Wednesday, July 16, 2008

She got legs . . .


Her legs were not very long, though neither were they very short, each sculpted limb, thin-skinned, roundly muscled. I wondered if she knew that her dress had ridden up. Or more accurately, I wondered how much of her might be wistfully and secretly aware. People—we hide things. But there I was eyeballing her thigh, holding an appropriate silence, a silence mixed with the pain of pretending I did not notice the whole fleshy scene. I watched her. Her dog watched me.

Not that you can blame a guy. Yet, after having read her story, “The Story of a Girl,” I withheld any present inclination to move things up a notch. I suppressed any words that might burst open with sudden and resident desire. That was my “stuff.” I’d have to deal with it. As for her “stuff,” I suspect even now, that she yearned for nothing more deeply than the freedom to own the fact that she was beautiful. What I was learning however, was that as beautiful as she was, for her, “beauty” had resulted in only pain and trouble. I could see that she had learned, of necessity, the safety of “alone,” the untouchability of “ugly.” And as I read her words I came to understand that the thing she wished for more than anything, was the same thing she feared most of all—connectedness, union with another human being. I imagined I could hear the chambers of her insides echoing desolately. She had retreated far within and remained alone. I recalled the image of her leg and yearned for her.

"Ached" may be a better word than "yearned" for what it was I felt. In fact, I’d started to ache whenever this enigmatically beautiful woman crossed my path. It was physical. It was not long before this physical aching began consuming my nights as well. I remained unsure whether it was her presence or her absence that proved the heavier burden. Words continue to fail. “Beautiful” simply can’t cut it. Yet it’s as close as I might come. Even now, I cannot pin down a name for whatever resonated out of her streamlined features, her porcelain frailties, her mouth so like a doll’s tipped with wings. I felt a strange familiarity between us whenever she was near, and acted as if I’d known her better than I did. This was so even though I’d never really conversed with her except in the most casual exchanges. Those few times were matters of polite and necessary teacher-student brevities.

But it had been a week since her dress hiked up in class, a week since I’d read her story, and in that time she’d not returned. I had seen those four fools roll into town in their rickety tin can of a truck, looking just as gruff and stupid and making as much of a racket as when I’d left them back in that Ohio lounge. I was growing sick.

I’m not going to tell you that I never drank again. But during my time in Ellenville I decided that I needed to make that call, that I had to decide exactly why I'd come to Iowa. I needed the money. That was true. But still, this was Iowa. Many “greats” had passed through these precincts as they undertook to learn their craft. I was on hallowed ground and I knew it. I needed to honor the artists and the craft, the writers, the poets. Only, it hurt. Without a drink I was less numb. My guard was down. I was numbless.

And so it also seemed the silent beauty of this strange woman had infiltrated bits of me I’d thought long dead. It frustrated me to think that she was gone now, gone just as suddenly as she’d appeared on that first windy night by the river. Everything seemed twisted; I was living between two selves. What is more, I’d stopped believing, shunned everything I’d been taught was true and good, things like “love wins the day,” the notion that the universe honors good intention and hard work, that the bad are punished and the good are rewarded. Karma, resurrection, colored eggs, reindeer: they all seemed part of the same puerile fantasy.

I knew for some time that love had failed, over and over and over again. Love does not win the day. That's what I believed. Dreams do not come true. Actions speak louder than words and most other things. I could handle the fact we all die. The thing I couldn’t take was the idea that I'd realized all these lessons far too late, too late to make a different kind of life, too late to stake a new claim in this dog-eat-dog world where subterfuge and cruelty win power and status and wealth while the rest of us mope around wondering what went wrong. Some people said the world had gone bad. I sided with others who insisted it had always been this way. And really, it didn’t matter much to me. Not now. The whole kit-and-kaboodle felt like a last attempt at a sad reminiscence.

I am always surprised to find that life can go from exhilaration to despair in the span of ten minutes. “Despair” is actually a shitty word for the pit of darkness it claims to account for. “Despondency” may come closer to a sense of the thing. But at some point words always fall short of the thing they describe. When I think about it, I didn’t just one day lose my ability to dream. No, when I think about it, I must admit that I no longer wanted to dream. Somehow I’d grown convinced that dreams were lies, bulwarks against the painful, despairing-and-despondent truths of our sad and ultimately dreamless lives.

And that’s where I'd gotten stuck. But all those feelings hadn’t really taken root, not fully, until I realized she had gone. I read her story over again, feeling alone and helpless, much the way she must have felt. I imagined her body, light and quick, running down the road in her athletic gear. And as I read, I knew it wasn’t just a story. I knew those four dickwads had done unspeakable things--to her, and probably to others. I also knew that she was beautiful and intelligent, silent and driven, robbed of her voice. Still, she could write. I wondered too, whether she still dreamed and if so, what kinds of things she dreamed about.

It would be crazy for me to say I loved her. I had yet to hold a decent conversation with her. I imagined the kinds of conversations we might have had. I wondered, as I lay sleepless through the long hours of the night, what her voice would sound like. Our tastes, i guessed, would be different. She was younger. I’d talk with her about my marriage and divorce and the loss of a little girl I had promised to love yet could not love enough. Those things. I wanted to cry, only, I could not. This limbo is tearless as well as numbless. I am alone with my thoughts too often. I would try to find her.

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