients, their family, their friends, even to their doctors! Studies! Therefore pray.
A pragmatist however much an agnostic.
So I will pray, I have already prayed for her often indeed every morning for weeks but now I will pray constantly for her and I will get others to pray I will ask them I have never asked anything of them before but I will ask them this I will ask them to pray for my friend for this sweet child for this gentle lady that I love yes.
You call a friend who belongs to a healing circle and ask her to add your friend’s name to the list of the sick for whom they pray.
You phone your brother, a leader of his church, swallow your pride and ask him to pray for her with his congregation and he agrees he is happy to find you so docile he hopes to have won another soul and you pray together over the wire.
She glances at you with the complicitous smile that always seemed on the edge of a daring phrase.
Please God be kind to her
Your brother’s voice rises from the connection dry with electric sparkle you let him marshal the words you hardly hear as they slip upward toward the sun and the clouds and the unravelling edge of the sky.
The little skip she made in the far corner when she saw you waiting for her for a coffee and chat. So happy she seemed that it surprised you.
Her smile.
Her little skip.
Please
The sun disappears from your window and the shadows press against the glass.
You call your sister. You call your mother. And you ask them to pray.
“They must think I’ve gotten religion!”
And you pray as if you had. Have you?
In any empty minute.
She walks toward you with a smile both puckish and shy. Her hair is deep red today it brushes the shoulders of her western shirt with its Rocky Mountain embroidery. She says something perky. What? What is she saying? And passes by.
One foot before the other. One foot. Two foot. One two. Three. Four. Continue.
“Chris-to-pher.”
She comes toward you by the bank of coffee canisters a little shyly haughty as if baffling a fear of rejection (if only she knew how incapable of that you were toward her but that she could not know) and asks you a question about something troubling her you smile you are so pleased to be asked anything by her so shy so afraid yourself of being spurned both of you so shy
Silence in the air shaft
She says something perky and passes you by.
in the corridor silence on the stairs
silence in the lobby ~ no, the throb of clothes washers, dryers
silence but not silence on the streets the traffic the pedestrians the intersections where vehicles wait impatiently for the light to turn
But inside you silence. And an intent listening.
Please God be kind to her please God heal her please God please
Green. Go. Sun. The indifferent frowns of the passersby. Errands. Necessity. Reality. Holy banality blessed in all its soft gray. The bland detached majesty of the quotidian.
She smooths the hem of her dress over her knees.
No
Not
The hill. Up. A cloud in the distance. Its underbelly dun charcoal the smudge of ash on a cigaretted palm.
Her impish, fearful smile.
A church. Her lover, her spouse, shaking with tears near the altar. You curl her into your arms, press her against your chest, weep with quiet and sincere theatricality. You tremble against one another.
If you imagine the worst, the worst will not happen. Hasn’t that always been the case? The worst that you feared and also imagined never in fact had ever occurred. Not once as you can recall in your entire life. So, imagine it now, with all its pain – and wake up a month from now to laugh at all your fears.
Pray? And what if she recovers? Will we think it was the prayers that caused her recovery? Or will we be ashamed of our prayers and think them irrelevant ~ that she would have recovered anyway?
Pray anyway. Pray now. Pray here. Pray hard. Pray with everything you have.
The rain returns as the afternoon deepens.
It is the shortest day of the year. The darkest day.
She does several self-contained ballet turns on the linoleum floor during exercise class, looking inward as she concentrates on the tensions and releases of her body. A tall girl, her presence flows out from her in waves. From Oahu, where she grew up ~ born in Santa Cruz of “hippie” parents, then off to the Islands with her mother till she hit her teens, when back to the mainland to live with her father – she is braided of California and Hawaii, an Aquarius to boot, and even though you have little respect for astrology, you are impressed by how she fits the type. You smile to yourself as out of the corner of your eye you look at her muscular legs, her large feet and big elbows, in such contrast to her elegantly proportioned head with its childlike face, carrot-red hair, milky skin, wicked, would-be knowing and profoundly innocent smile, and fathomless, Alaskan, ice-blue eyes.
The counter clerk hands you your change.
One two. Three. Four.
If you raised your arms, the horizon would press against your hand.
A park in the sun. You sit straddle-legged across from each other in the grass, eating lunch.

She frowns, looks away, says nothing.

Her sunglasses, her shades.

She has dressed for the occasion. The wit of her style: the print stockings made from a reproduction of a 19th-century French painting, by Caillebotte it looks.

Her parade of outfits ~ western, retro, vintage ’40s, ’70s, ’50s nightclub, disco, salsa, flounces, big sister hallelujah skirts, shiny vinyl rock ’n’ roll shirt and pants, high school smocks, sunglasses of every provenance and period, bobby-socks, belly-button blouses, kickbox shorts and tops. The cavalcade of her styles illuminating the office and the streets around.

The sun pours down over you both and around you flooding you in a pool of its poisoned light. Should she be sitting in this light, given what she told you a week ago?

I have melanoma.”

I have melanoma.”

I have melanoma.”

You look sharply into the black lenses of her sunglasses.

The conversation has died. The lunch is not a success. You sit looking away, waiting, hoping that her voice will once more come alive.

You don’t know what to say, how ill is she, how ill will she become, and on top of this you feel obscurely embarrassed, here in the sun-bright park, flagrantly exposing the cliché of your positioné ~ middle-aged man, young woman, typical, foolish, a crumb for office gossip. Yet what care the muttering and the stares.

The grass around you lies a violent green.
The light turns. You cross.
The sidewalks, the streets shine with water. The air is translucently gray. The air is not cold but it is cold. There is a sun somewhere reminding of its radiance. Low in the bend of the southern sky. As the world turns its northern face toward the night.
She crosses the far end of the corridor. Quick here now across gone. She!
Through the lobby. Up the stairs. Up more stairs. Up further stairs. And yet more. And still more. The muffled step on the carpets. The absent observation of an early sign of fading. The phalanx of doors like shields before a resistant army of the buildings’ suspicious tenants. The locked door and the key. The opened door the closed door the light switch the silence except for the radio nattering in the air shaft and the first sound of the rain as it begins once again against the window of the kitchen a light tapping as of a hand with small fingers rapping to be let in please please save me.
You fall across the bed and shake with crying.
She’s still alive stop crying.
You curl into a question and cry.
Stop crying.
Please God
And get up and wipe your eyes and take the bag into the kitchen and unpack it milk rice apples a pack of razors a bottle of pills where have been out what did you buy nothing.
Blank.
The opposite of time is sleep. Oh if only you could bury sleep in time.
A ring.
Don’t run. Pounce.
“Hello. Is Mr. Christopher Bernard there?”

“No he is not here thank you good-bye.”


The well-practiced brutal informality of the rude jettison of the telemarketer.
You swear into the amorphous room.
She is laughing at you.

“Where are you going?? I’m working!”

And she looks puckishly back at you as she swings out of the mid-afternoon elevator where you hadn’t even noticed her standing with your work team as you and team descended to the street for an off-site get-together.

And you chuckle back abashed and pleased as the silvery doors meet and seal on her back-reversed smile.


The refrigerator’s hum switches off.
Her back-reversed smile. The click of the closing doors.
She crosses the far end of the corridor.
In the office lunch room, you glance up and, on the other side of the counter islands, see her sitting at a table with her partner, another young woman, in a lively gossip, as fluttery as two kids playing grown-ups. Neither of them sees you.
The radio natters in the air shaft.
You can still hear the sound of your angry word hovering in the dark room.
They won’t call. If they haven’t called by now they won’t call. Maybe I should just go, show up on their doorstep, why wait, bring flowers, L__ said she looks bad, I’ve seen people dying of cancer before, I should just go, it might not be a good idea, I don’t want to be in the way, I’ll ask someone first.
A tall shadow against the lights of the bow as the ferry swings around just beyond the light-brocaded bridge at the edge of the Pacific that night of the boat party thrown by the office as, through the small crowd, a woman comes toward you dressed in red, her hair dyed deeply, a rose slipped above her ear.
The feel of her cheek against your cheek. Her shoulder beneath your arm. Her warmth meeting your own.
No
No
No
Yes
Early on, during the stretching, your eyes once met and you looked away as if stung. You were pleased and a little afraid of what you saw in her face ~ a shy look, curious, almost encouraging. Later, her face sometimes went cold, even when you made a cordial greeting, before you established a friendship. During the exercises, especially when she led them, you were tempted to stare at her, but were afraid to indulge; knew it might do you little good beyond the brief, conflicted pleasure of watching her. But you also wondered about what you thought you had seen in her eyes – the little curiosity coupled with the little plea. You told yourself, don’t stare at her, you’ll only frighten her. Stretch, exercise, follow the routines, look at her only when absolutely necessary ~ but always be there when she is there ~ then take your mat, roll it up, and walk away.
Was that a strategy? Or a defense?
Not a little of both, either.
But alternating.
“Don’t go. Not yet. Let them get back to you when they can. She sleeps all the time, her partner is freaked out, it wears them both out to have company. Just wait. Her mother and brother are coming this weekend. Contact them again after Christmas. Then you’ll probably be able to see her.”
Sound advice. Given the circumstances and the absolute unpredictability of the future. Although the voice in your ear screams Go!
Admit it. It isn’t shameful. Despite the vast difference in your ages. Twenty-six years. She was young, beautiful, unself-conscious, unembarrassed, charm-ing, witty, funny, literate, even literary, without pretension, shared some of your interests, was almost exactly your height, and liked you, how often does all of that happen, admit it, not once before in your life. She displayed her big-boned body with a child’s slightly defiant innocence ~ you could hardly refrain from laughing at the thought, a laugh of joy. You wanted to give her a big embrace, huge hugs, no more ~ the idea of sex with her was as unseemly as sex with a young child. No: winning her friendship, trust, even a little affection, would be enough a source of contentment. Would have to be ~ how long did it take for you to learn that she was gay? You have always been excep-tionally slow on sexual matters, but this reeks of willful self-deception. Above all, you must not frighten her. You must be loyally there but take no untoward action ~ if she wants to be friends, let her make the first move. She clearly likes to be the initiator ~ a typical top.
Sometimes she stretched and did yoga in the afternoon lunchroom while dressed for an evening on the town after work.
She does a down dog, and her orange dress nearly flips over her torso.
She does an extended lotus position followed by a wide open leg stretch, and you almost keel over, thinking, “Watch out, sweetheart, please! Do you have any idea . . . ?”
But of course, nothing does happen, or appear. But talk about cliffhangers.
She stretches her arms above her head and her blouse rides up, revealing her sweet navel. Don’t stare, for God’s sake. But it is a sweet navel. Her stern teacher’s look shows she is utterly unaware of the wink in her tummy.
She leans ahead looking coolly past your shoulder while, facing and imitating her, you lean forward too. If you leaned to your left a hand’s breadth, you would breathe in the smell of her cheek, of her lips, even stroke her cheek with your own.
Her ice-blue eyes.
Her childlike, crazy smile.
please God be kind to her save her not just for me please not just for me
The tapping of the rain against the window glass.
The amorphous room.
She strides toward you across the lunchroom, in her great pink slippers, swinging her rolled-up green mat to right and left in her arms before her, smiling as hard at you as a cheerful, proud, puckish angel, swooping down to knock you with an affectionate swipe of her wing.
Such love
Did you ever actually think those words? Not until now, looking back. Across the fetid landfill and foul burning dump of your grief.
Don’t grieve, pray. Hope. Maybe after all there is a God.
Wind
now and ever. Sweeping away time and memory like sand across the long white shore. Into little whirlwinds wind devils taking the shape of a little girl a sly tomboy spinning in time as in space before dissipating into sheets of drift layering into dunes or sweeping into the tumultuous sea.
Comforting and desolate wind.
“I have a book for you to read. It’s very disturbing. You’ll love it.”

“What’s it called?”

“I forget. ‘The In . . .’ ‘The Un . . .’ something. It’s by a Japanese writer who writes in English. You know who I mean!”

“Hm. Well, there’s Ishiguro.”

“That’s it! I remember now! ‘The Unconsoled,’ it’s called ‘The Unconsoled.’ It’ll grow hair on your chest and turn it white. You’ll love it. Take it with whiskey.”
The window shakes in its frame and the air perceptibly darkens.
Silence. Blank. A moment without thought. The liquid clattering in the radiators. A dog barks.
A shadow against the bow.
The pain in your back twists like rope. You stand and stretch your arms straight up toward the ceiling.
“Raise your arms over your head and relax your shoulders.” Done. “Then slowly bring your arms down parallel to your sides, reversing them when they are parallel to the ground, and lower your arms until your hands touch the floor, and hang there loosely for a moment.” Done ~ except for touching the floor. “Then, slowly, slowly rise, one vertebra at a time, and raise your arms slowly over your head, and hold them there” ~ done ~ “and then bring them down in a smooth arc with your head back and your back arched, your chest thrust forward, arching and stretching your lower back, then bring your hands up and together in front of you in a prayer position.”
“. . . in a prayer position.”
“. . . in a prayer position.”
Please God.
“Thank you.”
There is a little scatter of applause. Then you roll up your mat and depart.
A dog barks.
She smooths the hem of her dress over her knees.
She walks toward you in her pink slippers, swinging her rolled-up mat back and forth, smiling.
I stand in the corner shaking as if the temperature of the room had fallen by ten, fifteen, twenty degrees. Shivering. My teeth . . .
My teeth will not let me speak.
When I look up second time, night has already fallen. The bed table lamp is reflected in the window above the desk. Dimly in the grime. An ellipse of light marking a yellowed nimbus hovering in the middle distance of the dark air shaft that separates this apartment house ~ the one where I live ~ from the neighboring one. An impossible distance. It looks as though it hovers at the same time within and beyond the neighboring wall, without breaking it, while at the same time appearing against, reflecting from, its surface: a perfect illusion, a manifestation of the absolute faith of the visible.
When I look up, I see in fact nothing.
Chris!

The high piercing shout comes across the open space from the tall figure in the long shiny orange-red overcoat with her red hair daubed in a cheerful melee of barettes, coming toward you in jolly strides by the side of her partner, whom she just married a few weeks before. You smile and grin and wave a little smugly, a little shyly, as you and they and your companion meet at the heart of the empty, curiously childlike public clearing, a courtyard next to a children’s museum. It is evening and a small crowd is forming – or rather small knots of people, clumps and fragments of potential crowd. You have gathered to witness her in a little movie directed by her cousin, who stands with a small entourage of other actors and friends chatting, joking. Eventually a crowd forms and trickles into the theater, you lose then find your friends again, are separated again, can’t find enough seats together, sit higgledy-piggledy across the auditorium, send little waves to each other across the zoo of strangers, the crowd behaves like an irascible but good-humored bear, it shakes its head with a grin and settles down for two swift hours staring into an illusory universe flickering in nearly absolute black. The films are short, luminous and obscure, flash quick or briefly tedious, never for long, then two-thirds in her film begins: a musical film, no words or dialog, only the torrid sound of a tango, as a minor melodrama is spun out, there she is, leaning against a bar counter in a white svelte gown slinky and slippery and treacherously magnetic, stunningly beautiful and slily hilarious, all silent still, flirting with the film’s anti-hero, then turning your back on him with majestic insolence, a kind of witty arrogance as you fold into yourself the woman you love and fold the unhappy rejectee out, less brutally than it seems, for it’s all in play, not meant to inflict incurable injury


incurable injury
rather something a good deal less tragic, a small lesson in humility and proportion for the unhappy pup, she turns inward while still watching him out of the corner of her eye, as he stalks off after the drama’s main interest, his ex betraying him with a middle-aged jefe, etc. The tango band twists its snaking melody a scale higher, its sinuous melody, questionable harmonies, ambiguously sensuous rhythms. The digital image on the large screen slips and flakes and shivers as if thrown into a cold unused to it, an irresolution of color and shape that makes the entire sequence merely seem more vulnerable. A shock ~ the hero starts shouting (silently) at his ex, and the jefe, bar, screen, erupt into a brawl, the hero lashes out at everybody till the Beauty by the Bar takes the situation in hand and wrestles the nonplussed hero down the length of the bar and out into the tango street, to ringing cheers from the bar. And the film ends with a shot of the slinky, buffed-up power babe coolly smiling into the camera with a long, sly, defiant look as the picture fades to absolute black.
Such joy I felt, such pride in you after that. After that.
. . . fade to absolute black.
High camp with chocolate dollops and irony, yes, muchly: beautiful, vibrant, elegant, funny, the thought makes him grin. Even now.
You took your little success in stride, neither overly impressed nor blasé, afterward, as we stood in unwinding knots of crowd gathering in the same empty, childlike square, only darker, more spectral under the artificial light, after the festival screening. Congratulations all around. Titters, giggles, sighs of relief, fragments of stories, allusions to stories, self-deprecating jokes, baffling an intoxicating pride.
And like all late crowds, we eventually dissipated into the night, with cheerful good-byes and the full confidence in the continued existence, for as long as we needed them, of our friends.
The little black box pocketbook you carried with you on our lunch dates. Like a toy. Just as your clothes were toys. Your sunglasses. Your slippers at work. The world beneath your feet. The sun above you. The air that held you. Life itself.
The air.
The world.
The sun.
Life itself.
An enemy, all this time.
“I have two moles I have to have removed.”
When exactly did you tell me that? Why can’t I remember? I can only remember the words, and even those are approximate. I will put together the memories I do have and invent what may have happened.
She arches over the counter and turns her neck in that curious way she has ~ slightly provocatively, yet at the same time like a nervous tic, or a move to ease some obscure discomfort. She holds her cup before her in both hands. She is wearing her orange dress.
“Oh?”
Where are they? No, too indis-creet. Let her tell you.
“They’re removing them next week.” A turn of her lips. Brightly: “It’s not my first opera-tion!”

“No?”


“My back had to be realigned years ago. Now it hurts all the time!” Her eyes flicker across the room, watching people come and go, puzzling them out or ob-scurely wanting their attention. “But it’s okay.”

“I’m sure it’ll be all right.”

“Oh, it’ll go fine. I just don’t want to wimp, because I’m afraid of surgery.”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be over in a flash.”

She plays with her cup, sips, low-ers it, squirms.

“Well, better get back to work.”


That was all. Death steps discreetly into a room, coughs in a corner, pulls up a chair, sits down, and fastens his eyes on you.
No: death does no such thing, It opens a crack in a sidewalk ~ it is the crack in the sidewalk. It is nothing at all. It simply waits for the concrete around it to crumble until the city, the country, the continent, the world falls into it as naturally as a ripe peach. And feeds.
A long walk in the gray empty city. The silence itself is a kind of plea. You pray in little snatches of begging, to the curtain of gray light that covers the sky. You have been reading the gospels and your mind is full of miracles. So pray, believer or not, crook the knees of the heart and beg the powers to save her.
You had gone to St. Dominic’s on Sunday and sat an hour while the choir practiced the Christmas service. You sat among the polished pews, carved stone, gleaming wood under the candle flames, the bronze cross on the white-clothed altar, the stained glass windows, the slim graceful stalks of piers, the ribs spanning the roof like fingers, in a silent plea please help her please help her please help me what does it matter whether or not I believe? I am begging you to help her. We need her here with us.
Such goodness.
Such radiance of goodness. With the tartness and mischief that make perfection itself by adding a little edge, a little sharpness, a trembling uncertainty, almost a sting, to its joy.
A child. A child all earnest about behaving “maturely,” as only an aspiring child will, who still glamorizes adulthood, and yet more mature, more honest and fearless and forthright than many of her elders, for whom maturity stops at prudence.
The choir raised its voices to the roof and filled the shadowy spaces with their sweetness. Then the rehearsal was over and the singers left, one duo needed to practice its vowels so it stayed and sang the same brief melody several times until the conductor was satisfied. Ora pro nobis. No. Yet like. And then they too put on their coats and leave, and the nave is silent and dark in the rich shadows of stained glass and candle light.
And still you prayed, though your prayer was now no more than a silent please. Slightly weary already. The emptiness opening around you without echo, without support.
No one hears. But that thought is unendurable.
You walk beneath a stand of trees full of birds singing even in this gray afternoon. At the end of the walk a concrete viewing platform stands a dozen feet above the waters of the bay washing against a stand of rocks. Wiggled in one of the rocks you see, as you stand gazing over the water, an orange starfish clutching a rock, washed with a continual rush and fall of waves. Orange is her color ~ and you pray to the starfish. “Starfish, go to her, help her, save her. Tell her we pray for her. Starfish.” And the wind seems to rise, or you are just becoming more aware of it, and you say to yourself, “Great Spirit, master of sea and sky ~ Great Spirit, master of fish and birds, of animal, flower, and man, and me ~ Great Spirit . . .”and you falter for the next words, “Great Spirit . . .” And the waves wash over the rocks and the starfish clutching the rock, and the wind whips little drops of sea water through the air to your shoes ~ “Great Spirit . . . Great Spirit . . . Great Spirit . . .” and you can think no more, no words come, you go blank in the air and the sky and the sea, before the waves and the rocks and the starfish on the rock, and the wind mocks you and the air of your words ~ “Great Spirit, heal her who I love, and tell the wind to send her the love of me.” And you stand for a while feeling hapless and futile as a few tourists and neighbors even in this weather stop nearby and look out over the water, take photos and move on. A young Asian couple stands hugging, the boy clasping the girl from behind, looking across the wind-fretted bay and glancing at you curiously now and again; then when you turn, they are gone.
The long email she sent you that afternoon more than a year ago, asking you to help her out with her law school applications ~ she needed help editing her personal essay for a particular school. By then you were already friendly, regularly trading greetings and jokes ~ you had been stretching together for months, and, working together on the beta-test of a new software, you had been impressed by her writing and told her so. The email delighted, charmed, flattered you. She offered to buy you lunch in return for your help. You jumped at the chance, suggested dinner, made a date for the next evening, received her essay attached to the next email, and spent the evening revising it ~ a task as pleasant as it was illuminating. For it introduced her to you ~ no, it introduced her to you ~ with an open, gentle, simple, forthright, and terrible trustingness.
Her wild, frightened smile.
Rain.
Wind.
Her little skip.
A huge hand rises against the sun.
She comes rapidly toward you down the lunchroom, her mat raised like a bat, a zany look in her eyes.

Thwack, thwack!

And you battle for a minute on the linoleum before she glides off, grinning, toward the yoga corner.


The silly laugh that seizes you seizes up, then opens out, then seizes up again, and opens out, back and forth and back again, between a giggle and a sob.
Evening at a downtown Japanese restaurant. She sits across from you over a bowl of teriyaki and eats and talks happily to you, at you, around you, past you, cheerfully mugging, putting on a little performance, telling you tales from her past, her semester at Smith in a brief flight from Berkeley, “because of a girl, of course!,” her critique of Smith girls, “they’re all lesbian till they graduate,” their education, “meant to be be trophy wives, knowledgeable but not intelligent,” her chatter about arm-wrestling the neighborhod boys (“I took them all on and never won a round in my life!”) and about salsa dancing at classes around the Bay, and about her favorite sport, kickboxing (you laugh at the thought, though you can easily imagine her in jolly full-throttle combat in the ring), her delight in boxing and her complaints about boxing movies “like ‘Raging Bull,’ which also isn’t about boxing!,” a sport she can no longer indulge in anyway because of her candida and fatigue, and she goes on about her mother, “I adore my mother, she’s my best friend,” and her brother, younger by twelve years, “and suddenly he popped out, with his funny look and his deep voice,” and she imitates her little brother’s baritone, “he’ll never have to crack his voice!,” and playacting scenes between herself and him and her mother, taking all the parts, and then the two of you clear the table and spread her essay out over the tabletop and dig in, talking about her “personal goals,” as far as school administrators could begin to fathom something so far beyond their comprehension, why she really wants to go into the law, “money, power, everyone understands that,” “I want to be in control, I want to make decisions,” “You want to be in politics,” and she hesitates, hesitating to agree, though impressed by the logic, the obvious point, after her delight, before the legal ambition took hold, in the idea of teaching and her indignation over the near-collapse and bankruptcy of the educational system, “Yes ~ well . . . “ but something in her rejects the political option, politics meaning ~ what? – compromise? corruption? ~ so she frowns it away and leads the conversation elsewhere (though she will eventually resolve the conflict through a brave leap to the obvious solution: her ultimate goal will be ~ to become a Supreme Court Justice!) ~ but where does she lead it? ~ I draw a blank, and the next thing I remember, we are walking to the subway station and you are talking about movies and then you both reach the turnstiles and she goes through and you stop and she is still talking and then stops, surprised, “I thought you were coming over,” you shrug and smile, “I live here,” and she shrugs and smiles back, “Okay, see you tomorrow,” and smiles good-bye and, swinging her little black box pocketbook, takes the escalator down to the platform, and you turn away and walk home in the cool, pleasant November night.
The candida was a percursor. You could not have known. But if you had known . . . How could you have known? But if you had known . . . You could never have known or guessed or known. But if you had known . . . if you could have guessed or warned or just signaled . . . taken what now you know and read it back into the moments you took, one after another, with such unconcern, from her trusting eyes . . .
Waves of rain and light cross the afternoon. Thunder and cold and the unseen sun. The night smothers the rain and the next day emerges, a dull soft gray. . . .
She was not always so trusting: sometimes she was dismissive, or defensive, or suspicious, or cool, early on. And there remained, admit it, a slightly overbearing streak, subdued by humor and wit now, and softened by her beauty and charm, that was in danger of an uglier growth if she hardened, as most of us, all of us, harden, with age. She could be at one time, before she was sure of your regard, a little unforgiving of your early, clumsy attempts at friendliness. Sensing your desire beneath your shyness, your hunger beneath your detachment, the falseness of your impartial politeness. But curious. Kindly disposed. And willing, in the end, to gamble.
It is Christmas. The city of visitors, outlanders and strangers is almost empty and exceptionally quiet. You leave the house in the early afternoon and walk to the hill above the bay. You stop and look around you at the emptiness; stop and listen to the quiet. Then move on, with a goal in view, a general goal, another place to pray. As if the world were waiting and listening. And it was, as much as it can. As much as you could. The world you were and that contains her. Still.
No.
Yes.
No.
As if someone were pulling something from your arms in your sleep. And you clutch hard, harder.
The hillside faces the bay and an island in the bay and the hillsides across the bay where a few lights shine in the gray afternoon. Houses flank him and a few bare trees front him, screening the view in a filligree of bony twigs and an opaque clump, to the side, of spruce. He sits on a low brick wall on a footpath, a backless bench, and concentrates on the distant scumbling of houses and buildings, tones of gray on gray, the university tower and the white hotel, and looks about (he had looked up the address of her and her partner on a map the day before, so he had a general idea where to seek) where her building might be, a bright light, the brightest light on the far hillside, shines there, must be a coincidence of course, but it’s a pleasant one, even a hopeful one, isn’t it a hopeful one? unless it is an ominous one, a threatening one, a warning. And he calls her name inside him, and calls it again, and then again. And then again. On one of the bare twigs just above eye level as he looks across the bay a hummingbird lights. Like the starfish on the rock on the day before: today, a hummingbird. It stands, in small silhouette, against the sky, on the unbent twig, twitching, flashing its wings, its little curved beak poking toward a sky of what looks like frosted glass. “Hummingbird, hummingbird, fly to her, kiss her with honey, heal her, and give her delight.” And it darts off and disappears in the clump of spruce. And it darts back and lands again on almost the same twig, twitching. “Hummingbird, hummingbird, fly to her, kiss her with honey, heal her, and give her delight.” And it darts off again to the spruce, and darts back to almost the same twig. And back and forth, one or two or three times, or four. And each time he intones, in a singsong, “Hummingbird, hummingbird, fly to her, kiss her with honey, heal her, and give her delight.” Until he almost believes it might follow his behest and join the starfish in taking his message across the bay. And meet at the head and foot of her bed and sing his message to her. No: embody the message into a kind of command and, between starfish and hummingbird, wave-washed rock and bare, bleakly lit tree, raise her up into . . .
Her back-reversed smile.
It darts down the slope, away.
Wedding photos: The bride by the side of her father, stepping proudly together toward the altar. The mother’s distracted happy look. The groom with serious mien in white suit and golden tie. A gay couple, a happy but subdued gay couple, at the altar by the lake, on the grass in the sun near a building and trees. The two of them smiling, embarrassed, happy, troubled, brave, a bit overwhelmed. The two families, both amazed, at their own bravery, at the natural acceptance, before danger, frailty, and love, despite the inevitable awkwardness. The barely hidden strain, the secret that hides but will not be entirely forgotten. The jokes you can only guess. The defiant laugh into the lens. The priest officiating. The gaze between the couple. A long moment. Then the kiss.
A shiver runs through my neck and shoulders I can’t believe it even now
can’t believe it even now
not believe it
cannot believe
not you
anyone but you not anyone yet anyone
A child.
Such joy I felt.
A dog barks.
She strides toward you across the lunchtoom in her great pink slippers . . .
Gray.
You laugh at the thought even now.
She crosses the far end of the corridor.
The opposite of time.
. . . grips it, sloshes it, sips it, returns it.
She says something perky. And passes by.
. . . Jeanette, Isabelle . . .
Her frightened, hopeful smile.
You fall across the bed.
. . . qu’il est beau . . .
If you imagine . . .
If you imagine . . .
Gray.
If you imagine. . .
Silence. Night.
Gray.
Holiness. Night.
She turns smiling to you, rising from her chair.
I’m immortal.
please God
A shadow against the bow.
Silence.
If you imagine . . .
Gray.
Silence.
Night.
Her little skip.
Her back-reversed smile.
Hark.
*
A night. A day. An evening. Not alone for a moment. Can’t bear to be alone. Even arguing is better than silence and darkness and solitude. For the first time you can remember, you cannot bear being alone. You see nothing. No: you see nothing. Nothing is the thing that you see. What you see is not dazzling, not brilliant, merely perfectly clear, a clear and simple idea, self-evident, unquestionable, demanding acceptance, surrender and resignation: the incarnation of Nothing. Like a law.
“What was the first law? I am looking for the first law.”
“Well, yes, there was Hammurabi’s code, of course. Though I recall reading there was something before that. Though of course there were unwritten codes, taboos, and so on, long before writing . . .”

“Yes, there was Ur-Nammu, or whatever, of Ur, I know that. But what was the very first law? I think it had something to do with water rights. A friend and I are debating the issue. I’m not going to rest until I find out what was the first written law!”



Said with that fierce, determined, yet cheerful, demandingly facetious way she had, with a sparkle in her eye and a wild smile on her lips.
“One night I was visiting the city with a friend to see a movie and we missed the train back, so we stayed up all night, walking the streets, talking and walking all night long, and when the sun came up we saw them putting up the farmers’ market at the Embarcadero. When we got home, I slept a couple of hours but I wasn’t that tired and got up and went through the day as though nothing had happened.”
“I love Texas! I want to live in Austin. I was visiting a ‘friend’ there once and we wanted to talk and her grandfather kept asking us if we wanted him to drive us in his truck, ‘Do ya wanna ride in ma truck?’ he kept asking. ‘I gotta truck. Ya sure ya don’ wanna ride in ma truck?’” How describe her imitation of the old Texan’s way of saying “truck”? How catch the good-humored, but absolute, dead-on hilarity of it?
“I always notice city smells. Chicago smelled of wet wool and molasses something, and heaters. And also something else, sort of sweetish. And thick. And it was very cold! But I didn’t mind that nearly as much as I thought I would. And the people were incredibly nice ~ nobody shot at me once.”
“Once my mom got mad at me because . . .”
Her impish, happy smile.
“I always notice city smells.”
An almost haughty look across the rows of stretchers as, sitting in a lotus position, she coolly leans forward.
“One night when I was visiting the city . . .”
The expression she arranges on her face when she wants to look adult, “mature,” old and wise as the hills.
“. . . but what was the very first law?”
“. . . what was the very first law?”
“. . . the very first law?”
“. . . the first law?”
“. . . the first law?”
“. . . the first law?”
“. . . the first law?”
thou shalt not destroy the innocent
Evening. The boisterous holiday a distant yesterday. Quiet falls over this part of the city. Prostitutes prowl the corners despite the vacancy of the streets. The flickering street lamp flicks on a steady light as you pass beneath it. Not long after you’ve removed your jacket and scarf, the phone rings. You don’t pick it up but listen for the voice on the answering machine.
“Hello, Chris, this is L___, I have . . .”
“Hello, Chris, this is L___, I have . . .”
“Hello, Chris, this is L___, I have . . .”
“Hello, Chris, this is L___, I have . . .”
You race across the apartment to the phone and lift the receiver. No: you lumber across the apartment pass from the huge kitchen through the vast bedroom to the enormously long corridor to the phone alcove at its distant end passing from the eternal past to an infinite future across a bottomless chasm called the present that breaks and separates the two forever to find the phone fumble the receiver off its cradle and raise it slowly and heavily to your ear.

“Hello? Hello. Hello? . . .”

Your hand goes out immediately, feeling for a place to sit.
*
I remember the first time I ever noticed you. It was at the baby shower for L___, your supervisor, organized by another friend and held in the large, airy lunchroom at work. A dozen people were there, mostly women, with sweets to eat and drink, and a glare of light shone from the windows in the brick wall. The gifts were opened and admired, laughs and stories about pregnancy, labor, delivery were traded, I listened and nodded and smiled. A tall girl wearing an orange dress, who I had seen before once or twice in the lunchroom, stood and sat at the margins of the crowd, not saying much but smiling intensely. She stood at the corner of my eye, and I became more animated, talking to my neighbor. Then I found myself holding my breath. The tall girl walked over to the chair beside me, facing away, and sat, folding her long legs up in a lotus position on the chair and rocking slightly. And you sat there next to me, your back turned to me, and talked with L___: you rocked a little from side to side and nodded, vigorously. I could make out nothing of what you said, but I could hear your voice and laugh, and see your thigh rocking slightly on the chair, and the outline of your shoulder and the movement of your hair, and above all I could feel the brilliance of your smile.

I refused to look at you. I refused to talk to you. I refused to acknowledge your presence.


I feared you. I was happy.

##

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