Fiction | June 01, 2002
[This text is also available online as part of our TextBox anthology.]
Night on Lake Dallas in the Texas summer: the water gives back the starlight and his girlfriend is fifteen years old, freckled, and they await the magic of the moonrise. Over soft grass she spreads out a blanket, and the scent of her burns inside it, a delicate soapy ignition. The adults—her parents and their friends—drink out of bottles wrapped in brown paper sacks. Their laughter skims over the waves: signals to other campsites, to other family groups and to the sexual ache of the evening.
They stand on a rock ledge beside the shore, boy and girl, leaning together, their bare shoulders touching, as the adults unfold and arrange cots. Her father watches them as he sips from his bottle, though, and he knows what the night means. He calls the boy’s name—hey, Will, c’mere!—and the invitation is a command. The girl squeezes Will’s fingers as he leaves her side. When he’s gone the mother comes and places an arm around her daughter, whispering, and the lake whispers back, expectant, and through the giant cottonwood trees on the far shore an orange and lunatic moon hides in the branches.
The father points and says it plainly: if she sleeps over here, then put your cot over there. As they talk their faces are shadowed, and the moon rises larger than a fist, so crazy in its hallucination that it drives away the stars.
Later the father drifts off into drunken sleep as the nightbirds catch the moonlight in their frenzy. Over the moondark lake the picnic ground receives the noise of cicadas and the tin music of a distant radio as Will searches for the girl’s blanket, finding it, at last, in the deep blue shade of the trees. He calls out and hears Myla’s soft reply.
They wrap themselves in the blanket, in the darkness, and with a single economical movement she’s naked for him. Never mind the others, never mind anything, and their rhythms become a single rhythm as she guides him into her small body. Her virginal bloodshed mixes with the dried blood on his shirt, blood of the fish he caught in the afternoon, and suddenly they’re experts at this ancient act. He whispers, yes, keep me here, right here, take me and keep me, never let me go, right here in this place, and a voice deep inside her answers, please, yes, take me away, take me to all the places I can never go alone, get me out of here.
At a lodge in New Mexico they meet again.
They are students at different colleges on a winter holiday, and he boldly takes a seat across from her in the cafeteria on top of the mountain. They both wear rented ski boots and borrowed clothing, and as he takes his seat clumsily he bumps the table and spills a bit of everyone’s hot chocolate. Myla’s black ski bib shows off her figure, and her incandescent freckles part in a smile. His manner is all pretension: a forced laughter, too much talk, a boast that he edits his campus newspaper—a fact she already knows—and an awkward and boyish insouciance. Her girlfriends look on in smirking wonder as he tries to impress them all, but then suddenly he says, okay, time for another run, and he casually suggests that Myla should go down the slope with him. To the amazement of her friends she quickly rises, fumbles with her mittens, drops them, trips in her silver boots, groans with pleasure and goes along. They ski through bright powder for two hundred yards, then pull up breathlessly. Where can we go?
They enter the dormitory he shares with five other guys where they pull the goose-down coverlets off all the beds, steal all the pillows and fill up the bathroom with softness. It’s the only door they can lock, and they cushion the tile floor, the fixtures, and spare only the mirrors so they can become their own audience. Then feverish acrobatics and wild display: the mirrors say, yes, do that, go there, and later they emerge exhausted, a bawdy laughter sealing the old intimacy they’ve rediscovered.
At lunch in the Russian Tea Room they sit in bright leather booths, the New York literati conversing around them—or so Will imagines—as his new agent, his first editor and his new bride eat out of each other’s plates. Hm, try this! Myla insists, and they laugh and stab at morsels of food. His first book, a thin little volume of short stories, adorns the white tablecloth along with the wine glasses and heavy silver, but it is the young bride, not the young author, who wins all the attention. She throws her head back in a deep, genuine, womanly laughter, her eyes flashing, and where did the girl go, he wonders, and who is this? Overdressed matrons at the other tables stare with envy at her freckles, and the editor—a Harvard man wearing wide red suspenders and a bow tie—obviously craves to kiss her cleavage, her slender neck and her laughing mouth.
Afterward they stroll arm in arm, passing the galleries on 57th Street, then at the Plaza, in a room paid for by the publisher, they argue over the flowers. At his own expense Will has filled the room, encircling the bed with bouquets, and his extravagance annoys her, although the room swirls with color and the perfume addles their senses. Too much, she scolds him. We might want to travel on our own, spendthrift, big author, and what’ll we do for money? You’d better get a job and get an idea for another book quick, because we can’t eat roses, can we?
After this first of their many squabbles over money she sleeps at the far edge of the beflowered mattress.
The next morning at breakfast in the Edwardian Room he tips the waiter too little, she tells him, and with frustration he tosses a spoon into his empty plate.
They buy their first dwelling, a four-room cabin beside a Hill Country stream in Texas: screened porch, an arid magic in the evenings, an old Royal typewriter in the potting shed where he isolates himself to try writing another book. They sleep in the bed with rough tree trunks as posters, a corduroy chair beside it where she sits and reads.
Twice each week he lectures at a nearby college, commuting in their only car, an old station wagon, leaving her to stroll beside the narrow creek, to smile among the neighbors, to sew, to hate television and to prepare his supper. One day she walks up on a coiled rattlesnake and her pulse is still racing when he returns. They watch the night sky through their expensive telescope, learning the constellations as the cosmos wheels around them. Some nights they drive into town for movies and tacos, and month after month she waits, waiting on his talent, patiently hoping, and the book isn’t about anything he knows, but his confidence calms her.
Her parents visit, remarking on how poorly the cabin is furnished and appalled by the expensive telescope. Her father, drunk, argues with Will over politics. Later, his mother visits, nervous and apprehensive, and when she finds a scorpion the size of her thumb she bursts into sobs and soon departs.
At the end of each week Myla reads what he has written and believes each line. She doesn’t know where it comes from or exactly what it means or who he is, and tells him so. Yet she accepts with her innate practicality all these mysteries because, after all, the editor far away has sent hard cash, and someone else obviously believes, too, so Will can just sit out there in the potting shed with his imagination and his silences. At the same time she’s aware that he watches her hands as she peels potatoes at the sink and the slope of her naked shoulders as she sits reading in her bra and panties, so she wonders if he’s memorizing her, studying her and committing her to memory because somehow they’re going to leave one another.
One night he heaves himself into her open thighs, so that the bed transforms itself into a dark forest where they lose themselves, and as they finish and lie apart, bruised and dreamy, she whispers, there, feel that? Feel what, Will asks, and he thinks of earthquakes or the moon pulling at the tides and whispers back again, feel what? She sleeps, not answering, yet she knows: he has flowered inside her, she has conceived, and this cabin is suddenly a great castle, its rooms adorned with immense fireplaces in towers of rock, a stone bridge arching over their moat, tapestries hanging on the walls of the great hall, and this is a legacy, this place, for all who come afterward, children and grandchildren, and this is their moment in the silence of the universe, their tiny wheel within the endless wheel, stars surrounding them like fate.
From the shuttered windows of their hotel in Venice they gaze out toward a white immensity that the desk clerk insisted was Desdemona’s Palace. But Desdemona is a fictional character, Will argued, a creation out of Shakespeare, but, si, yes, scusi, that was her true palace, just there, no extra charge.
The Hotel Flora’s wide rooms are furnished with dusty antiques, and on the beds in the adjoining room their children sprawl out for afternoon naps, the freckled girl and the twin boys with their mouths open in exhausted sleep. Myla combs out her hair, arms raised before the oval mirror with its peeling frame, her naked breasts pulled high. In motherhood her beauty increases. A carton of Murano glass sits atop the stacked luggage: goblets destined to be lost. From the canals voices float up from the gondolas, and the odors riding on the breeze are jasmine and garlic.
She scolds him for spending too much money traveling and argues for settling down, for adding rooms to the house in Texas, for savings accounts, saying, think about dental bills, how about bicycles, if you hadn’t sold that short story we’d be flat broke, what about school clothes, this success wont last. He pulls her down on their bed to silence her with a kiss, and she says, quiet, don’t wake the children, shut the door, as he answers, c’mere, open up, there, and they both know the addictive truth: they’re sensuous nomads, inebriated with new places, stuck in some time warp of sexual passion with each other, giddy, dragging kids and luggage around in their ardent wake, wanderers, sending postcards from lost temples and exotic ruins in faraway jungles, and this is their only constant, this narcotic pleasure, this wet thrust, this.
They travel in Africa with another couple, his old school buddy, a journalist with assignments, and the second wife, a slender child bride with enormous breasts. In their shared suite at the old Norfolk Hotel they run around in their underwear drinking Salty Dogs, hiding in the gun closets, singing. Then they hire a driver and a rickety Hertz Land Rover, leave Nairobi and go up to Treetops. In the cold tiny room of the famous treehouse in the highlands Myla accuses him of paying too much attention to the friend’s bride, and he laughs, saying, right, I can’t get my eyes off those tits of hers, and he somehow laughs too long and too loudly over his confession.
In the middle of the night he gets out of bed and strolls onto the deck overlooking the lighted waterhole. A few other insomniac guests are out there to watch a herd of indolent water buffalo. Somewhere in the night—the suburbs are encroaching—he can hear a boom box. This elaborate tourist stop fails to inspire him, so he leans on the railing conjuring up another Africa, the primeval savannah, distant drums, lost myths.
When his name is softly spoken he turns to find his friend’s wife at his side. Myla calls her Bambi. Bambi begins to pay elaborate attention to the water buffalo, to the moonless night and to his face—wearing, he fears, an expression of goofy romanticism. She’s draped in a thick grey blanket and opens it to invite him inside. It’s warmer in here, she trills, and he sees that she wears only a lace teddy that fails to restrain her heaving chest. They suck in their breaths, both of them incapable of speech as her breasts flatten against his ribs, and then a movement catches their gaze, a great shadow at the dark edge of the water hole. A big male lion slowly circles that nimbus of spotlights: casual, haughty, watching the warthogs scatter before him as he makes his way toward the herd of buffalo; moving with a regal disdain. Will and Bambi watch mesmerized inside the blanket as their hearts pound together. Other guests accumulate around them to gawk at the lion, but by this time Will and the young wife stare into each other’s loony eyes, caught in the spotlight with all the other thirsty and rutting creatures of the night.
Simba, he says stupidly, and her nipples grow erect against his side. Her mouth awaits his kiss.
But then Myla, standing beside them, clears her throat.
The lion springs through the air, bounding off one sleeping buffalo, then another, scattering the herd, and with grunts and a roar the night explodes into action.
Minutes later Will’s back in that tiny room where Myla stands above him on the bed, screaming. Since the rooms at Treetops are jammed together—one can hear a cough from one room to the next—everyone shares in Myla’s rage. You shit, she bellows. Cheater. Fuckhead. When he urges her to quiet down, this energizes her. She screams, oh, that goofy look on your face, you were out there playing blanket bingo in front of everybody, rubbing up against those big bazookas of hers, and in the midst of her ranting Myla steps off the bed onto the nightstand, sending a metal washbowl to the floor. Her voice cracks and she begins to weep, and we’re in this awful place, I cant even call a taxi, and we’re trapped in this dumb marriage, and, oh, the poor children, and he feels trapped, too, for out there in the darkness is the wilderness, nyika, the unmapped and unexplored solitude, the nothingness.
A rented house in Hampstead: temporarily settled.
Their newly teenaged daughter cruises London with her girlfriends from the American School, all of them wearing capes, talking Cat Stevens, Harrod’s, hamburgers and movies. The pensive son learns the guitar, suffers asthma, rides the tube with his scrawny pal and talks to Will about writing while his twin brother bounces balls, dribbles balls, strikes balls and watches televised ball games. Look, see, I revise over and over, Will says about his writing. They crowd beside each other in the study, their knees touching, his sons peppermint breath on his cheek, a ball being thrown against some wall, and they study a page of film script from a project that will soon bring money and embarrassment: a delicate and somewhat experimental short story of Will’s soon to be transformed into an action movie with additional dialogue supplied by the stuntmen.
While Will revises again and again, Myla takes the children to the ballet at Covent Garden, to Windsor Castle, to the orchestra on the Embankment, to paintings by Gainsborough and Constable, to Stonehenge, and by mistake to the Rocky Horror Show. All of them dine at Simpson’s, at Veeraswamy and at a steamy little Chinese cafe in the neighborhood. In Highgate Cemetery they stand before the graves of Karl Marx and the inventor of Bovril. Will takes lunches at Pinewood Studio and on Saturdays escapes to a local pub and to Bernard Stone’s book shop in Kensington. Although her fingers ache with arthritis, Myla takes a weekly ceramics class. They stay busy distracting themselves—often from one another. And they sleep in their flannels, adream in goose down as winter howls around them and as the timbers of the old house creak and sigh.
Are we drifting apart? she wants to know.
It’s just suburbia, he tells her. And money. And this damned film script.
Every four or five days they fumble into one another’s flannels, searching for the old nakedness as the four-poster laments their soft proprieties. They touch with domestic formality, with a sexual courtesy, whispering, yes, please, more of that.
He stays in the bungalow down at the end of the walkway at the Hotel Bel-Air: a fancy address for the summer, bougainvillea, white swans gliding under the wooden bridge, expenses paid by the studio. He’s the California wordsmith, the glib fabricator, yet he can’t find the right combination of words to say to Myla—who won’t talk to him on the phone anyway. The script refuses to talk to him as well, and he suspects that he’ll be the first of at least nine writers on the project. Having behaved wantonly—and with some other Bambi, not the wife of his friend, never—he has come to rest in this luxurious prison, this fortress of the delicate summer, where in his discreet and lonely evenings at the bar he sits at the table behind the stubby palm tree and writes letters to his children. He remembers Myla at age fifteen in her short shorts, at age thirty in the yellow sundress, at age forty in her garland of freckles, naked, as she waded in the shallows of an Ozark trout stream.
Days turn into weeks. He has never felt so sorry for himself.
Then, wearing a white suit and manufacturing a smile, she appears at the door to his bungalow. She’s hungry, she says, and tired of eating alone. As he dresses for dinner he fumbles through an incoherent apology, then as they stroll toward the patio, violins playing, she confesses that she recently slept with her psychiatrist. Under his frantic questioning at dinner she reminds him of the doctor’s name.
The guy with the beard? The Italian? I call him bambino, she responds.
He covers up his sadness with anger. Totally unethical, he asserts. A woman should be able to trust her psychiatrist.
Copulation, she informs him, was just a form of therapy. That’s all it was, he assures her, for me!
They go through the agony of desserts: chocolate mousse for him and peaches flambe for her.
In the bungalow, later, they bathe themselves in white: the lilies at their bedside table, white silk sheets, her white suit thrown aside and the white liquids that oil their senses.
Beyond the big round bed in Malibu the French doors open onto the beach and surf. In these days his face melts away like wax; he takes blood-pressure medicine that cools his desire and watches her freckled skin turn into soft scales.
The children, finished with college, all have loves of their own. Myla and Will stroll the beach recalling the ball games, boyfriends and music recitals, and how on occasion each child seemed to speak in a mysterious poetry.
Will’s books now fill up a shelf: a novel with glowing reviews, another praised, others not. He reads only biographies and visionary works on astrophysics. Meanwhile, Myla makes lists: groceries, favorite movies, proposed holiday sites and even a list of her meager jewelry, items she intends to be distributed to children, grandchildren or friends on the occasion of her death. Also a list of things lost: the Murano goblets, a gold locket, one of the twins’ guitar, the fancy telescope.
In the circular bed they listen to the echoes of the surf in the room as he rubs ointment into her arthritic hands. When she compliments his touch he asks in his best Bogart tone if she wants to make out, and in their mutual massage, then, they reach for the old fever. The coals beneath the skin are slower to ignite, but afterward he holds her as she sleeps, listening to her breath, and he’s overcome by this soft warmth beyond orgasm, this calm, this metamorphosis into permanent afterglow. Then he wonders to himself, okay, will I ever write again and about what, about what?
With an assortment of senior cronies they visit the Great Wall, Buddhist temples, the Forbidden City and China’s terra-cotta warriors, but what impresses them most is a ninety-mile stretch of superhighway, six lanes, built by hand with thousands of workers mixing the cement in wheelbarrows.
In their compartment on the night train to Xian he feels restless and can’t sleep, but Myla grows sick and veers into delirium. He presses his palm against her burning forehead and listens as she talks in her sleep. She believes she’s on the Blue Train heading toward Cape Town or in a movie with Gene Hackman or somewhere in Oklahoma.
The train clings to the side of a mountain as below a dark valley pulls at them. Next morning in the city he devours a cheeseburger for breakfast in the hotel coffee shop, and while she continues to sleep he goes for a long walk. On the grounds of a temple with an ancient pagoda he finds a giant prayer bell. Its hammer is a teakwood log suspended on thick chains, and he pays ten yuan to swing it into the echoing bell. For Myla—always clearheaded and never ill—he prays the first prayer he has uttered in years.
Back at the hotel, amazingly, her fever has broken, and she suggests they might try a little cuddling. When he takes off his clothes and exposes his paunch, she smiles and tells him he has the body of a god.
Lord Buddha, she says. That god.
They join themselves like two expensive antiques: good fittings, a few creaking parts, good workmanship.
A mountainside in the Ozarks: their last house.
He enjoys lunches with his cronies: three reporters, the doctor, the psychologist, the librarian and an occasional visitor referred to as the designated listener. Some of them play golf on the weekends, but although most of them arrived in this place because of the fishing none of them actually go for the trout anymore. As a group they favor the written word, sports and gravy. Their consensus is that good reporting is superior to good or even great fiction. They speak to one another in anecdotes because they know that all ideas are untrue. One night after supper Will gets a headache, and the next morning he can’t remember the names of his pals. He doesn’t mention this to Myla.
Because their sleep turns restless, they sleep in separate bedrooms. In the springtime she goes skiing with their daughter, then comes back to renovate her workshop, where she takes up her old hobby, throwing clay pots.
One morning, shaving, Will notices his drooping eye; it looks as though it might slide down his face.
On a moonless midsummer evening Myla and Will sit outdoors in deck chairs gazing off into space: distant stars, the dark winds, galaxies beyond their vision that they agree they can feel. At death, she muses, their molecules will fly into the cosmos, blown around like so many dandelion particles. Her version of eternity sounds very much like the Grand Tour: visits to faraway constellations, to the great clouds where stars are born and to a view of how the pieces all fit together. Our personal Unified Field Theory, he says, and he somehow believes all of it. He kisses the bent fingers of his priestess. Molecules don’t die, she explains. I’ve been reading about it, she tells him, and they go on living, behaving quite a lot like little bitty brains with minds of their own.
In late November their sons move Will’s bed over by the big window so he can look out on the hills. Father and sons try a few hands of poker, but Will can’t keep up, so they listen to music until darkness comes and they can see their faces—so alike, so different—in the window’s reflection.
That night Myla comes to his bed and holds him in her arms. Tell me about the molecules again, he says.
From what we know, she answers, smiling, certain clusters of molecules attract each other. If you split these molecules up, according to scientists, they manage to find each other again. Some scientists—maybe the more religious ones—believe they get back together again in some sort of consciousness. So do I, she says decisively. I believe that, too.
Maybe some of mine and some of yours, he remarks.
After this the lights go out in Galway, along the Amalfi Coast, on Padre Island, at the Safeway store and in the deepest recesses of molecular memory. The stations of the body fade away: regions of the cortex, the distant toes and the bloody old heart. He can feel her close and detect that soft, soapy odor, the one that filled the blanket on the grass that night long ago on Lake Dallas. Then the new lights begin to appear, faintly at first: the glow of the North Star, faraway Andromeda and the galaxies beyond all imagination.
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