Last words & epigraphs
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This work first appeared in Gargoyle, issue #12/13. Please respect the fact that this material is copyrighted. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose without the express consent of the author or artist.
The Rain, The Doves, & Tangerines
Imagine the room. The windows, facing west, lend to the light in the room a wistful, indistinct quality at this hour of the day. The light traces the shadows of ferns on the walls. The ferns themselves, gleaming healthy clumps of them, are ranged, in glazed earthenware pots on a white counter to the left of the desk. The ferns arch strongly, they seem to be vibrating, as if with tension. The undersides of the largest leaves are scored with hundreds of minute incisions, in which are nested oval clumps of seeds, or spores, intensely black against the rich pale green. The desk itself is bare, the matching chair behind it of unstained birch in fluid modernistic lines, with cushions of red suede. The chair is swiveled slightly away from the desk, in the direction of the windows. On the wall behind the desk is an expensive reproduction of a Klee painting. In front of it, an immaculate expanse of cream shag carpeting. That hushed intermittent whispering that you hear is the ventilation system; it is the only sound. One wall consists of bookshelves of white wood filled with medical journals, handsomely bound editions of the classics, thick leather notebooks. A man stands in the corner of the room, peeling a tangerine.
He leans back into his chair, his hair very dark and slightly stiff, like fur, against the grainy red leather. His hands move warily along the curved wooden arms of the chair; they are white and vulnerable, with pale veins and long, slightly spatulate fingers, oddly shaped thumbs. I have always known the men I would love by their hands. He is not unaware of the tension between us, of the slight dilation that the movement of his hands causes in the small, delicately furred slit I press cautiously against the seam of my pantyhose, the movement hidden by the thick folds of my chocolate corduroy skirt. I feel safe because of this skirt, my white silk blouse, my suede boots: I belong in this room, I belong to this state of awareness that is not really, his mood, or mine, but simply a state that exists with us, between us in the room, unacknowledged. He is as familiar with this sort of tension as I am, and knows that it is not to be spoken of, or cultivated, or permitted in any way to intrude into the activities occurring on the conscious planes of the interaction. An adept, as I am.
I am talking.
'In the dream there is a luminous clarity, the pristine light of a Vermeer painting, the same innocence and stasis.'
'Yes, everything is motionless, perfect. It is a restaurant, a long narrow room with small round tables, lace tablecloths, chandeliers. Even the people are caught in this light, so that their faces seem chiseled, the shadows beneath the eyes and mouths sharp as knives. The women are extremely elegant, the men large, solid, handsome, the conversation in cultured whispers. The women nodding, attentive to the men. Somehow their movements appear synchronized: I am embarrassed to be the only one alone, afraid to begin eating. I lift a fork awkwardly. Suddenly everyone turns, the conversation falters, heads turn toward me. I am still holding the fork in my hand. I feel the impulse to turn and see if there is anything behind me although I know there is nothing. One woman halted in the middle of a laugh. and there was a bead of saliva in the corner of her mouth, a perfect, tiny globe of liquid. I stare, fascinated, as the bead thickens into a teardrop, lengthening from the corner of her motionless, perfect mouth. I am beginning to get impatient, and still everyone is watching me. I move restlessly in the chair, and there is a sort of stiffness in my back and a quick jabbing sensation, not painful, and I turn and see that I have wings now.'
'Wings? What sort of Wings?'
'White ones. Dreamy, shining, richly feathered white wings.'
'And you think that this is a dream about the divorce?'
' . . . the first part is fine also, densely written, with an eye to economy. That's always been your strong point: I think you are beginning to exploit it, and need to be wary of that. You have to begin, I think, to deal with your husband here.'
'I've been reluctant to get into that. You know he's the hardest one for me; he's a real person.'
'Yes, but that's the crux of the whole thing, isn't it? Your relationship with him, the way it alters your perception of yourself, the way it finally disintegrates. I have one other criticism, a minor one, about the title. You've done something with tangerines, I see, but that's 'tangerine, ' not 'tangerines,' plural, the it is in the title. And there hasn't been anything about rain, or doves. I find it distracting.'
'I like the way the words work with each other.'
'Still, to have them in the title implies, that they are some sort of' images or symbols, and connected with the story. You can't take that implication lightly. Symbols, have to be explicated by the narrative, intimately connected with the kind of validity of, say, D. H. Lawrence's water imagery, his women bathing, drinking, wading, swimming, splashing, drowning. That is the kind of potential symbols have. And I think that the doctor also should be given more solidity, you've got him as doctor in the abstract, and he's not someone who would, say, belch or blow his nose. He hasn't even got it name.'
'That was the way he was to me, a man, a doctor, in the abstract I never saw him blow his nose.'
'Start by giving him it name. Something solid, like Biederman, or, say, Zutz.
He is standing, this time, by the windows, the sunlight burning goldred in the strands of his thinning hair, hair that lifts in long tufts from the crown of his forehead and falls sharply over the pale temples. He removes his glasses carefully and rubs the pinched red creases at the bridge of his nose. He turns toward me, a quick, wary movement; he had forgotten I was in the room. I am watching the ferns, and I notice suddenly that their undersides are clean, bare of the small pockmarks that had always been there before, the minute black clumps that I had thought were seeds, spores. The undersides of the ferns are absolutely clean, pure, glistening green. (I have never seen the windows of the room open. Had someone, a maid, cleaned off the ferns so that the thousands of small pods would not burst and fill the room with a storm of small black seeds? Had someone, Seligmann himself, spent hours scraping them carefully, judiciously, so as not to injure the bristling green leaves? Or had the pods burst of themselves, some hour in the very early morning when the room was cool and deserted, was the immaculate cream carpet even now seething with living black spores, minute, secret?)
I am standing in front of a mirror. I belong to mirrors, I give myself to them completely, not holding back a small part of myself the way some women do, as insurance against the small painful damage their reflections might cause them. I always accept them, mirrors, I lift my face to them the way children look at kites, stars. I can do this because my face, my small, pale, oval face with the honey colored hair and grave blue eyes has never disappointed me. I would, in the same way, with no more and no less detachment, stand for hours in front of the Botticellis in the Louvre. My face, in certain moods, is Botticellian, the grave high forehead, the oblique eyes. This day my face is slightly pinched, the corners of the mouth sharper than usual. My husband stands behind us in the mirror. His head is small, neat, triangular, a fox's face, a fox's wiry body, the musky smell of the stains beneath the arms of his faded blue workshirt, the fainter smell that is paint and linseed oil, turpentine, the various oils and chemicals in small clear bottles lining the shelves in his studio, where I am not allowed. My husband lifts the scissors in his hand, lifts a handful of gleaming blonde hair, holds it into the light, studying it. Then, beginning slowly, carefully, he cuts. He lifts the hair away from my head and I touch the cut place gently and he has cut very near the scalp. He places the hair neatly in a cardboard box, selects another handful of hair and cuts it, the hair failing from his fist now, swaying a little stiffly like wheat in a sudden wind.
The museum has the crowded, hot, dense smell of public places, urinals and bus stations, and I have always hated crowds and crowd-smells. It has been raining, so there is an undercurrent of odor, marshy breath, wet wool, close, clogged, porous, emanating from the woman in front of me. She is a very large woman, solid, moving deliberately across the tiled foyer of the Museum of Modern Art. My suede boots are soaking, the hem of my skirt splattered with mud. When it dries I will flake it off carefully with my fingernail so as not to ruin the suede; no one will notice. There are fewer people here, and a heavy cord stretched between the tubes of metal marks the hallways with the new exhibition. I walk as deliberately as I can past the first several paintings, and pause, pressing my lower belly against the heavy, silky rope. There is a painting on the wall: transparent strokes of color, pale blue, crimson, gold, the gold differentiated into various smooth shapes, the oval of a woman's face, the angle of the forehead, the planes of the cheeks, the crescent suggesting a small, delicate mouth. The eyes are not painted in, only indicated by several strokes of shadowed gold, blind eyes in the fragile face of the woman. The front of the painting is a screen door, a real one with peeling wood and a rusty, torn screen. The screen door is a recurrent image in his work, and has been variously interpreted by the critics. (He is reading aloud, laughing: ' . . .a barrier behind which images form, substantial and yet mysterious, emerging finally in a reiterative structure analogous to the imaginative patterning which shades the quotidian objects of our lives and lends them an air of mystery.' ' . . . representative of the door to the subconscious, behind which lurk those totemic figures and objects stemming from a purer, more violent period, childhood perhaps. The child's unconditioned response to line and color is expressed in the clarity, the fluidity of his women . . .' His women, they say, but all of these women are me.) I know this door, it is one of several that he got at an auction last month. We found the first one together, in a deserted farmhouse, when we'd been following a small stream, the pink and gray crawfish Scudding away from our bare feet. We had walked a long way and when we saw the farmhouse we walked around it, cautiously, and then went inside, sitting on the cracked linoleum floor for our lunch, bread, cherries in a jar, wine, the sun stroking our bare shoulders, his back, my hair. Then we made love on the bare linoleum and the cherry pits dug into my skin and it was good and it was the last time. Later he took the door off the hinges and carried it all the way back, hot, sweating, swearing softly to himself, and that was the first door he ever used in a painting.
After that there were others, and this one, in the new exhibit, is the last of the series. A woman leaning out from behind the door, her face vague, tilted a little to one side, as if she is listening for someone, or waiting. One of her hands (the hand is made of plaster, painted to match her skin) holds the screen door open, and across the hand and the thin wrist is a cascade of rich, silky blonde hair, lifted slightly by the currents of air that move down the hall of the exhibit, strands of hair that glisten with static electricity, clinging to the curve of the plaster wrist. The woman in front of me scratches a flake of mud from her red wool skirt and stares at the painting, and then in a hushed, plaintive way she breathes, 'Isn't she beautiful. Isn't she beautiful.'
These are the things Dr. Seligmann will cure me of. That afternoon when I came home he was gone; he had left before, but this time his absence has a different quality, it is absolute, final. I check the calendar on the wall and see that I have an appointment with Dr. Seligmann tomorrow, at 3:30, and I walk through the empty rooms like a visitor, checking things furtively. It is all gone, only the furniture left, and that is mine, the yellow shades pulled halfway down the narrow windows like the eyelids of old men drowsing in hospital corridors, the wet red brick of the building opposite. He had wanted to live in the city, he said it was the only way he could work. The noises of traffic on pavement, children's voices, high-pitched, irritable, from the apartment below. In the bedroom I peel off my wet skirt, my boots, my damp silk blouse, leaving them in separate crumpled piles on the floor.
The doves cooed all night in the rain.