Monday, August 11, 2008

The Duality of Love and Strife, Innocence and Experience

In Canto XII of Inferno, Dante makes an enigmatic reference beginning in line 40:

……the steep and filthy valley
had trembled so, I thought the universe
felt love (by which, as some believe, the world
has often been converted into chaos);

These lines refer to the Greek presocratic philosopher Empedocles, whose most famous conception was that all matter was formed of four primary elements: fire, earth, air, and water. These elements existed independently of one another, and the varying degrees to which they intermixed determined the different physical natures of things. The moving powers that managed their mixture and separation were the forces of Love and Strife. Human beings, comprised of all four primary elements, saw these powers played out in their relationships with each other; all human interaction manifests degrees of love and strife, and to have too much of one or the other could prove disastrous to a harmonious life. The universe also must maintain a balance of the two, risk descent into chaos. If there were ever too much love, all elements would draw irrevocably towards each other, differentiation would cease, and chaos would ensue. If all elements drew irrevocably away from one another, through a preponderance of strife, the result would be the same. Dante’s reference is to the former situation.

Dante made Love ultimately victorious through his conception of the spiritual variety, in which ultimate Love for God opened the door to salvation. His views of the dangers of material love resemble more closely the dangers of imbalance perceived by Empedocles. For example, in Circle Seven, a lack of love felt towards oneself or others caused the Suicides and the Wrathful to land in their present predicament. On the other hand, too much love damned the Lustful. The larger significance awarded by Empedocles to Love and Strife as prime movers was seen as heretical by Dante; for him, God was the only prime mover, and his chief duality governing the universe was Good versus Evil.

Dante would define Good as that which followed God. Evil was that which turned away from God. Those who pursued evil lives without repentance would be forever separated from God and placed in Hell. Those whose repented could find salvation. Evil was essentially an act of rebellion against the ultimate good, God. Therefore, the ultimate evil was the ultimate rebellion: that of Lucifer against God. Since Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, humanity has knowledge of evil, and therefore the ability to rebel against God. The ideal life in the Christian tradition is one lived in allegiance to God, either through the denial of evil or the repentance of evil acts. Dante’s point is that humans are a manifest duality, containing both light and dark; we are left with the choice. It is interesting to note that many of the souls in Hell seem perfectly unrepentant of their choice. Also, the character Dante affords several of them a great deal of respect, if also pity for their final predicament.

The duality explored by Blake is his most famous work, Songs of Innocence and Experience, was a bit more complicated. Blake rejected the classic Christian duality of good and evil. For him, life was a composite of these things, and the Poetic Genius shied from nothing in its expression of life. Innocence and Experience were for Blake a necessary duality because the one led to the other and back again, a journey that represented a life lived fully. Put simplistically, one could say that pleasure cannot be appreciated without knowledge of pain, and that the path through pain leads to pleasure. Innocence can be equated to the halcyon days of youth, in which there is no knowledge of life’s pain. Adolescence brings it with it a first taste, and maturity can be seen as the struggle against it. The purpose of a life well lived is the return to a state of innocence, lost with the first knowledge of pain, but regained through the acceptance of it.

The poems in Innocence showcase the joyful time, those of Experience the painful; both at times present the struggle towards acceptance. The duality of the two is presented by Blake through his juxtaposition of similarly titled poems. For example, consider “The Lamb”, from Innocence, and “The Tyger”, from Experience. What Blake seems to be saying, first and foremost, is that the Poetic Genius can render equally the pacific and the ferocious, and that both are beautiful. Furthermore, while we accept wholeheartedly the nature of the lamb, we shy from that of the Tyger. We are born into the lamb, and seek to live through the example of the Lamb; yet the dread question posed in “Tyger”, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”, reveals the reality of life’s dual nature, contained in God and given form in his creation.

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Monday, March 24, 2008


There's no hope for a modern romance
We're distrustful of sentiment, our own and others'
And rightfully so, since it's so easily manufactured
Pandered and peddled, greeting cards, romantic comedies
The empty words of shopgirls who love you in that shirt
An eviscerated vocabulary beaten down through overuse
Can communicate only the trivial

And love is never trivial

Even once understood beyond all language
In the depths of the heart, the bottom of the gut
We still refuse to pay homage dearly enough
Because we dismiss it as a feeling
And feeling is not the same as knowing, we are told
By the parents and advisers who feel that they know
What is best for us

Think about your future, prudence over immersion
Into the warmth and excitement of something
That belies all logic and rules of syntax
Prepares not in the least for the workforce
Or the predeath twilight of retirement

Think of your future, keep your mind off the moment
When you might feel something beyond scant notions of time
A connection to the eternal through another's eyes and touch
An escape from your mundanity where the days are suffused
With the baited breath of expectation like the salt in the air
On some lonely beach astride an ocean
Or the dark musk of a bedroom heavy with love

Turn away from this and call yourself responsible
Or call yourself pathetic
The coward offspring of therapies and savings plans
At once secure in your emotional disfigurement
And again secure in your long life
To pass by joy when a timid soul offers it


I mostly sit by the window on quiet days
And look into my backyard at the grass and birds
Feeling like each time I relearn the simply joy
Of doing nothing with an afternoon spent alone

My thoughts are as innocuous and unbidden
As the movements of the birds in the grass
Ambling along, stopping briefly to investigate
Something curious that revealed itself to be left
Unmolested for harder days of concentration

Often my thoughts alight on you, whoever you are
Woman of the moment eternal in my questing
Whom I may or may not have seen the night before
When we made love sweetly for the first time in months
Perhaps I will see you again the evening after
This quiet afternoon spent before my window
Regardless I know that the most I can hope for
In my long life to follow intermittent with crises
Is the next quiet moment and the one to follow
Alone with myself content to wonder

Poem XLV

Grecian bird
I'd like to pluck
Your song from the air
To cup in my hand
And hold close to my ear

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


In your darkest moments
You are always alone
Enslaved to isolation

I love humanity abstractly
And beauty minutely

But moments of darkness
Leave me groping blind
For guidance and comfort
From those ghostly proxies
Of a warm and living hand

Saturday, March 15, 2008


You beautiful afflicted girl
Tortured in the remnants of spilt passion
Caught in a cup tasted once
Then handed over to be left
Placed forgotten on a sideboard

I see in your eyes the hope for all things
Eternal unchanged trustworthy and raw
To be enjoyed passive to the flux
Of life and occasional abuse

I am the mirror of your solvent anguish
The effigy of your dreams fashioned and burnt
In the shadow of an idol remote and senseless
Erected and worshiped in sterility
While breathing behind you stands your loss

Friday, March 14, 2008


You were my last chance for refuge
From the consummation of my labor
In the fire and anguish of inspiration
Cast like an ashen cross on my brow
The mark of those cursed by obligation
To a fate of envy, pursuit, and solitude
An emptiness that seeks fulfillment
In the incorporation of a human element
Once nurtured but effaced too often
Until the song of the hunt became the psalm
To honor the vestige of a final defeat

Poem XLI

We hide our pounded faces from each other
We've learned not to display our emblems of war
A day will come when we feel safe in our ugliness
And such an occasion will merit another scar
We fall in love with icons, passion and poesy
We run from revealed nature and honest effusion
We seek comfort in costumed cosmopolitanism
While behind the red flags of manufactured grace
Dwells a wart-covered bubble aching to burst

Is there ever acquittal, or a dawn unsplintered
Into the shrapnel of guilt, alone or accompanied
By the pathetic wreck of someone else's life
All victims of psychology, subverted by passion
That easy clumsy answer given again and again
To the question of how we can stand our loneliness

We're the monstrous composites of a cadaverous past
Sewn together, misshapen, contorted by the hatred
That's the curse of a too keen self awareness

We run, chase after happiness and safety
But safe harbor eludes those who pursue themselves

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Poem XL

i fall into a sibilant breeze
neither standing nor lying down
neither active nor prone
to false epiphanies
or timely endeavors
but senseless
in the wake of eternity


Fallen columns
Yellow and purple flowers
Marble fragments strewn among them
The sanctuary is all
Left standing
Even its walls have bowed before it
An olive tree
Older than all
Or perhaps as young
Planted by the hands of a priestess
You want to take a stone or flower
But the signs forbid it
As do the eyes of the attendant


When I walk behind you down the street
And human traffic flows around us
I feel moored to you
As an ancient sailor to the North Star.
You are the fixed point of all my hopes
You walk ahead of me and I wonder
If I follow perfection, or find perfect
What draws me onward.
I live for these moments
When my private admiration
Alights on your beauty undisturbed.
I know then I've fallen victium
To the same mute awe
That brought men to their knees
Before the sun, the stars,
And the rivers that flowed before them.


salacious vert
foul lust
lizard false idol
of tawny skin and
salty black hair
that lives and dies
inside a moment
trapped beating
breathing release
onset no peace
or joy state of mind
just baited
for the limpid wet
of spent fury
in the morning
bourne that we
hate ourselves


One foot, one step, placed onto the heart
Leaves a wound not unlike
The hole in a sole
Worn through much wandering
Much seeking beneath the rustle
Of stirred branches or the turning night.
What have I found
That I found not seeking awareness
But the obliteration of heart and soul
Through travels, travails,
Wanderlust and loneliness
Those afflictions of my cursed mind


a late ray of sun
turns gold the afternoon and your hair when
turning your unguarded expression is that
of a child
expansive and clear
the sky from a peak
unweighed by thought or decor
eyes wide open mouth slightly so
you dangle your feet in the water
dappled by sunlight ripples
outward from your motion

i love this revealed innocence
a second composed of light and chance
chance enchantment of the suns repast


my sorrow evaporates
when I open the window
to my street of dreams
and see you standing there


Incipient lovers
Who spend the days
Pawns of night's remembrance
Who whisper to each other
In the dark of joy
Because when faced with
One another and sunlight
To give vent to
The swelling that trembles
Behind the throat
Would require the lungs
Of a god
Or the song
Of a bird

But in darkness prostrate
At the altar of affection
Newly baptized in passion
It is possible to whisper
Of sacred things


What is it in your eyes?
The warning of consciousness
The silent shout of an indignant soul
The tender buds of an invincible spring
The grandeur of a calm sea and
A fragile moment of intimacy.
I see myself there in repose
Cradled in your garden
And I fade into you
As a drowning man
Fades into the water
Expelling his last breath
So he can sink faster.


these words composed in solitude
prove that we exist and more
they are the current that flows
in the sky of our love
the wind that clears the clouds
the breeze that carries your scent
And the whisper of my voice
to your ear.

Poem XXX

My love resides
Above living streets
In a fourth floor room
With a stellar view
Where I find refuge
At each day’s end.
From here the landscape
Looks how I feel
And with thoughts of you
It is always dawn
The moment before
The fog burns away
When the world is cast
All in soft-focus
And all that lives
Wakes with a sigh
The vast starry sky
Pales to nothing
Like the enigma
Of all lost souls
Solved in the movement
Of two in tandem
The setting moon
The rising sun.


This earth from which you grew
Is precious to me
For that reason
Thought its taxed soil
Could not bear another like you.

My words may blossom
In vain imitation
Of your splendour,
But like dusted silk flowers
Tossed in the wind,
They can never convey your fragrance.

Yet I persist
And place this false bouquet
At your feet, my rose
A synthetic tribute
To the flower that you are.


We are alone in every shared
We shed the crowd, as our clothes
Two swimmers we immerse in
One another
With the world a separate
That appears rarefied
A flicker
That plays on our features


When the dawn first
Spreads over your face
Spring bursts
Into my heart
Like your eyes
The color of hope


You face speaks beauty
As a flower sings
In a sudden breeze.
Between your lips
Pass rhythmic breaths
The sounds of which
Surpass all eloquence.

(What passes between us
Renders speech useless)

Your eyes are pools of abundance
Pupils uncharted depths
Surrounded by a verdant fringe
First an oasis then a pit
Into which I fall and settle
Silent, content with falling.

Poem XXV

Frozen roads arranged themselves
Side by side in numbered rows
Yellow pervaded Leave Us Stranded
A dusty town between cigarette orchards
In our search a pipe
Dreaming down which we fell
Into venomous gardens beneath
The leaves of tulapeas
Where huddled for shelter
Children nibble Oxycontin
And stare with ash-filled eyes


exiled memories
buried resident
everyday objects
wait like mines.

vigilance operates
averted glances
words unheard
places avoided.

most susceptible
uneven sidewalks
early morning
late evening
when spared
world's gaze.


If music fades
We fade
Into the silence
Civilized hearts
Enshrine the arts
Four chambers roomed
Together the first
The arts of the earth
The hearth home and loom
And within the second
The works of the blessed
Sophistry psalm and Truth
Right next to the third
The arts that are heard
From epics to folksy tunes
And finally the fourth
The best and the worst
The poets and this writer too


We traffic in symbolism
Load meaning like freight
To ship down ruled lines
Or air over tracks.
A string of words can
Outperform an action
That seeks to convey
The mood of a people
For no act can be repeated
As a song is sung.
We trade in significance
Play up sentiments
To remind those who listen
Of the sound of their voice.

Poem XXI

The lines on your face
Contours that endow
Your experience of beauty
Grooves depths
Suggest your wisdom
Their eloquence
Contains all words, and
More than your notions
Of pain, grief, happiness.
The lines on your face
Form the letters of your name
Display the response that
Illuminates your present
And the contrast that
Is the shade of your past.
You are blind to the words
Written on your face
No matter how clear
They are to others.
Your mirror reflects
The memory of your hope.

Poem XX

A mirror renders us vulnerable
Open to dissection and discernment
That impenetrable morass of smiles
Inhabited solely by reflections
Face to face with the silent surface
We hold no conversation with our self
The hardness of our features speaks
Words of cold marble and dust
Our only infinity a hall of mirrors
Where our weaknesses are multiplied
To extenuate our vanities

Poem XIX

There's truth in these old words yet
Nothing new, but several times forgotten
Epiphanies realized and regained
That shine for those who seek them
And are tired and common for the
Tired and common at heart.
Words hold nothing for those
Who find truth in disbelief
And truth remains the sole domain
Of the believer.


St. Francis protects dogs and bird
From calamities like death or starvation
An old woman who prays for her son
Invites succor on his behalf
She speaks in a language as simple
As the cooing of a dove
For the saints have no patience
For bombast and theology
A monastery wall is the most blessed
And can crumble for centuries
Protected and peaceful
It never speaks
Its thoughts are the color of ivy


I embrace the dawn in summertime
When the rose rises in my chest
And no light has yet kissed
The slumbering ground.
The air stirs waking slowly
A warm-blooded beast whose presence is felt
In swarming shadows that make their last stand
In corners and neglected alleyways.
I walk along
And the air comes alive at my passing
Stones voice their lament
Birds that have never flown
Fly before me.

Poem XVI

early riser
riddled with intent
deigning to yearn
for absolution
morning alights
to twitters on branches
a soft melodic call
of joy and renewal
everything born
in the fresh light of day
fresh bout of creation
fresh breeze stirring
a world in soft focus
a drop of dew trembling
to fall

Poem XV

Earthbound and
Inching to daylight
Unaccustomed innocents
Complain of youth
Jaundiced walls
Close always tighter and
Rendered tendrils
Ever creep inward
Patterns seen
Insidious designs
A state of things
Beyond comprehension

Poem XIV

Transparent days and oblique nights
The empty street a child’s theater
Time and space without sway despite
The tragic end that youth must meet.
The friction and heat of the small town feel
Convention in separation displayed
Like the potted plants on windowsills
Of three-bedroom homes with privacy fences
Often watered but never seen by
Narrow minds with tunnel vision.
In the soft glow of their living rooms
Where life is a flickering pantomime
A merciless, glaring, all-seeing eye
Invades this domestic privacy
As ever-present and consciously ignored
As an infirm relative in the back bedroom
Who emits shame at day and guilt at night
A part of life, immobile and fixed
A heat lamp for sick plants
Glued into its socket.


Do you want a taste of the whip?
A lioness lies down to watch the fight
While the red light of dawn bathes all
Three of us in blood
We approach a catastrophe
Animal slave
Are you not a woman of flesh and blood,
Have you not a heart like mine?

Little Judie wakes with her face shoved
Pushed into cushions
There’s a hand on the back of her neck
And her shorts are around her knees
Something prods between her legs
She tries to breath scream cannot
Her eyes widen she struggles
A sparrow ground beneath the heel
She snaps and breaks in two pieces
Then darkness.

A lioness laid down to watch the fight
While the red light of dawn
Bathed all three in blood
No longer a woman of flesh and blood
No heart like yours or mine
Would you like a taste of the whip
She asks
Can I interest you in broken time?
When syncopated lines are cast
In tones of joy and pain
And the dead lash each other
In a grotesque love charade
Rest your foot upon your slave
Lady of Fables
In matters of love there is no equality
Woman is man’s enemy
To hold and tender quietly.

I feel like a condemned man
When I make love to you
Locked inside strange shudders
The quiver of bronze that
Resonates with howls
I burn alive inside you
Judith Dionysius.

Poem XII

Our love is new with each new day
Every dawn a genesis
The soft pink of modest morning
Always virgin in its embrace
The silence of a waking world
Is the epochal quiet of prehistory
Before words strangled us.

The sunlight tempts
Me out of darkness
By illuminating your body.
The color of the sky and clouds
Are nothing but complements
To your eyes and hair
And I awake
Born again beside you.

Poem XI

We acknowledge the need
For an all-seeing eye
Perceptive and raw to provide
Insight into our weakness.
An outlandish rapacity
For facts and dreams
To calm soothe provide a
Panacea for our sickness.
But this medicine breeds dependence
And creates its own demand.
Before the end of it all
Before the credits roll
We needs must preen
Before our sacred cows
That flicker past in Technicolor
With the face and form of
Perfect health celebrity
Our American dream
An intravenous drip
The apple of the all-seeing eye.

Poem X

I looked at her
Like a child who has just caught
His first glimpse of the ocean
All at once
I became aware
Of my place in the world
Of the infinity of space
Near me
She appeared boundless
As eternal as night and day
I felt I could lose myself
In her depths
She smiled
Dawn broke over the waters
I became blind
And thought what fools
Seek God in the desert

Poem IX

You try to die and grow up
Be the person you want to be
Sacrifice time and space
For complexity
Retreat into the self to see
The world for what it's worth
Bop prosody
Romantic realists
Sons of Nietzsche
Old gods done gone


Doors set in the earth
In a grove of trees
And the possibility
Of a hidden mystery
Sheltered in-
Definite boundaries
Of Nature the
Definite limit
Of human endeavor

Poem VII

Distant, mountainous sounds
The hum of the surf
Or hemispheric insects
Dense in the plain of night
The world turns in silence
While nature is cacophonous
Like a man who fidgets
When he gets nervous

Poem VI

A relief from
The outsized demands of ego
Through homage paid
To things larger than the self.
An old woman
On a bench at dawn
Speaks of eternity
More eloquently than
Any text or stone edifice.
A young couple
Who blush at a touch
Showcase more beauty
Than any static image.
One should not feel
When faced with monuments
Singular things alone
Like all single things.
True largeness is found in
The transitory connections
Of the everyday.
True humility is
To kneel
Before the commonplace.

Poem V

Raindrops fall in silence
And speak when they
Hit the ground
We fall with whispers
And are silent
In the aftermath
Bolts of lightning jostle space
To die before they
Make a sound
We die every time we come together
And announce our death
With our cries


I once asked a travelling bum what the most beautiful place in the country was. He had been hitchhiking around for over ten years, so I felt I could trust his authority. He exhaled heavily and stared off into space, shaking his head, as if blown away by the enormity of the question. Finally, he said, “Humboldt County, in northern California.”
As he explained it, Humboldt county was situated right on the coast, riddled with redwoods and small towns, with temperatures never above 70, rarely below 40, and the best damn pot in the world. In fact, it is the county’s number one export – for strictly medicinal purposes. Eureka has the second largest bay in California; young flesh gravitates around the college town of Arcata. Hipness is ensured through a sprinkling of exiles from San Francisco. When he mentioned this last fact, something caught in my memory. Humboldt sounded familiar, though I was certain I had never been, and it took me a few days to remember that Vivian lived there.
I had not seen her since the move. Her last residence had been San Francisco, where I visited her once. The second visit fell through due to a stupid argument on the phone a few days before my arrival. We always had a tempestuous relationship, though, strangely, one with its own stability. No matter how angry we got or how much time passed, one of us would always eventually reach out to the other. It was the acknowledgement of the peculiar comfort you feel around those who have broken your heart. There’s not much more pain they could cause, you’ve already experienced the best and worst that they have to offer, and in the absence of hope or expectation you can actually be honest. Or maybe it was comfortable simply because we had known each other for so long, and the periodic reaching out was simply an act of boredom.
The peregrinations of our relationship notwithstanding, one thing I never expected was for Vivian to remarry and move to a small town in the middle of nowhere. But she was always full of surprises.
Early in the morning, when the fog rolls in from the Pacific to shroud her house in mystery, Vivian likes to imagine that she is dead. A lunatic once told her that everyone was already dead, and that we are all in heaven. She believed him those mornings when the sea invaded her home and turned the world outside gray. She stood at the kitchen counter and filled a small bag with loose ground tea, which she then dropped into a waiting mug filled with hot water. She carried the mug over to the kitchen table and sat, turning her gaze out through the window. Beyond her front yard, everything became indistinct, uncertain. She heard a car drive by but saw nothing of its form.
Vivian had always been an early riser. She enjoyed the solitude of morning, when the only sounds in the house were her own soft footsteps. Her husband, Dan, would not wake until later, until after the fog had burned off. They had been married for three years, and while there was no longer much passion in their relationship, they had gotten used to each other. Vivian was aging well. Her weight no longer fluctuated with the gluttonies of early adulthood, and she would remain petite and fragile-looking until the day she died. Her pale skin and dyed-black hair made her look somewhat younger than her thirty years. Her eyes were her most expressive feature, green shot through with gray, the color of a lake on the cusp of dawn. Covering her arms and shoulders were colorless tattoos depicting illustrations from children’s books. She had had them for so long she no longer noticed them; it was always a slight shock when a stranger made a comment.
She took a sip of her tea. The minutes ticked slowly by. She would not move from her seat until Dan stumbled into the kitchen an hour later, yawning and stretching.
Vivian was born and raised in Los Angeles. When she was twenty-three she moved to Austin to marry a man named Brian. They had known each other as teenagers and remained in touch through college via email and the occasional hook-up when Brian came home to visit his folks. They shared a passion for mod culture and fashion, scooters, and classic cinema. When Brian one day out of the blue suggested that Vivian marry him and join him in his adopted home, she agreed on a whim. Looking back on it later, she would admit to not knowing why she did what she did. She was never particularly attracted to Brian, though he was a handsome man, and their connection hardly extended beyond the superficial. She had gotten bored in Los Angeles, she supposed, and wanted a change of scenery. She figured he would support her in the transition, their marriage would be open, and that if Brian ever started to cramp her style, she would simply divorce him, which she did, just over a year after exchanging vows. Her relationship with me caused the split.
I met Vivian online, through a personals website. We posted ads for the same reason – both recent transplants to Austin, we figured it was an easy way to meet people. I saw her ad, made a witty comment in reference to something in it, and after exchanging a few messages we arranged to meet for coffee. I was stunned the first time I saw her. She was beautiful; she wore a t-shirt that barely covered her rib-cage, and a long black skirt that accentuated her full hips and beautiful ass. As she crossed the courtyard toward my table, the head of every man she passed turned in her wake. We talked for hours that first night; she never mentioned she was married. When her husband called her cell, she played it off like he was a roommate. She later admitted to being charmed by my naiveity. It blew her mind that the population of my hometown was less than 2500. I had never heard of any of the bands she mentioned. The fact that she was from LA impressed my hickish sensibilities; I had never been farther than New Orleans, and she seemed so experienced, already wise and world-weary. I was eighteen.
She gave me a ride home and we arranged to meet the next night for dinner. I spent the entire next day thinking about her, going over in my head what she said, remembering the way she looked at me, how her gaze left me chilled, tingly, and lightheaded. I was convinced that I had met my future wife, that it was not simply the internet that had brought us together, but fate. Although our relationship later evolved, I realize in hindsight that while I was totally enamoured of her from the get-go, I was at first for her simply an amusing distraction. Just as I had never met someone so culturally astute, well-spoken and charming, she had never met someone as hopelessly innocent and awkward. She was slumming it by pursuing me, a big city girl taking a trip to the country and marvelling at the cows.
We met the next evening at a mexican food restaurant. Soon after we took our seats she mentioned offhandedly that she she had a husband. I was perplexed and disappointed. She laughed at my stuttered query for clarity, and pointed out that she had worn her wedding band the night before. I was not yet experienced enough to notice such things. What confused me was that, even though she made clear she was in a relationship, her tone remained flirtatious. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Her eyes betrayed interest; my animal instincts picked up on this, and my heart raced when she spoke; I flinched when she touched me, which made her giggle. By the time we finished dinner it was dark outside, and I assumed she would go home. Instead, she suggested we go somewhere quiet and talk. I had recently discovered a secluded spot that afforded a gorgerous view of the downtown skyline, and suggested we go there.
The summer night settles softly over Austin, the cool hand on the forehead of scorching days. Castle Hill had once been the site of a boy’s military academy. The imposing structure remained, medieval in its façade, yet was abandoned and served no purpose other than as a meeting place for people in need of privacy. It sat on a bluff in the west end of the city, secluded from the surrounding neighborhood by the vastness of its lot. A couple could squeeze through a gap in the chain link fence surrounding it and find a comfortable spot with a spectacular view of downtown. A young man and woman sat together upon the ground, thighs touching, looking away from one another. The man sat stiffly, awkward in his youth and the romantic nature of the surroudings. The girl was more comfortable, and leaned back on her hands to stare up into the sky. Before them a group of high-rises rose into the light-deadened sky like a council of mute, concrete Jehovahs, their eyes a thousand blind windows. The man began to fidget, as if something within him was fighting for release. He adbruptly sat up straight and began to talk, as if addressing the buildings, the streets below, and the sky above.
“Do you ever look at the stars? I mean…. really look at them? They’re beautiful in their gentle twinklings, those constant reminders of our insignificance. We die, they remain, mute witness to the meaningless struggle that is life. No matter how brilliant, how gifted, how powerful, the end result is the same for everyone. Just as it always has been and always will be. While the poets and the generals are rotting in the ground, their deeds forgotten by a new crop of walking corpses, the stars shine on . . . so softly.”
The girl looked at him throughout his address, her face relaxed, expression one of quiet care and contentment. When he was done, she waited a moment, his words drifting in the air to settle on the scene, then spoke quietly:
“But we can’t even see the stars. The lights are too bright.”
The man chuckled and looked away. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
She gave space for the silence of the moment to blossom, then reached over and took his hand. He started, then relaxed into her grasp.
“What you said was very beautiful, though,” she said.
“Thanks. Sometimes I just talk.”
“I liked it.”
The girl reached over with her other hand and began to caress the one she held. The man turned to look at her. She lowered her eyes and smiled softly.
“Let’s take off all of our clothes,” she said.
“Nothing. Have you ever kissed a married woman?”
“No,” the man said, searching her, his heart racing.
She raised her eyes to his. He felt himself fall into her, saw himself lost in her, comfortable, warm, conquered by the power of those liquid pools that contained the absent beauty of a polluted urban sky. Without another word she leaned into him, pressed her chest to his and her lips to his. His hands moved to her waist.
Things progressed quickly after that. It never bothered me that I was breaking up a marriage. I was impatient for it to happen. I wanted her to belong to me, not him. And she seemed energized by the whole situation. We began to spend whole days together. She didn’t have a job, and I began to skip all my classes. To Brian, I was simply his wife’s new best friend. I was too young and unaccomplished to be seen as a threat. Things hit a pitch when she and I travelled to Los Angeles together for a weekend. The given reason was that I was going for a concert, and she wanted to come along for the opportunity to visit her family. He was perhaps a little suspicious, but he didn’t show it. While we were there, I took several pictures of Vivian, sprawled naked on a motel bed. She left the pictures on her camera, probably intentionally. A few days after we returned, Brian found them. He blew up, hit her, threatened to kill me. She left him and took refuge in my apartment.
“I don’t know what to do. You don’t know him, he’s crazy. If he finds us he will kill you.”
“He’s not going to kill me.”
“You don’t know him. You’re so fucking naïve.”
“I’m not naïve. And I’m not afraid of him. Chill out. We’re together. Nothing else matters.”
The girl sat in silence, staring at her feet.
“Look,” the man began, “don’t worry about anything. From here on out it’s just you and me. Us against the world. As long as we’re together, everything will work out . . . right?”
The girl hesitated a moment.
“Yeah. It’ll be okay.”
She stared at the floor, her eyes opaque.
A couple of days later she officially moved in. I gave her a key. She told Brian she wanted a divorce. We entered into a brief honeymoon period, grocery shopping, buying furniture, going to movies. I felt so proud to be seen with her. She was my prize, and I wore my pride on my sleeve. It wasn’t long, though, before she began to set parameters. We should have separate bedrooms, so we could preserve our independence. Coming out of a marriage, she wasn’t ready for a committed relationship. She wanted to go out, meet people, come to see Austin as her home independently of a man. I agreed. I was so enamoured with her I would have agreed to anything. One night, after going out with a boy we had met together at a concert, she didn’t come home. I couldn’t sleep. I sat up drinking. As I watched the sunrise spread on the carpet in our living room, I heard her come in.
(The clear light of a morning that illuminates our anguish can seem cruel, confrontational, a cosmic jibe that pokes fun at our insecurities. We are on display.)
The anguished light of daybreak crept over the carpet toward Henry’s naked, lonely feet. His toes were curled inward, hidden from the light of honest reflection. Upon the coffeetable there was a glass with more whiskey in it than the bottle beside it. He sat, shirtless, coated with a thin sheen of sweat. He had stopped thinking hours before; he sat mute, no longer expectant, but resigned, sickened by the reality of his situation. She hadn’t even bothered to call. She would have known he’d worry. But she didn’t care. He was a fool. She was heartless. He had given his fool heart to her, and she didn’t care enough to let him know she wasn’t dead. The door behind him opened and clicked shut again. He jerked around.
“Vivian? Jesus, fucking christ.”
She appeared rosy, ebullient. Her smile beamed forth to shame the incipient sunlight of the accusatory daybreak. She appeared enlivened by the early hour. He was a wreck. They were both drunk.
“Where the fuck have you been?” he slurred, rising from the couch to face her.
“Out with Beamer,” she began, her smile fading. “You knew that.”
“I assumed you would come home. You wouldn’t answer your phone.”
“Well, you shouldn’t make assumptions. And my phone died.”
They stood and stared silently at one another. Vivian’s smile had collapsed into a firm line. Henry looked at her, visibly wavering, wanting to trust her. His lip began to tremble.
“Oh jesus,” she said. “You fucking child.”
The tears began to flow from his eyes as he stood facing her, clenching and unclenching his fists. She shook her head slowly back and forth, as if unable to stomach her swelling disgust.
“You fucking whore,” he croaked.
She stood and let her eyes travel up and down his quivering form. They settled on the bottle behind him.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“What were you doing all night?”
The firm line of her lips coalesced into a cruel half grin. Her eyes remained fixed on the bottle.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think about you anymore.”
Vivian looked at Henry, her grin deeping. A malevolent light had crept into her eyes.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that, if you loved me, you wouldn’t act like this. I . . . “ Henry wiped his eyes and swallowed hard, unsteady on his feet, “was up all night thinking about you, and . . . “
Vivian cut him off with a short, sharp laugh, “You make me sick. You act like you own me, like you took me in and I owe you something. Get a life, Henry. You want to know what I did all night?”
Henry stood pale and silent. She continued:
“Did you know that Beamer was a virgin when we met him at that show? So good looking, and all that money, and he’s deathly afraid of girls. Funny, huh?
Henry’s eyes travelled to the floor. His shoulders slumped in preparation for the blow. Vivian’s voice came low and sharp, a probed instrument pressed insistently into a sensitive area.
“Well, he’s not anymore.”
Her words fell heavy into the light and silence of the Sunday morning living room. Henry had no words, no thoughts to express the dead weight her admission had cast upon him. He could not look at her. She stared at him, gloating, savoring her victory over his weakness, his neediness. Finally, after a couple of minutes, Henry managed to croak dryly:
“Get out.”
Without a word, still smiling, Vivian turned and left the apartment.


After Vivian left our apartment that day, I didn’t speak to her for almost two years. We arranged for her to pick up her stuff while I was at work. Her ex-husband helped her pack, and even drove her to Beamer’s, where she planned to live. Learning this, I felt for the first time sorry for what we had done to the man. I resumed my courses at the university and tried to put behind me what had happened. I promised myself I would never again trust so easily, nor would I ignore such obvious indicators of character, such as a willingness to cheat on a husband. Of course I did neither of these things; the relationships I had after Vivian all more or less followed the same course, though without the dramatic trappings. I got used to this after awhile, and relegated myself to what I considered a fate of explosive romantic beginnings and precipitous, and emotionally fraught declines. The rapid succession of relationships that followed, while not healthy or emotionally satisfying, at least served to obscure the memory of Vivian. I finally even managed to convince myself that I had totally moved on, until one day I received a letter on a child’s stationary:

I’ve been thinking about you. If you’re interested:
293 – 5689.

Naturally, as soon as I put down the letter I picked up the phone.

An inch of ice coated the streets of Austin, the product of a freak storm in early February. Classes and work were cancelled around the city, and the day had the form of one stolen from history, outside of time and unbeholden to its laws. Henry and Vivian lay in the bedroom of her small apartment, cast in dim light, survivors from the shipwreck of a failed relationship. He held her in his arms. They had already shared a bottle of wine and were contemplating opening a second. The only sound was of the wind outside.
“Should I get the other bottle,” Henry asked softly.
“Wait a minute. Let’s just lay here.”
She felt empty and frail against his body. Earlier they had begun to have sex, but stopped when Vivian began to weep. They were both nude, pressed tightly together atop the covers. They could have been twins, adult simulacrum of infants in the womb.
“What happened, sweetie?”
It took her a few moments to decide where to begin. Lying in the half darkness, her mind travelled back over the last few months, the pain and disappointment, the regret and isolation, everything building towards this moment, this tentative reconciliation in the dark on a frozen day. She began to speak in a whisper, telling him about the early months of her relationship with Beamer. They had acted like children, spending money frivously, buying clothes, food, alcohol, riding around town at 3am on scooters, drunk and screaming. His life was a boyhood fantasy: a do-nothing heir who enjoyed a monthly allowance, a huge downtown condominium, and a complete lack of ambition or sense of responsibility. When Vivian had mentioned getting a job, he stared at her as with a mixed expression of horror and disbelief. His solution to a quiet, boring Sunday afternoon? Round-trip tickets to Paris, first-class, leaving in the hour.
The privilege had seduced her, even though its frivolity irked her sensibilities. As time passed she realized she did not have a lover on her hands, but a dependent, a little boy for whom she provided stability, comfort, and the occasional sexual gratification. Her intellectual pursuits were stymied by his fascination with pop culture and all things kitsch. After all, who has the time to parse Nietzsche when there is an 80s throwback night at a downtown club?
Beamer’s mental health problems began to weigh on her after about a year or so. He was diagnosed manic-depressive, and his depressive bouts were often coupled with delusional thoughts and hallucinations. One time, while they were baking cookies and watching ChiPs, Beamer became suddenly hysterical because of all the dead people he saw crowding into the apartment. She put up with these things out of a feeling of obligation, to both him and herself. To leave Beamer would have been to admit defeat, and it wasn’t until she became pregnant and his parents offered her ten thousand dollars to have an abortion that she finally made the move. Beamer was to be left totally in the dark. She packed her things and left early one morning, while he was still asleep. She moved into an apartment arranged for her by his parents. A driver showed up early the next day to take her to the clinic, where, after the procedure, she found out that her terminated pregnancy consisted of twins. This had all happened one week before she sent the letter to Henry. She was planning on using the ten thousand to leave the country, and wanted to see him one last time.
They lay in bed together, Henry listening in silence. He said nothing when she finished, simply holding her, letting her cry. He forgave her everything, the emotional anguish, the uncertainty, the betrayal; with each shudder of her weeping body he knew that he would love her for the rest of his life, even if he never saw her again. As the minutes passed, her tears subsided slowly, until at last, breathing normally, she turned to face him.
“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered.
He kissed her on the forehead. “You’re owed a lot more than me.”


A few days after their reunion, Vivian flew to South Africa. I dropped her off at the airport with the vague promise to join her there at some point. I never did. We exchanged the occasional email, she sent me a care package, and I wrote her one epic letter that she never received. She dove in a cage with great white sharks, got a job in a coffeeshop, and, in a fit of whimsy, gave her wedding band to a boy she met in a bar and never saw again. When she contracted pneoumonia and was faced with a health care system in which she had no insurance, her grandmother sent her a plane ticket back to California. I was still in Texas, and after she had settled again in Los Angeles, I flew out to see her. Our reunion was fun and inscouciant. She had met a man, Dan, who she married out of exhaustion and the need for emotional sustenance. She cheated on him easily with me, but by the time I left we both knew that our relationship had reached a coda. There was nothing left to do or say. Life and circumstance had dictated that we could not be together, and we accepted to this. As the years passed our communication persisted in fits and starts, sometimes steady, sometimes nonexistent. We came to occupy for one another the place of old friend and reserve confidant, a person to turn to in the wee hours when the world seemed to turn without us. I wonder sometimes how it will all end for Vivian, whether she’s truly settled down or if, one day, I can count on receiving another letter, another supplication, another day holding her in refuge from a frozen world.

Vivian finished her tea and placed the empty cup before her. She continued to stare in silence out the kitchen window, into the lightening fog. Her thoughts were ephemeral, diaphonous, tendrils of smoke that drifted and dissipated. She thought of her graduate course that afternoon. She thought of the film she and Dan had watched the night before. She thought of taking a vacation. As the sun began to tentatively break into her musings, she heard movement in the bedroom. She blinked, distracted. For a moment her thoughts had settled, and she imagined she was someone else, in a different place and time. Aching for more silence, she stood and walked out of the kitchen, into the yard, into the fog.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Urchin

The urchin walked down a snow-covered sidewalk, his rag-swathed feet soaked and numb. His clothing hung loosely from his emaciated form: ragged pants that hardly came to his ankles, a shirt whose collar hung midway down his chest. Bones stood out everywhere on his body, the outline of his skeleton apparent to all who cared to look. People rushed by him on all sides, unmindful of the small creature. He was bumped several times, jostled, pushed. He didn't care. His eyes gleamed like newly-cut diamonds, a smile was spread across his cracked lips. He had his ticket. A hunger cramp momentarily doubled him over, stealing a gasp before he clenched his teeth over the pain. He had eaten almost nothing for a week in order to make the purchase. Rising slowly, he reached into his pocket and patted the small slip of paper before continuing. Turning a corner, he saw his destination, a large concert hall, the type nearly every city had in those days. A place where pompous old ladies could drag their reluctant husbands to spread their feathers in front of other pompous old ladies in hopes of blinding them with their razzle and dazzle, then hissing spitefully when someone's sparkle fell into their own eyes. Meanwhile, the husbands march to and fro in the lobby, puffing out their chests like overblown cocks and recanting old war stories in which they were always more heroic than the fellow who spoke before them, but a coward compared to the man whose tale followed. There was also an orchestra there. Not that anyone cared. Except the urchin. He had no razzle, no dazzle, no war stories. All he had was an empty stomach, barren pockets, a cold corner to curl up in later, and his ticket. Ah, the ticket. He had heard the symphony one night, through a cracked door behind the theatre. He hadn't dared to go in, but dreamed of what would happen if he someday managed to attend a performance. The smartly dressed doorman would lead him inside and place him in the very best seat, front and center. All the ladies would comment on what a dashing lad he was, the men would pat his head. People would see him, finally notice him, give him more than a derisive glance or a sneer. He would belong. He would be part of that beautiful noise that beckoned from behind the theatre. For a little while he would be a real person, not a dog, not a piece of filth, but a real human-being. So he had scraped, and he had pinched, and he had starved, and he had gotten his ticket. Now he neared the hall. He could see the crowds out front , the hissing ladies and puffing husbands. Taking his place in the line, he withdrew his ticket. No one seemed to notice. The line grew shorter, his heartbeat gaining momentum with every forward step. Any second now, he would hand the man his ticket and his fantasy would commence. The last lady ahead of him moved away. It was his turn! His turn to hear the music! He proudly stuck out his ticket to the doorman. A moment passed. The doorman looked down, down, meeting the excited eyes of the urchin. He took the ticket. The urchin beamed upward. The doorman looked at the ticket. Then he looked at the urchin. Looked at the ticket. Looked at the urchin. The ticket. The urchin. Ticket. Urchin. Sweat beaded on the urchin's brow. Why was he glaring at him like that? He wasn't a piece of filth anymore! He had a ticket! The doorman shook his head, crumpled the ticket, and threw it in the snow. Beat it scum, the doorman's eyes said. The urchin stood there, disbelieving. His vision swam. His lip quivered. Someone shoved him from behind. He landed facedown in the snow, next to the crumpled ticket. The line moved on, unmindful of the shivering bundle a few feet away. The urchin grasped the ticket and pulled it to his chest, clenching shut his eyes. His ticket -- his dream -- worthless. The snow was freezing, the cold biting through to his skin. No matter. His tears would melt it all soon enough.

Pushkin's Egyptian Nights Cont.

“Explain, dear lad, your young heart’s yearning
To so readily end your life,
When you have so many years for spending,
Chasing pleasures, both long and trite.
Tell why you choose of your own volition
Consignment to a bed that’s dank,
When all see your natural position
Is next to maidens, flank on flank.”

The assembled crowd nodded and murmured
Approval of the queried check,
Each one thinking the lad had blundered
In making a choice so abject.
Kriton, for his part, with poise and measure
Stepped forth, and with a gleam in eye,
Readied himself to contradict the censure
By raising an arm to the sky.
All gathered followed the indication
And to the heavens cast their gaze,
Out of the skylight above the reception
Wondering what the youth would say.

“My dear friends, I understand your confusion,
And your concern touches my heart.
But for the curious resolution
Exists above, among the stars.
For there you will find riding high on moonbeams,
Beyond the scope of mortal sight,
Gods and the penitent, who are now free
Of hate and fear, anger and spite.
The pious know that in order to join them
One must lead a loving life, till
Their hour is up and death casts upon them
A fate with which all men must deal.
So if this is true I can live forever,
Knowing that I’ve sealed the bargain,
By choosing to die for love, an endeavor
In the bed of our sovereign.”

The crowd was taken aback with this logic,
And the queen nodded her assent.
A man stepped forward and raised a digit,
Soon followed by a mass hell-bent.
They followed the example of Kriton,
Hoping to board his blessed ship,
And Cleopatra, with lust of a titan,
Watched women, children, and men trip.
They fought for the chance to enjoy her bounty,
To avoid years of repentance,
And it is easy to see why Antony
Loved her for her benevolence.

The improvisatore ended his recital and uncrossed his arms, taking a step back from the edge of the stage. Charsky stood agape,staring at this wondrous talent that had seemingly fallen from the sky. He suddenly remembered himself and closed his mouth, passing a hand over his forehead to clear away the sweat before anyone noticed. A vain gesture, to be sure, for as he turned to ascertain the reaction of the audience, he saw them all standing as he had, some of the women with tears in their eyes. The white-gloved hands were the first to come together, and soon the entire crowd joined the beautiful young lady in deafening applause. An odd smile broke out on the face of the Italian, spreading over his teeth to give him the appearance of a wolf at the gate of a stye. Charsky, seeing this, halted his hands a mere inch apart before clenching them together in a motion parallel to his tightening lips. The action went unnoticed amongst the roaring tumult, and for a moment Charsky was lost in thought. He saw the Italian, beaming like a debutante, and his initial distaste with the man’s obvious greed blossomed into full-blown disgust. He mentally chastised himself for lending his support, and though part of him felt exonerated by the audience’s delight, he found himself wondering whether it was genuine. Of course the recital had been astounding, but most of those present had no knowledge of the language it was presented in, and therefore possessed not an inkling of what it was they were clapping for. Charsky turned and saw himself surrounded not by savants, but by ignorant socialites, each leaping at the chance to be the first supporters of the newest fad. This was not art, it was fashion, and the Italian was hardly as much a craftsman as he was a provocateur.
The paleness of the Italian’s skin blushed crimson, matching the color lent to his eyes by the lingering fire of inspiration. He bowed several times to the throng, coming up after each to toss kisses upon their worshipful heads. With this the ladies stood and the men stepped forward, redoubling their gestures of appreciation. Charsky turned to leave, wishing for nothing more than to return to his study and ponder over this man who so soon had revealed his contemptible nature.
He was halted by a shout that rose above the din.
“Ho, Charsky, leaving so soon?” said a man whose numerous medals gave the impression of some golden-teated cow. “Why not stay for the encore?”
Charsky managed a constricted grin and waved a hand in a gesture of declination before turning again for the entrance. Just as he was about to motion for the gendarmes to allow him passage, another voice arose from the crowd.
“Encore? Why not a competition? One great poet against another!”
The crowded salon erupted anew as everyone turned towards Charsky, laughing and voicing their approval. Charsky blanched and looked towards the Italian, who had begun to shake with excitement from the proposal. Their eyes met and he was taken aback by the strange gleam in those of improvisatore, one that seemed to preclude a malignant intent. The audience began to clap in unison, chanting their desire and forgetting their propriety. The Italian raised his arms in a gesture for quiet. The noise subsided to a murmur.
“A splendid idea, don’t you think, friend?” he said in his broken French, still holding Charsky’s gaze. “A perfect opportunity to remind Petersburg of the talent of her native son.”
Charsky’s eyes narrowed in reponse to the man’s audacity. What had happened to that unsure, stuttering creature that had accosted him in his study? What had brought forth this newfound bragaddacio, this cutthroat desire for dominance? Perhaps it was the untold amount of time spent in rags. Charsky realized then that any highminded ideals the Italian may have once nurtured had been smothered beneath the weight of poverty. All that mattered to him now was material success. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel and was rushing towards it madly, willing to vault off the shoulders of anyone in his path in order to gain an extra step or two. If they fell down in a heap, no matter, for the shadows of guilt would be instantly banished by the preminent radiance of a glaring sun.
The men in the crowd began to call out Charsky’s name, some of them even chanting it in a ridiculous pantomime of patriotism. The women, too, chimed in, their natural reservations sublimated in the face of a demanding consensus. The encouragement grew louder and louder, and the Italian was forced to yell in order to egg Charsky on.
“I must admit I’m a bit fearful of your talents!” he cried, each word somehow managing to maintain the subtleties of biting sarcasm. “The audience may well forget their appreciation for me when I pale in comparison to you, beloved poet!”
Charsky’s left eye twitched imperceptibly at the second mention of that accursed label. The damned Italian was falling deeper and deeper into his bad graces, encouraging as he did this ridiculous appeal. Charsky was a nobleman, not some trained bear meant to dance onstage for the amusement of his compatriots. He had no choice, though. The chanting grew in intensity, drowning out all thought, reaching a fevered pitch not heard since the time of gladiators and plebeians. Charsky was trapped, cornered like a fox by a group of bloodthirsty hounds. He swallowed, his tongue sticking momentarily to the back of his throat, and after waiting a moment for the cries to abate, addressed the Italian in a voice belying his outrage.
“Alright, I accept.”
The audience cheered in triumph. The Italian began to quiver with glee. Charsky started to make his way to the stage with slow, measured steps. The improvisatore impatiently brushed away the hair that had fallen into his eyes and once again addressed the assembled.
“He accepts! Truly we are all indeed lucky! How should we go about this? Perhaps a sort of versical duel!” The crowd voiced their approval with laughter and clapping. “I will allow dear Charsky to go first, according to the honor due to him, and will give him a topic from which he must compose a few lines! The audience here may decide the victor!”
Charsky climbed onto the stage with his back to the crowd, which was preoccupied in voicing its agreement to the terms. He nodded his assent, wishing only to end this farce as soon as possible and mentally swearing to himself that the next time a vagabond Italian showed up at his door, he would have his servants throw him out into the street.
He took his place next to his newfound rival, trying hard to mask his disgust. The Italian turned to face him, closing his eyes in thought. The crowd fell into an anticipatory silence, all waiting with baited breath. A few moments passed, and Charsky was unable to resist the temptation to tap one foot impatiently. Suddenly the lids of the ambitous wandered snapped open and he turned to address his audience.
“I apologize, but I find myself unable to come up with anything worthy of my esteemed opponent.” He paused a moment for effect. Charsly bit his lip to hold back an irritated sigh. The improvisatore continued. “I think instead, in the spirit of fairness, that we draw from the suggestions already proferred by our glorious attendees!”
The people were delighted with this proposition, exicted as a group by having another chance to participate in the game. The Italian picked up the urn that had been placed near the edge of the stage and looked towards the white-gloved beauty who had drew for the original performance.
“Would you be so kind?” He asked, giving her his impression of a charming smile. The young lady smiled and nodded, proud to again be the center of attention. As the Italian held out the urn it suddenly slipped from his hands and fell to the ground, clattering loudly and causing the women to collectively jump.
“My apologies! I am such a clumsy fool,” he stammered, stealing a glance at Charksy who was eyeing him suspiciously. The Italian bent down to collect the scraps and closed his fist around them. He placed his hand into the urn and withdrew it a second later, still clenched. Smiling embarassedly, he gave the urn an obligatory shake and again held it out to the woman, who this time reached a bit more tentatively, lest it should fall again and land upon her daintly slippered toes. After a moment she withdrew a roll of paper and handed it to the Italian, turning in response to the audience’s congratulations to make a small bow.
The Italian waited for her to be seated and turned to Charsky.
“Are you ready, friend?”
Charsky said nothing, uncaring of the obvious nature of his rudeness. The improvisatore gave him a toothy grin and unrolled the paper, turning to address the watchers.
“The topic chosen is . . . L’ultimo giorno di Pompeia!”
Charsky held back a scathing protest, seeing exactly what the Italian was trying to do. His desire to see the situation finished outweighed the wish to brook an argument. The people in the crowd clamored as they did at the reading of the first roll of paper, thinking it delightful. The Italian motioned towards the musicians to begin playing in order to allow Charsky a moment to think. The music started and Charsky plunged into thought, ignoring the whispers of the audience and the heavy breathing of the Italian. A minute passed and beads of sweat began to form upon his head. His mind was a blank, anger and frustration at the situation killing all of his creative faculties. The Italian stood silently, assuming the air of a vulture awaiting the verification that its chosen meal was indeed dead. The audience sat, a few turning to whisper to their companions while watching the squirming Charsky. Another minute passed, and still nothing. Charsky racked his brain, cursing his weakness, hating himself for allowing this charlatan to fluster him so. The musicians slowed their playing, turning to ascertain the delay. The audience began to murmur, each passing moment serving to exasperate them further. Charsky began to sweat torrents, his lips peeling back in a grimace.
“Well?” said the Italian.
Charsky looked him dead in the eye, every fiber of his being struggling to resist the urge to strangle him then and there, and without another word he stepped down from the stage and hurried towards the doors, his face hot with humilation, the uncomprehending stares of all in attendance assaulting his back like hot needles. He made his exit and stumbled into the street, the doors closing behind him but failing to drown out the eruption of laughter that was quickly followed by the first few lines of the Italian’s brilliant rendition.


The small classroom was pervaded by a quiet luminescence, feebly provided by the few dull, weak rays of sunlight that managed to sneak in around the edges of the closed blinds. These carried with them small particles of dust which danced lazily through the still air, drunken will-o-wisps that drifted aimlessly before settling like a sort of heaven-sent soot belched forth from the belly of some fiery god. All the room’s accoutrements were ashen and dead, victimized by the pale radiance. The scattered toys looked old and tattered, of the sort typically donated to orphanages; childish drawings, reflective pools of exuberance, hung on the wall like wilted flowers. Such a merry place, this room should have been, so full of life and color; it sat forgotten, though, shut up and closed, while outside it’s bouquet of rosy children pranced about in play.
Something stirred beneath one of the tables. A small boy, left unnoticed and forgotten. He turned over onto his side, then again back onto his stomach, his eyes closed, face twisted in an expression of distress. His mouth was clenched tightly, as were his hands, and a soft mewing could be heard seeping from his lips. The sound grew slowly in intensity, building like the plaintive cries of a hungry kitten, and suddenly, without warning, his eyes snapped open, his mouth fell agape, and he cried out, rising from the ground and slamming his head into the bottom of the table. He immediately fell back, grimacing slightly and reaching up to rub the hurt spot. When he again opened his eyes they were clear, the fog of sleep had lifted and was now replaced by a look of confusion. Where were his classmates, he thought. Why was he alone? Small boys shouldn’t be abandoned in dreary classrooms, especially not one who was this small, and especially not in a classroom this dreary. He crawled out on hands and knees and stood, turning his head this way and that to make absolutely sure he was the only one present. Outside he could hear the sounds of play, and a quick glance at the clock confirmed what he feared: that everyone was at recess and that he had been left behind. The teacher must be punishing him, though he couldn’t remember doing anything wrong. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t eaten his lunch. Or maybe because she had seen him chewing on some of the macaroni they had used in a project.
His musings quickly dissipated when he noticed the tightening pressure in his bladder. His small hands flew to his crotch and his thighs drew together. He had to use the restroom…quite badly. The mewing began to issue forth from his throat again, and he began to raise himself, up and down, on his tiptoes. What to do? Where to go? He quickly ran to the door and strained to look out the window. No one in the hall, not a soul. His distress grew and he began to walk circles around the room, tears welling up in his eyes. If only there was someone, anyone, from whom he could ask permission. He knew where the bathroom was, he was bright, but he couldn’t leave without asking first; he was being punished, after all. His pace quickened, the tears streaming forth in earnest, and he started to hit himself on the sides, every fiber of his being straining to hold back the urine. It was too much, too much effort. The call of nature overwhelmed the threat of punishment and he dashed for the door, grabbing the handle and throwing it open. He made it five steps into the hall, within sight of the bathroom, before he stopped and looked down. A wet spot had begun to form on the front of his trousers. Horrified, all he could do was stand and watch. It grew larger, his underwear soaking through, a trickle running down his legs. The little boy could only stand and weep, alone in the hall. He was a good boy, such a good boy, and good boys don’t soil their clothing. Neither do they break the rules, even if it means refuting their nature.

Playing House

In the den of his one-bedroom apartment, Reginald Stevens, a fifth-year philosophy and Chinese major, sat Indian-style on the floor, four feet from the screen of a 30-inch plasma television. His eyes were wide, his forehead covered with a thin sheen of sweat, as he focused all his attention on a video-game karate fight. Seated on the couch behind him was his live-in girlfriend – Jennifer, a thin, twenty-two year-old Chinese girl, pale, with large black eyes. Her lap was covered with clothing that she was folding and arranging into piles. She fought to keep her eyes open . . . The clock above the TV struck midnight, and she had gotten up at 6am for her first class. Afterward, the doctor supervising her internship had asked her to stay late, and she hadn’t gotten home until 9pm. The apartment had been a wreck, dishes piled in the sink, clothes piled in front of the washer, beer bottles and filled ashtrays on the coffee table; Reginald had had some people over. One more load in the dryer and everything would be set to rights, however; she could collapse into bed.
“Robo-Suzuki’s Lightning Strike is faster and does more damage than Chrono-Suzuki’s, but only hits once . . .” Reginald muttered to himself. “It’d be a good combo starter if it hit, and if they jumped it, you could surprise them with a Flame Thrust on the way down . . .”
Reginald paused the game, picked up the guide he had printed off the Internet, and flipped through the pages until he found a diagram that showed how to execute the Flame Thrust.
“Forward, Crouch, Up, Slash,” he said. “Robo-Suzuki does a back flip and swings his sword in an upward arc, catching the opponent on the way down and tossing them back into the air. If they block it they don’t have time to recover, and they’re vulnerable to a combo on the ground. Sweet. I wonder if it works . . . Hey, Jen, play me for a second.”
Jennifer finished folding a towel and got up from the couch. She sank down next to Reginald, bending her knees and sitting on her feet. He handed her a controller.
“Alright, I just need you to walk back and forth; I want to see if this combo works . . . Ready? Okay, I’m Robo-Suzuki, you can be whoever . . . wait, no, not him . . . not Baiku, I know it won’t work on him. Pick someone else. Yeah, be Axl. Ready? Now just walk back and forth . . . let’s see, Lightning Strike . . . no, Jen, you can’t block it, this has to hit . . . actually, just stand there. Alright, Lightning Strike, and . . . Flame Thrust! Dammit, Jen, you moved! Why’d you move?”
“I didn’t do anything. I was only holding the controller.”
“Jeez, well,just put it down and watch. See? Look . . . Lightning Strike . . . bam! . . . Flame Thrust, bam! You hit the ground, and . . . bam! bam! bam!, three hit combo! Kick-ass! I should write this down . . . hey, Jen, I need a pen. Can you get me a pen and paper?”
Jennifer grabbed the pen and notebook she had taken to class from the coffee-table and offered them to Reginald.
“No, no, my hands are full. Just write what I tell you, it’ll be easier. Alright, ready?”
Jennifer flipped through pages stuffed full of chemistry equations, searching for an empty page.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Okay . . . Lightning Strike, Crouch, Up-Forward . . . then Flame Thrust, Forward, Crouch, Up. Got it?”
“Yes,” she said, closing the notebook.
“No, I need that. Tear it out for me.”
Jennifer re-opened the notebook, tore out the page, and set it on the floor. She had taken notes on the reverse side, but didn’t say anything; she figured she knew the material well enough.
“This is great,” said Reginald, as he began a new match. “This one is gonna blow the guys away. Hey, are my carpenter pants clean?”
“Yes. I just need to throw them in the dryer.”
“Awesome. I want to wear those tomorrow.”
Reginald turned back to his game and resumed practice, this time against a computer opponent. Jennifer, notebook in her hands, remained seated, silent. She never said much, even when attention was paid to her; most times she was too busy with her own thoughts, and would sometimes space out, oblivious to the world around her. . .
Since Jennifer had moved away from home for college, she had dated several boys like Reginald. She met them all the same way, in her classes, where they would notice her sitting at the back of the room, silent, and always in the same spot, with at least one empty chair on either side of her. She would say that their method of courtship was peculiarly awkward, if she had experienced it only once; it began with the boy occupying one of the chairs next to her usual seat before she arrived, so as to make their proximity seem like chance. Questions about the assignments would lead to casual small talk, and, after a week or so, they’d ask her to lunch. This request was always made haltingly, while the boy looked at the floor and fidgeted. Jennifer always said yes, and as the lunch dates multiplied, then the movie dates, she was able to witness the slow metamorphosis of her insecure paramours. None had had a girlfriend before, and as they got used to being around her, the change was nothing short of miraculous. Palms stopped sweating, shoulders straightened, conversation went from hopelessly frantic to comfortably banal; after a couple of weeks, they were able to look her in the eye without twitching. Jennifer knew why she attracted them – she was like a bike with training wheels, not so attractive or aggressive that they felt threatened, but just right, cute, and obliging.
Eventually, though, they’d become bored with her, and their newly found self-confidence would spur them to pursue more exciting girls. She consoled herself each time with the belief that she had committed a selfless act and done a very special thing for every one of them. Her looks belied her experience in this regard; a casual observer would be shocked at the number of boys this unassuming girl had ushered into manhood. Reginald was her tenth . . . She knew that he, too, would soon try his luck elsewhere, and shed her like old skin. The decision to break up would be entirely his, and she would accept it gracefully, as she had always done, bowing out with her dignity intact. It hurt a lot less that way, she found.
A sudden knock on the door broke her reverie.
“Come in!” yelled Reginald. He paused his game and stood up.
In walked Colby, Reginald’s best friend and fellow gamer. Jennifer remained seated and looked up at the visitor.
“Hey, man, I need to ask you a favor,” said Colby, as he slammed the door. He spoke quickly and immediately began to pace back and forth.
“What’s up?”
“Your girlfriend is taking Chemistry 310L, right? I need to borrow her notes, man. I haven’t been to class in a fucking month, and I saw there was a goddamn test tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” replied Reginald. “Hey, Jen, where’re your Chemistry notes?”
“ Right here,” she said, picking up the notebook. “Not that I need them or anything . . . ”
“Aw, come on,” said Reginald, taking the notes. “You know this stuff like the back of your hand. Colby here is an idiot, aren’t you, Colby?”
Colby grabbed the notes and flipped through them eagerly. “Yeah, yeah, a fucking idiot,” he muttered.
A loud buzz sounded, signaling that the washer had finished its cycle. Jennifer stood and left the room. Colby looked up from the notes. The moment she was gone, he tossed the notebook on the couch.
“Dude, seriously, when are you going to fucking dump her?” he said, stepping up close and speaking softly.
Reginald breathed in sharply through his teeth and looked away, in the direction of the laundry room. “Geez, man, I don’t know . . . she does kinda live with me.”
“Goddammit, stop using that as an excuse! Where’re your balls at? We should be out right now, this second, raking in the bitches nasty-style! But here you are, sitting at home, playing house with your thumb up your ass. Fuck, man, leave the domestic goddess to her chores; let her practice her sewing, or whatever the hell it is she does for a hobby. ”
“I couldn’t do that . . .”
“That’s my point! You’re too nice of a guy to cheat on her, so just throw her out and end it.” Colby assumed a serious expression and placed his hands on Reginald’s shoulders. “Take this, brother, may it serve you well.”
“Take what?”
Colby rolled his eyes. “The advice, jackass.” He threw a quick glance in the direction Jennifer had gone. “Look, what’s your sex-life like?”
“It’s alright, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t have to guess. Do you always fuck her in the bedroom?”
“Um, yeah.”
“Under the covers with the lights out? Every single goddamn time?”
Colby raised one eyebrow and stared Reginald dead in the eyes, mouth set in a firm line. Reginald swallowed hard.
“You’re right.”
“You’re goddamn right I’m right”.
The sound of the dryer starting made them both jump, and they turned to meet Jennifer as she re-entered the room. She stopped short and looked from one to the other.
“I’m sorry, did I . . . ?”
“No, no,” said Colby, breaking into a smile. “I was just leaving. Hey, man, thanks for the notes,” he said to Reginald, grabbing his hand and shaking it vigorously. “Remember what I said. I’ll catch you guys later. Bye, Jen.”
Colby grabbed the notebook and exited, slamming the door on his way out. Reginald and Jennifer remained standing, looking at the floor. The apartment was silent. Reginald glanced at the TV; his game was still on pause. Jennifer raised her eyes and studied his face.
“What did Colby say?”
Reginald started, as if she had screamed in his ear.
“Oh, Um . . . nothing. Just something about Street Boxers.”
“Oh . . .” she said softly, lowering her eyes. “Well, your pants are in the dryer. I’m going to bed.”
“Alright. I’ll be there in a bit.”
Jennifer left the room, her feet soundless on the carpet. Reginald watched her, his brow wrinkling in thought. He walked to where he had dropped the video game controller and looked down at it, unsure of what to do next. He knelt and picked it up, fondled it for a second, and then placed it down and turned off the system. The apartment was suddenly dark. Reginald went to the fridge and grabbed a beer, unscrewing the cap on the way to the couch. The silence was oppressive, and he had to fight the urge to turn the television back on. He tipped the beer back and took a swig . . .
Reginald didn’t like allowing his thoughts free rein. He was, by nature, obsessively introspective and would constantly analyze himself in regard to the perceived reactions of some imaginary audience. Social situations were unbearable for him; he would feel paralyzed, unable to mingle for fear of saying something stupid, yet entirely conscious of the awkwardness of his silence. Left to his own devices he’d worry himself sick over a million and one things, until he was so anxious that he couldn’t sit still or think clearly. That’s why he liked video games so much; they were his tranquilizers. While he played them, his attention was riveted, and there was no room for little thoughts.
Girls had always left him flustered and tongue-tied. Jennifer was the first he’d been with, though he’d not admit it. He had goaded himself into approaching her after a weeklong bout of self-deprecation, initiated by the damning realization that he was a twenty-one year-old virgin. The first few dates were god-awful, nervous affairs. He’d spend days afterwards reviewing them, dissecting every word and grading his performance. Jennifer could do no wrong; she was the one who held the power of approval. Reginald saw in her his chance to prove himself worthy of female companionship. After the first kiss, his feeling of gratitude was so immense that he mistook it for love. Before he knew it they were a couple, holding hands in the street, seeing each other everyday, and, after a few months, living together.
It was then that the idea of Jennifer gave way to the reality. She was no longer his saving grace but rather his roommate. The smells she sometimes left in the bathroom proved that she wasn’t, in fact, made of lilies and roses. He discovered that underneath the makeup and hip clothing there lurked a plain, pimply person, one that he woke up beside, each and every day. His blessed redeemer, stepping out from behind a blinding light, had turned out to be nothing more than an average, insecure girl. Now Reginald found himself dogged constantly by the same persistent question: At what point should he stop saying ‘thank you’ and move on?
He knew what he had to do. He told himself it would be for the best, better sooner than later. Plus, he was tired of Colby giving him shit. He drained his beer, slammed it on the coffeetable and stood up in a dramatic and resolute fashion. His strides to the bedroom were evenly spaced and self-assured. When he reached the doorway, he stopped dead in his tracks. Jennifer was only a faint outline in the dim light, but he felt her stare like it was a tangible thing. After a moment, his vision adjusted, and he saw that she was still dressed, sitting on top of the sheets, waiting. Their eyes met.
“Hey . . . you’re still up,” said Reginald.
Her gaze was fixed, heavy, and held him rooted to the spot. It clung to him like sodden clothing, and he began to fidget. Feeling his resolve beginning to wither, he moved impulsively to sit at the foot of the bed, turning his back to her.
“Look, we need to talk,” he said.
Jennifer’s lashes fell to hide her eyes.
“Yeah?” she said in a soft voice.
“Yeah . . . Um . . . You see, Jen . . . ” he began, “It’s that . .”
He stumbled around a few monosyllables and trailed off, at a loss. With a sigh, he started drawing tight circles around his temples. The bed vibrated from the tapping of his foot.
“What is it?” Jennifer asked tentatively.
Reginald tensed for a moment, then steadied himself. The bed stopped shaking. He looked to the ceiling, as if petitioning the heavens for assistance. A sense of fatality came over him. He turned to face her.
“We have to break up . . . we have to end this,” he blurted out. “I . . . I’ve been thinking a lot, and . . . “
He broke off, confused, unsure of what to say next. His mouth opened and closed several times. His hands began to shake, and he clenched the bedsheets reflexively.
Jennifer understood. She watched him, a pale, trembling lump at the foot of the bed, and waited for his words to sink in. Then a strange thing happened. As she searched the depths of her reservoir of pain, seeking a place to store this newest hurt, she felt an odd swelling in her chest. At first she thought it was love and was frightened and excited at the same time. Then it began to hurt, to hurt terribly, and she realized in an instant that it wasn’t love, but an overwhelming sense of grief. In the deepest grottoes of her heart, where she had sunk the anguish of one rejection after another, shameful remembrance had given birth to the deformed, fetal, bastard children of love - regret, obsession, and hatred – which, left to rot like aborted triplets in-utero, had bloated up until they burst their confines. Death within corrupting life without, Jennifer’s carefully hidden pain had seeped out of the recesses and poisoned her entire heart; any more might destroy it forever. Frightened and bewildered, she suddenly saw her graceful exits as running scared, running from resolution, and the knowledge it would have imparted of her vulnerability. Now, she couldn’t ignore the throbbing chancre in her chest; she couldn’t run from resolution any longer.
“Why?” she asked, her voice trembling.
Reginald shook his head and said nothing. He hadn’t thought to prepare an excuse.
“Why?” she repeated a little louder, leaning towards him, emboldened by his silence.
He blanched and shrugged, jumping up. He felt an answer lurking in his spleen, but feared the taste. She inched closer, mouth half-open, chin trembling.
“Why?” she said again, her voice now thick with emotion, the stunted manifestations of a frozen anguish coming to life.
Reginald, his tongue thick and filling his throat, felt his stomach turn.
“Why?!” she screamed suddenly, leaning forward on all fours.
Reginald flinched.
“Why?!” she screamed again, tears streaming down her face, freed from a grief that was at best parsimonious. She wanted to give it all at once, to set it in Reginald’s lap and ask ‘What the fuck is this?’ She wanted an explanation, would demand it, would force Reginald to answer for every rejection, every casual dismissal, every callous disregard for her feelings, her needs.
“Tell me, goddammit! Tell me why!”
Reginald felt ill. Words rose in his throat like bile, and he struggled to choke them down.
“Answer me,” she pleaded, hungry and desperate, ten broken hearts breaking her in two. She reach out and grabbed him by the waist, her voice rising to a fevered shriek.
“You owe me a reason! Tell me! Why aren’t I good enough?! Why aren’t I fucking good enough for you?! You owe me!”
“I don’t owe you a fucking thing!” Reginald yelped, knocking away her hands. He felt himself cornered and started to panic. Jennifer made a growling noise, and in a sudden movement grabbed his face, wrenching it down to hers.
“Like fuck you don’t!” she hissed, livid. “You owe me everything! Just give me a fucking reason, one goddamn reason! Tell me the truth!”
Reginald felt her hot breath on his face and was forced to look into eyes that were mere inches from his. He saw in them naked misery and realized that at that moment Jennifer was fearless. Something clicked in his head. He unconsciously opened his mouth, like he was about to hyperventilate. The words fought their way to the surface . . “Is it because I’m ugly?! Because of my – “
. . . and it seemed to him there were no such things as truth and falsehood, only. . .
“-cooking?! The fact that I don’t play your stupid video-games or suck your–“
. . . honesty and dishonesty, freedom and bondage, since . . .
“- cock to wake you up in the morning?! Is that what it is, you –“
. . . lying to others means one is enslaved by expectations . . .
“ – fucking pervert! Because I’m –“
. . . and lying to oneself is to be enslaved by convention . . .
“not good enough in bed?!”
Reginald was tired of being enslaved. Colby’s influence was a chain, just like his relationship with Jennifer; he needed to end this, but he also needed to be honest about why. He quit looking for the answers in his head; they streamed up from his gut.
“Shut-up!” Reginald yelled at the top of his lungs, pulling himself free. “Shut-up, for God’s fucking sake!”
Jennifer drew back sharply, momentarily taken aback. Her face screwed up to spit a retort, but Reginald cut her off.
“You want to know why I’m ending this?” he said in a commanding tone, “I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’m bored, Jennifer. You fucking bore me and I’m sick of it.”
Jennifer drew back sharply, eyes widened in shock. Reginald’s face turned a bright red, his eyes narrowing. He continued:
“Because I come home everyday, and here you are. Here you are - small, quiet, ready to cater to my every fucking whim, asking me how my day was, turning down the bed, standing until I sit, never speaking unless spoken to, never laughing, never joyous, never excited, just here, just false, acting appropriately but never honestly, hiding your face for fear of being slapped, giving me nothing, absolutely nothing, that you wouldn’t give just as readily to someone else!”
Reginald paused for a moment and caught his breath. A couple of tears trickled down his cheeks. He wiped them away without an ounce of remorse before going on, his voice lowered to an accusatory croak.
“You,” he said, pointing at Jennifer, “have never once made me feel special. I’m just another roll of the dice. You act as if this is as good a place as any, so long as someone pats your head and you’ve got a warm body to curl up next to. You’re like a whipped dog, Jennifer.”
The words hung heavy in the air. Reginald’s breathing slowed. Jennifer’s face was a mask of misery, veiled by a steady stream of tears. She gasped convulsively, unable to draw a full breath. Reginald felt something like pity. Her lungs found purchase, and the gasps turned into wrenching sobs. Reginald passed a hand over his face.
“Look . . . don’t cry, please” he said in an exhausted voice. “It’s not worth it. We don’t love each other, so we don’t deserve to hurt each other. We’re pitiful, you and I. All we’ve done is take pity on one another.”
Reginald fell silent and let Jennifer cry. Her sobs gradually lessened in intensity and turned into quiet sniffles. She was no longer looking at Reginald, but out the window, her eyes distant. She wiped her nose and drew herself into a ball, hiding her face. Reginald sat down again on the bed, and, as the minutes passed, he gradually scooted over next to her. He placed a hand on her back.
“Ask yourself why we’re doing this,” he said gently, “why we’re willing to be unhappy, so long as we’re comfortable. You’re afraid of being alone, I know; I’m afraid of not finding anyone else. So we settle for one another, and we go through the motions, like a couple of stupid kids playing house. We tell ourselves this is all there is, while dying inside, because it’s not enough.”
Jennifer’s sniffles ceased. Reginald rhythmically stroked her back and said nothing more. The air-conditioner clicked on with a hum. Jennifer reached around and took Reginald’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”
Reginald wrapped his free arm around her, and curled against her on the bed.
“Me too, Jen. Me too.”

Old Gods Done Gone

Josef always remembered the first time he really read a book. It was the summer before his freshman year of college, and he lived with four roommates in an apartment behind a strip mall. He had found a job doing floors for a local remodeling company, work that required him to spend long shifts over a buffer, or on his hands and knees scraping glue. The work began at the crack of dawn and ended with the heat of the day, around two in the afternoon. By the time Josef got home he was dirty and exhausted, totally spent, at a time when most working people were returning from lunch. The one caveat was that his roommates belonged to this group, so Josef had some time alone at home everyday. He enjoyed this solitude; company had never suited him for long, as he had trouble relating to people. The afternoons were a welcome respite from noise and distractions. Josef didn’t care for noise. Since childhood he’d read books in his free time, nothing serious, usually fantasy or sci-fi. He particularly loved books that ran into long series, long enough to get attached to. As time passed his tastes matured – from R. L. Stine to R.A. Salvatore he graduated to Tolkien and Moorcock – but his reason for reading remained the same, to pass the time.
One day, after having returned home and showered, Josef found himself on the couch with nothing to do. He had finished the last of the Moorcock books he brought from home and had realized with the last one that he was predicting the plot from chapter to chapter. Bored with the clichés of sword and sorcery bullshit, he was ready for something new. A list of titles scrolled through his head, but nothing inspired him to jump out of his seat. After a careful tabulation of all the books that he thought he someday ‘might’ read, Josef decided to throw caution to the wind and go for a browse.
The only bookstore he knew of was a large, centrally located Barnes and Noble. After a brief search for parking, he was comfortably inside, perusing the shelves. He first stopped to visit his old flame, science fiction. His eyes roved over shelf after shelf of familiar territory, and nothing caught his eye. He pulled a few books out of habit and recognized the same story repackaged again and again. With a sigh of frustration, Josef turned and headed to the Fiction section.
Josef’s experience with “adult” fiction was somewhat limited. In high school he had read the required classics but wasn’t inspired by a single one, and in fact hated more than a few of them. As he walked down the crowded aisles he recognized a few of these, sprinkled among a galaxy of unfamiliar books. Growing frustrated, he decided to purchase something by an author whose last name began with the same letter as his own, and accordingly headed over to the Ms. Josef started at the beginning and read each title slowly to himself, tracing them with his fingers and rolling them on his tongue. He stopped at one that immediately appealed to him: Tropic of Cancer. Josef was a Cancer, after all. With a shrug and a feeling of adventure, he pulled it off the shelf and made his purchase.
Later that afternoon, having returned to the apartment, Josef made himself comfortable on the couch and cracked the book open. The first lines slithered into his ears like a whisper from a few feet away. Intrigued, he read more, the impression growing stroner with each word that he was not reading but hearing, the spoken sounds of a measured and congenial cadence. Syllables rang out to fall on his brain like a shower of coins, each a singular sensation, yet all bound together by the rhythm of a speaker whose accent spattered the page, imbuing dead letters with the warm tones of a living Brooklyn brogue. Stunned, Josef had to tear himself away. He felt a warm sensation in his chest, akin to what one feels after a pleasant encounter with a stranger. A slight smile adorning his face, Josef returned to the pages, and remained glued to them until his roommates returned. As they walked in the door he stood, closed the book, and went to a coffeeshop.
It took him a few days to identify what it was that attracted him to Tropic of Cancer. He eventually realized that it was the presence of ideas, real, live, original ideas, around which the text sparked and drew breath. Comparing it to the books he had read previously – in a past life, it seemed – he saw no similarity beyond the physical. The former was weighty, a physical product born of sweat and effort, so real and honest that Josef wanted to buy it a drink. The latter were nothing, mere entertainments, like Saturday morning cartoons. After this epiphany Josef never again saw the cartoons for other than what they were. His reading expanded from Henry Miller outward, in a great arc tat became a voracious pursuit of true writing, honesty on the printed page. He found Durrell, Nin, Hamsun, and Thoreau; then the Russians, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, and Pushkin. Unsated he moved on, seeking the wisdom of his homeland in Emerson, Melville, and the messianic Whitman. Coming to terms with himself, he found guidance in Camus, Nietzsche, Plato, and Sartre. His soul was humbled before the brute force of Durante Alighieri. Nabokov taught him of beauty’s elusive nature. And in the form of Shakespeare he was impressed, as a late convert, with a model whose greatness was beyond all comprehension. Josef found in books everything he missed in the world around him, and saw them as the idyllic creations of men and women convinced of the existence of beauty, if only within themselves. As his eyes grew accustomed to bearing witness to the fruits of creation, Josef began to wonder if he, too, could fashion something wonderful. He began to dream of a life as a writer, and despite an uninterrupted series of abandoned attempts, even came to see himself as one. Having entered university on a pre-pharmacy track, at the beginning of his sophomore year he switched his major to English.
Countless hours spent in fluorescent classrooms taught Josef a few things about literature – namely, that no one cared about it. It struck him that his fellow English majors only infrequently performed the reading assignments, rarely understood what they read, and never said anything original or thought-provoking. Every once in awhile he would encounter a kindred spirit, though often the person’s preoccupation with literature would reveal itself as no more than a hobby born of pretense. Professors mumbled their way through lectures memorized by rote, seemingly no more thrilled with their surroundings than the frat boys. After class, Josef would watch them scurry out of the classrooms towards their offices, like displaced hermit crabs. He pictured them behind locked doors, huddled over computer screens, masturbating as they agonized over apostrophes.
The books are what educated Josef. He chose courses with interesting titles, like “Banned Books and Novel Ideas,” or “Time and Memory in the European Novel.” Through them he was exposed to writers he had only vaguely heard of, and the assignments instilled in him a discipline that strove to find something worthwhile in even the most maudlin texts. It wasn’t until his Junior year that he tried seriously to write, having enrolled in a short story workshop. He found quickly that he lacked enthusiasm, starting many pieces, but finishing few. He found a solution in the form of amphetamines, and became an enthusiastic tweeker. He would stay up for nihts on end, for the benefit of his writing, he would tell himself. There always came a moment, though, when the words stopped making sense to him, and he would spend small eternities agonizing over single sentences. Josef finally gave up the drugs because they exhausted him, and because he realized that his writing no longer belonged to him; he could lay no rightful claim to something born outside of him. Time passed, and writing became a mundane task, a chore done in the shadow of a remembered euphoria. As graduation neared he wrote less and read more, convincing himself that he only needed more instruct, more inspiration, before he could begin to write. The piles of books grew larger, the lines remained frozen, always tripped up in conception, never falling onto the page. At a loss, no victim to a vague unease, Josef decided to become a teacher.
The first day of Mister Josef’s English IV was an exercise in futility. The lecture he had prepared with love and insight fell upon ears still ringing with the sounds of summer. Undeterred, Josef prepared a challenging, thought-provoking lesson plan to follow up the initial reading assignment. Again, he was disappointed. The scene of his disenchantment was a small, well-appointed classroom, blessed with large bay windows and plenty of natural light.
“Alright class, who can tell me the dominant theme from the reading?”
The pampered products of private education sat uneasily shifting in their chairs.
Our hero fingered his notes enthusiastically, sweating, a spore of anticipation.
Silence. A pencil rolls off a desk.
“Okay . . . who has done the reading?”
Silence. A boy in the back snickers, flashing braces, black curls peeking from under a knit cap. Josef’s blood runs cold.
“Okay,” he says, voice shaking, notes held like an offering. “Let’s take twenty minutes so everyone can read.”
And so the days passed. Josef quickly realized that the only way to get the kids to read was to quiz them at the beginning of every class. He remembered hating professors for employing the same tactic. The first few weeks were rough, as he sought to fuel the class with the energy of students ignited by true engagement with the material. It was hopeless, though; lured into passivity by video games and television, unused to employing their minds for anything other than observational purposes, the children had lost the ability for original interpretative thought. Josef was forced to realize that the solution to a dull classroom lay not in them, but in him. Soon he was teaching on topics that interested him, and his excitement rubbed off on his class. The quarter on Dante’s Inferno threatened to flounder early on, when Josef attempted to lead discussions on thematic interpretation; however, once he began leading them through it line by line, taking on the role of tour guide and performer, the kids became entranced, falling into the comfortable role of audience. After awhile, when grading essays, Josef began to recognize two and three sentence progressions taken exactly from his lectures. He felt flattered.
Josef soon became the favorite teacher at the school, loved for his energy and sense of humor, and idolized for his ability to communicate complex literature and concepts in a way understandable for every student. He basked in his reputation as resident intellectual, and pushed himself relentlessly in a quest to make English the favorite subject of every student. The years passed quickly in a haze of research and academic writing on the material he taught; while he never shared his essays with anyone, he found them indispensable for keeping things organized in his head. Vacations were skipped, 40 hour workweeks flouted, all in his endless drive to “get prepared.” Josef’s own knowledge of literature ballooned; there was hardly an author he hadn’t sampled, a concept or term he’d not heard of. He took to attending conferences, taking detailed notes so as to return and teach a quarter on a specific writer, flooding the students with as much information as anyone would need for a nuanced understanding of a literary work. One day, however, he felt a numbness originate at the base of his skull. It became hard to focus while reading, and he found it difficult to maintain the pace of research he had once kept. One night, realizing he was simply too tired to craft an original plan, Josef decided to devote the next day’s class to a student led discussion of the work they were reading, The Dead by James Joyce. Pleased with this solution, Josef finally, for an evening, slipped off the yoke and went to a movie.
The next day he stepped into his classroom rested and excited to hear what the students had to say. Much had changed in the intervening years since he became a teacher. He had seen classes come and go, had nearly worn a groove in the floor from his customary pacing during lectures. He occupied a respected position in the faculty, Director of Humanities, and designed curriculum for both the History and English departments. The students loved him, and would almost always devote the utmost attention to his famous lectures. As they filed in and took their seats, Josef was seated in a chair facing them, a blank chalkboard behind him. The children, used to him standing and writing as they entered, met his gaze with visible confusion.
“Hello class. Today we’re going to try something different,” Josef began. “Lately I’ve gotten rather tired of blathering on everyday, and I wanted to give you guys a chance to lead the class.”
The students shifted in their chairs, some of them glancing at their neighbors. A few placed their pencils down. Josef smiled and continued:
“Alright, so, to kick things off, who can tell me what they think is a dominant theme from the reading?”
The rows of students sat silent and gently shifting, like rows of cornstalks caught in a breeze.
Josef, his smile fading, cleared his throat.
“I say, can anyone identify a theme?”
His glance roved from stare to blank stare, a speeding vehicle confronting a regiment of deer.
“Anyone? Come on, guys, you know how to do this. What did the text make you think about?”
Again, silence. A dark-haired boy in the back row glanced shyly at his neighbor, a pert blonde with a cheerleader face. She looked down at her desk and blushed. Josef’s lips tightened.
“No one?”
A girl in the back tentatively raised her hand.
“Yes,” cried Josef, “Katie!”
All eyes turned to regard the savior as she lowered her hand and said with hesitation, “Is it . . . revenge?”
Josef stared at her blankly.
“Um . . . what gives you that impression?”
“Well,” Katie said, “doesn’t someone die?”
Josef’s eyebrows furrowed in an expression of annoyance.
“Did you do the reading, Katie?”
Katie’s eyes flitted back and forth as she drew her elbows in to her sides.
“Yes. Kinda.”
“Then it’s no, right?”
“Yes,” Katie said, lowering her head.
“Did anyone do the reading?”
Josef didn’t know what to say. He removed his glasses and wiped his suddenly perspiring face with the back of his hand. In the eyes of each student he saw himself reflected, as if he stood in a corridor of mirrors.
“Okay. Let’s take twenty minutes so everyone can read.”
The next day, Josef turned in his resignation. No one understood, and he offered no explanation. The faculty and student body were distraught and organized a large farewell banquet on his behalf. He did not attend. The next week he packed his belongings and left town.
For a few years Josef traveled, living off his savings and retirement plan. He finally settled in a large northeastern city and made ends meet through private tutoring and freelance writing. One day in a bookstore he saw a maroon-haired girl browsing in the Fiction section pick up a used copy of Tropic of Cancer.
“Great book, that one,” Josef said with a smile.
“Oh yeah?” the girl replied, turning and looking him in the eye. “I’ve heard it’s kinda naughty. Have you read it?”
“Yes I have,” said Josef, “as a matter of fact . . . “
Her name was Marie and three months later they were married. It was a perfect match. They pooled their resources and managed to buy a struggling used bookstore. Josef culled the stock and revitalized the selection with a diverse assortment of modern and classic fiction. He also hosted weekly open-mics where aspiring writers could present their work to a sympathetic audience. Josef was a regular contributor, and was always applauded by those in attendance. His first short story was published in a quarterly review the summer of his thirty-fifth year. Five years later he had developed a small reputation as writer of some ability, though he was a bit too literary for most peoples’ tastes and not very commercial. His supporters called him the keeper of a great tradition. His critics simply called him derivative.