Apr 142012
 

Lindsay Norville was out with her family for Chinese food one night when she snapped open a fortune cookie and read the words “One day you will write a book.” She says she knew she was going to be writer when she was ten. She wrote and self-published her first novel — Cracked Up — when she was thirteen. She’s a woman in a hurry. She is from Albany, NY, just down the road from me, where she has been studying creative writing privately with my friend Gene Garber who brought her work to my attention.  This fall she plans to start in the MFA program at Syracuse University. But the plot thickens, as they say. Lindsay suffers from sickle cell anemia, she’s already had a liver transplant. You can read about this on her web site. I’m not revealing secrets. It makes my heart sore to read about this and yet see that smile on her face (look at her site — she smiles a lot) and to think of the struggle she has been through to get her words out. It’s a deep pleasure to publish her here. “The Artist” is a painfully real story of a child/girl/woman lapped in the doubtful bliss of a nuclear family from hell. The word “artist” is meant to be both true and ironic: the artist is the girl’s father, a musician who murders his wife in a spasm of long accumulated love-hate, a dramatic, intimate dance macabre of obsession. Victim and unwilling co-conspirator, the girl, as is the nature of such children, is a minute observer of her parents’ faults. Her telling is chilling and courageous — in our politically correct era you rarely see a woman’s self-obsessed evil dissected so carefully. We’re in Mommy Dearest country here. But the mother is a dream compared to the father who does his best to enlist his daughter’s sympathy and complicity, undermining her sense of self and reality from the padded cell where he lives, really and metaphorically.

dg

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When they questioned him, my father only said things like, “The first time I saw her there was a smile in her eyes.” Of course this frustrated the authorities, and later the doctors, but that was how my father talked. He was an artist.

They kept him in seclusion. He had padded white walls with a thin metal cot and a twelve-by-ten floor space to pace hour after hour, day after day. He could only leave to go to the bathroom down the hall, flanked by an attendant the nurses on the ward called Big T.

I smiled a little when I imagined my slim father taking on someone named Big T. My father didn’t even kill insects. He was the gentlest person I knew. “Violence is for animals and the unloved,” he would say whenever he caught me in my room punching pillows and stuffed dolls, picturing the girls at school who made fun of my brown skin and knobby knees.

He never fought them. He let them take him away. He let them lock him up. He never had to be sedated or tied down when they pointed their fingers and made their allegations. The lawyers said my father couldn’t even manage an eye twitch or an agitated tone when responding to the bailiff. It was his perpetual calm, his unwavering refusal to testify, the way he regarded his cuffed wrists and my mother’s weepy relatives with a slightly irritated indifference that convinced the members of the jury he belonged with the criminally insane. In their estimation, only a psychopath could methodically clean his reading glasses while blown-up photographs of my mother’s body were displayed and discussed at length.

During the trial, one of my favorite fantasies involved watching understanding ignite in each juror’s eyes as I stood before the court with my own evidence. I would pass around the blue bow tie my father wore to the spring formal his sophomore year of high school. As a shy and introverted musical prodigy, he disliked school dances, but he took Patricia Himmel that year because she had just lost her father to cancer, she wanted desperately to go, and the fact that she had Down Syndrome discouraged other boys from asking her. He paid for her dress, called her a princess, and didn’t skip out on any slow songs. How could such a gentleman be anything but cooperative and composed when confronting his accusers? He was ashamed when he found out I spit on Nurse Mason, the head attendant of the ward.

Nurse Mason was a massive woman with big, blonde, teased hair and a smile with many meanings behind it. She acted sympathetic toward me at first, patting my shoulders and slipping me cellophane-wrapped sweets from her pockets. She held my hand in the halls so I wouldn’t be afraid of the other prisoners and the bars that clanged shut behind us. Then one day, while she talked to another attendant behind the desk where the medications were kept, I heard her refer to my father as “that ape.” She said it softly and meanly, sliding the words out with disgust. I could tell by her tone that it was something she said often. The next time she came to take me to him she received a mouthful of saliva in thanks.

My father shook his head, looked at his idle hands and said, “Corinne, you are fighting the wrong people.” He never stopped talking in riddles, even when our situation became desperate.

I say “our” situation because I believed then we were one person. Whenever I visited I would find him sitting on the cot, body limp, looking as black as night against the backdrop of his white prison. He would be right where I left him the previous visit. I tried to savor that hour and took in everything about him. I noted the new lines in his face and how much weight he had failed to keep on his already thin frame. I studied the stubble on his chin and the slope of his shoulders when he heaved sighs of resignation. I watched how he absently shifted his wire-rimmed glasses and the way his empty hands shook. He was used to holding a guitar or a saxophone and plunking away on a piano, his fingers moving with such speed and agility my eyeballs grew tired trying to keep up.

When they weren’t making art, his hands had always been busy taking care of me. He practiced perfecting recipes for chicken piccata and beef stroganoff. He carefully shampooed my kinky hair during bath time, lining up his rings on the edge of the tub so they wouldn’t catch in the tangles and make me cry out. He remembered to surround me with pillows to keep away the boogies when he tucked me in at night. He taught me how to strum his favorite acoustic, promising my sore fingertips would harden over time. He used both thumbs to squeeze playground splinters out of my palms, wincing whenever I whimpered.

It was torture for me, watching his fingers twitch from lack of use. My skin felt each tremor and broke out in goose bumps, as if his hands were grazing the sensitive spot on the nape of my neck instead of tapping his knees.

I wondered all the time if musicians could lose their gift. I was too afraid to ask. I didn’t want to remind him. Instead I would go home and touch my lips to his mouthpieces, letting the pulpy taste of his wooden reeds linger on my tongue. I would run my fingers over the black and ivory keys of his ancient upright, memorizing the scars cut into the wooden sides by time and use. I willed him to fly out of the hospital and momentarily possess my body.

He was in everything I did, everything I felt. I talked to him in my head, believing if I concentrated hard enough, the message would reach him. That way he was the first to know my eleventh birthday wish was to kiss Ollie Coulsen on the lips. Even though I couldn’t explain it to the school psychologist, my father knew why I slapped Hannah Malone after her prosecutor father did a presentation in front of the class during career week. When I stuck a tampon in the wrong hole during my first period he was the only person I told. He agreed that I looked best in black or purple in dressing room mirrors, and he didn’t care that I failed freshman biology. I knew he understood when I took a scalpel to dissect the frogs and rats and how the memory of my mother’s smooth sandalwood coffin in the funeral parlor paralyzed me.

I only excluded him from my mind when I thought about my mother. If my father knew how much I thought about her, it would have killed him. When I wasn’t worrying about him in his blanched cell, I remembered the way she would smile at nothing, as if her happiness floated in empty air. If I closed my eyes, images of her dancing in our kitchen filled the spotted darkness. She wore loose linen pants, long skirts, and flowing dresses; anything that billowed out when she moved, giving her a majestic quality. She had the kind of beauty that hurt. The kind that made people stare after her in the street. The kind that is too rare for a daughter to inherit. She kept her cinnamon brown shoulders bare and rolled back. She loved to laugh and did often, even when things were serious. Even when my father caught her slinking in during the quietest hours of the night, his mouth stern, but his eyes melting.

“Don’t be so dramatic, Reginald,” she would say, fluttering her hand in mild annoyance, dispersing faint traces of a stranger’s cologne into the air. Then she would beam at him and saunter over. “Come kiss your wife hello. Or good morning. Whichever you prefer.” And he would. He always obliged.

Standing at the top of the stairs in my cotton nightgown, watching this scene play out over and over, I learned to take my cues from my father and kept my distance, at least as much as a needy child could but, “Come brush Mama’s hair” or, “Watch Mama sew this shawl” were words I craved. Though most of the time she would send me away. “You’re cramping my style, kid.”

One of her favorite games was copycat. “Do like this, Corinne. Watch Mama and be a copycat.” I would be eating breakfast or watching cartoons when suddenly my mother would call me over to perform with her. She would strike some elegant pose from her brief modeling career or break out a complicated move from her childhood dance training. She made it impossible for me to mirror her, but I was never allowed to give up until she was thoroughly amused. She criticized my form and my inflexibility. She pointed out how hard I strained in my clumsy efforts while her movements came naturally. “What an ugly face you’re making. You look constipated, Corinne.”

My mother would assess me with one long finger prodding her pouting bottom lip. “How did I end up with her? Would you guess she’s mine? If there’s a god, I must be on punishment—Ma always said my wild teenage years would come back to bite me in the ass.” She took special pleasure in making my father agree with her comments.

“She’s mostly me,” he would say, keeping his gaze on my mother. “That’s not so bad.”

“And what man wants you?” was a typical response my father couldn’t get around. But he was always there when I dissolved into tears later on, away from her scornful smile. He never explained her behavior or tried to make excuses, but the shoulder I leaned on was solid and the hand that rubbed my back felt sure. I was grateful for these things.

My father’s older sister, my Aunt Flo, moved in right before his arraignment. She took it upon herself to rid the house of my mother’s presence. After the detectives swept through for evidence everything went into cardboard boxes, sealed and stored in the basement. I couldn’t tell Aunt Flo that I longed for just one picture of my mother.

One day, when I should have been fretting over pimples and my first homecoming dance, Aunt Flo showed me an exercise one of the doctors had assigned my father. On a yellow legal pad, his doctor had written “Sacrifices” at the top in ink. Using a blue crayon, my father crossed out the doctor’s title and replaced it with “Tradeoffs.” Directly below it he had scrawled “1.) Freedom.” Number two read, “Sanity.” Then there was a rough sketch of a dancing figure, more a flame than a person.

Aunt Flo shook her head. “He’s delusional.”

I bit back the reply my father would have given: “Love goes with delusion. Love welcomes delusion. It helps make it effective.” Instead I tried to match my aunt’s disgust with indignation. “They could’ve trusted him with a pen.”

But as always Aunt Flo saw through my attempt. I made it clear from the beginning whose side I was on. The day after my mother’s funeral, when my maternal grandparents tried to coax me into a hug, Aunt Flo watched with an open mouth as I pulled away. I said I never wanted to see them again because they looked and sounded just like her. Before that, I had always been Aunt Flo’s Corinne-baby-doll. After, Aunt Flo started to watch me out of the corners of her eyes.

“I’m waiting for his kind of crazy to come out. I know it’s in her. I’ve seen it,” Aunt Flo confessed to a friend over the phone. Aunt Flo thought she was being discreet shut up in the spare bedroom, but I was accustomed to listening through doors.

Once, my mother had pinched my arm until she drew blood, attempting to scare me onto my tip toes to practice pointe with her. My father sat me on the lid of the toilet, my heels not quite touching the floor, and handed me a Band-Aid covered with Big Bird’s face. Sighing into his cupped hands, he frowned at his reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink.

“She was the first thing I ever really worshipped. She isn’t even human. Your mama’s a…a creature. How can I tame that? How can I muzzle her spirit? I’m just so blessed to be a part of her world.” There was a longing in his voice I mistook for sadness at the time. I wanted to believe he was sorry for our fate—that he knew he cleared the way that led my mother’s path of destruction straight towards us.

“Our first date she asked me how I planned on making her happy—that day and every day after. She said I would need to come up with something new every morning if I wanted to wake up beside her. I was dazzled. We were in a coffee shop and she asked me this. Didn’t even know my last name. Her words were too big for that place. She was too big for everything. Always has been. If we’re snowflakes, Corinne, she’s blizzard. You’ve got to remember that.”

The way she treated my father served as a constant reminder. She called him “my little drummer boy” in front of his students who came to the house for private lessons. Whenever he hosted struggling colleagues for weekend long stays, she would interrupt their jam sessions, drinking too much wine and saying things that made my father cough and clench his teeth. If he was receiving an honor, she was impossible. When they couldn’t find a babysitter, I would become a spectator alongside my father. It would start with my mother leaving me alone, scared and shaking, among strangers while she filled up at the bar. My father would follow the sound of my sobs and come and gather me in his arms. He always knew.

“Don’t cry. Salt is for the sea, not little girls in pretty dresses. Did she leave you again? She must be off misbehaving.”

That’s what he called it: misbehaving. He made it sound so simple, but I was always confused by what ensued. Usually, as my shy and modest father did his best to work the room, my mother would find a man or two to spend the evening with. Pins and needles were in her voice when she told me to wipe my mouth or not to wrinkle my outfit, but her words were syrupy sweet with the men. Suddenly, her feet couldn’t support her. Instead of her usual poise, she swayed into them and clasped their arms. Everything they said was funny. If she wasn’t laughing, she was telling secrets, her mouth dangerously close to their earlobes. My father pretended not to notice, but once we were trapped together inside the walls of our home my mother became, “loose” and “a disgrace” and “a bad influence.”

“Why do you insist on sabotaging our happiness?” he would ask after his short-lived rage melted down to anguish.

“You say it with such feeling, as if our happiness was more than a myth. Cry a little next time and maybe I’ll believe there’s something for me to sabotage.”

Later, he would interrupt a bedtime story to insist her cold response was the effect of alcohol. “She only sounded sober,” he would say as if the Berenstain Bears needed convincing.

She was careless about who called the house when my father was home. If it was a strange man my father would confront her, sometimes with tears in his eyes and sometimes with a raised hand that she confidently ignored. More than once, I witnessed my mother crying and pleading, her lithe body collapsing into him in such a way that he had to hold her in his arms to keep her off the floor. She clutched at his neck and pushed her lips against his collarbone, talking into his shoulder. “I’ll go. Say you don’t love me and I’m not worth it and I’ll go. Say it, Reginald. Say it just once and I’m gone. No more wife for you, no more mother for Corinne. Either you say it or we move on from this right now.”

My mother rewarded my father’s silence by leading him to their bedroom. If he held back or flat-out refused, asking for time and space to think over her latest betrayal, he was irresistible. “Jesus, not in front of Corinne. How can you be thinking about that right now? How can you expect me to with all this sitting in our laps, weighing us down?” As my father scolded, she would start to undress, limbs playful, prancing out of arm’s reach if he attempted to cover her. To preserve my innocence my father ended up in the bedroom before too much skin was revealed.

Everything my mother attempted, she mastered. The first time she picked up a tennis racket she managed to play with the same amount of style and moxie that she put into posing for a picture. Her vintage sewing machine was a Christmas present and by Valentine’s Day of that same season she was putting the finishing touches on my Christening gown. When she decided she wanted to sing, only an award-winning opera singer would do for a vocal coach. My father was in constant awe of my mother’s inclination towards perfection, but she wielded it like a weapon against him. “Golf is not rocket science. I’m the one with the bad shoulder and look at my swing. You’re such an embarrassment, I almost want to tell people you have a defect.”

All the ways in which my mother was superior replaced nursery rhymes and bedtime stories and hand games. Instead of cookie recipes and the secret of where babies come from, my mother shared my father’s shortcomings with me. “Six years of Spanish in high school and college and that’s how he pronounced it! The first time I walked in France, the natives thought I was one of their own. And I picked up the language in the dressing and work rooms of designers.”

Her honey-do lists were usually composed late in the evenings after she had drained her fifth gin and tonic and filled an ashtray with butts. While brushing his teeth in front of the bathroom mirror the next morning, my father faced post-it notes with tasks like “Grow a pair” or “Ditch the nerdy tweeds” written in an angry scrawl.

If he had to travel for performances, my mother suddenly forgot how to take care of herself and a child. “You’re leaving me, again? How can you do this, Reginald? What do I do? What do you expect me to do?” During those trips, neglecting me served as his punishment for choosing to go. My mother didn’t seem to care that she was punishing me as well, but what bothered me more was that my father never ceased to be surprised when he came home to empty pantry shelves and the rank smell that wafted from my unwashed armpits.

If he needed to be alone with her—if he needed just one kind word or glance or touch to get him through the day—she became as frigid and dense as a statue. She pretended not to know how to read his body language or his thoughts. He became a stranger. “Don’t look at me like that, Reginald. You’re like a creepy old man at a dark bus terminal or something. If those are bedroom eyes then I’m the Virgin Mary.”

Everything he was passionate about she found fault with. “Reginald composed a piece the other day. It’s cute, I guess. Kinda long and drawn out.” A shrug and a smirk. “He tries.” This was her small talk when asked about her husband and his life’s work. If someone praised him she would tilt her head to the side and furrow her brow in mild perplexity until the person grew doubtful and trailed off. If they talked about his awards and titles and recognition, she looked away like she was listening to a buzzing in her ear until the subject changed.

Slowly and painfully, my father became as dull as she wanted him to be. The lively jazz compilations he was known for were replaced by somber marches and overtures suited more for high school bands than dance clubs. His friends dwindled and he spent his weekends shuffling through files that didn’t need organizing or using a good portion of the kitchen table for games of solitaire. His jokes became ordinary and obvious and when Aunt Flo came to visit she would say things like, “Are you taking your vitamins, Reginald? You look so flat.”

At the time, I didn’t see any danger in his deliberate retreat. Like an obedient daughter, I followed in his footsteps. We became mundane to make room for my mother’s brilliance. Our lives revolved around my mother and we accepted this. We accepted this because she would dish out her cruelty with a smile and a laugh. She made light of every pain she inflicted on us with a kiss and a broken promise. This was what my father chose for us. She was what he wanted, and I wanted everything he wanted. I would have lived out my life and perished in her shadow, but one day she never came out of her bedroom to make her morning espresso.

Instead, my father shook me awake when the light on my bedroom floor was still gray. As he helped me dress, his gaze kept trailing over to rest on the wall separating my room from the one he shared with my mother. After my sandals were strapped on, we stood by my window, taking turns imitating the early morning birdsong. Our whistles filled the air, replacing the heavy silence of new death. When the sun was higher in the sky my father sent me over to the next-door neighbor’s to play with their dog. The next thing I knew, I was attending my mother’s funeral. I was only nine and she would have been thirty the next month. Now I lie awake in bed at night—guilt strangling the deep breaths I struggle to take—wondering why I chose not to hear the sirens over the wooden fence as I let my hands become sticky with canine kisses.

My first therapist once asked if I missed my mother and I considered my last visit to see my father. I kept probing for details about the progress of his trial that I wasn’t allowed to sit in on. The adults that made the decisions in my life—Aunt Flo and the lawyers—felt it was too traumatizing for a ten year old. All my father wanted to talk about was juror number seven’s habit of smoothing the edges of her hair with the flats of her palms just like she used to. “It’s mesmerizing. I can’t concentrate on anything else.”

“Missing her would be a treat.” I tried to make my voice as deadpan as possible but the therapist told me not to resort to passive aggressiveness in our sessions. Then, remembering my age, she explained what passive aggressive meant. I told her I needed a new therapist.

“Your mother ages me,” he would say whenever she failed to come home in the evening. He was much older than her. At the time of her death he was in his late fifties. Even in my earliest memories, my father’s hair was pepper gray. He preferred expensive Italian loafers over sneakers and shaved with an old fashioned blade.

He was too old to put up with it all. He was too goddamn gentle. Every week I would visit my father. His eyes would lose their fear when they locked on mine. “Hello, cupcake,” he would say with gravel in his voice. It was probably the first thing he uttered on those days. Those two words and those eyes that he softened just for me left me speechless sometimes. I just stared as the unshed tears backed up in my throat. Several visits ended with me straining against the arms of the attendants. I considered myself more useful than the lawyers and so I welcomed the feeling of my muscles growing tired. I measured our success by how many bruises I collected from firm handgrips. On bad days they threatened to have me banned from the ward. I later found out he wouldn’t eat if they didn’t let me come. That was his only rebellion over the years.

I fought for him in so many ways. After he opted out of the appeal process I believed for a while the incident with the fire was a part of our crusade to clear his name. The thing with my wrists was harder to explain to my psychiatrists. When I told them I had to spill enough blood for my father to feel my love for him despite the distance, they suggested time apart. They considered keeping me away from him beneficial to my mental stability, but I saw it as another test.

“I did it, cupcake. I did it and nothing you do can undo it. We are all guilty of something in life and this is my guilt to live with. Stop trying to prove my innocence.”

His voice was even and steady, yet I had to clutch the cold metal of his cell door as the floor pitched beneath me. I couldn’t get over the shock of this contradiction. It distracted me as he searched my face, trying to gauge my reaction, as if it mattered anymore.

I was seventeen by then and my father was becoming frail. Aunt Flo and my doctors had kept us apart for almost a year. In preparation for the time of our reunion I chopped off my hair, using a razor blade so it sat on my head in nappy tufts. I spent hours in the sun, darkening my skin to a burnt black. I skipped meals to keep my hips and chest from filling out to match my mother’s curves, feeding my hunger with sugarless gum and cotton balls. My father would not find any traces of my mother in me.

“I would have believed in you forever,” I said. I would have believed you were innocent until I died,” I whispered, looking at my bandaged wrists. The gauze wasn’t necessary anymore, but I wore it like a name tag. Hello, my name is Reginald’s damaged goods. I forgot who I was without it.

“Well, now you can move on. We can move on.”

I touched the thick sleeve of his hospital robe with my fingertips and resisted the urge to ask him where he thought we could possibly go. I had learned long ago to synchronize my breathing with the hum of the radiator beneath his barred window.

On the long car ride to outpatient therapy later that day, Aunt Flo felt like trying to understand us. Occasionally, she would get homesick for a healthy family. “How did it happen? How did they happen? How did you happen, Corinne?”

I thought puzzling out reasons and searching for meanings was pointless. I still embraced my self-abasement like a swooning lover. Accepting that everything was partially my fault made it easier to bear the weight of his hand covering mine.

I could’ve told Aunt Flo about how my mother and father met. He spotted her in a crowded bar after his set and when he finally approached she gave him a once-over and said around her cigarette, “I’d ruin you.”

My father proposed eight times before she said yes. She was a year and a half into her modeling career and was already tired of the competition. She confessed matrimony was a way to pass time.

“Everybody had high cheekbones,” she used to say. “Everybody had a dancer’s body. Everybody, everybody, everybody—it got so that they were looking for the freaks among us. Who had the twiggy legs, the androgynous face structure, the fish lips? Plain old stunning wasn’t enough for those pricks.”

But maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe these intricacies were created by time and for the love of my father.

I was eight and a half the day my mother decided she wanted to color with me. It must have been the middle of winter because more than anything, I remember the sound of her thick wool socks sliding across the wood floors. She ordered me to bring out my markers and crayons and set my father’s newest composition in front of me. It was one he had struggled over for months and his only full copy. My mother gave me her best and brightest smile but I smelled the trap. The excitement that lit up her face had a disturbing sheen to it. I refused and we argued until her sharp reproaches produced tears. Scoffing, she took up a marker and scribbled by herself.

When my mother grew bored with coloring she rooted in my toy chest until she found glitter, glue, and stickers. As the stiff black marks dotting the bars of music disappeared beneath her work, she hummed over the sound of my sniffles. When she had destroyed all fifteen sheets of music she placed them back on the piano bench where my father quickly found them.

She let him scream and rage at me for what seemed like an eternity before stealing into my bedroom and putting her color-stained fingers between me and his fury. “What do you think? Am I the next Matisse? Or maybe it reminds you more of a Picasso?”

My father said nothing. His chest heaved from trying to catch his breath and his eyes rolled everywhere around my room but in her direction. My mother’s presence used to captivate my father so much that watching her had been an occupation that absorbed him completely. Yet that afternoon he couldn’t study her collarbone and her calves to dodge the messy reality she threw in his face. The idea of her no longer served as his own personal oasis.

“Well, Reginald, what’s next? Are you going to punish me? Make me sorry?” She laughed. “You won’t be able to. You can’t make me feel responsible for your hurt feelings. You came to me with your internal weaknesses—batteries not included.”

I knew even then by the way she squared off in front of my father—her shoulders stanch while his sagged—that they had reached someplace beyond the damaged music.

The next week when I went to the hospital, I could tell he wasn’t present. I caught him standing by his window, looking over the grounds.

“I had a dream,” he said, “that your mother forgave me and you were better. You were better and it was beautiful.”

I didn’t respond. The suffering that usually tumbled from his slumped shoulders to sprawl across the space between us was missing.

“They let me out to use the piano in the rec room sometimes. It needs some tuning, but it’ll do. It’s going to get better. We’ll be okay. You’ll see, cupcake.” He smiled her smile—full of broken promises.

I donated his instruments to a local middle school and dumped his Oxford ties at a Goodwill. Now I dream of gangly boys with braces blowing spit into his trumpets and homeless men on corners causing the pedestrians to wonder why someone in designer loafers would need their spare change.

I have learned to converse with myself, think comforting thoughts when I can’t stop tugging at my earlobes, or after I realize I laughed too loud at something that wasn’t funny. When I remember to eat three solid meals a day my therapist smiles and says the equation is working: me + distance from the white cell = progress. But my heart throws up the word progress and grasps the memory of that day when he told me about the piano in the rec room with the same tenderness and need that dripped from his mouth whenever he uttered “cupcake.”

I never went back. I don’t know how to live with his truths. If people ask after him, I say, “My father is dead.” If people who read the papers and followed the news updates ask about what he did, I remember how important it is to look them in the eye as I say, “My father was an artist.”

 

—Lindsay Norville

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Lindsay Norville received her B.A. from Emerson College with a concentration in Writing, Literature, and Publishing and a psychology minor. She graduated magna cum laude within three years. During her freshman year of undergrad, she self-published a novel entitled Cracked Up with a small local press, The Troy Book Makers. She wrote Cracked Up when she was thirteen. She recently had a short story published in PANK. This fall she will start in the MFA program in fiction at Syracuse University.

Apr 132012
 

The chief pleasure of the filmmaking team Everynone‘s “Words” is the experience of assembling the pieces of the film, the montage, together like some massive jigsaw puzzle your mom got at a yard sale, sans box with overall picture to guide you and with, continually, the possibility of a missing piece or two. So watch it first, then proceed to this “introduction” as “aftroduction.” Afterword sounds so final, and I think you’ll want to watch this is again.

Watched it? Experienced it? Then read on.

Watching “Words” is slippery, a luge of sequitur with a side of slip and slide of the tongue. The film moves from scene to scene through association, one replacing the other in a chain. The links are sometimes through homonyms (various visual meanings for the word “play”) and homographs (words with the same pronunciation, but different spelling, like “brake and “break”), sometimes through complex scenes (the image of a trumpet player which first signifies “play,” but then continues until he inhales and shifts the chain to the word “blow.” These links form a pattern that may not be immediately discernible but reveals itself as the montage slips by.

The chain is one level simple: “play / blow / break / brake / break-up / split / run / runway / fly etc.” And yet it rises above gimmick, elevates itself above the simple chain of words. I laughed at things that are “not going to fly.” I got a little misty at the “split.” These emotions, too, were linked.

This process of the mind slipping along with the images seems amenable to how our minds work, a familiar game of charades capitalizing on how familiar our brains are with this kind of associative work. Sigmund Freud, in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, argued that slips of the tongue are related to the work of ‘condensation’ as he identified it in Interpretation of Dreams. He added in Psychopathology that “a similarity of any sort between two elements of the unconscious material – a similarity between the things themselves or between their verbal presentations – is taken as an opportunity for creating a third, which is a composite or compromise idea” (100).  We are not just seeing the individual scenes here, they, at several points combine with our own (unconscious) experience to create another level of experience.

Dynamically this sounds very similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories around intellectual montage, where he argued for a combining of visual images to create conflict. In “Beyond the Shot,” Eisenstein, in looking at how images can be brought together, noted that “the simplest juxtaposition of two or three details of a material series produces a perfectly finished representation of another order, the psychological . . . the concept blossoms forth immeasurably in emotional terms” (16). What links these scenes then is not just the connection of the chain of words. It is also a chain of emotional links. We experience these mostly unspoken “Words” emotionally, personally and experientially.

“Words” is just one of several shorts made by the filmmaking team Everynone. As filmmakermagazine.com explains, the team has “been creating witty and allusive short films to accompany the popular WNYC radio program Radiolab, heard on more than 300 public radio stations around the country. Radiolab explores science and philosophy in the guise of radio theater, mixing music and sound effects into presentations that thrillingly veer from the pedagogical to the personal.”

Everynone is a filmmaking team, according to their website “located in the redwood forest.” The team is made up of Daniel Mercadante, Will Hoffman, and Julius Metoyer III. According to their mission statement, “Everynone works primarily with non-actors to capture life as it is, carefully framed and distilled. Their mission is to uncover the beauty in the mundane and everyday; to band the emotion and aesthetic around one simple core idea. They play with the lines between documentary, fiction and experimental cinema to craft films that focus on concepts and feelings above all else.”

–R W Gray

Apr 132012
 

Liliana Heker’s novel The End of the Story begins with a description of a woman “born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass” and then leaps back over the decades to the beginning of the Argentinian Dirty War when youth and History collided in a spasm of hope and political violence and civil cannibalism. Heker is a woman engaged with History and Memory. But her History and the Memories are different, are at the antipodes, as it were, of the North American cultural experience. Her school girl revolutionaries sing rousing songs from the Spanish Civil War and join the Communist Party to fight fascism. Try to get your minds around the difference between Madonna singing the faux heroic, sentimental “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” YouTube Preview Image and Joe Strumm singing “AY CARMELA!” YouTube Preview Image (the song referred to here as “The Army of the Ebro”). The chapter here presented begins with storytelling, loops back to school girl friends laughing innocently together, then knots in a Judas like moment of betrayal. The End of the Story was translated by Andrea Labinger and will be published later this month by Biblioasis. Wonderful to find this book and have it here on NC.

dg

 Liliana Heker

One

Anyone watching the olive-skinned woman walk along Montes de Oca that October afternoon would have thought that she had been born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. It had to be true. Even those who would disparage her years later would have noticed it somehow, seeing her advance towards Suárez like someone who has always known exactly where she was going. Diana Glass herself, who at that very moment was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her balcony – eyes closed, face upturned to the sun like an offering – must have thought so because sometime later she would jot down in her notebook with the yellow pages: She was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. Although a certain ironic expression (or was it just wisdom enough to soften the expression, to de-emphasize it) crossed her mind like a bolt of malice: Is that necessarily a virtue?

She was tormented by these distractions, which, from her very first notation on a paper napkin at Café Tiziano, kept diverting the course of the story. Not to mention the reality that, from that napkin to this haven on the balcony, had flung her – one might say – from hope to horror, and which (though neither one of them knew it), at that moment when the olive-skinned woman unhesitatingly turned off Suárez, heading towards Isabel La Católica, would once again begin to unravel her tale.

Strictly speaking, Diana Glass, who now opened her eyes and gazed admiringly at a bougainvillea blooming on the opposite balcony, hadn’t even decided where to begin: with the spring morning when a tree fell on her head and the two of them – or at least she – thought about death for the first time, or with a freezing, dusty July afternoon fourteen years later – when death had already begun to be a less remote eventuality, although it hadn’t yet become that chill on the back of the neck every time one turned the key in the lock to enter one’s house – as she waited nearly a half-hour for her at the entrance of the school, staring insistently towards the corner of Díaz Vélez and Cangallo so not to miss the elation – or the relief? – of seeing her arrive.

The name she was going to give her, on the other hand, was something she had decided right away. Leonora. Not because it had anything to do with her real name (less melodious), but rather because it went well with that face, with its high cheekbones and olive skin, still smiling at me from the last photo, and it suited that jaunty girl who, if Diana Glass had simply begun with that unpleasant July afternoon in 1971, would by now have burst out of Díaz Vélez onto the page, waving with such an old, familiar gesture that it would have made Diana forget her fear for a few seconds.

Later, it was different. The other woman had barely finished waving her arm, her features hazily coming into focus, when the relief would be replaced by a premonition of catastrophe.

It should be pointed out that Diana Glass is nearsighted and that, at the time of that meeting with Leonora, she refused to wear glasses. Her explanation was that the few things worth seeing in detail usually end up moving closer to you (or you to them) and besides, a nearsighted person’s view doesn’t just have the advantage of being polysemic: it is also incomparably more beautiful than a normal person’s. “Just think about the sky after dark,” she once said. “I swear, the first night I went out on the balcony wearing glasses, I almost cried. The real moon has no resemblance to that enormous, mystical halo I see.” And, she added, the diffuse forms allow a limitless range of imagination, as if the world had been created by some over-the-top impressionist.

These are the sort of interruptions that disturbed her. (Absurdity has invaded the story, she wrote, though not in the notebook with yellow pages, which she reserved for episodes that were more or less relevant, but rather on the back of one of those printed ledger sheets that she haphazardly filled: papers with a predetermined function exempted her from assigning one to them herself and allowed her madness to spill out unrestrained. Absurdity has invaded the story, has invaded History. Nothing could be truer. She was plunging into History; perversely, doing so prevented her from dealing with the purely historical, despite her belief that history was the only thing that made any sense.) For example, she was unable to assess the exact quality of her fear at the school doorway (assuming, of course, that the fear was historical) without noting her surprise at the fact that the closer the woman got, the more unfamiliar she became, and how could she explain that phenomenon without mentioning her myopia? But if the beginning was hesitant, the ending was alarmingly blank. Nothing. Just a little faith and a few old photographs. And a very immediate fear lodging at the back of her head as she turned the key in the lock of her front door – and at this very moment – and didn’t go with the light of this October afternoon in 1976, a light that illuminated the bougainvillea, adorned Buenos Aires, and mercilessly enhanced the olive skin of the woman who has now turned off Suárez and is heading towards Isabel La Católica.

The trees on Plaza Colombia catch her by surprise. It’s as if something dangerously vital – more suitable to a jungle than to this grey street with its stone church – as if an unscrupulous thirst for life had forced them to overflow the plaza, invade the sidewalk of Isabel La Católica and bury the unfortunate Church of Santa Felícitas beneath an avalanche of joy.

She has one desire: not to go to the meeting at the house with the white door where Fernando, the Thrush, and two others must already be waiting for her, not suspecting the contents of one of the two letters she hides in the false bottom of her purse. To run away towards Plaza Colombia, that’s her precise desire. This, however, doesn’t disturb her, as the purple explosion of bougainvillea has disturbed Diana Glass to the point of forcing her to leave the balcony and walk to the library. Both of them loved the sun, she thinks, like someone who’s writing it down (or like someone making excuses for herself) – as she did so often in those days – and she takes out the box with the photos of the trip to Mendoza.

There they are, the two of them. Among vineyards, on top of a stone block, on the shoulders of a couple of drunks, on a suspension bridge, thumbing their noses, in wide-brimmed hats, always laughing and embracing and a bit outrageous among the group of brand-new – and slightly foolish – schoolteachers.

The woman who at this moment is walking through the imitation jungle that spills out of Plaza Colombia lifts her head for a moment, allowing the sun filtering through the leaves to flicker on her face without thinking: I was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

It might not displease her if someone else thought it for her. That’s true! she would exclaim if she knew about this assessment of her person that Diana Glass is about to make. She knows how to delight in other people’s words and put them at her service when necessary.

But she doesn’t need to define herself in order to confirm her existence. Accustomed to action and to charging headlong at everything in her way, she knows she exists because her body (and what’s a brain but a part of that body?) displaces the air as she moves, leaving an exact impression on the world. And if she hasn’t slowed her pace, if she hasn’t gone running towards Plaza Colombia, following her heart’s song, if she’s left the trees behind, guiltlessly abandoning this fleeting, intoxicating desire, if now, without a speck of desire, she’s about to head proudly and resolutely towards Wenceslao Villafañe, it’s because, even now when her world seems to be tumbling down, she’s still capable of brushing aside all trivialities in the name of what she’s convinced she needs to do.

.

But with Celina Blech’s arrival (when vacation ended, in the time of the tree), something began to change. Celina, too, had read Captains of the Sands and had sung “The Army of the Ebro,” but she possessed a quality Leonora and I lacked: she could unhesitatingly state who was a revolutionary and who was a counter-revolutionary. Heraclitus? she said. Heraclitus was a revolutionary, and Berkeley was, without a doubt, a reactionary. Listening to her was amazing: standing beside the bench, flanked by girls who crossed themselves before class and went to dances at the club with their mothers every Saturday, and by girls who neither crossed themselves nor took their mothers along to dances but who didn’t seem too impressed by Heraclitus’s revolutionary powers either, she had the guts, in front of the philosophy teacher, an active member of Catholic Action, to obliterate Berkeley with a swipe of her pen for his notorious inability to start a revolution. The daughter of a poetic Communist shoemaker of the old guard, she behaved with the confidence of someone who has always known where the world is going and who moves it. It was she who taught us to read Marx. How could anyone forget the leap of the heart, the jubilant certainty (for me, too) that the world was marching along a happy course, when reading for the first time that a spectre is haunting Europe ? And every week, concealed in an innocent-looking package, she brought us a copy of Communist Youth magazine.

She never flaunted her superiority before Leonora or me – she was good-natured, a comrade, and she had little patience for the rock and roll that, despite “The Army of the Ebro” with its rumbalabumbalabumbambá and its Ay, Carmela, Leonora and I kept dancing to frenetically during our Saturday assaults – but that latent superiority was there, nonetheless, and soon it would become apparent. In all other respects we were similar: all three of us loved the Romantic poet Esteban Echeverría and despised Cornelio Saavedra, the head of Argentina’s first junta; all three of us resonated to the verses of Nicolás Guillén; all three declared, with the élan of Spanish Republicans at the very moment of victory, that the invading troops rumbalabumbalabumbambá got a well-deserved trouncing, Ay, Carmela. So we sang and so we were that winter of 1958 when History invaded our peaceful Teachers’ Prep School in the Almagro District.

Later we would learn that it had been there all along, that, without realizing it, we had noticed it among the small events woven by our personal memories. Chaotically and without any sign – or with some fortuitous sign – I preserved the memory of that morning in grade two when they made us leave school early because some general had tried to oust Perón (whom I imagined as eternal and omnipresent, since he had been in the world when I was born and since my mother had forbidden me to pronounce his name in vain); the slogan Free the Rosenbergs, read on the walls of forgotten streets; the outrage of some older cousins at the phrase “Boots, Yes; Books, No”; the hoarse voice of a news hawker shouting War in Korea; and a secret, incommunicable envy when, in the movie newsreel children who weren’t me travelled through the Children’s City by bus like fortunate dwarves; a certain initial disbelief in the face of death the day the Air Force bombed the Plaza de Mayo; an almost literary emotion when a group of men, in a hidden place called Sierra Maestra, prepared to free Cuba – a remote country about which only “The Peanut Vendor” and Blanquita Amaro’s ebullient thighs were familiar to me; the bitter or dejected faces of some bricklayers one late September morning in 1955. Random fragments jumbled together in my memory, with the German acrobats around the Obelisk, with a butcher named Burgos who had scattered pieces of his girlfriend throughout Buenos Aires, with a nine-year-old girl who had drowned in Campana and who could be seen, brutally depicted at the moment she went under, on a page of La Razón. Scraps of something whose ultimate shape seemed – continues to seem – impossible.

And we would also come to know the dizzying sensation of imagining ourselves submerged in History. Because one day soon, reality would be shaped so that everything – I mean everything – that occurred on earth would be happening to us. The Cuban Revolution and the war in Vietnam would be ours; the antagonism between China and the Soviet Union and the distant echoes of men who, in the Americas or in Africa or in every oppressed corner of the planet, lifted their heads: all of it would be our business. We fleetingly attempted to figure out the meaning of our lives. And we would live with the startling revelation – and the strange reassurance – of understanding that the world could not do without our deeds.

But that was the end of the winter of 1958 when, as proper young students, we recited the lesson from Astolfi’s History and sang that bombs are powerless rumbalabumbalabumbambá if you just have heart, ay Carmela; that September of 1958 when History came to Mohammed. It awakened the universities, shook the entire nation, invaded classrooms for the first time, and at the peaceful Teachers’ Prep with its wisteria-covered patio, it left no stone unturned.

I wonder now if it might have been a gift, a blessing whose uniqueness we were unaware of: to be fifteen years old and to have a compelling cause. Everything seemed so clear that late winter and the following spring: on one side were the people, behind a goal as incontrovertible as universal education; on the other side, the government, allied with the power of the church in order to impose its dogmatic, elitist lesson. It didn’t matter if the motives of either side were less than transparent. At fifteen, beneath the budding wisteria and with a motto that seemed to condense all possible good and evil for the species – secular and free, we said, confident that we were encompassing the universe – we believed we could confirm forever those words we read as though they were anointed: the people’s cause is a righteous cause; all righteous causes lead to victory; we have a role to play in that road to victory.

The headiness of the struggle, combined with the golden wine of adolescence – wasn’t that our touchstone, the stamp that marked us? I look around me on this particularly dark night in 1976 and can see only death and ravaged flesh, and yet I keep on stubbornly typing these words, perhaps because I can’t tear hope from my heart. Because once you’ve tasted that early wine, you cannot, do not want to give it up.

I see I’ve gotten mired in melancholy, but that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about certain domestic problems.

We’ve already established that there were three of us muses, three of us in the vanguard, and that our task was nothing less than to rouse a group of nice, future schoolteachers who hadn’t asked to be roused and who, more than anything else, aspired to matrimony. It wasn’t easy. Personally, I can say that I killed myself haranguing those young hordes, prodding them to organize and strike. I closed the eyes of my soul and hurled myself headlong into the jumble of my prose. Only in this way could I fulfill my mission. Because if I stopped for one second to reflect, I risked reaching a conclusion that would render me silent: I had no faith that my words could change a single one of those heads turned towards me with detached curiosity. In other words, my political career was in doubt. Leonora, on the other hand . . . That September, dressed in her white school smock, she revealed herself to us like a Pasionaria. She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a new flower.

Not only did she defy the school authorities (they expelled her at the end of the year, despite her excellent average): her father, whom she loved (and whom I secretly wished was my own father), the brilliant Professor Ordaz, an old-school idealist, loquacious defender of public education and friend of writers, was a government official who therefore (and in other ways) betrayed the dreams of his constituency. To oppose a government plan was to defy her father. But I was the only one who knew that. The others saw whatever they saw: a tall adolescent with a gypsy’s face. And perhaps they believed less in her words – acquired words that she effortlessly made her own – than in the uncompromising, vibrant voice that pronounced them.

So it was that Leonora became the architect of that unusual thing that was becoming apparent in the prep school of the wisterias. But the one who pulled the strings was Celina. In secret meetings with the few Communist youths at the school, she formulated policies that came (as we later learned) from a higher authority. We two were her allies in the field, her confidantes and friends. It wasn’t for nothing that she taught us a secret, last stanza that we sang quietly, savouring the nectar of rebellion: and if Franco doesn’t like the tricolour flag (rumbalabumbalabumbambá, ay, Carmela), we’ll give him a red one with a hammer and sickle (ay, Carmela). But we didn’t interfere in her decisions.

I can’t say that being left out bothered me. I’ve already stated that early on – and not without some conflict – I had accepted the fact that politics wasn’t my destiny. Besides, on the wall of my room I had a poster of Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” and in my soul was the melancholy of being “the grey beret and the peaceful heart.” I loved the rustic nobility of Maciste the blacksmith and Raúl González Tuñón’s verses; I was rocked in the cradle of Communism and didn’t mind having decisions made for me.

Leonora, on the other hand, wasn’t one to let herself be rocked. Shortly after that September, she told me she had a secret to share with me. It must have still been springtime because the memory of it blends with a certain perfume and with an almost painfully intense awareness of being alive.

She had slipped her arm around my shoulder and, as on so many other occasions, we started walking along Plaza Almagro. A habitual gesture, that embrace, clearly required by the four inches she had on me and by a certain matriarchal attitude she always assumed. We both liked – or now I think we both liked – to walk like that, as though feeling the other’s body made us strong enough to sustain the universal laws we invented right then and there as we walked along, which were designed to eradicate stupidity, injustice, and unhappiness from the earth. I was the lawmaker, quite adept at inventing theories for everything, though too shy or carried away to convince anyone who didn’t know me as well as Leonora did; so it was she, not I, who was in charge of using those arguments whenever the time came.

But that afternoon there were no arguments or theories. There was a revelation that shook me. I’ve thought a lot about her decision that spring. Maybe I still think about it, and maybe that’s the real reason I’m writing these words.

“I have to tell you a secret,” Leonora said as we walked arm in arm. “I’ve joined the Communist Youth.”

Her activism didn’t change things between us, at least not until she met Fernando. We told each other more secrets, and on our graduation trip (in spite of her expulsion, everyone, even her enemies, wanted her to come along), we scandalized the other newly credentialed teachers, as one can see in the photos. But without a doubt, something seemed to change in Celina Blech, whose knowledge of Berkeley now dazzled me somewhat less. Leonora had loaned me Politzer’s The Elementary Principles of Philosophy, and there they all were: Berkeley and Heraclitus and Locke and Aristotle and Descartes, fixing their positions definitively for or against the revolution.

I ran into Celina last year. She told me she had an important position in a multinational company – she’s a chemical engineer – and that she was about to go to Canada to work. I can’t stand this violence, she told me, and we talked about the violence of the Argentine Anti-Communist Association and about the madness that the rebel group, the Montoneros, was committing in their desperation. The worst part isn’t the fear of death, she said; the worst part is that now I don’t even know which side the bullet might hit me from. I asked her if she was still a Party member. She smiled condescendingly, like someone who had long ago forgiven the girl she once was. She asked me about Leonora. I told her I didn’t know where she was, and I wasn’t lying. How could I know her whereabouts that threatening winter of 1975?

.

She’s no longer thinking about trees. She’s walking along Wenceslao Villafañe, heading towards Montes de Oca. This might seem baffling to a spectator following behind her: why take such a roundabout route to go a single block? What the spectator wouldn’t understand is that, except for a deceptive interval containing an embrace that Diana Glass categorized as triumphant and belonging to the realm of hope, for some five years now the mere act of moving from one place to another has obliged her to undertake some disorienting manoeuvres. She knows – she is, or has been, a more than competent physicist – that in Euclidean terms, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but it isn’t always the safest. And a leader, above all, must always have her own security in mind, as Diana thought five years earlier, beneath a dusty sky.

She’s late because she couldn’t risk waiting for me. The thought doesn’t comfort Diana: for the last few minutes, she’s done nothing but gaze towards Díaz Vélez and towards Cangallo with little spastic turns. A waste of time, useless, since it’s unlikely she’ll be able to recognize her from so far away, as she used to do at the time the tree fell on her head. Not only because on this July afternoon, she’s much more nearsighted than she was that spring (a surprisingly early spring, or so it seemed to me because never before – and never since – did I feel so intensely the fragrance of the wisterias at the Prep School or the pleasure of walking down the street bare-armed. Everything was happening for the first time that spring when I was fourteen. Life, I said to myself, is something formidable that knocks you over like a wave and which not everyone can feel in its total splendour. “The two of us, you understand, we really do know how to feel life, the transformation of life, in our own bodies.” I liked those words: transformation, life, bodies; I loved words because they were capable of preserving each thing in its perfection. Leonora needed them less than I did because Leonora was her dark body, and she especially was her hair, long and coppery, heavily undulating to the rhythm of that body. And yet, during that spring of 1957, words and things were inseparable for me, as well. Wisteria was a melody and a perfume and a shade of blue, as if everything around me had conspired to make me happy), not only, as I say, because on this July day she’s more nearsighted than she was that spring, but also because she can’t even be very sure of recognizing her from a distance.

They’ve seen one another only three times in the last ten years, under precarious conditions: the first time, at the Ordaz home, among old pots and pans, dying of laughter at age nineteen because they understood – or cared – very little about such chores, but nostalgic in spite of their laughter, or at least Diana was nostalgic, watching, a bit mystified, as Leonora put together an outlandish trousseau because she was going to marry the most beautiful – and the purest, Diana would think one night at a party – militant Communist in the College of Sciences: Fernando Kosac, with his grey eyes and transparent gaze. They seemed like a lovely adolescent couple from some Russian film, she would think nine years later as she read the police reports in the paper. The second time was also at the Ordaz place – Fernando was on a trip, she explained without further clarification – when their daughter Violeta was born, and Leonora, always knowing her place in the world, was all bosom, milk, and opulence. The third time was during an encounter so fleeting that she didn’t even have time to look at her friend carefully. Diana walked through the Ordazes’ front door at the exact moment when Leonora was rushing out, so they bumped into each other. They exchanged a kiss, and Leonora, one second before shooting out the door, said, “They killed Vandor.”

It was surprising, but not so much the death itself. At that time, history still seemed logical to Diana, as did death. And a traitor was a traitor. Stumbling unmethodically, history marched irrevocably forward. That’s the way it was. Only she, always so speculative, didn’t have the time or the desire to stop and think that “forward” was as perfectly opaque an expression as “yonder” or “in the olden days,” capable of obscuring more than just history.

It was surprising because the tone didn’t match the meaning. As if she really had said Violeta has a fever. They killed Vandor: that’s why I have to leave in a hurry.

“We’ll talk another day, when there’s more time.”

But there was no time. Because, as always, ever since their return from the trip to Mendoza, life carried them along divergent paths.

And so they hadn’t met again since the day before that dusty afternoon, if you can call something that happened in the intersection of two incompatible dimensions a “meeting.” Diana, lying in bed, reading the paper and drinking mate, and Leonora fleeing to who knows where, from an announcement on the police report page.

What the report said:

That a highly dangerous terrorist cell had been uncovered. That the boldness of its constituents was immeasurable. That the subversives had been planning to blow up the official booth on July 9, when the Argentine and Uruguayan presidents and their entire retinues would be watching the parade. That to that end they had planned to use a fuel truck they had stolen in Nueva Pompeya, loaded with ten thousand litres of gasoline.

The question that crossed Diana’s mind (momentarily interrupting her reading): How do you steal a fuel truck? And this query generated what threatened to become an unending chain of thoughts, starting with the initial question: how do you steal a fuel truck? This chain led nowhere and was destined merely to chase its own tail, to spin meaninglessly around the woman lying in bed, thinking (there’s a sort of action that’s totally alien to someone accustomed to thinking in bed while drinking mate, she wrote, embarrassed or melancholic, that same afternoon on the back of a deposit slip) and indirectly wondering: Would I be capable of stealing one? And even more incisive: Do I have any right to speak of revolution, to want a revolution, when I can’t even steal a fuel truck? This precipitated a conflict that threatened to degenerate into another, indirect question leading to unforeseeable conclusions, specifically: If I were certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead unfailingly to revolution, would I steal it? This, in turn, seemed to hide the corollary: it isn’t certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead to revolution. Suddenly, a name, casually noticed on the newspaper page, yanked her abruptly from those Byzantine musings.

What was that name? Kosac.

What she did next: she turned back and read: It all began at dawn on Wednesday, when police personnel armed with rifles raided an apartment at the intersection of Juan B. Justo and San Martín. The police managed to collect a large quantity of subversive data and materials that led to further measures being taken. The place was vacant, but neighbours informed this newspaper that it had been occupied by a young couple named Kosac and their approximately five-year-old daughter. These two subjects were among those individuals most actively sought by the police. “They were very friendly,” affirmed a neighbour who refused to give her name. “Very nice; they always greeted me in the elevator.”

She didn’t steal a fuel truck, but she did take action in her own way: got up, got dressed, grabbed a taxi, and fifteen minutes later was standing before the Ordazes. I’m here for whatever Leonora needs, brave little soldier raised on the Maid of Orléans and Tacuari’s Drum. Which led her to receive an anonymous call the next day: My dad said you wanted to see me, and even before recognizing the caller’s voice, she recognized the turn of phrase, crystallized in her childhood like a school snapshot.

For which reason she’s been waiting for half an hour at the entrance of the school, looking first towards one corner and then another with a not altogether unwarranted fear, since something more suited to a morbid imagination than to the realm of possibilities was happening that winter of 1971. Not long before, a lawyer had disappeared, and just a few days earlier, they took away a young couple. The man’s bullet-riddled body had been found in a ditch, but no one knew anything about the girl, and that was more terrible than the fear of torture or death; it was a black hole containing all possible horrors, something they hadn’t been prepared for, she thought, referring to herself and Leonora one specific summer night, singing their hearts out by the river, as though the joy of being adolescents and the need to change the world and the heroic ballad of a defeat were one and the same thing (Mother, don’t stop me for even one minute / for my life’s of no value if Franco is in it), not realizing, or not realizing entirely, that they were beginning to become impassioned with death.

No, not impassioned: familiar (as the olive-skinned woman who was about to reach Montes de Oca might have corrected her). And once you become familiar with death, nothing is ever the same.

But the one who waited for her at the entrance of the school five years earlier wouldn’t have understood her, since, even though she’s beginning to fear death, she’s hasn’t yet passed through a time of death that the one about to turn onto Montes de Oca knows quite well, since she’s seen death at close range, has planned deaths, and, with a firm hand and even firmer resolve, has killed a man.

The one who waits tries to forget about death. She thinks – has thought: she’s late because a leader must think about her own safety above all; she couldn’t risk waiting for me there. Which very feebly minimizes an unbearable idea: something has happened to Leonora, and another, even more miserable thought: the phone call was tapped; the man at the kiosk who hasn’t taken his eyes off me for a while now is there to take us both away, and what if Leonora doesn’t come? A thought that remains happily incomplete because in the distance, on Díaz Vélez, waving with her arm in the air just as she did during the spring of the fallen tree, Diana sees – or thinks she sees – that person who, now, five years later, with a haughty gait and a haphazard detour, is entering the same street she left ten minutes ago.

.

Only this time the detour proves useless: in the first place because the house with the white door is empty, and in the second because no one is following her: they’re waiting for her.

A certain breakdown in her contacts – something she paradoxically had noted in one of the two letters hidden in the false bottom of her purse – doesn’t allow her to know the first fact. And for five years she’s been accustomed to avoiding thinking about the possibility of the second: a warrior is obliged to take all precautions to avoid falling, as she teaches the novices; but once taken, she mustn’t think about danger: that would only weaken her in battle. For that reason, she’s concerned only about what she will say in the meeting of the Secretaries General. She knows it won’t be easy to justify what she wrote in the letter. Not in the one where she mentions the lack of contacts, which is strictly a technical problem that doesn’t require justification – the military government, carrying out kidnappings with impunity, is destroying the network of contacts, so that she cannot locate the Montonero presses in the capital, if, indeed, there are any left; in order to keep functioning as Press Liaison, she needs to make new connections in La Plata . . . (The prose is deplorable, Diana thinks, reading the back of a photo where Leonora appears by a window, radiant, rubbing her beatific eight-months-pregnant belly. Dear Friend: This letter is to inform you . . . What makes Leonora, a revolutionary from head to toe, write like an old Spanish teacher? She decides to omit the transcription of letters and dedications from her story; it would give the wrong impression.) It’s justifying the other letter that’s going to be difficult. And not because there haven’t been enough resignations in her life – from the Party to join the splinter group, from the splinter group to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces, from the Revolutionary Armed Forces to join the Montoneros – but she always knew how to make those resignations seem like a leap forward. This one, on the other hand, doesn’t seem a leap in any direction; it’s not even exactly a resignation, but rather the rejection of an offer. What to call it?

(Existential problems, Fernando, the most implacable of the four, would say, bourgeois scruples.

She wouldn’t respond to the insult. With authority she would point out that so many desperate deaths were hardly political.

“They’re killing us,” Fernando might say. “Our response must be to kill them.”

Would she have the courage to say she didn’t like any of it, that the people were now rejecting them and she didn’t like that?

“It’s not a question of what you like,” Fernando would say at that point. “It’s a matter of following strategy, and strategy is decided at the Commander level” – pause, eloquent look – “and by the Secretaries General.” Without intending to, he would see her as he had seen her for the first time, with her flaming hair and her haughty expression, entering the College of Science, and then he would resort to the only method he knew of swaying her. “Accept the post of Secretary General we’re offering you, and then you can discuss strategies with us. As an equal.”)

What would she reply to that? For the moment, she doesn’t care: she’s confident of finding the right response when the time comes. She’s not used to losing, and an unwary observer watching her walk along Montes de Oca would agree.

But the five men observing her are not unwary: they’ve been waiting for her for a half-hour, two of them from inside a car on the corner of Wenceslao Villafañe, and three others a few yards away, pretending to chat on the sidewalk. And it’s likely that at least four of them haven’t acquired the habit of reflecting on something like this: the rhythm of a gait can encode the secret of a man or a woman. One must love life, Diana will jot down days after this event, as the Bechofen woman observes her from another table, thinking: she has too much passion to give shape to what she’s writing. And yet, isn’t that where the seed of all creativity lies, in passion? One must revere life in order to form even an inkling of how much is sacred within a woman walking down the street.

Those four seem only to spy a possible prey that the fifth man, sitting next to the driver, hasn’t even noticed yet. Perhaps, against his will, he’s dazzled by the élan vital emanating from the woman who has burst into view on Montes de Oca. Or maybe a certain thread, about to break, still links him to that man who, intoxicated with the spirit of the times, once said that it was necessary to join the struggle, to become the struggle in the name of the dignity of the people. Who knows? (Diana Glass will ask herself one day). Who knows at what moment or under what circumstances a man becomes a life-hater? Or is he born that way? And she’ll ask herself this question, turning herself inside out to see if she can discover in herself how a chain of events, a singular combination of received words, can sculpt one in a unique, immutable way. Or is it that a saviour or a criminal or a traitor nests within each of us, just waiting for the right opportunity to leap out?

The man in the passenger seat still hasn’t made a move: he’s facing a new situation, and this, naturally, slows his action. It’s not that he’s the type to hesitate: two days before, he had no problem telling the Chief of Intelligence, known as the Falcon: “The meeting is going to be in a house with a white door on Montes de Oca and Wenceslao Villafañe.” But to point out a woman who, like the Pasionaria, addressed students at university assemblies – she was addressing him, an implacable and enthusiastic science student – to move his mouth or his hand and communicate, “That’s the one,” is something else entirely. He’s watching the woman walk along, confident, jaunty, self-assured, unaware that in a few seconds she will be subdued. And that power seduces him, but it also paralyzes him. For that reason he doesn’t speak: it’s the man sitting at the wheel who says:

“Is that the one?”

He just nods. Then he leans his head back against the headrest. It was easier than he thought: he simply let himself be, ceded gently in the name of life itself, barely confirming something that someone else like him would have confirmed sooner or later. He or someone else, what difference did it make? He closes his eyes for a moment, so that he doesn’t see the signal the man at the wheel makes to the ones waiting on the sidewalk. Nor does he see – someone has removed him from the car in order to carry out the task from a different place – how those men advance and, so swiftly that a pedestrian on sun-filled Montes de Oca Street couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) tell if this was happening in the real world or in a dream, force the olive-skinned woman’s arms behind her back.

The Thrush, thinks the woman, who knows the Thrush’s propensity for sick jokes. She feels fleetingly protected by that joke, as if by a bell that protects her in some ancient territory of camaraderie, so much so that she admits what she never would have otherwise admitted: that, in spite of her haughty gait, now that so many others around her are falling, in a certain part of her heart she feels afraid. Because she truly and intensely loves life. Even though there is no unwary observer of this scene to note that the hooded woman shouting, “They’re taking me away!” and yelling out a telephone number that no one remembers was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

—Liliana Heker

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Liliana Heker was born in 1943 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is the author of two novels and many books of short stories and essays, in addition to being a founder of two important Argentine literary magazines. Her collected short stories were published in Spanish in 2004 and translated into Hebrew; her stories have been included in anthologies in many countries and languages. Her collection, The Stolen Party and Other Stories, is available in English. The End of the Story was not only a literary success, but a cultural event that provoked controversy and avid discussion of how best to remember the years of the Argentine dictatorship.
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Andrea Labinger received her BA degree in Spanish from Hunter College, and her MA and Ph.D. degrees in Latin American Literature from Harvard University. She is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne, California. Labinger specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction. Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Daína Chaviano, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela. Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007. Her Web site is Trans/Latino Trans/Lation.
Apr 112012
 

Mark Anthony Jarman

Confessional: Years ago, some time in the mid-1990s, I took up hockey again and played for two years in the nascent Saratoga Springs men’s hockey league. At the time this was one step up from pickup games. Mostly we played in an ancient barn-like wooden arena that, as it turns out, had been built on PCB-contaminated land that is now vacant (forever, possibly) and sewn with grass. I got so serious about this, I would drive to Troy once a week for skating lessons  in a tiny private rink (also inside a barn). We would practice edging by skating round and round holding onto a metal hoop anchored at the center, first one way, then they other. One summer I went to a hockey camp run by professional hockey players. Of such things an old man still dreams. Four years ago I went back to the league and played one game. Awful.

Here’s is a Mark Anthony Jarman short story about playing Oldtimers Hockey in  New Brunswick. (Okay, more confession: Once, long, long ago, I won the Canadian Oldtimers Hockey League Sportswriter of the Year Award — the high water mark in my literary career.)  Mark is an old friend dating back to our days at the Iowa Writers’  Workshop. He’s from Alberta, lives next to the Saint John River in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he teaches at the university. He plays hockey, wrote a hockey novel, has three sons, and was a regular pick when I edited Best Canadian Stories. He is the subject of my essay “How to Read a Mark Jarman Story” which originally appeared in The New Quarterly and can be found in my essay collection Attack of the Copula Spiders. He writes the wildest, most pyrotechnic stories of anyone I know. This particular story appeared earlier in Mark’s story collection My White Planet.

dg

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Drive the night, driving out to old-timer hockey in January in New Brunswick, new fallen snow and a full moon on Acadian and Loyalist fields, fields beautiful and ice-smooth and curved like old bathtubs.  In this blue light Baptist churches and ordinary farms become cathode, hallucinatory.  Old Indian islands in the wide river and trees up like fingers and the strange shape of the snow-banks.

It’s not my country, but it is my country now, I’m a traveler in a foreign land and I relish that.  The universe above my head may boast vast dragon-red galaxies and shimmering ribbons of green, and the merciless sun may be shining this moment somewhere in Asia, but tonight along the frozen moonlit St. John River the country is a lunatic lunar blue and the arena air smells like fried onions and chicken.  We park by the door, play two 25 minute periods, shake hands, pay the refs, knock back a few in dressing room #5, and drift back from hockey pleasantly tired, silent as integers.  And I am along for the ride.

Why do I enjoy the games so, enjoy the primal shoving and slashing and swearing and serious laughing at it all afterward?  In these games I have taken a concussion, taken a skate blade like an axe between my eyes and I jammed brown paper towels on the cut to staunch the blood.  Stitches, black eyes, and my nose is still broken from a puck running up my stick on its mission.  Might get my nose fixed one of these days.  One opposing player, when younger and wilder, is reported to have bitten another in the meat of the eye!

Today the inside of my thigh is a Jackson Pollock splatter painting: yellow green purple nebulas under the skin, flesh bruised from pucks hitting exactly where there is no padding (the puck has eyes).  At night my right foot pulses and aches where I stopped a slap-shot years ago.  My elbows are sore and they click when I move my arms.  My joints are stiff when I climb the pine stairs, especially now, since yesterday I took the boys skiing and then I played hockey at night.  Rub on extra horse liniment.  My neck won’t move freely and a check wrecked my shoulder last April and for weeks I had to sleep on my back or the pain awoke me.  Never got the shoulder looked at.  I pay money for these injuries, these insults to my spirit.

So why pay, why play the game?  As the Who sing, I Can’t Explain.  Hockey is my slight, perverse addiction.  Certainly I crave the physical side, especially versus working at the desk on 300 e-mails or doodling in a dull meeting. I enjoy the contrast, the animal aspects.  I crave a skate, a fast turn on the blades.

And I play because I am a snoop.  I learn things I would never otherwise know about New Brunswick, receiving a kind of translation, a geography lesson mile by mile, a roadmap, gossip, secrets, an unofficial oral history of this place’s lore and natives.  My team translates and I am along for the ride, a spy in Night-town.

We ride the highway down from Nackawic where we always lose to the Axemen or the Bald Eagles, millworkers on both teams up there.  I’m deep in the backseat of Al’s 4×4, but I spy a deer waiting by the shoulder like a mailbox.  I point it out to Al at the wheel.  The deer is hunched, nose out, poised to run across the busy lanes, its dark eyes inches from my face as our metal box blows past its snout and ears and private insects.

“I seem to hit one of those every two years,” Al says.  “Wrecked more damn vehicles.”  Al, as did his father, works fitting people with artificial limbs.  The passengers in our 4×4 all hold bags of gas station chips and open beer — what we call travelers.  I take up their habits.

Powder the goalie says, “I hit a deer last year and it was stuck across the windshield, this stupid face staring in at me in the damn side window.  Damn deer’s fault, up in grass above, everything hunky-dory, and doesn’t it decide to cross right when I’m there.  I must have drove 200 feet before the deer finally dropped off.”

“You keep it?”

“Didn’t want to get busted.  3 a.m. and I was drinking.”

“That’s when you keep them.  Toss it in your freezer.”

“Ain’t got no freezer.  Had to stop later at the gas station, headlights all pointed every which way.”

People are killed every year hitting moose on the road to Saint John.  Off the highway there’s a moose burial ground where they drag the carcasses and scavengers have their way with the organs and bones.  First they offer the dead moose to the Cherry Bank Zoo for its lions or tigers, I forget which.  The moose the lions don’t eat end up in the pile off the highway.

Dave the RCMP says, “Man, when I was in Saskatchewan I was driving to Yorkton and came across this guy who had hit one cow square on, killed it, and he clipped another and it flew down in the ditch.  It was still alive and I had to dispatch it.  I come back up and this guy is crying about his van, some red Coca Cola van, vintage I guess, front all pushed in, big V pushed in, crushed the grill, and this guy is just fucking crying about it and I said, Mister, I’m here to tell you you’re lucky to be alive.  But my van!  Just fucking crying about his little red Coca Cola van.

Powder the goalie is in possession of beer stolen from the truckload of Spanish Moosehead ale.  I’d like to have one can as an illicit souvenir.

“I’ll bring you some,” he says to me one game.

We do not let Dave the RCMP know this.  Dave, also known as Harry and the Hendersons for his furry back, also known as Velcro for the fur on his back, gets a hat trick one night, four goals the next game.  Velcro works hard.  “Come hard or don’t come at all,” he says.  Bad games he smashes his stick out of frustration, famous for ruining expensive sticks.  Powder’s goalie gear is chewed up by his dog, same dog that ate his rug and his plants and his pet iguana.

After the game in the locker room no lockers, but a cooler full of bottles and ice or if there is no ice then snow from the Zamboni.  My team stocks Propeller Bitter just for me.

“Any pussy drinks there left?” Thirsty the defenceman asks.  “Pass me over a wildberry.”  6 or 7 empty bottles by him.  He’ll drink anything.  Takes a traveler with him for the drive.  He’s not at the wheel; someone else is driving.

Thirsty was at the wheel on the road to Campbellton when his truck nearly went off the highway in a snowstorm, truck going sideways, going in circles on ice, his hands in deft circles on the wheel. They laugh about it now.

Big Billy says, “Thirsty’s arms were going like crazy, he looked like a cat digging in the litter box.”  Both are good rushing defencemen, often way ahead of the forwards.  Coach yells at them to stay back and play D.  Thirsty complains of a lack of fellatio at home, complains that he’s living what he calls a no hummer zone.  Or was that Big Billy the traveling salesman?  They sit side by side and joke and laugh and drink.

“Getting no leather,” they complain, “getting no skin.  Boys I tells yas, a woman gets married and she stops giving hummers.”

My wife says she likes the way I smell after hockey.

Get home late and buzzing and I can’t sleep, try to watch TV:  Ringo says to an overturned rowing scull:  “Come in #7, your time is up.”  I am 50; how long can I keep skating?  An 87 year old still skates for the Stinkhorns team.  I am still waiting for the Oilers to call, say they need a stay at home D man.

Funny that I didn’t really start playing hockey until I was about 30, playing with jazz musicians on Sunday nights in Calgary.  No helmets, few pads.  I was a pylon.  My nickname was Snepts.  Then I played nooners with the Duffer Kings at Oak Bay Rec in Victoria for a dozen years.  More and more pads, a helmet, then a visor.  My nickname was The Professor.  Same name here in NB.  Maybe I should take up a pipe.

Some games are lighthearted, a lark, others are grueling, violent.

Across the river in Nashwaaksis I chase a loose puck behind our goal.  #16 shoves me from behind, shoves me face first into the boards, exactly what players are told over and over not to do.  Neck or back injuries, paralysis, broken teeth, concussions, low self esteem, etc.   I get up yelling and pointing at #16 for a penalty, but it doesn’t matter as our team calmly gathers the puck, takes it down the other way and scores a goal.  The ref points into the net.

In Burtts Corner two of us race to a puck rolling in our end.  Different angles.  If he gets the puck he’s in on net.  I get close, swing my lumber and knock the puck away from their player, #10.  He knocks my stick right out of my hands, yells, accuses me of hacking him.  I played the puck, I know I made a good play.  He’s just pissed off I caught up.  When we’re all shaking hands after the game their goalie tells me, “#10 has gout.  He was owly before the game even started.”  Maybe he thought I was whacking his gouty ankles.  What is gout?  Some games I don’t shake hands.

“What are you doing to them back there?” a forward asks.  “Someone is always after you.”

Ted says, “He gives as good as he gets.”

They all join in.  “Oh he’s hacking and whacking, he’s clutching and grabbing like an octopus back there.”

I am innocent of all charges.

“That’s ok, boys,” says Ted, “that’s how we win games.”

Am I not a gentle soul?  Am I not always on the side of angels?  As Melville says in The Confidence Man, Many Men Have Many Minds.

A mining town.  Some regulars are missing from our team: a wonky knee or sun-tanning in Florida.  We look at the subs and judge our chances.  If we can just keep it close, respectable.

Clean ice and we skate in circles warming up, loosen our legs and bad backs and eyeball the team at the other end as they eyeball us.  Their goalie: is he good with his glove.  Go low? Go high?  Jesus didja see the size of his pads?  I try to find reasons to dislike the other team.  They ran up the score last game, made us look bad, they’re chippy, they probably like Bush, they probably kick orphans, their jerseys are too nice.  The ref blows the whistle and we line up, see what the first shift reveals to us, the mystery of the first two minutes.

The last two minutes tick so slowly when you’re hanging on to a lead; the last two minutes slip past too fast when you’re trying to scrabble for that one goal, to change that arrangements of bulbs glowing inside a scoreboard.

We get mad when Barker’s Point runs up the score on us.  A week later we run up the score on Munn’s Trucking and they get mad at us.  Some nights we’re piss-poor, but some nights our A-team shows up and we’re smooth, raised on a diet of ball bearings and motor oil.

Drive the night, drive the hills and hollows and bridges.  Ancient apple trees descend hills to the river in troop formation; arthritic looking, hunched over and no apples anymore.  As in New England to the south, many pioneer farms are grown over or subdivided into Meadow Lanes and Exit Realty signs, which my bad eyes translate as Exit Reality.

Drive the daylight to a hockey tournament and huge potato barns rise out of the earth, doors into cavernous earth, part of the hill.  JESUS HAS RISEN.  Spavined barns sulk, sun and snow destroying each fissured shake and shingle and hinge, molecule by cedar molecule.

The boys like the tournaments up in Campbellton, the North Shore of New Brunswick.  There they can cross a foggy bridge to take in the peeler shows on the other side of the water, watch what they term the Quebec ballet.  More strippers and neon signs than in bible-belt New Brunswick.  Last year Thirsty the accountant had a few and climbed up on a table and shimmied his own stripper dance, was disturbingly convincing.  He likes a dark dancer, stares and ruminates.  “Brown shutters on a pink cottage,” he says tenderly of her labial vicinities.  “Man she’ll get you going, get you up so a dog can’t bite it and a cat can’t climb it.”

Balmoral, Matapedia:  Scottish names and Acadian names on the highway signs and Franglais spoken in the bars.

A business-minded player on another team queries a woman as to how much money she makes in the Quebec ballet.

“125 a night, and ten of each dance is mine.  I have a pager and a cel and hook for 150 an hour.  I clear 140,000 tax-free in a year.”

One of the strippers writhing at the pole tosses off her leopard-skin g-string and Thirsty at ringside grabs her garment and hides it under his ball cap.  Later she searches the stage for her undies.  Where oh where is my g-string?   He saves this item as a souvenir.  Such behaviour is frowned upon in my other worlds, and this may be why I get a kick out of time lost in this world.

The ice is Olympic-sized, hard on the d-men with all that room to roam. But we don’t want to win too many games, we don’t want to get into the tourney’s final game because we’ll crawl home too late Sunday night. It’s a long drive from the North Shore.  Ted misses an open net.

“Bet you boys were relieved,” he says.  Ted is a tall drink of water, long reach, can corral the wildest passes.  In the city he runs an old family car dealership.  We lose 2-1 and are happy.

A crowded motel room, bodies stretched everywhere, hockey equipment everywhere, hockey on TV.  Thirsty places a ketchup pack at the base of the closed bathroom door and stomps hard on the ketchup pack, trying to spray Big Billy inside the bathroom.  The ketchup sprays all over Thirsty and in a fan up the beige door and wall.

My bottles of Propeller Bitter are gone down my throat.  I steal the last Heinekin from Thirsty.  He sits on a bottle: “Try and get this one,” he says.  The second day we have a very early game at the tournament: some of the guys are already drinking at 7 a.m., bottles beside them as they don gear.  Too early for me.  We stink in that early game, but are giant killers in the afternoon game, knocking out a very good team that planned to roll right over us.  There is no predicting.

Sugarloaf Mountain looms over the town.  The Restigouche River, the Bay of Chaleur, ice-fishing shacks lined up like a little village.  Snowmobiles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are parked nose to nose outside our motel rooms; an intergalactic gathering, wild plastic colours and sleek nosecones and fins, looking like they’d rocket through space rather than over the old railroad routes that cover the snowy province.  Someone is killed that weekend on a Polaris going 90 miles per.

The lazy joys of beer after we win.  Griping and grousing and the lazy joys of beer after we lose.  I see an eagle on the way home, arcs right over my windshield.

Limekiln, English Settlement Road, Crow Hill, Chipman, Minto, Millville.  Narrow logging streams, dead mill towns.  Elms fit the world, the winding country roads to country arenas, our headlights on the underside of sagging power lines, wires painted by our light.

Coach’s car slides a bit on black ice by the Clark hatcheries where the wind and snow scour the low road.  Coach often gives me and Dave the RCMP a ride to the arena.  Coach is a burly retiree in a ballcap and windbreaker, a former goalie and back catcher, ferociously competitive when he played and he cannot understand those who aren’t the same.

“Jesus I’m sick of it, they show up and don’t have a stick, they don’t have skates.  Before I went out the door I’d make sure I had everything.”  His relatives are buried around here, a graveyard in a cliff.  He is a good driver.

“Been on these roads since I was a young fellow.  Ice in the same places every year.  Water runs off Currie Mountain and then freezes up.”  Coach keeps a supply of mints in his glovebox.  I sit in the back.

We skate our warm-up, Dave the D gazing up into York Arena’s old rafters, soon to be demolished.  Dave is my new partner on D, works for Purolator, not to be confused with Dave the RCMP.  Dave the D seems mild enough, is not imposing, but he is famous to older players as a former berserker.  They talk about how he used to get right out of control fighting in the industrial league.  Played in this arena for years.  Now he skates around and looks about in a contemplative manner.

“Lot of memories?” I ask at the bench.

“A lot of punches to the head,” he says in a quiet voice.

Dave the D gets flattened late in the game.  When he picks himself up I can tell he is calmly considering how to take it, what to do.

“Pick your spot,” I say.

“No, too old.  I’ll get hurt and I’ll hurt someone else.”  He sounds plaintive but smart.

After the game he dresses and leaves.  We think he’s gone home.  He flies back in the door later with a bottle of pop, surprising us, allows he was out in the parking lot.

“Thought I left that foolishness behind.  Guess I didn’t.”

We look at his knuckles; is he kidding?  Did he tune the guy?

“We wrestled a bit,” he says lightly.

I still don’t know what happened in the parking lot.  In the summer Dave tossed his hockey equipment into a dumpster downtown; he decided it was time to stop, his body was telling him to stop, but he worried he’d keep playing just one more winter unless he physically got rid of his gear.

Rough hockey at Burtts Corner two weeks ago.  A series of chippy games really, and I like them, I play better when there’s some turbulence, some contact.  I don’t want to glorify being moronic, but it’s an adrenalin charge, a cheap thrill that makes me interested in what’s underneath the mask, the visor, underneath the charges and swearing and grand gestures.  Is this a meaningless masculine pose; are we wanna-bes?  Or is it what Ken Dryden calls learned rage, what is taught and approved?  Or is it what waits in all of us just below the civilized veneer?  I find it so easy to summon.  It’s masochistic and childish, but I have to admit the threat of imminent violence is alluring (it’s fun until someone gets hurt, some childhood guardian intones inside my head).  Maybe it just beats paperwork.

“You don’t belong in old-timers,” Coach shouts at the player who hacked me.

After the game we tease him.  “Coach, you going out to the parking lot after that guy?”

“I could handle it.  Growing up in Zealand no one’s a pansy, it was a tough life.”

He continues on the drive home.

“I have a cousin three miles up the road, he’s got to be over 70 now, but talk about tough, big big hands and long arms.  Five years ago, so he’d be about 65 then, five years back two young guys from Kingsley were after him in Bird’s General Store, he was at a table, they knew his rep, he kept warning them and they kept after him and finally he gets up and BAM BAM, flattens both of them.  He used to fight every Saturday night at the dance on Stone Ridge.”

Coach stares ahead and talks as he drives and hand out mints.  The white river to our right, stars undulating above, and clusters of mercury vapour lights like coals spread to cool on a snowy hillside.  In the back seat I clear a tiny porthole in the frosted window and feel like a child listening to stories.

Coach says, “When I was a kid my parents would go to the Stone Ridge dance.  We had an old International half-ton and I spent a lot of time in that, sleep on the seat or get up and wander around, maybe the crowd would wake me up rushing out of the dance.  They’d go this way and that way following the fight.  I guess word got around and guys used to come up from Fredericton to fight him.”

It’s hard to imagine Coach as a little kid sleeping in the International at the Stone Ridge dance.  Navigator has known Coach a long time, Navvy has played with some of our players since they were in grade school.  He has horses, sulkies, and a bad back that’s making him miss most games this year.  He works in a halfway house.  Man coming back in the evening sets off a metal detector.  Navigator navigates him to the doctor who will examine him.  The doctor says there is a snub-nose pistol up his rectum.  The doctor says to Navigator, “Want me to pull the trigger and save us all a lot of trouble?”

Navigator tells prison stories, says, “50% of women in jail are lesbians, 50% are dykes, and the rest are just wild!”

Powder the Goalie says a woman who lives down the road calls him up, bit of a burning smell in her trailer, she says.  Powder goes over to see.  The panel is hot, smoking, what to do?  Goalie turns off the breaker, but the lights stay on.

“Oh, oh,” says Mike the insurance agent.

“Don’t call me, call 911.  Three fire-trucks come out, and two hydro trucks.”

“She was a looker in high school,” says Danny.

“Field dressed she’d be about 350 pounds.  Knees like this.”  Powder holds out his hands as if around a fire hydrant.

Mike winces, shakes his head. “Field dressed.”  Mike’s been on the team from way back, a slick skater.  Mike and Ted play well together on a line.  Big Billy calls them The Golden Girls.  “Coach, who’s playing with the Golden Girls tonight?”

Our goalie puts the puck in our own net; he has done so several times.  Bad game.  Mike gives the goalie a dirty look.  Ref skates over, plucks the puck from back of the net for the seventh time, says to our goalie, “Well the beer will still be cold.”

“You sir are correct.”  Laughs.

Coach is not laughing, wants a new goalie.  “He doesn’t have his head in it!”  He’s going to watch other teams, look for a new recruit.

Coach is tossed out of the game in Oromocto.  He stepped on the ice to yell “Fucking homer” at the ref.  A bad ref.  You can swear at the refs, but you can’t step on the ice.  Automatic suspension.  He walks off the ice in his city shoes: “Fucking homer!  Fucking homer!”

The other team is puzzled; most old-timer teams don’t have a coach.  “Who was that?”

Ted says, “You don’t know Scotty Bowman?”

Wheel!  Wheel!  Man on you!

Slow it down.  Make a play.

That guy couldn’t put a puck in the ocean.

Up the boards, up the boards, the glass is your friend.

Don’t put it up the boards; make a play.

Got time!  Got time!

Short passes, guys.

No centre line – hit the long pass.

16 slashed me, I’m going to kill him.

This goalie goes down right away; hang onto it and shoot high.

Shoot low boys, right on the ice.

I have to skate, love to skate, the action, the speed, feel physically uneasy if I don’t get a skate in.  Navigator has to quit his hip is so bad.  Pinky quits, Jerry quits, Mike quits, all the originals.  When will I stop — that moment with your gear poised at the lip of the dumpster.

They don’t know your life, but they know whether you back-check, whether you try, whether you can pass on the tape, whether you paid your beer bill, who is the weak link, who to give the puck to, who has the touch, who is cool under pressure (not me), who has a cannon (not me also), whether you can be relied on.

The group can be superficial, callous, sexist, racist, homophobic, insensitive, but I don’t feel motivated to correct anyone.  The range of our conversation, what is safe, is incredibly narrow and repetitive, i.e. Don’t bend over in the shower.  We don’t discuss the new CD by Arcade Fire, we don’t dissect books or Hamlet’s worries, we don’t display our worries.  There is a kind of censorship, but that is also true of my other worlds.  In the group some may dislike me, but we are intimate, tied up in a camaraderie that is worth something, to shoot the breeze, use stupid nicknames, tell bad jokes, drink cold beer together in boxers, laugh at stupid stories, and delay going back to dress shoes and duplexes.  Laughter is good, the doctors tell us.  And win or lose, I laugh more with these guys, strangers really, than anyone else I know.  When I moved to New Brunswick I wondered if it was a mistake, but I get home from hockey still laughing at some goofy story and think, This is a life, this is doable.

Gord Downie, the singer for The Tragically Hip, is hanging in Fredericton, auditioning for a hockey movie re-enacting the 1972 Canada-Russia series.  He wants to play Ken Dryden or else Eddie Johnston, the backup goalie.  I hope he gets a part.  If I met Einstein at the Taproom I’d likely have little to chat about.  Gord and I could talk hockey; hell, we could even play hockey.  The crews film at Aitkin Centre and Lady Beaverbrook Rink will be the Russian arena.

“They still need Yvan Cournoyer for the movie.  Anyone look like the Roadrunner?  Know any French?”

My TV last year, before the NHL lockout; Vancouver was playing, maybe the playoffs; it all seems so long ago.

“Naslund is open.  The offside forward has to collapse and help out.”

I can collapse.  I can try to help out.  But this is not our language.  Coach just yells “C’mon boys!” over and over in a disgusted voice, an exasperated voice.  This is the extent of our playbook.

“It’s such a simple game,” he moans.  Coach gets mad almost every game, folds his arms over his chest and turns his big back on our game, refuses to run the door.   It’s a simple game and a complex game.

Our cars cruise the Loyalist countryside, Acadian land, Maliseet land, prehistoric land; our cars drive up the river and turn into snowy corvid valleys, over covered bridges, past dark mills and swaybacked railroad stations where no tracks run, the rocky country the Thirteen Colonies dismissed as the tail and hooves of the ox.  Over and over we line up at the circle.  We pay 200 in November, we pay 200 more in January.  We are driven.  It’s like a devotion to winless horses.

Lace them up in an unheated pig barn.  There is no crowd noise, no music.  We play the game in silence except the players yapping at each other or at the refs.  There are no cameras, but we play our parts, hit the marks.  No one watches us, there is no first place, no last place, it all means little, really, but we keep playing.  Our skates glide in silence and noise, we step lightly, fleetly, fall into each other’s airspace until the rink melts into grass.  We don’t watch, we drive to the net.  We drive and we play.

—Mark Anthony Jarman

—————————————–

Apr 092012
 

Adrienne Love teaches yoga, travels a lot and writes like a dream about men and women and their amorous relations. She is currently a student of mine in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. This fact (you’ll see what I mean when you read the following story) makes my life as a teacher a breeze (well, almost). In “Crash,” Adrienne evokes the dramatic culture clashes of a Westerner in India, which clashes (mini-crashes) complicate her heroine’s love affair with a man who doesn’t even know her name (another mini-crash). And over everything hangs the pall, the guilt, of an earlier crash, some sad history left behind in America, still to be faced again. “Crash” has drama, sex, exuberant language, hugely energetic scenes (including wonderfully evoked crowd scene) and beautifully detailed images of India. It’s a pleasure to present Adrienne’s story on NC.  This is her first publication. (Author photo by Jessica Sweeney.)

dg

—————

I tucked my head back into my shawl and covered my mouth as the wind on the beach woke up, arousing the garbage.  The man they called Kostya Verr pulled me between two crumbling buildings, out of site of the mob.  We faced each other, panting, and I was acutely aware of the proximity of our bodies.  Electricity seemed to zap between us.  Everything in me wanted to press against him–dissolve into him.  For weeks I’d watched him, willed him to notice me.  Finally, here we were, together.  But, “Wait here,” he said, and disappeared down an alley I’d never noticed.

Disappearing all my skin into my shawl, hoping I’d be mistaken for a local woman with my hair covered, I waited, nervous, for Kostya Verr  to return.  Perhaps he wouldn’t return at all.

I didn’t dare peer back out toward the beach, to where the mob of craft sellers was still pursuing us like two criminals, waving their mangy goods and hollering.  I could hear them.  But Kostya came back fast, Thank God, with two motorcycle helmets, one white, one black.  The white one he fit over my head as I emerged from my shawl.  “Good idea,” he said, laughing.  “Hot season’s coming.  Tourists are gone.  Locals are starving.  I’d take them all home with me if I could, but I can’t save India, you know?  I’m just one man.”  He pounded his closed fist against his heart for emphasis, Just One Man.  Then he secured the buckle under my chin and shook my helmet to make sure it fit.  “Ready?” he asked.  But he wasn’t interested in my answer.  Was I ready?  For what? Absolutely, I wanted him, but that didn’t mean I wanted to go away with him.  He didn’t even know my name.  Having no idea where we were going or why–having had not even a moment to consider before he’d taken me by the hand again, I melted into him when his fingers took mine, let him mold me like hot wax or wet clay.

§

The sand flew up around us, assaulting us in fistfuls as we ran, the first of the monsoons threatening, but he led us anyway to what would be a beat-up old scooter in America, but which was a luxury motorcycle here in Kovalam.  He kicked the stand with the back of his heel. I noticed he’d changed into long pants–jeans–and boots.  I melted looking at him, it was so hot.  Pausing just long enough to press the protective plastic panel over my eyes, he started the engine with three thrusts of his boot. Afraid I’d never get another chance to go away with him, I climbed on and threaded my arms under his.  We sailed away into the nascent night, honking and dodging traffic crazy enough to make you cry.

§

The next morning I woke up in his bed.  From the moment I opened my eyes I knew exactly where I was and how I’d gotten there.  I also knew we hadn’t slept together.  It wasn’t at all the kind of thing where the hangover rushes in and pounds you on the head as you peel your eyes apart and quickly squeeze them closed again when you realize you’re naked and you don’t know the man beside you and you shove your hand between your legs for evidence:  Did you sleep with him?  Who IS he?

What it was like instead was this. I awoke out of a nightmare that was so real it was a carbon copy of an afternoon, back home in California, weeks prior.  In a courtroom of angry people, I’d been submitting testimony and they’d shouted and pounded me with their never-ending questions: Was I reckless?  Did I always make poor decisions?  Did I drink and drive regularly?  I’d sobbed.  Previously a private person–hermetic, almost–my life after the accident had belonged to the grieving.  They’d needed someone to blame.  Even after I’d been acquitted.  But suddenly, in my nightmare, I knew I could escape.  I forced my eyes open, lurching myself out of my nightmare and into the stale Indian morning air.  Fumbling, I searched for something real.  Kostya’s foot was a brick baking in the sun, hot, heavy, and scratchy, on top of the woven blanket.  But once I found it I held on with both hands like it was a lifeline tethered to a boat and I’d been thrown overboard at sea.  What would I say if he woke up and asked what I was doing?  It didn’t matter.  I needed him.  I gripped harder.

“My name is Kostya,” he whispered, hot in my ear, waking me from a dead sleep a few hours later.

“Why are you so slippery?” I asked.

He cracked that smile and I was drunk on him all over again.

“Why is your head wrapped in gauze?” I asked.

Before I knew what was happening he was sliding around on top of me, over my t-shirt and panties.  Hot red oil reeking of peanuts and fennel rained off his body onto mine.  My hands shoved their way under the gauze and into his hair.  They recoiled when they reached the sticky mass underneath.  I held my hands up to the sunlight in the window.  The red cotton curtain billowed like a warning flag.  In the light my hands were covered in a thick opaque film.  They smelled of butter and pepper, and burned.  “I don’t understand.”

He opened his mouth wide over mine.  It was hot and his grizzle scratchy.  His tongue was a beast that shoved mine around.

So this was how it was going to be, I understood perfectly.  No answers to my questions.  Ever.

§

In India, on the edge of the hot season, you sleep a lot.  Everyone does.  Canine, human.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that later that afternoon, on the edge of dusk, I woke up for the third time that day in my t-shirt and panties in Kostya’s bed.  This time he was gone.  The bed looked like a crime scene.  I was wound up in the sheets like I’d been strangled with them.  Everything was covered in red oil.  It looked like blood.  What IS this stuff?  I waved my hand at the last of the daylight.  The red flag billowed, agitated, in the hot wind.  I heard voices chattering in Marathi outside the bedroom door. Kicking out of the sheets I made my way onto my feet.  Crusty, dirty gauze crackled beneath my toes and I slid on the tile.  Red oozed everywhere.  I needed a shower.

In the bathroom was a spigot about two feet from the ground, like the kind we have in gardens in America for hoses.  There was a bucket next to the toilet, the kind you use for flushing and wiping here in India.  My hotel, geared for westerners, had had a real shower.

The bucket was filled with a substance that looked like dirt.  I turned the spigot on to wash out the bucket, but it frothed like soap.  Searching the bathroom, I found nothing else that resembled soap.  And no shampoo.   Nothing to use for washing but a decrepit old hand towel hanging on the handle of the spigot with stains that looked and smelled like the frothy dirt in the bucket I was holding.  Guessing, I bathed with the hand towel, mopping the dirty liquid all over me, cleaning away the red ooze.

Hungry, having gone the whole day without eating, I wandered out into the hallway after my shower in Kostya’s robe.  A makeshift sign painted on the wall read Dr. Peter Sambhu B.A.M.S. Ayurveda & Panchakarma Clinic.  There were more words I couldn’t read, Marathi I assumed.  Kostya had told me he was staying in a clinic, but I hadn’t thought much about it.

The tile was lukewarm beneath my feet.  The sun was setting and the approaching rain dissolved some of the heat.  Through a tiny window in the hallway the sky was red smeared with brown.  Tile climbed all the way up the walls to the ceiling.  So many doors!  I pressed one of them open.  Inside was something resembling a massage table, only it was solid wood and there was nothing soft about it.  A giant hay colored rope wrapped in a film of black hung from the ceiling, and a wooden box, big enough to hold a human being, with a short stool inside and a hole big as my head carved out of the top panel rested in the corner of the room.  Along the walls were perhaps a hundred bottles–maybe more.  Some were filled with liquid, some with a substance that looked like butter.  The room smelled of peanuts and fennel, and when I pressed a hand on the thing resembling a massage table it came up covered in that same red ooze.  I wiped my hand on Kostya’s robe, leaving a smear of red.  On the opposite wall was a tiny window and beneath it a table with two burners and several blackened sauté pans.  Somewhere in the clinic a door slammed.  And the fan overhead started spinning.  The rain started.  It slanted into the room in sheets and I rushed to fasten the wooden shutters to keep it out.  How many rooms with open windows? Tightening the robe around my waist I backed out of the room and closed the door.  I pressed other doors open.  Every room was the same:  table, giant box, sauté pans, blackened rope.  Then a long row of rooms like Kostya’s:  bed, mosquito net, buckets in the bathroom filled with dirt, red cloth flapping against the windows.  Not knowing what else to do, I closed all the windows I discovered, until, at the end of the long hallway, I found a staircase.  I climbed three flights to the top before a little local girl, covered in dirt and barefoot, slammed into my thighs.  I looked down at her, but before I could say anything, she was gone.

There was a racket in Marathi from somewhere in the building, and then the slamming of more doors, and then just the rain and the wind and the sound of my own breath as I made my way through the clinic.

On the top floor I found a kitchen.  Several glass doors along one wall lead out to an enormous balcony.  I pressed up against the glass, felt it shivering in the storm, and wondered where Kostya had gone, and when–or if–he’d come back.  My hotel was across town.  The path leading there, along the beach, had been swallowed by the tide.  My stomach rumbled and I started rummaging in the kitchen.  The cabinets were full of spices, none of which I recognized.  I sat down in front of one of them and dropped my head in my hands.  What if it rained like this forever and Kostya never came back?  I’d spent only one night with him, but I’d watched him for weeks and weeks.  For so long I’d wanted him to notice me, and now that he had I felt naked without his attention.  Was he okay out there in the rain?  And what about Gilbert Massey?  Was it raining in California?  Was he alone, or was there someone there with him, sleeping in the blue chair next to his hospital bed?  Was his oxygen tube twisted?  If so, would the someone asleep in the blue chair next to his bed wake up and untwist it?  For a moment I felt my mind slipping back into my nightmare.  In the distance a door slammed.  I jumped.  It occurred to me I’d never been so alone in my whole life.

Swing low, sweet chariot–someone was whistling.  I sat in my heap on the floor of the kitchen as the whistling grew nearer.  And then Kostya appeared, in the doorway, soaking wet in shorts and a sleeveless shirt, bags dangling from his long arms, his veins wrapping them like ribbons.  He stopped whistling when he saw me.  “Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”  I started to ask where he’d been, but decided against it.  “I put on your robe,” was all I could manage.

“I can see that.”  He lifted the bags onto the counter.  “Hungry?”

I nodded.

“Empty these while I change?”

I nodded.

I started peeling the wet plastic bags apart as he walked toward the door.  But he stopped short of it.  He turned around and came back to me.  He lifted my hands from the bags and put them down by my sides.  Without looking at my eyes he untied my robe and pulled it apart so it hung open.  He stared at the sliver of my naked body for the first time through the open slit.  He ran two fingertips in a line from between my breasts to the top of my pubic bone, letting them linger, as if telling us both where we wanted to go.  I’d expected to shiver, but I barely felt him.  He walked away.

 §

We had dinner on the floor of the kitchen.

“I prefer to sit on the earth,” Kostya said, and he nestled onto a cushion beside the glass balcony door.  Thunder exploded outside, and when lightning flashed I saw him mopping food into his mouth with his hands just like the locals.

“Okay,” I said, and followed him with my bowl.  I didn’t mention that we were on tile, not earth, nor that we were three floors above ground.  He was shirtless, in long flowing pants.  I was still in his robe, my clothes ruined by the red ooze.  Tomorrow I’d wash them out and hang them to dry, I decided.  We ate in silence, and I swallowed my questions–Where was he from?  Where had he been today?  What was he doing here in Dr. Sambhu B.A.M.S.’ Ayurveda & Panchakarma Clinic—knowing he wouldn’t answer me even if I asked.  He finished eating before me and then sat back on his elbows, watching, until I emptied my bowl.  After my last bite, he took my bowl.

I wanted him to lunge forward, to pull the knotted cord from around my waist and peel his robe off me.  Or I wanted to climb onto his lap, and pull the robe off myself, throw my head back as the lightening crashed and lit up my naked body before him, feel him enter me.  I wanted to bite him on the shoulder.  Lick the rest of his dinner mess off his fingers.  But something stood between us.  Something hard and intangible.  Something like hate, but that was impossible.  Or was it?  We’d barely spoken a handful of words.

When he stood up I followed, and he guided me with his hand on my back out of the kitchen, toward his room downstairs.

“Come,” was all he said, as he pressed open the door to his room.  The floor had been cleaned, no more red ooze, the bed freshly made with a new set of linens.  Even the bucket in the bathroom had been refilled with more brown stuff.  Swing low, sweet chariot, he whistled, as he laid out several sets of women’s clothes on the bed.  Gesturing toward them, he said, “Choose.”  He sat on the tile by the window, in front of the red curtain.  I gathered the clothes and headed for the bathroom.  “Here,” he said, and I understood he intended to watch me change.  This is the opposite of disappearing, I thought.

I might have said no, it was so vulnerable to be standing naked before a man.  But I wanted to please him.  And a part of me was desperate to be seen.  Not as a criminal.  Not as they saw me now in California– aquittal or no aquittal– but as a woman.  Sexy.  Free.  I remembered riding with Kostya on his motorcycle the night before, gripping him around the gut.  I wanted to get back on that motorcycle with him.  Wanted him to drive and drive and never stop.  Kostya felt like my lifeline, my ticket out of hell.  I didn’t dare disappoint him.  And so with trembling fingers, in a bath of red light from the moon shining through the curtain, I untied my robe and let it pool at my feet.  I wanted him to smile, but he didn’t smile.  He didn’t do anything.  He just watched me.

I settled on a long turquoise skirt with silver tassels and mirrored beads that jingled when I walked.  Now I’d be seen and heard.  A short white blouse with capped sleeves on top.  On the beach I’d seen sun ripened ladies peddling clothes like the ones I now wore.  “From Jaipur,” they’d insisted, as they shook the mirrored beads in the sun.  Backing away I’d cringed.  No mirrors please.

“Ready?” Kostya asked when I was dressed, but of course he didn’t wait for my answer.  He came over behind me, instead, and began combing my hair with his hands.  He braided it, and then let it go, unsatisfied.  I held my elbows and kneaded the skins with my fingers.  Did he know they thought I was criminal back home in California? Could he have read about the trial in some online paper?  He left the room, and I heard him opening a door down the hallway.  He returned with one of the bottles from one of the shelves in one of the rooms.  Unscrewing the cap he flooded his hands with its contents.  “Coconut oil,” he whispered in my ear.  My nipples bristled as he ran his hands through my hair, pulling it softly.  My scalp tingled, as if waking up out of a dream.  He wove my long blonde hair into a braid and fastened it with string.  He looked at me again and then disappeared again.  This time I didn’t worry as much, trusting he’d return.  When he came back, he held little white flowers in his hands.  He pinned them into my hair, letting his fingers linger on my neck when he was done.  “Just like the Indian women now,” he said, and kissed my shoulder.

He pulled a red linen shirt from a drawer and buttoned it around him as it flapped in the breeze.  When had the rain dissipated?  The windows been opened?

This time, when we folded ourselves into each other on his motorcycle, he slipped my skirt up over my thighs and pulled me in closer to him than the night before.  Without helmets, we drove away into the night, the mirrors of my skirt twinkling like stars in the moonlight.

§

In India, you hear festivals before you see them.  By the time Kostya parked the Yamaha and helped me off, the pounding of bare feet into the dirt earth created a deafening percussion all around us. Any words we tried exchanging were snatched away by the noise.  Kostya guided me through the crowd, his hot palm on the space of skin above the waist of my skirt.

We pressed on through the crowd, past an enormous bejeweled elephant with a headdress and two boys riding on its back.  They were about Gilbert Massey’s age, before the accident.  My eyes traveled the lengths of their pubescent limbs, the soft skin, the narrow shoulders.  They were healthy, unbroken. For a moment, I felt myself slipping back into my nightmare.  But Kostya’s palm, hot on my skin, called me back.

All around us the faces were brown, the hair almost black.  As if rebelling against that monotone palette, saris and dhotis, in every imaginable color, surged, a great painting bursting to life.  At the base of a crumbling stairway, a brown arm reached down and took my hand.  Kostya nodded, so I clasped.  The hand, sweaty, rough, and strong, lifted me upward.  Kostya steadied me from behind.  At the top, I turned and offered my hand to Kostya, who accepted, and we dissolved into a great train with the villagers, all helping each other climb up and up into the sky.  Eventually, our great mass reached a rooftop, where we hovered above the sea of color below.  Pressed shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-to-knee, we stood at the edge of a rooftop, our elbows scratching on the crumbling wall that barely kept us from tumbling over the edge.  Children sat on the edge of the wall, swinging their little brown legs.  The lights from the festival, fires spinning, candles and torches burning, danced in the reflections of their enormous black eyes.  My heart, lonely and broken for so long, filled up on their innocence.  For a few fleeting moments, my heart beat exactly in time with the rhythm of the crowd as it stomped into the earth with a fury and persistence matched only by my passion for the man whose hand played with the edge of my shirt.

Suddenly there was a roar from the crowd, and all around us hands flew up into the air.  Craning my neck I tried to see through the crowd, curious.  But Kostya pressed his hot hand underneath the base of my shirt and sent it forward and up.  He took my breast in his palm.  I thanked God I hadn’t worn a bra as he fingered my naked nipple.  The crowd jumped and hollered and Kostya pressed hard against my back with his whole body.  Giving into his weight, my hips slammed against the wall, and my elbows scraped its hard surface.  How long before this all comes crashing down? I wondered.  The wall seemed to crumble away bit by bit against the press of the crowd.

Later someone will tell me it’s illegal to kiss in public in India, and I’ll wonder whether that’s true, but that night, as Kostya explored me, his hot mouth open against the back of my neck, as the crowd surged and yelped and clapped and stomped, as Kostya sent his other hand beneath the elastic waistline of my skirt and cupped his palm between my legs, as he sent two thick fingers to work their magic inside me, it was as if the crowd was there for the sole purpose of celebrating our passion.

How long had it been since I’d given myself to a man?  Since the accident, I hadn’t allowed myself any sort of pleasure.  I’d wanted to hurt.  How many times had I prayed to God to let me please trade places with Gilbert Massey, who lay motionless in a hospital in California, kept alive for years by machines?  Kostya flicked his fingers.  How long had I waited for Kostya?  I writhed.  Could I have known I’d find him here?  In India?  Had I escaped across the Pacific not to become invisible, but rather to wake up out of my nightmare?  To be alive again?  He flicked again, and bit down on my neck.  He pressed me harder.  My hips bruised against the wall and my elbows sliced against slivers of shattered glass.  I opened my eyes and saw my own blood painting the pastel wall.

I pulled my attention away from Kostya for a moment, to wipe my elbow, and as I did the child next to me stared into my eyes, and then watched Kostya’s hand moving under my blouse.  I blushed and started to smile at the child, whom I could not be sure was male or female, but whose face was framed with the most luscious waves–precious waves like Gilbert Massey’s. For a moment I remembered pressing those soft waves from Gilbert’s forehead as I’d rocked his lifeless body beneath the Weeping Willow tree.  But Kostya’s body against mine wouldn’t let me stay there with Gilbert under the tree.  I hadn’t realized my eyes had closed.  My body whimpered and quivered.  My voice whined, but the crowd drowned it out.  I felt myself bursting, and when I opened my eyes, the child with Gilbert’s precious waves was still there, watching.  Slightly ashamed, but too ecstatic, I smiled at her.  There’s so much magic, I wanted to say.  You’ll see. I drifted back.  My body bucked.

But then Kostya ripped his hands from me, and I was thrown hard against the wall, knocking the child.

There was brawl behind me.  Not a brawl with fists flying–not in India.  But a brawl of words, and shouts.  I flew around in time to see Kostya pulled away from me by a pack of brown men, most of whom were half his size, but still, there were so many of them.  Too many for Kostya to fight off.  Then–

Everything.  Slow.  Motion.

My heart fell out of my chest as the crowd hushed and a high-pitched scream exploded.  No!  I turned back to where the child had been watching me, but the space on the wall was empty.

Everything.

Slow.

Motion.

Launching myself toward the edge of the wall, almost tumbling over, I stared down at those precious waves dancing through the air.

I wished for the power to stop time.  The child, falling, feet first, arms outstretched, she–I’d later learn her name was Sita–seemed to be reaching up, reaching for a hand, for my hand.

Knees cutting against the glass on the wall, I leaned all the way over the edge, reaching, reaching, trying to give her my hand. Down, down, I reached.  Until I fell.

Had I wanted to fall?  Perhaps it had been the only way.  How could I have possibly walked back down those steps, having knocked Sita over the edge?

Falling through the air, my blonde braid flapping against my spine, Kostya’s white flowers fluttering up past my face and then, up, up, up, I had time to think, So this is how it will end.  I deserve this.

Down.

Down.

In the air, I forgot about Sita.  But Gilbert Massey, crystal clear, soft, unharmed by the accident, appeared, falling with me, but he was smiling.  It wasn’t your fault, he said.  It wasn’t anyone’s fault.

Down.

I saw myself sitting beneath the Weeping Willow holding Gilbert’s lifeless body, both of us painted in blood so brilliant it almost wasn’t real.

Behind us, the cars smoked in a tangle of metal and broken glass.  Shaking furiously, I rocked him.

There was no sound, other than my whimpering prayers.

Braid flapping.

Gilbert smiling.

And then warmth on my back.  I was certain it was the earth.  I’d feel the slam of it any moment.

But only a bounce.

And then I stared into their eyes.

A sea of hands had caught me. We stared at each other, me at the villagers, the villagers at me, disbelieving.

Bloody, shocked, and disoriented, I was carried to a dirt floor somewhere near enough to the festival to hear the celebration resume and continue into the night.  In candlelight, an elderly woman in a heap of skirts and bangles, with a red dot beneath her widow’s peak, and a chain from her ear to her nostril, wiped my forehead, pressing my blonde wisps to one side as I’d pressed aside Gilbert’s waves under the Willow Tree.

Staring up at her, searching for answers, I wondered, where was I?  Was this my grandmother, dressed for some costume party?  I’d never known my grandmother.  But perhaps she’d come back now that I needed her.

Something, a whining, was pulling me back.

The old woman closed her eyes and hummed a song I couldn’t understand.

Again, I was rocking Gilbert’s body beneath the Weeping Willow, as his father’s soul left his body, which had been smashed between the steering wheel and the destroyed windshield of his car when our cars collided.

Then more whining.  It grew louder and clearer.  There’d been no noise under the Weeping Willow.  That, I remembered.

A child whined.  I gasped!  Where was the child?

My body convulsed and I cried out, certain the child had died, and cruelly, I’d been spared.  The old woman puckered, her eyes misty and hard.

And then I saw her, the child.  Sita–I’d learn–she giggled and cooed, accepted something shiny, from a young woman, probably her mother, hovering over her.  Oh my God.  The old woman patted my head. Racing, I explored the length of Sita’s skin with my eyes.  Not a blemish.  Not a scrape.  Not a bruise. The woman standing above Sita waved the shiny thing again and Sita threw her head back, a smile erupting. Her soft waves were innocent and safe.

§

My plane climbed up, up, into the sky, leaving India and Kostya and Sita behind.  I pressed my forehead against the window and watched the massive subcontinent grow smaller, smaller.  Tears stung my eyes.  My heart hurt.

I’d stayed in my hotel a few days, sitting on the balcony, watching the waves crash against the cliffs below.  I hadn’t gone back to the clinic.  I hadn’t gone back to Café Kovalam where I’d watched Kostya for weeks until he’d noticed me.  I’d hoped Kostya would find me, that he’d arrive at my door and press himself against me the way he had at the festival, that we’d tear clothes away and throw them out the window, that we’d exist forever naked and sweating together in my hotel bed, hidden from the world, protected together.  That’s why I’d stayed after Sita fell off the wall.  But Kostya had never even asked my name.  How could he possibly find me?

In the end, it had been right that he hadn’t.  After almost a week of watching the waves crash against the cliffs, I decided to go home.  Home was where I needed to be.  But this time I, I decided, I wouldn’t hide.  I’d go see Gilbert Massey in the hospital.  I’d untangle his oxygen tube if it twisted.  I believed in miracles.  Sita and I had been saved, after all.

 The movie screens dropped and the stewardess ordered us to close our window shades, so I closed mine, and pressed my head back into the airplane seat.

I thought about Kostya, about his smile and his smell, and that red ooze in the clinic.  Had it really been red?  Or had it just seemed red because I’d been thinking about the accident?  Was it possible that he loved me?  That I loved him?  And what might have happened had I not crashed with Sita over the edge of that crumbling wall?

I closed my eyes as we climbed higher, higher.

In my fantasy, on that rooftop, the night of the festival, the crowd had eventually dissolved, leaving Kostya and I to make love in the sky.  He’d left my turquoise skirt with the mirrors on, but tucked the hem of it into the waistband, so it became a mirrored blue sash across my hips.  My shirt, he’d pulled over my head, and his hands held onto my breasts as we made love for the first and only time.  In our fury, he’d bitten my lip, drawing blood, and he’d pulled away to tell me loved me, licking my blood from his own lips.  Though the crowd had disappeared, the lights from the festival had danced in his eyes.  He’d sat me in his lap, his spine against the crumbling wall, and when he’d entered me the rush pierced me so deeply, I knew I’d never again wish to disappear.  For a moment, Sita had appeared, swinging her legs on the wall, eyes full of confusion, but no fear.  Kostya still inside of me, I’d turned my head away from him, and whispered in a voice only she could hear, I’m sorry.  The next time I’d opened my eyes, in my fantasy, Sita was gone.  Kostya had pulled away again.  “You’re beautiful.”  He’d stopped to tell me.  “I watched you for so long, afraid you’d never have me.”

I’d wound myself into him and pressed my face into his collarbone, as we heaved.

And when we’d finished, I’d told him, “I have to go.  There’s something I have to do.”

“What?”

But I’d pressed my fingers to his lips.  “Promise you’ll find me.”

——————–

Adrienne Love is a yoga teacher, writer, world traveller, and lifelong student (currently in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts).  She currently lives with her main man, Frank-the-Cat, in Sausalito, California.