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I read the Iliad once a year, and every time I do, Hector dies at the end and Achilles in an act of compassion gives the Trojan hero’s body to his grieving father. 

And every time I read Moby Dick, Ahab dies tangled in rope to the whale, and the beast sinks the Pequod. Likewise, the Maltese Falcon always turns out to be lead, and Dorothy always returns to Kansas.

These are stories and they have beginnings, middles and ends. We may know that Achilles is destined for an early death, even though it is not in the Iliad, and we may wonder if Ishmael ever gets on another boat or Brigid O’Shaughnessy hangs by that pretty neck of hers or spends 20 years in Tehachapi, or if Dorothy ever gets a Ph.D. or lives to bear children to a dunce. But all this is outside the knowledge of these stories. 

There is self-containment in a story, even one with sequels, in which each sequel is its own story, with its own beginning, middle and end. There is a front cover to the book, and a back cover, and when we close it over, we put the book back on the shelf. 

This seems to work for books about history, too. We know that Cornwallis will surrender at Yorktown and that Lee will surrender at Appomattox. When we read about Abraham Lincoln, we know his story ends at Ford’s Theater. 

Napoleon ends in Moscow, at Waterloo, or St. Helena, depending on the focus of the history book. Hitler will lose the war and the Berlin Wall will come down. No matter how many times we turn the pages, the end is always the same. We know it even before we start. 

So history seems to be constructed of discrete bits, sewn together. Each with a beginning, middle and end. Alexander will die in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the Middle Ages will come to an end in the Renaissance. 

So, when we read about Neville Chamberlain, we know he was a failure because we know what happened after Munich. We know in advance that Communism fails and that computers didn’t go all cattywampus after Jan. 1, 2000. 

It is seldom we acknowledge, even if it is obvious, that Washington didn’t know that he would win the battle, that Lincoln didn’t know he wouldn’t return from Our American Cousin, or that anyone living in AD 800 didn’t know they were living in the Middle Ages. Middle of what? They were modern at the time.

We get a false sense of the world when we look at history as a story. One thing follows another in consequence and bingo, Napoleon comes to the end we always knew he would come to. 

History as it happens isn’t history. It is simply the now of back then. Its participants are just as ignorant of the outcome as we are of what will happen in Syria or North Korea. Or the legacy of Trumpism. Eisenhower didn’t know that D-Day would work; Oppenheimer didn’t know if the plutonium bomb would actually explode; Neil Armstrong didn’t know if he would ever get back from the moon. It is all contingent. 

History is not a story. It is a flowing chaos, a million-billion strands floating out into the ether and gathering in unanticipated knots. You might as well stand at the banks of a river and ask, “Where did that water start, where does it end.” 

So, we don’t know where our future is going, where those knots will form. Only afterwards do we go back, pick out the bits that make sense to us at the moment and weave a story out of them, creating coherence where there never was any. Doughboys never called their fight World War I. They had no idea that their suffering was only prelude to a sequel. World War II was the “Good War.” World War I was “the War to End All Wars.” These are tales we tell to ourselves as if we were our own children. 

A story is a pattern. We may call it plot, or timeline, but in essence, a story is designed to fulfill our innate desire for pattern. In fiction, that pattern is engineered from the episodes the author invents. In history, it is created by simplifying the complexity so that we can impose the same sort of pattern we are used to in a story. 

Different eras find different patterns in the evidence, and so history is constantly rewritten to the specifications of a certain time and place. The old guard cries foul and calls this re-organization of data “revisionism,” but history will always be pushed and pulled like clay, into whatever form is needed for the day. 

So, Napoleon was a great man, a monster, an exemplum, or, like Tolstoy claims, an irrelevance. Which was the real Bonaparte? They are each a story fabricated from bits, like a Frankenstein reanimation. 

Reality offers an infinity of possibility and for mere comprehension, we cut and prune to make the whole digestible. To make it a story. 

For years I was a journalist, and I cringed at the idea that what I was writing were newspaper “stories.” Reporters are trained to make the news comprehensible by making them stories: beginning, middle, end. The truth is always muddier, always messier. 

There seems to be a biological need for stories, or why would we keep writing them, writing fictions we know are not literally true, but reinforce the patterns we know. A story is a theater of shadow puppets. 

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Panta Horein:” Everything changes, or everything flows, depending on your translation. A story petrifies that flow into a single unmoving image, which always distorts the cascading reality. 

The committee of gods met once again. They decided to make something.

“It’s been a long time,” they said.

It’s something they do every once in a while, or every once in an aeon. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. They began again.

They made a person, two arms, two legs, hands and feet, and as an afterthought, a head.

But something wasn’t satisfying about this new thing they made. Or rather, the new thing wasn’t satisfied. It sat in the middle of nothing, nowhere to put its feet. Nowhere to look, nothing to hear. Nothing to eat.

Then they decided this thing was not enough, so teased the creation into two, pulling here and there until there were separate beings. The pulling distorted their bodies here and there, making one with wider hips, and leaving something pulled long and dangly between the other’s legs.

Half of them thought this was just fine; the other half recognized that even that now there were two things, they had no context. They just sort of floated there.

So, the committee decided they would have to work harder. They built a cube for the beings, with four walls, ceiling and floor, so they had somewhere to put their feet, and something to look at. There was a window in one wall, and a door in the wall opposite.

But, still, there was nothing outside the window to see, and nothing to eat. The room just floated in space, no up, no down, no sideways.

The gods hardly noticed this detail, but they did decide to provide something to look at out the window, So, the committee approved a motion to make some animals and some plants. This seemed to work well, so they made more and more of both.

The problem seemed to be that although the plants and beasts gave the people something outside the window to look at, and, if they had figured out how, something to eat, there was still something inchoate about this new creation.

“The last one didn’t work out quite right,” the committee agreed, “so we need to think this one out more thoroughly.” A motion for further study was passed and a subcommittee formed.

Having the beasts float aimlessly through nothingness gave them nothing to stand on, and while a floating cow might pass some floating grass and grab a bite, it was hardly working out efficiently.

“I think they need somewhere to stand,” said the chairman.

“I second the motion,” said the CEO (actually, in heavenly terms, the DEO), who was the first goddess hired for the post.

And so, they decided to make a world. It seems obvious to us, but when it’s all brand new, you don’t always spot the simplest things. So, they made a world.

There were problems, however. The first world was flat, which made a large plain for the animals to graze upon, but also meant that, without something to support the flat earth, it could easily tilt and dump its cargo back into the emptiness. So, they rested the disc of the earth on the back of an elephant. But with only one as a pivot in the center, the world still wobbled. So, they made four elephants, one at each 90 degrees of the clock-circle of the disc. Oh, the problems — the elephants were then given a very large turtle to stand upon. You know the metaphysical problem here, and yes, it was turtles all the way down.

Next, the committee decided to separate the dry land from the waters. This led to a cock-up, because with the earth being flat and all, the water just poured off the edges, leaving the earth with nothing to drink.

“Perhaps if we put a ring around the edge,” said one.

“Like a dike or a dam,” said the CEO.

So they took some of the dry earth and built a circular berm around the perimeter of the thing they had made. They refilled the seas and took a long look at what they had made. It looked good, so far. Good for a day’s work.

“We’ll convene again tomorrow.”

The next day, they looked at what they had made.

“But, it is all rather dark, isn’t it?” So they put a light up above the earth. They didn’t quite think this one through, though. The center of the earth was closer to the light than the edges, like a chandelier over a table, and so, the center began to whither and burn up.

“We’ve got the geometry all wrong,” said the DEO.

“Wait, I know,” said the gruff head of the Board, shifting a cigar in his mouth, “We’ve got the geometry all wrong.”

“That’s what I said. Oh, never mind.”

So, they took the earth and balled it up like a tablecloth headed for the laundry, and created a globe. To keep everything from falling off, they put a great graviton at its center, and made everything cling to the surface of the ball.

“That seems to be working,” they said. “But what do we do with this lamp? And how do we keep it from burning the part of the earth closest to it?”

“I know. Let’s make the ball spin, so no part is always facing the light.”

“Brilliant!”

But someone accidentally bumped the ball and sent it rolling away.

“Put some of that gravity in the light, too.” And so the rolling, spinning ball started to revolve around the light. It made a pretty sort of machine that delighted the board members.

The problem now was, that the man and woman, in the room on the planet buzzing around the sun sat in the middle of nowhere, a simple toy for the gods, like the giant pecking bird that dipped its beak into the water they made some aeons ago, or the hanging steel balls that knocked each other back and forth. That was Vulcan’s idea, and they ultimately decided it was utterly useless.

So, they began to pack the emptiness. If one ball was good, a handful of others must be better. Toss in some smaller rocks, like chocolate sprinkles, and let them wander around the big light.

They saw it was good and knocked off for the day. The next two days were the weekend, so the office was dark.

But come Monday, they began to dot the emptiness with more lights, enough to make a galaxy. That was fun, so they made more galaxies, making sure to load them all up with the magic gravity. This was exhausting, so they took the next day off, too.

Come Wednesday, it began to dawn on them that the operational manual for this new cosmos they had built was getting rather long, like a Congressional budget bill. There were rather a lot of rules governing how everything functioned. While it seemed to be running like a top, they worried that if anything went wrong, they might not be able to fix it.

“I remember when I had a VW,” said Phaethon. “I could fix anything wrong with a hammer and a screwdriver. This is all getting out of hand. I miss the good old days.”

Well, things did start going wrong. The first man developed an enlarged prostate; the woman eventually had to have a hysterectomy. The gods had to admit, they had rather botched the design of the human nether parts.

One of the planets they made sideswiped the earth and ripped off a chunk.

“Hey, we’ve got a moon. Why didn’t we think of that ourselves?”

Gravity got out of hand, too. Chunks began falling into each other, sometimes so much detritus that it all collapsed into a dark hole.

“Hey, we’ve created black,” said one of the gods.

“We had that before we started,” reminded the DEO.

“Oh, yeah.”

The whole thing began wobbling, like an elephant on a beach ball that had lost its balance and next thing you know, it seized up. No amount of grease could get it unstuck. Then, it began collapsing, faster and faster, until it shrunk into a singularity — an infinitesimal dot, like the one you used to see when you turned off the TV. Then, boink, it was gone.

“Damn it,” said the god at the far end of the conference table. “Why can’t we ever get this right?”

“I blame the Titans,” said Jupiter. “The previous administration should have addressed these issues more forthrightly.”

“The shareholders will not be happy,” said Neptune. “I believe we need a change at the top. I move that the DEO resign.”

She resisted this suggestion, saying it was all a design flaw.

“We started at the wrong end,” she said. “We went about it all backwards.”

“I have an idea,” offered a nervous intern, afraid to speak up in such august company. “Perhaps next time, in the beginning, we should start by creating the heavens and the earth. The rest should fall into place.”

The gods looked at each other, gave a passing thought and in one voice responded, “Nah.”

robert

lobstersDo lobsters have personalities? Sure, some of them are bigger, some greener, some more overgrown with algae. But are they individuals? Do they see each other as individuals? And if you discovered depictions of them in some newly found underwater cave, would you think of them as people? Or would they be like so many crustaceans crawling over themselves in the tank of a lobby of a seafood restaurant?

This, in essence, was the question facing the aliens who finally managed to land on the planet Earth, some undetermined time in the far future, when the human beings who invented calendars were long gone in some cataclysm also undetermined, and the world inherited by some evolutionary development of insects, now turned warm blooded, and with some convergent evolutionary change that gave them something very like feathers and who communicated on very high levels with each other by the deposition of various foul- or fair-smelling gels on the substrate upon which they traveled, left there for the next to sense with antennae turned prehensile.

For these aliens found the ruins of our cities, overgrown with vines, with trees buckling the crumble of ancient paved streets where these feathered insects scrambled. Among the detritus, they also found statues and paintings of some unknown species of biped. We would know them as Titians and Caravaggios, Donatellos and Berninis, for the aliens landed in the region just north of the Apennines in the boot-shaped peninsula where their earlier robotic spacecraft had told them was a good spot to land, with flat surfaces and interesting geology nearby. And when they scraped away the encrustations that had built up on the paintings, and stared on them blankly, for certain they looked upon these creatures depicted as some form of lobster. Do these pasty, white morphs have personalities? They crawl over each other in a Rubens painting like so many crabs in a bucket. What are these aliens to make of this extinct species?

rubens

And did Goya or Vermeer foresee their work outlasting humankind to be discovered by uncomprehending eyes who paw over them like so many cobbles on a stony beach? What immortality did those painters think they were gaining, when the work remains, but the meaning has evaporated?

When we uncover the buildings of Pompeii, we recognize that they were constructed by people like us, with the same interests and drives, commercial, erotic, ambitious and civic. Through all of hominid history, back to the first tool-making pre-humans, we recognize mon frere, mon semblable.

But these aliens, coming upon the ruins of architecture do not see them as picturesque, like the paintings of a Hubert Robert, but rather like the bleached coral of a reef killed off in acidic seas. The buildings might as well be ant-hills left by a colony of pismires. The roads they find, broken by vines and weeds, are mere cobwebs. The square rooms under tumbled down roofs no different from the hexagonal cells of a honeybee comb. They look, presuming the aliens have something analogous to eyes, and they see design, they see intention, but they do not see us.

We might break out in some kind of premonitory indignation, thinking of how misunderstood we shall be in the future that shoves out beyond us, beyond where we will not exist. Instead, these aliens want to know if these feathery insects that crawl over the ruins are edible.

 

mackerel sky   PART FIVE: THEORY OF RELATIVITY

1.

It was Thanksgiving and Stuart and Genevieve were fixing a big dinner.

Outside, it was a Maine November, dry and crisp but not yet cold. The fallen maple leaves textured the ground at the base of the trees. There was a mackerel sky.

Bernard was there with his wife. Stuart’s younger brother was there, too. Mitch came in from New Jersey with his new lady friend. Bernard’s two children had come, also. Both now grown and Liz had her own children. She came with her best friend, Dell. Jason came with his girlfriend. They all drove in from Allentown. Stuart’s father sat in the corner; he barely moved all day, taking in the scene — probably. It’s hard to know. Bernard and Ellen had picked him up on the way.

It was full house. Mia hadn’t shown up yet.

Bernard: “So, little brother, how’s life treating you?”

Mitch: “Just fine.”

In Stuart’s family, this counted as an extended conversation.

Liz: “Dell, can you take the brussels sprouts off the burner? I have to mix the Jell-O.”

Dell: “Which are the brussels sprouts? I’ve never had brussels sprouts.”

Pots were steaming, with rutabagas, potatoes, brussels sprouts and green beans. In the oven were the turkey and two pans of oyster stuffing. The gravy was yet to be made. That was Stuart’s job. He was the gravy man.

Mitch: “Hey, you’ve got Coltrane here.”coltrane

He was flipping through the CD collection.

Mitch: “A Love Supreme. Geez, what music.”

Stuart: “Put it on if you want.”

Thanksgiving was the only holiday Stuart enjoyed. The others seemed like obligations, but Thanksgiving seemed like a warm, humid, cozy indoors played against a cold, dry outdoors: You could feel it when you touched the window.

There was a brief discussion, as Bernie wanted to watch the game, but Mitch wanted to play Coltrane. They compromised and watched silent football with a jazz soundtrack.

Stuart: “Now that’s what I love about Thanksgiving.”

Meanwhile the grandkids were pinging and buzzing their Gameboys. The women gravitated to the kitchen. Mitch’s girl, Jerri, came in to help.

Jerri: “Pie!”

Liz: “Pumpkin”

Dell: “Cherry.”

In the living room, Mitch and Jason had taken to comparing political theory. Uncle Mitch was a Democrat; Jason was a Republican. It is one of the anomalies of history that as the millennium winds down, it should be the younger generation who turn conservative. It is as if time were out of joint.

Mitch: “Yeah? What do you know? You’re just a kid.”

Jason: “Well, I know Bush is going to trounce Gore.”reagan-bonzo-in-bed-time-for-bonzo

Mitch: “God help us. We’ll have gone from Reagan to Bonzo.”

Politics brings out the analytic elegance in people.

The doorbell rang and Stuart opened the door. Mia came from the bright blue sunny outdoors to the dark, warm inside, thick with the scent of turkey, dressing and nutmeg and cloves. With her came Michael. Yes, they were still together, 10 years later.

Mia: “Everyone, this is Michael.” Mia went around the room introducing everyone and they all shook hands.

Dinner was a feast; everyone ate till their bellies hurt. Conversation was warm, funny, by turns nostalgic.

To Mia, this was family, even if she wasn’t related by blood to any of them. She knew many of them well — Stuart and Genevieve might as well have been family; Bernie and Ellen; even Mitch, although she had never met Jerri. Others were more peripheral, but Mia knew which was which, for the most part. It was hard, though, to tell the twins apart at that age.

With the meal packed solidly in their collective guts, like sausages stuffed into their casings, the evening wore on. The women put up the leftovers. Stuart told them to leave the pots and dishes; he would get them in the morning. The men sat on the sofa; Mitch’s head was cocked back and a slow stertorous snore echoed in his gullet. Stuart began to talk about ancient Egypt.

“Not now,” Genevieve said, heading him off. It was not bossy, but teasing. He stopped.

After dessert and coffee, when the evening wore down, Bernie and family, along with dear old dad, left for the motel. A pile of others found a place in the guest room or on the sofa, wrapped in a down comforter.

2

Mia and Stuart stayed up late.

“Gen is great,” she said. “But you realize, don’t you, that you have been with her for more than a decade. You are breaking precedent.”

“Well, yes. But I have gotten old. It isn’t as easy to wander aimlessly. And we get to travel a lot, as she gets gigs all over. Spent most of the summer up in Hancock for the Monteux Festival. She got to play the Shostakovich sonata. It was great.”

“She’s a steady presence,” Mia said. “I can’t tell whether Michael is a steady presence for me, or if I’m the steady presence for him.”

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe not.”Dirty dishes

They stood over the kitchen sink, piled with dishes. Stuart had his arms up to the elbows in suds.

“Let me tell you about my first official marriage. Before I married your mother.

“I was unfaithful to my first ex-wife before we were married. I loved Ruth, although she drove me nuts. She was always worried about things like window curtains and insurance. She wanted kids; I wanted to continue being able to sleep late for the next 18 years and I knew that her plan would have made that impossible.

“But Ruth was really a great woman. She was beautiful. Had great eyes. And she was smart as hell. Maybe a little skinny. But there was this conventional side to her. In my lovesickness for Ruth, I pretended I didn’t see that, or at least pretended that it didn’t matter. She insisted we wait till marriage. I was so smitten, I didn’t even question that.

“Oh, but there was Helen. This was a different Helen. She wrote poetry. It wasn’t bad poetry, considering we were all just sophomores in college. Helen was not a beginner at love. In fact, she was the ‘college widow,’ as Groucho Marx might call it. A completely free spirit. I fell hard; Helen admitted me to the inner circle — so’s to speak — inner circle: I’ve never heard it called that before —  as one of many admirers.

“You should have seen me. I panted like a puppydog, waiting to be patted on the head. Helen and I hitchhiked one week to the coast and spent the nights sleeping in the sand. We made love in the dunes, in full sight of anyone. A fisherman in a passing boat waved to us.

“We left love stains all over campus. Our favorite was a practice room in the music building, and boy, we got lots of practice.”

“Yes, I remember you told me about the Organ Room on campus.”

“At night, it was unlocked for some reason, and we snuck in.

“Oh, but there was Ruth. And I loved Ruth, too. I didn’t know what I wanted. Sensible Ruth or crazy, passionate Helen? Should I go with the sensible choice or should I go with my gonads? Thrill or stability?

“I knew I was not terribly stable, that I was not really a fully mature human being, that I was flamboyant in my irresponsibility, and so I finally decided that I needed Ruth for balance. I did the sensible thing; we got married. I learned my lesson: Never do the sensible thing again.

“I made life miserable for her and without trying, she made it miserable for me. Years later, friends told me they knew it wouldn’t last and I wanted to slap them — Why didn’t you say anything then? But I also knew it wouldn’t have made any difference if they did.”

Mia looked confused.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “Isn’t this what you’re doing right now, with Gen? Aren’t you making the ‘sensible’ choice all over again?”

“Of course,” Stuart admitted. “Of course, I’m doing the same thing all over again. I’m a lot older now, so it’s different.”

“Different?”

“Well, maybe it’s not different. As you get older it isn’t so much you get wiser in the sense that you make better choices, but that you get wiser in that you recognize the fact that you’re never going to get any smarter and you’ll always do the same stupid thing.”

“That’s wisdom?”

“I dunno. Maybe.”

“That’s depressing.”

“No, not really. It’s liberating. That’s the thing about getting older. All the stuff that used to drive you nuts, you let go of. It no longer matters.”

“So, it’s OK to be comfortable in a relationship? Without fireworks?”

“Violas seldom break out in fireworks,” he said. “But I’m happy.”

“But you said it was a mistake.”

“Did I?”

3.

I’m coming out of my duck blind for the last time. I just turned 40; I got tenure. I published a book last year — a new translation — or retelling, really — of Ovid for children. I’ve been living with Michael for about as long as Stuart has lived with Genevieve. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to compare my life with his, but there is no one I’ve known as long or as closely as I’ve known Stuart. He is the only touchstone I have.

This has been a strangely skewed memoir — I have left out so much: my career at the university, several relationships that went nowhere, the whole world of Greek and Roman letters that are so central to my life — because I wanted to focus on this single aspect of my life that has been so muddled. Family. What is it, why is it, does it need to be?

When my dad died, it hit me in a way I didn’t foresee. I always thought of Stuart as my father; he’s the one who was there when I was a little girl, and he has remained there through my life in a way Dan never did. Yet, I felt so odd when I went to visit Dan in the hospital. I saw something in him — gesture, voice — that caught me unawares: They were mine, too. Dan had tried to tell me about it, but I didn’t have ears to hear, or to pay attention. He was dying, after all. Other things seemed more important.

It was the day after that Thanksgiving, when I talked with Stuart’s brother, Bernie, that he brought it all together for me. Stuart and Ellen went to the kitchen to finish cleaning up what we hadn’t washed the night before, and Gen was in her study practicing. The dulcet tones of the viola filled the house like dinner had the night before. Bernie and I sat in the front room and talked.

4.

“What do you think about family? Why is it important? Stuart always says his friends are his family — except for you, he says. You are more friend than family, he says.”

Bernie had bad knees, and sat on the sofa. His hair was mostly gone and his mouth had settled, the way they do as you get older: Younger mouths show off the upper teeth; aged mouths show the lowers.

“I take your point,” he said. “Families can be quite a burden. We have to take care of dear old dad, for instance. He’s barely there anymore. But I have the example of my wife.

“You’ve been with her a long time.”

“Thirty years …”

“Can’t fathom that. Mind you, Ellen’s great. You hit the lottery, as it were.”

“Ellen has a take on family I’d never really considered,” he said. “Family is something different for her. For her, it is where she came from.”

“You mean, like genealogy?”

“Sort of, but she isn’t so much into the family tree as such, or into whether or not she has a coat-of-arms, but rather, that she is made up of the hand-me-downs, genetically, of the ancestors, the piling up of character — of meaning — that has concentrated in her. Her family is her roots, deep in the ground, and she is connected to them as literally as the tree is to the root ball, all of a piece.Great grandmother

“She sees her hair in her grandmother’s hair, her jawline in her father’s, her love of nature — and, I might add, her stubbornness — in her grandfather. She grew up with her great-grandmother in the house, who was a Civil-War widow, and sees history not in paragraphs on a page in a book, but in her wrinkly skin. She wants to know how her great grandfather came to live in North Carolina, whether he is Scots-Irish, why they eat collards or sing certain hymns as opposed to others. Obviously, this is not all genetic. A good deal is cultural, but I don’t think Ellen makes that much distinction: It is all roots, all the long line of ancestors, which, for her, go back — and I’m not kidding — to Adam and Eve, or whoever you want to pick as the ur-progenitors. Her interest in cave men is part of the same thing. She calls it ‘the long man,’ the person drawn from one generation to the next the same way a plant goes to flower, a flower to seed, a seed to seedling, to plant, to flower, to seed and so on in a continuous recreation of the same life — the same DNA shuffled around — of which she is merely the latest flowering. Or the antepenultimate: She has now sprouted a daughter, and that daughter twin granddaughters. So now Ellen  can see she isn’t the end of a long line of ancestry, but only one link in a continuity.

“Thus, family for her isn’t simply the people who she shares Thanksgiving dinner with, as if they were all discrete entities, but rather as if they were the acorns hanging on the same oak tree, in a sense, a single person with multiple incarnations. At Thanksgiving, even if she is alone, she is having dinner with all of them.”

“Well, that is Ellen, through and through, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and it has made me think differently about family. I share your sense of relatives as something you’d rather not have to spend time with. I have chosen my own ‘family’ of friends, who mean a great deal to me. But I also have come to see the ‘mystic bonds’ of family — again, not as a question of whether I want to spend time with them. I don’t, really. But rather as a continuation of a process.

“Looked at another way, I am a bit of my parents planted in the future to grow, and to plant my children there in the future that extends beyond my harvesting.

“I had the oddest experience a few years ago. Did I ever tell you about it? You know, before Ellen, I was married and divorced. We had a son. When we split up, she took our son and I didn’t see him for something like 30 years.”

“I didn’t know.”

Mia was surprised. Bernie always seemed so rock solid. How could he have not seen his son for so long?

“I was young and a prat,” he explained. “So I moved on without much thought of it. Most men are prats when they are young; I was no exception.

“But a few years ago, I got a phone call and on the other end a voice said, “Are you my father?” It was my son. I had not seen or had any contact with him for 30 years.

“Well, Ellen and I went to Austin, Texas, where he was living and we met him and the shock was palpable: He looked exactly like I did when I was his age. Not just in physiognomy, but he wore the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses, the same plaid shirts, the same long hair I had back then. It was uncanny. He was living with a woman who came from the same county in North Carolina that Ellen came from. His house was a mess of books and CDs and DVDs. He worked, at the time, in a used bookstore and was in charge of the classics section and the poetry section. His favorite literature was the classics. The resemblance was uncanny.

“I had always assumed that in the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ controversy, that nurture was by far the more important. We were raised at a time when we thought, ‘It’s all cultural.’ But here was evidence in front of me that perhaps it wasn’t all cultural. Perhaps DNA ruled not only the shape of our noses, but the preference we might have for Manhattan or New England clam chowder.globe

“The real clincher came when we walked through his office at the back of his house and there, on the top of a bookshelf, he had a world globe with the ball taken off, turned upside down with Antarctica now at the top, and replaced. I laughed. Back home, on top of my bookshelf in my office was a world globe that I had reversed to put Antarctica on the top. It was almost scary. How many people have done that with their globes? What are the chances that father and son, with no interaction for three decades, would each do the same peculiar thing?”

“So, you’re saying then, that as opposed to the question of whether you choose family or friends, that the question is basically irrelevant: That family is who you are, that ancestry defines your nature and you have family to thank or blame for it.”

“I remember having this discussion many years ago with a colleague. We had both grown up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. We shared a good deal of nurture and could understand many of the same cultural references. But he was from an Italian family and I was from a Norwegian family. Despite how much we shared, he had a preference for Fellini films and I had a preference for Bergman.

“Not that I couldn’t appreciate Fellini — I do — but that deep in my bones, I knew the Bergman world; it was my interior world. While the Fellini was tremendous, but exterior to me. There is something in my genes that responds in a family way to the world of Bergman that Fellini doesn’t hit. But it was the reverse for my colleague. Italian genes felt at home in Fellini.

“In the old days, I would have chalked it all up to culture: He grew up in an Italian family and so the folk ways would have felt familiar. But now, I think — it’s only tentative, of course — but I think perhaps it may be something genetic. This may be the collective unconscious that Jung wrote about. The pile of chromosomal tendencies, tastes, judgments, behaviors, that have been reinforced over the generations by the distillation and concentration of DNA.

“I’m sure that upbringing and culture plays a part, no doubt, but I now think that there may be something inherent, that if I had been adopted by an Italian family, I would still feel more at home in Bergman. Not provable in my case, perhaps, but I think plausible.”

“So, I think you are saying, that you are inevitable in terms of family as you are in terms of history, that you may not like the times in which you are born, but you simply have no choice in the matter, and that all those relatives who bore you on holidays are just the titrations of chromosomes and you are thus embedded in your family like raisins in a muffin. No choice. Just is.”

“Yes.”

“Still don’t want them over for dinner.”

ceiling 2

PART FOUR: JE NE C’EST QUOI

1

Two people sat in the front room; they obviously had never met before. He was about 60 years old, with a full head of gray hair, brushed back neatly. She was several years younger, but with a shock of white in her forelock, giving her a kind of Susan Sontag look. Their respective others were in the next room talking seriously. Their respective others used to be married to each other. It was late afternoon and no one had turned on the lights. All color in the room was grayed out.

“Portland,” said gray hair to forelock.

“Me, too,” she said in an accent that implied “Moi, aussi.”

“Oregon,” he said.

“Maine,” she said.

It was awkward. They had all flown in from their respective corners of the map to see Mia for the holidays. And now Esther and Stuart were in the bedroom with Mia. She had something important to tell them.

“I heard from Dan,” Mia said. “He’s dying. Lung cancer.”

“He never smoked,” Esther said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I know,” Mia said. “But it’s far gone. He’s asked me to come.”

“Back to Poughkeepsie?”

“Yeah.”

Esther now lived in Oregon with gray-haired Roger. They had been married for a decade and it seemed to have taken. She didn’t expect to find any more Waynes or Bobs or Eds — or Stuarts. He was a good man, and he suffered patiently while Esther discussed her first husband with her second husband in the next room. Current husbands must face the closed door of their wive’s previous lives. But not a closed door, one left just enough ajar to let him know there will always be a portion of his mate’s life that will be strange to him, even as it remains vital to her. He hears the stories, but they are like fictions read in books. Esther’s life with Dan, her later marriage to Stuart and her briefer liaisons have formed the woman he inherited, and he was grown up enough to know he must not be jealous of those earlier men, but grateful to them for creating the woman he now loved. But still. It can be hard to live with all those shadows on the bedroom wall.

Mia didn’t see her mother all that much anymore, now that Esther had moved to Oregon. But the holidays gave them an excuse to travel back east to Morgantown, where Mia now had her Ph.D. and was a novice instructor teaching classical literature in translation, first-year Latin and the mythology course that was her great pleasure.

Stuart also lived in Portland, but Maine, not Oregon.

“I may be an old hippie, but I’ve aged out of Portlandia,” he told me. “I’m more Whole Earth Catalog than I am fair-trade coffee.”

He was now living with a viola player who teaches and plays part-time with the Portland Symphony. “I’m learning to listen to the middle of the music,” he said. “I’m ignoring the tunes and the bass and hearing the filler. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to listen to a viola part in a symphony? It takes great ears.”

She was the other sitting in the front room with Roger. Her name was Genevieve.

“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart. “Je ne vieve pas,” he punned. “Je ne c’est quoi.” She was born in Belgium and took the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French.

This was the undercurrent as Mia explained to Esther and Stuart about the cancer that had appeared out of their shared past. Stuart stood in the corner He was never good at real stuff. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“So, should I go?” she asked. “I think I should.”

Esther took Mia’s hand; Mia sat on the bed next to her. They hugged.
To fill in: Dan was alone in the world. He had no living relatives other than his daughter, and had been something of a hermit for many years, moving back and forth from the job to the house and back. It was believed there were cats. Mia had not seen him in years, and what contact they had was awkward.

“Can you take me?” she asked Stuart.

“Me?”

“I need support.”

2.

In the front room, Roger waited for the confab to conclude.

“Mia’s rather quiet,” he said. “Isn’t she?”

“Well, she keeps her own council.”

“I’ve tried to talk to her, but it’s like pulling teeth,” he said.

“She is maybe a little withdrawn,” said the French accent. I mean, Belgian.

“Not like Stuart,” he said. “He talks a lot.” He tried to be neutral about it.

“It is true,” she said. “He won’t shut up. But that is why I like him. He is … inextinguishable.” She said the word slowly, with no syllable accented. Was she thinking of the Nielsen symphony?

“How long have you been together?”

“A long time, I think. Maybe eight, nine months.”

“Can you take it?” Roger was letting his tact slip.

“We shall see.”

December 01
3.

Sometime here, we will have to admit that Mia was not a normal woman, had not been a normal girl. Her mother was voluble, friendly, chatty, even. Moved easily from man to man in her earlier days. There was a brightness to her that lit a room and attracted many a keen suitor. But Mia inherited none of that; rather, she had her father’s melancholy — at least that’s the old word for it. It probably didn’t rise to the diagnosis of depression, but it edged the border. Mia took few chances in life, let it flow around her, accepted what came her way, but seldom took the initiative. She kept to herself, found building relationships difficult, but in return, felt a kind of quiet satisfaction in those little things that floated her way. She would never have called herself unhappy, but there was not a great deal of effusive joy in her bearing, either.

In a way, Stuart provided that effusion for her, and she enjoyed his silliness. He had enough for both of them.

And so, they drove from Morgantown to Poughkeepsie, a December thaw left clods of melting snow hung on the trees higher up on the hills. The roads were all clear, but often still wet, even in the sunshine.

“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.” His arm crossed the steering wheel with his left hand at the 2 o’clock position, he leaned in to Mia riding shotgun.

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

Mia watched Pennsylvania out the window pass by, hoping to stop soon for lunch.

“You mean,” she said, “like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” she said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”

“Of course,” he said, “that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about the ozone or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about.”

Stuart had no humility about bringing up the Greeks to the classical scholar sitting next to him.

“They had a peculiar relation to their language,” he went on. “They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”

Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal, linguistic forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” Mia said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is full of such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or tickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”

Stuart: “My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

He went on. “Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.”

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?” she said.

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water,” he said. “This language-reality dilemma is never gone.

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”

He was thinking about his copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, which divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’

“A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

“I have another good example,” she said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those now being ethnically cleansed in Bosnia? So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”

“Bingo,” he said. “It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

She was talking about Genevieve.

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century,” she said. “Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”

“Exactamente. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”

Mia had her own example, thinking of life in academia and faculty meetings.

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, now we have department chairmen, academic deans, provosts. We still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn.

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

When they reached the Tappan Zee Bridge, it was hard to know if their exhaustion was from the long drive or the conversation.

poughkeepsie 3
4.

When they got there, it was worse than she had thought. Dan was in bed with tubes in his nose and an IV plugged into his forearm. His eyes were dark, as if he had on eyeshadow, and his cheeks were scoured out; his skin was sallow. He barely spoke above a wheeze.

Stuart waited at the hotel while Mia went to visit.

“I’m going to die,” Dan said. Slowly, very slowly, one word squeezed out at a time before gathering wind to say the next. “You are the only person …” He waited to finish his thought while sucking air. “…” He didn’t finish his thought, hoping Mia would finish it for him.

Dan had spent the three months in hospice, but a turn for the worse had landed him back in the hospital. Mia held his hand; she didn’t know what else to do. Dan closed his eyes and slept. Mia sat there for a half hour, watching the sunlight on the bare trees out the window. Then she got up to leave the room. A nurse came to her with a clipboard.

“There are some forms to sign,” she said.

Mia growled her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

She hadn’t expected anything official; she was just there to see her father.

“You are next of kin,” the nurse said.

“What about …’ Mia realized that an ex-wife didn’t count. All of Dan’s blood family was gone. She was all there was. She signed whatever she needed to and went back to the hotel.

“It’s bad,” she said to Stuart. “He’s barely able to speak.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“I signed a bunch of papers.”

“I mean, anything to help?”

The air was crisp, the sun was sharp, the day seemed at odds with Mia’s mood. They went to the hotel cafe for dinner.

Motel 1

5.

The next morning, when they went back to the hospital, a different nurse, this one much taller and older, met them with the news that Dan had sunk into a coma and was not expected to come out of it.

“We need to know your wishes,” she said.

“My wishes?” Mia frowned. She didn’t think her wishes were important. “What can we do for him?” she asked.

“I mean, at this stage, we are only keeping him alive with feeding tubes and a respirator. We need to know if it is your wish to continue life support or should we let him go.”

This is not a decision anyone should have to make. Mia certainly didn’t think she should have to make it. She barely knew the man; it was only an accident of DNA that she was being asked to make this choice. For the first time, she started crying. She found a chair in the hall and lowered her head and let the hot salt water drain. Her brain was seized up; the tenuous connection between her birth father and the grown daughter was made sensibly, palpably real. She reached for Stuart’s hand; she held it in both of hers.

“I don’t see that I have a choice,” she said. She told the nurse to let him die. It felt so cold; it felt so unfair to be made to choose.

“He’s going to die anyway,” Stuart said, trying to comfort her. “You are only helping him get there.”

The trip back to Morgantown was much quieter than the trip to New York.

6.

There was a lot to manage after Dan died. What to do with his remains, what to do with his apartment and all his stuff. It was all strange to Mia; she hadn’t known Dan in any real sense, so the books on his shelf were a surprise, the clothes in his dresser, the foods in his pantry. They all spoke of someone who had had an actual existence, but no longer did. Where did he go? Vanished, except for the cans of tomatoes and the box of Cheerios, the bottle of soured milk leftover in the fridge. Throw it all out, she thought.

An estate sale was arranged, the body was cremated, the gas and electric turned off, the deposits promised to be returned, the key given back to the landlord. Mia felt a deep sadness, but it wasn’t grief. She barely knew the man, so that wasn’t why she was feeling this profound emptiness. She had now a personal connection, a bodily connection with death, with non-existence. It didn’t matter whether she ever spent time with Dan; there was a cause-and-effect connection with a dead man: He had caused her to exist in the world, and his world was now over. The flower had give way to seed. Was this, perhaps, what it meant to be grown up?

Mia is grown up, living alone in West Virginia; Stuart has found another woman. She asks his advice. I’m not sure why.

1955 Dodgers

PART THREE: AD HOMINEM

1

“Tell me about men.”

“What?”

She repeated the demand. Stuart didn’t know what she meant.

“I don’t know anything about men,” he said.

“You are one,” she said.

“You think that gives me some special insight? I don’t know anything about myself, and that includes being a man. Why are you so interested?”

“I’m new at this game,” she said, with the same expression she might use to say, “it’s still raining.”

“I’ve never done it.”

Stuart did a double-take inside his head, although he showed nothing on his outside. Why are you telling me this, he wanted to know, but was afraid to ask out loud.

“I consider virginity to be a form of ignorance,” she said.

“A minor form at best,” Stuart said. “Compared to bigotry, patriotism or not being able to name the starting lineup of the ’55 Brooklyn Dodgers, it’s hardly anything.”

“But it is a kind of ignorance, and I think I’m too old now to maintain that ignorance.”

“You have someone in mind?”

“No.”

“So this is theoretical?”

“Not exactly. I intend to lose my ignorance, and I need to know the other camp. You are my spy.”

“I’m not sure I qualify. I haven’t had a successful relationship, or rather never had one that lasted more than a few years.”

“But I can’t talk to anyone else. You’re it. So, tell me about men.”

Stuart did, in fact, have a theory. Like all his theories, it was more about spouting off than about solid sociological, theological or scientific research.

“OK, here goes.

“Men are all fetishists. This is the primary distinction between men and women,” he said.

“I don’t mean all men are into leather or vinyl, but that men localize their interests. It all comes down to a focus on a single issue, and all others can fend for themselves.”

“You mean men can’t multi-task?”

“That’s a good way of putting it.

“Think of porn. Why do women not respond? Why do men? People say it’s because women are not visual and men are, but that’s not the main problem. After all, women don’t respond to verbal porn either. It’s because men localize their sexual interest in one spot on their bodies. And, believe me, it’s always the same spot.

“By the way, if you attend to that spot, it doesn’t matter what else you do, they’ll be happy. It’s really rather simple. Everything about men is really rather simple. I know that’s hard for women to understand, because women are wired for complexity.”

“That seems like a stereotype,” she said. “As in: Women can multitask.”

lady chat 3
“But it’s true. Look at D.H. Lawrence. He adds a religious layer to the whole thing, and makes a god of that spot on his body, and believes that both men and women worship that dangling deity. But it’s really only a man’s religion.

“It colors everything in a man’s life. But it especially colors his attraction to women. Not only does he believe that women care about his equipment, he actually believes women go around talking about it in hushed, worshipful tones. Is it big enough? Am I man enough? Very little thought goes into anything else that might be thought manly.”

Mia knitted her eyebrows and shifted in her seat. This wasn’t what she was asking about really, but Stuart was always interesting, so she let him go on.

“So now, when a man looks upon a woman, that same single-mindedness makes him pick out a single attribute of the woman for worship. It is seldom her equipment. Why? I don’t know. Ask Freud. Wait. No, don’t ask Freud.

“So, for a man, it is her boobies he fixates on, or her hair, or her legs. Her big booty or the light down of hair on her arms. It becomes the trigger for his attraction.

“You see it all the time. A man loves a woman because her hair is blond, or because she has a turned-up nose, or pouty lips. She can weigh 200 pounds, but because her hair is curly, he sighs and pines.

“It can be something less tangible, like a sense of humor, but it seldom is. Mostly it is a physical endowment. Some like saggy boobs, some like a high arch on the instep. Some like just the hint of a mustache on her upper lip.”

“Gross!”

“But it’s true.

“When in the act of love, it is usually this one particular that the man is obsessing on. He is wildly in love with her hair, or the mole on her cheek, or the way she cuts her fingernails short.

“It can be perfume. It can be the fact she wears short pants. It can be the one button left undone on her blouse. But it is one thing.

“Women, on the other hand, tend to see the whole man, to see him as a person. When women complain about the objectification of themselves by men, they are right to do so, but they also miss a central truth of existence and the propagation of the species.

“Men simply don’t see the counter-indications: If that blonde in fact does weigh 200 pounds, or is a shrieking harpy, it doesn’t figure into his erotic calculations.

“The woman, however, always takes all the conflicting data into account and makes a profit-loss calculation. Is there enough there to work with? Does the good outweigh the bad.”

Mia objected, the way you do when presented with something you know is true but don’t wish to acknowledge, hoping that denying it will make it go away, at least for the moment.

“It can’t be that simple,” she said.

“It isn’t. Actually, it’s really quite complicated. What’s most interesting is to see it play out in the long run. Then the whole thing reverses.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that after living with a woman for 20 years, a man finally learns to see the whole woman, to access all the other parts of her personality and personhood that he was blind to in the first rush of ‘let’s-make-babies.’ She grows in his estimation. What he should have seen from the beginning, he now understands. The fire has spread into a circle, leaving the grass in the middle burnt, but a wider horizon of concern and interest expanding.

“By the way, learning more about the woman isn’t always a good thing. It also may lead to divorce.

“But the reverse is true for the woman. After living with the man for years, she is likely to latch onto the one thing, the one attribute, the one saving grace he has that makes up for all the failings.

“So, his appreciation for his wife grows, her appreciation for him narrows, but deepens.”

“At some point, though, it would seem there should be a crossing of the lines on the graph,” Mia said. “There should be a point when her narrowing and his expanding meet at one perfect moment of mutual understanding.”

“Well thought. I don’t know,” Stuart said. “That’s what you will have to find out. I never got there.”

2

It was a few days later. Mia sat in her room with no lights on. It was getting dark. She just sat. It was the time of day when nothing has any shadows.

3

It’s me again, come out from behind my mask.

You can see I’m not very forthcoming. I’m more than shy; I really don’t like getting personal, but you can see that already, I’m sure. But why write this story if I don’t want to let on?

So, I should tell you that a few weeks after talking to Stuart, I ended my ignorance. The gentleman was very pleasant. We spent a nice evening talking, and when it came down to it, he was more attentive than I expected, caressing me and talking softly. I could have no complaints.bike messenger 2

In fact, he spent rather more time on me than on himself, which surprised me. He didn’t know I was a novice and I didn’t tell him. He seemed interested in me, and my body, and he spent most of his time, even after I had taken off my clothes, looking me in the eye as he talked. At least, up to a point, after which he seemed to be more like a bicycle delivery boy with a deadline, pedaling faster and faster to deliver his parcel, well wrapped and waterproofed, I should add — I said he was a gentleman. Job completed, he began once more to pay attention to me.

I can’t say it wasn’t a pleasurable experience. I’m sure I didn’t know what to expect. And one instance is not a large enough sample from which to make any generalizations. As to whether I felt “release,” I really cannot say. Certainly I had a warm feeling that flowed through my body and ended the experience relaxed in a way that I could not altogether call familiar.

I did not see him again.

As to the question of ignorance and enlightenment, I can only say that the older I get, the more I realize that the end of one ignorance is only the beginning of another. I’m going back to my shell now.

4

“What was your fetish?”

“What do you mean?” asked Stuart. For once, she was visiting him.

He was putting together a model airplane and concentrating on gluing a wing strut without leaving a bead of glue on the fuselage.

“I mean,” said Mia, “what gets your oomph in gear?”

Stuart stopped, cocked his head and tried to figure out what Mia meant.
“Don’t you remember,” she said, “last year you told me that men focus on one thing only?”

“Oh, that,” he said. “I’d forgotten. Well, let me see. I’d say I am very lucky.gatsby eyes 2

“Why is that?”

“Because my thing is eyes. I always notice eyes first. I get turned on by eyes with a slight puffiness in the lower lids. I think it gives a woman’s eyes a slight squint that I take for implied skepticism, and I find skepticism highly attractive. I always notice a woman’s eyes first.”

“Why do you say lucky?”

“Because a woman never has to say to me, ‘I’m up here.’ My particular fetish means that any woman I’m with thinks I’m looking deep into her soul. It gives the illusion I’m interested in her. And that illusion is like the lure an anglerfish dangles in front of his prey. It gets’em every time.

“I don’t mean that I consciously use it as a technique — it comes natural. I really do love eyes and usually, I really am interested in them. But it has made me very lucky, in both of the word’s common senses.”

Then Stuart said something he truly believed, although you don’t have to: “I have never had sex with a woman I wasn’t in love with.”

5

As you have guessed, Mia is rather introverted. She has a hard time making friends and meeting potential mates. When you spend your life parsing the aorist tense in Aeolian Greek, that sort of thing can happen.

Mia now had her masters degree and was obviously headed on for a piled-higher-and-deeper in Greek and Latin, and when she wasn’t dug in with a Loeb Library volume, she was trying to figure out how to keep her apartment from turning into a midden. Everyday life was not her strong suit.

But she had met someone. His name was Michael and they did four things: They went to the movies; they ate dinner in restaurants; they had sex; and they talked about the meaning of life. But, they were both 23, so what did they know?

As for movies, they both loved subtitled films, although he favored the German films and she favored the French ones. The German films always seemed to be about someone having power over someone else, or over some group. The French ones were always about how loves flutters like a flake of soot on a fire grate, not ever knowing quite when to let go.

As for restaurants, in this they agreed. They both loved finding new and more unusual ethnic restaurants. Ethiopian food, or Dravidian food, or some new restaurant featuring food from the Maldive Islands. Not that they weren’t happy with Greek or Thai. But they both loved to spend long hours over that final cup of coffee discussing the meaning of life, and how the latest German/French film meshed with the latest Peruvian/Estonian food in their gut.

You might expect them, therefore, to be adventurous in bed, as well. But there you would be wrong. Neither Michael nor Mia required anything other than an intimacy that reinforced their ties to each other, and gave them each the momentary limbic whoopie.

Mia was happy with her life.

6

“OK, kiddo, tell me about it.”

Stuart had wandered through town. He was writing a book about traveling with no itinerary. It seemed to be a way of turning his natural talents toward monetary good. He actually had a book contract and a deadline. He also had an editor with a whip. Literally. It wasn’t his thing, but he didn’t mind. Yes, they were living together, and no, she didn’t mind when Stuart left for weeks on end.

“What?”

“Michael.”

“It’s nice,” Mia said.

“Nice is for turnips,” he said. Mia didn’t know what that meant, and Stuart probably didn’t either.

7

“Tell me about Liz,” Mia said.

“She keeps me in line. After Helen left me, I knew I needed someone who would provide more structure. Liz is an editor; sometimes, I am a writer. It seemed like a match made in, well, maybe not heaven. Maybe a corporate lawyer’s office.”

He shuddered. The image gave him the willies.

“We have fun,” he said, although it sounded maybe a touch insincere when he said it, and also, beside the point.

“It’s interesting you should say that,” Mia said. “Because, I have a problem.”

8

“My Dear Mia,” the letter began. She was rereading it.

“I’m sorry about having come to see you. I feel I couldn’t say what I wanted to.

“Perhaps it is because when I see you it is like looking into a mirror.”

It was a letter from Dan. The first letter she had received in something like 20 years.

“I have trouble saying what I need to say, and it seems as if you do, too. It must be genetic. It is a trait no doubt handed down from your great grandmother, who everyone remembers said nothing at all when her house in Cincinnati burned down. I was just a kid then, but I remember her face never changed. Grandad fell apart; he was never the same. They lost everything. But Nannie stood there, in front of the fire and pulled her shawl around her shoulders and said nothing.

“What I wanted to say is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I’ve come to understand something about family that I never would have guessed. It is why I wanted so much to see you, even if we have almost no shared experience. It is that family matters.

“I don’t mean in the simple way, like your granny and pops used to tell me, when I was a kid, and the aunts and uncles would come back to the house after church on Sundays. I mean something with deeper roots. I mean your German and English forebears, the ‘long man’ of history, the single strand of DNA that has been forwarded from the past and you will pass on to the future.

“If you want to understand yourself, you need to know where that braid of amino acids came from, and why it is stuck in you. I couldn’t say these things to you; it would have sounded silly. But I can write them. Writing is a way of saying things you cannot speak.

“Since your grandmother’s family came from Germany, their past is lost, at least to me. I don’t even know what boat they came over on. But my dad’s family, your grandfather, came from England. I have traced their genealogies back. I have them back to 1621. Pop’s family goes from London back to York, so there’s probably some Scandinavian blood in there, too.Nana "Sam" Gerry Esther

“If you remember seeing the photographs of Granny when she was young, dressed like a flapper in the 1920s, you can see yourself, or at least, your nose and eyes. Your mouth rather favors my father’s side of the family. But there they are, showing up in your face. That gesture you use to express disdain — you used it to me when I visited — that is the same gesture my mother used to use when she was scolding me. It was a shock to see it reflected in your hands and arms.

“This is why I felt I had to see you. I know I haven’t been a father to you, but what I’ve come to realize is you cannot deny family. It is what I wanted to tell you; it’s what I’m trying to tell you now. And now, except for you, I have no family left. I am alone.

“I may have screwed up as a dad, but I have an interest in you. You are, after all, my way of projecting myself into the future, when I will no longer be there. You are also projecting Granny and Nannie, and everyone back to 1621. Each of us, while we are alive, is a pivot, a fulcrum, on which the past and future see-saw. Each of us is a root, growing from the dark past into the dark to come. A seed that becomes a plant that flowers and grows fruit that produce seeds again, over and over, one flower growing out of another, out of another and out of another. You are my flower.”

9

She woke up in the morning. The sheets were all crumpled. Bill was on his side with one arm up over his head, snoring. This is the time to look closely at your partner, to see if you really want him, with a bit of spittle drooling out of a corner of his mouth, the underarm hair bristling in the pit of the distended arm, the little grits of sleepsand in the angle of his eye. If he can stand this test, he might be worth keeping.

But Mia wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the drool she minded, or the stertorous breathing. Perhaps it was the sense she had that Bill made the assumption that he could stay the night without asking. That he presumed on their bed.
She got up, leaving him there, like a beached porpoise, and went to the kitchen, turned on the light, squinted her eyes still used to the dark of early morning, and turned on the kettle and reached for the instant coffee.

In two more days, she would turn 30.

To be continued

Restaurant   I couldn’t take my eyes off her breasts. They wobbled under her shirt like porpoises and, despite the soup I was eating and the woman who sat across from me, the only thought in my head was the heft of those breasts at the next table.


“Stephen, what are you looking at?,” said Sarah. “Stephen?” She knew, but wanted to shame me into stopping. I looked back at her, pretending not to have an answer. But with each comma in the conversation, each semicolon in thought, my eyes sprung back to the table where those breasts were singing to me.


They were not large, and for their size were slung rather low. But they had such a roundness and they were velvety black. I couldn’t help imagining the dark nipples that poked into the cloth of her shirt and embossed such a clear impression. Black breasts, purple nipples.


Sarah was the kind of woman anyone’s parents would approve of, especially if they were members of the country club. Her chest was trussed solid with underwire and stitching. Those breasts wouldn’t sway in a hurricane; you can’t wiggle plaster.


The woman with the black breasts didn’t notice me. She was deeply involved in her dinner, eating as if she hadn’t in a while. Her clothes were elegant enough — not rich, but not poor, either. She couldn’t have been as hungry as she seemed. She gorged on lasagne and French bread. Oh, they wobbled. They wobbled each time she reached over her plate for another pat of butter.


As I lifted a fork of sirloin to my mouth, I flicked my tongue back and forth over the sharp tines of the fork. I did it with closed mouth, so Sarah wouldn’t notice.


The woman with the black breasts finished before we did and as she got up to leave, I stared at how long her torso was, how narrow her hips, how gentle her shoulders and how smooth her black skin was. My eyes followed her past the maitre d’ and I watched the swing of her behind and the syncopation of her long legs.


“You’re drooling,” Sarah said.


After we left the restaurant, we took in a double bill at the rep house. All I saw on the screen were those sooty breasts. A harmless fantasy.


Or so I thought. I never saw Sarah again. I never saw the woman with those breasts, either, though I have been searching now for two years. Any restaurant I enter, I survey from the highest vantage point I can find. On streets, I look, not into the oncoming faces, but at the tide of chests that washes toward me. In movie theaters, I walk to the front row just before the feature starts and search over the crowd. On busses, I walk from front to back; in office buildings, I ride the elevators from bottom to top and back.


My search continues. On bad days, I curse my idealism.