It was smoke that killed him, after all. Though I did not want to speak of the dead. I wanted to speak of what I felt this morning after waking up unhaunted, for a change, by strange nightmares. I wanted to speak of cool water on my face, of greeting Askar as he opened the door for me, of the moist air along the river below the GWB and how I stooped to pick up a wine cork and a piece of glass before reaching the deli and ordering my bagel and coffee, dark, one sugar, with lite tuna salad on the bagel. The cashier winked at me; he looks Peruvian: the dark straight hair, the aquiline proboscis, the rainbow strings of his bracelet. Our fingertips touched momentarily as he passed me coins, a dime, a nickel, two pennies now rubbing in my skirt’s pockets against the cell. There were three missed calls: one from the gallery (Rafael reminding me of our lunch meeting with Mr. Alfred Stein), one from my daughter, the third from a man who I do not particularly want to see again. The call from Sofi, my daughter, was actually a text message. It read: Mum, worried abt u plz call luv & a hug, Sofi. After I read the message I spotted a cigarette butt on the ground beside a twist of wire. I used a tissue to pick up the butt, put 1972, the year of my marriage, into my pocket. And before I reached the studio I spotted a red ticket stub, likely a movie ticket, and remembered the film I’d seen with the man who I cared no longer to see but picked it up anyway, just as I’d chosen the cigarette despite the fact that it was smoke, or likely smoke, that killed D.H. and plunged me into months of mourning, seasons of unbearable heaviness that hound me still, that I must with great effort shake off, relegate to that gated area in my psyche where one must rarely tread.
Beyond the studio windows elaborate buildings sprout, twenty stories and Mondrianesque when the lights come on in the evening, and the silver girders of the GWB topped with blinking cherry-light, and the ever-moving West Side cars, and the swarming waters of Muhheakantuck, the river that flows two ways, mixing sea with sweetness, brackish cocktail for the gods’ malign laughter at the death of D.H. in a hell gate of smoke, at the mourning of the father and of the daughter and of the poor widow who wants to paint the pitiable spirit of afternoon light. The brushes are fingertips on the skin of canvas. I press just hard enough to bend the bristles, as though I am touching his chest, pressing the muscles in his chest as he looms over me, threatening with love, his nipples violet with blood. Purple. That will be my sadness and my longing. This landscape of purple and violet is actually my battered heart, too sheltered, confused by twenty centuries of culture, naïve to dark prestidigitations. I am Machiavelli’s ignorant mistress. Alchemistry crackles darkly in the air; there is a hint of narrative. And this burlap, uncolored. These hempen strips are his discarded clothes, or perhaps the burlap of the sacks they tie on prisoners’ heads in Iraq and Afghanistan and Egypt and Poland and Pakistan, on the prisoners at Guantánamo. Heavy breathing, hot through jute, labored. The viewer should sense such heaviness, feel the oppression of fear, grow half aroused. I should not call the man I do not want to see but I know that I will call him. My coffee, dregs. Cold. I splash it on one corner of the canvas. That is today, September 12, 2004. But I will not turn on the television, this being one firm precept of my life: I am an iconoclast. Strange how all across America, and all around the globe, people are so easily mesmerized by television’s brazen light, its raucous imagery–or strange rather that I find it strange, that I have ostracized myself so far from what it seems to mean to be human in this age and day. But I can watch no more bombings, sit through no more sit-coms, bear no more talking heads on the treadmill of base opinions. I must resist certain seductions. So much of my life is a matter of resisting seductions, or rather of deflecting them, for there is no more potent poison than the frustrated urge. I am a creature of detours. I paint a small tv set glimpsed through a window of one of the buildings in the scene. It must be present in the setting, for it is always somewhere. I paint it black and red, the colors of democracy and freedom. I am trying to compose a picture of survival, interrogate myself.
MY DAUGHTER should not worry about me. Sofi, my eye. How we fought! Mother and daughter in their eternal caterwaul. Sofi was twelve when the long divorce began, a divorce it took me too long to see. Her breasts were just beginning to develop, small bumps Sofi hid with extra layers of clothing, slumped shoulders and a stern, impermeable demeanor that verged on violence. Hard as steel could she be. And me too at that time, so self-centered, so strong, carving out space for myself as a mother-wife-artist must. Sofi, then, found herself with a lot of time, with the freedoms of suburbia that a more than average wealth affords, with an uncowed mind and a teenage power and rare beauty I always worried about, for too much beauty in a young woman can have disastrous results, but her acute mind and her sensitivity and her physical strength prevailed and she did not succumb to mall fashions or abusive text messaging or slightly older boys who stashed flasks of vodka and disintegrating condoms in the glove compartments of their Camaros. Still, we fought. It was worse when J.M. was around, J.M. who spoiled her silly (he believed it was the father’s job to pamper the daughter), J.M. who seemed to be either always at home lifting pot covers and looking for shirts and pens or else never at home, off on some vague errand or research project or sitting in the library till the lights dimmed or off on week-long trips to Seville and Istanbul and Paris, and when he was away Sofi was sweet and helpful, perhaps a bit too dutiful even, but when J.M. returned she would turn again to iron, scowling in her bedroom, and even J.M. was shocked at the fierce, intransigent tantrums, the mad sorcery of hormones or disgruntled gods beyond the human pale. And all the while the brother observing from the sidelines, simply curious at human behavior, glancing up from his plastic soldiers and the detailed diagrams in his battle books to witness the strange, fascinating outbursts of the older sibling. Happy D.H., poor blesséd boy.
But I am almost late. I slop my brushes in turpentine, rinse my hands, retie my sandals. My skirt breezes behind my brisk stride, though when I catch the bus, traffic labors fitfully down Broadway. I spend the minutes rubbing spots of paint from the back of my hands like Lady Macbeth, then descend at 68th and stride hard to Trojka’s on Central Park South, where Rafael awaits me at a table for three. Black-and-white clad waitresses hover on the periphery. The decor is mock decadent: burgundy walls with ornate Spanish-silver light fixtures, walnut banisters, absurd damask ribbons. The plates are Prussian and saxe, the menu (chartreuse) vaguely French. Rafael has chosen the wine, a Sangiovese with a hint of fragola and bubble, perfect for lunch. He is in high spirits. Robert Polidoro, formerly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the man who has been chosen to curate the 2008 Venice Biennial, has expressed interest in exhibiting my work. He was intrigued, Rafael tells me, with my evocative mixture of the mundane and the mystical, with my broad range of subjects, and with my incredible palette, colors the curator claims he has never before seen. Ever the enthusiast, Rafael played me up, of course, extolling my “fascinating” new series of paintings, large works in which I capture the spirit of light in urban scenes that combine the narrative force of the neo-classical, unflinching portraiture, and Klimt-inspired designs on a roughed canvas. –My dear Rafael, I say sipping the Sangiovese, what have you done? –You told me yourself, EP. In fact, I’ve seen them. –You saw an early version of one, I remind him. –And it was fascinating. Nothing like it in the history of art. –Please, Rafael. “Unflinching portraiture”? The “narrative force” of the Sabine women? –I never mentioned the Sabines, Rafael says, pouting and smiling. –And just what is a “rough” canvas, Rafael? –I was speaking of the texture of your painted surface, of the small objects you glue to the canvas, the fabrics you layer on. Not everyone can pull that off. Look at the disgusting messes Schnabel makes with his pitiful broken plates. It’s one facet of your genius, EP, though of course it’s your colors and your subject matter that raise you above the artistic rank and file. And such compositions! You know I am moved by your work. –I think, Rafael, that you are moved by your exorbitant commissions. –Such a tease, EP. Please, you might embarrass me. –I don’t know what I’d do without you, Rafael, I say.
There is movement on the periphery. Mr. Alfred Stein joins us for lunch. He’s a fit fifty-five, medium height and slender enough, skin very white but not pallid. Good shirt, casual jacket, silver-rimmed glasses behind which dart his powder-blue eyes, sharp eyes, eyes that know art. He has purchased paintings of mine in the past and is interested in viewing my more recent efforts. Rafael immediately brags, announcing as fact that Polidoro has chosen my work for the Venice international. (He kicks my shin under the table to stop me from correcting him.) Alfred Stein offers me congratulations. –Well, it is not quite certain yet, I admit, ignoring Rafael’s grimace. Mr. Stein touches my hand. –I’m sure it will be. His fingers are cool, but a glimmer lights his irises. Love’s tentative arrows. I wait three seconds, then remove my hand to adjust my napkin. We order and eat. Tricolor salad with walnuts and goat cheese. Roasted baby lamb chops. Crème caramel. After the espresso, when Rafael excuses himself to wash his hands, Mr. Stein places a hand lightly on my shoulder. –I am sorry, he says. I wait. –I attended a ceremony yesterday, he explains. Though there was a fair crowd, fewer and fewer people show up each year. How are you getting along? –I try to work, I say. –That is admirable, he says. One can see that your paintings are the result not only of superior craftsmanship but of a deep and sensitive being. –Thank you, I say. I am touched not by his flattery (Rafael has inured me to sycophancy) but by his thoughtful remembrance, the implied condolence. There is not one moment of life when D.H. is forgotten to me, September 11th or 12th or May, January, February, August, April, midnight, morning. Not one minute, not one day is he forgotten. But I must forget him, just as I must forget the man to whom I no longer care to speak yet who I desperately want to speak with. –Might we, Alfred Stein proposes, have dinner one evening? –I am currently seeing someone, I say immediately, almost automatically. –He is a lucky man. Call me when you’re tired of him. –I do not think that will be anytime soon. –I am patient, Alfred Stein says. After all, I have already waited ten years, and, though admittedly growing older, I can wait a few more. I might blush but one couldn’t notice in the restaurant’s dim light. Rafael returns and reaches for the check. –No, no, let me get that, Mr. Alfred Stein insists. As we leave, bunching for a moment in the entranceway, I feel his palm on my waist grow warm and am surprised at my own body, at its sudden wantonness, its unannounced pull to abandon.
–Goodbye, we say, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
IN THE TAXI heading uptown the driver is playing an Indian music I have never heard before. Actually, I am told, it is Urdu poetry, recited as song. Beautiful and alien. Were I to visit a certain Indian deli on 2nd and C and proceed to the basement, the driver tells me, I would find a trove of difficult-to-find Indian musical gems, will I not come and make a visit? He hands me a card with a number and address. Rajis Delicatessen & Delicacies. –I will see, I say, I will see. The driver turns up the music and drives, and I listen in a hypnotic daze while I watch the gliding streets, the men and women walking, the linden trees, the shops and apartment buildings whose windows reflect the light greyly. It is a woman’s voice, high but not shrieking, a cappella, ecstatic. 79th and Broadway. Very discreetly, in such a way that I know the driver cannot see, I shift aside the hem of my skirt and let my fingers fall to the space between my legs. The cotton on my panties is soft and thin. The city is my lover, lightly caressing the skin on my inner thighs. I am wet, a touch. The driver’s eyes are large and green in the rear-view. 84th Street. –This is fine, I say, let me out here. I straighten my skirt as I stand and walk, but–maybe it’s the wine–feel ponderous on the sidewalk. I have the heaviness of pregnancy without its buoyancy, a watermelon on tendrils, as Plath wrote. I do not stop to pick anything up. I do not look into the faces of the passers-by. I return home by sense of smell, the vague acrid whiff of dog poop, the hot dog vendor’s moist meaty steam, the M8 bus fuming on 96th, the brass cleaner Askar is using to shine the banisters. My keys reek of coins passed from hand to hand; the cleaning woman has sprayed the couch fabric with Scotch; my fingertips smell of me. I lie down, drag a knitted blanket over me like an old woman, think How we fought! and dream. Of spiders. I am Steatoda nobilis spinning her web, brimming with eggs, and immediately on the threads disperse hundreds of tiny spiders, they have come out of me and I am spent. They build their own webs and I mine. I catch a fruit fly and a feather, a cloud and two drops of water, two marbles that are someone’s glass eyes, the Jewish eyes of Mr. Alfred Stein, Urdu eyes in a rear-view mirror, Peruvian eyes, and I wonder how the men can see without their eyes, and what do they see, and why the eyes are thrones of desire. I want men to pass their looks across me and up and down, I am a painting they admire, I am my own paintings, holding always in a far small corner, as a dark smudge on the periphery of every canvas, a building coming down. And people do not have wings. People do not have eyes. A vast smoke and a great cloud of dust mushrooms downtown before flooding up the canyons of Madison and Fifth, of Columbus, Amsterdam and Broadway. The blood-dimmed tide. Mud people. Human figures slagged in grayblack ash, their faces blank, only their eyes lit in this immense city that has fallen silent, the hush pierced only by faraway sirens. Up and down Broadway and across the Brooklyn Bridge, people pluck out their eyes and hold them in their hands. The tears pool in upturned palms. We can no longer see, we are blind with agony and anger, we release honed warriors in all directions, the borders are uncontrolled, we abruptly have too many freedoms, we indulge superfluous liberties, we plan brand new euphemisms to replace the downed towers and burn our old canvases, all our art, which has been suddenly and utterly baffled by the ugly birthing of the century. And in the background, insistently, beautiful Cassandra cackles, her laughter bitter and sharp and mocking, my cell phone waking me up, calling me back to the merciless afternoon, an aging woman stretched on a couch under a knitted blanket, sweating.
I rise and splash my face, pen a desultory doodle on a notepad at the kitchen counter, looking out the window at the brown river, at the broiling waters of the Hudson, while the coffee brews. I study my phone, with its neat, glowing Modigliani screensaver, but do not call anyone. I walk to my studio. Oh, Jeanne Hébuterne! I would call you, I would lunch with you, caress your sad pregnant belly. I mourn your fall, the vertiginous plunge you share with D.H., I would adopt your son, for I am not old, I am not bereft of love, I am not dead. Forty-something. Widowed. That’s what I call myself, though I have lost a son. I am sonless. There are no men in my life. I do not want men in my life. I want a man. I want another September 10th. I will paint one, I tell myself mounting the studio stairs, beginning to visualize it, beginning to sense the colors, the composition, starting to flirt with my muse. But on the second floor landing the phone rings again. I open the door to my studio, step in, turn the lock. The phone is still ringing. I look at the display. It is not him. I am safe among my paintings and I answer. –Mom, it’s Sofi. –Hello, Sofi. –Mom, are you okay? –I am fine, Sofi. –Are you painting? –Do you remember the day after, Sofi? –Huh? –Do you remember the day after it happened? –You mean September 12th? –Yes, September 12th, 2001. Do you remember it? –Yes. –Do you remember how it rained? –Yes, I do. –Do you remember the lightning and the thunder, those great, awesome, frightening blasts of thunder in the night? –Yes, Mom, I remember. –Do you remember how they sounded like explosions? Do you remember how bombs entered our dreams that awful night? –Yes, I remember. We were at your place, together. We burned candles because you insisted that electric light was too bright. –It was. –Yes, I agree. And Dad was there. Even Dad. –Yes, but it’s the night I remember, I mean the storms, those bolts of lightning over the bridge’s steel girders, those great crashes of thunder. That’s what I’m thinking of, that’s what I’m painting today. I started with a twist of wire and now I’m painting a twist of lightning, the turn of history, the loss of a son. –Mom. –I love you, Sofi. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Give a hug to Leonardo. Are you okay? –I’m okay Mom. –Give a hug to Leo, he’s a fine boy, a fine man, Sofi. I have to go now, goodbye, goodbye. And so did the twist of wire become lightning, the cork a broken star, the ticket stub the symbol of lost love, of lost, lost love, as love always is, your finest portrait painted over with mud.
I TRY TO PAINT, describe a city I can live in, fashion a bearable room. But J.M. calls me. He texts me, emails me. Calls me again.
–What is it, J.M.?
–EP. I have to show you something.
I don’t say anything.
–You must come over, he says.
–I can’t, J.M. I’m working.
–This is important, EP. I haven’t slept for three nights.
–I haven’t slept for three years, J.M.
–I’m thinking of doing it, EP. I’m going to do it. You know, the grating, the cold water.
–I’ve seen him, EP.
–You must come over.
I don’t answer.
–I’ve seen D.H. I’ve seen him. I’m sure it’s him.
–Was, is. You have to see it.
–A video, EP. Of the towers.
I hang up the phone.
YOU CAME from Argentina with your chemistry books and your mustache, with your sexy accent and gaucho tales of the plains, with your silver bombilla hot on my lips and the yerba mate that kept me up all night talking and listening. The campus swirled around us like a storm, all those bright minds hugging their notebooks, trying on ideas, reading, reading and reading, hunting down professors, cramming in the early mornings for late morning exams, all that science and literature buoying us up, making us idealistic, giving us hope in the future. You helped me with chemistry, with the number of molecules in a mole, with the esoteric kabala of the periodic chart and then suddenly it was night and I was in your arms, under your kisses, beneath your irresistible pressures. You had Indian blood in you, you said, Inca blood. Your chest: smooth with muscle, hairless, tan as bread, insistent. Your kisses were rain forest. I imagined myself inhabiting the paintings of Rousseau, those surreal jungles in which I could see the details of each leaf and petal, every vein in every leaf, each shade of the infinite greens. I breathed the scent of each painted flower, trembled at the panther eyes peering from the foliage at our love-making. You gave me that. And when you looked at my drawings–I was doing miniatures at the time, my first artistic love–your eyes widened with enthusiasm. You encouraged me, you were my first audience. That, too, I owe you. What joy, what greater joy than for an artist to find her audience, to love her audience and to discover that her audience loves her, understands her work and appreciates her efforts? What joy, what greater joy? There was an art to chemistry, too, you showed me, a decidedly logical and rigorous creativity to science. Those equations, Einstein’s blackboards, Fermi’s unstoppable numbers. A male art, as I thought of it, the scientific innovation that promises to save the world, that dissects, then reassembles, then makes quantum leaps toward destruction. For we were eventually destroyed, were we not? It took fifteen years, but we were destroyed, destroyed as surely as the towers. Only, we have been lucky enough to resurrect ourselves from the ashes. A divorce! People get divorced all the time, you assured me. But that was later. At first you were abject, turmoiled. You cried at my ankles, a man in his late thirties reliving the separation of his own parents, only this time it was you leaving your wife. Did this make me your mother figure, I wonder? After the initial shock, I tried to comfort you. I never told anyone this: the forsaken wife tried to comfort the very man who was forsaking her. But I did. I did because I recognized your suffering, I believed in it, knew it was as real as your trembling hands.
Do it, J.M. Walk the grating to the edge and jump for us both. I will not feel sorry for you. I will envy you. I will mourn you. Do it, since I don’t have the courage. Do it for us both.
I TAKE UP my palette; I paint the bridge in the backdrop, the elegant inverted ellipses. From the gray girders a gray smudge drops. Only I know who it is, for “as the Masters knew,” the world was too busy to notice the death of the boy. The ships sailed calmly on, and J.M.’s splash was too insignificant to deserve more than a passing thought. Thus do the men in my life disappear as they appeared, one by one, with great intensity, suddenly here and ever so suddenly gone. I sit on the couch, recline. A video? I shiver, pull the knitted blanket over my bones. A video, a video. My god. My eyes are heavy, they seek the oblivion of blackness, the sweet darkness before men came into my life, before D.H., before J.M., before the man I want but cannot see, before these twists of wire tangled up inside of me, these feelings that rouse themselves in the deep of night, that twist themselves in forms grotesque and beautiful, they are drowsy in the daytime, drugged, surreal, and sometimes I dare to look at them as they slumber, careful not to wake them with the daylight. I am like a mother checking in on her feverish child in the thick of night. I have twists of hair and of sentence, I have twists of history leading back to ancient deserts where now not even the ruins remain, only swirls of sand and dust and a great emptiness that yet swells with latency, where traces of what was can be intimated, intimated only. And so I paint, and the colors take shape and the shapes make signs and the signs twist into the eye of the beholder, pinprick the emotions of those closest to me and of strangers and of loves lost, lost sons, husbands lost, daughters and mothers and fathers, colleagues lost. Today’s newspaper–I glance at its headlines, its heavy date, but leave it unread. Two years, they say, and thus should my mourning be past this third year and a day. And so I mock-celebrate the passing of my mourning, which has not passed, which will never pass, which will twist inside me like a mobile hanging in the dark breezes of my heart’s chambers. I paint, I live. I will pursue the new series, paint huge canvases of longing and of inquiry, I will ask much of the new century and I will answer to it as I must. I will fly to Italy, to Venice. Then I will go East, or North, or South. I will not return. I have decided. I open my phone to make the arrangements, drop a pebble down a well so profound the bottom is impossible to see.
John Parras received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. A National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow in Prose, John Parras is the author of Fire on Mount Maggiore (University of Tennessee Press, 2005), which won the Peter Taylor Prize for the novel. His creative work has appeared in Conjunctions, Salmagundi, Painted Bride Quarterly, Xconnect, Oasis and other literary journals, and his chapbook Dangerous Limbs: Prose Poems and Flash Fictions (2013) is published by Kattywompus Press. He is a Professor at William Paterson University and Editor of Map Literary: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art. His newer work is forthcoming in Hermeneutic Chaos and Flash Frontier.
Helen Hall is a composer and filmmaker based in Montreal, Canada whose music is inspired by natural acoustic phenomena such as the rhythm of breathing (Circuits), the harmonics and interference patterns of multiple saxophones (Fluvial) and the natural frequencies of the earth’s magnetic field (Infinity Maps). Her independent research into the physical basis of sound and its relationship to energy has led her to extend her music into film. Powerlines, her first firm, is a documentary about the mystery of electromagnetic fields that began as music based on the sound waves of artificial electromagnetic radiation. Pictures of Infinity, her second film, is a feature documentary about Nikola Teslas’s unique understanding of nature and its inherent connection to acoustic principles of energy. For more information, please visit http://helenhall.net.
Music: Circuits – for solo and prerecorded voices
Performer: Joan La Barbara