From Retelling

I felt an irritation on my right shoulder and tapped my skin. Something awoke in me. A new sense of awareness overtook me, even as I struggled with the need for clear definitions. Everything turned crisp, colors became more vivid, green became my magic domain. The air hung heavy, hot and steamy, and whatever breeze there was before was now stilled. Microscopic insects flitted about, small ants climbed on the bench. A very round man walked past, puffing on a cigarette. His breath came quick and shallow, and I watched him, thinking: This man is killing himself. Last night, I summoned my courage and played chess with one of the regulars, an old timer who wore a white straw hat. I expected to lose, and I did. Boys and men played here every night, but never a female; as far as I knew it, I was the first. “I haven’t played in years,” I warned the old man, who had invited me to play since all the other players were already engaged in a game. I wasn’t a worthy opponent, and I worried that he would be bored, wasting his time with me. But he didn’t finish me off quite as fast as I thought he would. I even had the sense that I could have beaten him, had I not been so timid and so ready for defeat. These men, who have read all the books, were programmed to play by the rules, which, I thought, should give me an advantage over them, precisely because I didn’t know and didn’t play by the rules. But I couldn’t be sure: for all I knew, they were so far ahead of me, I couldn’t even begin to fathom the distance between us. Most of them were pudgy and carried in their bodies the evidence of a sedentary, long-term marriage. Each of these men, it suddenly struck me, mounted a woman who opened her legs for him. They dropped their pants and mounted their women as a matter of course. Briefly, this thought thrilled me, then I refocused my attention on the board. Every night I listened to their banter and quickly caught on to the technical/military terms they seemed so fond of: “open fire,” “deep penetration,” “block the driveway.” I loved the way they shook their heads, repeating, “problem, problem,” when they saw a threat develop, a threat I didn’t even suspect, and the way they mumbled, “weakness around the King,” or, “take take take,” or, “run run run,” or, “attack attack attack.” When they laughed about something that took place on the board, I joined in the general mirth even though I wasn’t sure what the joke was. “Oh baby, baby, is this a friendly game?” one of the players, a regular, asked rhetorically. “Supposed to be, supposed to be,” the men on the sidelines responded in a chorus, “but don’t listen to advice.” It was the Fourth of July weekend, unbearably hot and humid, and the sunscreen lotion felt sticky on my arms and shoulders. I was sitting in the shade, eating grapes and sipping black coffee: this was a new kind of breakfast for me since summer began. From season to season I re-improvised my diet–that was what aging was all about, I mused: perfecting one’s diet for health and wholesomeness. Alfalfa sprouts and tofu, which were favorites with Elsbeth, now featured regularly on my shopping list. Now that Elsbeth was dead, it was up to me to keep myself in shape. Now that Elsbeth was dead. Consecrated to God, dead at twenty-eight. We had plans for the Fourth of July weekend, we always spent it together, but the plans had died with Elsbeth. Now I, too, feared Death. I’m too young to think about death, I thought, and yet it pursued me, I felt It following my steps, watching me with a thousand eyes. I saw peril and open warfare everywhere, and crossed the street like a much older person would. Even when I had the right of way, I was careful and hesitant: one careless, absent-minded step, and you were gone. Drivers, blinded by rage, didn’t even see you. They were kings of the road, and you, in your smallness, didn’t count for more than a cockroach. We were becoming more and more frantic, frenetic–when and how will it all end? I asked when I witnessed yet another murderous exchange between driver and pedestrian. It was the end of the millennium, and fear and anger, the cheapest commodities, were the common denominator, available to all. How I envied those who went to church every morning! It would be nice, I thought, to start each day with a prayer. Routine, I hoped, would save me, even if Elsbeth despised routine. “My life,” she said, “is a hopscotch variation.” “How so?” I was intrigued. “The lines are drawn, but I avoid the squares.” I nodded, visualizing the image Elsbeth had depicted so vividly. “You’re so whimsical,” I said, and Elsbeth laughed. Elsbeth, who loved alfalfa sprouts in her salads because, she said, they reminded her of little spermatozoa heads. I pulled my hair tight and gathered it into a short ponytail. A sudden breeze shook the trees, bringing temporary relief. Half a year had already gone by, with the usual speed. A woman carrying groceries yelled at her teenage son who walked at her side, his head bowed. In the restaurant, Elsbeth and I were merrily laughing, when Drew pulled a marble out of his pocket and began to roll it back and forth across the table. We stopped laughing and watched the marble, as if mesmerized. It was small and shiny, and it changed colors, from green to blue, from blue to green, as it rolled on the table. How smooth it looks, I thought, wanting to reach for it, but, it belonged to Drew, so I didn’t dare. “What are you doing?” Elsbeth finally asked, and the thought crossed my mind that women, too often, let the man take center stage. Women, I reflected, always sought approval, a means to subdue their male companion. What got Drew so upset that night? Somehow I had missed it, but how was I to know it would be important? The squirrel with the swollen testicles lay on the ground, stretched out on his belly, as if about to expire. I watched him with interest; I’d never noticed a squirrel behaving this way. Perhaps he was trying to cool himself off, or, I thought, he must be diseased. Even his tail, I noted when he wobbled away, was stringy and not as bushy as a normal squirrel’s tail. He was definitely diseased, I thought, suddenly feeling uneasy, even anxious. Emotions coursed through me like meteors. Oh, God, I prayed, please make me calm. The top branches swayed in the warm breeze, leaves rustled noisily. Maybe it’s the heat, I thought. I tried to have my breakfast, putting one grape in my mouth, then another. Plastic bottles were strewn on the grass, evidence of last night’s celebrations. I had watched the fireworks on my small TV, and nervously bit my nails throughout the spectacle. I watched the celebrities, the effervescent stars of the new and recent, parade their toothy, ready-made smiles, as they waved a slender arm at their adoring crowd. Celebrities! Imagining all the fun they surely had, I begrudged them their spotlight, their privileged lifestyles, yet consoled myself with the thought that they had to continually struggle to hold onto their fame, to keep up with what went for success in their circle. And, in the end, they, too, had to go home to their problems. It was all a matter of degree: no life was sheltered, no one was perfectly happy for long. A black man walked by, carrying groceries. A red-bearded man, coming from the other direction, also carried groceries. Today, a day of an extended holiday weekend, men were sent to the store for yet more food. We are a wasteful nation, people said, and went to the store for more packaged foods. A bald-headed man with an earring in his left ear sat down on a bench a few feet away. He took out a pack of Parliaments and lit one. I put on my sunglasses, regretting not having worn my pink shorts. The three fountains in the distance aimed higher and higher, up to the trees, offering a visual cooling effect. My right shin had begun to swell when a mosquito, or some other insect, came in the night and stung me. The infected area was red and warm and hard to the touch, and I worried about poison in my blood. Upon waking, I noticed a disgusting yellow blister at the top of the red mound and I wanted to prick it with a needle, but the revolting prospect of some yellowish substance oozing out from my body stopped me. I worried about poison and was further upset by the thought that such a small event took precedence and festered in my mind. And yet, better that it remain a small event rather than a serious one. Intermittently I worried about the detectives and the investigation, all the while delaying a decision on whether or not I should consult with a lawyer. Certain kinds of decisions, indecisions, clouded my thinking, and even though I repeatedly told myself to be brave, to be patient, to put things in perspective, I kept failing at the task, so the question arose: Who, in fact, was in charge? I touched the blister, sitting like a golden dome atop the mound of corrupted skin, hoping that the poison was now out of my blood and concentrated in the dome of yellow fluid. My gaze shifted and I contemplated my toes, thinking it was time to shave my legs. The guy with the earring was clean-shaven. He ignored me, or seemed to. Maybe he didn’t ignore me, maybe he hadn’t noticed me at all. Life was a series of missed opportunities and aborted attempts. Maybe he was shy, earring and all. I sat in the shade, but here and there bits of sunshine came in through the leaves and pricked my skin. A woman with large, droopy breasts and blue flip-flops strolled by. She seemed calm and self-possessed and she smiled at me. I smiled back, realizing that, absorbed in my thoughts, I often stared at people, and they, assuming I was looking at them, smiled in response. Maybe, I thought, it wasn’t as important as all that to figure things out. Maybe, leaning too close to things distorted my view. The sycamore trees stood still and serene, a fat pigeon with a purple neck waddled over. The heat was unbearable, people moved cautiously, as if dazed by the burden of it all. “Every once in a while,” Elsbeth said, “I have a moment of clarity, I suddenly see and understand it all, deep down to the lightning core at the center. It lasts only a moment but it feels like an eternity, like this is the way we were meant to see and understand the world. But soon it is gone, and all I’m left with are these fleeting moments, a glimpse, before I sink back into drabness. Maybe progress is nothing but a mirage.” I nodded, remembering Gertrude Stein who had said that sugar was not a vegetable, yet I didn’t offer it as a tidbit of enlightened erudition, I was content to just look at Elsbeth’s face. The more I looked, the hungrier I became, unwilling to interrupt the flow of my ruminative gaze. The more I looked, Elsbeth’s features seemed to shift and change. Elsbeth’s features changed and shifted, but the harmony of her face remained steady, reducing me to a hypnotic state. Harmony, I thought, bred intelligence, or was it the other way around? I needed to understand how I loved Elsbeth and what that love meant. Love and loathe, I mused, began the same, then went their divergent ways. No emotions were constant, I reminded myself, but now that she was dead there were no hurdles, I could love her freely. I had known flashes of emotion, moments I was flushed with pure delight. Occasionally, like Elsbeth, I experienced moments of clarity when I felt that a certain profundity was accessible to me, that some fundamental secret would be revealed if I concentrated long enough. But as soon as I began to grope for formulations to capture whatever I thought I understood, the feeling vanished, and I concluded that such flashes of profound understanding were purely mechanical, caused by certain, perhaps accidental, synaptic clashes. Profundity, I recalled reading somewhere, never clarified the world, but clarity looked more profoundly into its depths.

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