Book: The End of the Story
The End of the Story
The author wishes to thank the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fund for Poetry for their generous support.
The last time I saw him, though I did not know it would be the last, I was sitting on the terrace with a friend and he came through the gate sweating, his face and chest pink, his hair damp, and stopped politely to talk to us. He crouched on the red-painted concrete or rested on the edge of a slatted wooden bench.
It was a hot day in June. He had been moving his things out of my garage and into the back of a pickup truck. I think he was going to take them to another garage. I remember how flushed his skin was, but I have to imagine his boots, his broad white thighs as he crouched or sat, and the open, friendly expression he must have worn on his face, talking to these women who were not demanding anything of him. I know I was conscious of how my friend and I looked, the two of us sitting with our feet up on our deck chairs, and that in my friend’s presence I might seem even older to him than I was, but also that he might find this attractive. He went into the house to get a drink of water, then came back out and told me he was finished and would be on his way.
A year later, when I thought he had forgotten me altogether, he sent me a poem in French, copied out in his handwriting. There was no letter with the poem, though he addressed it to me, using my name, as though beginning a letter, and closed it with his name, as though closing a letter. At first, when I saw the envelope with his handwriting on it, I thought he might be returning the money he owed me, over $300. I had not forgotten that money because things had changed for me and I needed it. Although the poem was addressed to me from him, I wasn’t sure what he meant to say to me with that poem, or what I was meant to think he was saying, or how he was using it. He had put his return address on the envelope, so I knew he might expect an answer, but I didn’t know how to answer it. I didn’t think I could send another poem, and I didn’t know what kind of letter would answer that poem. After a few weeks had passed, I found a way to answer it, telling him what I thought when I received what he sent, what I thought it was and how I discovered it was not that, how I read it and what I thought he might mean by sending me a poem about absence, death, and rejoining. I wrote all this in the form of a story because that seemed as impersonal as his poem. I included a note saying the story had been hard for me to write. I sent my answer to the address on the envelope, but I didn’t hear from him again. I copied the address into my address book, erasing an earlier one that had not been good for very long. No address of his was good for very long and the paper in my address book where his address is written is thin and soft from being erased so often.
* * *
Another year went by. I was touring in the desert with a friend, not far from the city where he had lived, and I decided to look for him at his last address. The trip had been uncomfortable so far, because I felt oddly estranged from the man I was with. The first night I drank too much, lost my sense of distance in the moonlit landscape, and tried drunkenly to dive into the white hollows of the rocks, which appeared as soft as pillows to me, while he tried to hold me back. The second night I lay on my bed in the motel room drinking Coca-Cola and barely spoke to him. I spent all the next morning on the back of an old horse at the end of a long line of horses, riding slowly up into a single cleft in the hills and down again while he, annoyed with me, drove the rented car from one rock formation to another.
Out of the desert, our relations grew more comfortable again, and as he drove I read aloud to him from a book about Christopher Columbus, but the closer we came to the city, the more preoccupied I was. I stopped reading and looked out the window, but I noticed only isolated pieces of what I saw as we approached the sea: a ravine full of eucalyptus trees descending to the water; a black cormorant sitting on a monolith of pitted white limestone that had weathered into an hourglass shape; a pier with a roller coaster; a cupolaed house high above the rest of the town beside a queen palm; a bridge over railroad tracks that wheeled away ahead of us and behind us. When we headed north toward the city, we went along next to the tracks, sometimes within sight of them and sometimes away from them, when they veered inland and our road continued along the top of the cliff by the water.
I went off by myself the next afternoon and bought a street map. I examined it sitting on a stone wall that was cold under me though the sun was warm. A stranger told me the street I wanted was too far away to reach on foot, but I set off on foot anyway. Every time I came to the top of a hill, I looked out over the water and saw bridges and sailboats. Every time I descended into another small valley, the white houses closed in around me again.
I had not known how large the city would seem to me as I walked or how tired my legs would become. I had not known how the sun on the white housefronts would dazzle me after a time, how it would beat down hour after hour on housefronts that grew whiter and then less white as the hours passed and my eyes began to ache. I got on a bus and rode for a while, and then got off and walked again. Though the sun had shone all day, by late afternoon the shadows were chilly. I passed some hotels. I did not know exactly where I was, though later, when I left the neighborhood, I saw where I had been.
At last, after walking sometimes in the right direction and sometimes in the wrong one, I reached his street. It was the evening rush hour. Men and women in business clothes walked up and down the street past me. The traffic moved slowly. The sun was low and the light on the buildings was dark yellow. I was surprised. I had not imagined that his part of town would look like this. I hadn’t even believed this address existed. But the building was there, three stories high, painted light blue, a little shabby. I studied it from across the street, standing on a step in which was embedded a row of tiles spelling out the name of a pharmacy, though the door behind me opened into a bar.
For more than a year now, since I had written that address in my address book, I had imagined very precisely, as though I had dreamed it, a small sunny street of two-storied yellow houses with people going in and out of them, up and down front stoops, and I had also imagined myself sitting in a car diagonally across the street from his house, watching his front door and his windows. I had seen him coming out of the house, thinking of other things, his head bowed, running down the steps briskly. Or coming more slowly down the steps with his wife, as I had seen him twice before with his wife when he did not know I was watching him, once from a distance as they stood on a sidewalk near a movie theater and once through his apartment window in the rain.
I wasn’t sure I would speak to him, because when I imagined it I was disturbed by the anger I saw in his face. Surprise, then anger, and then dread, because he was afraid of me. His face was blank, and stiff, his eyelids lowered and his head thrown back a little: what was I going to do to him now? And he would move back a step as though that really took him out of my range.
Though I saw that his building existed, I did not believe his apartment would exist. And if his apartment existed, I did not believe I would find his name taped up beside the bell. Now I crossed the street and went inside the same building where he had lived, perhaps very recently, certainly within a year, and read the names ARD and PRUETT on a white card next to the bell of his apartment, number 6.
I realized later that this strange, genderless pair, Ard and Pruett, must have been the ones who discovered whatever he left behind: the bits of tape stuck to things, the paper clips and pins between the floorboards, the pot holders or spice bottles or pot lids behind the stove, the dust and crumbs in the corners of drawers, the hard, stained sponges under the bathtub and under the kitchen sink that he once used in his energetic way to clean a basin or counter, the stray pieces of clothing hanging in dark parts of the closet, fragments of splintered wood, nail holes in the plaster with smudges or scrapes around them or near them that would seem random just because Ard and Pruett wouldn’t know what their purpose had been. I felt an unexpected relation to these two people, though they did not know me and I had never seen them, because they, too, had lived in a sort of intimacy with him. Of course it could have been the tenants before them who found what he left, and maybe Ard and Pruett had found the marks of another person altogether.
Because I had to go as far as I could toward finding him, I rang their bell. If I did not find him this time, I would stop trying. I rang, and rang again, and yet again, but there was no answer. I stood outside on the street just long enough to feel I had arrived, at last, at the final point of some necessary journey.
I had set out to walk to a place that was too far to reach on foot. I had gone on even when it became too late in the day, and when I was at the limit of my strength. Some of my strength had returned when I came near the place where he had lived. Now I walked on past his house, toward Chinatown and the red-light district, the warehouses by the bay, and the water, as I thought, trying to remember the city, and even though he no longer lived in that house, and I was so tired, and I had to go on walking, and there were more hills to climb on all sides of me, I felt calmed by having been there, as I had not felt since he left me, as if, even though he was not there, I had found him again.
Maybe the fact that he wasn’t there made this return possible, and made an end possible. Because if he had been there, everything would have had to continue. I would have had to do something about it, if only to go away and think about it from a great distance. Now I would be able to stop looking for him.
But the moment when I knew I had given up, when I knew I had ended the search, came a little later, as I was sitting in a bookstore in that city, with the taste in my mouth of some cheap, bitter tea brought to me by a stranger.
I had come to rest there, in an old building with floors of creaking wood, a narrow stairway leading downstairs, dim lighting in the basement, and a cleaner and brighter upper level. I had walked through the bookstore, downstairs and back upstairs and around the corner of every bookcase. I sat down to look at a book, but was so tired and thirsty I couldn’t read.
I went to the front counter, next to the door. A somber man in a cardigan sweater stood behind it sorting books into piles. I asked him if there was any water, if I might have a glass of water, though I knew there probably wasn’t any water here, in a bookstore. He said there was no water, but that I could perhaps go to a bar nearby. I said nothing, turned away, and went a few steps up into the front room that overlooked the street. There I sat down again on a chair to rest while people moved quietly around me.
I hadn’t intended to be rude to the man, I simply couldn’t open my mouth and speak. It would have taken all my strength to push the air out of my lungs and make a sound with it, and it would have hurt me to do it, or taken something from me that I couldn’t spare just then.
I opened a book and looked at one page without reading it, then leafed through another book from beginning to end without understanding what I saw. I thought the man behind the counter probably mistook me for a vagrant, since the city was full of vagrants, particularly the sort who would like to sit in a bookstore as the afternoon grew darker and colder, and might ask him for a glass of water, and might even be rude if he did not give it to her. And because I thought, from his expression of surprise, and perhaps concern, when I turned away without answering him, that he mistook me for a vagrant, I suddenly felt I might be what he thought I was. There had been other times when I felt nameless and faceless, walking through city streets at night or in the rain when no one knew where I was, and now this feeling had unexpectedly been confirmed by the man standing across the counter from me. As he looked at me, I floated away from what I thought I was, and became neutral, colorless, without feeling: there was an equal choice between what I thought I was, this tired woman asking him for water, and what he thought I was, and there might not be any such thing as the truth anymore, to bind us together, so that he and I, facing each other across the counter, were more separate than two strangers usually are, isolated as though in a bank of fog, the voices and footsteps near us silenced, a little well of clarity around us, before I, in my new character as vagrant, too tired and disoriented to speak, looked away without answering and went into the next room.
But as I thought this, he walked up to me where I sat close by a tall bookcase. He leaned down to me and gently asked me if I would like a cup of tea, and when he brought it to me I thanked him and drank it. It was strong and hot, though so bitter it parched my tongue.
* * *
This seemed to be the end of the story, and for a while it was also the end of the novel — there was something so final about the bitter cup of tea. Then, although it was still the end of the story, I put it at the beginning of the novel, as if I needed to tell the end first in order to go on and tell the rest. It would have been simpler to begin at the beginning, but the beginning didn’t mean much without what came after, and what came after didn’t mean much without the end. Maybe I did not want to have to choose a place to start, maybe I wanted all the parts of the story to be told at the same time. As Vincent says, I often want more than is possible.
If someone asks me what the novel is about, I say it’s about a lost man, because I don’t know what to say. But it is true that for a long time now I have not known where he is, after first knowing and then not knowing, knowing again and then losing him again. He once lived on the outskirts of a small city a few hundred miles from here. He once worked for his father, a physicist. Now he may be teaching English to foreigners, or teaching writing to businessmen, or managing a hotel. He may be in a different city, or not in a city at all, though a city is more likely than a town. He may still be married. I was told that he and his wife had a daughter and that they named her after a European city.
When I moved to this town five years ago I stopped imagining that he would appear suddenly in front of me, because it was too unlikely. It had not been so unlikely in other places I lived. In at least three cities and two towns, I kept expecting him: if I was walking down a street, I imagined him coming toward me. If I was walking through a museum, I was sure he would be in the next room. Yet I never saw him. He might have been there, in the same street or even the same room, watching me from a short distance. He might have slipped away before I noticed him.
I knew he was alive somewhere, and for several years I lived in a city he would almost surely visit, though my neighborhood was a dirty, run-down area by the harbor. The closer I went to the center of the city, in fact, the more I expected to see him. I would find myself walking behind a familiar figure, broad, muscular, not much taller than I was, with straight, fair hair. But the head would turn and the face would be so unlike his, the forehead wrong, the nose wrong, the cheeks wrong, that it would become ugly just because it could have been his and was not. Or a man would come toward me from a distance with his arrogant, tense bearing. Or, close by, in a crowded subway car, I would see the same pale blue eyes, pink skin with freckles, or high, prominent cheekbones. Once, the features were his but exaggerated, so that the head was like a rubber mask: hair the same color but thicker, eyes so light they were almost white, forehead and cheekbones jutting out grotesquely, red flesh hanging from the bones, lips pressed together as though in a rage, body absurdly wide. Another time, the version of his face was so lacking in definition, so smooth and open, that I easily saw how, in time, it would develop into that other face I had loved so much.
I saw his clothes on many people: of good but coarse material, often threadbare or faded, always clean. And I couldn’t help believing, though I knew it made no sense, that if enough men were to wear these clothes in the same place, he would be forced to appear by a sort of magnetism. Or I imagined that one day I would see a man wearing exactly what he wore, a red plaid lumber jacket, or a light blue flannel shirt, and white painter’s pants, or blue jeans torn at the cuffs, and this man would also have straight reddish-gold hair combed to one side of his broad forehead, blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, tight lips, a broad strong body, a manner that was both shy and arrogant, and the resemblance would be complete, down to the last detail, the pink in the whites of his eyes, or the freckles on his lips, or the chip in his front tooth, as though all his elements had come together and the only thing needed, to change this man into him, was the right word.
* * *
Although I remember it was on a sunny late afternoon in October, on the top floor of a tall public building, I can’t remember the reason for the reception. Surrounded by other people, in a sort of atrium, either circular or octagonal and flooded with sunlight, with doorways opening out from it, I was taken up to him by Mitchell, who told me his name. I forgot his name immediately, as I almost always did when I was introduced to someone. He already knew who I was, so he didn’t forget my name. Mitchell went away, leaving us alone. We stood there in the midst of women moving slowly and tentatively through the rooms singly and in pairs, in and out of the strong sunlight. He told me he had imagined I would be older. I was surprised that he had imagined anything. I was surprised by several things: his frankness, the way he was dressed, in what seemed to me a hiking outfit, and, more than that, the fact that he existed at all, standing here talking to me, since no one had mentioned him to me before. I did not think about him after I left the place, maybe because he was so young.
Later that day, I went up to a shabby café on the coast road to the north of my town where he and a few friends, along with other people I didn’t know, had come to watch a performance of some kind that included primitive tribal chants. When I came in, the room was already darkened except for the spotlights on the stage. The only empty chair I could see at the long table was the one next to him, though a piece of clothing and maybe a purse were hanging from the back of it. When he saw me hesitate over the empty chair, he stood up and removed these things, taking them down to the other end of the table. In fact, another woman came to the chair soon after the performance began, in the dim light, and with irritation walked away to another seat. I don’t know who this woman was.
He was sitting at one end of the table, looking down the length of it, his back to the door I had come in by, and I was sitting to his left, facing a small stage where two men were performing, one chanting and singing, the other plucking a bass fiddle. Across from me was Ellie. I didn’t know her very well then. He kept leaning over to her during the performance, which was so noisy and close to us in the crowded room that no one could talk during it except by speaking directly into another person’s ear.
At that time I liked to drink. I always needed a drink if I was going to sit and talk to someone. If I had to sit in a public place that did not serve alcohol, I was uncomfortable and could not enjoy the time, just as, if I was invited to someone’s house for the evening, I liked to be offered a drink as soon as I walked in.
At the first intermission, I asked him and Ellie if the café served alcohol, and they said it did not. I asked them where I could go to buy something to drink. They said there was a little grocery a short walk away where I could buy beer, and he offered to go with me, and again quickly stood up from his chair.
Outdoors, he walked along beside me over the beaten dirt at the edge of the road, through the litter of dry leaves and wood buttons from the eucalyptus trees.
I can’t remember what we talked about, but in those days I almost never remembered what I had talked about with a person I had just met because I had so many other things on my mind. I was worried not only about whether there was something wrong with my clothes or hair, but also about how I was standing, walking, or holding my head and neck, and where I was putting my feet. And if I was not walking but trying to eat and drink as I talked, I worried about how to swallow the food and drink in such a way that I wouldn’t choke, and sometimes I did choke. All of this kept me so busy that although I remembered a sentence long enough to answer it, I didn’t think about it long enough to remember it later.
The road was dark by the time we went out, at seven-thirty or eight. Or rather, the side of the road where we were walking was lit by streetlights and floodlights around the café and the stores near it, and the other side of the road was dark, lined by eucalyptus trees shading the road from the electric lights. A sign or two hung among the trees, and beyond the trees lay two pairs of railroad tracks, also dark, and across the tracks a small streambed, not visible itself but marked by the tall grasses that bordered it, and then another road, smaller and not much traveled, but well lit, at the foot of a bare hillside. In the other direction, in back of the café and the stores, the ocean was a few hundred yards away at the base of a hill or cliff, so large and dark that even though I couldn’t see it, its darkness hovered over the road and the electric lights fought against it.
I’m not sure whether we walked on dirt or asphalt, what we passed, or how he walked next to me, whether awkwardly or gracefully, quickly or slowly, close to me or a few feet away. I think he was bending toward me in his eagerness to talk and hear what I was saying, which was difficult, since I spoke very quietly. I’m not sure what brand of beer we bought, just what the confusion was about the money and the brand of beer, whether he paid for my beer as well as his own. Maybe I wanted a more expensive brand and bought two bottles of that, while he had only enough money for two bottles of a cheaper brand and spent the last money he had on them. I know he spent his last money on something because much later in the night or the early hours of the morning he ran out of gas and having no money at all, asked a stranger on the street for a dollar. He told this to Ellie in the library the next day and she told it to me, though long after.
There was his invitation, once we were back in the café, my hesitation, his boldness, my misunderstanding, then the noise of his car, my fear, the coast at night, my town at night, my yard and the rosebush, the jade bushes and my fence, my house, my room, the metal chairs, our beer, our conversation, his misstatements of fact, his boldness again, and so forth.
When he asked me to go out for a drink with him, and the first thing I said was that I really should be home working, I felt like a dull translator, or a cautious professor, much older than he was. I had been feeling older and older anyway at that time, maybe because I was in a new place and a new situation, and had to see myself freshly and size myself up as though I was not as familiar to myself as I had thought. I was not really so old, but I was still many years older than he was.
There is more that I don’t like remembering: my hesitation, my sudden worry, my anxiety as I hurried after him, the embarrassment of having run after him, my lack of grace, feeling older but not acting my age, I thought.
He walked with such determined steps out of the café after the performance was over, without saying anything to me, that I thought he was hurt by my hesitation. We had not spoken more than a dozen sentences to each other and already I thought I had hurt his feelings, which isn’t surprising since I often thought he was hurt, and angry, even when I had known him much longer than just a few hours. Of course, the fact that I rushed out after him must have shown how much I wanted to go off somewhere with him, despite my hesitation. When I went out after him he told me he was only removing some things from his car. It was his own awkwardness that had made him leave so abruptly.
As we stood by our cars outside the café, he asked me where we might go. Then, bolder again than I expected, he asked me if we might go to my house. I hesitated again, and this time he apologized. I liked his modesty in doing that. I knew almost nothing about him, so each thing he did and said showed me an entirely new aspect of him, as though he were unfolding in front of me. I did not mind going straight home, because I was tired. I got into my car, and he got into his. I waited for him so that he could follow me, and when he turned on his engine, his large, old, white car roared. It continued to roar so loudly, as it followed just behind me, that my teeth began to chatter and my hands shook on the steering wheel, which I gripped until my knuckles hurt.
With his headlights filling my rearview mirror, and my hands tight on the wheel, we drove down the coast through another town where a movie theater was emptying out, on down by the water, across some marshland, and up a dry hillside into my town, past the traffic lights and the outdoor café on the corner, and after a left turn, up the hill to my house.
It seems to me that he stumbled in the dark as he crossed the rutted dirt driveway under the cedar tree, but I may be confused about that, because I myself fell backward off the bank of sea fig into the driveway a few days later, as he was leaving. I was waving goodbye to him. I did not actually fall, but stumbled back off the high bank in front of the house on which the cedar grew. I was always awkward with him, I had trouble controlling my arms and legs when I walked through the room, when I sat down in a chair. He said I was awkward because I was so eager, and moved too fast for my own body.
Now I walked ahead of him, and by the front wall he lifted a stem of thorns that hung down from an overgrown climbing rose so that I could pass without scratching myself. Or maybe he couldn’t have done this in the dark, and it was on another day, in the daylight. Or it was that night, but the night was not entirely dark. In fact, it is only dark in my memory of that particular night, because I know there were two bright streetlamps nearby: one of them shone into my room.
We made our way across the circular drive and past the untidy rosebush, which grew by the window where I sat so much of the time staring out, and around the side of the house past the jade bushes. We followed a brick path to a gate of white painted wood set in a fence of white painted wood, and through the gate into the arcaded walkway past the windows of my room to the door of my room. An electric light shone from inside a lantern fixed to the white stucco wall next to the door.
Inside, we sat down on two folding metal chairs between the green card table where I worked and a rented upright piano. I brought back from the kitchen two beers, which we drank on the uncomfortably hard chairs.
He told me he had just finished writing a novel, but later this turned out not to be true. What he had just finished was not a novel but a story twenty pages long that he then cut down to six pages. Either I had not heard him right or he was so nervous that he said the word “novel” by mistake and did not hear it.
Because I did not know his name, he seemed only half real, and a stranger to me, though I was not afraid of him. I was startled by him a third time, after a couple of hours had gone by during which we sat talking politely, distantly and carefully about one thing and another, on our separate, hard chairs, when he asked me if he could take his boots off.
* * *
The fact that I must be mistaken about some of this doesn’t bother me. But I’m not sure what to include. There is my hesitation in the café and his persistence. The way I followed him out of the café and back in again. The roar of his car when he started it. The way the headlights and grille of his old white car filled my rearview mirror. The gentleness with which, next to my house, he lifted the strand of rose thorn out of my way so that I would not scratch myself. The hard metal chairs. Then the awkwardness of the bright light by my bed. The way my mind hovered like a little professor in glasses in the air above what was happening down below, and judged this and then judged that.
At dawn, I was asleep, and I woke up because he was saying something to me before he left. I woke up further to understand what he was saying. He was quoting some poetry to me as a way of leaving, and I understood why he was doing it, but it bothered me.
Then there was the roar of his car again when he drove away from my house, disturbing the peace of the wealthy neighborhood. Even if no one could see or hear him, I was embarrassed to have such a young man leave my house at dawn in a car that roared through the stillness of the elegant seaside town, going down the hill past the fenced and hedged properties of my neighbors: the people across the street in their pagoda-style house who owned a large part of the town and who later invited Madeleine and me, along with many others in the town, to a party in celebration of a new acquisition or construction, maybe their swimming pool; the elderly couple down the hill from them whose elaborate cactus garden bordered the small lane that led to the convenience store where I went to buy such things as cigarettes and cat food; the young couple next door to us down the hill in a little white cottage which they did not own but were renting, though I did not know it then, as I did not know that the young woman, who worked in a clothing store down on the main street and sold me something now and then, would be killed on the highway a few years later when a large truck ran into her from behind as she slowed approaching the exit ramp near our town; then past the Norwegian church of dark brown wood, with its line of eucalyptus trees in front, turning right at the bottom of the hill and roaring at a greater and greater distance, until I couldn’t hear it anymore.
* * *
I am close enough to the ocean here, too, so that now and then a seagull flies overhead. There is a creek not far away, so wide I used to call it a river before Vincent corrected me. It flows into a very broad tidal river which Vincent told me should not be called a river either, but an estuary. This village lies on a ridge between the two bodies of water.
But it is a different ocean. And I wouldn’t be able to get to it without passing through miles and miles of the city, because the city is built right out to its shores. There are no sea figs, no jade bushes, and no palms here. The rocks are not sandstone but granite and lime. The soil is not sandy and not reddish but dark brown and loamy.
It is March, and cold. Vincent’s thick cotton socks hang on the line, still damp after several hours in the sunshine. There is an inch of snow on the ground, but some migrating birds have already come back and are singing and looking for nesting spots. Finches flutter around the eaves of the back porch and we track mud into the kitchen.
I have just finished translating a long autobiography written in a difficult style by a French ethnographer. It is a good thing I am done, because the longer I spend on a book, the less money I have. I will send it off to the publisher along with my bill, and wait for my check to arrive.
Earlier today I was reading about a Japanese writer who lives in England and writes in English. His novels are meticulously constructed, have very little plot, and present information in a fragmentary, offhand way. The article seemed important to me for a reason I couldn’t identify, and I intended to save it and reread it, but I have lost the magazine. I am inefficient in the way I work on the novel, and that inefficiency infects other things I try to do. This was more understandable when I had to keep leaving the novel and coming back to it. Now, even though I work on it almost every day, I still become confused and forget what I was doing when I left off the day before. I have to write instructions to myself on little cards with an arrow in front of each. I look for the arrow, read the instruction, follow it, then gradually remember what I was doing and know where I am until I stop for the day, when I write myself another instruction. But on my worst days I just sit here in my nightgown, my own warm smell rising from the opening of my collar. I listen to the cars go by in an endless stream on the road below my window and think something is happening just because time is passing. I won’t get dressed until I have sat here half the day. I won’t always shower first, only at a point when I feel I have thoroughly ripened.
* * *
I used to like to go over every moment of that first evening, when he and I sat there at the table with friends on one side of me, friends on the other side of him, the noise of the performance so loud that no one could talk, when we walked out together, not knowing each other, and bought two bottles of beer each to bring back in, had drunk one bottle each, and had still one bottle unopened in its brown paper bag by our feet, and sat without opening it, saving it for a little while. This seemed to me, in a way, the best moment of all, when it had hardly begun. When we opened the second bottle of beer we would also be opening everything that came after, through the late fall and the winter, but as long as we sat without opening it we were on a sort of island, and all the happiness lay ahead of us, and would not begin until we opened the second bottle of beer. I couldn’t see this at the time, because I didn’t know what was going to follow, but later I could look back and see it.
Looking back at that evening was almost better than experiencing it the first time, because it did not go faster than I could manage it, I did not have to worry about my part, and I was not distracted by doubt, because I knew how it would come out. I relived it so often, it might have happened just so that I could relive it later.
Then, after he left me, the beginning was not only the first, happy occasion, opening into an infinite number of happy occasions, it also contained the end, as though the very air of that room where we sat together, in that public place, where he leaned over, barely knowing me, and whispered to me, were already permeated with the end of it, as though the walls of that room were already made of the end of it.
* * *
I had arrived in town a few weeks before I met him. I had a job but no place to live. I was staying in a tidy apartment belonging to a couple of graduate students who were out of town. I had come there to teach, but I had never taught before and I was frightened. Alone in that apartment I took books down from the bookshelves and read things I thought might help me answer the questions of the students. I imagined that the students would be smart and already know more than I did. But I read so hastily and so randomly that I did not remember anything.
Mitchell was the only person I knew, and he showed me around the city and the nearby towns, walked with me through the campus, answered my questions, and introduced me to people, though he often forgot the names of even his oldest colleagues because of his own shyness. There were two places where he thought I might want to live, a small furnished apartment I would have to myself and an unfurnished room in a large house that I would be sharing with another woman. He took me to see the house first and I never went to see the apartment.
The house was beautiful and nearly empty, the rooms in its two wings opening onto a terrace enclosed by a fence and old shrubs. I thought it was like a Spanish hacienda, though I was not sure what a Spanish hacienda was. The woman lived there with her dog and her kitten. No one knew her very well, but they had formed opinions of her. Mitchell led me through the gate onto the terrace, and the woman, Madeleine, came out of her rooms on the other side of the terrace to meet us. She was tall, with long reddish-blond hair tied back and a wide, tense, unchanging smile on her face, nervous, I could see, about meeting me, so nervous she was almost rigid with fear. It was midday, and the sun shone down on us brilliantly.
Besides the dog and the cat, the only things I saw on that first visit were some electronic equipment and some large unpainted cord pots that Madeleine had made. They were probably standing out in the sun. I never saw the electronic equipment again.
I was nervous, too, at the thought of living with a woman I did not know, whom no one knew very well, in that house with its musty smell of garlic, stale incense, millet, tea, dog, cat, and rug shampoo. Though Madeleine kept her part of the house very clean, it was infested with fleas from the animals. My room had no fleas in it but was covered with a layer of old dirt.
All I had in my room, at first, besides a box spring and mattress which Madeleine and I brought up out of a basement storeroom at the far end of the house, was the contents of my car, what I had brought with me across the country. Then we found, maybe also in the storeroom, the card table and the metal chairs.
Living in the same house together, we continued to act as though we were living alone. We went on talking to ourselves in our separate rooms. From one room, on a bad day, would come the word “shit,” from another the word “bitch.” Or there would be confusion: in the middle of the night Madeleine would remember that a half-finished pie had been left out and get up to put it away, but I had already put it away. She would think she had done it herself and forgotten.
Madeleine did not have the money for either a car or a telephone. I had a telephone installed and rented a piano. When I was out of the house Madeleine would bring into my room the only music she had, a tattered Schirmer’s edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes with rings of coffee stain on its yellow cover, and play the same pieces over and over in a languid style. Often enough, when I came home, I would find her there playing, sitting very straight, and I would be either pleased or irritated, depending on my mood and the state of our relations, which fluctuated constantly. In the evening after supper I would play Haydn sonatas. My style was monotonous, harsh, and mechanical.
But when she played the piano, and played badly, she did it with such grace and dedication that even though I knew her performance was imprecise and romantic, I was still convinced that it was somehow right. Because she did not doubt herself, because she did each thing with such conviction, I always believed her despite myself. I often felt clumsy next to her, or innocent to the point of stupidity. And yet I was not innocent. Later, when he was with us, he seemed even more innocent.
When I moved into the house, it was the dry season, and the skies were slow to grow heavy, slow to rain, letting go only a few drops at a time now and then. I taught one class each day. Driving home by the beaches I would look at the curling waves and think of the first beer I would drink when I got home. I would not eat right away but have a cold beer or a glass of wine. I was too worried about the next day’s class to see anyone in the evening, most evenings. I corrected papers and wrote down ideas for the class. Even after I had gone to bed, I went on teaching in the dark, sometimes for several hours. I expressed things better there in bed than I would the next day.
If I did spend the evening with other people, I liked the wine or beer to be poured freely. I would take off my glasses and put them in my lap, where they kept sliding down onto the floor. At last I would let them lie there, covering them with my bare feet. Outlines softened, features became illegible, and I slowly grew numb. If people around me stopped drinking, I did not like it, because it meant the evening was ending, real life was starting up again, and the next day loomed. I went on drinking alone, though I knew I shouldn’t, since I would have trouble driving the car home, I would not notice stop signs, I would grimace in concentration as the road curved down by the beach and up again over the hills, as I waited out the changing traffic lights in the empty intersections. But it was hard to stop drinking, because in a part of myself I must have believed that if I went on and on, to the point where my fingers lost their coordination, even beyond that to the point where my head drooped to one side and my eyes closed briefly, and even beyond that to where I could speak coherently only by deliberately collecting my thoughts and my words, I would come out the other end into a new condition, into a new world. Looking in the mirror once I was home, I would see that there were small changes: my cheeks were flushed, my hair was limp and disordered, and my lips were pale.
Most of each day, I would sit at my card table and work. My room was very large, with a red tiled floor, a peaked ceiling, dark beams, deep embrasures, white stuccoed walls so thick the air in the room was always cool when the sun was shining and the air outside was hot. If I looked up from my work, I saw dark green pine branches waving slowly against the sky, a shrub of rich red roses beyond the trees, rubbery, arching spears of succulents with serrated edges, and the soft powdery dirt scattered with pinecones at the base of the tall cypress that leaned away from the house. Across the street was a latticework gate in an Oriental style. Now and then, in the sunlight, a young girl in loose blue clothing carrying a tennis racket would enter the gate, greeted by two small dogs. Cars drove by slowly, climbing or descending the hill. People out for a walk appeared suddenly with a soft patter of footsteps on the asphalt or a louder, brittle ring of voices, old women and old couples, nicely dressed, white-haired, walking carefully down to the ocean or down to the main street to shop or to look at the window displays, and back up to their houses. Roaming dogs trotted into view from the edge of the windowframe, sniffing.
I often heard a train going by at some distance, down the hill from me, close to the water. It was easier to hear at night. During the day, many other noises came between me and it: the voices of my pleasant neighbors with time on their hands talking in the street outside my window, the occasional cars winding their way slowly up and down the side of the hill, the constant traffic of cars and trucks two blocks down from me on the coast road, the engines of heavy machinery at construction sites a few blocks away, the sound of hammering and sawing from the same sites, and other noises I couldn’t distinguish creating a general din that seemed benevolent because it went on under the steady, hot sun and in the midst of an orderly profusion of dark green, thick-leaved shrubs and trees and ground cover scattered with dark red and pale blue flowers.
At night, the air, soft and fragrant, was clear of most of these noises, as it was clear of the hot sun and the profuse colors, as the plants, in the dark, were only soft shapes against the walls of buildings or against the curb of the street, and through this emptier air I could hear the wheels of the train clattering along the track and the hoot of its whistle, as pure as its single yellow eye.
During the day I might leave my table to go outside, and if I had been inside for a long time, the warmth of the sun, the sweetness of the breeze, and the colors of the plants beyond the white fence were so intensified by the hours indoors that they seemed an almost unbearable assault. I would drive Madeleine to get clay or to shop for food. Or I would walk down to the main street past the fenced yard of cactuses and bare dirt, past an old man in a straw hat and overalls gardening very slowly with large leather pads strapped to his shins, past the Norwegian church, past the wooden medical offices with their spotless windows, sprinklers coming on and going off everywhere in the beds of sea fig, endless sunshine glinting off the chrome of the cars.
Or I walked on the beach or the hillside, alone or with Madeleine. When she was not busy making something out of clay or papier-mâché, in her room or out on the terrace, when she was not cooking or eating, when she was not meditating or watching television, all of which she did with the same serious, undivided attention, she would walk for hours at a time with a steady, restless energy, her dog by her side, stopping only to talk to someone she knew or to fend off small gangs of boys who teased her and called her by insulting names because she was not like the other people in the town. She walked up and down the main street, she walked beyond the shops to the park, she walked beyond the railroad station to the beach, by the water into the distance and then back to the point she had started from and into the distance again in the other direction.
If I walked with Madeleine, we walked on the beach or along the cliff overlooking the ocean, and if I walked alone, I went up the hill away from the house.
Because the town was built on a steep hill, and because all the towns along the coast were built on hillsides or on top of the cliff above the ocean, I always had the sense of living above something, of living on a small level spot, a ledge or a plateau, with steep slopes above and below. My house and its terrace were one level place. The coast road was another. The park below it was another, and a short drop below that the railroad tracks another, carved into the hillside above the beach. The roads above my house were now steep, now level for a moment, now rising gently, as I walked up past lush gardens hanging off the hillside, yards so thickly planted that it wasn’t always easy to see that a grove of trees was part of a property, a private property, attached to a house that was often concealed. The properties were carefully tended, but on the edge of each there might be a single beer bottle or can, by the road, as though the road itself, running like a river through this place of private properties, carried on its back the life of the outside world, and had thrown up on its banks signs of the outside world that the owners of the properties would carefully remove, walking along the edges of their groves or lawns by day, and that the road with its flotillas of joyriding, fast-moving teenagers, a river rising and then falling again, would leave again by night. And almost every road tended to climb the hillside and descend again, whether it went straight up, steeply, when, as I walked, my back would be to the ocean, or went gently up, running across the hillside almost parallel to the ocean, when I would see the ocean from almost every point on the road, either a bit of blue sheeting behind the branches of a pine or a broad plain of blue, or silver, or black, where I had come out past a house and above any planting, so that if I followed it up far enough it always went down again, as though it could only resist the force of gravity for so long. At a distance ahead of me in the middle of the crossroads I might see a large pinecone, or it might be a mourning dove, dark and cone-shaped. The breath of the eucalyptus would be so heavy on the air it coated my open lips.
Because this landscape and this climate were new to me, I liked to study them, though less often on foot and more often through the windows of my room or my car. The coast road roughly followed the line of the coast, sometimes veering inland on the other side of the hill from the ocean and sometimes staying within sight of it, but high above, on a cliff. When it descended to run right alongside the beach and close to the water, I would look out at the waves, looming over my head, or up at the hang gliders in the air like great birds, or across the sand at the black-suited surfers coming back toward the road with their surfboards under their arms, all these people not only on the sand but also in the water, and in the air. In the air were also kites and once or twice a great, striped, hot-air balloon racing inland.
People on the beach were often in pairs, two divers in suits weighed down with gear occupied with buckling or unbuckling their things, or two hefty bearded men in shorts exercising side by side, or a middle-aged man and wife with straight brown legs and spotless sweatshirts and shorts walking at a brisk pace, or a muscular blond student, glasses pushed back on his head, in a chair reading a heavy leather-bound book while his blond girlfriend lay near him on a towel. If I was not in the car but down on the beach, from a certain spot I could look up and see the little seaside train station, trains coming in with ringing bells, thick crowds edging the platform.
* * *
There is a train near here, too, a freight train that takes so long to go by that I have forgotten all about it by the time it has passed. It, too, is easier to hear late at night, when the road is quiet and the rhythmic click of the wheels bounces off the hillside behind it. Or in wet weather, when the tracks seem so near they might lie just out of sight beyond the trees.
This morning I ache all over because I worked so hard yesterday cleaning the house and preparing a complicated meal for one guest, a lone man who seems all the more lone because he is so tall and thin and has such a simple name, Tom, and who, maybe for the same reason, always gives the impression of being a quiet man though he talks quite readily. The dinner went off fairly well despite the fact that Vincent’s father was such a distraction to us, sitting in an armchair to my right and asking for pieces of my food.
So much time has gone by since I started working on this novel that first I left my city apartment and moved in with Vincent, and then his father moved in with us, causing extra work and bringing a succession of nurses into the house to care for him.
During the same time, a meadow I used to pass on my walks was replaced by a small townhouse development. The meadow had many wildflowers, and at least four different varieties of grasses. It had a small grove of spindly saplings at one end, and at the other a great oak tree set back against the rocky hillside near a trolley shed. Now the oak is gone, and the row of townhouses sits back against the hillside. In front of it, where the meadow lay, is only the fresh black asphalt of a new driveway and a considerable stretch of bare lawn.
On another empty lot outside our village, a car wash has been built. And only a few months ago, a large project of residential housing and offices was approved despite the opposition of almost everyone in the town. It will occupy some wild acres down the road from here where the chicken farmer used to roam around when he was a boy. The chicken farm has also closed down its operation and the farmer makes birdhouses to sell in his roadside store. These are only a few of the changes.
We have a new nurse for Vincent’s father, and she is on duty downstairs now. She seems responsible and a hard worker, and more cheerful than the last, though something of a hypochondriac. She wears a tattoo on her upper arm that I haven’t yet dared to examine. At the moment, the old man is demanding a different lunch from the lunch I wrote down for him. The whole time I am up here I am also listening to them with one ear. The old man accepted her very sweetly this morning, and put his arms around her when she came, though it is only her second day. She whispered to me, “I think he likes my hair.” If she does not keep him distracted, though, he will begin asking for me.
I have had almost constant problems with these nurses. Although they like the old man, they don’t last very long. One came only half the time, came late when she did come, and offered a different excuse each time — illness, car trouble, a heavy menstruation, the change to daylight saving time, etc. Another contracted to work the whole summer and then, after a few weeks, abruptly told me she was going off to the Caribbean Islands to teach cooking. When I protested, she became indignant and disappeared altogether without even coming to say goodbye to Vincent’s father, who continued to be puzzled by this no matter what we told him.
In the living room below me now, the nurse is coughing and picking out a tune on the piano, maybe to let me know it is time for me to stop work and relieve her. One of them used to come up and announce the time if I was five minutes late going down. Another just let the old man begin climbing the stairs, though it was so hard for him.
* * *
He told me, after several days had gone by, that he had left at daybreak after the first night because he did not know if I would want to wake up with him. Later that morning he went to see Ellie in the library. He wanted her advice. He wanted to know if she thought he should wait for me to come out of my class, if he should stand by the path to my classroom building and meet me. Ellie said of course he should. He wanted to know if it would make me uncomfortable. She said of course it would not. So it was with Ellie’s encouragement that he waited for me later, carefully posed, holding or smoking his pipe. Ellie told me all this months after.
The second time he came, he stayed on into the morning and spent the day with me. We went walking on the beach. As he climbed down to the sand over the rocks I could not look at him, though I was not sure why. We walked a long way past the rocks and over the drifts of broken seashells without talking. I was uncomfortable. I thought he was silent out of timidity. I made efforts to talk to him, but it was hard. The silence between us was so thick that words were not so much spoken as forced through it. I stopped trying.
* * *
I did not know what his last name was, and I was not sure of his first name. If it was what I thought it was, it was unusual and I had never known anyone with such a name. I was embarrassed to ask him. I hoped I would see it or hear it somewhere.
I wonder, now, why I did not call someone up and ask. There were at least two people I could have called. But I did not know them very well, as I would later. It is easier for me to see why I did not ask him directly. The moment had passed long before when I could have done that without feeling foolish.
I did not find out what his name was for several days, because during these days I was almost always alone with him. And because I did not have a name for him, he continued to seem like a stranger, even though he was very quickly becoming so close to me. When I did learn his name, I was learning the name of someone like a husband, a brother, or a child to me. But because I learned it only after I knew him so well, his name also seemed strangely arbitrary, as though it did not have to be that one but could have been any other.
* * *
Two days after I met him, I came home late and went to bed and lay there in the dark, nervous, thinking about him, wishing he were with me, then sleeping lightly for only a moment or two before waking again to think about him. Suddenly, after two in the morning, a car roared up the hill past my window, headlights swam over the room, the engine died, and the headlights went off. I looked out the window by my bed and saw the white hood of a car parked beyond the big cedar in front of the house. I heard a voice speaking, and I could distinguish some of what it said: “I want you … I can’t … this carousel … this old carousel … into the city…” I was sure he was the one talking to himself out there, because the car was white, it roared, and it had stopped outside my house. I thought that if he did this, it might mean he was a little crazy. But I did not yet know him very well. I did not know if he was crazy. I only knew he became distracted from time to time, and forgot what he was doing and where he was. At this point, I was willing to accept whatever I might learn next, though it frightened me a little.
I put on some clothes. I walked out by the side of the house and under the cedar tree along the driveway to the edge of the street. But now I saw that the car was smaller than his. It was not his car after all. Now I was frightened for a different reason — this was a stranger out of control, even more unpredictable. I turned back toward the house, the headlights came on again and caught me, and the voice said, “Are you all right?” I stopped walking and asked, “Who are you?” and the voice said something like “I’m just trying to sort myself out.”
I went back in. I went down the hall to the bathroom. I sat down on the toilet and saw that my hands and legs were shaking.
Later that night I dreamed I had found a short piece of his writing on the hall floor. It had a title page and my name on it and my address at the university. Most of it was plainly written, but it contained a passage about Paris in which the writing became suddenly more lyrical, including a phrase about the “shudder of war.” Then the style became plain again. The last sentence was briefer than the rest: “We are always surprising our bookkeepers.” In the dream, I liked the piece and was relieved by that, although I did not like the last sentence. Once I was awake, I liked the last sentence, too, even more than the rest.
I see now that since I hadn’t yet read anything by him at the time of the dream, what I was doing was composing something by him that I would like. And although this was my dream and he did not write what I dreamed he wrote, the words I remember still seem to belong to him, not to me.
* * *
Three days after we met, a friend called him by his first name in my presence and then I knew I had been right. Another two days went by, and I learned his last name when I went into the special section of the library containing little magazines and saw his full name printed with his poems.
I had wondered what I would do if I did not like his poems. But I had not even thought about seeing his last name on the page and was not prepared for the shock I felt. The shock did not come from the name itself, dense with consonants and difficult to pronounce, and one I had never seen before and would never see again, so that it seemed to belong only to him. The shock came from something else I couldn’t at first identify.
Knowing his name, after I had waited so many days to learn it, seemed to increase his reality. It gave him a place in the world that he had not had before, and it allowed him to belong more to the day than he had before. Until then, he had belonged to a time when I was tired and did not think as well as I did in the daytime, and did not see as well, when there was darkness on all sides of whatever light there was, and he came and went through darkness and shadow more than light.
Then, too, as long as he had only a first name, he might belong to a story told me by someone else, or he might be no more than a friend of someone else, he might be a person I did not know very well. In fact, I did not know him very well, at the same time that I had already become so close to him that not an inch separated us.
But even after I knew his name, even when I had known him for weeks, I never quite lost the feeling that he was someone I had never seen in the daylight, who came suddenly into my room with me in the middle of the night and had a name I was not sure of.
I had another shock after I was done reading his poems and went to find Ellie in the back of the Rare Books section, when she told me that his mother was only five years older than I was.
* * *
For a long time, I did not know what to call him in the novel, or what to call myself either. What I really wanted was a one-syllable English name for him, to match his own actual name, but as I searched for an equivalent, I found my mind playing the same trick it played on me when I came up against a difficult problem in translating — the only solution that really seemed to fit was the original word itself. Finally I decided to take the names for the two characters from the names of the man and woman in a story he had written. So at that point I called them Hank and Anna. Then I gave Ellie the beginning of the novel to read. I said there was no hurry, she did not have to read it right away, but I did not expect her to take as long as she did. At first I did not mind that she hadn’t read it, because I did not want to think about it myself. I wanted to rest from the novel. But finally I became impatient to hear what she had to say.
The reason she did not want to read it right away was that the story was too much like an experience she was having at the time. She had become very attached to a man younger than she was. He had not left her, but she was afraid he would. By the time he did leave her, soon after, she had still not read what I had given her, and now it was even harder, though she told me she was trying to prepare herself to do it. She was so angry she wanted to move to a foreign country.
In the meantime, I thought of showing it to someone else, but no one seemed quite right. Several friends had offered to look at it, but some of them, I knew, would not be objective, and others would probably not be helpful for other reasons. I could think of two who would be helpful, but I wanted to wait until I had more to show them.
Vincent asked me why I didn’t show it to him. He seemed eager to read it, maybe in order to find out more about me, and about certain episodes in my life I have been hiding from him, he thinks, such as what he calls my “fling” in Europe. I would not call it a “fling” to be lying in a hotel bed for four nights next to a thin, nervous man, trying not to wake him up, and then, when I couldn’t sleep, sitting on the tiles of the bathroom floor trying to read but too drunk to make sense of what I was looking at. This man had terrible trouble sleeping when he was away from home. He was often away on trips, and when he returned to his wife in the Jura Mountains he slept for several weeks. This was what he told me. His face white and tense with fatigue, he would creep through the darkened hotel room saying he had to sleep. He would crawl under the covers, curl up at my back, start talking into my neck, and continue for an hour or more. Then he would doze off. If I couldn’t sleep, I would go into the bathroom, turn on the light, and sit on the floor, or I would leave the hotel.
The first night, I got out of the hotel all right and back into my own hotel. The second time I tried to leave, it was dawn and the front door was locked. I didn’t want to wake the tired man, since he was sleeping at last, so I rang for the night clerk, who came out in his bathrobe, his face very cross, and unlocked the door only after a lot of arguing. I went out through the steamy entryway past a tiled basin of goldfish and into a street where a group of workmen in the early morning sun were repainting a yellow line on the road and looked up at me curiously, since I was still dressed in my black evening clothes. The front door of my own hotel was locked, too, so I walked around the village for a while, watching as people set up stalls in the marketplace.
Later that day, when I went to the beach to swim, I did not feel very well. All I could do was stand waist-deep in the water for a long time looking out at the horizon and then back at the other bathers, who lay flat on their straw mats or sat in the strong wind shading their eyes from the stinging sand. I soon began to feel faint from the heat and the glare, made my way out of the water and up the sand toward the beach café, and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting there in my robe under the concerned gaze of the owner and the waitress, holding ice against my forehead and eating a little salt off my fingertip. When the sun was low in the sky, a tall Englishwoman helped me across the sand to a taxi and then settled me in my hotel room with some aspirin and a glass of water.
I don’t want to show this to Vincent just yet, because he seems so skeptical already. He knows more or less what the book is about, though I haven’t told him directly, and he tends to regard all the love affairs in my life as having been sordid. I admit there were other men before him. There was a painter who lived alone in an old boat shop, and an anthropologist who used to take me to the opera with his mother. There was another directly after that one, who smiled a great deal, and another directly before him, who drank a great deal, and the one who took me into the desert, and another before that, who became very jealous over things he only imagined. But none of these affairs lasted very long, a few were not even consummated, and all were with entirely respectable sorts of men, most of them college professors.
Ellie finally read the pages I had sent her. By then she was about to move to a foreign country after all, though only for one year and not because of her young lover, and my manuscript was part of the business she had to take care of before she left. She seemed to like it, but she said the names were wrong. She did not want the hero to be named Hank. She thought no one could fall in love with someone named Hank. She said it made her think of “handkerchief.” Of course it isn’t true that no one can fall in love with someone named Hank. But she meant I could choose any name I liked for my hero, while men named Hank, and the men and women who fall in love with them, are not free to choose.
After Ellie objected so much to Hank, I called the woman Laura and the man Garet for a while. But I did not really like the name Laura for this woman, since a woman named Laura feels to me like a peaceful woman, or at least a graceful one. Susan might have been better, but a woman named Susan would be too sensible to walk from one end of a town to the other and back again for an hour at a time, at night, looking for a man and his old white car even if he is with another woman, just because she is determined to have at least a glimpse of him. She would not drive to his house in the rain and walk up onto a balcony and look in the window of his apartment.
So then I called her Hannah, and then Mag, and then Anna again. I described my room, and how this woman, Anna, sat at the card table trying to work despite everything. In other versions it was Laura at my card table, or Hannah playing the piano, or Ann in my bed. For a long time I called him Stefan. I was even calling the novel Stefan at that point. Then Vincent said he did not like the name because it was too European. I agreed that it was European, though I thought it suited him. But I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it anyway, so I tried to think of another name.
A friend of mine who has written several novels told me a few months ago that in one novel she went ahead so fast, looking back only a page or two each day, that she later discovered, when she reread the novel, that the name of one character changed twelve times in the course of the book.
* * *
What I saw, when I saw him standing by the path waiting for me, was not only his face, not only his hands, and not only the position of his body, but also his red plaid flannel shirt, frayed at the collar, his thready white sweatshirt, his khaki army pants, and his hiking boots. He had a pipe in his hand and a bag over his arm.
Each time I met him, in the beginning, I paid such close attention to what I saw when he appeared, and what was different about him from what I had last seen, that I remember his clothes with surprising clarity.
If I put my arms around him, what I felt under my fingers, against my skin, was the material of his clothes, and only when I pressed harder did I feel the muscles and bones of his body. If I touched him on the arm I was actually touching the cotton sleeve of his shirt, and if I touched him on the leg, I was touching the worn denim of his pants, and if I put my hand on his lower back, I felt not only the two ridges of muscle, hard as bone, but also the soft wool of his sweater warming to the warmth of my hand, and if he was hugging me against his chest, what I would see, within an inch of my eye, was the weave of cotton threads of his shirt or woolen threads of his sweater or the fuzzy nap of his lumber jacket.
Just as he looked a little different to me each time I saw him, I also learned new things about him each time. Each thing I learned about him came as a small shock, and either pleased me or disturbed me, and disturbed me either a little or a good deal. When we sat in the bar later that day, the first day, he surprised me by saying angry things about some of my students and then about Mitchell. His tone was a tone of jealousy, though he had no reason to be jealous. And when he said these angry things, he abruptly seemed a stranger to me again, one I didn’t like. Only when I knew him better did I understand that the anger I heard came from his disappointment, and he was often disappointed. Nearly everyone disappointed him and therefore angered him — nearly every man, anyway: he expected a great deal from men, and he wanted to admire them.
He was angry with certain men and he was indignant at certain great writers, and the two feelings came from the same sort of disappointment, I thought. He was always reading the great writers, as though determined to know all the best that had ever been written. He would read most of what one great writer had written, then he would become indignant. There was something wrong there, he would say. He respected the writer, but there was something wrong. He would read most of what another had written and again become indignant. There was something wrong there, too. It was as though these writers had failed him. To be great might mean to be perfect, in his eyes. When he pointed out how they failed, I couldn’t disagree — his reasons were not bad. But in his determined reading he left behind one failed writer after another. Maybe he had to see how they failed if he was to find a place in that world for himself.
One of the things I learned, because I asked him directly, was that there had been not just a few but many women before me, and that I was not even the oldest. At the time, this startled me and seemed to diminish what there was between us. Then, as time passed, I became used to the idea and accepted it.
Later I could say to myself that at least I was the last woman, since he married after he left me. But maybe he hadn’t even been telling me the whole truth. It was the slight pause before he answered me, and his look of embarrassment, that made me believe him. Maybe he was embarrassed by the crudeness of my question, and a false answer was the only answer to such a question.
* * *
The first time I told him I loved him he only looked at me thoughtfully without answering, as though considering what I had said. At the time, I did not understand his hesitation. The words were drawn out of me, almost despite me, and he did not answer. Now I think that if he could be so careful about saying the same thing to me, he probably loved me more deeply than I loved him. I had probably said what I said much too soon to mean it, and he knew that, though he couldn’t help saying the same to me a few days later, since he probably really did love me, or thought he did.
I say at one point that I fell in love with him quite suddenly, and that it happened when we were staring at each other by candlelight. But this seems too easy, and I also can’t remember just what candlelight I was talking about. There was no candlelight in the café the first evening, and there was no candlelight in my house later that night either, so I evidently don’t mean that I fell in love with him the first night. And yet I do remember that even as soon as the next morning, when I saw him again, I felt a sudden, strong emotion. If I wasn’t in love with him, I don’t know what I was feeling. If I had already fallen in love with him by then, it must have happened sometime between the moment he left me in the early morning and the moment I saw him again, unless it happened the very instant I saw him again.
Did it have to happen when he wasn’t present and when I wasn’t aware of it? Maybe it didn’t happen suddenly, after all, but gradually, so that what I felt when I saw him again was only a first degree of it, and there were further degrees — later that day, the next day, the next, and then two days after that, until it reached an extreme of intensity, not destined to go any further, and then wavered and fluctuated before declining gradually, so that the thing was always in motion? A candle may in fact have been burning in the room the first time I said I loved him, but that wasn’t the moment I fell in love with him, I know, so I’m still not sure what candlelight I meant.
If the light was on, I saw every detail of him down to the grain of his skin, and if the room was dark, I saw the outline of him against the dim sky outside, but at the same time knew his face so well that I could see that, too, and even what his expression was, though without the light not all the detail of him was there.
I thought that in certain cases a person fell in love slowly and gradually, and in others very suddenly, but my experience was so limited I couldn’t be sure. It seemed to me I had fallen in love only once before.
There were times when I felt I loved him, but other times when I did not, and because he was wary and intelligent he must have noticed exactly when I seemed to love him and when I did not, and maybe he did not quite believe me because of that. Maybe that was why he hesitated and let so many days go by, after I said I loved him, before he answered me.
I think that a certain hunger for him came first and was followed by a feeling of tenderness, gradually increasing, for a person who aroused such hunger and then satisfied it. Maybe that was what I felt for him that I thought was love.
The first feeling I had for him, though, even before that, was no more than a calm appreciation of him as I first saw him — an agreeable, intelligent, robust sort of person who found me attractive, too, so that in a simple way, that same night, like two hungry and thirsty people, we could decide we wanted to find a place to be alone together and remain together long enough to satisfy our appetite.
This appreciation, and this mild hunger that was not for him in particular but for any man who had some of the qualities I liked in him, did not grow stronger right away, and did not immediately become a particular hunger, a hunger that could be satisfied only by him. Another feeling came before, almost right away, within hours, certainly by the next day, the next time I saw him, and that was a kind of fascination, or a kind of distraction. He entered my mind as a distraction from what had been in my mind before. He took over a large part of my mind so that he was an obstruction to me: I had to think around him to think of anything else, and if I succeeded in thinking of something else, it was not long before the thought of him would push aside the other thought again, as though it had gained strength from being ignored a short time.
He was a distraction to me when I was not with him, and when I was with him, I was fascinated to look at him and listen to him. The sight of him, and the sound of him speaking, kept me still, or kept me near him. It was enough to be near him and watch and listen to him, half paralyzed, whereas just a day or two before I had not even known him.
It was the distraction that seemed to demand that I stop whatever I was doing and return to him, where I could see him, and then it was the fascination that made me need to be close to him, and then it was this need to be close to him that turned into a hunger that grew stronger and stronger in me and in him, too.
* * *
His room was in a town about a mile away from mine, past the racecourse and the fairgrounds and a long stretch of dirt used for parking during the races and fairs. When I drove there I followed a road that curved around the racetrack parking lot, and on one side there was the dark expanse, at night, of that empty lot and on the other another empty stretch, of rutted dirt, going back to a channel of water and farther back to the hills that had no houses on the side overlooking the racetrack but were thick with houses, including mine, on the other, the side above the ocean. I then crossed a narrow bridge over the channel of water that flowed out of the hills, where it was a rocky stream surrounded by scrubby, weedy trees and filled in late May with soft-shelled crawdads, its muddy banks littered with watermelon rinds and beer bottles, down to the ocean, where it was wide and shallow and at ebb tide drawn out by strong currents, its banks of sand eaten away and falling piece by piece into the moving water. I then climbed the inland side of another hill.
The first time I went there, I found my own way, following his directions. Behind a row of garages he had a single, narrow room with no bed, not even a mattress on the floor, only a sleeping bag on the carpet, and no other furniture, only books and clothes standing or falling in piles along the walls, a typewriter, too, unless he kept the typewriter in his garage, and a set of Indian drums. There was a small kitchen adjoining the room, and in the kitchen there was only a hotplate on a table, next to a small refrigerator. The bathroom was off the kitchen. I stayed for a little while, drinking a cup of tea with him or a glass of water, sitting on the carpet. He apologized for the size of the room, probably because I looked so uncomfortable.
After we drank our tea or water, he showed me his garage. He was proud of it. The concrete room was filled with freestanding bookcases containing a large number of books. I was impressed by the number of books he owned. He did not tell me that most of them belonged to a friend. The friend became very angry at him later about something to do with the books, maybe that the books were confiscated by the landlord when he was forced out. There was a desk facing the garage door, with a lamp and a typewriter on it, and he worked here. He often worked for long hours alone at his writing, though it was hard for me to find out from him what he was writing. Either he wouldn’t tell me when I asked or I didn’t want to ask.
I said to myself that the reason I did not often go to his room was that it was so small and dark, but after he moved up the coast one or two towns to a light, airy apartment overlooking a cactus nursery, I did not want to go there either, very often, once, that I remember, when I helped him arrange books in a low bookcase, and another time when he made a very large pot of rather thin cabbage soup for us to eat for supper, but only a few times after that, so I had to admit that I simply preferred to see him in my own house. When he left the apartment overlooking the cactus nursery, I was no longer talking to him very much or very openly, and I knew he had moved but did not know where he had gone. After that, I moved, and I don’t think he knew where I was living either.
* * *
He played the Indian drums, or at least he told me he did and I believed him. He told me he had lived in India when he was a child. He had returned to America on a boat with his mother and sister. He offered to play for me, but a long time went by before I would let him. At the thought of listening to him play this instrument, so strange to me, I felt the same embarrassment I felt some time later when another friend played his guitar and sang freedom songs. I asked him once to drum on my back, and he did, thumping me with his fingers and the heels of his palms. When at last he did play the drums for me, it was toward the end, when I was uncomfortable with him and felt very little for him, and he was hurt by me, and we were doing things that we had not done before, as though to see if we would feel anything more for each other, but I felt only the same embarrassment I had expected to feel.
* * *
When I first started working on the novel, I thought I had to keep very close to the facts about certain things, including his life, as though the point of writing the book would be lost if something like the Indian drums were changed and he were to play another instrument instead. Because I had wanted to write these things for so long, I thought I had to tell the truth about them. But the surprising thing was that after I had written them the way they were, I found I could change them or take them out, as though by writing them once I had satisfied whatever it was I had to satisfy.
At times the truth seems to be enough, as long as I compress it and rearrange it a little. At other times it does not seem to be enough, but I’m not willing to invent very much. Most things are kept as they were. Maybe I can’t think what to put in place of the truth. Maybe I just have a poor imagination.
One reason I kept going back to work on the novel was that I thought I would be able to write it almost without thinking about it, since I knew the story already. But the longer I tried to write it, the less I understood how to work on it. I could not decide which parts were important. I knew which ones interested me, but I thought I had to include everything, even the dull parts. So I tried to write my way through the dull parts and then enjoy the interesting parts when I came to them. But in each case I passed the interesting parts without noticing, so I had to think maybe they were not so interesting after all. I became discouraged.
Several times I was tempted to give up on it. There were other things I wanted to do instead, another novel I wanted to write and a few stories I wanted to finish. I would have been glad to let someone else write this one for me if I could have — as long as it was written, I thought I did not care who wrote it. A friend of mine said that if I didn’t manage to write the novel I could at least save parts of it and make stories out of them, but I did not want to do that. In fact, I did not want to give it up, because I had spent so much time on it already by then. I’m not sure that is a good reason to go on with something, though in certain cases it must be. I once stayed with a man too long for the same reason, that there had already been so much between us. But maybe I had other, better reasons to keep on with this, even if I’m not sure what they were.
So I haven’t been able to write it almost without thinking about it, after all. I tried chronological order and that didn’t work, so I tried a random order. Then the problem was how to arrange a random order so that it made sense. I thought I could have one thing lead to another thing, each part grow out of the part that came before, and also include some relief from that. I tried the past tense, and then I put it in the present tense, even though I was tired of the present tense by then. After that, I left parts of it in the present tense and put the rest back in the past tense.
I kept stopping to translate. I told Vincent I was writing less than a page a week, and he laughed because he thought I was joking. But although it took me so long to write a page, I kept thinking the work would go more quickly. I always had a different reason for thinking it would go more quickly.
At times the novel seems to be a test of myself, both as I was then and as I am now. In the beginning, the woman was not like me, because if she had been, I could not have seen the story clearly. After a while, when I was more used to telling the story, I was able to make the woman more like me. I sometimes think that if there was enough goodness in me then, or enough depth or complexity, this will work, if I can make it work. But if I was simply too shallow or mean-spirited, it will not work, no matter what I do.
* * *
I was not the same with him as I was with other people. I tried not to be as determined, as busy, as hasty, as I was alone and with friends. I tried to be gentle and quiet, but it was hard, and it confused me. It also exhausted me. I had to leave him just to rest from it.
I had to leave him anyway, to work. I gave my students a great deal of work and that meant I had a great deal of work to do myself, reading their papers. I worked in my office and at home in the evenings, too.
My office, between two classics professors on the seventh floor of a new building, was roomy and full of bare shelves, with a row of tall, narrow windows looking out over tennis courts, groves of eucalyptus trees, and the ocean in the distance. The windows were sealed shut and soundproof. But through the walls, whenever I stopped work to listen, I would hear voices: the laughter of a student and teacher together, then the rhythmic chant of the teacher explaining, and then the drone of Latin conjugations — always, it seemed, the verb laudare, “to praise.”
I would stop working, look out the window, and put my hands and then my arms up to my nose and smell my skin. My own smell, of perfume and sweat, reminded me of him.
Another smell that made me think of him was the raw wool of the Mexican blanket on my bed. He would often leave early to let me sleep, but I would not be able to sleep. A few hours later he would come and find me in my office. When I was the first one up, and he got out of bed after I did, he would make the bed carefully and neatly. The first time he did this was the first morning he woke up there. Every time he did it, it seemed to me an act of tenderness, because he was arranging something of mine with such care, and taking part in the arrangements of my house.
* * *
I was waiting for him in a crowded room. He had not come to meet me and I decided he was not going to come. I thought he had left me already, before we had been together even a week. My disappointment was so acute that the room seemed to empty of whatever life it had had, and the air became thin. The people, chairs, sofas, windows, curtains, lectern, microphone, table, tape recorder, and sunlight were empty shells of what they had been before.
When he actually left me, months after that, the world was not empty but worse than empty, as though the quality of emptiness had become so concentrated it turned into a kind of poison, as though each thing appeared alive and healthy but had been injected with a poisonous preserving agent.
This time he had not left me, he had only come late. He was there in the crowd by the door when I stood up to go. The life came back into everything in the room. He explained to me that he had lost track of the time. He occasionally lost track of the time and what he was doing, he did not always know what he was doing or how to plan what he had to do, and it was hard for him, at times, to do what he had to do.
We left the place together to go to a friend’s house and we quarreled on the way.
* * *
There must have been at least seven readings that I went to while I knew him, or even more. It is hard to describe a reading in a way that is exciting, and it would be harder still to describe more than one in the same novel, even if some of the poetry I heard made me angry, which it did. I could change them to something else, like lectures, or dances, but I don’t think I would have gone to more than one dance. The last reading was a reading of sound poetry, the most difficult one for me. Because I was forced to sit still while my mind had nothing much to hold on to, it wandered away from me and went through the plate-glass window searching yet again for him.
* * *
We were quarreling over his friend Kitty. We were sitting together in his car in a narrow, sunlit street. On either side of us were small patches of clipped green lawn that came right down to the white sidewalks. The houses set in these patches of lawn were small and white, of one story, with red-tiled roofs. A short palm tree grew beside one house, a shrub with rubbery leaves by another, a red-flowered vine by a third. Each house on this street seemed to have a lawn and just one other thing growing on the lawn, as if that were a rule. The sun shone down at an angle and reflected off the white sidewalk and the white walls of the houses, and because the houses were so low and small, with so few trees about, a great expanse of blue sky was visible. We were waiting to get out of the car and go into a friend’s house. Either we were the first to arrive or we were simply trying to finish our quarrel.
He was going to give a reading himself in a few days. He was going to read a few of his poems and also a story. He told me he wanted to invite this woman Kitty to his reading because she had helped him to plan it.
The last time he had talked about her had been in my office. He had come up behind me in the hallway outside my office, and put his arms around me and kissed me there, publicly, which had made me nervous. Though the hallway ahead of me seemed to be empty, I thought someone appeared suddenly behind me and vanished again.
Sitting inside my office, first he complained about her, then he worried about her. I did not like hearing even this woman’s name, because as soon as he mentioned it he seemed to move away from me, to go out of the room and leave me sitting there opposite his face, which was abstracted and preoccupied, with a slight frown of annoyance on it, and opposite his body, which had become very still. I felt I had been forgotten, or at least what I was to him now had been forgotten, as though he had suddenly mistaken me for an old friend to whom he could confide his worries or complaints about Kitty.
Kitty appeared in his room a few weeks later, and the reason he gave me for her visit did not make sense to me when I tried to understand it.
* * *
His reading was on a Sunday afternoon, in an elegant old house on a hill in a run-down part of the city. The house had heavy banisters and stained-glass windows in the stairwells, thick curtains drawn back from the doorways with velvet cords, alcoves and bay windows, high ceilings and chandeliers. He read with another poet, a man my age, but I can’t remember who it was, and I also confuse this reading with another one in the same house months later, after he had left me, in which a woman read a story about Robinson Crusoe. I stood at the back of the room, where I could look away from the rows of people through an arched doorway into the next room, which was empty. I watched what I could see of him where he stood, the length of the room away from me, at a lectern. I could see only his head and shoulders above the heads of the audience. I was prepared to be embarrassed, for his sake, if he did not read well or if he read something that was not very good. But he read clearly and confidently, and nothing he read sounded bad, though I did not particularly like the story he read. Kitty did not come.
* * *
I could say more about the house where he read, but I’m not sure how much description to have in the novel. Another thing I could describe would be the landscape, the reddish, sandy earth spilling onto the edges of the sidewalks everywhere, the lines of cliffs above the ocean and the eroded sandy ravines descending to the water, the ocean so close I could hear the waves late at night, like a curtain coming down again and again, if the tide was high. It was not a lush landscape, because the climate was so dry. Part of each year, the hills were brown, and the only thick green vegetation grew up in the clefts of the hills where the dampness would gather, or in the towns where plants were watered and the succulent ground cover thrived and fat shrubs with glistening leaves hugged the shops. Because I had not known the landscape before, it interested me. It was so difficult, with broad highways cutting through everything and always some new construction rising abruptly off a brown hill, houses stacked or piled on top of each other in the wide-open spaces as though anticipating future congestion, or in a small canyon a line of new houses along a new road, and at the end of the line the latest house under construction, a framework of raw wood, while the first houses were already occupied, with cars in the driveways. Only rarely did a vestige of something older remain like a vision, an old ranch house at a distance from the road, a weedy, dusty track leading to it and a grove of gnarled live-oak trees and eucalyptus around it.
Eucalyptus trees with their smoky, oily smell grew everywhere, very tall, the boles going far up before sending out a branch. They were untidy trees, with wood soft and weak. They kept losing branches, so that there were great gaps along the trunks. They kept dropping their narrow, tan, spear-shaped leaves, which littered the ground under them, and layers of bark fell from them in long strips, along with little wooden buttons, brown with crosses carved out of them on one side, powdery blue on the other. An old professor at the university often complained that as he lay in bed at night he was kept awake by the hooting of a nearby owl and by those wooden buttons which dropped onto the roof over his head and rolled down to the eave, one by one, dropping and rolling, dropping and rolling all night long.
* * *
After his reading, in the late afternoon, he and I went with a group of others to a friend’s house on another hill nearby, directly under a flight path to the airport out in the bay. We spent most of the time in the back yard, and enormous airplanes flew low overhead frequently. Each time, we would stop talking and wait until they passed. The yard was weedy and a pretty lime tree grew near the house. Two little boys threw balls into the air over and over again, and the balls kept getting caught in the tree or landing on the roof of a shed at the back of the yard.
He had not read the story I knew already, the one he had described to me as a novel the first evening we met, a very clear, precise, and confident story about a man and a woman in their middle age who meet at the seaside where the woman is on vacation and the man works for a hotel, the setting vaguely European. It contained quiet, well-turned descriptions, including one about the effect of the sun on the woman’s pale legs, that I liked each time I read them. I liked so many parts of the story that the rest of it also seemed good. Now I wonder if I was drawn to him because he had the sort of mind that would want to write that sort of story, the sort that I liked already, or if he was drawn to me because I had the sort of mind that would like the sort of story he liked to write. A friend of mine, after reading the story, said he did not like it, because the characters, so very silent and distant with each other, yet so firmly tied by their wordless understanding, were not people he would want to know. I did not think about that, but only about how the story was written.
Later he read me seven short poems that he had written for me. He told me he had made a rule for himself that each one had to contain a reference to a flower. He would not let me keep them because they were not finished. In the end, he never gave me a copy of the poems. Maybe he never finished them. So I don’t have them here, where I could reread them and see what I think of them now, as I have the story. It is here in my room, in a folder by itself, though I have not looked at it often, in all these years, for fear of knowing it so well that I can’t see it anymore for what it is. But every time I have read it, the phrases ring peacefully in my ears, the order and clarity still please me.
I remember a few lines from his poems, including one in which he said the coast had a mile in it. That was the mile between my house and his. I liked the poems, though they were more careful than the story, or rather the care he put into them was so evident they seemed cautious, whereas the care in the story seemed just right. I had heard those poems, and I heard others at his reading, and I had read still others in the library, or maybe the same ones he had read, and I knew one story well, and heard another at his reading, and later he would read to me from his notebook, and this was all I knew of his writing. He was always writing, and he told me from time to time that he was working on a story, or a play, or another play, and later a novel, but I never saw any of them because he never seemed to finish one thing before abandoning it or putting it aside temporarily, as he said, and starting another, and he wouldn’t show me any work unless it was almost finished.
He wrote things in a notebook, and I wrote things in a notebook. Some of what we wrote was about each other, of course, and now and then we read aloud from our notebooks. The things we had written were often things we would not say to each other, though we would read them aloud. But we were not willing to say anything about them after we had read them either.
So that behind my silence, and behind his silence, there was a good deal of talk, but that talk was in the pages of our notebooks, and was therefore silent, unless we chose to open the notebooks and read from them.
* * *
If he had been a bad writer, I think I could not have gone on with him. Or my lack of respect for the thing he did that was most important to him would have destroyed us before very long. But the fact that he wrote well did not help me to love him more deeply than I did. If I loved him at all, that had nothing to do with his writing, and when I talked to him about writing I felt I was not his lover and we were as distant as two people who did not know each other very well but respected and liked each other.
The distance between us at these times was not unlike the distance between us when we were with friends. We never gave any sign, in front of other people, of what was between us. It was evident to someone else only when we arrived together or left together, two moments I always savored, partly because they were in such contrast to all the other moments, when our closeness was unacknowledged. I wasn’t ashamed of him, or embarrassed, but I often wanted to move away from him, so that although I knew he was near me, I did not touch him. In fact, I wanted to have him near me and at the same time move away from him.
Maybe we never stopped being conscious of our oddness, that some people might disapprove of us because he was so much younger, or because I was a teacher and he was a student, though he was not my student and many other teachers were his friends, and though he was older than most of the other students. But maybe we also sensed that if we had even simply held hands in front of our friends, they would have paid close attention to this, and it would have satisfied their lively curiosity about just how we behaved together, just what our relationship was — did I act as a mother toward him? Was he protective of me, like a son or a father? Or were we the same age in our behavior? Were we tense or relaxed? Were we violent together or gentle? Were we mean or kind?
I knew their curiosity was lively because in that place, as long as I lived there, and even after I left, all of us had a great deal of interest in the lives of our friends and our acquaintances and even people we had never met. There was a great hunger for stories, especially stories involving emotion and drama, especially love and betrayal, though this curiosity and interest was not unkind, usually.
* * *
Another reading was given by someone I identified in my notebook as “S.B.” After that reading, where he sat behind me, we went out with a group of people to a Mexican restaurant. There were many meals in restaurants at that time, especially in Mexican restaurants, because groups of friends and groups hosting visitors to the university often went out to eat together. Later in the novel I mention a dinner in a Japanese restaurant during which I left the table and tried to call him from a phone booth by the restrooms. But I do not describe the meal or the friends, even though there were some interesting people present. In fact, throughout these months I was also seeing and meeting interesting people, so that everything surrounding the story, everything I am leaving out of it, would make another story, or even several others, quite different in character from this one.
Later, we stood alone in a friend’s living room and he was offended because I would not kiss him. He may have thought I was ashamed of him, but I simply did not want him to kiss me just then.
I can’t remember who “S.B.” is or what sort of reading it was. I also can’t remember, though I try over and over again, what happened in the week before it, when he and I were just getting to know each other. There are only two entries in my notebook for that week, and only one has anything to do with him. In that entry I describe what seems to me an incident without any importance at all: I was having lunch at a café on campus with a person I identify as “L.H.” We were sitting outdoors on the terrace. A skunk appeared in the concrete planter of a tree near us and caused some excitement among the students and faculty eating lunch. I happened to glance over at the doorway that led into the café, and I saw him standing there with a tray in his hands, looking displeased. I thought he was disappointed that so many people were sitting there in the sun, and all the seats were taken, but he could have been frowning because his eyes were not good, or because the sunlight was so bright, since he frowned often, especially in the sunlight. I don’t know if he saw us and came over, if he sat with us, or if he simply turned around and left. If I hadn’t written anything in my notebook about that week, and if I hadn’t remembered the reading, I don’t think I would be so acutely aware of those days about which I can’t remember anything.
I am working from my memories and my notebook. There is a great deal I would have forgotten if I had not written it in my notebook, but my notebook also leaves out a great deal, only some of which I remember. There are also memories that have nothing to do with this story, and there are good friends who do not appear in it, or appear only indistinctly, because at the time they had nothing or little to do with him.
* * *
When I think of him frowning in the sunlight as he looked out at the café terrace, I wonder if I have been wrong, all this time, about another occasion on which he was frowning. The only photograph I have of him shows him frowning at me from a distance of about fifteen feet. He is on a sailboat belonging to a cousin of mine, he is bending over, his hands are busy, perhaps fastening a rope, and he is looking up sideways at me, frowning. The picture is not very sharp, probably taken with a poor camera. I have assumed all this time that he was frowning in annoyance at me for taking his picture at such a time, when he was trying to do something difficult on the boat of a man who made him uncomfortable because he barked orders at him to do things like fasten certain ropes and also because he clearly did not approve of this relationship. But now I realize he might have been frowning merely because he was looking up suddenly into the bright sunlight.
A year after this picture was taken I went sailing with the same cousin, on the same boat. Back home, I happened to take the picture out and look at it again. This time I had trouble reconciling what I saw with what I knew. He was there on the boat, in the picture, and I was looking at him, but he was not on that boat any longer: I had just been there the day before, and I knew he was not there. Within an hour after the picture was taken, in fact, he was no longer on the boat, because we were at the dock when I took it, preparing to go ashore. But as long as he and I were still together he was somehow still on the boat, he was not distinctly absent from it, as he was a year later.
* * *
I have been thinking about that photograph, because I mentioned it to Ellie recently on the phone. Except for her one year in England, Ellie has lived near me for a long time. But now she is about to move again, this time to the Southwest. She told me she had gone down to the basement of her apartment building the day before to look through her things. First she discovered that she couldn’t open the padlock on her storage bin. Another tenant, believing the storage bin was his, had instructed his secretary to break off the lock Ellie had put on it many years before and replace it with a new one. The lock had belonged to Ellie’s father. It had been the only thing of his she had left. Everything to do with this move was disturbing to her anyway. Now she was further disturbed because her father’s lock had been destroyed and removed by a stranger, and she was shut out of her bin. Then, when she was able to get into it, she found that a flood had ruined some of her books and papers.
But she was calling to tell me she had discovered several photographs of him in one of her boxes, and she thought I might like to have them. She said there were two, but then, as she went on talking to me and at the same time looked through the pile of pictures in her hand, pictures of a party she couldn’t remember, and more of people we both knew and people only she knew, she discovered another of him, although in this picture he was partly obscured by a cluster of people. She asked me if I wanted copies of them. I told her I did, though I also said that when the envelope arrived I might not open it right away.
By now I am used to the version of his face that I have created from my own memory and the one snapshot I have. If I saw a clear picture of him or, even worse, several pictures from different angles and in different lights, I would have to get used to a new face. I don’t want to be unsettled just now, and I know I will be tempted not to open the envelope at all. But I will also be curious.
* * *
The nurse, downstairs, is playing the piano to entertain Vincent’s father. She is making mistakes just where I know she will. I listen for the mistakes and can’t hear the words I am trying to write. The old man loves it when she plays, though.
These days, in the warm weather, spiders spin webs between the bottoms of the lampshades and the sides of the lamps. Many strange small black insects fly constantly about the lamp. We have screens on all the windows and doors, but the cat has torn holes in the bottom corners of some. Spiders also spin single strands of web across the paths in the yard at night, even in the time it takes me to walk out to the corner grocery store and back, so that when I come in from the street the soft threads collect on my bare legs.
Before the meadow was plowed over in preparation for building the townhouses, I began learning to identify the wildflowers that grew there, then the wild grasses. I had never thought of identifying kinds of grass before. Now I realize that I should be able to identify spiders, too, by their appearance, the forms of their webs, their habits, and where they choose to live, so that I can name them instead of calling them “big spider,” “little spider,” “little tan spider,” etc.
At times I have the feeling someone else is working on this with me. I read a passage I haven’t looked at in weeks and I don’t recognize much of it, or only dimly, and I say to myself, Well, that’s not bad, it’s a reasonable solution to that problem. But I can’t quite believe I was the one who found the solution. I don’t remember finding it, and I am relieved, as though I expected the problem still to be there.
In the same way, I will decide to include a certain thought in a certain place in the novel and then discover that several months before, I made a note to include the same thought in the same place and then did not do it. I have the curious feeling that my decision of several months ago was made by someone else. Now there has been a consensus and I am suddenly more confident: if she had the same plan, it must be a good one.
But at other times I discover that this person working with me has been hasty or careless, and now my work is even more difficult, because I have to try to forget what she wrote. Not only do I have to erase it or cross it out but also forget the sound of it or I will write it again, as though from dictation. I should know better, because when I translate, I have to make the English as good as I can when I first write it down or the bad sound of a bad version will stay with me and make it harder for me to write a good version.
Another problem, on some pages, is that I keep putting a sentence in because it seems to belong there, and then I keep taking it out again. I have just figured out why this happens: I put the sentence in because it is interesting, believable, and clearly expressed. I take it out again because something about it is wrong. I put it in again because the sentence is good in itself and could be true. I take it out again because I have at last examined it closely enough to see that for this situation it is simply not true.
There is another reason why I will write a sentence and then immediately take it out: in certain cases I have to write a sentence on the page before I know it won’t work in the novel, because it may be interesting when I say it to myself but no longer interesting when I write it down.
* * *
For a long time, there was the same pattern to our days and nights. I would work all day and sometimes into the evening, or spend the evening with other friends of mine, and he would go to his classes and study and write and see his friends, and then fairly late in the evening he would come by and we would have a beer together and talk and go to bed and get up in the morning and separate for the day. We rarely slept apart from each other, because I had such trouble sleeping if I was by myself and because during the first months, anyway, he had no bed in his room, only his sleeping bag on the floor. He told me he would not buy a bed as long as he could sleep in mine.
He had almost no money. He had no extra money for such a thing as a bed. He had less and less money the longer I knew him. He was waiting for a student loan that was put off from week to week. I had so much money, just then, and was so unused to having money, that I spent it without thinking, and twice I lent him a particular sum of money that he needed. Both times he was reluctant to take it, though the first time more reluctant than the second. The first time, I lent him a hundred dollars, though he was already a little uncomfortable about being twelve years younger and a student, without taking my money, too. He paid it back quickly, but the second sum, $300, which I lent him before I went East for the second time, he never paid back.
He also had great difficulty getting a job. It seems to me he worked in the university library for a while. At the time he left me he was working at a gas station.
Sometimes I played the piano for him. He liked me to play for him. He would sit very still, on the edge of the bed or on a hard chair on the bare floor, and watch me and listen. His face, as usual, gave me no hint of what he might be thinking. We played tennis together, until I did not seem to be able to improve any further and became discouraged. We saw friends together, but these were almost always friends of mine. Though they had known him longer, they were not close friends of his, either because he was so much younger or for some other reason, but they soon became close friends of mine. Once we had a drink with Ellie in a grand old bayside hotel. Ellie later told me she thought I had been rather unkind to him as the three of us sat there talking, side by side on a sofa, watching the guests of the hotel walk by and pause over an antique jigsaw puzzle laid out on a nearby table.
Not long after we met, we went together to visit Evelyn, a friend of Ellie’s and mine who lived with her two young children in three rooms in the back half of a small house. The children were frantic the day we visited, they almost never stopped moving at high speed, laughing or bursting into tears or flailing each other or their mother with their fists. While we talked to Evelyn in the larger room, where she prepared meals, ate, slept, worked, and read books from the library, the children played wildly together, sometimes out in the grove of bamboo trees and around the trash cans in the alley behind the house, and sometimes in their bedroom, where they jumped off the windowsill onto the bed over and over again, or hid from their mother and called out to her, or took off their clothes and sat in large straw baskets. Evelyn kept getting up to scold the children in her gentle, ineffectual way, or to take a lightbulb from the bathroom, or a handful of toilet paper, because she never bought enough of any supply to have extra and was always borrowing something from one room to use in another. Each time Evelyn left the room, I would look over at him where he sat with me at the large, round dining table and feel how content I was with him, how content we were simply to sit there and look at each other, and it seemed to me easier and simpler to love him there than in any other place.
I think now this might have had something to do with Evelyn’s nature. Evelyn did not see things the way most people saw them. Everything was always so fresh and interesting to her, she was so often amazed and pleased by what she saw, for certain peculiar and unpredictable reasons of her own, that she would stop short in the middle of what she was doing, marveling at it, incapable of going on to anything else very quickly, so that even her meals reflected this, and were either incomplete, because she had gotten no further than one amazing food or one amazing dish, or complete, but served hours later than she had said she would serve them because she stopped and spent so long contemplating each part of them. She did not judge things, or her judgments were not harsh, or they did not have anything to do with the judgments of other people. So that, in her presence, everything seemed to be full of wonderful possibilities, and that afternoon I felt that what we had just then was entirely satisfying and good.
His life apart from me was not very real to me. He did not force me to pay much attention to it, because he was too modest or, if not truly modest, spoke of himself only briefly and then left the subject as though something would be lost or harmed if he dwelled on it for too long.
I did not know exactly what he did when he was away from me. I could imagine him alone in his room. I could see him working at a job, and the job was always menial, and demeaning. I could see him in his garage. Then there were the tedious daily things he must have done some of the time he was not with me, such as shop for food, cook, clean his apartment, wash his clothes. I could form only a vague picture of him with his friends, who were unknown to me, who lived in rooms in unknown places in the city. Most of his friends were as young as he was, and because I did not regard people of that age as very interesting, even though I had been that age myself, they tended to merge for me into an undifferentiated group. When I pictured him in their company he seemed much younger, as though they were his playmates and I were his aunt — not quite his mother, though his actual mother was herself so young, as I had discovered, so young that she seemed, even to him, like an older sister.
I didn’t know how much time he spent with his friends, since he didn’t always tell me he had seen them or, if he told me, give me any idea how long he had been with them. I couldn’t really believe that anything important took place when they were together. My impression was that he and his friends only sat somewhere and talked to each other in a way that didn’t add anything to them or change them but only marked time while they grew a little older and perhaps more capable of undergoing interesting changes, and that this talk went on in a room, an apartment, a house, a campus bar, or a student center — in a private place or a university place, but not a public place in town, such as the café where he met his older friend.
This was the one friend who might have interested me, an eccentric, reclusive man vaguely associated in my mind with literature, who was nearly an old man or was an old man, to my way of thinking at the time, though I now realize that he was probably no older than sixty, and of course, as I begin to approach fifty myself, sixty seems younger and younger to me. He would meet this friend in the café or go see him where he lived in a mysterious part of town which I imagined to be the heart of the oldest part, a part even older, perhaps, than was possible in that town, most of which was not very old. Perhaps I imagined it older and older the more I thought of it, just because I had so little idea where it was.
This friend lived in a single, small room crowded with bookshelves and books, and permeated with the stale smell of unwashed clothing and the strong, bitter smell of tobacco — or, since I never went to visit him myself, did I only imagine this when I imagined an old man living alone? I also saw the old man as bearded and a little plump around the waist, thighs, arms, and cheeks, but I don’t know if he told me this or if I instantly formed this picture of the man when he first told me he was visiting a bookish old man in a small room filled with books, and never questioned the picture, so that it registered in my mind as the truth.
Actually, many years before, I had known another bookish old man who was visited by another ardent young man, and maybe I simply applied the picture I knew to this old man.
Although this friend was more interesting to me than his young friends, and raised him a little in my estimation, while his young friends and what he might possibly be doing with them only lowered him, my interest in this friend was still very limited, because the friendship seemed not entirely innocent to me but contaminated, as I saw it, by his self-consciousness, as though he knew how touching it might be that an idealistic and ambitious and talented young man should have a friendship with a much older, poorer, better-educated man, in the presence of whom the younger man’s vanity would drop away and he would become pure and even good, or at least feel pure and good. Because I was sure that alongside his real interest in the old man was his awareness of himself visiting the old man, himself at the knees of an old man who had set himself apart from society, the pleasure he might bring to an isolated old man as he freely shared his youth, his freshness, his quick mind, his gentle manners. And he shared these things freely, because there could be no danger of any lasting hold, since his youth itself gave him permission not only to forget the old man for weeks at a time, distracted by the enormous effort of making or beginning some kind of life for himself, but also to move on abruptly and permanently, leaving him behind when the time came to go. So, although there was real tenderness and happiness in his voice when he spoke of him, it was mixed with a naïve elation, a naïve pride in the fact that he owned such an unusual and precious jewel as this friendship with an eccentric, smelly old man awake in the night and asleep in the day, belonging more to the East or even to Europe than to the West, and certainly nothing like the people we saw around us on the palm-lined streets of these seaside towns.
Now it comes back to me that several of the friends he saw were connected with the theater in town, although I’m not sure if they were students or professional actors, directors, or stagehands. I remember that when he talked to me about the theater and these friends, his tone was firmer, more confident, as though he hoped or expected that I would be impressed by this, at least, by the fact that friends of his, who evidently respected him, were involved in something as compelling as a theater performance. But I’m not sure my interest and respect could have been aroused by anything in his life except the very same things and people that aroused my interest and respect in my own life.
For instance, I know I respected him for having read certain books, and read them so closely and in such an orderly way, but these were always books that I myself intended to read. And I respected him for the way he wrote.
I would not have wanted to spend much time, anyway, or maybe any time at all, with his young friends, who were so much younger that I would have felt like an old woman or their teacher and they would have been respectful toward me as though I were their teacher.
But once we went to a play together and I met a few of them, though I have only a fleeting image of the inside of the theater, in fact only a corner of it near the front door, and a memory of shaking hands with a collection of people he knew.
I don’t know if it was on that day that we went out to a café afterward or if there was one more visit to the theater together, after which we met a friend of his, went to a bar or café for beer, and talked about plays and movies. But I never particularly enjoyed talking about plays or movies. And I was never very interested in the theater. He wanted to write for the theater. Just before we lost touch completely, he told me he had been given a scholarship to go to drama school. It was a scholarship he had been hoping to get, yet he told me he had decided not to take it. If he took it, he said, his life would be too easy. The reasons he gave me could have been the real reasons, or they could have been reasons invented or exaggerated to impress me. If they were the real reasons, I was impressed by them, but at the same time I was aware that they might not be the real reasons.
I did not know if he wanted me to know his young friends. I knew he wished I would be more playful with him, and not so serious, because he would sometimes tell me explicitly: “I wish you would play with me more.” And I knew he wished we would spend more time where he lived. But I was more comfortable surrounded by my own things, close to the things I could do and the things of mine that interested me.
For the same reason, I think, I almost never rode in his car. I told him I did not want to ride in it because the roar from the broken muffler was so loud, but now, of course, that does not seem to be a very good reason. I could have put up with the deafening roar, or even enjoyed it, if I hadn’t been afraid of being consumed by his world, if I hadn’t clung stubbornly to my own — my own car, my own house, my own town, and my own friends.
I have been trying to remember the inside of it. I see something red in it, but I don’t know if this was his plaid jacket, or a blanket he kept in the car, or the seats. I am almost certain the air inside was heavy with the musty smell of a very old car, of the dried leather of the seats or the stuffing inside them, and that this smell was overlaid with a smell of fresh laundry, since his clothes were always fresh. And I am certain that the back seat of it and even the front seat were cluttered with clothes and books, notebooks, loose paper, pens, pencils, sports equipment, and other odds and ends. I know that after he lost his second apartment, when he was sleeping in his girlfriend’s apartment but had no place to put his things, he carried all his clothes around with him in the car and probably other things besides, whatever would fit.
Yet after he left me I used to look for his car all the time, so constantly and for so many months that I never quite lost the habit afterward of noticing cars like his, and the car began to assume its own independent life, became a living creature, a kind of animal, a pet, a pet dog, friendly, loyal, or a strange dog, menacing, vicious.
* * *
It surprised me, over and over, to find that I was with such a young man. He was twenty-two when I met him. He turned twenty-three while I knew him, but by the time I turned thirty-five I did not know where he was anymore.
The idea that he was twelve years younger interested me. I did not know if I was moving back through those twelve years to be with him, or if he was moving up through them to be with me, if I was his future or he was my past. I sometimes thought I was repeating an experience I had had a long time before: once again I was with an idealistic, ambitious, talented young man, as I had been when I was that young myself, but now, because I was older, I had a confidence and an influence over him that I had not had with that other young man. But there was also a distance between us because of this that would not have been there otherwise.
I said to him that it made me feel younger than I was, to be with him, and he said it made him feel older to be with me. But of course the reverse must have been true at the same time: I felt even older than I actually was, by contrast with him, and he felt even younger. He must have been uncomfortable about how old I was, some of the time, because it made him so careful about what he said when he was talking about things I knew well, but at the same time this difference in age must have made him feel more sophisticated.
He told me he was afraid of saying something that would make him seem young in my eyes. I realize now what an effort it must have been for him, each time he spoke, to imagine, before he opened his mouth, what would seem young to me, and to avoid saying it.
I knew more than he did, at least about certain things, and now and then I corrected him when he said something wrong. I wasn’t used to knowing more than another person. I wasn’t used to feeling I knew much of anything at all. I knew more only because I had lived twelve years longer. More knowledge was in me, not because I went after it and held on to it the way he did, but because it had accumulated in me as though against my will.
He was embarrassed or uncomfortable that I knew more. But what I saw was that our minds were simply different, and his opened out over its own territory and mine over its own territory, and one was not richer than the other. But he wanted to be able to teach me things, he told me, he wanted to be able to help me, even find a job for me, though I had a job already. He wanted to find me a job, but he couldn’t have found me a job, he couldn’t even find a job for himself at that time. More than once, he said he wanted to take me away somewhere. I don’t remember if he named any other place but Europe and the desert. But we never went to the desert, and he couldn’t have taken me to Europe, he couldn’t afford to take me anywhere.
A friend of mine once told me about a love affair he had had with a woman much older. He, too, had wanted to take her away to a place where nothing would distract her and she would belong entirely to him, a place so inaccessible it was almost imaginary. As he told me the story from beginning to end, with all its details, I saw other similarities, though I said nothing to him: their first night together also began with a moment at which shoes were taken off, though in his case, she asked him to take off her shoes, and he took them off in her bedroom. She was the one, in this case, who worked at a gas station, and after she ended their love affair, he was the one who would go find her at the gas station and argue with her — though I am sure that since he is a gentler person than I am, he was not as persistent.
My friend told me he could not stop writing down certain things about it. He could not speak to her because she would not listen to him, so he wrote things about it that other people would read, so that she might read it, too, and be not only affected by it but more affected because it was public. If she was not, he would at least have the satisfaction of telling it all out loud, and also of turning that love affair, which had not lasted as long as he had wanted it to, into something that would last longer.
* * *
It was as though I were taking part in the very beginning of his life, his life as an adult, and this was exciting to me. There was a simple strength in him that had to do with his youth, a pure vigor, and a sense of limitless possibilities, which was something that would change, I thought, in twelve years. In the beginning there was every possibility, I thought, and over the years some of those possibilities disappeared. I did not mind that, but I liked being with a person who hadn’t gone through it yet.
But now and then I needed to talk to someone who had experienced those twelve years and arrived at the same sort of point with the same sorts of conclusions I had, and then I wanted to be with people my own age, and I would even go so far as to turn away from him, if we were at a table in a restaurant, and toward people my own age, and when I was in that mood, if he spoke to me I would turn to him to answer, but immediately turn away again, as though he were a contagion, or as though I were afraid of being pulled back into his youth, of losing my grip on my own age and my own generation, slipping back through those years to an innocence or freshness that also had a certain helplessness attached to it. I did not want that youth for myself. I only wanted it there with me, at arm’s reach, in him.
Yet the fact of leaving him out so pointedly, at these times, also made me more intensely aware of him at my side either sitting silent, stunned by my rudeness, and listening to the conversation or thinking his own thoughts, or overlooking my rudeness and talking to the person on his other side, so that mingled with my uneasiness at what I was doing was an intensified pleasure in his proximity, as though the fact of leaving him out, having him next to me but behind me, only increased my sense of how close to me he was, a richness still intact. It was as though refusing, for a moment, the pleasure he and I took in each other only further concentrated it. But he must have been aware of this division in my feelings for him, and must have been hurt by it.
* * *
One evening I hadn’t expected to see him, either because he was busy himself or for some other reason, and I had asked Mitchell to come have dinner with Madeleine and me. We had finished eating and were still sitting at the table in the arcade by the terrace, Mitchell talking about a recent trip, when he came through the gate and across the terrace to us. The sight of him provoked a sharp feeling of annoyance in me, because I did not want to see him just then, but he must not have suspected that I could feel anything like that. Quite comfortably, he sat down with us and listened while Mitchell finished telling us about his trip. After Mitchell went home, he took me down the hill to the bar at the bottom of my street, to meet a teacher of his whom he admired very much. Two other students were present also. My feeling of annoyance only continued, and increased, as I sat there vehemently disliking both this teacher and his students, who paid such close attention to him they barely seemed to see or hear anything else. But I don’t know if my dislike of those three men fed my annoyance at him, so that it did not dissipate all evening, or if I disliked them so vehemently only because I was already annoyed.
Now that I have remembered this teacher, whom I had forgotten, I also remember that he lived farther up the hill and a little to the south of me in that same town, and that he used to hold his classes at his house, so that his students, in small seminars, would gather there.
And I recall that this was another place he might be in the evening, before he came to me at the end of the evening, whether he was actually a student in the class or he was only occasionally invited to join the others. And when I recall a specific place he might have been, then it is easier for me to hear him, again, telling me he would come by at the end of the evening from that specific place, and it is easier for me to remember how the knowledge of where he was and the plan we had, the prospect of his coming later, was as distinct, as perceptible, and as sweet as a piece of ripe fruit near me, within sight, and within reach, as I worked comfortably through the evening, beginning to listen, toward the end of it, for the sound of his car and then the sound of his footsteps by the gate.
* * *
When he was silent with me I found his silence difficult and uncomfortable. I am almost certain he was silent because he was afraid to speak, afraid that I would think what he said was wrong — inaccurate, or not very intelligent, or not very interesting. Even when I did not mean to be unkind to him, I was unkind, and made him afraid to speak.
His silence hid things, as his face hid things, what was in his mind and what he was feeling, and forced me to look at him more attentively, to try to search out what lay behind his silence. He never explained himself, unlike another man I had known who explained himself so fully that I never had to guess. I guessed at his reasons, I guessed at his thoughts, but when I asked him if I was right in my guesses, he did not answer me and I had to guess further, whether I had been right.
This kept my attention on him, but at times I became impatient. I knew I should not be impatient with his silence, or with his indirect way of doing things, or with his slower way of doing things, and yet I was. I wanted everything to be quick, most of the time, except when I chose it to be slow. I simply wanted everything to be the way I chose it to be, quick or slow.
If I look at how impatient I was with him, I have to wonder about the way I loved him. I think I was irresponsible in handling his love. I forgot it, ignored it, abused it. Only occasionally, and almost by chance, or on a whim, did I honor or protect it. Maybe I only wanted to be entrusted with his love: then I was willing to let him suffer, because I was safe in the trust of that love and did not suffer myself.
It was not easy for me to speak to him, either. I wanted to speak, and my voice spoke inside me, I thought of the words to say and said them, but what I said was dry and stiff, the words did not communicate anything of what I was feeling. It was easier for me to touch him and to write things down.
So there was sometimes this strange formality between us, a vacancy and difficulty, because of the awkwardness of what he said to me when he spoke, and the awkwardness of what I said to him, and the vast silences that fell between us. Maybe we did not have to talk, but when we were together we must have felt we should have something like a conversation. We tried over and over again to talk, and did it badly, there were so many barriers in the way.
Other things about him bothered me, and he must have known that. I was uneasy if he sat very silent in company with other people, or if he made a remark that showed he had not understood what was being talked about, his enunciation clearest when he was most nervous, his t’s noticeably crisp, or if he laughed in his self-conscious way, his voice tense and rising. Even his smile, broad as it was every time, seemed tense and self-conscious, as though he were offering himself to me then, standing behind his smile and behind his wide body, so straight and tense and quiet. I thought his body was unusually wide, his arms and legs unusually thick. I thought his skin was strangely white, the flesh of his limbs so wide and white it almost shone in the dark. It did shine in a dim light, in a darkened room with light coming in through the windows from the moon or a streetlamp. He was certainly nice-looking, his features were agreeable, but his nose was oddly pointed and upturned in his wide face, the skin of his face was pale, pink, and freckled, even his lips were freckled. He often fell into one self-conscious pose or another, his head thrown back, smiling or wary, or his head bowed, when he was not smiling and seemed angry, or ready to fight, but was not angry, looking up at me from under his eyebrows, his lips tight shut. I could not say his eyes did not have a pretty color of blue in them, though even the blue was very pale, and the whites often a little bloodshot.
When we were no longer together, what had bothered me did not bother me anymore. It was harder for me to see anything wrong with him, because although the same things were there, they had shrunk, in my attention, to a point where they were barely visible.
* * *
I have been counting things today. I have been counting quarrels and trips. I need to put more order into what I remember. The order is difficult. It has been the most difficult thing about this book. Actually, my doubt has been more difficult, but my doubt about the order has been the worst. I don’t mind working hard, but I don’t like not knowing what I am doing, or not knowing if what I am doing is the right thing to do.
I have tried to find a good order, but my thoughts are not orderly — one is interrupted by another, or one contradicts another, and in addition to that, my memories are quite often false, confused, abbreviated, or collapsed into one another.
I have trouble organizing things in my life anyway. I don’t have the patience to try very hard. One reason this book has taken so long to write is that instead of thinking it through and organizing it beforehand, I have simply kept trying, blindly and impulsively, to write it in ways that weren’t possible. Then I have had to go back and try to write it in a different way. I have made many mistakes, and couldn’t see them until after I had made them.
I still find myself forgetting things I had intended to do, and doing things I had not planned to do. I find myself doing things sooner than I had planned to do them: Oh, I say to myself, so I’m already at this stage.
I complained to Ellie a few weeks ago that although the novel was intended to be short, it had been growing and growing and was clearly going to become quite long before I could cut it down to the size it should be. But she said this seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to proceed. She had done the same thing with her dissertation all those many years ago, she said. That reassured me for a while. But now I am worried all over again. If it grows any more, will I still have time to cut it back before I run out of money?
I can’t stop translating altogether. Recently I tried to figure out how much money I spent each month, how much I had on hand at present, and how much I needed to earn over the next few months to supplement that. Pleased with myself, I went downstairs and explained to Vincent that I seemed to spend about $2,300 per month, and had enough to last for about a year if I translated just a little. But Vincent reminded me that my calculations are often wrong. I often forget what he calls hidden costs. And I forget that I will have to pay taxes on what I earn.
I am not very good at managing my money. One problem is that when I’m paid for my work, the payment always comes in a single lump sum so large it seems limitless. I begin spending it, and each thing I buy seems to be the only thing I will buy, each small sum seems like the only sum. I don’t understand that one sum will be added to the next until the original sum is all gone.
Now and then a day comes when I have almost nothing left, and no prospect of work either. I am afraid. It is not that Vincent would not try to make up the difference if I ran out of money altogether, but if I don’t pay a share of our expenses we can’t maintain what we have. At this point I look at what money is left and at last, because I have no choice, make a budget and try to live within it.
Sometimes, then, the phone rings and I hear the voice of a cheerful person who wants to pay me to translate a book. Because I speak to her in a calm, professional way, she has no idea of the despair that had surrounded me until that moment, there at the other end of the line.
I’m not tired of translating, though I probably should be. Maybe I should also be embarrassed that I’m still translating after all these years. People seem surprised that a woman my age is a translator, as though it is not wrong to translate when you are still a student, or just out of school, but you should have stopped by the time you are older. Or it is fine to translate poetry but not prose. Or it is all right to translate prose if you do it as a pastime or a hobby. One person I know, for instance, does not have to translate anymore, and that is one of the many signs that he is now a successful writer. He will occasionally translate something small, like a poem, but only to oblige an old friend.
Part of it may be that translators are paid by the word, so the more carefully they work on a translation, the less they are paid for their time, which means that if they are very careful they may not earn much. And often, the more interesting or unusual the book, the more painstaking they have to be. For one or two difficult books, I took so long over each page that I earned less than a dollar an hour. But I’m not sure this explains why so many people do not respect translators or would simply prefer not to think about them.
If I am at a party and I say to a man that I’m a translator, he often loses interest immediately and prepares to move on and talk to someone else. But in fact I have done the same thing to other translators at parties, usually other women. At first I talk to the woman with enthusiasm, because there is so much I have wanted to say about translating to a person who understands the work, things I have thought about a great deal and have kept to myself because I don’t often meet another translator. Then my enthusiasm slowly dies, because everything she says to me in reply is a complaint, and I see that she has no joy in translating — no interest in her own work and no interest in me or my work either.
One woman I remember even looked like me, or like what I think I look like until I go and look in the mirror again. She had very long, straight, light brown hair held back from her face by two small barrettes, she wore glasses, she was tall and thin, she had regular features that might have been pleasant if her expression had not been so dull, and she wore neat but drab clothes of no particular style, maybe a colorless sweater and a plain skirt. The main impression she made on me was one of dullness, narrowness, and dissatisfaction. Maybe this is how I appear to others. Maybe I seem too dull and full of complaints, though I think I am too enthusiastic, if anything. But maybe my enthusiasm is worse, because to them it is enthusiasm about dull things.
I complained to another friend about my confusion over this book. He had asked me a direct and clear question, like “How far along are you?” or “How much do you have left to do?” as though I should be able to answer that. He said he always knew exactly how much he had left to do on a book. He said he wrote about a page a day and always knew that he had, say, 100 pages left to write. Only one book of his, he said, was confusing, and for that book he had made elaborate diagrams. But I feel I would lose too much time if I stopped to do that, even though I should know I lose more time by not doing it.
Yesterday, for about an hour, I thought I understood what to do. I thought: Just take out the parts you don’t like. That way, everything that is left will probably be good. But then another voice spoke up. It is a voice that often interrupts me to confuse me. It said I shouldn’t be too quick to eliminate things. Maybe they only needed to be rewritten, it said. Or moved to a different spot. Moving a sentence to a different spot could change everything. And changing just a single word in a bad sentence could make it good. In fact, changing a punctuation mark could do that. So then I thought I would have to keep moving each thing and rewriting it until I was sure it did not belong anywhere and could take it out.
Then again, maybe there is nothing that does not belong in, and this novel is like a puzzle with a difficult solution. If I were clever and patient enough, I could find it. When I do a difficult crossword, I never quite finish it, but I usually don’t remember to look at the solution when it appears. I have been working on this puzzle so long by now that I catch myself thinking it is time to look at the solution, as though I will only have to dig through a pile of papers to find it. I have the same sort of frustration, at times, with a problem in a translation. I ask, Now, what is the answer? — as though it existed somewhere. Maybe the answer is what will occur to me later, when I look back.
Because of the kind of puzzle this is, though, no one else will ever know that a few more things belonged in the novel and were left out because I did not know where to put them.
This is not the only thing I’m afraid of. I’m afraid I may realize after the novel is finished that what actually made me want to write it was something different, and that it should have taken a different direction. But by then I will not be able to go back and change it, so the novel will remain what it is and the other novel, the one that should have been written, will never be written.
* * *
There were five quarrels, I think. The first was in the car after the reading. The second was just after we returned from a trip up the coast together. I can’t remember what that one was about, only that we had not quite made it up when the piano tuner arrived to tune my piano, walking through the fine brown dirt of the driveway carrying his black satchel and whistling a song from a popular Broadway show.
There were two trips up the coast that I can remember, one to a large city where we bought books and one to visit that cousin of mine who took us sailing.
There were two trips out on boats together, one on my cousin’s sailboat and one on a whale-watching boat with an older man who ignored me almost completely. I have not so far included the whale watching, the sailing, or the trip to the city, where we had dinner in a crowded restaurant with our bags of new books by our feet.
I went off on three trips by myself. One was for a weekend. The second was for three weeks in early winter, when my term of teaching was over. We wrote letters to each other and spoke on the phone once or twice. The last trip, and the longest, came at the end of winter. I called him a few times and wrote him one letter that never reached him. That was when I was staying in a borrowed apartment and he was living above the cactus nursery.
The third quarrel was more serious than the first or the second, and occurred five days after the quarrel that was interrupted by the piano tuner. I was about to go off on the first of my trips away from him, the shortest one. I think he was angry at me for going away, no matter how good my reasons were, and this was why, the evening before I went, he left a brief message with Madeleine, who passed it on to me indignantly. In this message he told me he couldn’t see me despite a plan we had had. He did not explain.
He spent that evening with Kitty instead, first going to the movies with her and then talking to her in his room. He said she had a problem and needed to talk to him. I kept calling him until I reached him, then I quarreled with him on the phone, then I called him again, and at last, though it was so late, I got into my car and drove to where he lived. I wanted to be with him even if only for a short time.
Because of the lateness of the hour, or the absurdity of what I was doing, my lack of dignity, the fact that I had had to change out of my nightgown and back into my clothes to do this, or for some other reason, when I came to the long, wide curve of road around the racetrack parking lot, heading toward the trailer camp and within sight, in the distance, of the highway with its pairs of yellow lights moving down the coast and red lights moving up the coast, and I could see far up the train tracks a train coming south, with its single headlight and its two long tines of reflected light shining down the straight tracks at me, with nothing but darkness and emptiness on either side of me, layer upon layer of different shades of darkness and emptiness, only enough light just here to see the dark side of the hill beyond the barbed fence, beyond the dirt flat, beyond the channel of brown water, I felt I was no longer observing this landscape, but that, instead, it was now observing me: I was the only moving thing right here, by this empty lot, and I was suddenly turned back on myself, as though reflected by the landscape, and forced to see what I was doing at this moment.
But no matter how clearly I saw what I was doing, I would go on doing it, as though I simply allowed my shame to sit there alongside my need to do it, one separate from the other. I often chose to do the wrong thing and feel bad about it rather than to do the right thing, if the wrong thing was what I wanted.
I was traveling that mile up the coast with only one purpose, to consume that mile and reach the other end of it. I found him, but he wouldn’t let me into his room. We talked outside, and he apologized. I drove back home and went off on my trip the next morning without being sure what was true and what was not, about his story.
It was Thanksgiving Day. I was flying to a city north of us, the same city, in fact, where years later I spent most of one afternoon looking for his latest address, though of course in my memory there are two cities, quite different. Not long after I arrived, I was taken to a house I had never been to before, and then later that night I was taken, in the dark, through streets I didn’t know, to another house I had never been to before. It was a cottage that stood by itself back from the street over the distance of a very large lawn, a full city lot, I think, unless the size of the lawn has grown in my memory over time. I did not know where I was in the city and I had not known I would be going there.
I was left there, and no one else was in the house but someone’s teenage son sleeping upstairs, whom I never saw, either that night or the next morning, so that I seemed to be alone in the house. I felt not only the hours separating me from him but the succession of strange places, too, as though the more hours passed and the more strange places I went into, the farther I moved from him, and I would have to go back through that time and each of those places to find him again. Then, though it was late, the phone rang, and when I answered it, what I heard in the receiver was his voice. He could not know where I was, I thought, since even I did not know where I was. He could not have called me. But he had found me, simply because he wanted to find me.
The same sort of thing had happened a few weeks earlier, when I had wanted more than anything else to hold him in my arms, and thought he was somewhere else and with other people. I had opened a door to go out into a hall and he was there in front of me, waiting for me.
It was at times like these, and maybe only at times like these, when I was away from him and wanted to be with him, that there was no confusion in me and I didn’t hold anything back from him.
I returned home two days later and found a small bunch of blue flowers on the piano and a note from him saying he was waiting for me down the hill, at the bar. All I had to do was choose the moment to go, wash my face and hands, walk down the hill, and find him in the crowded place, where he would be sitting on a stool, one of a row of backs, a close line of people shoulder to shoulder, his back, when he turned to look for me, pressing against the back of another man, as I made my way through the crowd to him. Then I would have him in my arms, where I wanted him.
But even so, I put off the moment a little, I looked through my mail and opened a few letters before I went down the hill. I held that moment a short distance away, maybe in order to enjoy it just where it was, in the near future. In fact, maybe I was happiest in exactly that situation, having him nearby, having the prospect of him there before me, feeling the desire to be so close to him that nothing separated us, and knowing I would be able to satisfy it at any moment I chose. It was a perfectly secure position, untouched by any trouble, any conflict or contradiction, and I had the time to savor it. Nothing could disturb it, except to try to stay in it too long.
And when I realize that, I go on to consider that maybe what I found so intolerable after he left me was not the obvious thing, that he and I were no longer together, that I was alone, but rather the less obvious, that I no longer had that wonderful possibility available to me, of going to find him wherever he was and being welcomed by him. I wanted to go find him but did not know where he was, and if I knew where he was, and found him, I was not welcomed by him.
* * *
When he had appeared suddenly, as though brought by the force of my wanting him there, in the hall outside the door, a party was going on in my house. It was a party he and I were giving together, although I can’t remember if there was any particular reason for it. There were many people in the house. We were trying to roast pieces of chicken to feed these people, but we had not planned it right and were not fast enough. So many people crowded around and tried to eat or waited or asked to eat that we became almost frightened by their hunger. We were roasting the chicken outside on the terrace, on a grill built of stone, and over and over again we turned the soft flesh of the chicken with its gleam of fat in the dim light from inside the house, but the chicken would not cook. Some of the people ate, at last, and others never did, and as the hour moved on, the hunger of all these people was satisfied or not satisfied but forgotten. The next morning there was a pleasant smell of beer in the rooms, and piles of crumbs from crushed bread here and there on the tiles, and someone’s felt hat left behind on a table.
* * *
Soon after I returned from my weekend trip, I went to see him in his garage. I had not gone there very often. I did not ask how he worked or when he worked. I would have asked, or maybe I had asked once, but there must have been something in the way he answered, maybe too briefly, that made me think he did not like me to ask.
I came away with a few books I had been wanting to read. I put these books on the shelf in the alcove above my bed alongside the other books I had recently acquired: the books given to me on my trip and the books I had bought with him a few days before.
I looked at their spines often. The colors of their spines, and the few words of their titles, naming other possible visions of the world, were always part of what I saw in the room, and I always liked to have these signs of other worlds near me, even if for months or years I did not open the books, even if there were many I never read but packed into boxes and unpacked again, over and over, taking them with me from one place to the next. Some, in fact, I still have on shelves here in this house, still unread.
When I visited him in his garage, he showed me more closely what he had in this place where he worked, and I was impressed by the books, not knowing, yet, that most of them were not his. The garage was larger than his room in the back of the building. Harsh yellow light shone over the concrete walls and the tall bookcases that stood strangely in rows in the middle of the space. He stepped lightly and easily around the bookcases, showing me how he had arranged the books. He never wasted his motions. He moved, and yet always seemed still. He paused before he moved, then moved economically and deliberately, whereas I often hurled myself at things, stumbled, and was awkward. He seemed to think economically, too, as though he also paused before he thought, as he also paused before he spoke. Of course even pausing and taking care, he sometimes said something wrong, or clumsy, and I thought of the way a cornered animal will pause and then, with its perfectly developed instincts, make a move that should be successful but is not, because there are elements in the situation the animal has not understood and could not have understood.
I did not visit him in his garage again after that, as far as I can remember. I did not help him move, when he moved a month or two later from that place to the rooms overlooking the concrete yard of a nursery full of potted cactuses. I can’t remember just when that move was. I think I was away, I think I had gone back East. There was a dispute surrounding the move. Either he owed rent, or the landlord did not like him, or a friend came back and claimed the place, or that friend or a different friend was angry about the books, either that they had been left behind in the garage or that they had not been left, or that the landlord had kept them, or that they had been damaged, or that some were missing.
* * *
I noticed even then, before I was angry at him myself, long before Ellie told me the story of another woman who was deeply insulted by a proposition of his, something he offered to do for her in exchange for money, that many people seemed to get angry at him. Certainly in any sort of business arrangement, anything involving practical matters or money, sooner or later he did not do the right thing and caused disturbance in the person he was dealing with. In the beginning, he would make a good impression, as for instance on a landlord, since he was neat and clean, friendly and intelligent, and good-looking in an open, unassuming way, and the landlord would be pleased with the arrangement and well-disposed toward him. But then he would be late with a rent payment, or offer only a part of it and then miss one altogether, and the landlord would be first puzzled, then nervous, then angry, and then adamant in asking him to leave.
He had been quick to pay back the first loan I made him, the $100, but he did not pay back the $300 I lent him later, enough to have his muffler fixed, probably because by the time I returned he had left me, so the debt was not something that might come between us but something he would want to forget, just as he would want to forget me, too, as quickly as possible, put me behind him and move on.
I realized later that he went to a woman and became attached to her in somewhat the same way that he moved into an apartment and lived there a few months and then moved out again after some unpleasantness with the landlord, always defaulting on the rent and owing money. He needed to stay with her and become part of her, not lose himself completely, but not keep himself entirely separate either. Then, after a time, he left her and became attached to another woman.
A woman anchored him in the real world, connected him to something. Without her, he floated. He did not keep track of the passing hours or the passing days very well, anyway, he did not plan how to make money or spend it or save it, or if he did, his plans were not connected to anything very real, though he kept himself clean and neat, and began projects and worked at them hard, and was a hard worker, if he did not often finish them.
He did not always know what he was doing or how to plan what he had to do, and in the same way, he sometimes did not know what he was saying, or did not think about how it related to the last thing he had said, or to what he was doing, or to the true situation, so that there was often a lack of connection between one thing and another in his conversation and in his life. Many of the things he said to me were not true, and even more were not what he meant to say. He did not always know what he was saying because his mind was often on something else. Once he told me he made Portuguese fish soup very well, then corrected himself and said that he had never made it but believed he could make it very well. Sometimes he said something he thought was true but said it in such a strange way that it did not express what he meant to say. Sometimes he was simply confused or mistaken. Some things he said wrong out of nervousness and then either heard what he had said or did not hear. Some things he deliberately distorted or exaggerated. Sometimes he deliberately lied.
When I first knew him, I did not know that he could lie, so I believed everything he said. Later, when I looked back at what he had said, knowing he could lie, I had to wonder which thing was true and which was not. And each thing I doubted made me change what I thought I knew about him.
* * *
I think he wanted to forget me as well as the money he owed me, even though he did send me that French poem a year after I last saw him. Sending it could have been a momentary impulse. Maybe the memory of me broke through his cloud of forgetfulness briefly and was then swallowed up again, so that by the time he received my answer, if he ever received it, he was once again inclined to forget me and only read it quickly, suppressed anything he felt reading it, and put it away to be forgotten as soon as possible — not deliberately in a drawer or a box, and not in the wastebasket, but in a place on his table or desk where it would look like something he intended to answer, but would be buried by other papers, mislaid, and eventually forgotten.
When I received that poem from him I read it through once quickly, then several times more that day, until I understood most of it, and after that I could not take it out of its envelope again, as though it had too much power, as though the force of it was safe enough in the envelope, but not safe once it was out and unfolded.
Just now I have taken the poem out again and have been looking through different anthologies to see if I can find it and identify it. I found it once before, quite by accident, so I thought that when I next needed to, I would be able to find it easily. It is probably a well-known poem, or at least this was my impression after I found it by accident. It is probably one I should know, or one other people would think I should know because of my profession, but my knowledge of French literature is surprisingly poor, as is my knowledge of French history. Oddly enough, this doesn’t usually affect the quality of my work. At worst I will miss only one or two references. But now and then it has embarrassed me.
The poem is a sonnet, and begins with the word Nous. I looked in the index of first lines of the book where I had been certain, all this time, that I would find it and saw only other first lines beginning with the word Nous, in the literal translations offered by the book: We two have our hands to give. We have a clergy, some lime. We will not always live in these yellow lands. I did not find the line I was looking for, which would be something like: We have thought pure things. I gave up, for the time being.
Then a peculiar thing happened. I watched, as though from a distance, while my two hands put his letter back in its envelope. I did not handle it carefully, almost reverently, as I had a short time before when I took it out, but hastily, and carelessly, because I was frustrated that I had not found out what the poem was. And because I am so used to seeing my hands do this every day to other letters, I believed, or some independent part of my brain believed, for an instant, that this was a letter I had just received, just brought home from the post office to open at my desk. Now his handwriting on the envelope suddenly had a sense of purpose and immediacy all over again — the letter seemed to be a real, active communication.
Then the instant passed, or the part of my brain that knew the truth caught up with the part that had believed something different for an instant. Once again, the letter had the faded permanence, the immutability, of a relic.
The letter is one of a small collection of things here in my room that seem to have some life of their own. Relics, they are heavier, or more magnetic, than the other objects in the house. Besides the poem he sent, and his story, the photograph of him, other letters, and a page he and I wrote together, on which his handwriting alternates with mine, there is a blanket he left in my house, a plaid shirt he gave me, a second plaid shirt whose sleeves are so frayed they have fallen into rags, and at least three books. One of the books is a novel by Faulkner that I read after he left me, a paperback so old that its pages are yellow and its outer margins brown, its glue so brittle that each page, after I had read it and turned it, fell quietly off the spine, and because I did not close the book whenever I put it aside, but left it lying open face up on the windowsill by my bed, not really a bound book any longer but two piles, one of bound pages and one of loose pages, the book did not close on the story, and the story remained present in the room while I was reading the book and for many days after, as if it were loose in the room, had floated up from the pages, and hung there under the raftered ceiling — the woman’s sullen illness, the thrashing of the wild palms around the prison where the man sits, the high wind, the wide river the man can see out the cell window, the frail cigarette that he can’t roll tightly because his hands tremble so badly.
* * *
I thought the feeling of emptiness and bleakness did not appear until February. I thought it was mild. The truth is, it appeared in December, before I went East for the first time. In fact, it had been present before then, even close to the beginning, but in the beginning it did not matter. Because I went away, in December, and came back again, I forgot my uneasiness. I missed him and then I had him back. But in February it reappeared, and was acute, and went on day after day.
There were two trips East, but I don’t know if I will describe the first one first and the second one second, because today I am feeling that chronological order is not a good thing, even if it is easier, and that I should break it up. Is it that when these events are in chronological order they are not propelled forward by cause and effect, by need and satisfaction, they do not spring ahead with their own energy but are simply dragged forward by the passage of time?
Or is it only that I am irritable today? I have to be careful, because there are days when I am so irritable that not only do I want to disrupt the chronological order, I also want to delete a great deal of what I have written. Take this sentence out, I say to myself, with a kind of furious pleasure, and that paragraph, too — I never liked or respected it.
But if I give in to all these impulses when I am in a bad mood, I will have almost nothing left.
At such times, the irritation I feel toward the writing is just as personal as the irritation I feel when the old man gets stubborn and I come up against the blank wall of his refusal, or during an argument with Vincent when he will not listen to me but either rolls his eyes up at the ceiling or closes them or looks at the newspaper. As though I think this novel has a life and will of its own and is simply refusing to do what I want it to do.
I don’t always trust myself, because I have never tried to write a novel before. At first I thought this novel should be like the sort of novel I admire. But then I realized that of course I admire more than one sort of novel. For a while, I thought it should be like the novel I was translating at the time he left me, not because that was what I was doing then, but because I admire that novel. But if I took that as my model, I would have to cut out most of what happens in this one. In that novel, the characters only walk in and out of rooms, look through doorways, arrive at apartments, go up and down stairs, look out windows from inside, look in windows from outside, and make brief remarks to each other that are hard to understand.
For a while after that, I wanted this to have the same high moral tone as the work of another writer I admire, but it won’t, because I don’t have the same strong moral principles he does.
My uneasiness in December was sometimes boredom, and sometimes, at its worst, a panic at being trapped in the empty space of our silence or the awkwardness of the way we tried to talk to each other.
Once, we were alone together in a restaurant and I was becoming exhausted by the effort of sitting there across from him trying to talk to him, trying to make him talk to me, and then trying to think about other things when I couldn’t talk and couldn’t make him talk. I was moving through the time of our evening together as though I were pulling a weight along with me from one minute to the next. It didn’t seem to help that I was going to leave a few days later. I became so tired, then, feeling so little life between us, that out of the deepest boredom I proposed that we play a game: taking a piece of paper and passing it back and forth, we would make up a story together, each writing one sentence.
We did this, but the story was bad, or worse than bad: each sentence followed from the sentence before, but seemed arbitrary, clearly produced by boredom and anger, and this arbitrariness began to frighten me after a while, because it seemed to show how arbitrary other sentences were that followed from one another, and other stories, too. When we stopped trying to write it, there was even less life between us.
How strange it is to realize now that although I was frightened of the emptiness between us, that emptiness was not his fault but mine: I was waiting to see what he would give me, how he would entertain me. And yet I was incapable of being profoundly interested in him or, maybe, in anyone. Just the reverse of what I thought at the time, when it seemed so simple: he was too callow, or too cautious, or just too young, not complex enough yet, and so he did not entertain me, and it was his fault.
Another thing that bothered me more acutely now was the way I changed when I was with him, into a person I did not quite recognize, even though I told myself I did not have to be the same. I was only a little different with another woman, or with a man who was a friend, but with a man who was to me what he was to me, my constant companion, the one who shared my bed not just now and then but every night, the one I came back to when I was away, the one who came back to me, I would often play the part of a person I hardly recognized and usually did not like, and the more uncomfortable I was, the nastier this person became.
I wasn’t even playing a part, really, since I did not do it deliberately. And I didn’t really become a different person either. It was not a different person who appeared at these times but a side of myself that did not appear when I was alone or with other friends, one that was flippant, condescending, self-centered, sarcastic, and mean. To be all these things was quite natural to me, even though I did not like them.
* * *
During this time when I was often bored and restless, Madeleine was often angry, and I did not know why. It would begin early in the morning. Dawn would come with a band of milky white below a cloud. The sky would turn a cool, snowy blue. The first sounds would be a neighbor closing his gate, starting his car, and driving off. He awoke one bird who made a noise like a plucked wire and then went back to sleep for a while. I looked to see how much light was in the sky and the cat mewed once. Now the bird was awake again, and it made a noise like a cricket chirping.
Madeleine would begin banging around in the kitchen, and I would begin daydreaming. The palms would thrash. Later Madeleine would go outside and rake. I would lie on my bed indoors and hear the sound of the rake’s teeth grating over the dirt of the driveway. She was raking up the pine needles. She would work her way around the hummock of rubbery sea fig by the road and the bags of red clay sitting in plastic under the cedar tree. She would rake the needles into little piles all over, and then burn them. She liked making fires of them.
Morning would be warm and clear. Then, after noon, the fog would move slowly up the hill from the ocean, cars coming up out of it with their headlights on while the air was still clear where I was. Then the air near my windows would turn white, the trees at a distance become faint, and the bushes close to the house very distinct, suddenly, against the white fog.
At this time of the year there were monarch butterflies all over the hillside, in fives and sixes. Because it was close to Christmas, special services were conducted in the church down the hill, and organ music and singing came up to me. Listening to it, I would look out the bathroom window and see, over car tops and rooftops, the Santa on the chimney of a brick building down the hill, turning by electricity slowly one way and then the other.
Madeleine raked, and she slammed doors. She would pick up the receiver of the phone, which was just outside the door to my room, dial a number, and then slam the receiver down. Or there would be a gentle rattle as she picked the phone itself up and carried it out of my earshot, down the hall or around the corner into the kitchen, where she would talk in a hushed, angry voice, often in Spanish or Italian, the kitten mewing again and again in the background. Once, I know, she was angry at a friend of hers, a wealthy Spanish woman who lived at the top of our hill. I was sure Madeleine’s relationships with all her friends and lovers were complicated, but she never told me anything about them and I never asked.
She always preferred to eat with chopsticks, often a dish made with millet and garlic, and she drank many cups of tea during the day. The sink was often littered with chopsticks and teaspoons and separate scattered grains of millet and tea leaves, and in these days, because I knew how angry she was, even the chopsticks and the perforated, hinged metal spoons looked angry lying there in the pale green sink.
* * *
But despite my discouragement and impatience, I did not want to leave him when the time came for me to go East. It seemed true, just then, that he belonged to me and I belonged to him beyond any boredom, beyond any diminishing of feeling between us. At the same time, I did not know which to believe — that I had only a little feeling for him, as I seemed to have sometimes, or a great deal.
In the East, I was suddenly surrounded by so many difficulties and sorrows unrelated to him, unrelated even to me, that his importance shrank to something very small.
But when I thought my mind was altogether taken up with other things, as I stood on a railway station platform, waited by a car, entered or left a house, walked up or down a driveway, went out into the cold, went back in out of the cold, I would suddenly remember the sweet smell of his skin, and I would miss his open arms, how perfectly still he was when he opened his arms to me, as though all his attention was on me and on taking me into his arms, whereas with another man before him, and then another, there had been no room for me, they were all hard surface, they were always moving too quickly, rushing here and there, usually away from me, or past me, intent on their own business, only now and then straight toward me, when I, too, became their business. He paid attention, he watched, he listened, he thought about me when he was not with me, nothing was lost on him, nothing of me as he perceived me. Even in his sleep, he was attentive, and woke up enough to tell me he loved me, whereas other men, intent on the business of sleeping, would be disturbed and hiss at me: “Stop moving!”
* * *
I thought of combining the two visits East into one, in the novel, in order to be economical, since I don’t know how much he was involved in those days, if I was so far away from him. But even at a distance my feelings about him changed from day to day, either because each thing that happened to me, though it had nothing to do with him, changed the way I felt about him, and what happened during the night, too, in a dream, or because my feelings simply aged and developed, day after day, like independent creatures, grew in intensity or weakened, deteriorated, sickened, healed.
And the two visits were not the same. During the first, I stayed in my mother’s house, a difficult place for me to be, and he and I missed each other intensely and straightforwardly. He wrote at least four letters to me, and I wrote back to him, though I don’t know how many times. I telephoned him at least twice. By the time I went East for the second time, my mother’s sister had moved in with her and I stayed in a borrowed apartment in the city and felt that what he and I had together was almost over.
I see that I’m shifting the truth around a little, at certain points accidentally, but at others deliberately. I am rearranging what actually happened so that it is not only less confusing and more believable, but also more acceptable or palatable. If I now think I shouldn’t have had a certain feeling so early in the relationship, I move it to a later point in time. If I think I shouldn’t have had that feeling at all, I take it out. If he did something too dreadful to name, I either say nothing about it or describe it as dreadful without identifying it. If I did something too dreadful, I describe it in milder terms or do not mention it.
After all, there are things I like to remember and others I do not like to remember. I like to remember times when I behaved decently, also events that were exciting or interesting for another reason. I don’t like to remember times when I behaved badly, or ugliness of a drab sort, though I don’t mind a dramatic sort of ugliness. My boredom is unpleasant to remember, and so are certain events, like the visit he and I paid, after we were no longer together, to acquaintances of ours whom I did not like very much, in their ugly rented apartment, though for a long time I could not figure out why that particular visit was so unpleasant to remember.
* * *
One night, as I lay in bed in my mother’s house, I stopped to think about the hero of the book I was reading, who was good, innocent, handsome, intelligent, illiterate, gifted in music, and of noble but mysterious birth. I was reminded of him, not because they had many qualities in common, but because of the position the hero occupied in the story, and the attitude of the other characters toward him.
Close to midnight, I left my bed to call him. I carried the telephone into the kitchen and shut both doors. My mother was a light sleeper, often wakeful, and she would not close her bedroom door at night because she did not like to feel shut up in a room, and also, probably, because she liked to know as much as possible about what went on in her house. She therefore heard every noise, often thought a noise was unusual, wondered what it was as she continued to lie in her bed, or got up out of bed to see what it was. But there were nights when she was not worried about anything, when she slept soundly and did not hear what was happening in her house, and I thought there was a good chance, by now, that she was too deeply asleep to hear me.
I was sure he would be surprised and happy to hear my voice, but he was quiet and rather cool, no more than mildly polite. After we had talked for a short time we hung up, and I stayed there in the kitchen sitting on a stool, trying to reason out why he was not more affectionate. I began to accept my disappointment. Then the phone rang. He was calling back, apologetic. Now he was everything he had not been before, ardent and talkative. He said he was sorry, and explained that he was trying to accept the fact that I was away, and had been managing pretty well, and that to hear my voice on the phone and to have to talk to me was difficult because it unsettled him, it undid the work he had done. He went on to say that he loved me and missed me very much, so much that it was painful.
At this point, over his voice, I heard my mother’s footstep in the hall. The door from the hall opened, and my mother looked in. Her face in the full fluorescent light of the kitchen was swollen with sleep, disfigured, her eyes half shut against the light, her features disorganized. While I covered the mouthpiece of the receiver, as his tiny voice continued to talk on, unaware, away from my ear, she asked, “Is someone dead?”
* * *
By now, two letters had arrived from him. I read them over again and again, until the style in which they were written, impassioned and elegant at the same time, was so deeply impressed on me that when I myself wrote a letter to an old friend I found, as I wrote it, that I was writing in his style, and this felt like some sort of betrayal, though whether of him or my old friend I was not sure.
The distance made him seem even more silent, though in his two letters he might speak to me endlessly, as often as I read them and even when they only lay by my bed, unread but open.
A third letter arrived. I could tell it had been written a few days before, but it was dated a month earlier. He had these lapses, when his mind wandered, when he was not aware of the day and the hour or how the world outside worked, what schedule it worked to. At these times, he seemed to be looking away, and while he was looking away I could come closer to him than I could when he was fully conscious of the time and the place. And his lapses also seemed to be a proof of sincerity, because if he was not aware of the day of the week or the month, clearly he was not calculating all the moves he made, though he might be calculating some of them.
* * *
There are really only three things to include from that trip: my phone call to him, the letters he sent me, and my introduction to a certain man at a New Year’s Eve party. I kept the phone number this stranger wrote down for me, and I called him two months later when I was in the East again. I think I kept it not because I was unhappy with what I had already but for quite the opposite reason, that coming together with one man in such perfect harmony, for a while anyway, had made me think that anywhere I went now, I might meet another man and come together with him in perfect harmony. The party was attended mainly by college teachers I did not know in a village a hundred miles from the city in the midst of a cold so bitter that the slightest breeze burned my face.
* * *
When I came back, my mind was more on my work than it was on him. It held my interest for longer periods of time without any thought of him distracting me.
There were other changes. Madeleine was always changing. She was always discovering something about herself, or entering a state or leaving a state, or entering a discipline or leaving a discipline, or consulting a specialist, or finding a new medium in which to work, or a new process, or a new place to work, and from time to time a new relationship, though whether it was more than a passionate and tumultuous friendship I could never be sure.
Now she had cut her hair very short. It gave her pale, lined face a look of frightening severity. She had been seeing an acupuncturist who told her everything in her body was reversed — the yin things were yang, he said. I did not understand very well what this meant, but with Madeleine I did not try to understand if I did not immediately grasp what she said. Now I would like to understand better, now I would ask what this meant.
He and I quarreled again. For two nights in a row, Madeleine had asked me for a potato and baked it, and this was all she had for supper. The third night I was cooking a steak and he had brought a bottle of wine to have with it, which was unusual. Madeleine asked me if she could eat with us. I thought I could not say no. She was generally spare in the way she lived and ate, she had very little money, and also seemed to prefer a way of life in which she needed and used very little. But now and then she would join me in a feast or another extravagance and partake with high spirits and wit, as though she were returning to an earlier way of life. This evening she ate a large piece of steak and drank several glasses of wine. I enjoyed her company, but he was angry that she was eating with us.
The next morning I became angry at him in turn, about something else, something he and Madeleine had done at dinner, and we quarreled. As for Madeleine, she complained to me that she had had trouble digesting the food, that so much meat and wine were not good for her. She spoke out angrily against all meat-eaters and went on for some time without appearing to expect an answer from me.
Only a few days later, he and I quarreled again. I had read aloud to him a story I had written in which he appeared and he was pleased, but then I took him out of it before I read it aloud to other people and he was angry. He thought I was ashamed of him. I denied it. As we quarreled, we became increasingly angry. I was angrier than he was, maybe realizing that what he said was true, in a certain sense, and why it was true, though I hadn’t recognized it before. I wished it were not true, and I did not like him to point it out to me.
He left the house. I went to bed calm and angry and read a book, and a few hours after, he returned. He admitted later that he knew that staying away would have no effect on me, since I was too angry to care whether or not he stayed away, so he returned. Months later I put him back in the story in the same place he had been before, because I was sorry for what had happened. But by then he did not care anymore.
At some point during these days, maybe because he felt things between us were coming apart a little, he said we should get married. But since he could be almost certain I would refuse, his proposal did not seem sincere. Because it was sudden and even a little desperate, it seemed to mean only that he was trying to capture me, to keep me.
I think I made fun of him for it. But after he left me, I was the one who said I would marry him, if he wanted me to, and when that had no effect, when he resisted me, I went further, I offered more. I realized later that it was perfectly safe to say anything then, since nothing was possible. He seemed either insulted or ashamed for my sake, and impatient with me, as though I had belittled what he had once felt, and my own feelings, too. Now that I was willing, or said I was willing, to give him everything I had not been willing to give him before, he didn’t want anything from me. Or all he wanted was for me to leave him alone, and I couldn’t do that.
* * *
I was walking along a path surrounded only by cliffs, rocks, and sand — there were no plants of any kind. A young man ran past me, then stopped and turned back, disoriented and anguished, and told me that his home kept changing, so much that he could not recognize it. I woke up a little and realized that this was a dream, and went on dreaming. He and I entered a wooden house together. It was evidently his home. Then, even as we stood in it, it became the set for a play, and it changed each time the act changed, though I don’t remember what went on in this play, if anything went on.
* * *
We quarreled again, it must have been for the fifth time. That night he left me, angry, and then came back. He came back as though against his will, since he was still angry. The next night and for several days after that he did not come to me at all, and during that time I did not know where he was. I had told him something that shocked him. It did not shock me, because I was only saying to him what I had been thinking for some time, and it did not hurt me, because I was the one saying it. It only shocked me later, when I saw it differently, and saw how he would not have wanted to hear it. At the time I thought I could tell him anything I liked, quite openly, and he would be able to understand it and sympathize with it, as though he were not a separate person anymore but a part of me, so that he could feel what I felt along with me and not be more troubled by it than I was.
He was calm at first, after I said what I said that shocked him, but then he became angry and went away. He went away, and then came back later, still angry. He took sheets from the dryer and put them on the bed while I watched. He went to bed and fell asleep without saying anything.
He did not appear the next night and did not call me. I called his apartment, and there was no answer. I kept getting up out of bed to call him and then going back to bed and trying to read. I was surprised to find, however, that even though he had slept in my bed nearly every night since we had met, I felt I had immediately returned to what I had been before, alone at night, as though I had never met him.
Yet at the same time I was thinking of him so constantly, so much more constantly than I had when he was with me, and with such concentration, that he was extremely present in the room, coming between me and whatever else I tried to think about. I could see that I had betrayed him by feeling what I had felt and saying what I had said, but I could also think that such a betrayal produced a kind of faithfulness, because I had aroused such feelings of ardor and remorse in myself that I managed to achieve a passionate loyalty I had not achieved before. So there I lay, alone, as though I would always be alone, but also strangely in his presence.
I was afraid to turn off the light, though it was past one in the morning, and then two, and then three. As long as the light burned next to me and I held a book in front of me and read the page now and then, I was safe, I was distracted from certain thoughts. The worst thought was that he might have gone to someone else out of revenge, and I could not avoid that thought for long before it came back to me. And this turned out to be what he had done, I found out later.
I knew it was not fair to believe I could do what I liked and he could not, that I could have a certain feeling for another man and he could not go to another woman, but I never decided anything according to what was fair, or maybe never decided anything in the first place but allowed myself to be pulled in one direction or another by what I wanted just at that moment.
Early in the morning, after I had been asleep a short time, I dreamed I heard his step on the terrace outside. In my dream the dog whined and he said to her gently: “Is she here?”
But he had not come by the time I woke up. Later in the day Madeleine and I went down the block to the corner café and sat at a table outside studying Italian together. We went through the lesson slowly because we were both distracted: I was watching out for him, and Madeleine was convinced that two people standing at a nearby corner were talking about her. She kept looking over her shoulder at them and mumbling, so that I, as I tried to take dictation from her, couldn’t hear very well. After a while we stopped trying to work and just sat there in the sunlight.
Waiting for him again that night, when he would not come, created a dark space like a large room, a room that opened into the night from my room and filled it with dark draughts of air. Because I did not know where he was, the city seemed larger, and seemed to come right into my room: he was in some place, and that place, though unknown to me, was present in my mind and was a large dark thing inside me. And that place, that strange room where he was, where I imagined him to be, with another person, became part of him, too, as I imagined him, so that he was changed, he contained that strange room and I contained it, too, because I contained him in that room and that room in him.
Because he was so absent, and in doubt, having disappeared without a word, without the connection of a plan, a day or hour when we would see each other again, the only way I could keep him near me was by the strength of my will, summoning all of him to me and holding him there moment by moment, so that now all of him seemed present to me, whereas at other times only a part of him was present. And in the same way that the smell of him would hang in my nostrils when he was with me, now an essence of him filled me, a savor of him that was more than his smell or taste, a distillation of the whole of him permeated me or floated inside me.
He was doing this to me. I felt it very much coming from him against me. But the very strength of it, the very force of it, was also the force of how much he loved me, and I felt that, too, so that in the extreme force of the harm I felt from him, I felt his love, too. And the longer he stayed away from me, the more strongly I felt how much he loved me, and the more strongly I believed I loved him.
I couldn’t stop listening to the sounds of cars, waiting to hear the sound of his. I paid attention to the sound of each car as though it were a voice.
After two days of this, his absence had gone on so long that I was falling into a trance with it and the tension was going out of it. I no longer had to hold it in my mind or sustain it; it had grown so large that it surrounded me and sustained me now, and I rested in it.
Out driving in my own car, I tried to decide what I could be sure of and what I didn’t know. I said aloud to myself: I don’t know where he is. But he is somewhere. He is alive. Either he is alone or he is with another person, a man or a woman. If he’s with a woman, either he will stay with her or he won’t. If he has spent a night with her, that is one thing. If he also stays on through the next morning, and stays on into the next night, that is another thing.
I reached this point in seeing what I knew and didn’t know, and then went back to telling myself the least I knew, that he was alive somewhere, in his skin, sitting, lying down, standing, walking. I knew he had color, had warmth, moved ceaselessly, even if with small motions, and yet he was beyond the range of where I could see him. But I was thinking so hard about him I was sure I should be able to see him wherever he was.
The way it ended was not the way I thought it would. I did not hear the sound of his car grow louder and louder with an awful, frightening loudness until it drew up next to the house, and I did not call him until at last he picked up the phone. I can remember only two things about how he came back. One was that he parked his car at the bottom of my street, whether I heard it or not, and the other was that when we came face to face again, we were meeting in the bar down the hill, on the back terrace, and I had waited for him a long time, listening to a conversation about Australia that continued beyond any interest — whether the people all spoke English there, what they drank there, the population of Sydney.
I don’t remember what we talked about on the terrace at the back of the bar, though I must have apologized, and we must have agreed on something and we must have decided something together, but I do remember lying awake later that night, with the light on, watching him sleep.
He had fallen asleep with his back to me, his broad white shoulder outside the sheet. I lay next to him, raised on one elbow, and looked at all of him that I could see, every detail, and especially his head, especially his pale forehead, the side of it that I could see, since it was turned away from me, and especially his hair, which was close to the light, right under the lamp. I looked at it, then I touched it, and he was not disturbed. His hair was straight and not long, thin over his forehead and thicker in back, a light reddish-brown with blond streaks in it. I looked hard at the color of it and touched it again. Although I knew it did not matter what color his hair was, that night everything about him seemed important to me. I thought I loved that hair and the color of it, and it seemed to me that everything about him had to be the way it was, and could not have been any other way.
Then, in his sleep, he murmured something. I leaned over and asked him what he had said, though I thought he would only go on sleeping. But he said the same thing again, a purely gentle and loving thing.
I got up, finally, at two in the morning and made some warm milk for myself, and sat smoking a cigarette in the kitchen. I thought about what I had just been thinking about his hair, that he was with me now, even more so because he was asleep and I was awake, but if he left me again, or if I left him, and we stayed apart, he would still have hair of a light reddish-brown color with a few blond streaks in it, and I would know exactly, closely, the particular way his hair looked, and would still have that, so that a part of him would still belong to me and there would be nothing he could do about it.
The fact that he came back to me after leaving me, that time, may have made me think that no matter what I said, no matter what I did, and no matter how long he stayed away from me, he would always come back to me, and that I did not have to love him very deeply, or considerately, for him to go on loving me.
* * *
The noise of traffic is becoming heavy, a constant din above the sound of the rain, the tires hissing on the wet road surface, and this tells me that four o’clock has come and maybe even gone and I will have to stop work soon.
The cars are right under my window. The road is one of the main routes for traffic going north and south along this side of the river. Many heavy trucks go by, shaking the ground. The heaviest even shake me up here in my chair. Now and then whole houses go by.
Vincent and I bought this place despite the road, because we liked the back yard so much, with its grapevines and raspberry patches, pear trees and lilacs, shagbark hickories and other trees and flowering shrubs. Then we began trying to block out the noise of the traffic. I would look down from my window and see Vincent standing in the front yard and I knew he was trying to figure out where the worst of the noise came in. I would join him and we would talk about the noise. We talked about the noise a great deal, how it was reflected off hard surfaces and how it was best absorbed. Vincent built a fence inside the hedge along the front of the property. Then we planted a line of arborvitae inside the fence. Some of the noise seemed to be coming in under the fence, so we moved dirt from other parts of the yard to pile up against the base of the fence. Then Vincent extended the fence around the sides of the property, and we planted some hemlocks inside the line of arborvitae. A neighbor offered us a young pine from his yard and though it is only a foot high we have put it in among the hemlocks. Now we are thinking that we can further shield the back yard if we build a room off the side of the house at an angle.
At times I am not just nervous about this work but frightened, and think I am going through a crisis, one that could be called existential. Then I realize the problem is much simpler — I have had no breakfast and too much coffee, and my nerves are raw, so tender that I am almost unbearably disturbed to look out the window and see a truck carrying one car on its back and pulling another behind it.
But at other times I am really confused and uncomfortable. For instance, I am trying to separate out a few pages to add to the novel and I want to put them together in one box, but I’m not sure how to label the box. I would like to write on it MATERIAL READY TO BE USED, but if I do that it may bring me bad luck, because the material may not really be “ready.” I thought of adding parentheses and writing MATERIAL (READY) TO BE USED, but the word “ready” was still too strong despite the parentheses. I thought of throwing in a question mark so that it read MATERIAL (READY?) TO BE USED but the question mark immediately introduced more doubt than I could stand. The best possibility may be MATERIAL — TO BE USED, which does not go so far as to say that it is ready but only that in some form it will be used, though it does not have to be used, even if it is good enough to use.
Sometimes I think that if only I could go away for a while my mind would be clearer and I could work better. I spoke to a friend the other night who said he had gone away for two weeks to a colony in the mountains to work on his novel and had just come back. He wrote eighty pages in those two weeks. I have never written eighty pages in two weeks. He said that he worked all day long and after dinner, too. He said other people there would leave their rooms and go for walks, even two or three times a day. He said it was pretty quiet. A man down the hall from him played exercise tapes and did exercises, but this did not really bother him. He said the food was not very good. It was plain American food. At first it seemed good enough, but after a while it became hard to eat. For instance, they served ham in very thick pieces, almost an inch thick, and after a few bites he would feel sick. He learned to eat very little at dinner and more at the other meals, which were better. I asked him many questions about this place because I was thinking I should try to go away somewhere to work on my novel, even though I went away once and it didn’t make any difference.
I was living alone in the city then. I was given a grant and I used part of the money to pay the overdraft on my bank account. I used more to rent a cottage for the summer. After stocking the cottage with food and repairing my car, I had almost nothing left of the grant, though I had received the money only two weeks before.
The cottage was one of a cluster of small summer bungalows built about sixty years earlier by a German woman named Mary and her husband. The doorways of the cottage were odd sizes, the ceilings and walls bulged, nail heads showed everywhere, the linoleum on the floors bent up at the edges, and mushrooms grew out of the bathroom floor next to the shower stall with its platform of wooden slats. Mary’s husband had died and after a few years she had sold the property to one of the summer tenants, another woman named Mary, whose husband then died also. A bench was erected in his memory halfway down the path to the lake. It was unveiled just before I rented my cottage.
It was very peaceful there. Most of the other tenants were about thirty years older than I was, which made me feel young and energetic. When I went down to the weedy lake to swim in the middle of the day, I always seemed to meet old women I hadn’t met before walking firmly but slowly up and down the steep path, or resting on the bench halfway down, or unfolding deck chairs on the warm, warped boards of the dock with its hovering wasps. Almost everyone I met seemed to be named Ruth, or if not Ruth, then Mary. Some were the sisters of other women named Ruth or Mary, or the sisters-in-law. Some had their husbands with them. I worked well there in my cottage, but did not do as much as I had thought I would.
A year later, after I met Vincent, I left the city often to visit him. Again, I thought that away from the city I would have the peace and quiet I needed to work on my novel. I even thought the bus would be a good place to work. On the way out of the city, in the early evening, the other passengers were often tired and cross, and when they were cross they were usually quiet. There would be conflicts at the beginning of the ride, when everyone was getting settled, a woman might put her wet umbrella on top of a man’s luggage, but then they would quiet down. I would stuff kleenex in my ears and tie a kerchief around my head so that I could concentrate better. If I looked down at my page I did not have to think about anything but the work I was doing. If I looked up I could stop thinking about my work and watch the other passengers. But although I wrote a few short things on the bus, it was not a good place to write anything long.
* * *
When I wrote down what happened during the fifth quarrel he and I had, I left out what he said when I was watching him sleep. I said it was a gentle and loving thing, but I did not say what his actual words were. He said, “You’re so beautiful.” But now I don’t think it was gentle and loving, after all. I think it was a cry of frustration. He knew he was more helpless than he wanted to be, that if he hadn’t found me so beautiful he could have worked his way free of me, as he knew he should. In the end, he did get free of me, but it took longer, and I had to hurt him more often than if he had not been tied to me by what he saw as my beauty.
I also see, when I look at my notebook again, that I lost track of a few days, collapsing them into one. I say he came back to me and it was later the same night that I watched him while he slept, his reddish hair under the lamplight, and then went out to the kitchen and smoked a cigarette while I heated my milk. In fact, it was several nights later, and other things happened in the meantime.
After he came back, I asked him where he had been during the two days and one night that he had been away, and he told me. He told me he had gone to see Kitty in the afternoon and had made love to her to spite me. He went home in the evening, listened to the phone ring with my calls, and then went out again to a nightclub down on the beach, where he drank by himself. He spent all the next day with his friend the old man.
But even though I now knew where he had been, this did not change what I had imagined while he was gone, so that the two versions continued to exist side by side, and in fact, the version I had imagined was the stronger of the two, because it had developed in me so slowly and I had lived with it so much longer.
But this was not the end of it either, because he couldn’t simply do what he had done and then forget it as though it had never happened. Kitty would remind him, and he would have to continue or end something with her.
Though we woke up together the next morning, we were apart all day, and when I called him at home that night, he was in bed and did not want to see me.
He said he would come to lunch the next day, and I waited for him, but he was three hours late. As I waited for him I knew my nervousness would be out of all proportion to his explanation or apology, which would be very brief, as his apologies and his explanations always were when he was at fault in any way, brief and a little angry, as though he were angry at me first for putting him in a position to disappoint me and then for being disappointed in him.
We ate lunch, and then he left to go see Kitty again, and while he was with Kitty I walked down into the town with Madeleine. He returned late in the evening.
The next day he was cool to me, and told me he did not know whether to stay with me or go back to Kitty. It seemed to me it was all over between us. He left at three in the afternoon, then returned at four and said he wanted to stay with me. In fact, he wanted to move in with me, as though to make everything clearer. He thought he could move into the spare room. He said he would talk to Madeleine about it. I did nothing, but simply let him talk to Madeleine, as I let Madeleine do what she wanted in response to him. She did not want him living there and would not consider it. I had guessed that she would not want it, but I did not know whether I was relieved or not.
Although I did not really think she would agree to have him live there, I convinced myself briefly that she would want the money he could give toward the rent because she often had such trouble paying her share. But I was misjudging her yet again. Although she had so little money, money was never the most important consideration for her, and usually not a consideration at all. In fact, I think she was insulted that we were offering money in exchange for this disruption of her life.
The three of us went off in the car after talking about this, to a birthday party. As we drove, there was silence in the car. Madeleine sat in the back seat feeling insulted by us, while we sat in front feeling angry at her that she refused us what we asked from her, and wondering what we would do next about the two of us, although I don’t think my anger was very sincere. I had the luxury of being angry at her while at the same time I was not entirely unhappy that she had made this decision for me.
The next evening, despite the fact that he had been on the point of leaving me and had not left me, I went out to dinner with another man. I had already made that plan and I did not change it. He was not happy about it. While I was out, he stayed alone in my room reading and then took a walk, and when I returned he said very little to me and kept turning away from me, and because he kept turning away from me, I was frightened and couldn’t sleep after he fell asleep. It was then that I stared at him under the lamplight for a while before getting up to smoke and read in the kitchen, watching a mouse that came out of the stove to walk over the burners hunting for food. It was when I went back to bed that he said, as though in his sleep, “You’re so beautiful.”
In the morning, after he said what he said to me in his sleep, he sat on the same stool where I had sat the night before and held the young cat in his lap, rubbing the crown of her head. I stood behind him and held him around the shoulders. I put my cheek down against his soft hair. Now that he was with me again, after frightening me, I wanted to do something for him, to give him something, though I did not know what. But that impulse grew weaker after a few days and then passed.
The entire quarrel, starting with his leaving the house so angrily and ending with my staring at his white shoulder late at night, had lasted a week.
I think I did not at first write down the actual words he spoke because I was afraid this would seem vain, even though the novel claims to be fiction and not a story about me, and even though it was only his opinion, not necessarily the truth. In fact, I had to believe he saw something I could not see, because when I looked in the mirror or at a photograph, the face I saw, tense and motionless, or frozen in a strange position, only rarely seemed even pretty to me, and more often either plain or unpleasant, with features that floated or spun when I was tired, one cheek spotted with four dark moles in a pattern like a constellation, hair flat, of a dull brown, on a large squarish head, neck so thin as to seem scrawny, eyes startled or apprehensive, of a blue so pale as to be almost white staring out from behind the lenses of my glasses, though if I took my glasses off, as I occasionally did, I tended to frighten people, as I was told quite frankly by at least one friend.
What I also left out of this version was that when Madeleine and I were studying Italian together on the café terrace and then gave it up because we were so distracted, what finally stopped us was that a small green dropping landed on a page of the Italian grammar book. It had come from a sparrow in the tree above us. I did not put this in my account of that day because it did not fit in with the mood of what I was writing.
* * *
Not much time has gone by since I last worked, but when I sat down at my desk I was immediately confused by my new system. I have four boxes with pieces of paper in them. They are labeled MATERIAL TO BE USED, MATERIAL NOT YET USED, MATERIAL USED OR NOT TO BE USED and MATERIAL. Most of what is in the last, “Material,” has nothing to do with this novel. “Material Used or Not to Be Used” means what it says: material I have already used or don’t intend to use. What puzzled me today was the fact that there didn’t seem to be any difference between “Material Not Yet Used” and “Material to Be Used.” Then I remembered that the “Material to Be Used” was in finished form, ready to be incorporated, and the “Material Not Yet Used” was in rougher form. It was the word “ready” that would have clarified things, if I hadn’t been afraid to write it on the box.
I’ve just spoken to another friend who is about to go away to work on his novel. He is going to a hotel in Mexico. A surprising number of friends are writing novels, I realize, now that I stop to count them. One woman leaves her apartment every morning to write in a local coffee shop. She says she can write for only about two hours at a time, but if she moves on to another coffee shop she can extend the morning’s work a little. A man I know writes in an old shed behind his house while his children are at school. Another goes away to an artists’ colony to write, then returns home for a while to work as a carpenter so that he can earn enough money to go back to the colony. Another writes at night while his roommate is out driving a taxi. He has written 700 pages so far, and he says he is trying to make the novel funny, but that it is hard to be funny for so many pages.
* * *
I don’t know exactly why things were going wrong just when they were, but a day came that later seemed to be the beginning of everything going so wrong that we couldn’t get it right again. He had told me on the phone that he was at home working. Madeleine and I went out for a walk through town and stopped in at an art gallery. There he was, among the few people gazing soberly at the paintings, his army bag hanging from his shoulder. He seemed unpleasantly surprised to see us. He said he would come by later that night. I went out for the evening with two friends, leaving him a note, but when I returned he wasn’t there and hadn’t come.
I called him, letting the telephone ring fifteen times. I hung up and then drove over to his apartment. His car was there outside the building but his lights were off, and I was sure he was not alone. I went up to his apartment and knocked at the door. He opened it for me in the dark and went back to bed. He lay completely still and did not respond when I got into the bed and tried to talk to him. I got out of the bed. I said I was leaving, and he said nothing, unless it was “Goodbye” or “Whatever you like.”
At home I lay down on my bed and ate a slice of bread and cheese. I got up and brought another slice of bread and cheese back to bed, and then another. While I ate, I read a book of poems by a friend, a book that had come recently in the mail, so that while I was filling my mouth with food, I was also filling my eyes with the printed pages and filling my ears with the sound of my friend’s voice, and all this filling, all this feeding into different channels, did at last change my condition, whether it really filled something or simply calmed something.
* * *
Three nights later, I went to his room again, this time with him. But our companionship was not very strong now. It did not go much beyond the appearance of companionship. There was this appearance, and there was also a certain familiarity, though even the most complete familiarity would not have removed all the awkwardness between us. On the way there, we stopped to buy a pack of playing cards, a few bottles of beer, and a bag of corn chips. I can see now, and I sensed then, though I tried to ignore it, that I was bored, and that without the cards, the beer, and the chips I would not have known what to do with him, that these things were a distraction from the emptiness that would have been there in the room between us, they were a distraction I had to have in order to want to stay there with him at all and not prefer to be at home alone eating and reading and more fully engrossed in that than I could be in him.
I was probably there in the room with him then only because there had been something different earlier. If he was still there, with me, the same person, and I was still there, and there had once been something between us, certainly something ecstatic from time to time, it was hard to believe that that ecstasy was not still within our reach. But what we made together, now, was the form of a thing not alive anymore — a thing left behind that showed what the living thing had been like.
Now the very thought of those things we bought and took to his apartment fills me with a queasiness that tastes of tepid beer and stale chips and slides around like a playing card with warm grease on it. How miserable that attempt was. What weakness of character it showed, that I could not simply admit there was nothing I very much wanted to do with him, nothing left to do, that the only thing left was to say goodbye with all the friendliness I really felt for him. But instead I went to a store with him, one of those large, brightly lit stores, so vast they are disheartening, and bought with him things other people bought to have a good time together, as though by doing that we would have a good time, whereas I had no illusion that I would enjoy myself, or maybe I did think I could achieve something that would feel, at least for a little while, like a good time simply by going through the motions of it, that if I just carried on like that, my mood would suddenly change, and what had not been enjoyable would become enjoyable.
Now I would like to be in that room again, on that night. I am curious to see what he would say and what I would answer, because I have forgotten so much of the way he talked and the things he might think of saying to me. Now I would bring so much interest to the meeting with him that it would be full of a kind of life it did not have then.
There was no table where we could play cards, so we sat on the carpet by his bed. We drank the beer, ate the chips, and played gin rummy. The game was not interesting. I might have known, if I had been willing to think about it, that I could not hope for anything from the game itself, because if there was boredom between us, there would be no tension in the game either.
We played on and on, as though trying to force some interest from it. We drank more beer than we wanted, or at least it was more than I wanted, and were not affected by it either. The alcohol seemed to have no more power to intoxicate me than the game had power to interest me, and the situation was not changed by it, as I had hoped it would be, knowing that alcohol could usually change a situation at least a little. We ate the chips and maybe other things as well before the chips, or maybe we had had something odd or excessive earlier, for dinner, because when we finally went to bed, I began to feel sick, and I lay awake feeling sick, and then my sickness became so bad that I kept going into the bathroom and sitting on the floor next to the toilet, my arms on the toilet seat and my head on my arms, and then on the toilet, and then down on the floor again next to the toilet, for most of the night. He woke up slightly, once, but did not seem to notice that I was going back and forth so often or was awake for so much of the night.
The next day was his birthday. We went to a movie. After the movie, we went home to my house, ate thick sweet cake and ice cream, and sat on the foot of my bed while across the room, so large and empty that the bed at one end, and the piano, the card table, and the ugly metal chairs at the other seemed small on the expanse of dark tile floor, Madeleine, sitting on one of the hard chairs, read aloud to us in the light from one of the bare bulbs attached to the white plaster wall long, complex horoscopes from a magazine. Again I was uneasy, and sensed that without the food and Madeleine’s company, there would have been emptiness between him and me, and boredom, that the presence of Madeleine, in fact, who was so separate from us, drew us together a little, at the same time that what she was reading was so entertaining, and beyond that, her own reactions to it were so sharp. I ate too much, and I laughed too much. But the food held most of my interest and attention as long as it lasted and I was restless as soon as it was gone.
What did boredom mean then? That nothing more would happen with him. It wasn’t that he was boring, it was that I no longer had any expectations for this companionship with him. There had been expectations, and they had died.
And why did that boredom make me so uncomfortable? Because of the emptiness of it, the empty spaces opening up between him and me, around us. I was imprisoned with this person and this feeling. Emptiness, but also disappointment: what had once been so complete was now so incomplete.
* * *
The evening before I left on my last trip contains another memory that is difficult, not so much because of my bad feelings about him, I think, as because of a combination of other things: the awkward spaces and ugly concrete walls of the barnlike building where the reception was held, the sickening sweetness of the cheap white wine, the rain afterward, the bare lawn outside, with no plantings on it at all, and the word “reception,” which I don’t like.
I was moving from one person to another, with a glass of that sweet wine in my hand, looking through the crowd from time to time, when suddenly I saw him standing there with a few of his young friends. I did not expect to see him, though now I can’t think why I wouldn’t have talked to him about the reception. This is the sort of question that bothers me the most, because I will never have an answer for it — what our relations were at that point, if I was planning to do something without him and without even mentioning it to him. Maybe that was not unusual for us, but it seems especially strange to me in this case, since I was leaving the next morning.
I can’t remember which friends he was with, or if I even noticed who they were, since I didn’t care, and I can’t remember if I went over to him as soon as I saw him or, remaining a few yards away, caught his attention and waved to him and continued to talk to other people, or didn’t try to catch his attention but simply watched him and kept track of where he was in the room. The last seems the most likely to me, maybe because this is what I have believed all these years. But it was also something I would be likely to do, given the reaction I had when I saw him, a reaction I do remember unmistakably. It was a feeling of absolute displeasure to see him there, as though he were a hostile element in that place, a thing that intruded where it didn’t belong, so that as I watched him among the moving figures, over the shoulders of the other people in the crowded place, those same features of his that had held such a positive attraction for me not long before, and that would exert such a fascinating force again not long after, were just then repugnant to me, blunt and deadly, primitive and vicious, without intelligence, without humanity, the color of clay.
Rain was coming down hard and a few people gathered by the open door, preparing to run to their cars. Although I don’t know how I came to stand by the door with him, I did go with him to my car, the two of us running across the sodden lawn under my umbrella or my raincoat, and I drove him the short distance to his own car. I certainly remember the spongy grass under my feet better than I remember what I said to him, or what he said to me. I was on my way out to dinner, and he was going off to some place where his friends were giving him a birthday party. He said he would come to my house late in the evening.
By the time he came, I had been at work several hours on a job I had to do before I left in the morning, and although it was already late by then, I was not finished. He went to bed at the other end of the room and fell asleep. I worked on, impatient to be done with what had turned out to be much more tedious than I had thought it would be. I was checking a friend’s translation, and I was doing it as a favor. The friend never really thanked me later, or not in any way proportionate to the amount of work I had done or the awkward moment when I had had to do it, though of course it wouldn’t be fair to expect her to know how awkward that moment was, especially since even I did not know it was the last night I would spend with him.
I finished and went to bed. He woke up, and then we talked to each other for close to an hour, unusually companionable and relaxed, as we might have been all along, as though we were taking our last chance for it.
The next morning we got into his car and he drove me to the airport. I did not see him again until I came back more than four weeks later, when he met me at the same airport and we got back into the same car. He waited until we were on our way up the highway to begin telling me that everything had changed. The distance in him was enough to let me know something had happened, though he had said nothing about it in the corridors of the airport or by the revolving tables of luggage. The distance was there because he had already begun a different way of being with me, whereas I was still in the old way of being with him.
* * *
I lost most of another day of work yesterday, because Vincent and I took his father to the county fair. We put a cap on him because it was a blistering hot day, and as we wheeled him around he peered out at everything attentively from under his visor. We took him to see the sheds of cattle, sheep, rabbits, and poultry, and the rubber tires of his chair rolled pleasantly over the fresh sawdust. A goose put its beak to the wire grille of its cage and honked at him and he kissed his hand back to the goose. I don’t know what he was thinking.
I suppose we were trying to entertain him with a spectacle more unusual than his television shows and what he sees from the back porch, where he sits so much of the time — the trees moving in the wind, the branches bobbing suddenly and rustling these days as the squirrels run back and forth, the green hickory nuts thumping down onto the lawn. It is true that as we left the animals and moved toward the exhibition halls and racetrack and Ferris wheel the intense heat, the brilliant sun, the constant motion of the crowd, the sweet smells of cotton candy and fudge washing up against him did seem to awaken a response: little spots of color appeared on his cheeks, his eyes brightened, and his gaze from under the visor was as intent, almost angry, as the gaze of one of those roosters in the poultry shed. Among the crowd were other speechless men and women like him, old and middle-aged, even young, being wheeled about or guided by the elbow or hand, making a visible effort to absorb what was around them, and they, too, seemed to have been brought out in order to be shocked into some kind of accelerated motion by the assault of this rowdy scene. So there we were, just another small group, another parcel of the seething mass, two middle-aged, our shirts damp with sweat, pushing a third, who was old, tiny, with an egg-like head under his cap, his body barely perceptible in his loose clothes.
Today he is cranky and a little sunburned on his freckled forearms and the backs of his bony hands. The nurse remarked, after being with him only a few minutes, that he was acting strange. I assured her he was only tired.
* * *
I had a dream last night in which I was looking for a good photograph of him and at last found one. The strange thing is that this photograph was a sharper and more complete picture than any waking memory I had of his face, and when I woke up I could still see him clearly, though by now the image has faded. So somewhere in my brain there must be a clear memory of his face that is hidden most of the time and was uncovered once, like a photograph, in the dream.
I am working more systematically now, and I feel more in control. But then I find things that disconcert me because I have no memory of them at all, such as an early plan for the novel which I jotted down in pencil in a spot where I wasn’t likely to find it again except by accident. It may not be a plan for the whole novel, though, since I see that large parts of the story are missing.
When I find something like this, I don’t know what I may find next. Then I become annoyed with myself, as though someone else had made these careless notes and left them lying around for me to figure out without a clue as to what they are for or what they mean.
I am trying to sort out the different phone calls I made to him while I was away in the East for the second time, staying in an apartment borrowed from an old friend who was in the West. There was one call late at night, after the stranger left me. There was one during which I could hear the sound of typing in the background. There was one in which I learned he was seeing another woman, one of his friends, the one who had given him a birthday cake the night before I left, and the one, in fact, that he later married. And there was a phone call in which he assured me that this was not important, that she did not mean as much to him as I did, and it did not change anything. But I don’t know if these were all different phone calls.
I seem to have written two accounts of one of these phone calls and the days surrounding it. I have just rediscovered the earlier one, and it seems less accurate and more sentimental. For instance, I say that after he told me he was seeing another woman, I was in pain because I still held him in a little corner of my heart. Now the idea of my heart having a corner bothers me, and other things about the sentence bother me, too. I also said I remembered how happy it made me to hear him laugh and see him smile, which was certainly not true.
The earlier account includes things I later left out because although they had to do with my life at the time they had nothing to do with the story: how I attended a university lecture, and a dinner beforehand, with very pale university professors; how I did not understand their questions after the lecture; the lofty conference room overlooking the lights, far below, of a poor and dangerous part of the city; the wide hallways of the empty building; the bags of trash around every bend and crowding the elevator as we were leaving. How I had dreams about certain men and there was far more anger in the dreams than I ever felt when I was awake. How the apartment in which I was staying was in a part of the city where many old people lived, and the sidewalks were full of canes and walkers, the old people swaying among them. How I knew I was trying to find the answers to certain questions, answers that would probably come only with time, by trial and error.
I didn’t seem able to understand much, after all. I didn’t understand what my attachment to him meant, or what it meant to love and honor a man, or even what he had said on the phone. As I strained after answers, I was more confident about the correctness of certain kinds of thoughts than others. Those others seemed weak and tentative, or the muscles with which I was thinking them seemed weak — yet they were the very thoughts that should have been correct, that could have helped me if they had been correct. There would be a question, and next to it an answer, obviously wrong, and I couldn’t seem to find any other answer. The question of what it meant to love a man was one that would take a lot of time and thought to answer, but an easier one, which I felt I should have been able to answer, and couldn’t, was why it had embarrassed me to hear him play the drums.
Neither account includes a literary party I went to, where a writer said to me: “What anybody will buy, that’s what I am.”
I recently found the phone bill from that time, and it shows five phone calls to his number within twelve days. One conversation lasted thirty-seven minutes, and it may have been that night that they were making bread, though it may equally well have been an earlier night, when I spoke to him for only fourteen minutes.
* * *
I wrote a letter to him and watched it lying there on the desk before I sent it, and wondered what kind of communication it was if it was written but couldn’t be sent because of the lateness of the hour, or if it was written and could be sent but wasn’t sent. Would it be any kind of communication as long as he had not read it?
In the earlier account, I seem to be sure the letter I’m studying is the same one that was later returned to me by the post office, and in the later account I only guess that this may be so. I can’t decide why I was sure one day and less sure another.
The letter that never reached him was sent back to me unopened by the post office, though it was correctly addressed to the place where he was living at the time and was still living when I returned. Since it was sent back, I still have it and can read it now, and I have just done that again. I don’t know if my impression of it is the same or nearly the same as the one he would have had. It seems cheerful, uncomplaining, and very young — young because it is so open, so frank, without guile, wariness, innuendo, or insinuation. In the letter I tell him how I telephoned a man I had met at a New Year’s Eve party and invited him up to my apartment. I don’t know why I told him about this, since the encounter with this stranger had not worked out very well and certainly did not reflect well on me.
I had been out to dinner with an old friend who left early because he had to go home and walk his dog, he said. I was alone in my apartment, and restless. Although I didn’t recall this stranger very clearly, I telephoned him and invited him to come up. I had an idea that only later seemed odd to me. I thought I had learned to do something I hadn’t known how to do before, and it would always be enjoyable, never again dry, colorless, strained, hasty, or awkward, so that all I had to do was to invite a man I found attractive to come to me, and it would be enjoyable.
But when this man appeared, climbing the last steep flight of stairs, and looked up at me, as I looked down into the stairwell at him, his face was not what I had remembered. Inside the apartment, he talked about his religion, and he went on talking about his religion. He had changed distinctly between the first meeting and the second. He had been attractive and spirited in the midst of the party and now, some weeks later on the top floor of a narrow brownstone, was not so attractive, as though every part of his face had in the meantime shifted slightly, or thickened, at the same time that his mind had slowed down considerably and become fixed on one idea. I sat there and let the time pass and pass, because I thought that although it was too late to change anything, at least I could be as tired as possible and a little drunk when it happened.
In bed with me he continued to talk about his religion. Then, after he was finished, because I lay with my back turned to him and only grunted when he spoke to me, he must have seen that I wanted him to leave, and he did leave, at last, and after he was well out the door I got up and went into the living room in my bathrobe. I was trembling violently, in large quakes and shudders. I went to the phone.
It was three hours earlier there. He was with a friend, he said, and they were making bread. He asked me a question about the bread and I told him not to let it rise too long. I thought if he was making bread with this woman there must be something between them and it was probably all over for him and me, considering how badly things had been going before I left. I said some of this to him, and he answered with sudden irritation that there was nothing to worry about. His irritation convinced me he was telling the truth. I said I missed him. I didn’t tell him about the man who was then riding home on the subway, who had left a present of three books of his for me to find after he was gone, three books I looked at but did not read or keep or even give away. I considered taking them to the bookstore down the street, but instead threw them in the wastebasket. I had never done that before, to a book.
Since the letter I wrote to him about the stranger’s visit is dated, I can now figure out the date on which I saw the stranger and then telephoned with my pathetic question, and I see I was right: that was the conversation that lasted thirty-seven minutes. But what I also learn from the letter is that he had told me in an earlier conversation that he was now seeing this woman, and once I knew this I became more passionate, or more frantic.
I knew she was living there with him by then, spending nights with him. I knew she was more than just a friend from school. What worried me, what I wanted to know from him, and what he did not tell me honestly, was whether this thing that was going on between them was going to be permanent or was going to end when I returned home. I did not want him to see another woman, though I could see another man. I could see another man because that did not hurt me, and I avoided what would hurt me and went after what would give me pleasure.
But not wanting him to see another woman was more than jealousy. If he was with someone else, he was suddenly very far away from me. His attention was turned on her and not on me, as it had been before, even from such a distance. The light of his attention was off me.
It doesn’t matter to me that we talked for exactly thirty-seven minutes, but it did matter to the telephone company, and while I was brooding about the conversation in the privacy of my borrowed apartment, and later, far away from there, not knowing just how long it had lasted, this large company, the phone company, was recording on this document, the phone bill, exactly how long the conversation had lasted, along with the other long-distance conversations I had on that phone, and it then sent out that information, though it didn’t care what use was made of it as long as the bill was paid.
I don’t know why I need to reconstruct all this — whether it is important for a reason I haven’t discovered yet, or whether I simply like to answer a question once I see how to answer it.
* * *
The night I came home, he met me at the airport in his car, as he had promised he would, but he was not very friendly and told me on the way up the coast that he had some bad news.
I knew what the bad news was, but I didn’t want him to tell me until we were sitting in the bar and I had a glass of beer in my hand. Then he told me everything had changed. He said it was all over for him, it hadn’t been working out and he didn’t want to go on with it. We had both ordered large meals. After he told me this, I couldn’t eat anything, so he finished his meal and then ate most of mine. Because he had no money with him, I paid for the food. I didn’t get angry or cry. I tried to be friendly, because as long as I was sitting there with him, it didn’t seem to be over. After he was finished eating, a little more relaxed because of the beer, or touched by my protests, he kissed me and said he would have to come to see me again because he had nowhere to live.
He later denied saying this. It didn’t make sense even to me, because he had a place to live. He was still living in his apartment. He was living with a woman his own age — a small, dark, athletic woman, Madeleine told me. She had seen them together in the supermarket. She was angry. She said he had left me while I was away, after I had helped him out of so many difficulties.
Later that evening, when I was alone, I was sorry I had been pleasant. In the days and weeks after that, I occasionally cried or got angry on the phone talking to him. But whenever I was with him again, I felt there was still a chance, so I was pleasant again.
I had trouble sleeping that night. I fell asleep at two, and dreamed about him, then woke at six, toward dawn, and lay awake. I had a grim vision that seemed true just because it formed so quickly and so distinctly: I saw myself turning forty within a few years, leading what I called an “empty” life, doing dull work and doing it badly, and not loving any man, or at least no man who also loved me.
Only some of this happened the way I had predicted it would. When I turned forty, my life was not empty. Some of the work I did was dull, and I did some of it badly, which embarrassed me, but I did more of it well, and most of it was interesting. I did love two men who did not love me, or not at the same time that I loved them, but I also loved one man who loved me, too, and at the same time, which seemed to me a rare piece of good fortune.
Although I was with other men after him, some who mattered only a little to me and others who mattered more, my feelings for him did not change as quickly as I would have thought. Where did I keep them during those years? Did they sit intact in a group in my brain somewhere? Did I have only to open the door to that small area of my brain to experience them again?
* * *
The next day, the hours passed slowly, as though much more time were passing, as though whole days were passing. Yet I could not get used to the new situation. I felt I had just heard this news a moment before.
There were other, smaller changes. The dryer was broken. Madeleine had been wearing my clothes, and she had burnt one of my shirts drying it in the oven. She told me she had allowed a friend of hers, a policeman, to sleep in my room while I was away, and he had left such a smell she had had to air the place out. There was something wrong with my car. It wouldn’t start at first, and when it did start, it roared. He had had his car fixed but had not paid me back my money. Now his car was quiet and mine roared. Maybe he had been getting his car fixed with my money on the same day I had called that man I barely knew.
Because the dryer was broken, I hung my damp clothes from the rafter of the spare room, so that it was full of white garments swaying in the breeze that came in through the window.
I did what I had to do, though it was hard because I kept thinking about him. I was afraid of what would happen when the evening and the night came. A band of tightness around my throat now made it hard for me to swallow, and I kept pulling at the neck of my sweater. It was not my sweater choking me but something inside me.
I could hardly eat, though I wanted to get a little food into my body. I felt sick to my stomach at the smell of food and then at the first bite. I could only take a little fruit, dry bread, certain vegetables, water, and juice.
I seemed to float, as though anchored to nothing. Nothing was quite real, or it was hard to tell what was real and what was not. Real things in the room looked thin and transparent, part of a flat surface of colors and patterns lining the sides of the room.
When at last I went to bed that night, I couldn’t stop coughing and lay in the dark trying to keep very still. Although I wouldn’t be able to hear the sound of his car, now that it was fixed, I still listened for it because my ears were used to doing that, and I heard cars that had nearly the same sound his car had once had.
As I lay there, coughing, not sleeping, I became more and more angry. Though it was late, I got up and telephoned him. There was no answer. Now I was angrier, because if he was in another place, he was not alone, and if he was not alone, he was not even thinking of me. This was what disturbed me most, that he was almost surely not thinking of me. If he had forgotten me, where was I, and who was I? I could tell myself I was still there, and still myself, but I didn’t feel it.
I went back to bed, tried to read, couldn’t read, turned off the light, became angry at myself, too, and then at everyone I knew. I started to fall asleep, was woken by my own surprise at falling asleep, and began coughing again. Later I fell asleep again, and woke up coughing again. This happened over and over, until at last I put two pillows on top of a bolster and slept the rest of the night leaning up against them with a piece of wet kleenex on my forehead.
In the morning, Madeleine called a friend of hers, a mechanic who did independent work, and he came over to look at my car, first outside the house in the rain and then, after he got it started, down in the garage. The phone rang while I was watching the mechanic out the window.
* * *
At this point in the story there is another difficult memory. He had called to say we were invited to the house of a man and woman who did not know we were not still together. I think I should include the visit just because it took place, but it irritates me. The four of us sat in a small living room and I kept looking across the carpet at him and feeling sick, pinching myself on the neck so that I wouldn’t faint, looking away from him out the plate-glass window or at the man and woman who had invited us here. The man was the one who had gone out on a boat with us to watch whales and ignored me so completely. After an hour or so, we left and he drove me home.
I don’t know why that visit bothers me so much. What I was looking at, through the picture window of their rented apartment, was a square patch of lawn and beyond it the tall grasses or reeds that bordered a narrow stream. This was the same stream, though at a different point in its course, that I had seen from the other side, and much farther away, when he and I walked out on the coast road to buy beer at the small grocery many months before.
Was it that I didn’t know these two people very well and didn’t like them very much? Or that their rented, furnished apartment was so small and so ugly, with its brown furniture, brown walls, and metallic, yellowish drapes? Or that he and I had to pretend, in this place and with these people, that nothing had changed? The man and the woman were coming to the end of their stay here, and this was part of their preparation to leave — one last, awkward social visit with us and then a few days later they would call him and ask him if he could drive them to the airport.
* * *
After he told me so abruptly that it was over, I lost interest in everything else. What he was doing to me now, the fact that he was not with me but with someone else, had become a substance that seeped through my brain, that ebbed, rose again, was present and then gone, like a smell or taste. It would fade away for a while, and I would be aware that it was not in me. Then suddenly, for no reason, it would rise again and its bitterness would spread and penetrate everywhere.
I couldn’t help thinking he might still come back to me because he had loved me so much before, and because I had never known him any other way but loving me. For the first few days, I did not give up trying to persuade him to talk to me. I did not care that he was with another woman. I used the telephone. He had to answer it, since it might be someone else. Then he had to talk to me at least briefly, to be polite.
I couldn’t argue with him if he said he didn’t want to go on with it, but I also couldn’t help trying to make him talk to me about it. He wouldn’t talk to me in any way that satisfied me. I thought he should tell me he had once loved me deeply, and that he was still the same person, but that his feelings had changed for certain reasons that he could explain. He should then explain what his feelings had been and why they had changed. He should also admit that he had left me without warning, and that when he had told me on the telephone, long distance, that things were still all right, he was lying.
If I couldn’t be with him and he wouldn’t talk to me, I at least wanted to know where he was. Sometimes I found him, though more often I did not. Even if I did not, I still preferred looking for him to sitting at home.
One evening, I drove several towns north to have dinner with Mitchell. I could hardly talk to him and only felt sick, again, at the sight of the ham rolled up into little bundles and the butter on the table. Mitchell always took great care over his meals, so there must have been good bread, maybe special pickles and special mustard. He was concentrating on his plan for the meal and on serving it, while I was trying to stay in control of what I was feeling. At last he mentioned something too difficult for me to hear just then and I could not go on eating.
Soon after dinner I left and drove down the coast road toward home. It was raining hard, but because the road passed through the town where he lived, within a block of his apartment, I could not drive on through it but had to turn and drive a block toward the ocean, through a small square with a fountain. I turned right again, out of the square, and stopped the car by the curb where I could look over a rooftop to his balcony and his lighted windows. There were no curtains over the windows, but I couldn’t see anything inside the apartment very clearly because it was far away and high up, and because of the heavy rain.
I rolled down my window. I saw a form moving back and forth across his kitchen window. It seemed to be moving more quickly than he would move, and the hair on its head was darker than his hair. I decided to go up to the balcony and see exactly who it was. I started the car again, and drove into the parking lot behind his building. The rain was drumming on the concrete balcony, covering the sound of my footsteps as I climbed softly up the stairs. Below me, as I walked along the balcony, was the roof of the cactus nursery, and around it, in the nursery yard, the indistinct shapes of the massed cactus plants. I was wearing a dark slicker and boots. It was dark outside, where I was, and light inside, in his rooms.
I looked in quickly through a window and saw a woman with short brown hair lying on his bed reading. Her legs were crossed at the ankles. From this distance, across the wide room, and through the wet window, her face looked smug and unpleasant. I looked to the right and saw him moving around silently in his little kitchen. I turned away to look again at the woman on his bed, and he appeared suddenly in the doorway to the room, unexpectedly close to me, though on the other side of the glass, and he was speaking to her, though I could not hear what he said but could only see his mouth moving. I stepped back from the window.
I left the balcony, went down to the car, and drove away. My cheeks were hot. I turned the radio on. I realized later that the rain had made it easier for me to do what I did, because it separated me not only from what I saw outside the car but even from myself, and the sound of the rain separated me from what I might have thought.
As soon as I took my slicker and boots off, at home, I went to work putting the hooks back in the curtains I had washed earlier and began hanging them up on their iron rods. I was moving fast in order to avoid what I might start thinking. Then, knowing for once just where he was, I left the pile of curtains and called him. He was not unfriendly, and he agreed to come see me the next day. I finished hanging the curtains and got undressed for bed, but then, though it was late, sat down to work at my table.
My eyes were wide open as though stuck. I did not feel tired. I had gone out to dinner, and come home in the rain, and the brandy I had had with Mitchell did not make me too sleepy to go on working at my table with my brain moving fast. I was not hungry, though I could feel that my stomach was empty. I had looked at what I might eat. I couldn’t swallow any of it.
I worked hard and the work seemed to go well. As I worked, I seemed to be waiting for something, though I did not know what. Then I realized I was waiting until I could be sure he and she had stopped making love and had gone to sleep. Once they were asleep I could go to sleep myself.
The next morning I sat at my table translating again. He had said he would come at a certain hour of the morning and he did not come, and he did not call. I kept looking up from my work, out the window. Each time I looked up I saw the same things: the fence across the street, the top of the house set back behind it, and a few trees. Now and then something came between me and what I saw, and then I watched it, whatever it was, until it was gone.
The young girl came home to the house across the street with her tennis racket in her hand and a sweater over her arm.
An old man passed, moving slowly down the hill with many small steps. He was the one I often saw kneeling among the flowers in his front yard next door to the church.
Before a small breeze, a red blossom tumbled, end over end, in the soft dust.
Two dogs came up close to the window. The larger dog sniffed at a bush, its nose and neck outstretched. The smaller dog stood behind the large dog and stretched its nose and neck up to sniff under the tail of the large dog.
Several times I went down the hall to the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, brushed my hair, rinsed my mouth out, and then returned to the table. Finally I went out to the store, came back, and called him. There was no answer. I called him a second time, and then a third. The third time he answered and said he had called me, but I knew he hadn’t, because Madeleine had been in the house while I was out. He asked me what good it would do to talk.
* * *
On another day I persuaded him to meet me after work. Passing the time until the evening, I went downtown to a music store and from there to Ellie’s apartment, where Evelyn and her children were sitting on the floor and the sofa. We walked out into the rain and down half a block to the seawall to look at the high gray waves, then drove up in Evelyn’s car to a restaurant for supper. The car was steaming from the dampness of our clothes, with so many of us crowded in together.
I made sure to be home in time, but he did not come. He called instead and said he could not come because he had to get up early the next morning. Then he asked to borrow my car. He had to drive that older couple to the airport. He must have thought my car was more suitable than his. I told him I kept it in the garage now, and that I would leave the keys in it.
Later in the morning, after he had gone to the airport and brought my car back to the garage, we met for breakfast at a restaurant up the coast. I was afraid that if I was clumsy and let food fall from my mouth or dropped my fork, everything would be ruined, though I knew this could not be true.
We sat side by side on a wooden bench with hanging plants over our heads. He leaned his shoulder against the back of the bench, facing me. He talked a great deal, mostly about himself and his plans, and I listened. I was not eating more than a little toast from the heavily filled plate in front of me. I wanted to smoke. After we paid and walked out, we stood on the sunny terrace and he hugged me for a long time.
When I was alone in my car again driving south, I thought only about the different things he had said, trying first to make sure I understood them and then to see if they meant what I thought they meant.
The memory of that meal is another one that bothers me. Is it because meeting him did not make any difference, it was only hours wasted, as I was pulled weakly here and there by my thin string of hope? But the scene itself and every aspect of it seem to become an enemy — the uninteresting landscape of brown dirt outside the window, the earth-moving machines and brand-new wooden constructions standing nearby, the bland sunlight inside, the foolish hanging plants, his smiling with a cruel friendliness, his talking with a cruel openness, the poisonous blond wood paneling on the walls, and the load of breakfast food.
* * *
Later that day Ellie told me a friend of ours was giving a party. I thought I would call him and see if he wanted to go to it with me. But when I tried, there was no answer. I drove up to the gas station and to his house. Then I drove up and down the streets of my town. I had heard that friends of his lived near the water, though I did not know exactly where. All the streets below the coast road were near the water, so I drove through all those streets looking for his car. By now I wasn’t planning to speak to him, since that would have meant ringing a stranger’s doorbell. But once I started looking for him I had to do everything I could to find him. This time I couldn’t find him. At last I reached him by telephone late in the evening. He asked me abruptly what I wanted. He said he did not think he could go to the party. He yielded only a little in the conversation after that, enough to laugh once, though maybe he was merely being polite. I did not understand how he could be so affectionate in the morning and so cool to me now.
I sat down at my table to work, but every time I looked up, his face appeared in front of me.
I must have known there was not much hope. But still, for four days after I returned, I told myself there was some hope that he would come back to me, though he did almost nothing to encourage me: he hugged me once, he kissed me once, and two or three times he mentioned things in his life that might include me.
Late in the afternoon of the fifth day, on my way home from the party he had not wanted to go to, I stopped by the gas station, a little drunk. I asked him lightheartedly if he had changed his mind yet.
Across the road from us where we stood awkwardly near the gas pumps, as though waiting for something, a freight train rolled by slowly. Beyond it, at some distance, rose another hill with a straight line of palm trees along the top of it. Behind us, hidden by low buildings, the sun hung above the ocean, and its warm orange light lay over the palms on the hill and the palms closer by, lower and thicker, that stood around the fountain in the middle of the town. The sense of the ocean so far below us made the level asphalt of the station seem to be a high plateau. A cool spring evening was beginning, but the air was soft and fragrant. A camper stopped by the pumps and a thin, wide-hipped woman climbed out and asked timidly where she might buy some butane or propane. Before I left, he said, also lightheartedly, that he had not made up his mind yet, and he thanked me for stopping by.
While I was standing there with him, I could tolerate what was happening, but once I was alone again I could not. I had nothing to distract me, and Madeleine was not there to stop me, so I called him at the gas station. We talked for half an hour. He kept leaving the phone to wait on a customer. Each time he left, I planned what I would say to him next, as though I could say the right thing and he would come back to me. Each time he returned to the phone I said what I had planned to say. I finally told him I wanted to see him, and he said I must not drive up to the gas station. But he would not come down to see me after work either. We hung up, and then I got back in my car and drove to the gas station.
From the road I could see him sitting in the office that was so fluorescent in the darkness it was like a showcase where he was behind glass, flooded with light. He sat at the desk reading. When I walked in he stood up and came around the desk, his broad shoulders braced as though against the sight of me and stronger than they needed to be.
He talked to me about what he was reading, because he clearly did not want to talk about the two of us. Sitting at the desk, he had been reading a novel by Faulkner. He was reading all of Faulkner now, just as months before he had been reading all of Yeats. He wanted to talk about Faulkner, but I did not, and now our talk went nowhere, because I could not bear the situation as it was and he would not do what I wanted him to do.
I began to cry and he put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Go home.” He said he had to close the station. He walked me out to my car. He walked away toward the office. I got into my car and went on crying with my head on the wheel. He came back out, said my name, was silent a moment, and then said that if I did this I made it all impossible. I did not understand what I could be making impossible. He left to serve a customer, then came back angry, an oily rag in his hand. He said he had to go and clean the toilets, it was nearly nine o’clock, now he would not get out of here until nine-thirty, and he would not be paid for any work he did after nine o’clock. All his anger at this small job was in his voice. Then I became angry, too, that he valued his four dollars an hour more than he valued me, and at last I drove away. His anger felt better than his kindness. I couldn’t have left if he hadn’t become angry and made me angry. Then I was back in my own hands, and I could act again.
* * *
After those five days, I gave up, or at least I stopped trying so hard to go after him, and a different kind of bleakness closed down around me. I was so angry I wanted to hurt someone. I told myself how careless he was, how vain, shallow, and vulgar he was, how nasty, unfeeling, irresponsible, and deceitful. I said he had no conscience, betrayed friends, insulted women, and abandoned lovers. I said he was so deeply selfish that even his good friends became irritations to him, and when they tried to help him, he saw this as just another irritation.
Now I passed in and out of several different states of mind every few minutes, first anger, then relief, then hope, then tenderness, then despair, then anger again, and I had to struggle to keep track of where I was.
My mind kept filling with the thought of him, and it was painful every time. I knew that part of the reason it had ended was my own dissatisfaction. While I was still in it, I had been restless. But out of it now, I was still attached to it. I had had to ruin it to get out of it, but once I was out of it I had to remain attached to it, as though what I needed was to be on the edge of it.
I had not understood how to love him. I had been lazy with him and did not do anything that was not easy to do. I had not been willing to give up anything for him. If I could not have everything I wanted, I still wanted it and did not stop trying to have it.
I felt more tenderness and concern for him now that he had left me, even though I knew that if he came back my feelings would weaken. Now I would have done anything to have him back, but only because I knew I could not have him back. Before, I was difficult, and sometimes harsh toward him. Now I was only easy, and soft, though he rarely felt my softness, since I was mainly alone with it in my room. Before, I would tell him what I found wrong with him, without sparing his feelings. Now it would have hurt me to do this, though maybe not as much as it had hurt him. Before, I liked to listen to myself talk and was less interested in what he said. Now, when it was too late and he did not particularly want to talk to me, I wanted to listen to him.
After thinking of these things, I became inspired to start all over again with him. Excited, I thought I could do it very differently this time, if only he would agree. But this resolution was just as empty as my hope that he would come back to me. It could not mean anything as long as I knew he did not want to share it with me.
In the first few days, I had been impatient, as though things were resisting me. Now I was angry, not only at him, but also at myself, at certain other people, and at things in my room. I was angry at my books, because they did not hold my interest enough to stop me from thinking about him — they were not alive now, they were not ideas but only paper. I was angry at my bed, and did not want to go to bed. The pillows and sheets were unfriendly, they looked off in another direction. I was angry at my clothes, because when I looked at them I saw my body, and I was angry at my body. But I was not angry at my typewriter, because if I went to use it, it worked with me and helped me not to think of him. I was not angry at my dictionaries. I was not angry at my piano. I practiced the piano very hard now, several hours a day, starting with scales and five-finger exercises and ending with two pieces which improved steadily.
There was a lot of hatred in me. It was a feeling of wanting to get rid of the thing that was bothering me. The hills that had been brown in September were now green. But now I hated this landscape. I needed to see things that were ugly and sad. Anything beautiful seemed to be a thing I could not belong to. I wanted the edges of everything to darken, turn brown, I wanted spots to appear on every surface, or a sort of thin film, so that it would be harder to see, the colors not as bright or distinct. I wanted the flowers to wilt just a little, I wanted rot to appear in the creases of the red and violet flowers. I wanted the fat, water-filled blades of the sea figs to lose their water, dry up into sharp, rattling spears, I wanted the smell to go out of the eucalyptus trees at the bottom of the hill, and the smell to go out of the ocean, too. I wanted the waves to become feeble, the sound of them to be muffled.
I hated every place I had been with him, and by then that was almost every place I went. If I saw a woman ten years younger than I was, I hated her. I hated every young woman I did not know. And there were a great many young women walking through the streets of the town where I lived, though most of them were tall, with fluffy blond hair and sweet smiles, while she was short, dark-haired, and rather sour, from what I had seen.
I did not want to say his name anymore. It brought him too much into the room. I let Madeleine say his name, and I answered with he.
* * *
At times, during the weeks that followed, the days seemed like an endless succession of difficult mornings, afternoons, evenings, and nights. It was often hard to leave my bed in the morning. I lay there and thought I heard footsteps in the dirt outside my window, but it was my own pulse, beating like sand in my ears. I was afraid of what was ahead. For as long as an hour, with my eyes closed, I dreamed, then began to worry, then began to plan. I often perceived things most clearly then, though what I perceived usually appeared in its worst possible guise. When I had planned enough to stop worrying so much, I would try to open my eyes. If I could keep them open, I would look around the room. I would think about him, and try to think about something else. But I could not think about anything else, and it seemed as though my body itself were preventing me, as though my flesh were steeped in some essence of him, because this essence would rise into my brain and fill every cell, and it was so strong that my attention would be drawn back to the thought of him, in spite of myself. Then at last I would get up. I would work in my nightgown and bathrobe for another few hours, and then finally dress, but in soft, loose clothing that was not unlike pajamas.
I could usually work till the morning was over. But the afternoon would be long and slow, so slow it just stopped and died where it stood. I liked to have daylight outside, and darkness hours away ahead of me and behind me. But I did not often want to go out into that light, and I kept the curtains closed. I liked to see the light at the cracks of the curtains, I liked to know it was out there. Then, when evening came and there was darkness outside, I kept the lights burning inside.
I did what I could to distract myself. I kept moving, cleaning something in the house, or walking outside, or I talked to friends and listened to them talk, or I tried to read a book that kept my mind busy, or do a kind of work at my table that did not allow my mind to wander. Sometimes the table in front of me seemed to be the only level place, and everything else fell away from it or rose steeply from it.
A good kind of work to do was translation, and I had a short novel I was supposed to be translating. So I sat at the card table on a metal chair and worked. I usually translated in the morning, but I also went back to it at other times, even late in the evening. It was a kind of work I could almost always do, in fact I worked better when I was unhappy, because when I was happy or excited, my mind would wander almost immediately. The more unhappy I was, the harder I concentrated on those foreign words there on the page in a strange construction, a problem to solve, just hard enough to keep me busy, and if I could solve the problem, my mind was captivated, though if the problem was very difficult and I couldn’t solve it, as sometimes happened, my mind would knock up against it over and over, until at last it just floated free and drifted away.
It wasn’t a long book, but it was difficult, and because I was distracted, I did not do a very good job of translating it, even though I was working so hard and felt my mind was so sharp. What I put down in English was strange, as I saw later.
As long as I was reading the sentence to be translated, or writing down the translation of it, or reading an entry in the dictionary, I was absorbed in the words of these other people, not the voices of the characters in the novel, since they seldom spoke, but the voice of the author of the novel, and the dry, precise voices of the editors of the dictionary offering definitions of the words I looked up, and the livelier voices of the different writers quoted in the dictionary. But during the brief interval when I stopped typing and picked up the dictionary, an interval that could not have lasted more than five seconds, when I was not staring at any words but looking out the window, and these voices died away, his image would swim up between me and the work and cause a fresh pain just because I had forgotten him for a few minutes, or pushed him to the back of my mind with these words I was studying so closely.
I also had letters to write. I wrote one to the man whose book I was translating, and as I wrote, I looked at myself and said: Look at her, writing to this man, and at the same time she can’t stop thinking about that gas station attendant up the road. And yet the man I was writing to would have understood, because this was the sort of thing he wrote about in his novels.
I would work at my table, then I would often wash something, myself or something in the house, my clothes or something in the kitchen. I took one shower after another, scrubbing myself as if I could erase my body, rub out not only the dirt but my skin and my flesh, too, right down to my bones. I worked on the windows in my room. I cleaned both sides of every pane of glass until I could see through it as though it weren’t there, see the plants outside and the red terrace and the white underside of the arcade roof, which turned pink in wet weather, reflecting the wet red terrace.
It rained a great deal that month. The darkness would gather around, the clouds massing up, and the rain would fall, coming straight down, heavily, and then stop after a short time. The sun would come out and shine from a clear sky. Reflections from the puddles outside the house would move like snakes up the dark wooden cabinets in the kitchen. The sun heated the wet roof so quickly that steam rose from the black shingles all over and the wind blew it down off the eaves in clouds like smoke. After the sun had shone for a little while, the dark would come again suddenly, and I would look down the length of the room at my bed and see the dark spreading, as though from that corner, from the dark blankets on the bed.
I could not always do what I had to do. For instance, I could not always do even a small cleaning job, and I stepped in my own messes. Once it was a wide smear of tomato pulp I had left on the kitchen floor. I was walking around in my socks talking out loud to him. I stepped in the tomato pulp, and instead of changing my sock I lay down on the bed and read a story, a quiet, well-written, but dull story about deer hunting, while my damp foot, hanging off the edge of the bed, grew colder and colder.
I had to think clearly, make good decisions, make plans, and could not. I was in the wrong place to understand, either too far inside each thing or too far outside it. I would believe a thing was the right thing to do, and then wonder if I would soon believe the opposite. Sometimes I would know what I ought to do but have no will to act; at other times, I would have the will to act but not take action. And because I came up against myself this way, I had to wonder how I could change what I was, so that I would not always be this person I had to contend with, this person who defeated me.
Then I would stop questioning everything and become stubborn. I would withdraw into myself, keep my head down, and not care what anyone did to me or what I did to anyone.
On other days I could hardly stop moving, and my brain would not stop working. Everything I turned to seemed to have an idea in it. The concentration of solitude around me, so thick, seemed to make the ideas press in on me and feed me without interruption. Only if there was a leak in that balloon of solitude, some of what I might have thought would seep away. And every idea had to be written down, on any piece of paper at all, on a shopping list, in a checkbook, in the margins and blank pages of a book I was reading. It had to be written down so that I would not forget it, even though I knew that later some of these ideas wouldn’t seem worth remembering. And I was not always quick enough to write the thought down on paper and knew I had lost it and couldn’t recover it, and was as aware of that thought as though it were a blank space on a page. I would have been even sorrier if I hadn’t known that each thought was accidental anyway.
At these times, I talked fast on the telephone, I was impatient with everything that held me up, I did not want to bother eating, I did not eat until I was too distracted by hunger to go on thinking, and then I walked back and forth on the floor of my room while I ate. It was hard to eat anyway. There was already so much inside me, working so hard, that I had almost no room for food. I watched, as though I were outside myself, how my stomach turned when I tried to eat a bit of toast, biting and chewing slowly, swallowing a little at a time, the same with an apple. Sometimes I could swallow a little soup, or a bit of raw vegetable. It was bad one day, better the next.
I worked my body hard, walking, running, moving fast, and I began going to Ellie’s health club now and then, not for health, but because I thought that if I hardened my body I would beat out those quivering, jellylike emotions that were so uncomfortable. I grew thinner, my muscles became as hard as my bones, my arms and legs felt like pieces of jointed metal. My pants hung loose, and the ring on my middle finger slipped off easily.
I smoked more and more cigarettes, one every few minutes, smoked in bed, smoked in the car, and smoked walking out to the shops. My lungs were congested and I coughed dryly all day long. I had not stopped coughing since I returned home. At times the coughing kept me awake for hours and I would get up and eat a spoonful of honey or drink some water and then try to sleep again, swallowing over and over.
The nights were always the worst. I thought that at least I should be able to read a great deal, but it was hard to concentrate. It was hard to rest. I could not go to bed early. It was hard to get into bed and stop moving, and hardest of all to turn off the light and lie still. I could have covered my eyes and put earplugs in my ears, but that would not have helped. Sometimes I wanted to plug up my nostrils, too, and my throat, and my vagina. Bad thoughts came into bed and crowded up against me, bad feelings came in and sat on my chest so that I couldn’t breathe. I would lie on my right side, my bony knees pressing together until they were bruised, the right on top of the left and then, when I turned over, the left on top of the right. I would turn onto my back, then onto my stomach, first with my head on the pillow and then pushing the pillow aside and lying flat, then turning onto my right side again, holding the pillow between my knees and arms, then turning onto my back again and putting three pillows under my head, beginning to fall asleep and waking suddenly, startled by the fact that I was falling asleep.
I wondered, as though I were far away from all this, what would happen now, if I would eat less and grow thinner, if I would become still more occupied by the thought of him and go to further extremes in trying to make him talk to me and in searching for him.
* * *
I called an Englishman named Tim, and his voice was soft and high in my ear. I asked him if he wanted to have lunch with me. But when I hung up the phone, I did not feel encouraged. Now, I thought, I was left behind, he had left me behind, in a world that contained only gentle, delicate Englishmen.
I had planned that we should go to the corner café down the hill from my house and that we should sit at an outside table by the coast road. I had planned that I should sit facing the road where I could watch the traffic. Everything was arranged as I had planned it. Tim was an intelligent man, and he should have been good company, but nothing really interested me about this lunch except the cars that might go by on the road.
I sat over lunch for a long time, watching the traffic at the same time that I talked to Tim. Then at last, just as the light turned red, better than I could have planned it, his car came level with us, and he stopped, looked over at me, and kept his face turned toward me almost as long as the light was red. I could see this much out of the corner of my eye. I might have felt uncomfortable making such use of a decent man like Tim for my own purposes, to arrange to be seen eating lunch with another man, but feeling uncomfortable would not be enough to stop me.
Later that afternoon, Madeleine had to persuade me not to go up to see him at work. I should not make a scene where he worked, she said. She told me I was older than he was and should be able to handle this better. She sat with me and talked to me. Although I could have given myself the same reasons she gave me, I could not have stopped myself. If she had gone out just then, I would have called him. She offered to go to the movies with me again, or play cards. Then she cooked dinner. She said, “At least we’ve eaten dinner. That’s something.”
* * *
Madeleine kept telling me not to go to the gas station when he wouldn’t talk to me on the phone. She thought I should have more pride. She would have had more pride. But unless she was actually there to stop me, I would go. Sometimes I had excuses. I knew they were transparent, but they still served a purpose.
For instance, I invited him to parties at least three times. I knew these were parties he would want to go to and that probably no one else would invite him. He did not go to any of them, though each time he hesitated before refusing. The first time he waited a few minutes, the second time half a day, and the third time a week.
The second time, I found him playing basketball in the parking lot above the beach near his apartment. Seagulls wheeled around overhead, crying above the pines. I sat in my car watching him. My car filled with smoke from the cigarettes I kept lighting. I was watching him over the roofs of several cars and he was playing at the far end of the court, but I was close enough to study him carefully — his short, scanty trace of reddish beard, his reddish hair, straight on top with a little curl at the back of his neck, his white skin, his flushed face, his skin turning pink in the sun in a V shape down his chest, the exuberance of his body, how quickly he moved, how he sprang up suddenly, turned suddenly, always braced, always balanced. He was playing very well.
I was content, because for once I had him there in front of me, I knew where he was and what he was doing, and I could watch him as long as I liked, and from a safe distance: he couldn’t do anything to hurt me and I didn’t have to worry about how I looked or what I did or said.
When he and I were still together I either knew where he was or did not mind not knowing, because we would not be separated long, and did not want to be separated. Now that he was away from me almost all the time, I knew he was away by choice and might not reappear unless I fought to get him where I could see him and keep him there. Worse, he might disappear completely, I might never be able to find him again.
A part of me had grown into him at the same time that a part of him had grown into me. That part of me was still in him now. I looked at him and saw not only him but myself as well, and saw that that part of myself was lost. Not only that, but I saw that I myself in his eyes, as he regarded me, as he loved me, was lost, too. I did not know what to do with the part of him that had grown into me. There were two wounds — the wound of him being still inside me and the wound of the part of myself in him torn out of me.
For an hour or so I watched and smoked. Was I also bored? Did I, just for a moment anyway, see him as nothing more than a boy in the distance, a college boy playing basketball? Or did it give me pleasure to reduce him to that, since it appeared to make him harmless? Or is it only now that I think I should have been bored, and my need was so strong just to know where he was that to satisfy it was enough and there was no question of being bored?
Then he walked away from the court toward my car, which I had parked in a spot he would have to pass on his way back to his apartment. He came close enough so that I could lean over to the open passenger window and call out to him. He looked around, surprised, at my second call, came over, laughed to see me there, and got into the car beside me. The heat from his body gradually covered the windows with mist. He smiled at me and put his hand on the back of my neck. While I talked to him and drove the few hundred yards to his building, I wondered exactly why he had his hand on my neck. Then he took his hand off my neck. I went up to his apartment with him. I sat on the edge of the bed and he sat on the floor, leaning against the wall. He seemed to consider going to the party with me. He was damp all over and still flushed. His sweat was drying on him, probably chilling him. I thought he was waiting for me to leave so that he could take a shower, and after a short time I left.
* * *
Vincent sits there in a flowered armchair in our living room and winces at the thought that I might put anything sentimental or romantic in the novel. He says that if the novel is about what I say it’s about, there shouldn’t be any intimate scenes in it. This makes sense to me. I don’t like the intimate scenes that I have in it so far, though I’m not sure why. I should probably try to see why before I take them out, but I think that, instead, I will take them out first and try to understand why later. For instance, I have never liked describing my visit to his apartment after the basketball game, and I have made it shorter and shorter. I have not minded describing the thoughts I had while I sat smoking in the car.
Vincent happens to be reading a novel that includes the same sorts of things he hopes I will leave out. He doesn’t think they belong in that novel either — he describes to me how the woman lusts for the man until she can hardly bear it, and how he consents to satisfy her, though he deserts her again after only a few hours. I don’t think Vincent likes the book enough to go on with it.
But I suspect he thinks I should also leave out my feelings, or most of them. Although he values feelings in themselves and has many strong feelings of different kinds, they do not particularly interest him as things to be discussed at any length, and he certainly does not think they should be offered as justifications for bad actions. I’m not writing the book to please him, of course, but I respect his ideas, though they are often rather uncompromising. His standards are very high.
It occurs to me that although I used to go to a lot of parties, I describe only two in the novel and, in the case of the second, only what was missing from it. Now even the word “party” seems to belong to another time, to the life of a younger woman.
It is not that I don’t go to parties. But I don’t go often enough so that I think of myself as a person who goes to parties. Only a few nights ago, though, Vincent and I went to a reception. It was at a nearby college, for the incoming head of a department. It did not sound exciting even on the formal invitation, but for some reason which he would not explain, Vincent thought we should go. He said we should send back the formal acceptance card and ask the nurse to stay late.
When the night came, it was raining, as Vincent pointed out several times. He said it was supposed to turn colder and asked what we would do, for instance, if we came out of the reception and found that the road was a sheet of ice. He said we probably wouldn’t know anyone there, but then he named two people who might be there. He said we would have to change our clothes, but since he clearly still felt we should go, we changed our clothes. I put on a woolen suit and he put on a clean shirt and a tie and an old sports jacket, and we started off through the rain. We were very late.
But the reception was at its height. There was a dense crowd of older men in dark suits, sober-looking younger men, and women in cocktail outfits. There was space only around the jazz trio. Vincent didn’t seem to know anyone there, and if I drifted away from him to look at the selection of drinks or the platter of cheese and grapes on a table by itself in a corner, I would glance up to find he had followed me, agreeable and open to conversation, a plastic cup of mulled cider in his hand. We lingered here for a while, then went to look at the fire burning in the lobby fireplace, and then at a reading room in the back of the building. When we returned to the main room, the din of chattering voices was the same, and we still didn’t see anyone we knew, so we found our coats in the hall and headed for the door. As we were leaving, a friendly young woman with a name tag pinned to her dress talked to us for a minute or two and thanked us for coming.
I had not drunk anything, and had eaten only a couple of grapes. On the way home, Vincent said that in fact he had recognized one man and spoken to him, but the man did not seem to remember him. Then he added that it was quite possible some people we knew had been there earlier and had left.
But the strange thing is that because the rooms in the old college building were so spacious and handsome, because food and drink and music were offered, because the young woman with the name tag said good night to us so pleasantly, and most of all because so many people were smiling and talking, even if not to us, a feeling of welcome and festivity still lingers today, despite the fact that Vincent and I arrived there and left almost unnoticed.
* * *
Madeleine often sensed, through the walls, from her part of the house, that I was about to do something I shouldn’t. Then she came and kept me company, talked to me, told me stories, or took a walk with me. At least twice we went to the movies.
She told me how she met the man she later lived with in Italy. She was with another man at the time, a sailor. She was washing the side of a boat which her lover was about to take to Tahiti, when the end of her broom fell off into the water. The Italian, who happened to be nearby, paddled up, fished it out of the water, and handed it back to her. A few days later, she sat crying on the dock. Her lover had hit her in the mouth. The Italian saw her again and felt sorry for her. They lived in Cuba together and then in Italy with his family, where she had servants who did everything for her, who ironed her clothes for her. She said that made her uncomfortable.
I have been assuming that the port in which the boats were docked was in the city near where we lived, the same port where he would later be packing sea urchins, but this may not be true.
Other friends told me stories, too. Ellie told me about her life with her husband. After she agreed to marry him, she did not like him anymore, though she had liked him before. They went off to a resort town on the Atlantic coast, and there he seemed very short to her, shorter than he had ever been before. Once they were married, they argued. She was very loud and angry, and he was silent and anxious to end the argument, and this made her even angrier. She told me that there might be an argument before friends came to their house for dinner, and the argument would stop when the friends arrived. She and he would pretend there was nothing wrong, even though she had been throwing cheese and crackers around the room. By the time the friends left, her husband would think the argument was over, but the moment they were out of the house, she would start in again.
It is not easy to live with another person, at least it is not easy for me. It makes me realize how selfish I am. It has not been easy for me to love another person either, though I am getting better at it. I can be gentle for as long as a month at a time now, before I become selfish again. I used to try to study what it meant to love someone. I would write down quotations from the works of famous writers, writers who did not interest me otherwise, like Hippolyte Taine or Alfred de Musset. For instance, Taine said that to love is to make one’s goal the happiness of another person. I would try to apply this to my own situation. But if loving a person meant putting him before myself, how could I do that? There seemed to be three choices: to give up trying to love anyone, to stop being selfish, or to learn how to love a person while continuing to be selfish. I did not think I could manage the first two, but I thought I could learn how to be just unselfish enough to love someone at least part of the time.
* * *
I have opened the envelope Ellie sent me and looked at the pictures. I won’t look at them again very soon because I did not like the shock of seeing them. I did not know those faces, I did not recognize them. I did not know those prominent cheekbones. I did not know the man who belonged to them. And I could not make myself look at them long enough to get used to them.
Looking at the pictures made me think that I don’t really know what sort of person he was, either, because I never saw him from the outside. I knew him for only half a day before I was too close to see him from the outside, and by then it was too late ever again to see him from the outside. I would like to know what I would think of him now.
I have images of him in my memory, fragments of things he said, and impressions, some of which are contradictory, either because he was inconsistent or because of my own mood now: if I am angry, he will seem shallow, cruel, and conceited; and if I am soft and tender, he will seem faithful, honest, and sensitive. The center is missing, the original is gone, all that I try to form around it may not resemble the original very much. I am thinking of some example from the natural world in which the living thing dies and then leaves a husk, sheath, carapace, shell, or fragment of rock casing imprinted with its form that falls away from it and outlasts it. Not knowing him now, I may be imagining his motives and feelings to be quite different from what they were, or since I am so constantly with Vincent, I may be borrowing motives from Vincent. I try to identify a motive, and identify one that could only belong to Vincent.
* * *
The first time Madeleine and I went to the movies, we drove several towns north to a small theater, a friendly place, warmly lit in the midst of the blackness around it. We saw a movie that frightened us both, about a dangerous political situation.
The next time we tried to go to the movies, it was in the same small movie theater. We were too early and had to sit through the end of the previous movie, then through a dreary short with fuzzy, underexposed still photographs of the town we were in, accompanied by inappropriate music. When the movie began, we were both so disturbed by the opening scenes in a Roman bath, involving white-faced figures in togas, that we left.
I had forgotten him while I was inside the movie theater, but as we drove back down the coast, we passed through his town, and then, at home, pictures of him kept floating between me and the pages of the book I was trying to read.
I had told myself to read books that would make me forget everything else. But I know the book I was reading that night was by Henry James. I can’t understand why I would choose to read Henry James at such a time. Maybe I was simply more ambitious in those days. Now I will read almost anything, if it has a good story in it — the trials of a nurse in a large city hospital, the account of an English missionary leading Chinese children over the mountains to the Yellow River, the tale of a woman who cured herself of cancer in a Mexican clinic, the autobiography of a teacher of Maori children in New Zealand, the life of the Trapp family singers, etc. If I am trying to take my mind off something painful, this is the sort of book I will choose now. But then I did not choose books that really distracted me, only books that left part of my mind still free to wander away from what I was reading and search around restlessly for the same old bone to gnaw on.
The book was open in front of me, but I could not understand what it was saying, or if I concentrated hard on the sentences, whose many parts all had to be kept in mind at once, and understood it, I forgot almost immediately what I had read. My mind wandered from it constantly, I constantly pulled my mind back to it, and finally I was exhausted by this struggle, and still didn’t remember anything from the few pages I had read.
I stopped to think about other things, people in other places who had injured me. For instance, he was not the only person who owed me money. There was the owner of a small city newspaper who had given me bad checks for my typesetting work, and also a couple from Yuma, Arizona, who had backed their van into my car in a state park. I couldn’t forget these sums of money, though I knew other people might feel that a debt could gradually be forgotten as time went by, until it no longer had to be honored.
There was also a landlady of mine, a ruthless, heartless woman who owned many properties in the part of the city where I lived and who had charged me rent for several days during which I no longer lived in her apartment. I thought about the shabby apartment I had rented from her, its large, empty rooms, how the streetlights shone in through the curtainless windows, how the traffic lights at the corner clicked as they changed in the silence of the early morning, how during the day the heavy trucks and vans rattled over the dents in the street under my windows, how she would not spend the money needed to maintain the place, and how she was later murdered in her garage. I thought about the streets I walked through in those days on my way to work, early in the morning, how I unlocked the empty newspaper building with my own key, how I sat alone typesetting ads and news items in a small windowless room on the ground floor.
The checks with which I was paid for this work kept bouncing, I kept putting them back into my account, and a few never cleared. But still I had more of a regular income and more to live on at this time than I would later. Twice later, that I can remember, I spent what money I had until I had nothing left and no other money available anywhere, except for, once, the thirteen dollars that a friend owed me. She paid me back and I don’t know what I did then, unless it was just at that time that I had an opportunity to earn some money giving private language lessons to two women. They offered to come to my apartment, but I did not want them to see the place where I lived, so for the first lesson we agreed to meet at a restaurant some distance away. I had a strange lapse that day, figuring that in order to meet them at one o’clock I would have to leave home at one o’clock. By the time I arrived they had given up on me and were in the middle of their sandwiches, with mayonnaise on their fingers. They couldn’t handle papers or pencils, or even talk very well.
Instead of making up a plausible excuse, I told them the truth, which only mystified them. There was no time for a lesson after they were finished with lunch, but they politely offered to pay me anyway. I took their money, though I was ashamed. It was just the opposite of what I wanted to do, but I had no other money. One of them stopped the lessons soon after that, but the other, who was wealthier, went on for a few months.
I picked up the book again and forced my eyes onto the page and read. Though the weight was on me, the darkness pressing in on me, I wouldn’t look at it, I wouldn’t think about it, I held it off a few feet away from me. Line by line I forced my eyes across the page, and with great attention at last began to see the story for myself, though it took all the strength and attention I had to shape this thickness of words.
Little by little, as though the pages I had turned were forming a shield between me and my pain, or as though the four edges of each page became the four walls of a safe room, a resting place for me within the story, I began to stay inside it with less effort, until the story became more real to me than my pain. Now I read on, still stiff and heavy with pain, but having a balance between my unhappiness and the pleasure of the story. When the balance seemed secure, I turned off the light and fell asleep easily.
Then, before dawn, I woke a little. I was still asleep, really, but I opened my eyes and thought I was awake. I was lying on my side. Directly in front of me across the width of the bed, across the sheet, I saw his face, over near the wall. I reached out my right arm as far as it would go and put up my hand to touch his face. His face vanished, and there was nothing there but the wall. Then the pain I had been holding away from me by force rushed into me with an unexpected violence, and tears sprang into my eyes so suddenly they seemed to have nothing to do with the pain or even with me. They filled my eyes, spilled over, and rolled down like glass beads before I could blink, and then, as I lay perfectly still, too surprised to move, collected in the hollows of my face.
* * *
During these weeks, each day had the same center — the question of whether I would see him or not, or his car. I drove into the college parking lot one morning just in front of him, and he saw me and pulled in next to me. We got out of our cars and talked to each other. I saw him put money into the parking meter and then I remembered to do the same. Our conversation had a jerky, fitful rhythm to it. He would make a remark and I would respond without thinking, so distracted that what he said registered only on a superficial level. A moment later I would respond a second time, more thoughtfully. He was reacting the same way. Together we walked away from the parking lot toward the college buildings.
A few hours later, returning to my car, I was sure his would not be there anymore, and it wasn’t. A strange car was there instead, one I had never seen before, one that was profoundly uninteresting to me, that I found ugly because it was so small, dark, and new, instead of large, white, and old, even somehow nasty because it had nothing to do with me and belonged to another life that must be small and neat like the car.
He had driven away without leaving a word, a note. He had been with me, our cars had stood side by side for an hour or more, and now he was gone again and I did not know where he was. All I had now, though it was a piece of information I valued, was the fact that he came to the campus every Wednesday morning.
If I did not actually meet him, I might catch a glimpse of him from a distance. He might be standing outside the gas station or walking away from it, his car in the shadows by the building, or he might be turning a corner in his car, sitting very straight, alone or with his girlfriend. Or I might see what I thought was his car and follow it through town or around the campus, and it might be his and it might not. Once I saw an old white car of the same model in front of the supermarket, but the license plate was different. I said the number over to myself as I shopped, trying to remember it: I thought I might try to learn the numbers of all the old white cars of that model in town. But when I came out, the car was gone. All I knew was that there were three others like his in town, one license starting with a C, one with an E, and one with a T.
That night, on my way out to dinner with friends, I caught sight of him from a distance. He was walking through a thin rain to the office of the gas station wearing a blue denim jacket. As soon as we arrived at the Chinese restaurant, I went into a phone booth by the restrooms and called the gas station. A man with a cheerful voice answered the phone and told me that he had finished work and left not five minutes before. I stayed by the phone for a while. The booth, a small, private place within a larger, public place, was closer to him at that moment than any other spot in the restaurant, because I sometimes could, if I was lucky, even though I was in a public place and far away from him, bring him so close to me that his voice was in my ear, his thin voice coming through a wire into my ear like a face inside my head.
On my way home later, I drove past the gas station and it was closed, the lanes of pumps dark under their roof, the empty office and the rubbish in the large wastebasket brightly lit in their fluorescent bath. I drove through a few streets of his town and then headed down the coast to my own. Although I had told myself I wouldn’t go looking for him again, when I entered my town I turned right instead of left and drove down by the railway station and went along through the streets very slowly. I had seen an old white car like his there the day before at a time when I could not stop, and the car was there again in the same spot. I drove a little past it on the other side of the street, made a U-turn, and inched back alongside it. I thought the license number was not his, but just to make sure, as though I might look harder and discover that it was his after all, I turned around again, in a driveway, and drove straight at it on the wrong side of the street, my headlights on the front of it. It was not the same car.
When I couldn’t find him after circling the town, I grew discouraged, then listless, looking in the windows of one house after another as I passed them, seeing in almost every one the white-dotted blue flicker of a television screen.
Back at home the tough branches of the jade plants poked out over the brick path, bumping me as I pushed by, their thick rubbery leaves full of water, so thick and aggressive they were like animals, there in the dark. A white moon hung in the black sky, three bright stars near it, and a shred of white cloud, and the moonlight filled the terrace where I stood still for a while just looking at it, the shadows very black under the eaves of the arcade.
Inside, Madeleine asked me to guess what had happened a little while ago. I waited. She said he had come by the house. The dog was barking and she went out and found him there. He had walked up the hill. He had talked for five minutes with her. Later she saw his car parked in front of the convenience store nearby. She thought his car had broken down and he wanted my help. “He probably wanted to borrow your car,” she said.
I had imagined a visit like this many times, including the dog barking. Now it had happened. But as it was happening, I was down near the railway station nosing my car back and forth around a different old white car.
* * *
It occurred to me that if he did not want to be with me anymore, then when I went to find him, just because I wanted to see him, smell him, and hear his voice, regardless of what he wanted, I was turning him into something less than another human being, as though he were as passive as anything else I wanted, any other object that I wanted to consume — food, drink, or a book.
Yet when I went in search of him I was passive myself, more passive, really, than if I had done nothing, because I was trying to put myself in his hands again, to be a thing he should do something about. Doing nothing about him in the first place would have been the most active thing to do, and yet I couldn’t do that.
I felt that my eyes themselves had a place in them for the image of his body, the muscles of my eyes were used to tightening just the right way to take in his form, and now they suffered from not having it before them.
* * *
The day I invited Laurie to dinner, telling her to bring her flute, I tried to call him, but there was no answer. It was growing dark and beginning to rain. I went out in the rain and walked down the main street of the town looking at cars, turned back toward home, and then saw his car, I thought, go by with two people in it. I looked at it: it was gone in a moment. I could not be sure it was his. I walked past my own house to see if Laurie was there yet, but she was not, so I went on toward the supermarket. If his car was there in the lot, I would not do anything more to find him. I only wanted to know where he was. I was walking down the middle of the road. When I had nearly reached the end, a van turned suddenly into it in front of me and caught me in its headlights. I stumbled into a shallow ditch to one side and stopped there while the van drove on past. Then I climbed out of the ditch. I stood still in my rubber boots and slicker and looked at myself, at what I was doing, a woman my age — something drifting around in the night and in the rain, not so much a person as something else, like a dog.
I walked on into the middle of another road, a broad road that ran steeply down from the crest of the hill far above to the park by the ocean, and stopped there again, disoriented, turning my head this way and that. I looked down at the supermarket parking lot, the last place I would look for his car. It was not there.
I knew he sometimes shopped in that supermarket. A few weeks back, Madeleine had seen him there. He did not look as happy as he used to, she said, but rather troubled. She had thought he would stop to talk to her, but he had headed on to the meat section. He was with his girlfriend. Madeleine had said, “She looks very young — seventeen. Very young. Nice. Yes, quite pretty.” I had not seen her yet, then.
I saw her only twice, I think, once across the room through that wet pane of glass and once when Ellie and I were coming away from a movie. We were in a bleak part of town with many empty spaces, driving out of what seems to me now a vast parking lot outside a vast movie theater, passing a long line of small black figures waiting for the next showing of the movie, when Ellie, gazing out the window to her right as I drove looking straight ahead, spotted him and pointed him out to me, standing there in line with his girlfriend and another woman, a fellow student so much taller that he and his girlfriend were both bending their necks back to look up at her, all three of them ridiculously tiny and dark in that sprawling white landscape.
They could not actually have been as small as I remember them — they have become smaller and smaller in that memory, and everything else larger and larger, as time has passed.
Why did I ask Madeleine if she was pretty? How much did that matter? Was it some kind of witchcraft, to be pretty?
But I myself wanted to be as pretty as I could be, in case he should see me, as though it did matter, even though he had always accepted me just the way I was, looking tired, with a few wrinkles. But I was not as pretty as I could be. I had cut my hair too short, my face looked older, more worn, and my clothes were loose on me. Because I was so often indoors during the day, my skin was white, like other things that stay out of the light. Or, when I looked at my face in the mirror in the morning, as though I were looking at the sky or the newspaper, I would see that today my skin was not white but yellow and orange, or sometimes a mottled pink, and my eyes were smaller.
I did not have time to check everywhere again, walking through the town and back. I sometimes did this. I sometimes went to one end of the town and imagined he was at the other end, and then went back to the other end and imagined he was at the end I had just come from. Since time kept passing as I did this, it was always possible that he might have come to one place while I was at the other.
Back at home, I heard a car stop outside and then the gate latch click. It was Laurie. She did not know that she had so little to do with what was going on here, with me. She must have thought she was at the beginning of a pleasant evening in which she would eat a good dinner and have some good conversation and play some music, and she probably thought I was also looking forward to our evening together. She smiled and started talking right away. But there was a sort of fog over my eyes and I had trouble hearing her. Other things already filled my brain, pressing on the walls of it, so that there was barely any room for anything she said to me and even less room for me to make any kind of answer. And as I tried to listen to her and think what to answer, I was cooking our dinner at the same time.
I could have told Ellie I felt sick, but I could not tell Laurie — she was hungry for gossip, and she was always pleased by other people’s misfortunes, because they made her feel fortunate. She was pleased to see others overweight or plain, because they made her feel slim and pretty, though she was slim and pretty enough without that. She was pleased to see others lonely, because then she felt safe from being lonely.
The rain had stopped, so we put the card table out on the terrace and ate there, though it was dark. A little light came from candles on the table and the electric lights under the arcade, but it was still hard to see the food. I had not made any bad mistakes with the main part of our dinner, but I had put so much salt on the salad it was almost impossible to eat. Laurie said it was fine.
Laurie had brought a box of pastries for dessert. Madeleine came out of her wing of the house to say hello, and I invited her to have one. She took one, and stood there a little back from us eating it in the shadows of the large shrubs that grew against the glass wall of the arcade. She said a few things to Laurie that had an edge to them I don’t think Laurie heard, mainly because Laurie did not think Madeleine was a person who needed to be listened to carefully, and then returned to her part of the house. I knew that later she would make fun of Laurie, for this was the sort of woman whose behavior, whose very nature, Madeleine despised — the glib sort of intelligence, the compulsive flirtations, the prurient curiosity, the lack of compassion. Laurie had other, better qualities, but they would not be likely to appear in Madeleine’s presence.
I also knew that while Madeleine would now be sitting in her room brooding with disapproval about Laurie, her face no longer tender and kind, as it sometimes was, but sly and sarcastic, Laurie would also be contemplating Madeleine, and feeling comfortably fortunate compared to Madeleine with her solitude, her strange ways, her severity, her faded and musty Indian clothes, her smell of stale linen and garlic, her poverty.
By the time Laurie was gone, several hours had passed since I had walked around in the rain, and those hours now stood stoutly, as a good protection, between me and what I had been feeling and thinking before.
I spent the next morning working on a long letter to him. Then I stopped, not at the end of it, but because I had become more and more hopeless the longer I worked on it, and at last my hopelessness was too heavy to drag any farther: how weak those cramped black letters seemed, lying there on the page, page after page of them, babbling on to themselves, explaining, reasoning, complaining, pointing out logical inconsistencies, describing, persuading, etc.
I realize now that Laurie must also be the “L.H.” I was having lunch with when the skunk appeared among the students and faculty.
* * *
Late at night, when things were quiet, I heard not only the waves pounding on the beach but often, too, voices rising all around me, first the cat yowling with cries that were almost articulate, then the dog roused from its sleep, sleepy and gruff, and then, if I was reading, I would also hear the words I was reading, and if I was angry, they would be thin, mean, or querulous, traveling in lines across the page.
Trying to sleep, I lay on my side with my knees together and my hands, palms together, between my thighs. Or I lay on my back with my hands crossed over my chest and my feet crossed at the arches. I needed to touch my limbs together in a symmetrical arrangement, I needed to connect everything as much as possible, to feel tied together, and tied down to the mattress. If I lay still long enough, my body would seem to melt into the mattress so that there was nothing left there but a head on the pillow, eyes blinking, a brain in the head.
At times I could sleep only if I sat almost straight up against the bolster and two pillows. I coughed less in this position, and could fight off the disturbances that came to settle on my chest. I was less in the position of a person sleeping, and if I had the light on, too, I was closer to a person in a waking state, which was an easier state because it was more in my own control.
I was learning to wake myself up as soon as I began to fall asleep, and to correct myself when I began to dream: This is a dream, my mind would say, and I would wake up in order to start over again correctly. Sometimes my mind would not stop working in the first place.
Or sleep would descend suddenly on every part of my body at once, and my mind would notice this with surprise and wake me up. Or an odd noise would wake me up and first my heart would pound, then I would be filled with anger, and then my mind would begin working again, and go faster and faster.
In the middle of the night the cat, outside, would mew over a kill, then jump onto the screen, climbing and tangling her claws in the web with a harsh racket. Or a car with a loud motor would stop at the corner and my eyes would fly open. Either I lay still and listened or I kneeled on the bed and looked out the window. The car would drive on, and I would lie down again. Though my eyelids were closed, behind them my eyes were still open, staring into the darkness.
If I turned on the light, though it was so painfully bright, and wrote down what I was thinking, that might be enough. Or I read, or I got up and made warm milk or tea and went back to bed to drink it. It was not the drink that helped, probably, but the fact that I had done something to take care of myself, like a mother or a nurse.
And occasionally my mind would stop overseeing and correcting, my thoughts would become unreasonable, as they began to turn into dreams, and I had the sense, then, that my mind was actually eager to change everything from what it was into something else, that, in fact, it was just sitting there waiting for me to let go of my tight control.
As I was falling asleep, he would walk into a scene and wake me up, or images of him would become confused with other images and go on to become part of a dream. In one dream he said to me, “I’ve never had another lover like you,” but then he went away, to work in a café, he said. I followed him into the café, because, as always, I had more to say. But inside, he was in the driver’s seat of a small dark car filled with other people, including a very pretty woman in the back seat. I felt betrayed again, that he had lied to me, and that he was with other people. He left the car and went into the men’s room. I could not follow him there, so I went into a phone booth. But I did not call him.
Asleep, I was even more helpless against him. Yet sometimes it was a comfort to be with him that way in the night, even if it was only in a dream. Once, he came to where I was, in the dining hall of a public institution. He had changed: his face was lined and thinner and very sober. What mattered to me was that he had come back. There was a finality to it that ended many things besides my daydreaming. It was so final that we did not even discuss it, I simply knew we would be getting married now. I told my mother, and she was surprised, not because I had been on the point of marrying another man, as I had been, but because, as I told her about him, she confused him with a certain black man in show business. In the morning I stayed in bed as though to stay inside the long dream that still lay over the sheets.
All I remembered from another dream was that his vulgarity had not bothered me, though I did not know what that vulgarity had been. In yet another, my mother, old and not well, though still independent and cheerful, needed a companion. She told me, embarrassed, that he had agreed to go to Norway with her if the university would pay him a certain grant twice over.
On another night I was reading a book by Freud, and applying what I read directly to him as I read it. He had lent me three books that I had not given back. He had also brought over, one chilly night, a green plaid blanket that I had not given back. Now I lay under the blanket with two of his books next to me, reading the third. What I was reading was about forgetfulness. I read that for the person who forgot, forgetting was an adequate excuse, but for no one else. Everyone else correctly said, “He didn’t want to do it! The matter did not interest him!” Freud called it “counter-will.” I said to myself that he forgot everything that did not touch him at the moment. But that was not entirely true or fair. If he wished to, however, he could forget everything else, particularly everything he found unpleasant, such as old creditors, old lovers, and other angry people in his life.
After turning off the light, I lay in the dark, relaxed and peaceful, and conjured up his image for the pleasure of looking at him, and for company, though I was too tired to imagine anything more — only his image standing in a well-lit place, against the wall of a room. I had him there, though he looked irritated, but as I began to fall asleep, of his own accord he turned and walked away, out of my sight, as though off a stage and into the wings, and I was startled. I woke up to think about what had happened: I had brought him there, but I had been too weak to hold on to his image and had lost control of it. Even though he was only an image, he had his own feelings, and he was there under protest, and as soon as I grew too weak to hold him, he walked away out of my sight.
* * *
I still have trouble sleeping. I am always a little short of sleep. If I slept more, the color might come back into my face and I wouldn’t have such trouble holding on to a thought, or two at once, and I wouldn’t keep getting sick. But it’s complicated: if I get too much sleep one night I’m not tired enough to sleep well the next — either I can’t fall asleep in the first place or I wake up in the middle of the night and start worrying. So I’m afraid of getting too much sleep and would rather get not quite enough so that I will sleep soundly.
Now and then I am too excited to sleep, because I have a plan to reform something: if not what we eat, which should be the diet of the hunter-gatherers, then what we have in our house, which should include as little plastic as possible and as much wood, clay, stone, cotton, and wool; or the habits of the people in our town, who should not cut down trees in their yards or burn leaves or rubbish; or the administration of our town, which should create more parks and lay down a sidewalk by the side of every road to encourage people to walk, etc. I wonder what I can do to help save local farms. Then I think we should keep a pig here to eat our table scraps, and that the Senior Citizens Center should keep a pig, too, because so much food is thrown out when the old people don’t eat it, as I used to see when I went to pick up Vincent’s father at lunchtime. The pig could be fattened on these scraps until the holiday season, and then provide the senior citizens with a holiday meal. A new baby pig could be bought in the spring and amuse the senior citizens with its antics.
Nowadays my nights are broken anyway, by Vincent’s father, who has taken to rising at all hours. He wanders the hallways, creeping softly because he is so slow, and each time, when I hear the creak of a floorboard and get up, it is unnerving to find him out there barely moving, dimly lit by the streetlamp and the headlights of passing cars, his nightshirt white, his skin pale, his crooked hands outstretched for balance, his stale smell floating around him, a rather kindly smile on his face.
And then the next day, because I am so tired or maybe because of a state of mind induced by something else, as I sit here working I will see, out of the corner of my eye, mice running across my floor, but when I turn my head and look, they are only knotholes in the floorboards.
Tired, I try to make out a word I’ve written. I can’t be sure of it. At the same time, I hear a voice in my head. It is my own voice speaking the word, strangely insistent, though my eyes still do not know what the word is.
On other days, my hand will keep typing a period after a word, trying to end a sentence before I’m ready to end it, as if my hand is trying to stop me from saying what I want to say.
The old man is up during the night, but he sleeps more and more during the day. Even when he is awake he sits quietly in one place, staring into the distance. His company is peaceful, like the company of a cow. In fact, like a cow, he often chews his cud as he stares into the distance. But it was not so long ago that he would grow excited if a visitor came to the house, and stand up, leaning on his walker. If he was asked a question about his health, he would begin to talk about Communism.
I have had trouble sleeping lately because I have been worrying about time and money again. I thought I could finish this in a year even if I stopped now and then to work on a translation. I did stop once to translate a very difficult story by an eighteenth-century writer I had never heard of. It was a silly story about a tryst in a summer house. But I was glad of the change, because in that work, the most important decisions had already been made by another person. I stopped again to translate another story from the eighteenth century, and then a third. Then I realized this was not a very good idea after all, because the year was passing quickly and I had no time to work on the novel. I had to think of something else. So I signed a contract for another, more extensive project, took a large advance for it, and then did not start working on it but instead continued working on the novel. Soon, whether I like it or not, I will have to begin translating again.
Because of all this worry, I began having problems with my stomach. I fussed over it, but I also abused it. I had to have my three or four cups of coffee in the morning even though I knew they were bad for me. I also ate no fruits or vegetables, only white bread and crackers. My health began to suffer.
Maybe I am trying to sabotage this as I come within sight of the end so that if I can’t finish it I will have good excuses: a cold over the holidays that grew worse, turning into a mild case of pneumonia; two cracked ribs from coughing so hard; then what seemed like acute food poisoning but turned out to be a stomach flu. The flu lingered and became a general squeamishness about food, but when I realized my stomach problems were by then self-induced, they got better and I came down with another bad cold, this time affecting my sinuses.
A silly thought occurred to me the other day as I stopped work, went into the bathroom, and glanced at myself in the mirror. When I started trying to write this novel, years ago, I thought I looked pretty much like a translator but not at all like a novelist. Now on certain days I think I am beginning to look like a novelist. Glancing in the mirror, I said to myself, Maybe as long as I do not look like a person who has written a novel, I will have to go on working on this, and when at last I look like a person who could have written a novel, I will be able to finish it.
If I finish it, I will be surprised. It has been unfinished for so long now that I am used to having it with me this way, unfinished — and maybe I will always find ways to procrastinate. Or maybe I will become too exhausted to go on. But if I do go on, I know I will reach a point where for one of several reasons I won’t be able to change it anymore even if it should be changed.
For a long time I told myself I had to write it even if it wasn’t going to be quite what I wanted, and I would put everything into it that I could. Now, if I finish it, I don’t know if I will be satisfied. I know I will be relieved, but I don’t know if I will be relieved that I have told the story or simply that the work is over.
It isn’t turning out the way I thought it would. I don’t know how much control I ever really had over it. At first I thought I had a choice about every part of it, and this worried me, because there seemed to be too many choices, but then when I tried certain options, they didn’t work, and I had only one option after all: many parts of the story either refused to be told or demanded to be told in only one way.
For instance, I used to wonder if I had to use the vocabulary I was using or if I could use a different one or a larger one, if only I tried harder. I thought I should read the thesaurus just to remind myself of words I might have forgotten. Of course there are some words I would never use. A woman once told me with sudden passion that she wished more people would use the word “vex.” Only English people seemed to use it, she said. I wanted to agree with her, but I don’t really like the word as much as she does, though I might use it in a translation.
But now I suspect that I did not really have much choice about my vocabulary either, or anything else, and in fact the novel had to be just this long, leave out this much, include this much, change the facts this much, have this much description, be precise here but vague there, literal here but metaphorical there, use complete sentences here but incomplete there, an ellipsis here but none there, contracted verbs here but not there, etc.
* * *
Two poets visiting the university from England came to stay with us for a few days, and Madeleine and I conferred about the arrangements like two spinster sisters unused to having men in the house.
One was young, the other older, with a little pot belly and a white beard. They slept on the twin beds in the spare room. In the afternoon they practiced their performance out on the terrace.
Considerate guests, they left new arrangements in the house, clean coffee mugs bottom up on the clean counter. They were polite, smiled often, and gave a high giggle now and then — the younger one heavy-lidded, slower, sitting on a stool in the kitchen, and the older one, more energetic, standing there holding his round belly before him, cup in hand or empty-handed. When they left, I found short silver hairs pasted on the edge of the bathroom sink which then stuck to my black pants.
The English poets performed in a room with a glass wall behind them. Through it I could see a small, dimly lit courtyard bounded by a brick wall on which was painted a portrait of a bearded political leader. Behind the wall, showing over the top of it, was the darkness of the eucalyptus wood that covered the campus. In the first piece, the poets read together, and what they read were sounds that had no meaning: they were making a kind of music with broken words, single syllables. And because these sounds had no meaning, they did not stop my mind from going out through the wall of glass, searching the darkness for him, flying beyond the faint light of the courtyard out to wherever he was. Because I did not know where he was, I located him in all of the large darkness, filling it, as though I had to make him large enough to fill the darkness and the night.
The younger poet sat down and the older one went on by himself with a new poem in which words were used. A word was spoken that had meaning, and soon after came another. These words were used in the same way as the syllables that had no meaning, and maybe they were intended to lose their meaning. But they did not lose it for me, and with each name of a thing came a picture, and each picture could be a place for me to be, other than where I was. If the poet spoke, in his English accent, through his narrow yellow teeth, above his white beard, the word “hedge” quickly followed by the word “wall,” I was in England, it was summer, I was by a hedge and a wall, and the hedge was fragrant, with an untidy grace to it, and the wall was of irregular large stones, and warm from the sun. I wanted more words, but the poet didn’t use any more words for a long time, he spoke only syllables without meaning.
Later, at home, in bed, when I turned off the light, I went on calling up for myself images from the book I had been reading. I wanted to see if I could keep putting things between me and what I might think about. From the book I was reading I took a scrubbed oak table, a pantry, a dimly lit buttery, gray buckwheat pancakes, black sour gravy, a porch, raindrops in lines on the eaves of the porch, and spears of purple desert flowers. The very innocence of these things, of the food, the parts of the house, the light in the house, helped me to fight against him. I lay there with my arm hanging down out of the bed into the current of cold air that ran across the tiles of the floor and I thought of other things, things near me, roads running down to the sea, slopes and levels, a plain between the desert and the sea, flats at low tide, small figures walking to and fro seen from the cliff above. I listened to the tick of the clock, the thrashing sound of the cars going by fast on the road below, and the dim roar of the ocean. But the sound of the ocean was an uncomfortable sound. So was the sound of a train coming through, which was like the sound of the ocean but heavier, steadier, and longer, with a beginning and an end to it. All the sounds of the night, in fact, were uncomfortable, carrying the same associations. Now I had come to a bad place, and when I tried to go back to something safer, when I tried to imagine things in England again, the large sound of the ocean was by then so heavy, so dark, that the hedge and the wall became thinner and flatter, until I couldn’t hold on to them any longer and they faded away.
* * *
Sometimes, at night, when I had done everything else I had to do, when Madeleine had gone into her rooms, and when the activity close around me, and for miles around me, began to subside, when the silence grew and grew, down through the town, when the darkness seemed to open out into wider and wider areas, giving me all the room I needed, I would sit at my card table on my metal chair or up against several pillows in my bed and write about him. I wrote down everything that had anything to do with him, including catching sight of him on the street or looking for him but not finding him. I wrote down not only whatever happened and didn’t happen, but also anything I thought about him. It was possible to relate everything to him. Even when there was no relation, his absence from a situation forced him into it even more strongly. I wrote down everything I remembered about him, even though I could not always remember everything in the right order, or would realize I was mistaken about a certain thing, or hadn’t understood it, and would go over it again. Even after I fell asleep, sometimes, I would continue to write in a dream, I would write even the smallest thing, in my dream nothing happened without my writing it.
Since he wouldn’t do what I wanted him to do, then I would do something I could do without him. I had written things about him when he was still with me, whatever surprised me. Now I still wrote out of surprise, but what I wrote about him did not go along with other things. I didn’t know if writing so much about him meant I had already moved away from the pain, or that I was only trying to. I didn’t know how much I was writing out of anger and how much out of love, or whether the anger was actually much greater than the love, and there was a strong passion in me but love was only a small part of it.
First there was anger, then greater and greater distress, and then I would see how a part of it could be written down. And if I wrote it down very precisely, the thought or the memory, then I would often have a feeling of peace. It had to be written carefully, because only if I wrote it carefully could I deliver over my pain into it. I wrote with fury and patience at the same time. I had a feeling of power as I wrote: bending over the paragraphs, one paragraph after another, I was convinced they were important. But when I stopped working and sat back, the feeling of power went away, and what I had written did not seem important.
There were days when I wrote about him so much that he was no longer quite real, so that if I came face to face with him suddenly on the street, he was changed. I had managed to drain him of his substance, I thought, and fill my notebook with it, which would mean that in some sense I had killed him. But then, once I was back at home, the substance seemed to be in him again, wherever he was, because what was now empty and lifeless was what I had written about him.
Maybe I should have been more resigned. If this was the only way to possess him now, then I was doing all I could. And for a brief time, it did satisfy me, as though all the pain was not for nothing, as though I was forcing him to give me something after all, as though I had some power over him now, or was saving something that would be lost otherwise. In fact, I was not forcing him to give me something but taking it myself. I didn’t have him, but I had this writing, and he could not take it away from me.
I tried to imagine that what was happening now was actually happening in the past. Since the present would soon be the past, I could imagine I was looking back at it from the future at the same time that I was in the midst of it. In this way I removed it a little from myself and was more comfortable with it.
Certain things I wrote down in the first person, and others, the most painful things, I think, or the most embarrassing, I wrote down in the third person. Then a day came when I had used she for I so long that even the third person was too close to me and I needed another person, even farther away than the third person. But there was no other person.
So I went on in the third person, and after a time it became bland, and harmless. Then it became too bland, and too harmless — all those women who were not I but Ann or Anna or Hannah or Susan, weak characters or no characters, only names.
So that after it had been in the third person a long time, it had settled into that person so firmly that I could be convinced it had happened to someone else, and take it back into the first, claiming, as though falsely, that it had happened to me.
I don’t know why I didn’t stop writing about him after a while. I suppose I had written so much by then, and the idea of writing about him had been with me so long, and the frustration had continued so long, that I didn’t want to stop before I had finished something.
Maybe another reason I couldn’t let go of it later was that I did not have good answers for my questions. I could always find a few answers for each question, but I wasn’t satisfied with them: though they seemed to answer the question, the question did not go away. Why had he claimed on the telephone, when I called him long distance, that we were still together and there was nothing to worry about? Was he ever truly tempted to come back to me after I returned? Why did he send me that French poem a year later? Did he ever receive my answer? If he did, why didn’t he answer it? Where was he living when I went to look for him at that address? If he wrote to me once, why did I never hear from him again?
I began to wonder how the things I was writing could be formed into a story, and I began to look for a beginning and an end. One reason I was willing, later, to have him move into my garage was that it would give me an end to the story. But if he asked to live there and Madeleine refused to consider it, it would not make a very good ending, especially since I was not even the one who did the refusing. That was what happened, so I had to look for another ending. I could have invented one, but I did not want to do that. I was not willing to invent much, though I’m not sure why: I could leave things out and I could rearrange things, I could let one character do something that had actually been done by another, I could let a thing be done earlier or later than it was done, but I could use only the elements of the actual story.
* * *
I have just been staring at a note I wrote to myself some time ago. It is typical of the unhelpful notes I have now and then made. It has two blanks in it that must have seemed to me at the time too obvious to need supplying. It reads: “Strangely enough, once she had written down x— it seemed —. But then that feeling disappeared.”
I have come back to this note again and again, trying to get through to the thought that must be behind it. It must have something to do with reversals, things seeming true until they are written down, or true at one time and then untrue later. In fact it seems to refer to two reversals, one that occurs just after writing a thing down and one later, when the first reaction weakens. Of course, I may have written this thought down in another, clearer form somewhere else and incorporated it already without recognizing it.
In ink of a different color, on this same card, I instruct myself, with a certain officiousness, to include this thought with my other thoughts about writing about him. But if I don’t understand what the thought is, I can’t include it.
I never like losing a thought, but I regret losing this one more keenly than most because it seems so familiar I can almost recognize it. But I know I lose thoughts all the time. One day is always disappearing behind the next, carrying things off with it. I work hard to record a few things as accurately as I can, and even so I get a great deal wrong, but there is much more that slips away.
I take another note out of the box and try to read the top line, but the handwriting is upside down. I turn it around, but the handwriting is still upside down. Whichever way I turn it, the top line still seems to be upside down. At first I think I must be imagining things, or that my handwriting has gotten very bad. But then I see that the bottom line is always right side up: I ran out of room on the card and wrote around the edges of it.
On another card, there is another note full of reversals: by writing about him, I thought, I was taking him away from himself and doing him harm, even though he might never know it. This troubled me, not because I was doing him harm, but because I did not mind doing it. Yet as soon as I said this to myself I was more troubled, even frightened, and I wanted to ask him to forgive me. But at the same time I could see that this would not stop me from doing what I was doing. These feelings merely passed through me one after another.
I am sometimes afraid he will appear now, or call me on the phone suddenly, without warning. If I am thinking about him so much, won’t he feel it, wherever he is? I am having a hard enough time writing this: I don’t know what would happen if he interfered.
It is quite possible, though, that if only he had spent just a little time talking carefully to me as it was happening, and listening to me, he might have saved an immense amount of trouble, all this work. The novel might not have had to be written. Because I see that I really can’t bear it, and never could, when someone refuses to listen to me for as long as I want to talk. I think I could talk endlessly if only someone was interested. I could probably stand outside the post office here in this town and just talk about some current issue.
I have many strong opinions about current issues. Vincent won’t listen beyond a certain point. First he tells me to calm down and then he changes the subject. When we go out with friends I have to stop myself, because I become so interested in what I am saying. This is the opposite of what used to happen, when I was too shy to speak easily and waited so long that the room would fall silent when I finally spoke. Then what I said was not interesting, because it was always the safest thing to say. Now I’m afraid that when I have to stop talking, at what should be the end of the novel, I will not want to stop.
Occasionally a friend like Ellie has been generous enough to listen to me for a very long time, even though I could see her face grow more and more exhausted. For many years after I returned East, Ellie lived near enough so that I could call her cheaply and go visit her, even after I moved out of the city. Now she is gone and I miss her. But the strange thing is that when she told me she was leaving, it did not bother me. Maybe it seemed so right for her at that point in her life that I could not be disturbed by it, or maybe I thought I would see her almost as often. Then again, maybe I thought she had to leave so that I could finish the novel on my own. It is not that what she decides to do in her life depends on what I may happen to be doing, or that she has been helping me with the novel, except in the beginning, when I gave her the first pages to read. But the feeling persists anyway: I had reached a certain point with it, and had to continue on my own, so Ellie moved away and left me to it.
* * *
Certain friends, the ones with the strongest moral principles, were now keeping me company even when they were absent. Their voices had become voices in my head, because I had been listening to them so hard. I now let them decide things I couldn’t decide for myself, and stop me from doing things I shouldn’t do. “Stop!” the voices would say, shocked. “You can’t do that!”
I said to myself that I would be alone now, and this thought was a secure place. Something in me seemed dead, or numbed, and I was glad to feel nothing, or very little, just as, at other times, I had been glad to feel something, even if it was pain.
I did not see myself particularly as a woman. I did not feel that I had any particular gender. But in a restaurant one day, where I sat with my foot in its sandal up on the edge of a chair, a stranger came over to talk to me and went back to his seat and then later, on his way out, passed me and leaned down to touch my bare toes. In my surprise, I was forced out of one way of being and into another. When I returned to the first way of being, I was not quite the same.
I was forced to remember there was something in me besides this mind working so hard and so monotonously, and that this body could appear to be not just for the use of this mind, to be alone with it for long periods of time, that this body and this mind could be social things.
In Ellie’s health club, one afternoon, I sat on a tiled step in a bath of warm water and looked at all the different bodies of women around me, of different shapes and proportions. Some had small, flat breasts, and some heavy breasts that hung down toward their bellies. Some had round, sloping shoulders, and some had straight, bony shoulders. Some had plump, curved backs and square, dimpled buttocks, and some had narrow, straight backs and round buttocks. What surprised me most, about some women, was that the areoles of their nipples were so large and so dark, or so small and so pale as to be nearly invisible, and then, about others, that their pubic hair grew so far up their bellies, or was not dark but blond, or red.
In fact, all these other bodies were surprising to me if they were not like my own, as they came in an unending succession around one corner or another, out of the shower stalls, out of the steam room, down the tiled steps into the water, up the steps out of the water. And all these others seemed more fully sexual to me than my own, simply because I was accustomed to my own and because I used it for so many things that were not sexual. Though my breasts were always there under my shirt, most of the time they merely accompanied me as I walked through the town, or shopped, or drove the car, or stood holding a drink or a plate of food at a party. If I sat at my table working, my body merely supported me, my buttocks pressed into the chair seat, my legs and feet bracing me on either side of the chair, or stretched out in front of me, or crossed under me, my breasts resting on the tabletop as I grew tired and leaned on my elbow, my rib cage against the table edge. When my body stopped being merely useful and became what was supposed to be a sexual thing, this change sometimes appeared odd to me, and arbitrary.
* * *
After an evening spent in my room in the company of a few people, a man stayed behind when the others left, and then stayed on. He was a kind and gentle man, I thought, and I thought it would be a comforting thing for me to be with him and also a pleasure, but it was not either pleasant or unpleasant, in the end, just something to watch and wait out. This was not the man I was used to, and when I touched this body I had not known before, each part of him was a shock to my hand, which had known a different shape for each part: his buttocks were smaller and flatter, his thighs bonier, and on and on — wherever my hand reached for something, it was not familiar.
This man gave me instructions, though gently, and I lay there thinking that it was beginning to seem like a distant, mechanical operation. There was so much glass in the way, I thought, as though I had my glasses on, there in bed, and were looking at it all too clearly, or as though I had a microscope and were looking at it all too closely, in too much detail, with too much science in it, or as though I were watching him come together with me behind the plate glass of a shop window, with fluorescent light on it all, or as though there were sheets of glass between us, between all the parts of our two bodies, between our two skins as they met, so that while I saw it all so clearly I could not feel anything at all, or if anything, only something smooth and cold.
There was no confusion of our bodies. I knew which arm was his and which mine, and which leg, and which shoulder. I did not lose track and kiss my own arm, or whatever came near my mouth. The smallest motion did not immediately lead to another motion. It was not endless, I did not go more and more deeply into my body and his body as though to go as far as possible from my mind, and his mind, so conscious, so unrelenting. It did not end while it was still in the middle.
He woke up early in the morning, and when I only wanted to go on sleeping, he lit a cigarette and lay there smoking while I lay there waiting for him to be done smoking. Then he put out the cigarette and went back to sleep, while I lay there awake.
Later in the morning, when I got up and he got up, I did not feel comfortable, I did not feel easy, walking back and forth through the room, talking to him, moving around him in the kitchen, passing him in the hallway. Every movement of mine was too deliberate, every remark too planned, while every response of his was also too deliberate, I thought, and I thought, missing what I had had, how it had been so much easier, but then thought again, and remembered that it had not really been very different walking around and trying to talk to him, there was the same feeling, often, of shining a bright light on each word because he was so silent and looked at me so intently. He smiled more often than he spoke, he laughed quickly and readily, most of the time, when he wasn’t angry at me, and he was almost never angry at first, though he was often hurt, probably, and he would now and then tell me he wished I would be silly with him. I was not silly, and I was not gentle.
* * *
I thought I had been missing him a long time, even though it had not been long since he left me. But at about the same time that my friends stopped asking me how I was, I, too, did not want to talk about it any longer. I woke up one morning to the same grief and felt I had simply had enough of it. It had run its course, I thought, it had been born, lived, and died. I no longer had part of my mind on him all the time, several hours would pass in which I did not have him in my imagination, for company, but only myself. I was pleased, as though at a piece of good news, something that should be celebrated.
But then I said to myself that since I seemed to be cured of my grief, he and I could enter into a new kind of relationship, and in the joy of that feeling I went looking for him yet again. I fooled myself every time, because at such moments part of me became clever and the other part stupid, just as much as was necessary.
This time I found him and he said he would have dinner with me, and this time he did not cancel the date. He came to the house after work, he took a shower, he sang in the bathroom while he dressed as though to keep me at a distance. He reappeared in clean clothes, with wet hair. We went down the hill to the corner café, and after dinner he came back to my house. He did not leave until late in the evening, but not because he wanted to stay with me, only because he had to stay somewhere. He could not go home until everyone in the place where he lived had gone to bed. He did not tell me why. He told me he usually spent the evenings in the library.
We talked about the library, and we talked about the desert, which was in bloom, and we talked about many other things. On the way out to his car, he had his arm around me. He said my house was very nice, and when I did not understand why he said that just then, he said he missed being there. Then I asked him if he would like to go to a party with me. This was the third party I invited him to. He said maybe he would, and he would call me in a week to let me know. After he was gone, I was sure the evening had been the beginning of something different. I was sure I would have more evenings with him. But I was wrong, so being sure meant nothing.
I thought he might turn around and come back that same night, but I was wrong about that, too, and I was wrong to think he would want to call me sooner, before a week had passed.
* * *
I was in the orchestra of a theater, walking toward a crowd at the door, telling everyone to leave, and around the corner I found him standing still, looking defiant. I woke and slept again, and I was sitting in the back of a taxicab, in darkness, when he appeared suddenly next to me, took my hand in his, and said “It’s all right.” Trying to fall asleep again, I imagined wrapping my eyes in images of whiteness, white sheets floating around my eyes, and as I fell asleep these sheets became a dialogue in which nothing was said — blank, blank — until there was one last remark at the end of the exchange of silences.
I woke up in the morning to a heavy storm, the sea booming, the earth trembling under my feet, something just outside the house shaking and rattling, the wind wailing and the trees swaying into each other and rustling.
When I told Madeleine about my broken night, she remembered that she, too, had had a bad hour during the night. Her face became serious, almost angry. “I had a chill at three in the morning,” she said. “I wasn’t really cold, but I had a chill. It was psychological.” I imagined, as though looking down at the two of us from above, how I in one part of the house had been lying awake while she in another part was having a chill.
The storm passed and the day became very hot. Across the street, three or four men were cutting down trees on my neighbor’s property. I walked past their dented, rusty blue car on my way home from buying groceries, and looked in at the front seat, where a black dog lay on its back, its legs splayed, its eyes open, its long chain looping down out the window and in again.
Inside my house, sitting at my table trying to work, I saw the blue car from a different angle directly in front of me across the street. The sun beat down, baking something outside so that its fragrance floated in on the breeze in gusts. It was the lemony perfume of the jade bush by the fence, entering through the open window. It reminded me of the perfume of his skin, and came between me and my work, and then me and my reading. I wondered again why this had to go on so long.
He was still so much a part of me, inside me, that his body in all its sweetness, succulence, fragrance seemed to lie full-length inside mine. Now, after an evening in which he had been with me and had held almost nothing back, he had withdrawn into his silence again. His terrible silence put him at such a distance from me that he was in another country. I tried to guess what was in his mind and couldn’t imagine it. His vast silence seemed as heavy as a cloud pressing down on a landscape that shrinks beneath its bulk, every living thing bending to the ground, continuing to wait in the airless presence of that awful cloud.
* * *
During this week, as I waited for his answer, I had lunch with three different men in three days. The first was a classics professor at the university. The second was so quiet and self-effacing I forgot him almost immediately, even though, having no other place to stay, he slept in our spare room that night and the next. I remembered him only months later, when I found among my things a modest note he had left the second night he was there: “Have gone to bed. Not feeling too good.” The third was Tim again. When it occurred to me that all three of them were English, I wondered if I could now tolerate only the gentle manners of Englishmen, or if it took three Englishmen to fill his place, or if he had somehow split into three Englishmen.
In this same week, my mother and her sister arrived to stay with us for a while, and the house seemed suddenly full of people, because the two of them talked so much more, and so much more loudly, than Madeleine and I did, and made so many complicated plans, and left their things, their sweaters and purses, newspapers, magazines, pens, and glasses, in little heaps in whatever room they entered. Madeleine felt crowded and went up the hill to stay with a friend.
It was while they were here that I had the worst dream of all, though a very simple one: I was fondling the body of some sort of wild animal, probably a warthog.
* * *
At last, on the afternoon of the party, he called to say that he did want to go, but added quickly that he intended to take his girlfriend with him. I became angry and told him he could not do that. Now he became angry. I became even angrier, that he had dared to be angry at me.
Over and over again, after I hung up, I imagined him walking into the party with this woman. I saw them standing together in the front doorway, even though the front doorway would have been too narrow. I imagined being violent in some way toward him. But as I sat there in my room, and then stood and walked around, being violent in my imagination, he could not feel this violence, wherever he was. At the time, it seemed to me it would not be wrong to be violent.
Since I spent most of that evening within sight of the front door, waiting for him at the same time that I was talking to other people and drinking, the party seemed empty, though it was crowded. Part of my mind was always outside, on the wide, dark highway floating or gliding down the coast between high gasoline signs, in the car with him and his girlfriend as they sat together looking ahead at the road, the lights of the oncoming cars shining on their faces, and then in the small streets in the neighborhood of the party, where the stores were all closed, the low clouds in the sky pink from the downtown city lights nearby, the tall and short palms dark against them, and the old, single-storied, stucco houses set back from the road on uneven, weedy lawns behind shabby stone walls and rusty iron railings.
I returned from the party in the early hours of the morning. As I waited, nearly home, for the light to change at a deserted intersection, as I kept my eyes on the red light and the green light, surrounded by silence after the babble of voices I had been hearing for so many hours, music came suddenly from somewhere very loud in the stillness and then stopped just as suddenly, and I felt two or three things coming together to reveal something to me. Then there was no revelation, after all, only a blank space.
In the afternoon, I sat outside on the terrace in the sun. Little lavender flowers were appearing in the beds of rubbery sea fig out by the road, and because I hadn’t expected this, it was like a sudden gift. Nearby there were larger cups of yellow on another plant, and then on the heavy jade bush that leaned over the fence, those tiny white blossoms with their thick, sweet lemon smell that so often blew in the window or hit me in a wave as I walked in under the trees from the road.
For several hours I sat on the terrace, my head in the shade of a tree, now and then thinking of my mother and her sister at the animal park, waiting for them to come back. It was a long wait. His anger floated over the pages of my book. He had told me it wasn’t good that I still cared for him. Really, I thought, he was angry because he had wanted to go to the party. His anger was a childish anger that excluded everything but himself. Then there had been his sudden violence when he said, “No!” to some question of mine.
The mourning doves in the cedar tree flapped and cooed. Laughter nearby echoed off a wall. Either a kite or a bird floated up against the clouds in the far distance.
I missed him all over again now that my mother and her sister were here, as though I had to miss him all over again in every new situation. That evening, I left them in their room and went into my own room, though I did not close my door. I sat down to work at my card table, but only stared at the window. Although it was early in the evening, I was too tired to work and too tired even to go to bed. I moved my work aside and started putting together a jigsaw puzzle instead. An hour went by. The evening was warm, and through the open windows floated the smells of the flowers again and of the cedar tree. Along with the smells came the sounds of a party across the street: bursts of loud laughter, music on a piano, and car doors slamming. My mother and her sister started talking in low voices in the hallway, worried about me, I was sure. Then my mother, wearing a soft robe, came in with the air of an emissary, evasive, hesitant, touching the edge of my table, wanting to communicate something. I did not want to communicate anything or hear anything, and as I barely spoke to her, at last she left.
Now I was too embarrassed by their attention to continue with the puzzle. I took a step out the door and walked away from the house. My errand was to buy some cat food. The road was dark and quiet. The cat was very pregnant and we were waiting for her to have her kittens any day now. We were worried because she was so young. I walked to the store smoking a cigarette and bought the cat food and a pack of cigarettes and lit another cigarette before leaving the store. I walked down the street slowly. I walked to the supermarket parking lot. By now I had done it so often that it was not much more than a habit. The road was the most likely place I would find him, if I was going to find him, or his car. And a dark road at night always reminded me of other dark roads, so that there seemed to be more room to breathe and to think, and more possibilities. Even away from the house, a strong smell of flowers continued to hang on the air, from other gardens. Old people were walking in one direction and another. I saw many cars in the parking lot, but not his. I had never seen it there, all the many times I had looked for it.
I walked back up the steep hill. In the darkest shadows under some trees, away from the lights of the supermarket, a bowed old man stood still, hugging a large brown bag of groceries. When I came up to him, he asked me with formal politeness what was happening: there were so many cars in the parking lots of the church and the supermarket. It took me a minute to connect one thing with another, and when I did, I told him the teenagers one street over were having a large party. He merely said, “Thank you,” and turned away up the hill while I entered my own road, darker and narrower. Returning to myself after going out to the old man, I found that most of my difficult mood was gone, as though he had taken it away up the hill with him. His dignity, and the simplicity of his question and my answer, had changed something.
Later that night, after the party quieted down, I heard cicadas trilling rhythmically, steadily, and in the distance a mockingbird singing a song that kept changing in the dark and went on and on, for hours. In the shower, I watched a soaked little moth climb the inside of the shower curtain. The wallpaper peeled up from the gray plaster with its black mildew stains. When I got into bed there were drifts of dark gray sand in my sheets.
* * *
I saw him only two or three more times after that, as though the spring, growing hotter day by day, were drying him, a damp spot, out of my life.
He came to the house one evening. He must have realized from the way I stood or talked to him that I was not trying to go after him anymore, because he said a few things, and made a gesture or two, that seemed to invite me back to him again.
Out on the street, looking around at the house and the neighborhood, he said suddenly, as though he had just thought of it, that maybe he could live in my garage. I walked down to it with him and we stood inside it in the dark. There was enough light to see the oil stains in the concrete. He asked me if he was crazy to think of it. It was dry inside and smelled clean. Yes, I thought, he could live there, in my garage, we would fix the electric light, I would make sure he was all right, I would have him there where I could watch him, where I could see him come and go, and he would have to be friendly to me, because he would be living in my garage. I did not know whether or not he meant to bring his girlfriend with him.
But Madeleine did not want this. She said she would not be able to stand it, and no, it wouldn’t help him, no, it wouldn’t help us either, and no, in this sort of neighborhood you certainly couldn’t have people living in a garage.
After this, I thought he wouldn’t communicate with me again. Why would he bother?
I was again trying to plan how I would write the story of it, though it was still going on. I thought I would start it in the sun and end it in the sun. I thought I would start it in his garage and end it in a different garage, my garage. Though he hadn’t moved into my garage, I would say that he had. There would be a great deal of rain in the middle of the story.
But I was wrong. After a few days, he did call. It was evening. In the background was a violent clatter of laughing voices. It was too bad about the garage, he said. He said he didn’t actually need a place to sleep, just a place to work. And he really had in mind the garage, not the spare room. Well, it didn’t matter, he said.
Two weeks later he called again, this time to say that he needed a place to store his things. He asked me if he could keep them in my garage. I was just then putting my mother and her sister and their luggage into my car. I must have said I would call him back. I drove them down to the airport. I don’t know if it was then that I saw so many soldiers and sailors in the airport, as though the country were mobilizing for a war. They were strolling about in pairs, their heads closely sheared, or sitting silently between their parents, their elbows on their knees, staring at the carpet. I do remember that the music in the background had nothing to do with the mood of any of us, my family or the soldiers, and that outside the window was a black figure, spread-eagled, cleaning the plate glass. Instead of talking, we let our eyes follow the motions of this figure as we waited for their plane to be announced.
He did store his things in my garage, but I don’t remember just when he moved them in. I walked down to see it while he did it, he and another man. They unloaded a small truck, I suppose it was a pickup truck.
He put his things in my garage, and Madeleine lent him and his girlfriend a pup tent, because now they had nowhere to live. They slept in the pup tent in the thick eucalyptus woods on the campus, continuing to go to their classes during the day. There was hardly any sign of him through May, or through June.
I saw him once in that time. I was walking past the cafeteria on campus, and he called after me, but I could not stop to talk and he seemed sorry. It was still hard for me to see him. But I don’t know if the pain still came directly from the separation or if by then I associated a certain familiar pain with the sight of him and always would, so that even now, all these years later, I would feel the same pain if I saw him, though it would be strangely unconnected to anything else in my life.
* * *
In June a fair came to town. By the coast road the lights of the fairgrounds at night were reflected in the water of the inlet, the colors turning on the Ferris wheel and the other rides. From a distance the sound of the Ferris wheel was like a steady wind in the trees, blowing on and on. It was a little colder at night now. The smell of woodsmoke hung in the air over the streets, and around the house a smell like honeysuckle. The spare room, empty and chilly, filled with the pungent smell of eucalyptus.
Classes were over, people went away, and there were long periods of time, that summer, when the town was quiet and I was alone so much that I sank into a peculiar listlessness in which everything became exaggerated, what I perceived and how I reacted. I was acutely aware of the smallest sounds in the room, in the silent house. Sometimes the sound came from a living creature, usually an insect, and these creatures felt like companions because they had chosen, as far as they could choose anything, to be in the room with me. Any encounter I had with them, even watching them, became a personal encounter.
A beetle with a hard carapace ticked along the top edge of the room, locating itself in its flight. A tawny moth clung to the white wall like a chip of wood. A gray moth flew straight at me out of a closet and landed on my glasses. I walked into the kitchen, saw a cockroach on the floor, and took care to step over it. As I lay reading in bed, a large black moth blundered into my cup of water and thrashed around in circles there on its back. I went on reading. The moth stopped moving and floated, then began thrashing again. At last I lifted it out with a piece of kleenex, and after it had rested, it began diving through my light again, slapping into my book, my glasses, and my cheek. I had saved it so that it could continue annoying me. But for all its persistence and energy it would not live much longer anyway.
The dog kept coming in, so silent that I never noticed at first. I would hear a wet smacking sound and look up to see her lying on the cool tiles in the far corner, gnashing at fleas, her face anxious, her hair stiff and yellow as straw.
Inanimate things became animate, and then they, too, became companions: a cigarette ash glimpsed out of the corner of my eye as it sped across the desk in a stray breeze became a spider running and stopping, running and stopping. A single inked letter in a white margin became a kind of a mite walking up the page. Or a lock of hair shifting on my head was some other small creature making its way in toward my scalp.
Because I was alone so much, I would think about how I could do things in a more logical way, as though it weren’t enough just to do what had to be done one way or another. I would make a system of rewards for myself: no smoking until evening, for instance. Or I set aside different hours of the day for different activities. I said I would write one letter every day after the mail came. But I did not do that for long. I did not answer most of the letters that came to me. I would plan to walk south in the early part of the afternoon, so as to get a little sun on my face. But I did not do that for long. Although I liked the idea of a rigid order, and seemed to believe that a thing would have more value if it was part of an order, I quickly became tired of the order.
There were many things I had to do that were necessary, and a few that were not necessary but good, and then others that were not necessary and not especially good, like lying on my bed eating and reading. But even these things seemed to have a purpose, if only to give me some relief from the good or necessary activities.
The solitude itself seemed to pull me down, as though by gravity, into a dull kind of depression. When I tried to think, I could not think. I felt that the constant state of my mind was ignorance. My mind seemed to contain almost nothing. I felt that the constant state of my mind and body both was paralysis: each alternative I considered was so strong I could not act, or each act I considered was countered by an unspoken criticism.
Falling asleep one night, I began to dream, and in my dream I asked what I should do with these two nouns “ignorance” and “paralysis,” and then watched as they turned into two different cheeses, one of which I chose not to eat because it was less savory than the other. I dreamed again, that in a dangerous situation I was about to cross the desert on a horse, but heard the rattling of bones or something like bones on the high mast of a ship. I dreamed again, that the beam of a flashlight was following a tiny mouse as it ran in panic back and forth in front of the doorsill.
Sometimes, if I was among other people, I was asked a question and couldn’t answer. An essential part of me seemed to be frozen. My brain still functioned, and observed, in a detached sort of way, how I could not speak — could not formulate an answer, could not take a breath deep enough, and could not move my tongue and lips.
Sometimes I could not even understand the words: I could only see them hanging there, as though surrounded by ice crystals, and hear them ringing in the air.
At this time, a friend wrote me a letter. He addressed me with the word “Dearest.” But however often I looked at the word “Dearest” and my name, I could not keep the two words together, because they did not seem related. He closed the letter by telling me to “have courage,” and I found, to my surprise, that if I simply looked at the words “have courage” there on the page, I had courage that I had not had a moment before.
I kept the letter in its envelope by my bed. Each time I looked at it, my name and address in my friend’s handwriting became loud and declarative, because his hand was speaking my name, repeating who I was and where I lived, and in that way locating me more securely.
I dreamed, a few days after receiving this letter, that I asked my friend to help me. But he was not big enough, in my dream, to help me, he was just as big as he was, he did not extend beyond the outline of his body.
* * *
A man came to the gate to ask a question, and I answered him over the top of it. He was courteous, gentle, and attractive but for his odd glasses. I met another man in a supermarket aisle. Younger, sportier than the first, he was attractive, too, but for his odd hairstyle.
I saw how recovery worked. I saw how, as time passed, other things came in between, as though a wall were being built. Events occurred and then receded in time. New habits formed. Situations in my life changed.
As long as everything stayed the same, it seemed possible for him to come back. As long as everything was the way he had left it, his place was open for him. But if things changed beyond a certain point, his place in my life began to close, he could not reenter it, or if he did, he would have to enter in a new way.
* * *
It was at some point now, in the middle of summer, that I saw him for the last time, when he came to remove his things from the garage, though I am remembering it a little differently today. He came through the gate onto the terrace, he was sweating, and he stopped to chat for a moment, asking if he could get himself a glass of water. But I’m not sure, after all, that he was relaxed and friendly. He may have been uneasy in the presence of the other woman, or in my presence, or because these two women were looking at him together. He may have had difficulty smiling, and spoken awkwardly. I remember now that he moved his things from my garage into the garage of a friend, and I heard later that he left them there much longer than the friend had expected.
At first I was sorry he had seen me this way, as one of two older women, especially when I realized it was the last time he saw me. But then I remembered how he loved women of all kinds, older women as well as younger women. He did not love only tight, smooth skin, or narrow hips, or perfectly round, plump breasts, he also loved wide hips, heavy breasts, small flat breasts, fleshy arms, a thick calf, a broad thigh, a sharp kneecap, loose skin under the chin and cheeks, a fold at the neck, lines around the eyes, a tired face in the morning. Each part of a woman, so particular to her, became precious to him if he loved her, more precious than it was to her.
* * *
As the summer wore on, people came to the house, stayed for a few days or a week, and then left again. I think Madeleine only said to me, each time, that we would be having a guest for a few days. But the silence was not disturbed. Whether Madeleine told them we did not like noise or they were quiet by nature, these people crept from room to room, handled pot lids gently, and spoke in whispers. Quietest of all was a plump woman in long robes, some sort of Buddhist, who was slow to move, slow to speak, and slow to respond when spoken to. She washed rice in the sink and carried it outside to dry in the sun. When I asked her why she did this, she said she did not know, but she had been told to do it.
With these other people coming and going, Madeleine was angry more often now, though I did not know if some particular thing made her angry. In the heat of midday she would turn on the oven and bake a sweet potato, so that for an hour or two the kitchen was hot and the house filled with the sweet smell. Or she would hide her pot, her pan, and her bowls where no one would find them and stay in her room, coming out only when the others were gone.
* * *
Months went by in which I had no news of him. I still looked at the gas station each time I passed it. Though I knew he didn’t work there anymore, I still expected to see him or his car. Then I learned that the pup tent and everything in it had been stolen and that he and his girlfriend had gone to stay with friends, and that after some time these friends had asked them to leave. I heard they were now living downtown, in the city, and he was working the night shift at the docks, packing sea urchins.
I imagined driving there in the middle of the night looking for him at the docks, by the water. He would be sweating hard, packing and lifting crates, the water would be black behind him, the warehouses dark around him, floodlights shining on the boards of the piers and on a moored fishing boat, and a few isolated patches of light floating on the black water. There would be a strong smell of the sea, of dead fish, and of oil.
The other men working with him would stop for a moment to watch as he came over to speak to me. He would be tired and preoccupied, annoyed at being interrupted because now the night would seem all the longer, or embarrassed that I should see him doing this work, or embarrassed before the other men to be having a visit from a woman, or else happy to have a break in the monotony of the work, to have unexpected company at his job in the middle of the night, and pleased in front of the other men.
Since I now knew he lived somewhere in the city, I tried to find out what his telephone number was, but he didn’t seem to have a phone. He probably owed the phone company some money, because it was during this time that a woman from the company, surprisingly courteous and understanding each time, called me occasionally to ask me where he could be reached. He must have given my name as a reference. I was courteous, too, but I did not know where he was. I heard later that he had not paid his last phone bills and that when he and his girlfriend started another phone service in her name, they couldn’t pay those bills either.
I heard something about the merchant navy and then something about a job washing dishes. I heard that he had started a magazine and then that he had moved north and was looking for work again. I seized upon each new, discrete piece of information and added it to what I already knew. Sometimes it was neutral and came to me fairly directly, and sometimes it was distressing and came to me by a circuitous route, first conveyed by a woman he had insulted, who passed it on to another who hated him, who conveyed it to another who was puzzled and disappointed in him, who passed it on to me. I was always curious to learn the next piece of information in the story of his life, and I imagined his end. When I heard distressing news I imagined a bad end. Would I visit him in prison?
I heard all this news before I moved back East. Ellie had not moved back East yet either, though she would go before I did, and she was the one who told me he was married now. She told me it had happened in Las Vegas. The brother of the woman he married worked near her in the library and he had told her. On the afternoon that she gave me this news, I sat in my coat at a long table in front of a wall of books waiting for her to finish work. This was in the Rare Books section behind a locked metal gate. Ellie sat across from me in front of another wall of books. To one side of us, a curtain was drawn across a plate-glass window, hiding the view I knew was out there, of a small canyon behind the library.
After she told me this news, Ellie looked at me across her piles of books and asked me if I was upset. I couldn’t say exactly, though as I tried to explain it to her I began to understand: in one sense, it didn’t matter what became of him, since he no longer had anything to do with me, but each piece of news was painful when I heard it because it reminded me that now he was only someone I heard news of, from other people, and that there were many things I didn’t know about him now, whereas I wanted to believe I knew all there was to know, that what I didn’t know didn’t exist — that he himself didn’t exist, in fact, except as I knew him.
As we talked, the woman’s brother, who was now his brother-in-law, worked near us beyond the locked gate, shelving books. He walked back and forth, disappeared among the bookcases, and came out again carrying small stacks of books or wheeling a cart, and sometimes stopped to talk to a friend or answer the question of a stranger. Whenever he appeared, I stared at him, in his dark pants and white shirt.
Later, walking with Ellie toward the elevators, I passed him where he leaned over a desk speaking on the telephone. I stared again at what I could see of him, his body and the side of his face, as though it were important to notice whatever I could about him. I was acutely aware of the way in which he and I were related, but if he had looked around at me now, he would have seen only a woman he did not know.
But this marriage didn’t actually change anything for me in the way I went on thinking of him, watching for him, searching for him, with a part of my mind anyway, while another part had moved on, away from him. I don’t know whether it was because searching for him had become such a habit by now, or because I thought he might marry a woman as easily as he might ask me if he could live in my garage, for the sake of convenience.
When spring came around again, he sent me that poem in French, and for once I could be sure that although I did not know it, he had been thinking of me.
* * *
Things did change, and as more time went by, more things changed. The young cat had her kittens. Madeleine kept them on the floor of her closet. They were anemic from flea bites, and although Madeleine cared for them tenderly, either she did not know the right thing to do or she was not willing to do it, and most of them died while they were still tiny. We buried them, one by one, in the red earth of the yard under a large pine tree at the side of the house. When Madeleine moved away, the cat stayed behind, but lived outdoors on her own, fed by neighbors.
We had to leave the house because the owner was planning to remodel it and move back in with her family of stepchildren. I left before Madeleine, and went to an apartment complex for married students rather like a military compound. The smells were different, the sounds were different. There was open country and a canyon nearby, with sage on the slopes, crows overhead, a yellow bulldozer at the bottom of it, and I would come indoors from the canyon with my skin smelling of sage and yellow dust on my clothes and under my fingernails. Yellow dust covered the inside of the apartment, which smelled of straw from the mats on the floor. I heard the crows cawing in the canyon and tennis players calling out on the courts across the street as their balls pocked over and over. I heard the voices and thumps of families on the other sides of the walls, snatches of opera like mosquitoes whining, water running, and something like applause, almost constant, and then in the bathroom, something like a whisper or a moan, and, during a rainstorm, water blowing across the flat roof and pebbles rustling as they rolled in the water. I stayed in this place for a few months.
After Madeleine moved out, she lived in one house or cottage after another. She seemed to be housesitting or caretaking. Then, for a while, after I went back East, she sent me letters in which she said she was not living anywhere, though I did not know what she meant. I always wrote to her at the same post office box number. I visited her only once, when she was in another spacious and handsome house at the top of the hill above our town. That was where the dog, who was very old by then, finally died. Madeleine wrote to me about the death and said that the spirit of the dog was always near her.
After Madeleine left, the house was enlarged. She repeated to me angrily in several different letters that the handsome jade bushes had been cut down. One letter I had from her enclosed a photograph of a necklace she had made. She was wearing the necklace in the picture, I could see her shoulders, but she had cut her face out of it. She told me in the letter that she was living with the cat again, but that she did not like the cat, or any cat. When I wrote back asking for a picture of her that included her face, she sent me three in which she was holding the cat out in front of her at arm’s length toward the camera. The cat, who looked angry, was very large by now.
During the time when the telephone company used to call me, a new, wide bridge was built beside the old narrow one I used to cross toward the racetrack and the fairgrounds. After it was finished and in use, the old one was closed off, then dismantled and removed. I realized that in a few years no one would know it had been there. And if houses were built on the mud flats, as I was sure they would be, everyone would forget that the flats had been bare and brown and that during the fair every year people had parked there, bumping over the ruts.
* * *
The friends who gave the last party I invited him to moved away not long after, so that what I have been imagining, the living room where the party was held, and the front door through which I kept thinking he would come with his girlfriend, as vivid and present to me as if I were still standing there, have changed in a way I can’t imagine, in the hands of other tenants. In fact, not only these friends but almost all the other friends I had in that place have also moved by now, either away from that city and those neighboring towns or out of whatever house they were living in when I knew them there, and some of them I have not visited since, so that I have to imagine those familiar faces within the walls of houses I have never seen.
The living room in which the party took place while I waited all evening for him to appear belongs to the same house in whose back yard the other party took place months earlier, after his reading, in the shade of a lime tree with airplanes flying overhead. But because these two parties were so far apart in time and so different in mood, for me, I find it difficult to bring them close enough together to be located on the same plot of land. He and I entered that back yard party through a gate at the side of the house, without going into the house itself. When we went indoors to get another beer from the refrigerator, we went up a short flight of wooden steps through the back door into the kitchen. Most of the kitchen, though, is not part of my memory of that afternoon but of other visits to the house in which I went to the refrigerator for another beer or looked for a paper towel and didn’t find one or washed some lettuce in a sink that was already full of pots and dishes. That day we did not go on into the dining room, which belongs to other memories, of one evening, or maybe two, spent playing a word game at the large dining table, and of a birthday party at which one of the table legs gave way suddenly and the birthday cake either threatened to slide off and fall onto the floor or actually did.
These memories are sometimes correct, I know, but sometimes confused, a table in the wrong room, though I keep moving it back where it belongs, a bookcase gone and another in its place, a light shining where it never shone, a sink shifting a foot from where it was, even, in one memory, an entire wall absent in order to make the room twice as large. But there is always the same food in the cupboards and on the counters, the same din of voices, and the same shadowy figures of people moving just out of my direct sight.
He might say it was not true that I invited him to that party. He might say he was invited by the people giving the party. I was presuming too much to say he should not come with his girlfriend. He was thinking of my feelings, in the end, when he stayed away.
He could be right. What I remember may be wrong. I have been trying to tell the story as accurately as I can, but I may be mistaken about some of it, and I know I have left things out and added things, both deliberately and accidentally. In fact, he may think that many parts of this story are wrong, not only the facts, but also my interpretations. But there was only what I saw, what he saw, and what other people saw, if they gave it any attention. A handful of them, still, must remember some of this, and if I mentioned it to them they would almost certainly make a remark about it that would show it in an entirely different light or remind me of a horrifying or absurd thing I had forgotten, something that would force me to change everything I have said, if only slightly, if it were not too late.
There are some inconsistencies. I say he was open to me, and I say he was closed to me. I say he was silent with me, and that he was talkative. That he was modest, and arrogant. That I knew him well, and that I did not understand him. I say I needed to see friends, and that I was alone a great deal. That I needed to move very fast, and that I often lay in bed unwilling to move at all. Either all these things were true at different times or I remember them differently depending on my mood now.
* * *
I will want to show the novel to someone before I say it is finished. I may show it to Ellie, even though she knows most of the story already. I will show it to Vincent, but not until I have shown it to someone else who says it is finished. I can’t show it to anyone until I think it is finished myself. And before I show it, I will have to guess what its weak points may be, so that I won’t be taken by surprise.
When Vincent asked me who I was planning to show it to, I mentioned a few names, and he said, “Aren’t you going to show it to any men?” I added another name to the list, because I had not intended to exclude men.
* * *
The last piece of news I heard of him a few months ago, from Ellie, was that he turned up unexpectedly, well dressed or at least formally dressed, in the office of a mutual friend of ours in the city. I don’t remember why he appeared there. I don’t know if Ellie knew and told me or if Ellie did not know. I think it had to do with an odd request, either for a favor or for information. He was working at a hotel at the time.
Now that Ellie is living in the Southwest, she will be less in touch with mutual friends and I will be less likely to hear anything more about him.
* * *
The sun is sitting on top of a hill that I can see beyond the back yard out my bedroom window. If he is on this coast, he may be ending a day’s work just now, since many kinds of work end at five o’clock, or he may be ending something else, like an afternoon of reading in his room. He may be preparing to go out and take a walk in city streets older than the streets on that other coast.
He could just as well be on the other coast, but the very fact that it is two o’clock there, a time of day I don’t like, makes that seem less likely.
* * *
I have not moved the cup of bitter tea from the beginning, so it may make no sense to say that the end of the story is the cup of bitter tea brought to me in the bookstore as I sat in a chair too tired to move after searching so long for his last address. Yet I still feel it is the end, and I think I know why now.
But first I have to ask myself a question that has been nagging at me: Have I gotten even that particular incident right? Did I look at the expression on the face of the man in the bookstore and sense that the man saw me as a vagrant, and did I later articulate to myself what that impression had been? Or was it only later that I searched for that man’s face in my memory and looked at it and then at the position of his body, motionless or nearly motionless and slightly stooped behind the counter as his face conveyed puzzlement; that I either took the face out of my memory or returned in my memory to stand in front of that man’s face and study it? I know that I must have read more on that face later than I did immediately, because later I had more information — for instance, that he had felt enough compassion to bring me a cup of tea, and that therefore behind his expression of puzzlement he was feeling compassion or was about to feel compassion.
I think one reason the cup of tea in the bookstore seems like the end of the story even though the story went on afterward is that I did stop searching for him at that point. Although I still thought, from time to time, that I might see him around the next corner, and although I went on receiving news of him, I never again tried to get in touch with him by phone or by mail.
Another reason, maybe even more important, is that this cup of tea, prepared for me by a stranger to give me some relief from my exhaustion, was not only a gesture of kindness, from a person who could not know what my trouble was, but also a ceremonial act, as though the offer of a cup of tea became a ceremonial act as soon as there was a reason for ceremony, even if the tea was cheap and bitter, with a paper tab hanging over the side of the mug. And since all along there had been too many ends to the story, and since they did not end anything, but only continued something, something not formed into any story, I needed an act of ceremony to end the story.