Take the ‘F’ Train
The day I thought I was supposed to meet her started with directions, and in a season when I was at my most directionless. I was in Thom’s apartment downtown, talking to her on the island. She lived in Queens, but she wasn’t a Queens girl. She was just living there for now, until things happened. I was on Thom’s cordless and sticking my finger in his peanut butter and making amusing observations about the five-gallon drums of joint compound sitting on top of the average New Yorker’s head. She kept asking me to stop and focus and write down train stops, but somehow I couldn’t. I was antsy. I wanted to know where she lived. I wanted to see it and stop imagining it. Back in Palo Alto she’d shared a big Arts and Crafts house near a bookstore with two other girls. Would her place in Queens be that, or be old and varnished, with corners sticky with dog hair and varnish?
Thom’s place smelled of fish and fire when you walked in. The floors were massive, made of thick, pre-IKEA beams of wood, with deep sills. I could see the people who’d lived here, their ghosts still fiddling around in the closets, looking for sweaters, looking for screwdrivers to tighten the loose doorknobs. Was it possible that she was in a drywall box with shitty lights and the drum of city buses out front? I couldn’t get a focus on it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Her whole way of being in the world, the way her waist and eyes always moved in different directions, seemed to cry out creamy wood to me.
I was less certain of myself here, on the phone, with the connection so bad. In Thom’s dark kitchen it seemed harder to stay with the conversation. I kept saying, “hello? hello?” as though I’d lost her or was hard of hearing. Or having a breakdown. I was young, a young man in love, at least the love born of a lot of e-mail contact and very little kissing. And on Thom’s dark phone she seemed farther away than when I was out in San Francisco. Was it the dim fucking kitchen light? Was it jet lag? Was there something in the peanut-butter? And what was with the bad reception in the world’s foremost city? Was there an some insulation problem? Did she have a cheap phone? And, again, could this girl have a cheap phone? The conchs of my ears swirled from the executive barrenness of flight.
And then she was running water in the background and I was hearing less. Or was it because she was on the island? Did everything sound like water there? I saw her stretching her long fingers under a warm faucet. Only individual words were coming through: train, transfer, uptown. Every few seconds other people interruped her, and they seemed to be near bodies of water of their own, other sinks or tide pools. I wasn’t familiar with New York, or the subway system, and whatever she was saying was too quiet and too fast, too far away and distracted and distracting. Anyway, she wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. Tonight would be for Thom, for talking through his dizzying associational chains, for figuring out what had happened .
Thom was from college, too. Since graduation we’d both been at loose ends, but my guess, arriving here, was that his post-graduation life was not going well, not even a little. He’d gained a few -- first, in the months since graduation. We used to crunch on his mountain bike up the knotty hills of San Fran, both of us all hooked up, tight. Now the giant TV he’d installed glowed over him like a sun made of ash. Paper and pens had become scarce as razor blades were in the apartment in Palo Alto, where happiness came to us like cable. I was squeezing the phone between my ear and my shoulder, uh-huhing to her directions while I walked around in dirty circles in the kitchen lifting things on the wooden countertop. When a Flair pen fell to the floor I snapped off a paper towel and started to write.
I couldn’t really tell her this for some reason, any more than I felt that I could tell her to cease and desist with the water. I just made more low sounds of agreement, not wanting to break the fourth wall on this one. “You go here and turn and then go there and walk down and make sure it’s going uptown,” she said, and it more or less sounded like that to me. Take this one and that one. The letter F came out clearly. “Just check a map,” she said. “It’ll be clear for you. It’s easy. The ‘F’ Train.” She had no reason, not knowing me that well, to know it wouldn’t be. But even as I wrote it all down and hung up, trying to imagine the actual route in some three dimensions in my head, I wondered about her voice, which had the purr of distant mowers on it, a calm and controlled sound of promises kept, and that was at odds with everything else she said about herself, her U.S. Highway 1 cliff-drive anxiety, the hilarity about her childhood vacations with her divorcing parents.
More importantly, I had to wonder: Should I shave? By coastal intuition I knew the answer was in the affirmative, yet I was two days down the road of a decent growth. How would that go down here, where grown men wore shirts with buttons in the collars and were expected to have the chilly, freighted affect of home-schooled children? Cheeks with a sandpaper grit covering them wouldn’t do.
She was Jane, the girl in my head. I’d met her at graduation, over on my coast. Yes, yes, yes -- why then? Hard to know, Dr. Freud, just how timing works. My generation’s hippie fatalism doesn’t cut it. Is everything really suppewsed to happen? Really? And I don’t exactly buy the explanation that you lunge at people for internal reasons related to the force majeur of mommy. Sometimes you just meet someone and you think, Yes. Yes. You think, Please, just this once. That was her. It was a nice school where we went. There was a lot of stone and white wood on the outside, and a clean burning sun for us to walk out into after class. Everything smelled like fresh paint and pulpy juices, and new cars, the hardware store bin of fine-thread screws.
On graduation day a wrenching blue hung in the trees. It was deep and depthless and I stood with my parents before the ceremony thinking, “Jesus. Four years.” All those beautiful naps under the maps in the research libraries. Thom called them days that stretched right out to sex on the weekends. There on the pre-grad grass the only name I could remember for five minutes was Spinoza. A strong background noise of parents feeling rich floated behind me, flesh against the green, the clickety flashing of disposable cameras. Then after the humorous speeches, mortarboard-less, she was beside me. Hey, hi. Hi. Hey, you’re from -- no, wait, you’re not! And so on. My heart pounding for some reason at the contrast between her dark-light hair and her light-dark skin. That first time, too: hard to hear. I kept focusing on the curve of her jaw line below her earlobe. It was like dusk, if dusk were also noon.
That was her, the dark, restless beauty up front in the Cavalier poets to Johnson, a class from which I managed to call up, there in the June-phrased light, “Batter my heart, three-person God.” Which was enough, as I got it out, to curl my upper lip, against my will, into sea foam lust. Religious epiphany coupled with ancient masochism I guess will do that.
From Thom’s place there was virtually only west, so that’s where Thom and I were walking, past restaurants with dogs parked and barking, past doors where haggard waiters stood smoking, past indie art boxes with small, lost people in t-shirts rehearsing their lines, past vast outdoor theaters of graffiti. Our route had a quality of following the lines of crumpled paper. Below 10th, logical ups or downs turned into slants leading to the balled-up center of somewhere else. Another turn and we neared a crease that promised to skid us to the void of linoleum, dirty water and crumbs. I dug it, but there was fear laid on the whole thing, the capital letter F barely legible in the faded ink on the paper. Would we get back? Somehow in SF you knew where you parked. Tonight I didn’t have a clue and so soon after my cross-country flight I was taking the bruised, ginger steps of a guy after a hospital stay. The speed of traveling had rubbed the world-stain a little from my cheeks and eyes. I felt fresh and worn out and thought the city looked pretty. I even liked the rough heat of the month, liked that it was so different from the magic-hour of fruit-tree towns of northern California. I’d grown up in one of those, and the sun’s orange and pink gaze had tanned me into a creamy evangelism for the globe’s salvation. I’d become as friendly as a poodle and nearly nuanceless in my appreciation for the digi-bones of the virtual world. Here in the third world that was New York I saw none of that, and thanks to the flight and the air and my reason for being here the disorientation kept coming up on me like a good, hard kick. It was like Frank Sinatra mounting a phrase.
We were heading across town from Thom’s place to the White Horse where we could play at being fat, middle-aged alcoholics. I kept noticing a lot of striding and talking and arm-waving around us, but none of it was about the world or the Well or pilates. Most of it seemed to radiate from the mouths of young men with a year or two on us. Their heads fell open when they laughed about property and they used words like “Grand Central” and “hellion.” They said “Oh hell yeah” like it was one word. All the poodles I knew back home talked about self; these were absorbed in the self’s extensions: new phones, aspects of garments. Periodically the streets felt like 1958. I thought I’d see Nina Simone around a corner, her hair in the dirty breeze, bent over a pay phone shouting heated advice to Tony Bennett, both of their systems far too full of meat and hard liquor to live much longer. It was cool: it was like history. Northern Cal has less of it, but the point is less that there isn’t history as that there isn’t snow, something that could say time and death and the sexless fury of no work and hard circles breaking over the line of time. At home there was the smoothed wrinkle of the periwinkle Photoshopped air. I was liking the idea of snow, and the stench of garbage. Thom mumbled, “inside the inside,” and then we came to a long sidewalk full of homeless people.
“This is the son of Onan here.”
“I know, urban corruption.”
“No, no. These dudes here. I look at them and I see white seeds arcing toward desert sand. I regard the waste.”
“Are you auditioning for talk radio?”
“It’s just palpably true, Jon. They’re not lonely individualists and hobos bent on finding an ideal life in the woods. Look at them. They’re Mesmer-men. They’re post-orgasmic forever.”
“Charles Ives on every corner,” I offered hopefully.
“Vomiting and eating shit,” he said. “I don’t mean that critically. It’s just weird. We don’t let dogs loose, but we leave these beings to roam around with their free will and the fast wheels of their brain chemistry. When too many dogs gather from too much dog-fucking we pen the stragglers up and eventually gas them. Too many people? They walk the city and at night leak into the concrete a little.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “They’re unreadable signs.”
“Except the text is readable to them. When they jabber about how they can smell the CIA’s work in the sidewalks around Central Park it’s jibberish but not all that far from a good song or poem. They live for 35, 40 years balanced on jerky pencil line and stink. They all need water and sandwiches and some porous surface somewhere to squish down into at the end of it.”
I asked him what he thought it meant.
“That some of us are irrational numbers. That there’s such a thing as interstices. That we deny the fact of scrim and smear until we’re there ourselves.”
We got to the tavern and found stools, ordered beer.
“The word evil,” Thom said, “is from eviloz. You remember that from Bill’s class? It means ‘up’ or ‘over.’ Too much. Too much power, too much fucking, too much birthing, too much earth and canned goods.”
We talked some more, drinking the way you can only when hangovers are something you want to acquire, when drinking is a way to fill up a place with depth and history. With alcohol thickening all the sounds in the room, bouncing off the tile floors, our talk had a sense I remembered from growing up, swimming in neighbors’ pools at night. Thom continued to rant about the nimbus of rot, as he called it, and stretched out his muscles from there, going on to the wider claims of crime on the public imagination.
Around the third beer he turned to me and said, “I went to Costco out in Jersey over the weekend.”
“It had very high ceilings that were supposed to put me in mind of a warehouse, a secret one. We went after dark and I had this idea that I was a member of a club where everyone wore loose-fit jeans. And as a members of this club you sneak out to the edge of town every once in awhile to make large-scale purchase of televisions and novels. As part of the price you pay for the low cost you can only see the goods in desperately unattractive lighting, and everybody has prescription breath.”
“I always wondered why the high ceilings?”
“Oh yeah. The new Medievalism, the return to Catholicism via appalling and towering height.”
In an e-mail in July I’d mentioned to Jane the ongoing thing Thom and I had with medievalism in the early 21st century. She liked it and named it the New Medievalism and even added auto detailing to our short list of what we called “clarities” about the new age. Thom loved that: the venerable piety in need of a wax shine; a relic from the time Jesus walked the earth, housed in special prophylactic hoods, hidden behind garage doors. Then Jane added Leonard Cohen, the Jew whose songs were autumnal with Catholic Suzannes, who feed you oranges and tea.
I slipped off my stool and told Thom I was going to worship the porcelain. I took my leak then slipped into a stall and called Jane, talked to her on my cell behind the locked door. She hadn’t left Nantucket yet, though, and the reception was terrible, worse than the morning.
When I got back Thom was in a fight, swinging his fists at a guy for using the word “yoga” in his favorite bar. Looking at the guy, I knew it wasn’t the word; it was the way he’d pronounced it.
In the English Department Thom had been something of a demigod. His senior thesis on Wittgenstein and Bob Dylan was beyond its years. That’s what the Department Chair had called it, giving him the departmental prize. It used Street Legal and the Zettel, their ideas of the “invisible self” and the bewitching of the intellect. He’d also quoted Shelley authoritatively. He was impressive when he concentrated. When he concentrated you could feel a quality of glinting.
Now there was just this twilight, rolled cigarettes and brooding and slowed-down pronunciation. No graduate school, he’d said to professors. No thanks. He’d had enough of the hyperschools of Paris and Berlin and Minneapolis. But he wasn’t a Kerouac faker either. He just kept saying enigmatic things, quoting Johnny Cash songs, then saying it was the timber of letting go that he liked in the music. The timber of everything going. He’d said this back in early July in e-mail. He said it again when I got to his place.
Back in May, Jane and I barely had time for veggie burgers before she took off. I’d smelled her scalp and told her it was the tone, or the tune, of autumn. She said, “dead like leaves in autumn?” I said, “Like autumnal inhalations.” She told me she was going, I think, but then again I wasn’t so sure since I’ve never had a very good grasp of time, or timing. Plus, I was smitten, and I’d always held the word “smitten” up for ridicule. So unstylish stupidity of attraction unfocused me; had she just left, maybe? There was a kiss, too, a shy one that ran against both our natures. Then she was gone and for days I remembered it closely, like the faint fine hairs of an old paintbrush before it left the conveyor belt of sensation, replaced by the taste of soyonnaise, the sound ginger ale makes pouring over ice, the word “brazier.” I reconstructed echoes of it by rubbing forearm hair or lambswool on my lips, but the kiss was essentially smoke. And after a month it was a song about a laugh that floats on a summer’s night, that you can never quite recall.
Her first e-mail came five days later. She was in New York, in Queens actually (she wrote “actually”), waiting for a job to come through in her father’s textile company. Her father was in Sorrento for June and July, and then the whole family would be in Nantucket for August. So, weird.
How did she get there? How did she move in? I never asked. She would say that she had this job coming up any day. In the meantime she was tweedling her fingers, she said, wondering if she should answer mysterious recruiter ads in the Voice that looked like CIA jobs. And after that the weeks moved around each other like water, and we made good use of e-mail, its voiceless voice. It’s how half our friends met, in a brew of questionable punctuation. In hardly any time our e-mails went from bare, scarified, hyper-literate sentences to long, semi-dirty paragraphs about travels through Asia, Giotto’s lonely tower in Florence, the need in every man’s toolbox for one good, heavy-headed hammer, the unreasonable beauty of the dry, golden hills on the way to San Francisco, the variety of ways blueberries could be broken of their round (my Shakespearian contribution), and what it was anyone wanted from his (or her) relationships.
Then there were phone calls where we covered everything having to do with music. I was concerned when she said that she couldn’t stand the Bowie-Eno work of the 70s, and I’m sure she didn’t want to hear me grudgingly admire the later Madonna. Both of us were curiously silent on the subject of early cinema, which both of us had studied -- neither of us, perhaps, wanting to awaken the suicide bomber in the other. Not this early, not over Fatty Arbuckle.
One day I wrote her and said all this should be called l-mail since it was sort of more lightning than dry and invisible like electronics, and because people liked the speed of it. She wrote back and said, in that case you could call it p-mail, too. I wrote, P-mail? And she wrote, “’p’ for ‘peccadillo,’ because it gives you the courage to say stuff you wouldn’t lying in bed together.”
And that started it. I’d write her: “Okay, strangest location?” Or “First anal sex?” Or “What, uh” -- askingly -- “speed do you prefer?” She knew how to write, too, which was sort of like heroin in the l-mail/p-mail age. I sometimes thought, writing: is this a new age of correspondence? As silent as postal communication; as fast as the punch lines of telephony.
I’d describe the crunchy stuff under my feet in the morning and wonder if she could feel it? Would she sweep it up or leave it there? She’d describe hanging around in her skivvies till noon, and my head would spin imagining her thighs. Then there were some innocent-dirty e-mails, then some actually dirty e-mail, which may as well have been mail-order crack. Typing notes I would smile as though I’d had five beers, breathing through my stomach. And then the phone calls started. Any given morning, for example, I would write when it was already noon there and I’d say something that had some pronation on it: “I thought of a good present for you this morning.” Minutes later there would be a sine-wave musical phrase and the green flag was up in my mail: “How’d you know I like presents?” Then some exciting white space -- in my mind’s eye she hit her return bar twice, thoughtfully, with her index finger -- and this: “God, you’re lucky you’re a guy ‘cause this wool skirt I’m wearing is making me really itchy.” And she would know -- how? we hadn’t even slept together? -- that that would be enough. Wool, itch. Intriguing white space. For ten minutes my head overheated with the phrase “scratch that itch.” But that had only the merit of open lust, none of the rocket fuel that wit supplied on these occasions. So I’d press the Reply button and write something like, “The itching is a transfer of ions, I think. But if it keeps up you ought to consider abandoning it.” And then, if I was lucky, she’d call me, laughing, and there would be a transfer of something, l, or p, or e.
And now I was walking uptown a few blocks to hang a left on 18th and take New York City transit train F. Downtown, that might have stood for Fear. Not far from Thom’s place beautiful things and grit were pumice stones for each other. The city so scary and the fear written so large that around any given corner you could see a single letter: F. But then turn another corner, as Thom said, and you may as well be in Short Hills or Paramus. College girls with straight hair laughing without doing anything to their lipstick. Everyone carefully blackened by the crayons of J. Crew.
I’d left Thom with a heavy look on his face, a couple of raw marks on his cheekbones from the fight. He was listening to Kris Kristofferson and in the morning light he looked like he’d put on a few more pounds. But in the Jim Morrison way, the Michael Hutchence way, the skinny satyr hips fattening while they mince. I walked out seeing him plug in the toaster, the outlets sparking.
Remembering that he’d said last night that he was spending the summer collecting his thoughts, I wondered what I was doing here. What was going on with Jane? There was something, but not in the silt or cortex ways you know a person you grew up with, or got drunk with for four years. I didn’t know how she pronounced some words. And writing for these weeks what I knew -- and it was quite a bit -- was like razored ham, which bore so little relation to the pig that you may as well be eating salty gray pink circles. What I’d gleaned was not, I mean, from the usual animal contact, the smells, the eyes brushing, swallowing, one of us watching the other unslouch a shoulder-bag to the floor. It was digi-tact, the rumor of a self sent over the wires.
I went up to 17th and walked down the stairs and took the express up to 73rd and suddenly I realized I was going to be an hour early. I wasn’t sure I needed to get there this fast -- and then what? Walk around looking at houses made of cardboard? It was 11:00 and we were going to visit for lunch. She’d suggested lunch, late lunch, because it was grown up and it would time with her getting in from Nantucket. She was very clean and very big on grown-up things. Even just e-mailing, kind of overhearing the sound of her voice in there I felt the need for a long overcoat.
In a sort of trance I walked off the train, rounded through the turnstile and was astonished at how far into the earth we’d gone. I took escalator after escalator, mounting to the surface, each set of moving stairs vanishing, eating up the last, up to a final white crescent of humid sun and New Yorkers. A steep loneliness from the ascent came over me. It was August and as I emerged finally on the street the air rippled with the smell of coolant. Before this trip I’d been to New York twice maybe. I’d gone to the Met, seen the Death of Socrates, the hall of 4th century spear-carriers, seen some Warhol screen tests at MoMA, caught the Yankees, a Mamet play about swearing and shoulders and Rebecca Pidgeon. Coming to the top of the final escalator, though, I realized I had no real idea of the vainglorious eating machine, the gnawing, ravenous, appetitive city. The sun was broiling, and every shop had a chubby black woman behind the cash register handing over money, looking hard to please.
I walked under trees thinking about Jane. She was pleasable, I thought. Dark-haired, with lightly focused, faraway eyes. The image of that pleased me. I walked for a block up Lexington and turned into a place at 74th with a nice awning. I ordered a coffee at the counter and sat down at a tiny table before I realized I was in a dump. The coffee was hours old and right by the cash register a well-dressed fat woman sneezed repeatedly onto the display of Krispy Kremes. Outside, male trees blew lemon-lime tree sperm across the narrow street, covering it with fuzzy green dust, and watching it for a minute I developed a big animal longing for her. So I stood up from the formica square, picked up a cream-centered thing, paid for it, pushed it into my mouth immediately, and headed out, back down the street, down the escalators and into the torrid Middle Earth to catch the next train.
Her place was large and industrial, it turned out, with a tin ceiling globbed with paint and an old stove pipe running up a corner near the bathroom. She shared it with three people, none of whom were there, all of whom threatened to be soon. A pungent smell came off the walls in heavy black cartoon ink. There were steps from the first minutes I just can’t remember anymore. Mugs of tea were in front of both of us. We were sitting on the couch ticking off items, staring at each other: my flight, the neighbors, her drive, the excitement, the immediate future, the immediate stuff going on downtown, the immediate shows. And then she did a thing with her hand, and her mouth was twitching slightly, a thing made up of part suppressed laugh, part hand, and for a few seconds I stopped talking. Despite her basic friendliness she held a little of herself back, something I’d seen it before she left the west, over the sandwich made of a mushroom, or tufu. A something. And in it there was a little of my coming up out of the subway, trying to decipher uptown from downtown, my neck moving in its own trails of not-seeing. I leaned in and kissed her, and all of her quiet humor receded into a concentration on what she was doing now. She was kind of conservative, I thought, except for this mouth, which was half Dionysian, and her armpits, which had a sweet musk smell. She kissed so well, so slowly and softly that for a minute, in all the stillness and the scaled shock of taking it in, I thought she might want to set out to teach it to all men across the land. Town to town, Jane Appleseed, with only a nice skirt, a hat, and a satchel of lipstick. I wanted to tell her my idea: she could offer classes in kissing and book-learning to break up the monotony of each. Mallarme the French poet and her singular "Mallarme," warm lips moving like a young cat in a new room, a kiss of feints and indirections, veiled allusions to the enigma of red barns, the soft brush of tongues. Mostly writing and kissing are similar, aren't they? Both about tone, with a little information folded in about pants and secrets that aren't adequately named. She seemed to be searching for the names.
Instead, I broke from the kissing and said, “God’s been good to you. I see you and I reach for my ice-cream scoop.”
“That’s nice after a long drive,” she said.
“Have you had the engineers come over yet?”
“I thought maybe I’d call the engineering department at NYU,” I said. “They could run some numbers.”
“What would they be trying to derive?” she asked, starting to enjoy this.
“The mystery of pi, its central conundrum in human terms. Also, blueberry tarte, the pie of pi. All calipers alertly positioned around your perfect ass.”
“Blueberries,” she said. “Broken of their round.”
Afterwards, while I blinked and tried to say how much I liked her posture, she got out of bed, pulled on her panties and t-shirt and walked out of the room. Early socialist-period Everything But the Girl came on, and she crossed the open doorway again to go into the kitchen where she started whisking eggs, pushing bread into the toaster. I flashed on the Lexington morning break, the immense impression of dense, pretty lives in coffee shops, of skirts and good shoes, and hints of something between thinking and moving, and acquisition, and maybe reckless ego.
She came back in, handed me a plate with toast balanced around the edges, rubbed my penis until it stiffened a little, took a breath, and fell silent.
“I was going to say something about the roller-skating here,” I said, “but there’s been a decided mood-shift.”
“I have to tell you something,” she said.
“I promise I won’t get serious so quickly,” I said. “Being here. . . and this is a time of war, and . . . pensive drift.”
“This is probably your time of pensive drift,” she said. “The nation is as busy as ever diddling itself in the ass.”
I reflected for a moment then concurred.
I got out of bed to pee, not sure I wanted to hear what she had to say. Standing, staring into the medicine cabinet I started having one of those post-orgasm pisses when the urine slashes through you and then so does high gothic light.
She came up behind me and watched.
“Same hole,” she said as though shopping for shoes. She reached down, lightly pinching the shank of my evening between her thumb and index fingers, waggling the meat, the last drops arcing onto the toilet seat. I tore off some toilet paper and daubed it, shaving-cut style, felt it begin to tense again. She laughed and moved it some more, holding it until it was hard.
We went back to bed and laid there and looked into each other’s eyes. “Remember Wild Bill?” I asked. Her gaze scoured the ceiling before she said, “I’ve heard of him.”
“Maybe you didn’t take him. He taught Wordsworth and had this whole thing about Wordsworth going through words to another thing. Like, the word for mountain was mountain but Wordsworth still meant something else. I used to think the only way I could understand that was through the way Neil Young played guitar.”
“This should be good,” she said.
“No, listen. Think of ‘Old Man,’ the guitar bridge, which works at the words. That’s Neil thinking what he had to say he could only say with more cranking.”
“Whatever. I’m seeing you that way.”
“Your own private guitar solo?”
I laughed. “No. Though I like the thought. I mean, sex is maybe a way to say things I can’t get to with words. Words are opaque, maybe.”
“It’s sort of like a cell phone?”
“Come on. Try.”
She kissed me again, with her mouth, and behind that her mind.
And then we did it again, me thinking the words ‘wired up’, and then afterwards she let me nap for half hour before waking me up.
I was sleepy, looking into her eyes.
“So -- I was trying to say before. There’s not just you.”
I said, “Okay. I’m post-orgasmic now. There’s like prescription-grade morphine zooming through my organs. Slow down.”
“I’ve met other guys on the internet; dated them, and fucked them.”
“Yeah. Also, another thing.”
My heart was pounding. Was she pregnant?
She took a breath. “I had a boyfriend. Out there. At school. He came out here with me.”
“Jesus. I guess you’re seizing the day.” My mouth was dry.
“I’ve been seizing something,” she said and laughed.
“What . . . .” I was a little stunned, at, among other things, her levity. “Am I here?” I said.
“I have a boyfriend. And there are other guys. That’s what I needed to tell you. The other guys -- that was so you’d know. Tim, uh, he really likes me. And there’s you.”
“Tim with the chin? The chin that says, ‘Wait a minute till I finish my thought?’”
“Yes. I didn’t know if you were coming. We barely met, remember? And I’m young, and I mean, who knew? You looked so hot in your graduation gown.”
I took that in for a minute. “Who knew. Not me,” I said.
We took the F train back into the city and spent the rest of the day in the Met, hanging out for a long time in the Egyptian wing. There was joking and joke-smithing, but everything had a little piss-colored lining now, a visual sting. Any time she walked toward a piece to look at it closer I had a small brownout looking at her waist and ass. What was it? Did I like the idea of complication, then? I went to look at the lid of one of the Ptolemaic sarcophagi, a super-mellow Sino-stoner face. A running vertical crawl of pictures: owl, crab, eye, an abstract eye. Wise slow eye, then? Was that it? The wise eye is slow? Or, maybe not slow. Crabs move diagonally and sideways. It was sideways. The wise eye moves with cautious indirection? Should I be paying attention?
“The reliefs,” she added, “from Memphis. The other Memphis.”
“Home of the other King.”
I was thinking up till now that I needed a bigger canvas, and afterwards in the café I joked with her, looking at her eyes, that Paris seemed like it was too far away to move my big art books. San Francisco had the advantage of a great, creaky, cornering bookstore, coffee, unsuspicious neighbors, and men who knew, really knew, how to wear casual, open-collar shirts. She laughed, and I thought of a hundred men lined up outside her door to fuck her from behind. I half liked it, looking at her jaw line.
We slept at her place, and the next day I returned to the city in the evening, on the squeaking F. The red lights on the backs of the cabs were like boiled tomatoes in the night air. She was hard for me to figure out, and I was often confused, in person, in a way that I thought I wasn’t over e-mail.
When I got back Thom was eating a salad. I started laughing immediately, a stressed-out laugh. Looking at him now, he seemed like a guy who was about to tip the Jell-o bowl over and let it all spill into a decade of drugs and cheap spiritual experiences. But not before cleansing his palette. His face was a little swollen from his fight and it reminded me of the sarcophagi faces in the museum. Unchecked permissions, too: beer for lunch, cheerios and blueberry jam and whole milk for an afternoon snack in front of AMC’s Dirty Guys week, starting Mickey Rourke and Christian Slater.
“Finished nailing the coffin lid shut?” he asked. “Shut so no one can get out?” He was using his favorite figure for sex.
“She drove down the Verrazano, the Sawmill,” he continued. “She took you, she folded you, she had ice cream. Her ankles, even her ankles had something about them.”
I smiled. “She, uh, she needs to talk to her boyfriend actually.”
“A girl that pretty isn’t single much,” he said almost without pausing. “Is his name Robbie, by any chance? I ran into her one day on 4th and she introduced this guy who looked like he was dying to talk about obscure movies.”
“Another guy. Tim, actually. Remember him? He says things like, ‘I had inexplicably skipped over Byron in my Junior year, but his sustained relevance prompted me to pick him up while taking my summer off.‘”
“He says, ‘inexplicably’ because it’s available trope. Only a girl as smart as Jane would be taken in by his inexplicable love of German Expressionist theater.”
I let it go, and left to walk around. The heat didn’t seem to be breaking today. Clouds gathered and scattered, but no rain was coming. I couldn’t concentrate. I wondered, idly, if I should buy her something, a present.
There is the melancholy of being without someone to share a perfect day together. There is the melancholy of having someone to share the day with but not having enough history, or the right kind of history, to share it very well. And there is the melancholy of having the right person on the day when they should be there, which is in a way the deepest kind because you’re up against yourself now and either one of you could screw it up. You’re both in a Keaton movie, porting a large glass across a busy street. The way you’re carrying it you’re checking the balance through one side, she through the other. The glass shouldn’t break, a fact that makes both of you want to die laughing.
At her place, I’d had a chance to dream a little while I slept, but also after I woke up. The first time you have sex with someone you have a lot of opportunity for both kinds. The world is flipped and turned and for an hour the possibility for extreme change makes sense. Our friends, I thought, were tatted up like ex-convicts and Maori, pretend permanence. They walked the streets, a band of muscle-less tribesmen, hunting new-to-CD transfers of old hillbilly singers’ work who had once appeared on Hee Haw. They deployed irony like it was the unclean closure of the rapper’s third funk rhyme. They owned Vespas and old 2002s and generally sunk into two or three subjects hard, coral-reef divers going down into comic-books, Asian actioners, Led Zeppelin, early Christian churches around the Mediterranean. The tatting was the anomaly: permanent Mohawks. Good for one year of your life.
I thought about all of this in bed, going over her body.
“I can’t find any marks,” I said. “You’re like the perfect package for delivering overseas pornography.” She had leaned up on her elbow and given me a little shove. I admired her strength, which seemed to ray from her. One of the ways the living differ from the dead, I thought. She had a beauty when she focused that hurt my heart a little. She started to talk -- actually rapidly now that I think about it -- about her few months in Vienna. Schorske came out of her mouth a few times, and the word “Kokoshka.” “The dementia and neurasthenia of Kokoshka,” I think, “as perverted and sexy as European TV nudie films of the 1970s.” She was comparing the Austro-Hungarian empire to the American one after 9/11. One twitchy with nervy sex, the other fast asleep on delicious, salty hamburgers.
“I still have ambitions to add one brick to civilization,” she’d said.
“Do you think this is part of the archive? The Derridean archive?”
“Kind of. I want to sort of get to the top of the river, and owe none of what I know to the knowledge of the old river anymore.”
She passed her tongue over my teeth and asked if I were a breast man.
“You asked me that already,” I said.
“And what’s your current position?”
“I’m a dermis man, I think.”
A minute then floated by in which I a) moaned twice, like cracking the door very narrowly into a bright hallway; and b) thought about nothing.
“Anyway,” I said finally, “it’s just a theory about life. What kind of man you are.”
“Like terrorism,” she said, and I thought I knew what she meant.
Back at Thom’s place I raised the immortal soul business with him. He looked up when I came through the door, a big spoon in his hands poking flakes into milk and yogurt. Blueberries in it made the milk blue. Thom turned the volume down on the TV and used another remote to turn up the stereo. He was still listening to me when he put up his finger. I stopped. A woman with a whispery voice was singing.
“I search for you, pause, in every trough I travel through,” Thom said, repeating what she was singing. “Very plaintive,” he said. “If you’re in the mood for it it’s a song about the kind of love we’re supposed to despise, that we pretend to be beyond, but we secretly dig.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Desire is a stain that goes away but leaves a permanent mark anyway. You don’t forget it, especially when it’s outlaw. Like she was singing, you know, searching in the troughs. Through shit.”
I said, “I thought she meant, like, at sea. Crests and troughs.”
“It’s a play on words, I think. I search for you through my blues, via the map laid down by unhappiness. You know? I sometimes think that that’s the ‘romance of the outlaw,’ the romantic yearning to be marked up by something wild in him. Something wild in you touches something wild in the other person. Like in Greek war: the armor of the well-greaved warrior cuts your face as you slide down his shins.”
“Most people fake that anyway,” he went on.
“Yeah, they don’t want to earn it. They want to have had salvation or whatever it is. Salvation after awhile.”
“Bob,” I said.
He pointed his finger at me. He was allusion-casting, something we used to do earlier in college before we learning was boring.
“Bob’s the only guy who could rhyme ‘pass’ with ‘twice,’” he said. Then he said, “I was here on 9/11, you know,” he said. “School started late that year.”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear about silhouettes dropping through the air.
“I was out on the street, in another apartment over on A. The second plane went through like it was a knife going into cake. Everything coming out was crumbs. Somebody said, ‘How surreal,’ and I looked down thinking we were in new categories now. I saw a small red car running past. It was like a Spyder going uptown. Vroom. There were two women in the front wearing scarves over their heads, and a black dog in the back with his nose up, sniffing. The dog was looking back and the car was tearing away and it was getaway style. If I get a tattoo that’ll be the image.”
“The enigma of escape. The towers would be your subtext.”
“Yeah. Red ink and black ink, sister. The big dog turned from the beauties. And motion marks around the car. For once, a riddle.”
“I remember thinking about Agamemnon and the burning towers,” I said, checking my watch. I had to get back to Queens tomorrow. I needed my sleep. What day was this?
It seemed an hour later I was on my way back. Then I was at Jane’s again. I climbed the steps to the front door to find a lot of smashed glass going up to her front door, the glass in the front door gone and two obese women standing in the entrance. One had jet-black hair and one had peroxided blonde hair. Both were in the giantly fat category, their behinds oddly matched. What were they doing here? Did they break the door? I walked in blinking.
“She’s down at the coffeehouse,” said Jet. “You’re the guy she talked about, yeah?”
I thought I was, I said.
“She had no more band-aids. So we’re here to keep an eye on the place till she gets back.”
“What happened here?” I said. “What coffeehouse?”
“Long Time Curse.”
“This is funny to you?” Peroxide said, turning to survey the big triangles of glass glinting on the floor. My eyes filled with her big ass.
“No, the name is,” I said. “But anyway, what happened? Was this a gas leak?”
“A gas leak, yeah. A big gas leak.” Peroxide said.
Jet said, “A giant gas leak named Gordon.”
“Funny women,” I said, seeing them eye me. I was nervous, suddenly. “So a guy named Gordon punched the door?”
Peroxide sneered. “Oh yeah. That’s his power. He can shatter thick, glass from the ‘thirties with his hands. Listen, Gordon can repair sink drains and probably knows how to unscrew the tubes where water goes down. But he ain’t dat strong. You know?”
Jet said, “He used a chair.”
“The coffee place -- a right up there and then halfway down Sixth,” said Jet.
“Thanks,” I said.
No Jane at the coffeehouse, but they said check up another block to a place that sold T-shirts. I walked until I saw a T-shirt in the window of a place. The shirt read, “Queens. It Ain’t All Dat Bad.” I walked in and there was Jane in the back squeezing Polysporin on a big gash. She was wearing a dress with green and blue circles. I had a foaming sense for a moment and wanted to tell her to take it off. What would it look like out in the sun?
“God, that is just not looking good,” I said.
“I was pulling a piece out of the frame, so nobody’d get hurt,” she said, looking at me with a look between wrenching the top off a jar and amusement. I reached for my cell phone.
An hour later we were coming out of the emergency room. We still hadn’t talked about it all, but I half liked the mystery. I trusted her in some weird way. We decided to take the train back. She swiped her little yellow card twice and we waited on the bench, down in the tunnel, in the crushing heat.
“The train’s air-conditioned,” she said.
I nodded, remembering the refrigeration. “I didn’t know you had such a serious . . . “
“Boyfriend?” she asked. “Yeah.” Pulse. “He’s serious but ‘it’ wasn’t. I thought it was for sex. He maybe just doesn’t like to lose.”
“Yankees fan,” I said.
“Red Sox, I think, actually.”
The train squeaked in. The car had the air of a Texan summerhouse. All the sweat on our skin lifted almost instantly.
I looked at her, the blue circles turning green and back again, hanging a little before, a little after her. I remembered how I felt -- exactly -- when she had my cock in her mouth two days before, how I begged her not to stop. I’d thought how not a scrap of fabric had been wasted on her teeth. I’d told her at the time. You couldn’t find quality like that nowadays, I’d said.
“Thrift store,” she’d said.
“Your parents tell you the name of it?”
“Yeah, it was near where John Smith traded with the Indians. Fog, Amphetamines, and Pearls, I think.”
A couple of days later I was back to help her with the new glass. It was probably going to take awhile to understand all this, but I was here for awhile. I was young. At the glass shop we saw that we’d made a big error trying to save the delivery money by carrying it ourselves. But we picked it up and left anyway, and outside the sun rankled against the new surface and we could see construction dust laid on it. I saw the other glass flashing and tearing apart, my image flying out in all those parts. Too much reading makes you think things like that, I thought. And then I looked and Jane was there on the other side. We were months away from knowing each other, and for now I was willing to forget the crap, the other cocks. I was still willing to think that things smashing wasn’t such a big deal. The thought must have hit Jane at the same time because just as we stepped off the sidewalk we both started laughing.