The doors. The high front doors. Squeaky, glistening, transparent. Mint candy that Springtime licks like a lollipop. A mat, no, a giant sponge for wetting stamps, and beyond, an entry. A chessboard? No, life’s not the Battle of Austerlitz. A checkerboard, yes, ending in royalty. Death along the way? Collateral damage. A pawn jumping to the last row ? No, not jumping, shifting, sneaking… Two lines of absolute protection, then, the center, a shadow zone, then the seventh row, a desperate and murderous passage, and beyond that, the eighth, when reached, if reached, and the anointing.
The stairs spill out across the hall, a welcoming gesture, I think. Can imagine an arm in their place. Or a chest of drawers. Think that has been done before. Magritte? Brown carpet , already fraying. Sunflowers. Absurd. Piss yellow on a dull as dishwater background. Rods chiseled to a point– and that is the ridiculous part of it – looking like asparagus or spears – keep the whole thing down, hide the beauty or the ugliness of the stone. I’m tempted to jiggle a pair up.
A red flush gripped Julie’s throat. A floor is only a floor and a carpet hides nothing that anyone would be interested in. Certainly not. She ran up the stairs to her office.
Stupid adolescent poetry, these fantasies ! They should not, must not, go any further. Disgrace will tumble like crumbs at tea parties. Something about women maneuvering teacups recalls hens settling into a nest. Eggs or excrement, ladies? Isn’t gossip hatched? Eyes doing can’t believe what I am hearing blinks, swallows dropping like curtains in a judge for yourself manner. Giggles rising like cigarette smoke, adroitly avoiding the eyes. A whisper from a cherry red mouth addressed to one but meant for all: “The Ricardo girl, yes, and she was about to be married. What a shame! What a pity!When did you say she had the breakdown? And there was no cause for it, dear me. She had everything. Please pass the sugar.”
Julie’s office door gave its salutatory squeak, the boisterous morning was at a half open window. A bright spring was in the chestnut trees, a sparrow preened fussily, a hidden turtledove offered its strange melancholic chirping. The routine moves from A to B and a grid is laid down as a loose porous container of the tempest tossed past. But, was it the past or something else that belonged not to time but to a personal universe which shuffled her thoughts like cards in a deck? And behind it all, a voice promised a ghost flung into or wrenched from oblivion, not a long dead ancestor, and, no, it was not a ghost, but a spirit entering with an entreaty and a promise. Knowledge may bring pain but not grief. And pain? She had had enough of pain on fine bright days. She remembered. A shield, a fan, a hand went up, partitioning the past from the present.
Or was she a monster of grotesque pretension? Her poetry, her art, the drawings she did on the sly… Were they not a part of her, like every atom of her rosy blond being which people liked to summarize in a glance. An egg. Polished. Pampered. Sleek, but without the barest hint of slickness. Slippery but totally devoid of deviousness. Weightily bottomed, but tapered. The oval of praying hands while an Ave Maria droned in a cool sunlit chapel somewhere on a hill. A protocol of Easter decorum. They had laid the straw at the foot of the alter with the small decorated eggs , their beauty, no threat to God’s Creation. But there she was, on this planet of Saint Martha’s Educational Institution where all smiles tried to be sweet reflections of the Virgin’s, and she felt cheap and ignoble and perpetually stuck in the vineyards of the Lord, where sheep can safely graze and lambs can idiotically gambol. Sheep ! Couldn’t God find a more intelligent animal? Couldn’t He also understand the point of view of the wolves?
What had she done in her 28 years ? What could she have done ? Was there still time to do it ? Break away from it all, leave Mayson, the school, the city, the country, the cadre !There was in this heady spring morning an urgency screaming in her ears, “Live! Grow! Learn!” Sister Tullier , the gray lady with the dark steaming eyes, appeared with her needling, kneading truths. “Well, what do you expect?” Julie whispered to the apparition. “My inertia and silence are the product of the best salons. Some things are simply not done.” And the apparition nodded, “Simply not done is for the simple.”
Saint Martha’s, in Mayson’s words, had “rescued” Julie from the horror of the city public schools and didn’t she owe these crisply studious nuns and the lay people, her colleagues, who dressed primly and walked in effortless asexuality, a debt too great to repay in full ? They saved her from the nasty acid drips of the world, “the outside” they said, as a farmer would say “outhouse” and spit on the ground, they enclosed her innocence in fresh pine smelling classrooms and fed her sense of self importance by installing her in the cubicle right next to Sister Tullier’s office with a title “Pedagogical Assistant and Program Co-ordinator to the Head Mistress¨ squiggling in grim gold letters on her glass door. Grim gold letters squiggling when the hall lights were dark or her eyes were tired, or…
When the offer from Saint Martha’s came , The Doctor had brought out the his best red and his wife looked at him and then at Julie. Doctor Ricardo, delivering the squeaking cork from its bottle , Mathilda, nodding her head… They were a couple of eagles, her parents, readying for flight, their young bird was hungry. “Yes, that’s the answer,” The Doctor poured from the bottle. “THE ANSWER,” Mathilda intoned. “Don’t you know that all young teachers would give their right foot …”“Anything” Mathilda broke in. Only a fool would turn up his nose. Only a fool. And it worked out perfectly. They’d make a comfortable studio out of the maid’s room. Separate entrance. And of course, they would respect her privacy, after all, (The eagle reached for the hand of its mate) they too had been young. And Julie bowed under the pressure of so much loving concern.
This was what the spring morning brought in, with the breezy chestnut trees, the fussy sparrow, and the odd chirping from the simple bird. Goodness! She had little to complain about ! So little to complain about and so much to do… There were calls to make and appointments too, a meeting with Sister Tullier and another with Mr. Garrett, chief officer for … and then there was the dentist, she had to break the date, and Mayson for the theater tickets and…
The room was never entirely blue. Sea shell white, hiding in the curtains and the recesses flashed in and out with the late afternoon sun although the shades were drawn, as they were always drawn or half drawn as light would blind or expose. Her parents’ room faced south with a wonderful view of the river and the shore, but the height of their living quarters gave the river and the land a slashing streaky effect so that the bridges seemed incidental black dashes linking elements that were already alike and static. Only breeds of clouds were permitted a soft if stupid bounce. Or they drifted in and out lazily, like dowagers. A breeze kicked a curtain, but the only sustained motion was the capricious summer light lingering on the perfume bottles on Mother’s vanity table, changing their crystal vapidness to tiny shimmering minarets. Julie had brought in the “One Thousand and One Nights” which she manipulated like a Venetian mask.
“Come here, my darling!” Mathilda called to Julie and Scheherezade. At 40, she was a handsome stocky blond. She was dressing for a party and the clothes on the huge double bed belonged to different personae. “Mother’s angel!” Mathilda at the vanity said, and patted a curl into place.
“Mommy, why?” The bright glossy book came down and Julie, age 8, looked pertly up.
“Why what, precious darling?”
“ Why did Scheherezade have to tell a story every night?”
“Maybe,” Mathilda hesitated, she was expecting another sort of question, “maybe that was really just another way the sultan had of telling her he loved her. Maybe the prince helped her along a little bit…”
“No he didn’t! Not at all!” Julie’s voice cried for a yearning for justice. “I mean, it’s not fair. She’s got to do all the talking while he just sat there…”
“Julie darling! ” Mathilda swiveled away from the vanity and gathered her daughter in her arms. A tear trickled down her bare arm. “Hush, child it’s only a tale. How about trying on my pink open toed shoes?”
Julie rushed to the closet and fished out the pink pumps from the sweet smelling darkness. But the delights of dressing up could not dispel the cruelties of Oriental narratives. “An’ she gotta do it for a thousand and one nights. Mommy! What’s that one doing stuck onto the thousand? Why couldn’t they just stop at a thousand an’ maybe he’d get greedy and that one will suddenly become a two and who knows where they will stop…”
“Julie honey! That’s just because love has no borders, it just goes on and on. These people live in far away lands and their way of telling each other that they are in love is not our way so they invent stories and – listen this is what my teacher told me when I was your age – that – yes, now I remember – that when an Arabian prince loved a girl so very much, he would ask her for a story every night for a thousand nights, but when he really truly loved her to bits and pieces, he would go over a thousand and ask her for more. It is just that Scheherezade’s prince loved her more than anything else so he went over a thousand…”
The cries that Julie heard from her parents’ bedroom night after night were animal and beastly and had nothing to do with the soft music of princes and the poetry of their princesses, and the beastliness of her parents’ lovemaking prolonged the misery done to Scheherezade and made the cruel world crueler. It wasn’t the plight of Scheherezade that had torn Julie’s world asunder, but her mother’s, and one night, Mathilda saw through a faultily closed door, a pair of egg shell blue eyes wondering whether love had incongruously passed into the kingdom of pain and distress.
“…So , my little darling, that’s how they express love in Arabia. So don’t forget to take that story notebook you have started, if you go to Arabia and meet a handsome prince.”
“I don’t wanna go to Arabia! I wanna stay here with you and protect you and I don’t wanna get married ever ever ever!”
“Don’t want to get married? But of course you do! All girls get married, all princesses find their princes. Life is easier when you have someone to love you, hold you, cherish you…” Mathilda took Julie on her knee and started a distracting bounce.
“I don’t want to get married if my husband is going to hurt me like Dad hurt you last night!”
The bouncing stopped. Scheherezade’s tale had ended, the prince was a pauper, or worse, had the manners of one. “Julie, Daddy did not hurt me. It was a form of fun, like… like, you know, you telling Mr. Bozo you are going to burn his doll house down because he won’t be good. You know you would never hurt Mr. Bozo and Dad would never hurt me nor you.” She landed a kiss on Julie’s forehead, “Trust me. Trust us. We love you.”
A sudden chill quieted the music in the trees, the sun glowered behind a splotchy cloud . It was past nine already and there was a meeting with Sister Tullier. The cloud had moved away on its fat lady haunches and the blue of the sky, like the blue of Mother’s bedroom, that day, was a stage set for clouds and birds and the half-hearted April showers which dripped like water off bathers springing from pools.
The Sister was first a shadow outlined darkly against the bold block of sun. The figure stood against the window, it welcomed the visitor , but it did not touch, it did not embrace, it did not greet. It could have, but it did not. The intensity of the light had robbed the figure of its features , the light created darkness and heat about the figure, detaching it from the insignificance of the room, separating it from the other figure demurely shutting the door behind her, she shut the door the way she did everything, in a swift, sexless, apologetic manner. But the meekness of her entering and shutting was not an apology, the motionless figure knew, but a way of negotiating her solitude with the world. Observing her, the nun moved out of the light and into the discriminating coolness. The Sister seized Julie’s left hand where a diamond celebrated the finality of a love affair.
“The ring has been in Mayson’s family for more than 100 years. It was his grandmother’s. We just adjusted the setting.”
“So when is it to be? The wedding , I mean. I think you mentioned in June. He’s been putting it off several times.”
“September is the month. You will get the invitation. To be mailed next week.”
“Oh, I see.” The Head Mistress remarked coldly. The cooler light had given her face a devious shallowness. “You really want to go through with it?”
“Go through with what? My marriage? Sister Tullier! I came here with the report!”
The nun spat out.“ What are you doing here, Julie? Where do you situate yourself in relation to yourself? Did you ever really and truly want to be a pedagogical assistant ? Did you ever really want to be a teacher ? Did you ever really want to marry ? Did you really want to marry Mayson? Did you ever really want to do what everyone else has wanted you to do?”
“I have always done what others wanted me to do.” Julie admittedly solemnly. But, Sister Tullier had no need of the social graces, in fact, she hated them.
“Why are your eyes cast down? Is this a confession of a crime? Are you a naughty child caught with the cookies? Are you not bedeviled with this fine Spring morning? Bedeviled with the beauties that God has bestowed on us? Bla Bla Bla. Don’t you suspect that He might be pulling the wool over our eyes? He may be grandstanding, playing to the crowd, a crowd ! I have no patience with bleating lambs, nor cooing doves!’
The sofa, middle of the room. Bull’s blood pegged into lines of bloated boxes, it was in the nature of the designer to give it a wavy look, to rupture its leathery harshness into cushions. And, Julie was dwelling in a leather bump… Dwelling? No, disappearing into the walls of its curves, scraping like a bug, in the matrix where it drew warmth and sustenance and, hopefully, died happy and unnoticed.
“I have always done what others have expected me to do,” She plodded the words out, again.
“ Another version of I have always depended on the kindness of strangers! Bah! I might say that if you are guilty of anything, it is running away, from yourself.” The Sister spoke indignantly.
“ We have to talk about the Brownly child, that is in the report, and then at 11 there’s Garrett…”
“We don’t have to talk about anything that is not essential and for the moment the essential is you. I repeat, what do you want to do this fine Spring morning?”
“ Right this moment? I want to take a walk. I want to go where my feet carry me.”
“Who is stopping you?”
“We have to discuss the Brownly…”
“I did not say what, I said who.”
“Why no one!”
That place out in the Hamptons. Something about celebrating a new tennis court. Spring of course. When was it? Two years ago? Going out there with the Lufts. One of those sports cars that looks like a racing dog. The ride, a whooshing hallucination, perfection. Miles on the tape deck, NASA at the dashboard, and the hood doing sci-fi rolls. The Lufts, not talkers, fortunately. The roadster eating up the white road markings, thought of a rope climber gripping onto the next one, a bit higher, gave the impression of moving up, physically and… the prize at the end of the rope. An old camp song buzzing in my brain . A confetti of sounds. Disturbing. Then the evening – I probably made a fool of myself on the tennis court… No, wait a minute, I did pretty well that day.
It was night and the fountain and the moonlight licking the fountain – no water – just sort of a marble statue, a cherub with horns. The moonlight drew eerie ovals on the basin. Suddenly a voice and a hand with a glass.“Moonlight tastes better with champagne.” A young lawyer, recently arrived in the city. A guest , like me, same age, same lost in the woods sensitivity. The wiry nonchalance of Fred Astaire. But wore his grace like a shortcoming, and his attempts to walk in a cutting and abrupt manner rang false, but somehow did not seem devious, only trying for an effect that was foreign to his nature. Dark neatly cut hair and a face of even features with an attractive prominence to his brow, covering the upper lids of his eyes, a foxlike feature.
We walked around the fountain, the moonlight was distracting, like the sun at the beach at noon, the ovals on the basin brightened and waned, disappeared and reappeared. The conversation turned to art. He knew a lot about the post Expressionists, Germany between wars and France between republics . He looked down at his feet not at me, but expressed interest, smiled a thin-lipped serious smile, assumed a haphazard posture of being there and not there at the same time. We played with the champagne flutes, twirling them in the moonlight, some of the colors in the exploding spectrum were green, yes, green ghost lights. He took me home in his Corolla, a gift from his mother. ¨A most boring car from a most interesting woman.” Roman arch of a tunnel somewhere entering the city, no Miles on the radio, but some solemn symphony, excruciating, I almost made him change it.
It was a celebration of Springtime, Fifth Avenue, it ran like a fiesta until 42nd Street, then, walking eastward, she came to Madison, a Parisian boulevard in an operetta, and Park, with its awesome grandeur, its belief in massive and showy permanence, its offhand homage to mausoleums and pyramids. And still Julie walked on, past Lexington and Third and Second, a graceless chain of shops and banks, and eating places and grocery stores. A proud and stubborn sobriety ran from First to the Drive, but the side street tenements entombed somber histories groveling in the dust.
And it was through a light lacquered alley, that Julie strolled, whimsically impotent to order her will, a drifter feeling not more important than the wayward debris pressed against the stone and brick structures, which they kissed, perhaps in desperation she thought, to stay the rocking ship of the world before the wind betrayed the derelicts, removed its breath and with it, their animation and they dropped to trampling feet and rolling tires, forgotten as all is forgotten, except the memory of their illusion.
And the condor that approached her as the fleeting Lord of the wind, whispered that the illusion was life which was both substance and dream and that the sky was a matrix which all God’s creature could reach and that the only tragedy was their believing they could not reach it. Then, the condor revealed its wings which let it soar and Julie saw that the condor wore the soaring, and the limit beyond which it could not soar, stamped on its feathers and that it was a happy solitary creature, and a lover of the winds, which lent the bird the illusion of mastery that it relinquished when it returned to its nest.
But what street was this? “65th Street.”The lizard at her feet told her, shifting from side to side, its belly kissing the earth, and despite the comical webbed stumps which gave it a form of locomotion, it crawled like a snake. It searched deep into the dirt for the screams- her screams- that she had quieted but not stilled forever.
Father on Mother, straddling her like a pony, yes. A pony takes me around the reservoir in the Park , bobbing her head like Mother’s two breasts were bobbing, but my pony does not scream. Maybe ponies scream in silence, like I scream in silence at night for Scheherezade, and the cruel Sultan. Almost unbearable, Mother’s screams, and she sees me, he sees me, but he does not care. There is even a smile on his lips and she gasps as if she were emerging from water.
“The pawn,” said the lizard, “who negotiates a passage by neither killing nor being killed, is a stupid and lowly miracle, and one which no one really wants to see.”
“Walk on,” said the condor , “I dissolve all suffering at the bottom of the chalice, walk on.”
The green ghost lights… and Mayson drawing near in the moonlight. She felt the warmth of his flesh, she sensed the possibility of his embrace, there in the moonlight drawing weird ovals on the waterless fountain.
“I want a child.” Julie said to Mayson. “We’ll see.” His affirmations were always half open doors.
“Walk on,” said the lizard,”you’re doing fine.”
The disease had devoured Mayson’s youth, had put him into a wheelchair, had painted on him that half face he wore as a cigarette smoking mask, a death mask, of course. He raised a shaking arm to his lips, his V (for Victory?) shape fingers held the Marlboro. .. Another meaningless wager with his furry spiked death? The poor kid knew nothing about wagers, they don’t do that sort of thing where he came from. A cherry red lip mouth spoke, “The facade Julie! It saves us all except when it doesn’t. You did not really expect him to die on a battlefield ! I mean, like, everyone knew! Ha Ha Ha!”And Julie ,who had known nothing, was behind him, pushing, she was older now, she had lost the slimness of youth and her figure was plain. She was wearing a full canary yellow silk coat to cover her thickness which, like Mayson’s disease, was spreading, and the features of her face were smudged , but, no matter, she had always known that time would smudge them, and there was a small tire of flesh about her chin. She did a baker’s roll with it just for amusement.
“There is something else,”the condor perching on her shoulder whispered, “walk on.”
Three little girls skipped across her way. Their hatred of Julie ran hot behind cupped-hand whispering . They were Barbra, Stacey and Jennifer, and the first two were ordinary , but Jennifer had aquamarine eyes and the inky mane of a panther, and her name sounded royal and wild. Julie wrote poems to her beauty in her copybooks with sketches darkening all the margins. The school desks, at that time, opened from the top.
Julie had to wait outside the door until Mathilda had finished with the Head Mistress. She emerged dabbing her nose, her green eyes were gray and glassy. The desk had opened to the teacher who had spoken to the Head Mistress who had called in Mathilda , who had left Julie in a brine of self-loathing while the hard keys of a secretary’s typewriter beat like a drum roll, and continuously. Shame likes disorderly prolongations. The how could yous fall like axes. Guilt, the old crone, never far off, always sits in a dark corner rubbing her hands. She, at least, is immortal.
“Never mind the past, move on” said the condor. “ Go to the end of yourself, there is …”
“Your salvation, but we wonder if you want it. ” the lizard said with a provocative chuckle.
The condor flitted like a humming-bird above Julie’s shoulder. “Walk on. Childhood is a disease, that can be arrested, never annihilated. Think of a killing field, or a mountain that blesses the climber who reaches the top. Walk on. Remember, wherever your feet take you.”
“Where are you leading me?”
“Who is leading you?” The lizard asked.
“Who is leading you?” The condor asked.
“Where am I going?”
“We dissolve all suffering at the bottom of the chalice, but we wonder if you want to drink the wine. ”The condor and the lizard said together.
“Which wine? Where?” Julie asked. The light licked mists had tumbled over the River . A strange hush had seized the street. She started to turn on the asphalt patch with the sky spinning her as a top, no longer the master of her movements nor wanting to be. Her lashing arms formed the blade of a sickle, cropping through all the accumulations to the wonder of her mere being, and she soared, as the condor would soar, above the line that dreary Fate had traced and which she no longer chose to follow, if, indeed, she had ever chosen. She was a sail that the impetuous wind pushed to a port, she cared not which, she desired the unexpected.
After a time, she stopped her turning, the condor and the lizard had left her, she had no need of them now, she knew where the sheep grazed and why the wolves gazed at them with brotherly indulgence, and she knew where the chalice lay and tasted the wine which filled it to its brim and was overflowing onto the mists that were bleeding like sunsets and blushing like dawns.
Diana Pollin holds Masters Degrees in Fine Arts and English-American literature from Middlebury College and The Sorbonne University in Paris. She has published dark fantasy on various websites and has completed a novel about her native city, New York, post 911.
Copyright © Diana Pollin