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And you. Do you remember how we sat on a balcony—was it in Gythion?—and I asked you what it was you wanted to do; we’d been traveling for weeks already and I was beginning to miss the studio, amazed that you could spend so much time doing nothing. What do you want to do with your life? And you, who had always been hesitant to lay claim to anything, to wrap your fingers around it and close your fist over it and say It’s mine, who had been vacillating for too many years already, accustomed now to indecision, to squandering time, said you wanted to play the piano. The speed and certainty with which you delivered your response startled me. Good, I said, then we’ll move your piano to the studio when we get back to Berlin, and when we did, it was so huge and heavy I thought the sagging floorboards in the rickety old factory building might cave in, but they didn’t. And then you began to play, and that’s what you’ve been doing ever since: all you ever needed was permission, someone to say إفتح يا سمسم, Open Sesame, though it wasn’t the treasure of forty thieves locked inside the cave that you sought, but your own.

We spent years piecing through our family histories. We were looking for the black box, the irreducible core of things, telling each other story after story until we narrowed it down to an essential repertoire, one for you and one for me, the Story of A. and the Story of C., and these became the stories we told each other, over and over again, trying to make sense of them; wondering if we were numbing ourselves to their effects as the groove we dug grew deeper and deeper. And where are we now? Our exchange orbits around a child into whom half of you has flowed, and half of me, whatever it is we carriers of genetic information might be, living libraries. We’re no longer children, but once we were like two orphans who’d left behind a trail of breadcrumbs, and then we woke up and found they were gone and there was no way to retrace our steps or to begin again. And so I took one path, and you took another, and it’s the love for a child we have in common now; the worry. Appendicitis on my side of the family, Goodpasture’s Disease on yours; diabetes on mine, cancer on yours. Schizophrenia on mine, schizophrenia on yours—but your piano is still in my studio, and it always will be.

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