from Under the Sun
HE IS SITTING on his couch showing her a book he recently purchased - waving it in her direction - a university press book, clothbound and expensive. He tells of its content, which is philosophical and addresses the human condition. He momentarily forgets she is there while searching for a passage to read aloud, something he thinks she will like. She is standing in front of him, several feet from the couch wondering if she should sit. He hasn't asked her to be seated, seems not to notice she has been standing for some time, although he offered her a glass of wine or a mineral water half an hour earlier. She chose wine and they stood in the kitchen each drinking a glass of medium quality medoc. There weren't any chairs or stools to sit on in that room either. They'd leaned against the counter, close to one another and he said amusing things. She couldn't tell whether this closeness was intentional, or they just had different ideas about personal space. She lives in the country where there is more space to be had. But his eye contact was good and between that and the proximity of their bodies, with the leaning factored in, it seemed as if there is something happening between them. But maybe not. Maybe something is only happening between her and her imagination, and this fellow is a polite and entertaining host who, in his enthusiasm to convey an important bit of philosophy, has not realized she has been on her feet for a long time; she wishes she were not wearing fashionable but uncomfortable three-inch heels.
The man finds the passage and reads aloud. While he is reading she becomes aware that her nipples are erect against the silky material of her bra. The room is cold, which she hadn't noticed before. If the man ever stops reading and looks up will he be able to see them? What will he think, that she is cold, or aroused? She could ask for her coat, but that would seem rude, or that she hasn't liked what he's read and wants to leave soon - neither of which is the case. What she actually would like to do is climb onto the man's lap when he puts the book down. She can picture it: raising her skirt with both hands and straddling him. Once she is on his lap it seems like a good idea to put her arms around him give him a kiss. After this she imagines herself on the couch, her legs in the air, while he gently slides her underwear down her thighs and off her calves.
The slogan from a sporting goods manufacturer runs through her head, words to inspire people to do what they set out to do. But there is something else to consider. She doesn't think women her age climb onto men's laps. She had done this sort of straddling when she was in her early twenties, but doesn't think any man would throw a woman in her early twenties off his lap.
What if he recoils and shouts, What are you doing? This happened to her once. She had not been the climber, but the "climb-e" - or rather, while saying something about Marguerite Duras she'd been knocked onto her back by a man who climbed on top of her and began kissing. She was startled, the same way she was startled when a car had backed out of a parking place and hit her car, stopped in a line of traffic. For a moment she didn't know what had happened. When she did she grew angry, as she was when shoved onto her back. And what if she gives this man offense, or causes him embarrassment, although she hasn't known any men who were embarrassed when sex was being offered to them.
The man jumps up to look for another book on his bookshelf. He thinks she will like this one too. His back is to her, he's scanning the shelves. She could walk up behind him, gently put her arms around his waist and embrace him. He would do one of two things: shout hey and whip around, or be quiet, turn and embrace her too. He is standing on the couch. The book is apparently on one of the upper shelves. If she moves forward she could place each of her palms on his butt, but what if this startles him so much he falls to the floor and hits his head?
He says, Come sit next to me while I find the paragraph. She does, and it is nice to be seated. He has his index finger on a page, scanning the text. The sexual tension is so pronounced between them that she thinks she might hyperventilate, or faint. What if she knocks the book from his hands and throws her arms around him?
She suddenly remembers an incident on a city street. She'd spent an entire day with a man who had taken his dog with them on their date. In the late afternoon when dropping her off in front of her building, he leaned over to give her a goodbye kiss, and while they were kissing, the dog leapt into the man's front seat, knocking them apart. She'd suggested they exit the vehicle to continue the kiss, which they did - until the man pulled away, shouting: I'm doing this in front of my dog! The dog hadn't paid attention to them once they were outside, and she didn't see how such a thing could traumatize an animal. The man had been far less concerned about the people on the street glaring at them, including a man who passed by mumbling: Get a room!
There are no dogs in this apartment, but there is a caged canary.
She is listening to what he is reading from the second book, but becomes distracted again by the thought of a man in a foreign country. He was a famous translator and she thought things might be leading up to their having sex - and she'd made the suggestion - but he said he had to go out, although he invited her to stay at his place and masturbate. Since it was a foreign country and this man was so matter-of-fact, she'd accepted his offer, and it hadn't seemed unusual - just something to do on a Tuesday afternoon while out of the country and not having to go to work.
The man has finished reading and holds the book in his lap. She agrees that it is a profound piece of text, well conceived and well-written. He is looking at her. But is he looking at her expectantly? It would seem that way, but she can't tell. He is still looking at her, offering to give her the publishing information so she can order the book herself. She is disappointed. If he offered her the book as a gift she could have worked up the courage to climb on the man's lap, or gently take the book from his hands, set it on the couch and wrap her arms around him. Maybe this is just how he looks at the people he invites to his apartment.
She says she would like to order the title. He writes down the information, hands her a piece of paper which she slips into her purse. The visit is over.
She stands to collect her things and he helps her on with her coat. Before she leaves they embrace, a friendly hug. When they step apart the look on his face is unmistakable - lust, immobilized by indecision.
He suggests that he accompany her to the subway and they walk down the street, their bodies separated by the distance kept by two people who don't know one another well. He is not very talkative and she can't think of anything more to say. Before she goes down into the subway she wonders if there is to be another hug, but he hasn't made any gesture and it might seem silly if she were to hug him a second time.
When she gets back to her hotel she looks at the phone to see if the light is blinking, indicating voice mail messages. There aren't any. She sits down feeling strange - exhilarated with desire, yet sad. She supposes the man hadn't liked her that way.
Perhaps he has a girlfriend, although she hadn't heard anything about a girlfriend. Some thoughts drift into her mind about what could have happened to the man to make him think it not even worth trying anymore, but she doesn't know him well enough to begin to speculate. While doodling on the hotel stationary she realizes that all her business is concluded; it is not necessary to spend two more days here as she'd planned, and the weather isn't very nice. Maybe she can change her ticket and return home tomorrow morning.
She takes an airport shuttle and then a cab to her house. She hadn't told anyone she was returning early and didn't want to call a friend on such short notice.
Everything is the same as she expected it would be, but whenever she returns from a trip she always looks around as if something should be different. She sets her suitcase on the couch goes directly to bed.
The following morning she wakes up feeling jet lagged. While having morning coffee she checks her messages. There are several business-related things, but there is also one from the many in the city. He is upset. His recorded voice asks: Why did you leave early? Why did you leave me?
Confessions of a Noun
THE ROOM IS perfect, slowly deteriorating, small as it should be, stains on the walls, a mirror defaced and beginning to tarnish. The cheese on the table smelling like cheese.
His novel written here. Her book of poems. A gray sky as if you'd planned it. A brief respite from walking, the restlessness temporarily gone out of your body. The cobblestone streets confusing-more real in the color photographs in oversized books.
It begins to rain as it should do while you sit at the writing table. Her novels. His poems. Their writing done in little rooms all over the city.
Your pen in your hand, your idea in your head. Your hand that will not move the pen. Your brain that will not hold a thought. Your ideas that abstract into images, things you'd be better off not thinking, followed by an unusual bird seen while walking near the river, the waiter you encounter daily who always fails to recognize you. Where is your imagination when you need it?
Appropriately it begins to rain harder and the sky darkens as if orchestrated. And as befitting you hear through the open window rapid footsteps on the cobblestones and wonder if you will ever meet any of the persons they belong to, and if you do, if you will fall in love with one of them and it will turn out badly, and if so, if you will afterwards transcribe them, or it, transfigured, of course, so they will be unrecognizable to themselves, and it as well, because understandably, they would have another it, as may well you when you are finished, this you with two hands and a pen in a rented room in the rain.
AFTER NOT HAVING seen it for a time they are always startled by how nice it looks, surprised it hasn't fallen into disrepair because that is what they remember, sadness and disintegration-or think they remember. But its whiteness gleams, its stained glass glows in primary colors, the porch is devoid of webs and dirt, and the lounge chairs are newish, clean.
Just for a moment, on the porch ringing the bell, or fumbling with the key, the idea crosses their minds that they might be wrong, might have remembered wrong. But after they let themselves in, or are greeted at the door and step inside, the heaviness descends and grows increasingly pronounced as they pass through the rooms.
They look around at the familiar furniture, always noting how much bigger it looked when they were small, realize the reaction is a common one.
They exchange pleasantries with their parents, who are sometimes in the midst of their routines when they arrive-gardening, listening to the radio, or watching television. Their parents stop what they are doing, attempting to hide their annoyance at being interrupted, trying not to show their displeasure that time has gotten away from them and nothing is ready.
When refreshment is prepared, always by their mother, they usually have it in the house, although the children politely suggest taking it in the backyard or front porch to escape the house's interior. But their mother often feels a chill, doesn't like the idea that an insect might hover or crawl while they are having a snack.
Inside, around the dining table or living room the children try and fight the melancholy that oppresses them as they sit in the chairs from so long ago. The chairs have, of course, been refurbished since then. Sometimes the subject of present or future refurbishings takes up a good portion of the conversation, and when this occurs everyone feels less tense. If the children have brought their own children, they invariably grow quiet, sometimes afraid; they feel an inarticulated anxiousness that manifests itself as being nervous about spilling something on grandma's couch or table, or by grabbing their parent's arm and saying, I want to go home.
The children often talk in loud voices about their careers or their spouses or what their children are up to in order to rally against the atmosphere. During these segments of the conversation they are often surprised by their parents' responses-how, as time passed, two liberals have grown conservative. They've noticed their father as of late has had difficulty following the interaction, that over the past several visits he's had a hard time comprehending what was said-a fact they tell to their spouses, but not their own mother or siblings, for it seems a matter of less importance if not spoken of to them.
Their mother, who looks as if she'd rather be in her garden, tries to hide a sigh, also her fear that her grandchildren will damage one of her possessions.
A bright moment usually occurs when the parents take their children and grandchildren out of doors to show them the improvements they've made in the yard, or a new bush in bloom. The children spring up eagerly; their own children race out of the house where they jump and shout in relief.
After looking at the changes in the yard, the visit is usually, by unspoken agreement, over. Occasionally there is perfunctory talk of the children and grandchildren staying to dinner, but all know this is just a gesture. Their mother despises cooking, would not want her son or daughters messing about in her kitchen, and their parents, particularly their mother, does not like to go out. It costs a great deal of money to eat out, they tell their children, frowning slightly to convey they do not approve of them wasting money on such things.
That their parents must live austerely because they are elderly and afraid is implied-even though they are free of debt and have plenty of money. The children have discussed this among themselves over the telephone. One of the daughters informed the others it is called Depression-Era Syndrome.
When all the kissing is over the children try not to hurry to their cars. After the final waves they accelerate slowly to give the impression they have just had a pleasurable experience.
As they round the corner to get on the street that takes them to the freeway, they feel their sadness, their despondency, beginning to lift. Their own children are unusually silent, sullen, after these visits and they feel a rush of guilt for having taken them there-consider telling their parents that the kids are involved in so many activities they will only be able to bring them over on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The further away from their parents' house they get, the more they feel like the picture they have of themselves-enthusiastic and basically happy people who have loving and pleasant parents. They sigh, grateful for the open spaces lying on either side of the freeway. While searching for cheerful, uncomplicated music to listen to on their cassette players or car radios, they speculate yet again about what it could be in that bright Victorian structure that can make them feel so terrible, so lifeless after all these years. Yet all they recall are elusive impressions-the way the sunlight played through the upstairs French window illuminating a square of hardwood floor, or the dark hallways, or an even blurrier memory-of themselves, or a sibling, crying in the living room window seat, head pressed against the glass and wishing to get out.
The Problems of Translation
You are sitting in the apartment of a famous man, discussing the subtleties and nuances of translation. You have been talking for nearly two hours and your head is starting to feel like an attic laced with dirt. You say something he obviously disagrees with and he frowns slightly, then asks if you would care for a cup of coffee. You say yes so he goes into the kitchen which gives you time to spy through the inscriptions in his many books. You return to where you were sitting- the bed, because although he is a very famous translator, there is no money in translation and there is no other place to sit, except the other chair, which looks uncomfortable. Also, you want to convey how much at ease you are talking with a famous translator about his subject. You find yourself listening to make sure he is still rummaging in the kitchen, then you slump down because your brain is feeling like swirling dust. He returns with a tray bearing two cups, cream and sugar. You look at him, your head resting on the pillow, hear yourself say, I think it is a good idea for us to have sex now. He jumps backward, spills coffee and gazes at your half naked body which is in full view, since your knees point to the ceiling, you've shoved your tights around your ankles and thrown your skirt around your hips. He stands gazing and thinking. Your brain feels like a nicer place to be already. Steam rises up to his face, you have to remind him he's holding hot coffee, then you sit up, pull your skirt down and say, No, seriously, I think it is a good idea, adopting the grave tone of voice you use to talk about translation. But he says he has an appointment, has to go out and he leaves you there dreaming in two languages, feeling the fleshiness of your fingers moving over and over.
She is taking a walk on a day on an early June day and comes to an enclave of homes built in the 1930s-one story clapboard houses with porches, now painted in various pastel colors. In front of one of the houses a little girl is playing in the yard. She is surrounded by several dolls and a toy truck.
It is getting warm in the sun and the woman pauses under a tree to watch her. The girl is crawling around in shorts and a T-shirt. A cat comes up to the girl for petting. She rubs its head and ears, runs her hands over its body. The animal seems to like this. The girl goes back to her activity, arranging dolls in the truck. The woman observes that they must be placed in the truck in a certain way, and stay upright. The cat begins to rub against the girl's legs, demanding more attention. She does not want to be distracted and slaps the animal. It recoils, but several minutes later approaches the girl again. This time the child is definitely annoyed and pulls its tail. The cat lashes out and scratches her arm. The little girl begins to cry when she sees two lines of blood sliding down her skin and runs into the house.
The woman goes back the way she came, walking as quickly as she can. Once at home she grabs her keys and gets into her car. On the way to the market she quickly changes lanes and drives to the corner of the street where the child lives. She parks near the house for several minutes. The yard is empty. She hangs a U turn in the middle of the street and heads to the market. After she makes her purchases she returns home, but several hours later decides to go back out. It is nearing dusk and has cooled down considerably. While driving around aimlessly enjoying a pink-and-mauve sunset, she again goes to where the girl lives and parks. No one is out on the street, or on their porches, but she sees the grey-blue flicker of television sets inside several homes. The girl's house looks as if everyone is out. The woman walks casually past the house and returns. She is the only person about, so quietly calls the cat. Minutes later it jumps up on the porch ledge. She beckons it, but it doesn't come forward. There is no gate, just a cement walkway that leads to the porch. The woman steps onto the property. If anyone is home she'll speak to one of the child's parents, saying that although she doesn't want to meddle, she saw the child being absuive to their cat. When she is at the front door she cautiously puts her hand out. The cat smells her fingers. She reaches her hand out further and gently strokes its head. The cat doesn't flinch; she discovers it is quite friendly, moves closer, gives it a thorough petting and sees he is a neutered male. The cat begins to purr. She rings the bell, but no one comes to the door. She grabs the knocker, raps it against the wood several times and calls out Hello. After caressing the cat one more time she returns to the street. Back in her car she cruises up to the girl's house and cuts the engine. The cat is grooming himself. She slowly goes up the path and resumes playing with him. In one rapid movement she takes him in her arms and hurries off the porch. He begins to struggle. He's strong and she regrets having to hold him so tightly. She is able to thrust him in the car and get the door closed, but he's scratched her right hand. After starting the car she creeps down the block in first gear, so as not to continue to frighten him; the cat begins to howl.
By the time she arrives home he has jumped up and scratched her on the left shoulder, and at some point during the ride, urinated on the back seat.
The teachings of some religions would theorize that the animal's behavior is the direct results of her actions, but she no longer believes in religion-although certain principles from her early upbringing still, on occasion, steal back into her consciousness-concepts that no matter what she does she should have done something else, or done it differently, done it better.
HE TOUCHES HER face and leans forward to kiss her. Her breasts press into him, his tongue is deep in her mouth. The man suddenly opens his eyes, pulls away and takes several steps back. He walks into the converted chicken house where he lives and slams the door.
She follows him but he has locked her out. Standing on her tiptoes she can see him through the window and smell the kerosene lamp he's just lit. His back is to her and he is at the table, again bent over his books. She sits on the grass, wondering what to do. It will be dark soon. She waits fifteen minutes, but he does not reappear. The woman pulls her keys from her purse and walks to her car. She will drive the half an hour back to town, back to the tiny house she rented when the man came to her one day and told her he was moving out-to a one-room cabin without electricity on a large farm in the country. She thought it would just be temporary, that he would get tired of it. Instead he became a vegetarian and said: 'Devotion is from the Latin word to vow, meaning to yield, to commit, to consecrate oneself to the object of devotion, without regard to the sacrifice involved.'
She passes the farms and pastures lying on either side of the two-lane road. It does not surprise her, really, that the man should be doing this-he is the son of an investment banker, played on the tennis team of his private high school, and summered on Martha's Vineyard. Most of his adult life has been spent escaping his upbringing-like many men who came of age in a certain era.
His transformation came on gradually-the sex seemed obligatory and then it disappeared entirely-but he said nothing was wrong. She spent time jumping on and off the scale to see if she'd gained weight, and looking into mirrors, at her thighs for cellulite, at her head for gray hair.
She didn't think it strange when he read the Bible, or Augustine or St. John of the Cross, for the two of them read quite widely and this type of inquiry did not seem odd.
She can see the lights of the town just beginning to stand out in the twilight as she follows the road that descends from the hills. She hopes the woman with whom she shares the little house will have gone out, or if she is there, she will be in her room and will not come out to talk. When she gets home she sits on her bed and sighs.
After ten years together, five of them as man and wife, they are supposed to be friends. She often thinks that if they'd had a family none of this would have happened, but they wanted it to be just the two of them.
Several months ago when she'd driven out for a visit, as she always did because he didn't have transportation, she stopped in the middle of the road and watched him in front of his chicken house, dancing, leaping, throwing his arms about. She'd never seen anyone but children and animals that happy. She turned around near a cattle crossing and drove back home.
He attempted to explain it to her-how it feels when he is one with The Lord-the joy, the ease with which he walks in the world, and how content he is in his body, but not really in his body. . .he tried to avoid clichés, use odd analogies-like sports or dance-how, if you were giving a physical performance and all that you'd practiced had come together at just that instant-there is no struggle, no pain, and the euphoria, how the mind soars-it is almost unbearable, like watching the sun. Once you experience this, he says, there is no going back, and every time he touches her, loves her, he can't find the Lord for days. And when he is lost from Him it is as if he is dying, not leaving his body, happily, as if his earthly time is over, just annihilated. He cannot live without the sustenance he receives from that communion. It is not fair of her to ask him to.
Thursday: the day she goes out to his cabin. She packs up some food-canned goods, tomatoes and oranges. He is thinner each time they meet. They will sit and visit at the rotting picnic table next to his house. She will not try to touch him. He will not invite her in.
She hides her resentment, her confusion and behaves as his friend. He is happy to see her.
Her cheek is tingling. She is sure he left a red mark. He gets up from the picnic table and glowers. What did she say? A quip? Something slightly sarcastic? He misunderstood, whatever it was. Or something slipped out, some words, unconsciously. He strides to the chicken house, locks the door behind him and shouts from the window: no one on this earth, or in this life has the right to be jealous of God.
SUDDENLY ONE OF our group disappeared. She was in her usual place, then there was a dark hole in the ground and she was gone. We leaned this way and that, trying for a better view, startled into silence, staring with curiosity and horror at the hole in the earth. We speculated it was possible she was unable to tolerate any more and vanished at will. We wondered how she could do this, but she'd always been a willful girl and if anyone could manage it, she could. She, after all, had been the most outraged when he took up the hobby. When he got out his shears and began to prune and shape us, she was the most rebellious, trying to defy the outrageous contours he cut into our greenery. She got spider mites and aphids intentionally, so he would have to stop cutting at her, molding her this way and that. The rest of us eventually got used to our odd shapes in the caricatures of women-the exaggerated bust lines and hips, our leafy waists, trimmed until he could fit his hands around them. He won a prize with us and was written up in a newspaper article. On weekends, then, people would walk down the quiet street, stop in front of the house, spot us in the garden, gape and take our pictures. Others drove by, laughing and pointing. Our faces turned greener with embarrassment, while hers became a sickly shade of brown. We became accustomed to being ridiculous, to the groups of people milling about, but she managed to grow mobile enough to turn her back to the street. He immediately brought in topiary specialists and they stood puzzling over her, speculating that this phenomenon was made possible by her roots and her chemical reaction to the soil. There was talk of transplanting her to another area of the garden, but before this could take place she grew stronger still, strong enough to vanish.
YOU STAND ON your tiptoes, feet wobbling on the unsteady surface of your bed, face pressed against the wall and raised to the spaces between the metal slats. Next door, a man is smoking marijuana, blowing his residual smoke through the shared heater vent.
You have been secretly partaking in the man's Friday afternoon ritual for some months, having decided that because you don't purchase or light it, your contact with the substance is merely happenstance.
When you first detected the smell, you got up from your desk and sniffed around your bedroom, puzzled. The following Friday you again noticed the odor, and the following week, and the week after that. During a Friday afternoon that was going rather badly, you again caught the scent of marijuana's sweetness, hurried to your bedroom in time to see tiny trails of smoke drift up toward your ceiling and disappear. Instinctively, you climbed onto your bed, pressed your face to the vent and breathed deeply, pleasantly surprised afterward that you'd been in close enough contact with the substance to now feel different.
You have deduced that the man's ritual always takes place on Fridays because he gets home several hours earlier than his wife. You also know that the man smokes his marijuana in the bathroom, as you can hear the whirring of his bathroom fan, his turning on the shower when he is finished. Perhaps the shower steam aids in dissipating the smell, which in turn helps him to deceive his wife into thinking he is not under any influence.
When you breathed through the vent for the first time, you no longer felt like working, and wandered around the apartment, picking things up and putting them down again. Finally, you went out, walking in the early onset of winter darkness. You noted, with heightened interest, people hurried and tense, people yelling at one another over parking places, people trying to get their errands done before the shops closed, people stumbling, people swearing.
You didn't know what you wanted to do, have a drink, or a cup of tea, or go to the magazine shop and browse through journals, secure in the fact that the proprietor would be smoking a cigarette and would not engage you in conversation.
You walked by a large storefront, pausing to look at a strange set of tea pots: a pig, an elephant, the water designed to pour from its upturned trunk, a teapot made in the shape of a large green lizard. Unable to discern if they were charming or ridiculous, you nonetheless went inside.
Soon this becomes your weekly ritual: to stand atop your bed inhaling deeply, to walk the streets in the dissipating light, to wander through the many antique shops that comprise this part of the city, imagining the people who once owned the silver-plated oriental jewelry adorned with dancing girls, the crumbling and pointed women's shoes, the austere walnut tables, the mothball scented clothing. It becomes a game, to conjure up what the owners looked like, how old they were, their circumstances and eras. It makes you think of ghostliness, of the dead, and in your present state you like this.
On the Friday afternoon following Thanksgiving, the man blows marijuana through the heater vent earlier than usual. You sprint across the room and leap onto your bed, expanding your lungs. You suspect his wife has gone out for a time and it is now or never for him. When he is finished you hear the familiar rush of shower spray.
Outdoors the light hurts your eyes, and there are so many people roaming about that you begin to feel nervous, consider returning home, but keep moving toward your destination.
The stores have been well-stocked for the holiday season, proprietors well aware that one person's junk constitutes another's rare find. Near a jewelry case you come upon a silver oval containing a photograph of an ice skater caught in a split jump, balletic and staring into the camera. Judging from the high skating boots and flared skirt, you guess the photograph was taken in the 1930s or 40s.
You recall several minutes from long ago, preserved on eight millimeter film somewhere, by someone now old, or perhaps dead. You gained speed and jumped, suspending yourself at the apex, and when you came back down to the ice, you once again gathered momentum and leaped, trying to remain aloft, and again came back down, stroking the hard, white surface with deep edges, moving faster, and again took off. It was easy to jump too high at that altitude, but there was nothing better than being airborne and rotating.
Today, that form you were once inside of, unable to imagine any other, has vanished, as has that boundary between yourself and the world. All these years later you are in an antique shop at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, in an altered state, holding a silver-plated oval of an ice skater, while trying to remain unobtrusive.
This is not unusual, and in fact happens to everyone. Merely the circumstances and artifacts vary, as seen here surrounding you in the burnished silver, the porcelain and satin-slightly tarnished, minutely cracked, a tad worn. Nothing unusual at all. It can even be found on heater vents where rust forms in asymmetrical spots-something you routinely observe while feeling the presence of the person next door, as you and he stand quietly on either side of the metal partition, inhaling and exhaling.
Flesh and Blood
A PIANIST AND violinist hold the same note while looking critically at one another. The violinist fiddles with the instrument's tailpiece and the process is repeated.
People search for seats, their movements inadvertently become constricted, more unsure as they make their way from lobby to church.
The musicians, satisfied that their instruments are in tune, disappear through a side door while the last of the audience sidles in, searches for empty places in the pews.
Introduction and applause. The musicians reappear, briefly repeat their tuning, and we are told by the violinist that Charles Ives was the first American classical composer to shun the influence of the European masters in favor of American folk music and revivals, that his music is more romantic than some of the Romantics.
The violinist removes a navy blue bandana from his pocket, places it between his cheek and violin, and they begin Ives' Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano, Op. 100.
It is soon obvious that the violinist is dominating the performance, wants and has all eyes upon himself; the pianist, a young, serious-looking fellow from Julliard seems to have accepted his fate, is complicit in it.
Perspiration rolls down the violinist's face, his body moves with the music, eyes closed, and it is doubtful whether he is still aware he is before an audience. This Paganini-like trance could be an affectation to give the audience what he believes they desire-to observe a violinist looking mesmerized, sweating with intensity, before a church crowded with music aficionados on a Saturday afternoon.
The pianist is hunched over the keys and looks as if he would prefer to be in a practice room. He is as seemingly controlled as the violinist is passionate, but these personae could have been worked out during rehearsals.
The violinist has a small paunch, although he is what you would call a thin man, an odd observation to make during an opus. It is not clear if the violinist senses on any level that his body is being beheld and considered, and if so, if this makes him nervous, pleased, embarrassed.
Interspersed throughout the church are stained glass windows. Think of the labor and artistry involved in their production. It is possible that the workers who made the glass lost teeth, grew ill and died from a lifetime of exposure to the poisonous lead components.
Men sleep. Their heads loll to one side, hands loosely folded; some of these hands are marked with brown spots, some of these heads revealed through thin wisps. The companions of these men, wives presumably, nudge them gently if they seem to be in danger of snoring. These wives, many heavy and well-dressed, watch the musicians, absorb the music with eager, open faces. The other women, those in attendance with female friends, or with their daughters, are predominantly slender. Their daughters might be music students, given how their faces are focused with concentration. They're more delicate than their mothers, and it is frightening to think of what harm could come to them-and their mothers, how easily they could be robbed or beaten, or their legs forced open for a rape. Could some of these women even offer one effective punch, a good kick to ward off an attacker? Perhaps, aware of their apparent frailty, they have become proficient at martial arts, self-defense, carry mace in their purses, or on their persons.
It is odd to think of hearts, so many beating in one place at one time, and given the size of the audience, some must beat in unison. Does the man with blue eyes in the gray pinstripe suit have a heart pulsing in synch with the matron in beige linen? The hearts of the sleeping men may beat irregularly, the cause of their fatigue; it could be that their hardening ventricles, the enplaqued arteries are wearing out. Do the other hearts, belonging to those who appear so enraptured, subtly increase their beats and return to resting pulse rate according to the tempo of the music?
If looked at long enough fingers are strange things, pliant sticks with muscle memory, able to perform intricate movements to produce music in precisely the right way, at exactly the right time.
A sheath containing blood, bone and bile is a strange thing to have, is an odd vessel to go through life in, thinks one sullen inside its skin.
The musicians conclude the adagio cantabile, hold the final notes until they fade entirely from the church and there is a silent interval before some leap up to exit and others lumber up to deliver applause.
AS MY CAR is old and apt to break down, I began several months ago to ride my bicycle around town to do my errands. Returning home one day, I came to a stop sign and for no other reason than perverseness, turned left instead of making the right turn which would have taken me to my apartment. I pedaled for what seemed a long time. The roads changed, as did the landscape, becoming more rustic with fewer cars passing me. The air was cleaner. I suspect I was enjoying myself, although I was gasping for air and my legs were throbbing. Finally, unable to go any further, I sat under a tree until I regained my strength and started the long journey home. When I eventually arrived and carried my bike up the stairs to my apartment, I saw it was four p.m. I had ridden for over three hours. After I took a long shower and sat in front of the television with a glass of wine, I discovered that I felt quite content, which for me is an anomaly.
Three days later, when my stiff legs again moved, I set out on another bicycling excursion, getting an early start before the Indian summer heat made the ride more taxing. I had studied a map and planned a route that traversed beautiful country roads. After climbing some particularly arduous hills, I felt a tinge of coolness in the air, smelled a sea breeze and discovered I had nearly reached the ocean. I got off the bike and, after my legs buckled several times, steadied myself enough to consult the map. I had been so absorbed in riding that I'd missed an important turn, had ridden much farther than I'd planned, had arrived near the sea coast. I decided to keep riding until I was actually at the beach, where I could rest for a time and catch my breath.
Sea gulls screeched while I took in the color and light of the landscape which seemed sharper, clearer near the sea. An old man hobbling and flapping his arms at the water's edge captivated my attention for an hour or so, during which I was in a pleasant state of oblivion.
It was well past dusk when I dragged my bike up the stairs. I went to my answering machine, dutifully wrote down the messages and numbers, but didn't have the energy to return the calls. I passed the next few hours relaxing, fatigue filling me with an odd contentment.
I am self-employed. My clients are often rude, cantankerous and slow to pay. It is no wonder that I prefer bicycling to them, that I've stopped returning their phone calls or finishing their jobs. If they would admit how unreasonable they are, I might do their work. As it is, I would rather ride. There is a time, after about one and a half hours of pedaling, when a sense of happiness fills me and I can envision that I'm another person-one who has an interesting life. I see things I would never see if I were still cooped up working: road kill which, at a distance, resemble the hats worn by Cossacks; people dreaming behind windows in restaurants and cafes and as I hurtle past them we lock eyes, our images intertwining in the glass; others clutching at one another in the alcoves and dark nooks between the shops; caterpillars making their way Kamikaze-like into the center of the road. I swerve to avoid squashing them and momentarily feel like God.
When I return from my excursions I am too tired to worry about anything and this alone is blissful. Before I started bicycling I dated someone, but he was always trying to get me to stop riding.
My business has fallen off almost entirely, but I don't mind. The few clients I have left hate their businesses as well. They are distracted and don't care whether I finish their jobs on time, or if I finish them at all. I only keep these clients because cycling equipment is expensive. I need to purchase tubes to repair flat tires, and a new helmet because I crashed and the old one was ruined. I put a recording on my answering machine that says I've left town. An annoying amount of mail continues to come to my apartment, mostly job requests and bills. Since I don't have time for either of these things, I stuff them in a large box that I keep out of sight. This has taken care of the problem. I have fewer and fewer needs. Contrary to what I first thought, my appetite has decreased since I've begun to spend my days riding, and I can get by on hardly any food at all. When I return home after a long day's ride and have my feet propped up on the coffee table in the living room, I believe that I've discovered the secret of life.
EVEN AS I threw his body over a bridge, I was sorry to have killed my husband. But what else was there to do? I heard the splash, leaned over, saw the inanimate sinking hulk and, winded, I walked off.
But I was unable to leave, continually walked back toward the road, toward my hidden car, stopped short and returned to the bridge where I sat-on the rail smoking, or nearby on an embankment with large boulders. Many hours passed this way: I walked, I returned, I smoked, I sat.
Just before morning I found I had dozed off on the sand, my coat wrapped around me, the boulders sheltering me from the wind. Getting up I brushed away the sand and returned to the bridge. The smell of daybreak was pleasant. I looked at the colors of the sunrise, had a final cigarette, considered possibilities for my alibi and what I would do when I returned home. I headed toward my car, but only got as far as a grove of redwood trees. I spent the entire day and night moving from the bridge to the trees to the boulders. I tried to figure out why I kept returning to bridge-guilt, fear, uncertainty? I doubted it was any of these because as I sat on the bridge I experienced intense periods of ecstasy and happiness when I realized that I had actually committed the act-accomplished it. I even ran along the river bank leaping and giving gleeful shouts. At other times during the day and ensuing night I felt a terrible shame and wretchedness, but these bouts never lasted very long. I think three or four days may have passed when it occurred to me that I didn't feel like myself-euphoric, yes, but not like me. I wondered when I had stopped feeling like myself, or if the long stretches of ecstasy were so unfamiliar that I couldn't conceive of my experiencing them.
As time moved on I felt less and less like myself, or at least how I used to feel, but I attributed this to a lack of food, solitude and a rather unusual environment. During my cavorts around the shore or while sitting on the bridge I sometimes felt like my late husband, as if I were dwelling in his body instead of mine.
As it was nearing dusk I returned from the boulders to the bridge and suddenly felt like nothing at all-that I no longer existed, as if there was no matter in the form of a body surrounding me. But if there was no longer a body, what propelled me to climb the rail, and what leaped, experienced the shock of icy water, and what, then, began to float downstream?
Go to the doctor, she says. I don't need a doctor. Ear, Nose and Throat. Your hearing has gotten much worse over the last six months. I hear perfectly well.
They are in their mid-seventies and have been married for over fifty years.
The couple's activities are limited as they're on a fixed income, but they never did like to go out very often, or travel. However, they share several hobbies-gardening, eating and watching television.
The two begin their day by drinking coffee and reading the paper. Afterward, in the spring, summer and fall months, they drift outdoors to continue their projects-planting rows of sunflowers and corn, or building paths made of cedar chips and pine needles. There are also the basic gardening necessities to be done-mowing, pruning, watering and fertilizing the plants.
At noon, when they have set their digital watches to go off, they return to the house for lunch. It is not a remarkable meal, usually a sandwich. Nonetheless the man gobbles it, smacking his lips. At 3:30 p.m. the two once again meet at the house for cookies, coffee, and during the summer months watch several rounds of televised golf on a cable sports channel.
On weekends the man drives to a nearby delicatessen for their sandwiches; they sit on the couch and while eating the sandwiches watch more rounds of golf.
Evening hours are spent preparing their supper-Mondays spaghetti, Tuesdays pork chops, Wednesdays a fish dish and so on. Although the woman is not a remarkable cook the man devours his food, shoving it into his mouth. When the dishes are placed in the dishwasher the rest of the night is devoted to watching television, all their favorite shows, and after a program's conclusion the two discuss the plot, analyzing how the characters should have responded for a better outcome.
During breakfast the woman frequently says something to the man about an article she's just read in the paper. Uha? She repeats herself, this time loudly. Sometimes when she tells him about one of the articles he doesn't hear her at all, remains hunched over a section of the newspaper and she gives up trying to get his attention.
The couple's three children left the area years ago, but occasionally come to visit, the two with families bring their children along. The woman does not like her grandchildren on the property because she finds them ill-behaved, but the man enjoys seeing them. Their son decides he wants his children to experience an old-fashioned Fourth of July and spend the long weekend in his hometown. He, his wife and two children drive to the area from another part of the state, but stay in a hotel so none of the family will be in constant contact with one another-which would be stressful. Their son and daughter-in-law drop by before taking their children to the Main Street parade. The boy and girl have been instructed not to run around and, while outdoors, not to pull up any flowers or plants. When the couple's son sees all the gardening and landscaping they've done he grows concerned. You should be taking it easy, he says. It's not good for you to be working like that all day long. The couple explain that often in the morning the fog has not yet burned off and on very hot days they get out early to water the garden, then only work in shady areas. This place is too big for you to maintain by yourselves, their son concludes. I'm doing well. I'm going to send you some money to hire someone to help you. His parents frown. We don't need anyone, the woman says, this is our hobby. The four stand uncomfortably on the lawn. The couple think their son is implying they are too old to be doing such work and become upset, resentful. Their grandchildren have disappeared into a row of corn, pull several green ears off the stalks and use it to bash one another on the face and arms. When they tire of the game they toss the corn several rows away, where they hope it isn't discovered by their grandparents.
Before they leave for the parade their son takes his mother aside: At least let me pay for dad's hearing aid. He won't get one. He says he hears perfectly well. Their son and his family hurry off to their car and drive to the parade, the adults wave self-consciously to one another, all pleased that the parade will be starting soon.
Although they rarely see their children, every second Sunday the couple's youngest daughter calls to chat. She lives in a big city, is successful, opinionated and because of this they don't like her that much. During their conversations, which take place on her regular phone, her cell phone usually rings and she asks whichever parent she is talking to wait for a second and each of them have been left hanging on the line for a considerable amount of time. If their daughter calls in the early evening, which is several hours later in her time zone, her mother is almost certain she's had several drinks. At the conclusion of one of these calls she informs her mother: Daddy's deaf. Take him to get a hearing aid and send me the bill. Her mother patiently explains that he thinks he hears perfectly well and refuses to be tested.
The last program the couple watches before going to bed is the evening news. They are told during the weather segment that a heatwave is predicted for the next several days. The couple exchange a glance; they know they must get outdoors especially early tomorrow, to give the vegetation a good soaking and cover the lettuce with shade cloth so it doesn't burn. The day does prove hot, but the plants and flowers have received enough water to survive. In the evening the couple don't have much of an appetite due to the stifling weather, but eat anyway-and tiredly watch their shows. On the second day, the temperature doesn't seem as beastly as they heard it would be. The two eat their breakfast and quickly head outdoors to do more watering. After lunch the man decides to cut some dry grass behind the garage because it is a fire hazard, and the rear wall of the garage will provide some shade. He puts on a large straw hat and takes a thermos of water with him. The woman does some weeding in the shadows cast by the house. When she is finished with that she notices her husband left a tall silver ladder against the trunk of a Monterey pine, where he had been scraping scale from its branches. The row of Montereys create a shaded area and the woman decides to continue scraping scale; the insects give off an odd odor, indicating many are still present. Perched on the ladder she removes the bugs with a nail and flings them onto the ground. She and her husband do not like to use pesticides in their garden for fear that over time the toxic chemicals could contaminate their well water, as well as poison many of the animals-cats, possums and rabbits that wander onto the property. After cleaning the branches in close proximity to her, she ascends another two rungs of the ladder and begins to work on some branches higher up. One is just above her head. She stretches to reach it, wobbling, and grabs onto a rung for a better grip. She had been standing on her tiptoes and this, in combination with the abrupt tug of her hand, causes the ladder to topple over. The woman goes flying off. She lands on a patch of Lippia grass in a great deal of pain, for the top part of the ladder has fallen on her. When she recovers from the shock she tries to lift it off her torso, but it is a housepainter's ladder and quite heavy. The woman can hear her husband's weed whacker in the distance and moves her head as much as she is able. Help, she screams in the direction of the weed whacker but he doesn't hear. She screams again, now noticing a severe pain in her right ankle. She begins to twist and turn to crawl out from under, feels the metal of the ladder scraping her skin. To her relief she no longer hears the weed whacker and she calls out a third time, but her husband doesn't come. Through her left eye she has a view of the Lippia grass and can see several bees curled atop the grasses' tiny purple-and-white flowers. One bee is attracted to the perfume she used that morning and has landed on her wrist. Also in her line of vision is a trail of ants who are moving in a line near her right arm. She fears they'll begin to crawl over her.
The fall has thrown her into the sun and she's beginning to realize how hot it actually is. If she could just turn onto her stomach she could at least prevent her face from getting a severe sunburn, but she cannot move that much. Had this happened in the front yard the postman might hear her screams, but will he be able to from such a distance? She must try to get his attention, somehow, for unless her husband wants more water and returns to the kitchen, it will be several hours before they are due to meet for their 3:30 snack.
In the meantime she'll continue to shout get someone to come to her aid and hope that the need for a garden tool will bring her husband close enough to the house where, if her crying out isn't audible to him, she might at least come into in his line of vision.
A MAN THROWS a boy headfirst down the stairs of a cheap boardinghouse. The boy lies in a heap at the bottom. As soon as he stirs, the man claps his hands, two terse claps, and the boy crawls up several stairs until he is oriented enough to clasp the banister and pull his way to the top.
Again the man says, taking the boy in his arms and hurling him like a caber in the Scottish Games. When the boy hits the floor tears spring to his eyes. None of that the man admonishes, surveying him from the second floor.
As the boy climbs the stairs for the third time a swelling begins to grow on his shin and a gash on his elbow leaves little drops of blood on the mahogany. This time the man grasps the boy with one arm around his shoulders, the other under the backs of his knees, and looks as if he is going to now fling him back-first. But the landlady comes out of a second floor room and tells them that the session is over, they're making too much noise-however, would the man care for a whiskey? The man puts the boy down, says he would indeed and the two disappear behind a heavy wooden door. The boy sits at the top of the stairs, rubbing his wounds.
The boy becomes known as Buster Keaton, so called because Harry Houdini admiringly tells his father that the boy can take a real "buster" when the boy and man perform their routine.
The man becomes bitter, resentful of his son's talent, of his son's ability to consistently upstage him, and devises ways to steal a great deal of the boy's money. These schemes, though, rarely need to be acted upon, for the boy, reasoning that his father is, after all, his father, gives it to him willingly.
A WOMAN'S WORK is not going well so she turns up her cassette player, begins to dance so violently that a man comes in from the adjoining studio, stares angrily at her. She gyrates past him, thrashing with her arms and legs. She is dancing and thrashing to irritate and distract him. She wants to do this because he is her husband. He stands in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, glaring until she stops, out of breath. She pretends he isn't there, towels off her sweaty forehead, turns off the music, and goes back to her painting. He closes the door, returns to his own studio. No words have passed between them. The woman, now invigorated, drinks a glass of water, puts a few brush strokes on her painting, is immensely pleased with herself on two counts: one, she has found the direction her canvas should take and two, she has effectively broken her husband's concentration. She does not usually employ such overt methods as he eventually loses his temper. On one occasion, after she had danced for several hours and prevented him from working, he got up in the middle of the night and repainted her newly completed canvas with a portrait of a woman, in the style of de Kooning.
When their work days are finished they drive to their small apartment, throw together a semblance of a dinner and usually eat in silence. He eats voraciously, but with distraction, not aware of the food he puts into his mouth. She often reads a magazine during the meal. Sometimes when he feels like talking, he tells her about his work, what he is doing, his latest theory on art, etc. Throughout, she scans magazine articles, picks paint from underneath her fingernails. He does not acknowledge her lack of attention.
At bedtime they undress and get into bed without looking at one another, sleep as far away from each other as possible. They stopped having sex long ago, but once in a while he will move to the center of the bed, and put his hand on her shoulder, and she will shrug it off.
One morning the man finds out he has not been invited to exhibit in the group show at the Mottled Lizard Gallery, and she has. He enters the woman's studio and taking a scissors from his back pocket, cuts the bristles off all her best brushes. The woman stands in front of her canvas, does nothing as he snips. When he finishes she picks up the cuttings and glues them to appropriate places on her canvas, thinking that it now looks even better. As he leaves in tears, she puts another cassette into the tape player, wonders if the thud she hears was him falling out a window.
She needs to know this because if it was, there is something she should be feeling.
IN HIS ROOM he is a famous poet. Publishers clamor for his manuscripts, he has the admiration of his peers and is a shoo-in to win all the prizes.
When he ventures down the stairs to his mailbox he is still a famous poet, but while out on the street amidst others he is not quite as renowned. The further he gets from his apartment the less well-known he is. If he leaves town he finds himself an obscure shell of a person, ambitionless, directionless, wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city.
While in public places she is a young woman-tall, redheaded and statuesque. Both men and woman admire her luscious sexuality, and those around her cannot help but be seduced-if she so chooses. It is only when she returns home after cocktail parties that she can look in the mirror. She sees a lined face, a turned down mouth and cynical eyes. She knows she is only a few years away from becoming eligible for senior citizen discounts, and will continue on this path devoid of sexual attention. The following morning, she lies in bed, hungover, unable to think of a good reason to get up. It takes several days before she can shake off her depression, rise from her bed and go out again.
The woman buys some cloth and nails it to the maple frame of her one remaining mirror. But one evening after coming home intoxicated, she rips it off, confronts her image, spends the next several days in bed, re-nails the fabric to the mirror's frame and goes out for cocktails.
An old age pensioner sitting on a park bench is convinced he is young and virile, smiles happily to himself. From his bench he ogles women and girls, convinced they want him-that is why they pass by in colored bras, or running singlets and shorts. They go around again and again, flaunting themselves on skates, on bikes, or while jogging. Sometimes thoughts creep into his mind, dark, ugly thoughts-they are not even aware he is there, are only in the park to exercise, and he is an old man on a bench, but these ruminations are too scary and he drives them from his mind.
Two women decide to meet for lunch after not having seen each other for thirty years. They discuss their families, hobbies, what has happened to old friends, and after a time recall their youth. Remember, one woman says, that terrible car accident I was in? You passed by several minutes later and stopped to help us. The other woman's eyes grow wide and disbelieving, for it was she and her husband who had been in the car accident. Her friend had not been present that summer night, had, in fact, been visiting her aunt in another state. She and her fiancé were towed out of the field by the farmer who owned the property. I still have a scar from the accident, the woman who'd been away during the crash says, rubbing away a bit of makeup to reveal a small but distinct mark on her cheek.
A man is convinced creditors are after him, although he settles all his monthly bills and has a perfect record of payment. He hurries through the streets, avoiding eye contact with all, becomes terror-stricken when he spies men in black shirts who could be loan sharks. Someone else might be after him too, disgruntled postal workers, or the waitress in this coffee shop, disappointed and angry at men, who is just dying to empty the contents of her coffeepot into his crotch. The man is convinced he is enveloped in a dark and swirling cloud of doom-although those who know him think the facts of his life make it an existence that must be pleasant and easy.
There are those who believe we go through life enshrouded in a mist. For some this mist is dark, for others light, and we move through the world seeing through its semi-opaque parameters. The perceptions and beliefs we hold to be true become damaged as we inevitably become emeshed in the mists of others. This we find hardly bearable. It causes us terror, it makes us mean.
MY SISTER AND I are eating lunch at a pleasant restaurant. We have been meeting here infrequently for years, to spend time together and act sisterly. My sister spoons soup into her mouth thoughtfully. She is a thoughtful person, not in the sense that she is a kindly person, but that she thinks before she does things. I am eating a salad and staring out the window at the many people hurrying down the street, because even though we are sisters, we do not have much in common and have difficulty finding topics to discuss, with the exception of our immediate family who neither of us like or find particularly interesting.
After lunch my sister drinks her coffee and steps with steady force on the top of my foot. She is wearing high heels, which makes it all the more piercing. Her face remains expressionless, as does mine. The tablecloth is long and white and prevents anyone from seeing what she is doing. My sister is not the kind of person who would be stepping mercilessly on my foot if she could be observed. She might be doing this because I've been practicing deviant sex acts with her husband for the last five years. But her husband and I have gone to great lengths to keep her from knowing. Since this is the case she could be doing this for some other reason, and I think it is best to continue to pretend that she is doing nothing unusual in order to keep her from becoming suspicious, and to protect my relationships.
Looking for Princes
FROG-LICKING - A PRACTICE OF INGESTING THE HALLUCINOGENIC SUBTANCE FOUND OF THE STOMACH OF A FROG, HAS BEEN BANNED IN CALIFORNIA
I AM PLEASED it is dark and raining. I think much better under these circumstances.
I must remember to close the drapes this evening. My neighbors have been looking at me strangely in the elevator, in the lobby, and I suspect some of them are beginning to talk. I dress even more conventionally to compensate; set my face with a look of innocence. Tonight I will put on a record-Satie I think-and use the Wolford lamp I stole from the expensive French restaurant last Tuesday.
I shall have to look for a different habitat. The pond in the park is becoming depleted and I only found two this afternoon-a couple perhaps. Mr. and Mrs. It's odd how when you stare at them closely they look quite human; or not odd when you consider that we all came from the sea, are all amphibious.
When I close my eyes I am able to imagine that I move my tongue over the stomach of a man and not a frog. The sensation of tongue against flesh is actually not much different. While waiting for the effects, I sit quietly with a cup of tea, and the frogs have the run of the apartment. The occasional croaking makes me forget my surroundings, allows me to envision a more pastoral setting. When I am under the influence I inhabit her life for a while. I feel the steps she walks in London, taste the aperitifs she sips in Paris, experience the penetration of her lovers. I become a part of whatever she is doing at that particular moment, in whatever particular city. Her clothes, always fashionable, envelop my body. It is nice to live her life for several moments, or sometimes several hours. It is after all, harmless to the frogs, to me, and most importantly, to her. Since I've begun these excursions, I believe she has actually grown to enjoy me moving inside her as an occasional visitor, and that she waits for me to arrive.
When the effects wear off I see that the turntable is still. The music has ceased without my noticing. My tea has turned cold. I am slumped down rather uncomfortably on the couch. I sit up and smooth my clothing and see that I am face to face with one of the frogs that has leapt onto the end table. It peers at me with eyes that are bulbous, arcane. I suspect it has been sitting there for quite some time.
"That we are changeable and temporary, burning down like fire, but slower (usually)." -Laura Moriarty
THE EYES BLINK. An eyelash is loosened from its base, hovering momentarily before it drops. The eyes open and the lash falls onto the cornea.
For some this would be noticeable, but for those who wear contact lenses, the eyes become somewhat desensitized. When the eyes blink again, the pressure from the upper lid forces the lash under the lower one. The man rubs the eye with the back of his hand, moving the lash between the fold of the inner lid and the eyeball. The man thinks his contact lenses may need cleaning, or perhaps a cat hair lodged itself inside his eye.
Later in the day the man feels a twinge and thinks there might indeed be a hair from the cat caught between the lens and his eyeball. It happens sometimes-hairs from the calico drift into the atmosphere as she is being brushed. He pulls the skin around his eye taut, stares into a mirror, blinks several times and carefully moves a tissue twisted into a point around the circle of the contact lens. This makes his eye itch slightly, and causes tiny red veins to pop out in the whiteness. The man finds nothing. The tissue leaves minuscule fibers on his eyeball, which the man does not feel.
Several hours later, he still senses an irritant, pops out his right lens and holds it up to the light. There is nothing but the usual mucins accumulated from day-to-day wear, which form a cloudy ring, rinsed away with solution every evening and built up again the following day.
While the man sleeps, mircoorganisms that adhere to the eyelash are rapidly multiplying, for the lash is still nestled in the warmth of the man's lower lid. This triggers macrophages to begin eating and partially digesting the invading organisms-which in turn alerts the man's T and B cells to spring into action. But they may not be successful. The man might be unaware of his condition for several days, until he wakes up one morning to find his eye red and swollen, has to call an ophthalmologist, take an antibiotic prescription while refraining from wearing his contact lenses-resorting to glasses with an out-of-date prescription. Or the antibodies may render the invaders harmless, and the eyelash will resurface on the eyeball, where the man will finally feel its presence, see it reflected in his eye's mirrored image, take a tissue and dislodge it, glancing at the small amount of mucus on the lash and think that the body is good at dispelling things.
On Tuesday the man again feels the lash, rolls a Kleenex into a point and removes it. I thought there was something.
It is an uneventful week. He closes a deal he thought would close, and receives a parking ticket. Saturday morning he is in gray sweatpants, stretching on the living room floor, before going to the park to play a game of doubles. As he is on his hands and knees loosening up his hamstrings, the calico comes into the room, rushes over and bites him on the left buttock. Christ, the man shouts, frightening the cat and causing her to slink from the room. The man pulls down his sweatpants and sees two teeth marks, but the skin is not broken. He grabs his racket and walks over to the park.
At the courts he sees his partner and a player from the opposing team, but instead of the fourth there is a woman warming up. He is annoyed. He does not like to play tennis against women. If he plays full out he could be perceived as a heel, but if he eases up she might get some shots past him and make him look foolish.
At four-all in the first set both teams are at the net when the woman drills him with a forehand volley. Her hand flies out, palm up, the international sign of apology, that the shot was not meant. The man's first impulse is to fire a ball back at her, but she is not ugly. No problem, he smiles. The ball's impact continues to sting his abdomen as he runs back to the baseline to receive serve. He now faces a dilemma: if he plays harder and directs his shots toward the woman, the three of them will think he is upset over an accidental shot from a female. However, of the two across the net, she is the weaker player, and basic doubles strategy calls for hitting the ball to the weaker player's side of the court. Nonetheless, the man cannot regain his concentration, begins spraying his shots and he and his partner lose the set 6 games to 4. Two of the players cannot stay for another set so, peeved about losing, the man jogs slowly home.
That evening he is at dinner with two of his friends, a married couple, who bring up something political. The man finds words coming out of his mouth, phrases the couple undoubtedly agree with. When he stops speaking he wonders why he uttered those things; he doesn't think he believes them. Or does he? In recent months he has found himself doing this more and more frequently-saying things he may not actually think. He does not feel pressured to impress the individuals he is speaking to; on the contrary, they are close and accepting friends. At certain times the man feels like there isn't much there. There is a body and there is language. There is an arm holding a racket that strikes a tennis ball, there is speech that closes deals, a hand that encloses others after agreements.
Sometimes when the man goes out for a long period of time he returns home to find the cat has shit in his shoe. She began to do this just after kittenhood, when he was not used to having a cat and would sometimes forget to change the litterbox. He learned that cats are very fastidious animals who do not like digging in soiled litter. Now he is careful about making sure there is a clean box before he leaves for work, or other prolonged activities. Nonetheless, when he forgets to close his closet, she sometimes goes inside, finds a dress shoe and defecates-maybe to spite him for being left for so long. She has never chosen athletic shoes; perhaps finding the faint but lingering odor of sweat repugnant. The man has, after forgetting to close the closet, discarded several pairs of wing-tips, loafers and even a pair of almost new Lorenzo Banfis. It has occurred to him to keep the shoes and get rid of the cat, but no matter how many times he cleaned the footwear, it would do no good. Although he knows that viruses and bacteria do not live long, and most are killed by soap, alcohol, or time, the idea would always remain with the shoes. If he were to get rid of the cat, though, he would be the kind of person who abandons animals and secretly desires to hit women with tennis balls.
The man owns stock. Most are fairly conservative but since he is relatively young, unmarried and without children to support, he can afford to take some risks.
He is working at home and turns on a news channel after the Dow closes for the day. His tech stock has gone up thirty percent. He has just made around thirty-thousand dollars, will call his broker first thing in the morning and tell him to sell. He feels jubilant, euphoric, leaps into the air and screams, yes! He comes down on the cat's tail-it in turn leaps into the air, screeches and comes down on the man's calf, digging its claws into his skin before rushing off wild-eyed with a voluminous tail, to take refuge under the man's bed. He pulls up his pant leg and sees two red lines, welts beginning to form, edged with drops of blood. He takes a towel, rubbing alcohol and swabs at the area.
Several days later the wounds have scabbed over, but are slightly painful, and the skin around them is warmer than the surrounding skin. He has been very conscious of the leg. If the heat and pain persist he will go to a physician and get antibiotics, for over the past few days he imagines he can feel silent, tiny microbes moving to-and-fro inside him. He speculates whether or not this could be possible, that such sensory phenomenon can exist, if something like that can make itself felt from so deep inside a physiology.
The man feels hot and his head pounds. The thermostat must be broken because it only reads sixty-five degrees. Although it snowed several days before and gray slush still lingers in drainage ditches, the man flings open a window and leans into the cold air. It is a clear, crisp day with strong winds gusting from the east. Some of his papers blow to the floor and they catch the calico's attention. She watches the path of several more papers as they scatter to the floor, then pads across the room, jumps on the window sill and looks at the man. He believes he can hear the blood moving through his temples. It is hurting him. His eyes water from the cold and wind, but he continues to lean through the window frame, enjoying the invigorating elements, their cooling and potentially numbing effect. While he surveys the familiar city street, he squints to make the stinging of his eyes bearable as the wind hits his lenses and his corneas dry out-air wicking away moisture from the optical membranes. This causes the lachrymal glands embedded in his eye sockets to release a salt-and-enzyme-containing fluid. Involuntary antidote.
A DISTRESSED MAN studies his phone bill which has risen by fifty percent. The same number is listed over and over again and he recognizes it as belonging to a woman who lives in another part of the state. She is young, single, with a child to support, is in the business he was in before he retired, and frequently calls to ask his advice. She telephones early in the morning, during the dinner hour and on holidays. If the man is present he will jump up and take her call, much to the annoyance of his family. When he returns home he rushes to play his messages and promptly get back to her-which has resulted in the exorbitant increase in his bill. The woman does not heed the advice the man gives her, in fact she often does just the opposite. Nonetheless, the man thinks this communication a necessary and worthwhile expenditure, despite having to write a check for 1/4 of his pension to the telephone company.
When the man comes home one day, he goes to his answering machine and there are no messages. For the next several days the phone does not ring. When he picks it up one morning to make a call, he discovers there is no dial tone. He tells his wife that he is going to the neighbor's house to report that their telephone is out of order, but she tells him not to bother, she had it disconnected; they simply cannot afford his behavior any longer. She picks up the book she was reading.
The following morning the man wonders what to do with himself. He can tell that after all the years of going to work, his presence in the house hour after hour puts his wife on edge. He thinks he will walk to a newsstand, purchase the local paper and read the section that lists "volunteers wanted" while sitting in the park. The only people on the benches are old age pensioners like himself, and women with small children. When he pauses to watch the children in the playground, imbued with such energy and high spirits, their mothers or nannies glare, sit upright and become ultra-vigilant.
The man is disappointed to find that the volunteer positions are all dull or depressing-helping out with holiday crafts fairs, dressing in a Santa Claus outfit and ringing a bell while standing next to a large iron pot, or going into nursing homes and reading to senior citizens. The thought of reading to sedated elderly people only slightly older than himself who are too medicated to understand anything he says, is chilling.
A pack of dogs straining on their leashes enters the park from the south side, a young man in tow. The man lurches after them and frequently looks at his watch. A minute or so later the group reaches the middle of the park where one of the dogs stops to defecate. The young man takes the opportunity to light a cigarette. Twenty-five yards further another dog does the same, while minutes later still another lifts its leg on the base of a water fountain. The older man is outraged, strides over to the dogs' caretaker and splutters: How could you not clean up after those animals? Children run and play in the area. You are a party to spreading disease and filth! The young man shrugs his shoulders and races off, the dogs leading the way. The man walks back to where he was sitting. He knows the young man thought him a meddler who has nothing better to do than try and police other people, a man whose life is so devoid of anything that he becomes upset over dog shit. Nonetheless, the man takes comfort in knowing he is in the right and the young man is wrong-careless and negligent.
The man spends the next several days in the park, and his wife shows her appreciation by cooking nice suppers upon his return. He is appalled to discover that the young man is not the only irresponsible park-goer-most of the people with dogs are more like the young man than not. This at first irks the man, then makes him furious. Over the weekend he charges up to several dog owners demanding they clean up their animal's mess. Some pretend he isn't there, and stare over his head at the tree- tops; others tell him to fuck off, and still others narrow their eyes, grinning while their dogs menacingly bare their teeth at him. Whenever these incidents occur, a park attendant never seems to be on duty, and an attempt to report these occurrences to the washroom janitors proves futile when he discovers none of the janitors speak English.
One Monday he passes a drug store and sees they are having a sale on various items, most of them useless this time of year. Near a row of checkstands he notices some children's things, a plastic wading pool, several beach balls, some small buckets and shovels for making sand castles. He purchases the latter items.
Unbeknownst to the man, he is frequently observed. The sight of him in late autumn, in his black pants and overcoat charging after dogs, a bright blue shovel in one hand, a blue bucket decorated with pink starfish and shells in the other, is the source of amusement or alarm, depending a park-goer's point of view. One woman who thought he was approaching to mug her, shrieked and called the police after she'd set her dog on him and the animal ran the other way. The dispatcher did not bother to send any law enforcement, explaining that no crime was being committed.
By early winter the man is a fixture in the park, and some, especially those who come on weekends to walk or jog, hand him tips. At first the man is confused by people trying to give him money, but is soon grateful and happy to accept it. When he has enough, he thinks, he will get a money order, possibly take it to the utility company and purchase a secret telephone number and voice mail, then go to the post office and rent a post office box for the bill, or will perhaps save enough to take a vacation alone, in a place with a warm climate, wide beaches, where animals are permitted.
In the beginning it was barely noticeable. I became slightly rounder, and my coloring changed slightly. I continued to change shape, although I put myself on a strict diet and began to exercise every morning before work. Then something else happened. I was visiting a friend, a good friend but one who sometimes turns our conversation into a monologue. She was talking non-stop about herself when I noticed I was moving off the couch, floating toward the ceiling. This wasn't particularly unpleasant, although I was relieved when I bumped against the wall and could go no further. My friend was still talking, not paying attention, so she did not become alarmed. When I willed myself back down she said she'd had a headache and was going to bed soon, but thanked me for visiting, and for the lovely conversation.
I realized I'd become a balloon when a gust of wind swept me up as I was walking to work one morning, saw myself drift by a plate glass window doing graceful turns and circles in the air. I suspected I was still a woman most of the time and a balloon part of the time, like when I was bored, or reluctant to go to work. Eventually though, I realized I'd become a balloon for good and had to leave my job. When that happened I floated around the city for awhile, drifted over the park enjoying the nice weather. It was lonely at times, but I consoled myself with the fact that I'd become an elegant shade of purple. One weekend I went over to the Zoo to look at the animals, saw a group of balloons tied together by their strings. I hovered nearby to see what they were doing, which wasn't much, when the balloon seller grabbed me by my string, took me to his booth and tied me up with the others. I didn't really mind much, was relieved actually. Every morning the balloon seller gave me a shot of helium to maintain my buoyancy and being a balloon for sale gave me a sense of purpose. Most of the other balloons were not difficult to get along with and the weather was warm and pleasant. I spent my days moving in the breeze. Summer turned to autumn and with it came cool, cloudy weather. Being in the elements became uncomfortable, causing me to reflect back on the days when I floated aimlessly in the sunshine, before I had visited the zoo. I thought these memories would be heartening, discovered instead that I had grown so used to being tethered that my greatest fear was getting loose-acsending helplessly, uncontrollably, higher and higher, and disappearing into the skies.
Throughout the city there are women sitting in cafes and coffee shops, startled by their reflections in nearby windows, surprised to find they still look relatively young when they feel old and nearly dead. Overwhelmed by anxiety, they are glad to be in places where nobody knows them. They want to order large amounts of chocolate, wine, or other temporary gratification.
Simultaneously several reach for address books; others find pay telephones and start making calls. Now their steps grow buoyant, their paces quicken as some enter banks and others stop quickly at money machines. They pour into city streets and rush to their cars or head down flights of stairs to the nearest train or subway station. Many hail cabs and speed to the airport. Some travel lightly, carry only mascara and money. As they are about to depart, they rummage through their purses, pull out documents that give them other names, other identities. And they do it again, and again and again.
THEY HAVE BEEN best friends since they were nine, and during every study hall have surreptitiously played the game of Hangman. They are so quiet and practiced they have never been caught. At the end of the seventh grade one of the girls is distracted and bored with the game, but plays anyway, sloppily marking the binder paper with lines where the letters will go, while looking around the study hall in the hope that a particular boy is watching her. She smiles at the boy and crosses her legs so her skirt rises to reveal her thighs. Each time her friend guesses a letter, the figure of the hanged man receives another embellishment. Finally the stick figure is complete and the girl writes: You lose, displaying the word her friend was supposed to deduce. But you misspelled it! her friend shouts, causing the teacher to rush over and make black marks next to their names in her book.
One of the girls spends the summer on the other coast, and that fall they encounter each other on the first day of school. Over the summer the girl who drew the hangman developed breasts, while her friend got acne. The former girl walks past her friend and joins a group of eighth grade females who also have breasts, who are also wearing dresses and makeup. They form a tight cluster next to the lockers, talk and laugh among themselves. Instinctively the other girl goes toward some students she has known since the fourth grade, girls who are either pre-pubescent, wear braces, glasses, or have imperfect skin.
Although they know they are too old for it these girls go to the playground, swing from the monkey bars, or rock up and down on seesaws. Bored with this, they drag their shoes through the coarse sand. As dust flies they become increasingly frenetic, begin running haphazardly around the playground, their arms outstretched. Ugly bitch, they shout and scream while trying to knock one another down in the dirt.