March 30, 2009

Hypersensitive

Stock market crashed. No noise. Economy in dire straits. It is March 30, 2009.

Robert Rauschenberg died on May 12, 2008 at the age of eighty-two. That day I walked over to see his work at the Portrait Gallery near my apartment.

I saved the obit., got caught in the web of memory. My own straits.

My father’s white shirt, the ribbed, sleeveless undershirt beneath that as a small child I carried with me: “her schmata,” my mother called it. My father’s photo taken by my daughter when she was studying photography in high school, developing her own pictures in Bethesda Chevy Chase High School’s darkroom, hangs on the first wall to my left as I enter my bedroom in the loft where I live and write in downtown DC. He is holding his pipe, one finger tamping down the tobacco, the can of Amphora nearby. The photo is black and white and my memory of him, faded to tone. He, a decade gone this June 6, eighty-four and crippled from Parkinson’s disease and a broken hip when he died. He comes to me like his home movies, overexposed, so much light that I can barely see him. Rauschenberg-white: my father’s white dress shirt. “I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very—well, hypersensitive,” Rauschenberg said. The schmata shirt beneath the dress shirt.

My 82-year-old father called me in the middle of the night before he died and in the anguish of aging, asked: “What am I here for?”—a despairing cry that expressed the humility of existence and underscored the imperative of continuing to ask the question even as the darkness moves across us. It is the autobiographical tautological question that starts and ends where it begins.

My father took my hand, and said, “There’s an inevitability about the present.”

I understood the way I’d understood when my mother, four years after her stroke, decided not to eat when the new year came, when she took my hand and said “Yitgadal v’yitkadash”—the first two words of the mourner’s Kaddish. It was five years later when my father took my hand on that hot day in June.

We’d been sitting in the house with the old round Toastmaster fan blowing at our feet, humming the way old memories did inside my head. We’d been talking about the kind of housing called “assisted living.” “Assisted living,” he said. “Funny term. Either you’re living or you’re not, right?”

I didn’t answer.

“I’m on my way down,” my father said. “I know that. This is just a stopover.”

“Stopover from what to what?”

“Don’t get philosophical on me, kid.”

My father’s eyes were brown like mine. I saw them full of light from the sun that angled through the window. I saw the green and yellow—the colors of my mother’s hazel eyes—there inside the brown. I remembered my dream after my mother died. In a haze of yellow light, my mother in a flowered housedress. I couldn’t tell the color of her hair—pure white when she died. But it must be dark—around her face in finger-placed waves, how it was when I could still fit beneath her arm, lean against her curve of breast. Then an empty chair. An elegant, suited man on the sidewalk. My mother, on the stoop of their row house. Her arm raised high in dance position. No one stands inside her hold. She leans to unheard sound. She turns round. A fox-trot circle. My father threads eight-millimeter film through the projector, on the wheel. A home movie. Overexposed. My mother. Like the whiteness of a leafing tree against night sky.

“Why are you crying?” my father said. “This won’t be the last time you see me.”

“It’s what I do. I cry, easily, often.”

“So do I,” he said. “It’s inherited.”

Hypersensitive.

I have looked for him in every man I’ve dated during the last three years—the years of separation. I sensed him one Saturday night in the expert on eastern European economics with big ears like my father’s, the man I knew might kiss me when he offered his tamarind soda a second time as we ate a late dinner, if you call what we settled on dinner, at Oyamel after seeing a new Claude Lalouch film, yes, that Claude of A Man and a Woman, a movie this sixty-six year-old, tall lanky man had seen at the Circle Theater, a DC relic, razed now—I saw it with my father, had Netflixed it two weeks before meeting this man.

Was the camera hand-held? as Lelouch circles round the lovers as they meet after they have parted, after she has said she cannot make love because of the memory of her dead husband. He, rebuffed, leaves her. She takes the train. He rethinks on the drive back in the Mustang. Francis Lai’s soundtrack strikes me now as sentimental, but, like a memory, Lai’s rhythm and the humming singers resound, will not be resisted. No rational thought. No editing. No chance to cut the sweet and to the core where I like to be.

When I danced with my husband, I once upon a time hummed. D. has perfect pitch, a curse and a blessing. For me, a curse. For him too I now think: To have heard those off-notes from my throat, the vibration of my vocal chords gone wrong, not tuned. Off pitch. No humming allowed. Not on that chest where I lay my head when we danced. This man says he is working on the question, “Who am I?” while I wait.

T. S. Eliot tells us,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


Meanwhile on a Saturday night, the economics expert offers me the tamarind soda on first pour (I refused) and then offers again after he’s drunk half. My father and I shared chocolate soda and coddies at the drugstore soda fountain on Dolfield Avenue, three blocks from Grantley Road where I grew up in Baltimore. We’d walk there together, wait for my mother who was getting her hair done at the salon next door.

Lanky man’s tamarind soda doesn’t measure up to his memory when he was in the Peace Corp in Columbia where the beans were refried more times than his strong stomach could bear and where he went into town for a tin of cookies and the soda, ate the whole tin, sloshed back the soda. I taste the second-hand and secondary soda, the hint of spice and tart rind that recalls my mother’s glazed orange peel that my father and I would have at home after the coddies and mustard on saltines.

This man had held my hand on the first date, not again on this Saturday night, not once in the movie or while we walked. That first date, one glass of wine and nothing much to eat at the Tabard Inn (nothing much to eat this night either. Is he cheap? my daughter asked.) Did I care?

Later I did care. My daughter began referring to him as “Cheapskate” after I took him to dinner at Tosca and it seemed only fair that I should pay. I ordered a bottle of wine. He did not object. He ordered the salad, an appetizer, the pasta, the dessert. The thin man did eat when he was not paying the check.

Thank goodness I am not dating him now in the current economic crisis. Would he dare even to go out?

But on the night at Oyamel, after the movie: His quiet, his calm like the sense of the sea receding with the tide; his angles like my father’s, a Giacometti sculpture in shadow at the edge of sand in fading light. That first date we descended the escalator at Dupont Circle, knowing that we would go down together to separate at the platform. He said, “Ah, so I get to hold your hand for a bit more?” as we descended the long arc down. The slight lift in his voice as if it were a question though we were palm on palm all the way down as he recalled a scene from the movie Risky Business: the departing train through the narrowing perspective of track on track, a camera’s eye in his words, the sound of sex in his voice: Rebecca Mornay and Tom Cruise making love on the train, politely unspoken between us.

He had not touched me since that first palm-on-palm moment. The afternoon he’d called with his “research,” as he called it from the website Rotten Tomatoes, reviews of movies playing at the E Street Theater, the first on his list, “Roman De Gare, Claude Lalouch,” he said. “That Claude,” I said and named that movie we’d both seen in 1967. “Ah, yes,” he said. I didn’t know Lalouch was still around. I cast my net back to the year I turned twenty-one. “Let alone alive,” I said. And so we chose the third-date movie.

After Oyamel, two tapas (hearts of palm salad and two scallops, the soda and a licorice tea), he walks me to my loft where I fob the glass front doors open. “Would you like to walk me up?” “I could do that.” We ride in the elevator, apart, then a short walk to my door. I turn the key. The bolt slides open with the click of certainty. I turn my back to the door. He is 6’2”. I am 5’5”. He bends, a curve of slender grace as he slides his hand behind my head and he kisses me. I kiss him and then again. He holds me against his chest, his arm around my back. “You are a sweet man,” I say into the knit of his cashmere sweater, my childhood cheek against my father’s heart, the white shirt, the soft-ribbed undershirt beneath.

March 29, 2009

Frying pans

Charade: The Oxford English Dictionary (I own it: all seventeen volumes that include the supplements for my edition) notes that Thackeray (William Makepeace: don’t you love his middle name? A command to be taken to heart) used the word in Vanity Fair in 1848: The performers disappeared to get ready for the second charade-tableau.

After Becky Sharp has achieved the coup of marriage in chapter XVI, our narrator notes that the children dressed themselves and acted plays.

And so I dress myself and act in my play in search of a happy ending: I’m a sucker for wishing that does some good.

Becky Sharp’s story of social climbing struck me as particularly grim and nothing like the fairy tale she sought—or the one that I am after. One concludes she would have kissed anyone to get where she could be.

Are you wondering if the princess does not kiss the “Frog-Prince,” what then does she do? There are two versions, plus the one Disney has provided, the kiss fulfilled, but whose roots lie with those grim brothers.

In The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I own based on the translation by Margaret Hunt, the princess, ordered by her ethical father to honor her word, must take the frog to bed with her. Instead, she places him in the corner of her bedroom. The frog says, “I am tired, I want to sleep as well as you, lift me up or I will tell your father.” At this she was terribly angry, and took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall. “Now you be quiet, odious frog.” And with this angry and aggressive act upon his being, the frog becomes the prince. But this is not the end of the story.

There is no end to the ways a woman may hit a man over the head with a frying pan.

There is fantasy. Oh, how good at that I was. Here is one I made up while reading and re-reading Joyce’s Ulysses:

And she looked at the rug through the bottom of her wine glass, watched the last of the wine slosh to the edge of the glass and through the glass saw the blur of the rug that was the first thing they’d bought, saw how distorted that image was through the bottom of the glass …

She conjured a man who would name her private part “Molly” and she knew he was thinking of her—she who had lost and who had waited and who wanted sex, who wanted to be cocked, cooked, corked by him who might be kind or not—she did not care. She’d waited long and looked through the glass, through the wine darkly.

When she’d walked alone that afternoon he’d picked a penny from the grass and given it to her when she’d shown it to him lying there in the grass. She, speaking of “seeing,” saw him and so he placed the penny in her palm and now it was in her pocket, warm from his hand that he wanted between her legs, the man she resisted, the man she dreamed.

And penance and grief (Ulysses, 11.1030), misquoting Joyce and thinking of the penance she should do but she was unrepentant. She was thinking, Free. His hand between her legs, a man who wants me, a man whose cock gets cocked for her. That’s the sin she wants. She’s in grief but not penitent. A new experience.

And she had underwear.

After the kissing-of-the-second-girlfriend—let us call it the second incident—I went to Neiman Marcus and spent $1500 on La Perla underwear. And it wasn’t as hard as you might think to spend that much money on underwear and not as much underwear as you might think.

On underwear, I offer this probably apocryphal story about Florenz Ziegfeld and his Follies: When asked why he bought expensive silk underwear for all his chorus girls, underwear that never was seen by the audience, Flo answered, “The girls know.”

I told D. what I’d bought and how much I’d spent.

There are many ways to hit a man over the head with a frying pan.

Ah, she is more aggressive than she pretends to be or likes to think she is: In her shopping and most certainly in her fantasies.

She believed the girls know, that men cared little for underwear because that’s what she’d learned. She hoped for men who would be boys. She thought the dirty thought when she read Big Benaben. Big Benben (Ulysses, 11.53). Time tolls for Bloom and me. Cocked not corked but easily cocked for her, she dreamed, while Bloom wanders and Molly and Blazes go at it.

The false priest (Ulysses, 11.1116) What did that mean? Did she need a priest, a shrink? Virgin should say: or fingered only (Ulysses, 11.1086). She wanted to be fingered, not in despair but in the joy of being: A flute alive and she once played the flute but didn’t want to be played the way she’d been played—with practiced touch. No. She wanted a man who would see her as a flute that had been waiting to be played.

The other version of the “Frog-Prince” can be found at www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales:

[T] king said to the young princess, ’As you have given your word you must keep it; so go and let him in.’ She did so, and the frog hopped into the room, and then straight on–tap, tap–plash, plash– from the bottom of the room to the top, till he came up close to the table where the princess sat. ‘Pray lift me upon the chair,’ said he to the princess, ‘and let me sit next to you.’ As soon as she had done this, the frog said, ‘Put your plate nearer to me, that I may eat out of it.’ This she did, and when he had eaten as much as he could, he said, ‘Now I am tired; carry me upstairs, and put me into your bed.’ And the princess, though very unwilling, took him up in her hand, and put him upon the pillow of her own bed, where he slept all night long. As soon as it was light he jumped up, hopped downstairs, and went out of the house. ‘Now, then,’ thought the princess, ‘at last he is gone, and I shall be troubled with him no more.’

But she was mistaken; for when night came again she heard the same tapping at the door; and the frog came once more, and said:

‘Open the door, my princess dear,
Open the door to thy true love here!
And mind the words that thou and I said
By the fountain cool, in the greenwood shade.’

And when the princess opened the door the frog came in, and slept upon her pillow as before, till the morning broke. And the third night he did the same. But when the princess awoke on the following morning she was astonished to see, instead of the frog, a handsome prince, gazing on her with the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen, and standing at the head of her bed.

Three times in her bed, the magic number that broke the spell.

I am drawn to the toss-on-the-wall story perhaps because when wishing still did some good … I’d wished for the proverbial frying pan. More because the story ends with another anecdote about the king’s servant Faithful Henry, so distraught at the king’s dilemma that he caused three iron bands to be laid around his heart.

In the charade that continues here and that was my life, here is what happened:

And then I left. And then I dated. But I worried that I would become Becky Sharp, that I would find and give in to money and status over love, that I would not recognize the frog-prince.

March 17, 2009

Broken glass

The New York Times reported on July 16, 2007, on the front page that Japan is attempting to move to jury trials, but the jurors in a mock trial were reluctant to express their opinions. “They never engaged one another in discussion. Their opinions had to be extracted by the judges and were often hedged by the Japanese language’s rich ambiguity.” On the jump, I read: “Under the proposed system, randomly chosen citizens will sit on the bench next to judges, decide cases together and hand out sentences.” Reasons are given for the reluctance of jurors: respect for authority, submissiveness as part and parcel of the national character.

When we were married, D. crushed the glass. I read now: Any glass may be used for the Jewish wedding glass, although most couples choose a special glass to be broken and kept. It is commonly wrapped in a cloth napkin (to avoid dangerous glass shards) or enclosed in a pre-made cloth pouch. At the end of the ceremony, the groom stomps on the glass to great applause.

I am writing about the wreckage of a marriage. Restate: The wreckage of my marriage. My marriage. The paradox is clear: no marriage is owned by one of the partners.

I thought that fiction would give me my due. So I began to write a story about the bartender (note that I have already written about him here; see “The Bartender.”). Here is the fragment of the story:

The bartender said to the woman he was with, a buxom blonde, taller than he, while he fiddled with a book, a novel, Fitzgerald she guessed from the Fitz that showed on the spine, though mostly she noticed how large his hand was on the binding of the book, “Nothing is sexier than a woman in a man’s button-down, in my button-down. You oughta know that by now.” So, they were lovers.

She watched from her table in the Martin Luther King library where she sat with her legal brief, the one she didn’t know how to write, that damn environmental stuff that she was always on the wrong side of at Dewey LeBeouf, her law firm around the corner from the library. She’d leave in the evening to escape the corporate banter, to try to figure out how the hell to defend Big Oil. When he looked her way, when his glance hung there for a bit, she smiled and was sure she’d never see him again.

But there he was behind the bar at Kincaids when she ordered the Kendall Jackson red Zinfandel and he said, “A ways from the library tonight, huh?”

“The library?” She wasn’t about to admit she had noticed him. She was in enough trouble. Her lover of ten years had moved out of their condo last week and informed her they would need to sell it. She was about to be homeless. Oh, she knew that she could find a place, but she felt like a baby left out on a doorstep. She felt childish, worse than childish: infantile. Abandoned. She wanted to say it out loud to the bartender. I’m abandoned.

“Would you like to look at a menu?” The bartender resumed his professional stance, turned to get her the expensive glass of wine and she saw that he walked with a distinct limp, a kind of wobble as if one side of his body were more heavily weighted than the other. She noticed that he was short. He had seemed so tall at the library when he spoke so firmly to the blonde with what she viewed as one of the most seductive lines she’d ever heard. Okay, maybe not. Maybe the truth was it was a sentence she wished Guy had said to her. Who goes out, anyway, with a guy named Guy? she asked herself as she sipped the red wine he had now handed her and stood before her with a menu in his hand. Those hands again. She was in love with his hands.

“Parapraxes,” she said, “is what I need and I’ll take the menu.”

“So, you need to forget?”

“How would you know what I need?”

“Parapraxes. You said that. But what you really need are the fried clams.”

You should know here what she is not saying even to herself: Guy has not made love to her for five of their ten years together without great effort on her part that includes his rejection of her La Perla garter belt and bra that set her back a pretty penny and that ended making her feel less than pretty, and yes, believe it or not, she is quite a dish and knows it.

Why did she stay? That is the question.

She would tell you that last night she dreamed she was in the courtroom without a script, that she opened her mouth and nothing came out in front of the judge, in front of the jury, in front of her colleagues, that she searched her mind for the quote she’d use and all she could come up with was Charlie Parker’s line, If you haven’t lived it, it won’t come out of your horn.

I wrote that and went outside. A black SUV with blackened windows moved off. Its rear window shattered onto the asphalt with no apparent cause except the startle of the engine. Tiny pieces of broken glass, each one a perfect triangle lay where I stood. The SUV stopped mid-street. No one got out. It moved ahead.

This is my subject: The broken glass, the wake.

As for parapraxes: Get this. D. lost his wedding ring in September, a month before the galleys of my book came out, a month before he kissed my friend after a party—It was not merely a kiss; they were making out on the couch while I washed dishes in the kitchen. I stood behind the couch and watched. Then I went outside and waited.

If you want to know the truth about the bartender, read backwards: I wrote about him. If you want to know the truth, look elsewhere or get you to a Japanese jury.

March 15, 2009

The bartender

Nietzsche says, as he weighs the world in the last dream of the morning, Sex: only for the wilted, a sweet poison; for the lion-willed, however, the great invigoration of the heart and the reverently reserved wine of wines.

As I learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance—one cannot fly into flying, I search. And yes, there was a bartender.

The bartender doesn’t drink. He knows good wine and orders me good wine that I usually pay for. I am better able to pay than he or so I think. He is short with big hands. He polishes his finger nails with clear polish, beautiful hands that are larger than they should be for his frame. His hands draw me. He is short and he walks with a limp that also draws me—this last he doesn’t know.

When I dream asleep—I say this because I dream awake—I dream my father, more often since my husband left me, more often since I began internet dating. Here’s a weird glimpse: I see in front of me my father’s fingers curling up behind the towel rack in my bathroom, his disembodied fingers. I am not frightened. I am comforted. His hand. Not my husband’s hand. My father’s hand that reaches out of the cosmos, out of the unconscious mind to me.

It was May and my separated-over-two-years-then husband sends me this e-mail, breaking my heart:

“Tony Soter is the philosopher-winemaker we talked with on the patio of that great little B&B in Napa (the one run by the guys who knew my uncle in their hometown of Denison, Iowa).

P.S. You don't have to comment about breakfast. I've thought it for you.”

He’s referring in the postscript to the fact that he wouldn’t make love in the morning: didn’t want to miss that great breakfast. You and I (and he) know that a big refrigerator, not the one holding the eggs, milk, syrup, not the cornucopia Napa refrigerator but the metaphorical one (Oh, sure, call it the elephant if you like) sits inside the P.S. What I mean: When your girlfriend yells at you when you come home on the anniversary of the day you met, the day she expects you’ll have flowers or will take her out for dinner and says, “You left the top off the milk again!” there’s a refrigerator in the room that has nothing to do with milk.

The bartender took the free class I taught at the Martin Luther King Library. When the class was over, we met by chance at the Dana Gioia reading there. I’d told the class about it. The bartender wanted to chat when he arrived, the way he’d often seemed to want to chat when I’d seen him where he used to tend bar—a tony restaurant full of people from the Hill though it is not on the proverbial Hill.

Dana Gioia read and I bought Interrogations at Noon. I was struck throughout the reading how many times he mentioned his wife who was not present. She is a presence. I don’t recall if he read these lines that evening, but the poem “Voyeur” lies next to the title poem in the book. I read it now:

… and watching her undress across the room.
oblivious of him, watching as her slip
falls soundlessly and disappears in the shadow. …

The opening ellipses are his. The following are mine as are the ones at the end here as I take you to the last stanza:

But what he watches here is his own life.
He is the missing man, the loyal husband.
sitting in the room he craves to enter …

After the reading, I suggested to the bartender that we go over to Zaytinya for a drink and he managed to get me a free glass of wine (bartenders do this sort of thing for each other). A little alcohol and I told him about my heart.

My husband didn’t watch me undress. He had not wanted to make love to me for the last decade of our marriage. He had kissed two women over two years in front of me. I don’t mean a quick kiss. I mean the proverbial “making out.” I did not, as I now know he wished I had, hit him over the head with the also proverbial frying pan. Yes, I am stuck in the kitchen of metaphors for absence of sex. But I did finally have to ask what was going on. And he did finally have to tell me that he wanted to live by himself. I had little other information. And I don’t feel betrayed by the disloyalty for after all it was more about humiliation than about sex for me, the watcher, the voyeur.

When I read Dana Gioia, I wanted to give the understanding in that last stanza to my husband. Perhaps he craved to enter. I know he did and I shall never know why he could not.

I don’t recall how much of this I told the bartender, but I do recall that it was more than I should have. And in telling whatever I told my heart ached with the betrayal I committed and that I commit here with shameful impunity. The writer lives in the shame of the betrayal that sets her free.

The bartender is kind.

There’s an edge of anger underneath that I now know comes out of a privileged and brutal childhood. His father beat him. He was the oldest and he got beaten the most. He doesn’t drink for good reason. I don’t know exactly the reason, but I know he’s seen a troubled world, saved a woman and her child only to end up in jail falsely accused of abusing her. He got out but not because his wealthy mother bailed him. He was in jail longer than was fair: innocent and jailed. What can make up for that?

My father was an ugly man. His nose and his ears were way too big for his face and his thinness when young made both flaws more prominent. Plastic surgery after he married my beautiful mother and had me and my sister, made him not handsome but close.

The bartender limps because he has had one hip replaced. The other hip must wait for his strength to build. He is strong: a beautiful upper body even if the whole body is not in proportion. I am attracted to the flawed body—not the yellowed teeth (cigars and who knows what), those teeth, too big for the handsome face. He is a mixed bag.

He writes me:

“I sat on the train tonight amongst the post New Year’s Eve revelers. The air was redolent with alcohol and the intermittent sounds of slurred conversations. I caught a couple of glances and realize I appeared a sad case stoically reading my book alone while multiple groups and couples were continuing their festivities and going to places where, no doubt, with the lubrication of alcohol and the enhancement of narcotics, astronomically bad decisions would be made. I did not look like a guy who had spent an evening full of joy, stimulation, great food and sex—albeit in a censored form but no less erotic for that—and tenderness with a beautiful woman who really wanted me in her bed. How appearances can deceive. A quick inventory of the car: More than a few of my fellow travelers’ evenings would end badly—breakups and brawls, lost keys and wallets, ‘You have the right to remain silent,’ strange beds and ER rooms in the offing; but yours truly was going home to savor the memory of your body, the taste of your lips, the down of your sex in my hand, and the look in your eyes that told me you were, once again, better than okay. My evening was priceless and perfect; and I knew in my heart I would feel great about it in the morning.”

Yes, he touched me, the bartender who will write his own book. Oh, let me live to see that.

I reject him, ultimately, because (do I know for sure?) because I fear the anger inside him, because he doesn’t handle dating with panache and shamefully that is important to me, or more likely, the closer he got, the more I wanted my husband and my father. He is neither.