Issue 79, Spring 1981
Now it is another day. Rain is speaking gently to the terrace. I speak gently, sometimes, to myself. How soft the light is, mingled with the wet.
We had one shortened summer month together, Lou and I … my god, even the decade’s gone. Pleading the pressures of work, I excused myself from my life and settled in a second-story room in western New York. A wooden stair fell from one widened window like a slide of cards. We hung our towels there: a shirt sometimes, a slip as discreet as a leer. I remember particularly the quiet empty streets, the long walk to the beach. Well, it was scarcely a beach, though there was a pier, and even in August the water was cool in those thin deep lakes the patient passion of the glaciers scratched. My chief memory is the heat, the silence, your pale breasts. Pale as a bleached leaf. I do not understand what makes another body so appealing.
A souvenir scarf, salmon pink and exuberantly fringed (but not a memory of mine) lay across the dresser. And there was an old oak commode, solid as a safe. I also recall one stiff chair, committed to good posture and discomfort, its caning gone and the hole boarded up like a broken window, with the seat-wood covered in some kind of slippery cloth on which designs suggestive of breakfast commanded the eater to be shortly up and at ’em. Well. So there were these wan leftover creatures still: the glass dish your hairpins lay in, a distant green like some remembered portion of the sea, so from the side the pins seemed a school of small fish; the lamp which leaned, threatening to slide the shade outside the limits of its bulbshine; the black metal basket where an orange flower flared like a match, and where you would toss the Kleenex you wiped yourself with, seed soaked, relaxed, in a soft wad. So. These things. Then you and I. We were wonderful in our willingness, weren’t we? And now is it all ash? Some sweetmeat scrubbed from the teeth? These days the soft cloth which receives my relief gets washed. And the walls … the walls were … Damn. There was a rug—yes, there was a rug—its design by a dimestore indian. And didn’t we have a clock we kept in the pocket of its case—somewhere a quiet tick, a measure we forgot? The picture you wanted to turn to the wall … was … Of a Civil War encampment.
If you grasped that stair rail, white paint would powder your hand. Now I had captured your love, I was already counting the cost.
Every morning we ate an orange, and you walked off to the lake to swim while I read until eleven when I met you there. We circled the lake so closely we kept our image always in the water, and we ate our lunch from the same brown sack we used to feed the ducks, the sack the grocer dropped our oranges in, half-a-dozen at a time. The scent of the peel would often linger on my thumbs, the zest of the rind still lodged beneath the nail near the quick. Then in the afternoon we would nap and sweat through the deep heat, our limbs loose as rags, and walk once more down the elm-tented street for a dip, holding hands which had held our bodies together better than our bones. In the evenings I wrote or we listened to the radio a little, and you would let your long hair dry on our single pillow. It was the simplest sort of life, empty of everything except ourselves, the contentment we were wrapped in like patriotic bunting. I wrote the section in Guilt and Innocence on secondary school almost entirely out of my head—easily—even the songs.
Unsern Führer lieber wir,
Unsern Führer ehren wir,
Unsern Führer folgen wir.
Bis wir Manner werden …
hardly taking thought.
Bugs would bang against the screen during the early hours of the night, a car might cough, or very far away a truck labor up a hill, and the morning light would be gray and heavy with humidity. I would stand naked at the top of our wooden stairs while you completed your sleep, accosting a day which wasn’t quite ready, and waiting for a breeze to brush the hair on my legs the way your breath would caress me in advance of your tongue.
We were happy because we had no history. I know that now. Though I was writing history. I wrote: Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, Chapter Twelve. Our winter room was full of the snow which had fallen between us, the cold wind my wife blew, your desire to have all of me, as though I were entirely at leisure, and had no book, no profession, no family, no commitments to the world. I only wanted to play eine, meine, mine, mu, and you eventually tired of being a meadow for my slow fat herds; but in that warm still heavy summer even the stars were wet, and I would wait for a wind, a faint stir in the grass tips, that movement of life in the poplars which signified a breeze, and through the screen, with its fly’s-eye view, watch the light slide along your body as if that were air, too, suddenly become skin.
It sometimes seems to me, in morbidly fanciful moments, as if age were aimed at, not simply suffered, for I fled my youth as if it were a disease. I wanted adolescence as I wanted its acne. And I can believe those who argue that memory is not enough to establish the reality of the self, because the selves I remember I remember like photos in the family album: that knickered kid, that bald scrawny brat, that fuzz and fat faced second louie, that solemn owl in his flat black hat—they are relatives of mine at best, school chums scarcely recollected, unidentified individuals who have somehow slunk into the group and grin at the blank beside their name. I can unearth someone shouting slogans in a German street, but that loud rowdy could never have been played by the softvoiced and suety professor I have since become; nor can I long for you any longer in the old way—that pain is also past— since the lover who lingered over you like a nurse through an illness—I see that now—is now another man, no longer a lover of any kind, just as you are, Lou, a different set of lips, another pair of breasts, some further furry tunnel.
I always am, and never was; but who wants to be what they have been? Only those like Lou whose souls are the same as their skins; those whose bodies have beauty and skill, grace and accomplishment. Time is an enemy of matter, not of mind, and history (as I said to Governali), history, so long as it is tied to Time like a tin can to the wedding car, can only be a recital of … tents. There were tents, men slouching in grainsacky heaps, stacked arms. You
Oh. No. I’m not your second-story man any more. Another story has intervened. The beauty which I had from you Tents. Tired men. Smoke. Still air. Stacked arms. The pale pattern of your bra, like something which has lain too long across grass, as that scarf lay across its dresser, is one I watch a former self observe, a self which could have returned through the screen to spread itself like a brown glaze over your breasts, not this body which is all mine now—and a mind which is pure bleach.
You turned the tents to the wall, hid the huddles of men, the limp flag, the dog. There was, of course, an amber patch behind it, and its paper back was brown and parched and marked with black crayon, a line of dust along the wire. The shadow of its neglect lay upon it, the paper dry and drawn up tight till it tore where it drew back from its glue. Yet you preferred the blank backside of the image. The hammered frame, back there, was smooth. And now I know what the walls were. I have recovered the color of unskimmed cream.
That one small room made us more than normally neat. We so rubbed and moistened one another, we did not disturb the collar stay on the other window’s sill, or the pin in the corner by the hall door. It was We spent whole days consuming an hour. We were rich. We made hay. Sunshine fell like a shower.
Well. I regret the loss of the lover who loved you (hourly, I regret it), but not the loss of the slogan shouter, the maker of messes, I once was. The fingers which slipped through the enchanted forest of your twat—I promise—did not heft that rock on Kristallnacht. It’s as if my forties had cancelled my twenties out, and my fifties stamped P A I D on both. And beyond the tents, the men, the tented arms, I think I see a station, stacks of wood. There were a few beards on the men and many small moustaches. This was a world—our old world —turned to the wall like the cliche said. Some were sitting cross-legged. I remember particularly our sandaled footfalls and your hand—the light way it led the swing of our arms. Suddenly the temperature fell like a stone scuffed over a cliff, and when you woke, as surprised by the chill as the trees, I tossed you a towel to cover yourself, and you held to your breasts half-a-dozen honey bees which had sought shelter in its folds.
But Chapter Twelve of Guilt and Innocence had come from my head like a flow of tears; and I remember I wanted the gaze of my healthy German kids, the pure schein of the facts, to concentrate in the nib of my pen, look back at my words the way those men stared, as they had to, stolidly at the lens, into the heart of the black hood which would eventually hold all that remained of their lives. Poets are the bees of the invisible, Rilke said. A stray strand of hair ran like a crack across your chest. Am I still that astonished self? that innocent who attacked you from afar? Later, small red spots would come out on your breasts when you showered, memories of a flesh I could not scar with my kisses or, with my worship, bless. It got hot again, but our summer’s month was over. For as long as we were together, you held those bees against me.
A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
Commode. Scarf. Dresser. Go-get-em chair. The sea-green dish. The sliding shade. The flower. School offish. My seed. And when we left that room we left it just that way: the twisted, hammered towel, the tents, men, rifles, turned to the wall, one torn orange, that heat and that humidity, dead bees crushed in the cloth.