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Mother:      Why is she in Berlin if she’s an artist.  All artists are in Italy.

Me:              What all artists are in Italy?? Italy’s poor for artists—you have to be rich to live there.

Mother:       Well, isn’t she rich?  You told me she was on television.

Me:               On the radio, I said!  It was an interview—you don’t get paid for interviews. And artists go to Berlin these days, it’s become a big cultural center. Paris is for when you’re dead, for the tourists.

Mother:        Of course Berlin is a cultural center—I know that. Escada!

Me:               That’s Munich.

Mother:        That Russian girlfriend you had, the one in New York, she bought nothing but Escada when she came over.  Escada, Escada.  Why would she buy Escada in Vienna?  You gave her your credit card.

Me:               Because Escada is what they all wore in New York in those days.  And I did not give her my credit card.  She had her own.

Mother:        Yes you did!  I remember!  She also bought lingerie with it.  It was all red! She said they wear red in Russia for good luck. She wanted red for the New Year.

Me:                Really? I don’t remember the red lingerie.

Mother:         Well, she stayed for New Year.

Me:                Maybe it was for Russian New Year.  For after she went back to New York.

(Pause)

Mother:         I won’t let her hurt you.

Me:                A. won’t hurt me at all.  She’s scared stiff. Scared that I’ll hurt her.

Mother:        Ha.  Two kids…  you found each other.

 

undies 2

How many people have I hurt? And who is the woman I used to be? There was a time when everything that happened to me was new, when the carousel sparkled with tantalizing colors and I hadn’t yet begun noticing things in the background blurring by, the impassive faces of those who watch, but decline to take part. One more time around, and then another, and I began to detect patterns in things: the way I always notice the ring a moment too late to catch it, the way I sometimes remember the giddiness of jumping on and jumping off more vividly than the whirling ride itself: the price I’ve paid for my adventures, my seductions.

flowers cw

 

And what does this have to do with you? Are you there, just beyond reach, or will you vanish the moment I come looking for you? I write to retain something fleeting, render it real; I shore up sentences like a seawall against the annihilation that swells over me each night, against the panic upon awakening. I can dream, I have become proficient at that, but can I sustain a wakened state? Is there anything I can offer you besides my imagination?

I wrote it in jest: a demand that you come here today, my birthday. I, who am not capricious, actually imagined you would indulge me this one extravagance and appear, genie-like, at my door. You with your elderly mother, working throughout the night towards another deadline; and I, who am behind in everything: time should stop to let us climb the cliff together and duck into our secret magic fort. And already I have crossed a line and entered the land of need, left behind the masquerade to appear naked before you, although you may not have noticed—you who notice so much.

I have missed the cues so many times, a slipping into the past tense as though by chance, a slipping away behind reassurances. And I have been guilty of this too: backing out the door with a cautiously worded promise that collapses in on itself like the empty construct it is, designed to divert attention as I tiptoe away. It’s always so much easier to say what a person expects to hear: attempt the opposite and see how stubbornly they continue to understand what they want to be told.

Is it different this time? You sent me a recording, speaking to me in an Earth-to-A. way: I’m in a spaceship disguised as a coffee shop; there’s music in the background, there’s din all around me. I told you I loved your voice; you wondered if I would consider backspacing to the letter r.  I close my eyes and listen to it again and again, not quite ten seconds long, a digital garbling of an acoustic reality with its abbreviation of sound waves into staggered frequencies and its truncated background blips. All at once, I’m curious. I consult Wikipedia and read up on the physics of digital recording; I learn that sound is transcribed as a stream of discrete numbers representing changes in air pressure, an abstract sequence that is then reconstructed into analogue wave form. In terms of imagining your actual physical presence, this is less than reassuring. As my mind struggles with the concepts of dithering and signal-to-noise ratio, I marvel that a living body nonetheless begins to conglomerate around this information like a cluster of ghostly molecules; that behind this faintly robotic sound is the sonorous, self-assured, practiced voice of a former actor who really exists somewhere in London, who is really caring for his elderly, diva-like mother with a glittering, passionate past and an uncanny instinct for human nature, and my mind backspaces to the letter r for a man who is still licking his wounds over a failed marriage, no doubt giving in to the hope now and again that she, the mother of his child, will suddenly, miraculously change her mind and want him back. How could he not long for that—to be allowed to resume what he thought was a perfect life, with the perfect woman, in good times and in bad, committed and ready to give everything he had?

My mind strays; there’s mail again, an early birthday greeting from you, a declaration of—what? A promise to remember and cherish a “presence I gave you”—and this very act of slipping into the past tense (why not: have given?), this confusion of the preterit, progressive, and perfect, typical for native German speakers, triggers something I am barely aware of—and already I feel the dread in my breast that anticipated the last goodbye, the unfurling of an implosion. Careful analysis informs me that it’s in all likelihood a hallucination on my part, and yet I am afraid. How can we assess where we’ve been damaged when the parts we need to perceive this no longer function as they should?

Me:                   She said OK for London. 

Mother:            She did… Well, OK.

Me:                    Thank you.

Mother:             As long as she doesn’t hurt you.

Me:                    But how will you travel on your own?  I can take you to the airport, we can

book a wheel chair, but Ilse will have to get someone to pick you up.

Mother:             Don’t you worry.  I can travel left, right, and center.  Ilse has Matti.

Me:                    Matti doesn’t drive for her anymore.

Mother:             So I’ll take the coach to the bus station.  Ilse can come there.

Me:                    I won’t let you take some bus.  That’s nuts… What do you mean “hurt me?”

Mother:             Does she know about you??

Me:                    She knows I’m 56, she knows I live with my mother, and she knows

I’ve been out of a job.

Mother:             Good!  (Laughs.)

Me:                    What are you laughing about?

Mother:             Why would she go for you?

Me:                     Because of the man I used to be?  How’s that for an answer?

Does it happen to me too, you ask? How to even begin to approach that space we inhabit when we believe we’re in love. Spongelike, the things around us absorb us, retain the stark sensations that have taken possession of us, pulsate with them for months, for years. How to explain that the place where my bed meets a bookshelf was once a vertiginous ravine I gazed down into and saw the wrong turn I’d taken, realized I was on the wrong path, was meant for someone else.

In the park, in winter, twin leaves clinging to a tree at eye level: brown, as thin as parchment, as thin as skin; curled inwards to form two horn-shaped vessels, snow-filled papooses joined by a brittle twig—not a simile, but two real leaves in a park that had held fast through November as the last of the year’s unfallen finally fluttered and twirled in the cold rain and the ground turned slippery and black; through the snowstorms of a steadily darkening December, nights of sleet and frost and then: a damp, cacophonous, unseasonable dripping thaw. And I, waiting to hear from V., walked to the park and the tree each day, trudging through the slush or the snow, eyes downcast, alert, the ground different each time with its endless vocabulary of surface formations. And one day, preserved in the hardened soil, a pattern I’d never before encountered: there had been a light rainfall throughout the night, then a rapid freeze followed by a sprinkling of fine snow, and what I saw before me was a fragile layer of fine mud cracked in a thoroughly alien, exquisite way. But no: the surface, as it turned out, was unbroken, the mud frozen in a thin, perfectly opaque layer covering the leaves on the ground and adhering to their brittle contours, the leaves’ edges etched in ice and their spidery white lines scuttling everywhere.

Startled by the unexpected deception, I now saw scattered leaves frozen-stuck in a filigree design that crunched underfoot, that I had taken to be evidence of something else altogether. And here and there, individual leaves neatly covered, cookie-cutter-like, in a thin layer of powdered snow that stood out against the mud-colored, warmer ground where the snow had melted more quickly before the early morning frost had set in and arrested the process. And then, one day, the two snow-filled leaves were gone. It was his birthday, a day he’d planned to spend with me in Berlin, and at once I knew it was over.

There are moments with half-lives that exceed our own, that are capable of emitting shock waves well beyond the memory’s duration. I approached the tree and touched it cautiously, thinking I must be mistaken. Perhaps the tree had hidden its two pupa-like leaves to protect their metamorphosis, to allow them to emerge undisturbed? There was the tiny round navel they had been attached to, no more than a hard brown scab now; I pressed my lips to it and closed my eyes. A moment later, frantic, I searched the ground around the tree, and as my eyes wandered beyond it and saw that the entire park was covered in leaves, all of them brown, all of them curled and brittle, I fell to my knees, and though I felt capable of a systematic search, of sifting through thousands, even hundreds of thousands of leaves until I found the unique pair I had paid a pilgrimage to each day for three months, I understood that it would change nothing: that they had held on but had finally let go, and that it was in keeping with the truth of our situation.

I think of you bringing her back to the restaurant she’d met her lover in so many times, searching her face for a telltale twitch, watching it take in the familiar surroundings of her rendezvous, feign pleasant interest. I see you take note of each detail, think of the chilly sting to the spine, the pinprick of pain concealed in your composed features. We are too civilized to kill, it seems, but there are times a glass shattering against a wall is a soothing sound.

How to explain that the betrayal is of another kind altogether? I know the tidal pull of the blood; that a mere glance can send plumes of fire curling through the nerves. After J. arrived: the sudden, mind-controlling molecular saturation of pheromones in the air, a maddening inability to concentrate, to think of anything at all. Intoxication, situational insanity, delusion. An attraction so fierce it made me angry; the almost violent force required to resist it. Focus on what you don’t like—it’s all there, right in the very first moment. Just take a look back and you can see it clear as day: the sober assessment, the critical points like elephants weighing down the wrong side of the scale, and then the sticky-sweet goo of self-deception oozing all over it like an egg cracked atop a skull, the giddy, hypnotic, honeyed brilliance of it—ah, love! How blind does it have to be to erase that immediate recognition of disaster? Men have their siren song to lead them astray, but what about us?

But the betrayal isn’t about that, it’s about the cowardice of pretense, the sideways-glancing mediocrity of the lie. It’s about what you thought your life was, where you were in a given year, a given summer, never suspecting that her momentary absences were furtive opportunities for making phone calls, arranging trysts. Is that the part that aroused her the most? Innocuous code words in her appointment calendar, alibis so close to actual circumstances that the crucial deviance was rendered invisible—it was an art form for all you know, the essential element she needed to survive. But how many knew, and how many situations did she allow you to blunder through unknowingly? That is the deception: subsequent years spent sifting through the evidence, holding each imperfect memory up to a magnifying glass to search for the shadow in the mirror, the shoe poking out from beneath the bed.

 

(Mother-from-across-the-living-room: “What is it?  Why are you laughing?  Why are you laughing??  I want to know!”)

There’s a pit, an empty spot where we used to put all the perfect things we’d find; we thought they’d be there forever, as shiny as the day we discovered them. A soft exhalation in a quiet laugh and the half-closed eyes that accompanied it; a cell phone ringing in a museum and the delight in the misdemeanor of it, the air of conspiracy. How could anyone wish to give that up for anything else, give up the absolute truth contained in a whisper? The lightness, the humor and playfulness, my voice in his ear and his in mine, all of it dead now, chiseled into my mind like words in stone, but these things once issued their immediate commands. And then, the agony of his withdrawal, the agony of his agony, the awful certainty that he would carry on as usual, sleep next to a woman with her back turned to him each night and wake up with the alarm each morning, day after day, like acting in the same one-man play, performing again and again and calling that life, how is it he doesn’t die from the sheer repetition of it, how is it that some part of him doesn’t announce its blatant refusal? An ear that refuses to hear; an arm that refuses to move until its case is heard, a heart that ceases to beat.

And you? Is the pain of leaving any less? What is it one feels when one feels love? An echo in the mind, the heart, something both deeply familiar and disconcertingly foreign. And just as I feel a cold nothing in the face of cruelty, but break down at acts of kindness, an unexpected gesture of tenderness opens a valve in you, releases a high-pitched trill in your nerves, the frequency of your own pain. Your knees buckle; you grope for a cigarette. I think of nights I woke to go to the bathroom and had to grip myself to keep from shaking. We live as though trapped, frozen in the blind space behind a mirror, waiting for a glance of recognition to climb out and breathe again.

Me:         I think A. wants to see me.

Mother:  (In bed, opens her eyes) Really?

Me:          I may have to go.

Mother:   Go.

Me:          She’s worth it, you know.

Mother:   Go.

Me:          Yeah?  What if I left you for Christmas?

Mother:    Go.

Me:           Nah, I won’t leave you for Christmas. I want my presents.  Maybe New Year.

Mother:    Go.

Mother: Hey!  Who is this? Severin??

Me:         No, look again. Don’t you recognize her?

Mother:  No… I don’t. Who is it?  She looks intelligent.

Me:         Think so?

Mother:  Yes, it shows on her face. She looks kind, too.  So, who is it? I don’t remember.

Me:          I was teasing you. It’s that new friend in Berlin.  We talk on the computer.

Mother:  You were laughing with her?  I thought it was Severin.

Me:         No, it wasn’t Severin.

Mother:  And… she wants to see you?  Are you going there?

Me:         No. She just wants to talk.

Mother:  Oh. Is that all?!

Me:         Uh-huh.

Mother:  You’re being stupid… She looks like my friend Mildred.

Me:         No way. Just the glasses, maybe.

Mother:  Who was that girl in New York?

Me:          Who?

Mother:   You know, what’s-her-name, the one you almost married.

Me:          (Pause.) Juliette? Kathleen? Jennifer?

Mother:   Juliette!  She looks like Juliette.

Me:          That was over thirty years ago!  How would you remember her?

Mother:   It just came back to me.

Me:          Well, her name is A. Juliette is older than me. And she doesn’t look the same today.

Mother:   Maybe not now.

Me:          A.’s an artist.

Mother:   So was Juliette, wasn’t she?

Me:          A. wrote a book.

Mother:   And? You read it?

Me:          I’m not done yet. I’d have to read it again though, in one shot.

Mother:   Why?

Me:          Because it’s a whole.  I was interrupted a hundred times and I had to put it aside.

Mother:   It’s a hole?

Me:          A whole, Mother, something that’s entire, like a painting, sculpture, music.  You don’t listen to music in bits and pieces, you know.

Mother:   That’s a lot of music.  First book?

Me:          First published book.  She’s got other stuff in the works.

Mother:   And she wants to talk… ?

Me:          Ya.

Mother:   Can you open the wine?

Who is this person I’ve been writing to for a month?

An inbox full of emails; a man who drops down from the sky, just like that. One day I’m commenting on a friend’s thread, and before I know it we’re writing to each other eight times a day. But whose story is this, and what were the others that preceded it, and how can I even begin to tell you how many of my own footprints I catch myself retracing? Here, this was the path that led to the cliff—I let myself fall and fully expected V. to catch me, but V. was worried about other things, proposals and deadlines and that glittering family veneer and who knows, maybe throw in a lecturing career, a publishing or talk show sideline on top of that, a man who looks ahead, a man with vision—why not? In academia since the age of 17, that’s two-thirds of a life in college, an entire life in school for God’s sake. Campuses and competitive sports and ambitious students obsessed with their grade point averages, but maybe I never liked it enough, never liked the idea of fraternities and sororities, old money and initiation rituals, whereas the important things are learned well beyond school, everyone knows that. Toss in a bit of failure and you’re in business.

How it began: V. describes himself as a train wreck just waiting to happen, and me as the person who will change all this, but what does that vision consist in, I wonder? I am different, unlike anyone he’s ever known before, he tingles with anticipation, but then he maps it out and grows dizzy from the mind-boggling complexity of it all: the uprooting of lives, the imperfect merging of families, a vindictive spouse. We booked a room and spent an entire day in the dim light shining in from a small hotel courtyard, the first new lips I’d kissed in how many years and the rest of it a rapturous blur. And afterwards, for months, an agony of absence: running my tongue along my own flesh to recapture some sliver of that day, the way it zoomed out in all directions at once like a bomb exploding in slow motion, creating not a cloud of hurtling debris but a perfect reality unfurling in some other dimension. Odd how disembodied the carnal instincts can be. And afterwards, my mind careening back to that day again and again: the floating stillness, the quiet, carnivorous inhalation of one another’s being. Incomprehensible to live in a world where I couldn’t close my eyes and transport myself back to that hotel room, at will, instantly.

And you? I hold out my hand and we walk to that cliff, careful to stay far enough away from the precipice. I will not close my eyes this time, won’t let myself fall, my hair flowing out from my scalp as though I were floating on the surface of a phantasm. And what is that part of you that has been cauterized inside and joined back together, and how long does it take for the nerves to grow back, to regain feeling in that scarred spot, two millimeters a year, I’ve read. The pain was once so intense that it burned a hole right through me.

I open my mail, and already I have to smile. I click on your name, and there you are, measuring the secret distances between my words, the hidden associations, then snapping your folding ruler shut like a handyman, smug with bemusement. I’ve never even heard your voice, but I can already hear the nasal Viennese, the flattened vowels. I laugh. We’re both supposed to be working, we’re both on deadline, but it’s so much more fun to misbehave, play hooky for a change. You test the waters of my jealousy, disconcerted that I don’t bat an eyelash. I’m less coy than you think possible; you “test my mettle” and I patiently, maddeningly no doubt, elucidate the mechanisms that have long since been disengaged. I am a Jack-in-the-Box who no longer pops out, a defective Juliette-in-the-Box, a dented can on the back of the shelf.

“Are you translating?  You’re not, you monkey, because I see you smiling.”

Me:         So… I sent my picture to A.

Mother:  The one I saw?  On the computer?

Me:         Ya.  I took it with the webcam.

Mother:  How do you do this?  You should teach me.

Me:         I tried getting Fluffy in the background. I put a treat for him on the floor, right where I wanted him. But he snapped it and went out of the frame with it.  And that stupid painting of him showed up on the photo. I forgot to remove it.

Mother:   It’s not stupid. My Fluffy is not stupid. You’re stupid!

Me:          Fluffy barks at his own reflection, he doesn’t come when you call him, and he walks on top of the sofa to get to his spot at the other end, like a cat, instead of just jumping there.  And that painting is embarrassing.  I’m throwing it out.

Mother:   Don’t you dare!  Go back to  Vienna!  How can anyone like you?!

Me:          Everybody likes me!

Mother:   Well, I don’t!

Me:          Yes you do.

Mother:   No I don’t!!   You drive me crazy in my own home!!

Me:          So do you!! In your own home!!

(Silence)

Mother:   You mean she liked you without knowing what you looked like?

Me:           No. I mean yes.

Mother:   All this time. And she didn’t know?

Me:          Nope.

Mother:   Did she say anything?

Me:          Yes.

Mother:   What did she say?

Me:           She said it was it was nice to see who she’d been talking to so earnestly all this time.

Mother:   Is she a diplomatic sort?

Me:           Always. It was short, she’s also very busy now.

Mother:   Are you disappointed?

Me:          Not sure.  Should I be?

Mother:   What kind of men does she like?

Me:           Never said.  But from the photos, my guess would be fair-haired and lean. Hungry looking, artsy types for all I know.

Mother:    Her boyfriends?

Me:           No, just folks… and her ex-husband.  More women than men, though, in the pictures.  Hard to say.

Mother:    What did you expect her to say?

Me:           I dunno. Something.  Like I have a small nose.  Anything.  I told her she was beautiful right away.

Mother:    She’s got a very okay face.

Me:           Shouldn’t she have said something?

Mother:    Don’t be silly. A girl doesn’t come out saying things right away.  What do you expect?

Me:            And these days, I’d have to grow on people.  Well, it just gets tougher, doesn’t it.

Mother:    What about people who know you. What’s going on with Severin?

Me:            You must be kidding.  I know her too well, she makes life worse.

Mother:      I liked Severin. She was fun, but she was after money.

Me:             If she was, she didn’t get very far. She’s stuck in Los Angeles now, in a million-dollar home they can’t sell.  She wanted things right away, and when she had them, she didn’t like them anymore.  Sound familiar?

Mother:      Don’t you start. Don’t compare this bird brain with me!

Me:             I thought you liked her!