21. Why are we whispering?

I receive an email from you that my package has arrived. Your mother steamed and puréed the Jerusalem artichokes with soy cream and served it over pasta; as instructed, you laid the Selaginella lepidophylla in a bowl of water and watched its desiccated spikemoss leaves unfurl.

We speak on the telephone for three hours. You ask me how many I’ve written so far, and how many I’m still planning to do, and when I say “Seventy, maybe eighty,” you sigh with relief. “So we’re only a quarter of a way there.” Your fear is that my interest in you will end with the completion of a book; mine is that a seduction has taken place purely through words, and that my person can only be an awkward disappointment. But you’ve found some part of yourself in me, and I in you, and for the first time I realize how wrong I was about V., now that I know what it means to be heard, what it’s like for someone to remember the things I’ve told him and to fit the pieces together, to care enough to do that. V. deleted each of my messages for fear of being discovered: imagine that! What could be worse than erasing a writer’s words?

Where were you the day he and I met in Soho for a late breakfast with a hotel reservation hanging in the air between us, the things we’d said we would do to one another? Had you come soaring through the window in a full-body leotard and cape and landed in the hotel room with a dapper swoop, would I have allowed you to stop me? I can still see him lying on his back, slick with sweat; I was kissing his chest softly, we were whispering to one another, and all of a sudden he asked, Why are we whispering? and we both laughed. And at that very moment, the very moment we had become most tender with one another, he checked his watch, cleared his throat, and said it was time to go. Time to what? After telling so many lies, was he unable to make up a story, explain to his wife that he’d run into a high school friend and had decided to stay in the city a few more hours, drink a beer or two to catch up?

If I could make a film, this is what you would see:

(Pennsylvania Station, just outside the Eighth Avenue entrance on the corner of 34th Street)

1. A woman, no longer young, but more beautiful than she’s looked in a long time because a man she once knew as a cocky kid who’d moved into her cousin’s old house has made her feel absolutely gorgeous;

2. A man standing next to her, glancing around fretfully, afraid, no doubt, that someone might recognize him and blow his carefully constructed cover.

A last kiss, and then another, and then she watches him enter the building with his backpack slung over his shoulder, step onto the escalator, and disappear from view. He doesn’t look back: this should tell her everything she needs to know, but for some reason her mind doesn’t go “ding.” A moment ago they were licking the salt off each other’s skin, and the next thing she knows, her lover has transformed from a reverent troubadour into an emotionless automaton with a forward-slanting, harried gait, a button-punching robot.

(She doesn’t know what to do with herself; she wanders toward the corner crossing in a daze. Suddenly, she turns around, struggles with a violent urge to run after him, and then feels herself go limp, like a doll.)

She surveys the lights and advertisements around her as though she were seeing them for the first time; she enters a stream of people headed downtown, picks up her pace, and is quickly carried away as electronics stores and fast-food joints blur by. She is in love, or at least she thinks she is; she should be happy, but she feels she is about to cry out. She walks faster, she will walk all the way down to Tribeca, anything to keep the feeling of loss, of fear and dread from overtaking her.

At one point she stops to sit on a bench; she can’t quite understand where she is, or why. They should be nibbling softly at one another now, groggy from the day’s intoxication, their thoughts drifting to food, to restaurants, a dinner of pungent, interesting tastes. Instead, he is crammed into a seat on a crowded Amtrak train, pulls out his iPhone, and texts his wife that he’ll be home in an hour and fifteen minutes. Because he is a chronic worrier, he double-checks MoMA’s website and bolts upright when he discovers that the museum isn’t open on Tuesdays—to think that he could have blown it over something so obvious! Luckily, he has enough time to fabricate a new alibi. To him, it is a misdemeanor that will cause him an occasional twinge of guilt: a minor infraction he will get away with. To her, it is like a movie scene in which all of a sudden a knock comes at the door and police or gangsters burst in and wrench one of two lovers away, hauling him off shouting, arms and legs flailing, leaving the other behind with a bedsheet pulled up to her chin, shivering uncontrollably. It should have told her everything, everything there was to know about their story, but for some reason, her mind didn’t go “ding”—and she would go on imagining, month after month, for a long time.

 

Unwrapped

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