So this is the beach then. Salt the best thing for all wounds: tears, sweat, ocean. The waves are a good reminder that everything comes and goes and everything repeats, it's both relentless and soothing. Here is a beach umbrella under which I hide my white white skin which burns anyway, fancy italian sandals on the sand beside me, a cold cider from the supermarket wedged upright. The umbrella attendant walked on his hands into the ocean and retrieved someone's ball; everyone seems to want to play pingpong in the strip between beach and water but when a wave crashes over your feet sometimes you miss your shot, that moment of startling warmth that still feels cool for a moment on your sunburned feet. When it gets hot even in the shade I swim out to the buoy, further than it looks, and float beside it, eyes closed to the dazzle, almost sleeping, listening to the ocean the way I used to listen to seashells my grandmother collected.
When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca,
pray that your journey may be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
Of the Laestrygones and the Cyclopes,
and of furious Poseidon, do not be afraid,
for such on your journey you shall never meet
if your thought remain lofty, if a select
emotion imbue your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and furious Poseidon you will never meet
unless you drag them with you in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you.
Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbors you’ve not seen before;
that you stop at Phoenician market places
to procure the goodly merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and voluptuous perfumes of every kind,
as lavish an amount of voluptuous perfumes as you can;
that you venture on to many Egyptian cities
to learn and yet again to learn from the sages.
But you must always keep Ithaca in mind.
The arrival there is your predestination.
Yet do not by any means hasten your voyage.
Let it best endure for many years,
until grown old at length you anchor at your island
rich with all you have acquired on the way.
You never hoped that Ithaca would give you riches.
Ithaca has given you the lovely voyage.
Without her you would not have ventured on the way.
She has nothing more to give you now.
Poor though you may find her, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Now that you have become so wise, so full of experience,
you will have understood the meaning of an Ithaca.
She pulls you up from the waves onto her island and into a cave, the walls are cool and smooth in the summer and velvet warmth in the winter, she pulls you in and sets you back against brocade pillows that she wove on a golden loom, your head cradled in the crook of her arm, candles flickering against the walls which are covered in vines and bird's nests, curved around you, safe as skulls in this cave of thoughts and she hums to you, music that you like but cannot quite recognize, and there you are. This is the cave that she has created for you, and as long as you stay there everything else fades away, nothing is as safe as this place, which smells faintly of cinnamon and cedar, she doesn't feed you from her proffered hand exactly but this is the feeling, of being cared for, cared about. She tells you stories about the chattering birds as if they are real, and you watch them together, fascinating plumage. The things that interest you interest her and finally you find your mind relaxing, blooming like the vines that climb the walls, with clusters of ideas. And yet just like the first cave you emerged from, eventually you will want to leave, will wonder about the world beyond this one, and you start to imagine yourself a god, and why not smash these walls, even if smashing them destroys the person who created them.
Silly you, to have read so little mythology. It's easy to smash the walls, they were only ever her light creation, a shelter, a diversion. Sooner or later we all re-enter the world except some people know how to make small islands within it, filled with moments, warm laughter, sweet music, sharp teeth, soft skin. Enough attention to make you feel like a god. But nobody is a god here; there was just a moment where everything was beautiful. A moment created for you and free to be destroyed by you, if you want to, when you want to. You could be happy here forever, or for seven years, or you could leave, take your restless heart and push off into the wine-dark sea. She'll even help you leave. It is your story, after all.
And she settles back into her cave, humming, a knowing smile plays across her lips as she re-seals the wall where you tore through it and in the morning she takes a book and some headphones down to the beach and sits on the shore, watching the rosy fingers of dawn light the waves, waiting for the next wounded animal to love back to health.
On Friday my favorite wine bar was closed when we got there and the second wine bar closed just as we finished the pickled cheese, but the third wine bar was open all night, Goldilocks, and we so started late and finished later, a nimbus of alcohol and fine fellow feeling around our heads as we stumbled home in the wee hours and did not brush our teeth before we collapsed into bed. On Saturday morning just after sunrise I learned the word tetrad and then after breakfast we sweated across the well-lit cobblestones and sat in a sweet shady garden behind the cathedral drinking tall glasses of mint and lime and watching women in dresses just right for opening barn doors. We were locked in a dark room for an hour with cameras on us and puzzled till our puzzlers were sore and passed notes but could not remember chemistry enough to realize it wasn't important. We walked and walked and ate and ate and then watched other people's relationships for hours; relationships are hard even for KGB agents, imagine how it would be if you could kill a person with your pinky and still be unable to navigate marriage without crashing on the rocks. And yet I know how they feel. On Sunday various CGI monsters on a small screen lulled me to sleep and then I walked past a million Christians to sleep in a park and burn the back of my neck while the wine in my bag turned warm. I rolled a blade of grass between my fingers and explained how I got here, to this place where I only feel what I want to, then we went inside and put the wine in the fridge and watched the storm come closer and closer until it was right overhead, and we turned off the lights and let the lightning strobe across the room, our faces briefly illuminated and then plunged back into darkness, eyes adjusting almost by the next flash. This morning I bought a chocolate muffin at the bakery and ate it slowly, reading. I've nearly finished Norwegian Wood.
Yesterday sitting under a huge tree in a courtyard talking about our favorite poets, as one does, necks tilted back to release puffs of smoke into the blue sky filtering through the green leaves. When I was young I liked the confessional poets and I still will always hold room in my heart for them because I, too, was born doing reference work in sin. We drink iced coffee, the cream thick on the surface, and water with peeled and thinly sliced lemon wedges. Then I guess like everyone I went through a phase of liking the poems stripped bare, down to the picture, the wet black bough, and I like some of them even today. Inside the cafe there were small cakes made of peaches but they were too beautiful to eat and I didn't dare. I like the intellectual poems, the cool footnoted references. I love Millay because she took modern ideas and sliced and stretched until they fit perfectly into conventional molds, she took open relationships and put them into sonnets. I love Frank O'Hara because he looked all the way down into absolute isolation and despair and then skipped across it. Stein for being complex and making me think about language so hard; Hicok for being clever and making me forget about it entirely in the pureness of feeling. Mary Oliver's nature, Bukowski's secret heart. Words that are music. I love the way that when poetry is good, it takes a whole feeling or moment or image and tugs you right into its heart, pulls you into its rhythm until you feel it against you, the lines become words you have always known, the pulse of the poem is the pulse of your veins, and days or weeks later it returns to you, a phrase or a line, and you can't tell entirely if it's yours, because it feels like it is, it's so true. It's not always so good, but sometimes, or rarely, moments of beauty that sting like tears, when the poem is so lovely that no matter how hard the poet worked all you can see is the perfect result, you know what they know, what the poem itself knows: this would be impossible any other way. I love that I can sit in a cafe in the city center, smoking and drinking coffee and talking about what we love, loving poetry and talking about it for the third time this week.
Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?
Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.
Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?
I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.
Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.
However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.
My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me. I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them still. If only I had grey, green, black, brown, yellow eyes; I would stay at home and do something. It’s not that I am curious. On the contrary, I am bored but it’s my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth. And lately, so great has theiranxiety become, I can spare myself little sleep.
Now there is only one man I love to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How discourage her?)
St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. How am I to become a legend, my dear? I’ve tried love, but that hides you in the bosom of another and I am always springing forth from it like the lotus—the ecstasy of always bursting forth! (but one must not be distracted by it!) or like a hyacinth, “to keep the filth of life away,” yes, there, even in the heart, where the filth is pumped in and courses and slanders and pollutes and determines. I will my will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in that department, that greenhouse.
Destroy yourself, if you don’t know!
It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I admire you, beloved, for the trap you’ve set. It's like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.
“Fanny Brown is run away—scampered off with a Cornet of Horse; I do love that little Minx, & hope She may be happy, tho’ She has vexed me by this Exploit a little too. —Poor silly Cecchina! or F:B: as we used to call her. —I wish She had a good Whipping and 10,000 pounds.” —Mrs. Thrale.
I’ve got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans. I’ll be back, I'll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot ahead. There won’t be any mail downstairs. Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.
Old photographs, childhood pictures, the ones you show people after they love you because it's too embarrassing otherwise. The crooked home haircut, the awkward mountain teeth, birthmarks, jangling knock knees. Horrible fashion choices, a combination of a different time and the clothing blindness of children. In photo after photo he is standing with a group of people, a crowd of friendly smiling faces, and sometimes he smiles too but he is always off to the side, always a step away from everyone else, looking away from the photographer at something we can't see, his hand shielding his eyes and the shadow hides his face, or turning away at the last minute, his face a blur. Unfocused, as life was then, and somewhat unreal. I remember this time as if it were a dream, a dream in which my feet were stuck in mud, and I was trying to run with my child in my arms but I could not escape and I was terrified that I could not carry him to safety; I was afraid we carried the danger with us. I look at these pictures and I cannot imagine how I ever thought life was normal then or would ever be okay when it so clearly was not and could never be, not from where we were. And yet now somehow it is okay; it's as if it always has been. I look at these pictures and I realize that when he shows them to people, they will laugh at the pants too short, the bangs he cut by himself, the goofy smile. There is a record here of something terrible, a shadow falling across the smile, but it is a visual dog whistle, a thing you can only see when you're tuned to it, the circles under his eyes could be just a trick of the light, and if I'm the only one who knows or remembers the truth, then that's not bad. The pictures don't lie, after all.
More than half a lifetime ago, this metaphor stopped eating meat. Mostly because some patchouli-scented hippie told her that the panic animals feel when they're slaughtered is held in their bodies and when you eat them, you eat this fear. The metaphor was having horrible mind-sucking nightmares at the time and would seriously have given anything to make them stop, so she stopped eating meat, and while she still has perfectly bad dreams, they are not the kind where she wakes in sobs, soaked in terror, so: it works.
Every once in a while she'll take a run at meat again -- a bite of something that someone else says is amazing. Or sometimes it's accidental, like when everything was getting accessorized with bacon. Or delicious melted cheese stuffed with inexplicable chunks of ham. She usually tastes it and spits it out in a napkin or something. It makes her queasy but that could be psychosomatic so she doesn't consider it data. Mostly she doesn't eat it and she doesn't miss it, and along the way she's realized there are lots of reasons beyond the nightmares she remembers still so vividly to not eat meat: unsustainable farming practices, cruelty to the animal, health, heart disease, all the chewing, the bloated feeling of indulgence, etc. It feels safer to just avoid it altogether, and honestly veggie burgers are pretty delicious. Stir fry. The metaphor has learned a lot about spices.
Then one day someone gives the metaphor a steak. A grass-fed cow, massaged daily, prepared by an expert, perfect. While she would never have ordered it, it is somehow different if it is offered, put on a plate already. And the metaphor forgets some of her reasons and rationalizes the rest away. The metaphor pulls the plate towards herself and breathes the warmth that rises off of it, and her whole body responds to the smell, primal. It is tender and juicy, the knife reveals the subtle shadings of red, beautiful as an oil painting, and she only wishes she could chew for longer, the salt flesh wonder of it between her teeth, the taste she didn't know she was missing.
That night the metaphor curls into bed, nestles a pillow against her warm full belly, sighs with contentment. She cannot even believe she thought she didn't want steak! And she falls asleep dreaming of a future with more steak, burgers, breakfast sausages, all the things she realizes she'd been denying herself. Of course she wakes screaming, the terror again, wracked with pain. Choked with guilt for betraying herself. Of course she does. But it's okay, because she's just a metaphor.
The metaphor goes back to her vegetarian dishes; for a couple weeks she can't eat but then the appetite comes back. The metaphor's friends tell her she looks great, radiant even, pleased with her rediscovery of various spices, how it feels to burn and ice. And she is fine; the creativity required by the familiar is delicious and the nightmares fade. After all she doesn't even know what to do with meat, having spent nearly her entire adult life without it. There is a picnic with cheese and wine and grapes, and the metaphor closes her eyes against the summer sun and sees the light through her eyelids, that particular blood red, and her breath catches, but she doesn't have time to think about that anymore, and she opens her eyes and takes a perfect piece of cheese and holds it in her mouth, feels it dissolve.
You guys, I am in love with Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for the New Yorker. I have a crush the size and scope of which is not fathomable to me since I do not even know what she looks like, but I know I want to live with her so I can have her giant brilliant brain within reach all the time. She is so smart I feel smarter just READING stuff she writes, can you imagine what a year (oh, or more!) of living with her would do for me? I'd be an unstoppable force; I would lift Don Draper with my personal mind and throw him out the damn window already.
No, listen! We'd get up in the morning and drink coffee (or tea! if Emily likes tea!) and then settle in to watch something and I'd be totally silent and attentive and try super hard to think of all the smart things that Emily would say and then afterwards I'd turn and for once keep my mouth shut and listen to her unspool all the meanings for me, tease out the rewards that come from paying attention to things that are deliberate from the questions that arise when those things are apparently unplanned. For lunch we'd take a picnic basket away from the TV and sit in a park somewhere and nod wryly at each other about feminism and false nostalgia, creativity in the 21st century, everything.
Then we'd go home and sit at our respective computers and she'd drop brilliance out into her next review and I'd edit some medical papers or whatever. I'd restrain myself from offering to edit for her, even just to be her first reader, because the New Yorker editor is still my job crush, and you should only have one crush at a time or it gets confusing.
It's been a while since I've had a crush on a writer, really -- usually I'm pretty good at understanding that beautiful sentences don't make beautiful souls (and/or the reverse, I guess). But ohhhh she's always just so great, and she's been on fire lately, and her break-down of Fargo in the June 23rd issue is exactly why I just need her and her brilliance to be in my life. "How good does a violent drama need to be to make the pain of watching worth it?" THIS. And her True Detective review a while ago, also. The way she has of looking at entertainment, at television, as a reflection and a projection, as intent and accident, as diversion and focus... sigh.
I'm actually just happy having her in the world, for as long as she keeps writing. But boy, I could use a lot more of her in my brainspace, and a lot less of brilliant serial killer misogynist stuff. And I say that as someone who likes television so much that I used to say goodnight to the TV set. But like good television, her writing transcends what it's set out to do, and I'm just so grateful to have her, if not in my life, at least in my mailbox, almost every week.