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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Mother: Let me see?

Me:         Careful, it’s fragile. She said to put it in water for a while.

Mother:  What is it? Isn’t that too much water?

Me:         No, it should be OK. There. I don’t know what it is. It’s dry, brittle.

(sniffs)

No smell. It doesn’t seem to be bleeding in the water either… we’ll see.

Mother:  What are those?

Me:         Those are Jerusalem artichokes, and a small carton of soy cream. She sent them because I couldn’t find them here. They’re for that third recipe she gave me, a sauce for pasta. Here, smell one.

Mother:  Smells nice, fresh. I’ve seen them in the Arab stores. They get them sometimes. Artichokes from Israel?

Me:        Jerusalem. They’re just called that, for their taste, they’re not really artichokes. They are fresh. She wrapped them in damp paper towel. I have to purée them, mix in the soy cream, plus salt and pepper.

Mother: That sounds good! What else is in the box?

Me:        A book she made — it reads both ways, look. One sentence goes over all the pages this way, right to the end. Another sentence is upside down on the top, and it reads the other way — see? You have to turn the book to finish it. It’s fun, for the child in us — my thoughts down here, a cat’s thoughts up there, both streamed from watching water swirling down the same shower drain on each page, with each image different and unexpected.

Mother:  Oh.

Me:          She signed it in the back. In pencil. Her handwriting is elegant, distilled, spaced. That’s her signature, look.

(holds up book; mother remains silent)

It’s affirmed, omnipresent, swift — no going back.  It reminds me of Bonaparte’s.  Yish… I hope she’ll be indulgent with me.

Mother:  What did she write?

Me:         To me, dash, with love, period.

Mother:  Oh… Okay.

Me:         It also means this book’s mine, and you can’t touch it without white cotton gloves.

Mother:  Look at the plant — it’s opening up, it’s reviving!

Me:         Ah, damn it — I wish I knew what it was. She never said, she wants me to guess, it’s bugging me now. Amazing how it’s changing. It looks like some kind of flat circular moss. It’s beautiful. Should I taste it, in case it’s an herb?

Mother:  Don’t you put that in your mouth! What if it’s poison? Can’t you see? Stop trying to find out. It’s a message. She sent it as a message, that’s all it is.

Me:         What?

Mother:  It’s simple. First it’s all dry and grey and curled into a ball on itself. Now it’s unfurling, getting all big and green and alive again. She’s telling you your mind is going to expand again. You’re going to resurrect. It also means I’m making that Israeli puree tomorrow, because you’re still a blockhead and you’d just ruin it.

panta rhei 5

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

Mother: You left your email open, you went to the kitchen. I didn’t “read your email.” 

Me:         And you just happened to walk by??

Mother:  It’s my living room, I go as I please.

(Pause)

Mother:  She’s really got you pinned down, hasn’t she?

Me:         You can’t be reading my emails. You can’t do this.

Mother:  I’ve been thinking the same for years. She took the words out of my mouth.

Me:         Good, now you can call back Ilse and gossip some more about this “souls meeting in thin air” business. You think it’s amusing, don’t you?

Mother:  That woman you married, I’ll never forgive her for what she did to you.

Me:          Is that all you got out of it? What are you really telling me?

Mother:  I’m telling you that you never should have allowed it.

Me:          I put up with things I can’t change. Look how I’ve been putting up with you!

Mother: “Remember who you are…” How can she know you like this? She’s never met you.

Me:          You know, I think you need to be told a thing or two.  Maybe I should unleash Andrea on you, she’ll say it better.

Mother:   Andrea—what a good, lovely name.

Me:         Remember it. She fights with her fists.

Mother:  She supports you two hundred percent. It’s amazing.

Me:         She wears jackboots!

Mother:  I like boots.

Me:         Not that kind you won’t.  She’ll kick you right across the Thames with them.

Mother:  I’ve been trying to dislike her.  Very hard. But I can’t.

Me:         I can’t believe this!

Mother:  What?

Me:         What you just said, that you’ve been trying to dislike her.

Mother:  I’m even starting to love her.

Me:         I’m so happy for you! Just don’t read my email anymore, OK?

Your friends are reading over your shoulder now, hello B., hello D.—will it change things? Is it time to introduce a seduction scene? My tongue sliding down your chest to your waist, my cheek brushing against your body hair, nibbling at it as I inhale the smell of your skin. I unbutton your pants slowly, nudge my tongue into the opening and tug at the elastic waistband with my teeth; I pull them down enough to lick the inside of your thigh where it meets the groin, and a soft moan escapes from your moist lips. But that’s not what this is about, at least not principally. How to explain?

Did I find you, or did you find me? I’ve done so many things wrong in my life, I’ve fallen in love with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and I’m skeptical now, a skeptical dented can on a shelf, a skeptical perpetrator, but of what? I don’t trust it, or myself, don’t understand what we’re doing, whether it’s strange, or beautiful, or just an excuse for me to write again—fervently, irresponsibly, staying up all night and sleeping away the day and giving myself over to the task completely, to the near exclusion of all else. A chance to make up a story and live inside it, to escape reality, all the obligations piled up on my desk, deadlines that hound me in my sleep: the editorial work, the essays, the translations, the reviews.

Running shoes that make squeaking sounds on hallway floors; socks that fall down awkwardly every ten steps: that’s what’s missing, everything that goes along with having a body, or rather being a body—why is it that neither of these verbs applies? What are we, really, when we distill our existence down to mind and soul? A voice. I want to press my cheek against your chest, hear your heartbeat, and although I am allergic to every perfume in existence and am still not quite sure if you understand the larger implications of this, I want to breathe in the smell of your body—and while my head swoons as I feel the warmth of your skin against my own, I will wonder if you’ll notice the hives swell up on my face and neck, recognize the symptoms of anaphylactic shock, and rush me to the nearest hospital before I, gazing at you adoringly, die pale and lovely in your arms? Or will you have saved me just in time? We have an entire repertoire of movies and fairy-tales to create our imaginary world.

Last night, you walked down Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street, through an excited Saturday-night feast teeming in all directions. The broad sidewalks were jammed with people, everyone was dressed up and on the prowl, some of them prancing and preening, some ruing their bitter reality out loud for everyone to hear. A twenty-something couple in the throes of an argument, she a bleached blonde storming ahead, shouting like a fishmonger: “I can’t do it any more! Yew’ve gone too far!,” he trying to catch up with his shorter legs and his black hair waxed up into a pointy crest on his head, pleading: “Look, Oy’ve been troying! Yew could at least give me that!” And I, opening my mail and reading it the next morning, laughing out loud, delighted at the thought of you carrying me with you through nighttime London. I am afraid of this evaporating into thin air the moment we meet—poof! there it goes, the illusion you have of me, that I have of you, but no, that’s not all, surely there’s got to be something more? The part of you that hears me, understands me, picks up the faintest of signals; that sees everything, registers everything, forgets nothing, how can that be?

It’s not possible, it’s not possible. When I leave this room and close the door behind me, turn the key in the lock with precisely the same movements as I would normally employ, switch on the hall light and walk down the steps to the outside door and then out of the building in exactly the same manner as any other day, when I walk down the sidewalk in a gait typical of anyone with an errand to run or an acquaintance to meet, careful to maintain this perfect camouflage and thinking all the while of you, concentrating on nothing else but you, seeing all the while an image of you before me as I guard my features in order not to betray you, how can it be, if I direct my entire concentration toward this impending moment, when the door to a particular building is bound to open the very second I am passing by, how can it be that you do not in this moment appear, emerging from this doorway? Where else could you possibly be, than at the locus of all this attention?

Was it you that that happened to, or was it me? Does it matter? I too looked into a mirror once and saw two eyes that resembled the eyes you drew from your own reflection. I had taken a fall, hard on my skull, from a storage loft in my Brooklyn studio. I was on my knees, crawling backwards after getting the last of the framed photographs up and out of the way in order to sublet the space; I was feeling for the top of the ladder with my foot, and I missed. The next thing I knew I was sprawled on my back on the cement floor nine feet below, and my lungs felt as flat as pancakes, and I was unable to breathe. Slowly, methodically, with the mechanical will that kicks in when your survival instinct shoves you aside and takes over, I turned myself around, a quarter-inch at a time, dragged my hands in toward my body, and eventually maneuvered myself onto all fours, like a wounded animal. Blood was dripping from both sides of my head, it was running into my ears, but I had no time to think about that now, I had to direct all my attention toward making my lungs work again, toward inhaling. It felt like trying to blow up one of those impossible balloons, but in reverse, and it was only on the third or fourth attempt that I succeeded. Slowly, steadily, I breathed in, breathed out, pursued this for some time—inhaling, exhaling—until I was sure I could trust my body to continue breathing on its own, and then I struggled to my knees and felt for the back of my head, which was sticky with blood.

F. came running from across the hall; she’d heard a loud thud, burst in through the door, and soon E. and U. were there as well. U. stopped the bleeding, passed his hand back and forth before my eyes, asking how many fingers, and what was my name, and then he instructed me to count to ten, I believe I was able to perform these simple tasks, but my scalp had to be stitched and U. recalled that it could be dangerous for me to fall asleep, to lose consciousness without knowing if there had been any injury to the brain, and all at once it was decided that I had to go to the emergency room. So we all piled into E.’s car and drove over the bridge and uptown to NYU Medical Center as I reflected that not an hour before I was getting the studio ready to sublet so that I could return to Berlin a month early to try and save my relationship with T., who’d just fallen head over heels for Y.

After the tests were done and the MRI and X-ray came back and the scalp was stitched and it was agreed that I’d been lucky, that I had not incurred any further damage from the fall beyond a few broken ribs and a coin-sized hole in my scalp that would remain bald to this day, I found myself washing my hands at a small porcelain sink in the corner. Even the slightest movement was extremely painful. When I finished and looked up and saw my reflection in the stainless-steel-rimmed mirror, I was met by the face of a stranger whose eyes had the look of a dog that had been kicked too many times. And when, a moment later, I understood that these plaintive eyes, these pain-widened, piteous eyes were mine, I was shocked to see how pathetic I’d become, how far I’d allowed myself to fall.

I see these things, see you standing there in your mother’s kitchen with tears streaming down your cheeks. An odd feeling takes hold of you: something inside of you sensed it, you thought—something inside of you felt it coming.

— I’m sorry… I’m sorry.

Somehow you knew it was coming, didn’t you?

A shudder went through you when you heard the quiet click at the other end. You bore down on the receiver and hastily pressed the sequence of buttons that would bring her back to life again: the international code, the country code, your home phone number. Your fingers were trembling; you made a mistake, had to hang up and start again. This time, the connection went through; you shut your eyes tightly and listened to the faraway sound of the phone ringing at the other end. Answer, you thought. Please. But she didn’t respond; she didn’t want to talk to you anymore.

It was a strange new concept, an idea you were unable to grasp. She doesn’t love me anymore, she loves someone else: you repeated this to yourself over and over like a sentence in a foreign language, the vowels rolling over your tongue like a mouthful of pebbles sucked smooth by the tides of incessant use. Yet the content of the words had become indecipherable; you could only utter them phonetically, could only guess at their meaning. But then you noticed a tightening in your stomach, a leaden weight in your gut. Slowly, deliberately, you picked up a chair and smashed it against the wall, smashed it again and again until the legs cracked off and the rest of it went flying across the room. You sank to the floor, closed your eyes, and felt your stomach contract; you struggled to inhale and discovered that your breathing had grown dangerously shallow, that the amount of air your lungs were able to absorb was diminishing rapidly. You felt your heart falter, felt the blood in your veins and arteries congeal, its flow begin to labor. A dim thought dropped anchor in your mind: you will not survive this; she no longer loves you, and there is nothing more that you can do to change that.

You sent me a jpeg of a drawing you made several years ago, a self-portrait sketched in pencil during a difficult time. The forehead and hair, nose and ears are all laid out in expert, economic strokes on lightly textured paper, the eyebrows a bit darker, with overlapping lines none of which, however, was reconsidered. The eyes alone were a struggle; it’s difficult to see if you smudged them with a finger, or if their darkness derives from erasure. A conflict emanates from them. You and your mirror image: it wasn’t enough to capture a likeness; you searched for something in those eyes, stared into them until everything around them began to blur. You gazed, waiting for the familiarity of your face to gradually dissolve into something else, waiting for the eyes to reveal themselves, these eyes that gaze and do not gaze, look back at their observer as though in some ontological loop. You appealed to them as to another: see me, give me a sign of recognition, but they met you with a blank stare until slowly, slowly you began to see a flicker of something in them, and what you saw was the look of a wounded animal.

You dialed her number—your number—but she didn’t answer, she let the machine pick up instead; you hung up and dialed again. Answer this time—answer, verdammte Scheisse. The phone rang, and rang, and then the machine came on. You pictured her standing next to the phone, staring at it in horror, unable to move. The sound of her recorded voice filled your ear, softening the hard edges inside you; you held your breath and waited for the tone.

— It’s me again. Please pick up.

You waited.

— Liebchen, please. I have to talk to you.

All at once, there came the sound of a sharp beep, followed by a busy signal: the machine had cut you off, and the line had become disconnected. You must have been speaking too softly, you thought; you hung up and dialed again, waited through the message, twisted the phone cord around your wrist. You closed your eyes: you’d always loved this voice, it had always been so familiar, so intimate. And then your heart contracted: this is the sound of her voice recorded in another time, you thought, a time that no longer exists: her voice, recorded in the time before she fell in love with someone else. And then came the beep, and again, you pleaded with her to pick up, trying to speak a little more loudly this time, a little more clearly, trying not to shout into the receiver. Once again, the machine beeped and the connection was lost; there must have been a disturbance with the international lines. You held onto the kitchen counter to keep yourself from crying out; you hung up and dialed again. When you heard the sound of her recorded voice repeating the outgoing message yet again, you had to stop yourself from flinging the telephone across the room.

You close your eyes and turn away. When you open them again, you see a curtain billowing slightly behind you. You look out the window and see a faint yellow glow spread over the façade of the building next door: a reflection of the light in the western sky. The sun will be setting soon, you tell yourself, and then you wonder what part of your mind understands that it’s light, and what part senses the darkness hiding just behind it. Your body aches, all its muscles are tense in unanimous rigidity: she doesn’t love you anymore, she loves someone else; she doesn’t love you anymore, love you anymore, love you anymore. You can no longer breathe; your lungs have made their decision. They want no more movement, they choose stillness, cessation. Your blood agrees, has stopped in its tracks, and all the winding veins and arteries have stiffened into a complex of interwoven iron rods and wires, like the skeleton of a taxidermist’s specimen, sealing your entrapment, rendering you immobile, and out of this prison, this hardened shell, you hear your mind cry out: my God, I’m dying, I’m turning into stone.