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Table of Contents

Chapter Eight

There must be periods in every life that, in retrospect, are seen to have represented phases. Usually only long after the periods have passed do they reveal themselves for what they really were, the hidden truths bobbing tentatively to the surface of awareness. These truths are the preoccupations, tendencies, trajectories that have carried you through periods of grace and growth, or transported you through less amiable times when some particular characterizing behavior repeated itself with dark cagey thematic variations like some troublesome spiritual leitmotif. Months or years have passed and you look back, and though it’s painful to consider these mysterious dramas you’ve already left them behind and stand safely on another shore, buffered, immune – not from the repercussions or lingering effects, the karma, but far enough removed to contemplate these unhappy periods with a degree of quiet equanimity and self-forgiveness, if you’re lucky. But sometimes it happens that you’re awake to the themes as you cycle through them, like a dreamer aware of the dream pedaling its way forward, and instead of observing them from behind a blessed buffer of distance and protection, you realize that you’re nakedly enacting the themes without the buffer of time’s broad gulf, and this experience can be devastating.

As I stand here at the door I promised myself I wouldn’t open without Sage, I realize that this is the golden era of my brittle promises.

I steer the key through shadows sculpted by streetlights and turn it like ignition in the lock, stepping into the hush that the narrow hallway retrieves from the rest of the house and lays at my feet like an Irish Setter returning with a lifeless duck dangling on a perforating snarl. I stand here and the hallway draws the darkness from within the folds of a narrow ebony trench coat and aims it at me, the point-blank range of blackness pressing its cold barrel against my head.

Since I’ve broken the promise I decide to punish myself further by not turning on the lights. I’d rather stumble through the rooms like an intruder, like someone who doesn’t deserve to see where he’s going.

The walls harbor stories here, the floors and ceilings, the air in between.

I don’t turn the bedroom light on either, in accordance with the logic of my crime and this self-imposed punishment of blindness. Dimly the bed I see is a jewelry store and the thief of Sage’s absence has tossed a brick through the plate glass window.

I lie down on the bed where at night her body races with heat while she sleeps, like a flaming cord of firewood running the Kentucky Derby, or like August sprinting under the covers toward a finish line of September.

A season of sleep is what I need, an autumn of falling-leaf slumber. Legs straight out, arms at my side, head heavy as a carafe filled with a listless-tasting chardonnay of thought and motionless on the pillow, I stare for a time at the plaster on the ceiling. But I won’t sleep. I came here because this bed is full of stories.

The first real story I told Sage was my own. It was 6 months before we married.

“Tell me a story,” she demanded.

“Happy or sad?”

I had never seen eyes like Sage’s before and I had a tendency to look into them as though I were a child who has foolishly spent his money on a proper lunch at school and now could only stare with longing into a display counter chaotic with candy, mouth filling with taunt of saliva.

Despite the fact that our eyes were frequently pinned open through the night by fishhooks of insomnia, hers remained undisturbed by the fatigue that swam through the whites of my eyes like schools of ruby salmon. Buried in this color so pure that it could rightly be compared with foam riding unblemished rapids, the amber in Sage’s eyes seemed to spread without gradation from retina to pupil, an amber so dense and rich that you hungered for a feast of Hershey once you saw the pupils beneath their thick twist of black licorice lashes.

“If this is one about you, then sad. Because I know all the happy ones. Not that I want you to be sad, but because I want to know everything about you.”

She wants Datcher to talk about his childhood. They’re soon to be married and she would like to know everything there is to know about him.

They’re in bed and the headlights of passing cars slide and tilt across the bedroom ceiling like children who lose their footing when the ice suddenly breaks on a frozen lake. Sometimes a siren wails in the distance from the north, only to be answered minutes later by another shrill siren spinning like a tornado across distances from the south, as though a slow chess game is in progress and the advance of a black pawn is mirrored in a countermove by a white pawn, resulting in an impasse.

They should be sleeping. Tomorrow will be a long day for both of them. Tomorrow will be the kind of day where, as heavy bricks of hours are stacked one upon the next, shoulders round woefully under invisible weight: soul-numbing repetitive limbo of jobs tolerated but despised. They should be sleeping but Sage wants to hear this childhood story.

Half sitting with his back against the headboard, Datcher smoothes the blanket as though preparing a tablecloth for an elaborate meal with many courses.

“Want to see my imitation of Peace Datcher?” she asks. Without waiting for an answer, she begins somberly smoothing the sheets, her lips thoughtfully pursed. She tosses her hair, no longer dyed blonde and returned now to natural raven-wing black shading in places to amber, in such a way that it hangs brokenly before her eyes: somber cascade of dreadlocks into face.

“You want to hear it or not?”

“Anything Peace Datcher has to say, this girl wants to hear.” But she keeps smoothing the blanket, pursing her lips. She is a great exponent of letting the inner child romp and frolic on the playground of whimsy, ignoring the adults who stand off to the side resentfully blowing the game-over whistle.

He waits. For he is nothing if not patient.

He is seven years old and his parents are taking him to visit his grandparents in Rockwell City, Iowa. His parents have made a pallet for him in the back seat of their black Buick and they have driven for days across several states in stern August heat. They are pursued by thunderstorms dragging their judge’s robes across the sky. From the back seat Datcher sees rain and his father’s eyes reflected in the rear view mirror. As always his eyes are pieces of floating driftwood, lost and powerless as though tossed by tides.

In Rockwell City the days go by pleasantly, his experiences a porridge of rural sights, sounds, smells stirred lazily together by the sun’s sweltering ladle. One day his father drives Datcher to the public swimming pool downtown, mysteriously called a “natatorium.” His father then leaves, promising to return in approximately two hours.

Dressed in bright red swimming trunks, Datcher stands self-consciously at the lip of the pool, blinking into the spectral blue water at a group of children of varying ages, splashing and yelling. Chlorine drifts through the air like tissues yanked from a Kleenex box. A group of about five children climb out of the pool and stand around him, whispering in low tones among themselves at first, then becoming alarmingly bolder. Finally a freckle-faced boy points at him and exclaims loudly, Look, a nigger!

Datcher has a sudden full awareness of something that had previously danced, in an ill-coordinated fashion, as though on an icy floor, across the surface of his mind: that the entire town, with its meager population of 800, was filled with people who in some fundamental way looked nothing like his grandparents, or his father or mother, or him. Nigger hangs above his head, a guillotine blade in the afternoon’s heat and sudden stillness. He shivers in the heat, his flesh contracting toward invisibility. Hornets of eyes swarm about him, stinging the parts of his body that have not been absorbed into invisibility.

Datcher’s father picks him up in two hours as promised, and on the way home he asks, Dad, what’s a nigger? His father stares unblinkingly out the windshield while driving and after a long deliberation answers, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Don’t ask me ridiculous questions.

“So now imagine this child,” Datcher now proposes to Sage, “the resentment he feels for this man who not only didn’t explain the way things were so that the kid wouldn’t go stumbling out in the world unprepared for what he’d find, but then totally denied the validity of the kid’s experience.”

Sage says, “Maybe what he meant to say was that he refused to invest the whole concept with any validity and that it was ridiculous to act as though it had any reality.”

Datcher, ever in search finer distinctions, always splitting atoms of analysis in accordance with his nature, goes on to explain how, at the age of seven, in Rockwell City, Iowa, that was the beginning. That was his day of commencement, somber as any ritual of sacrifice. That was the day when the curtains parted and the storm of confetti fell on the hypothetical nigger.

From then on he begins to see with nigger eyes and taste with a nigger tongue and hold objects of both animus and affection in nigger hands. He spends nigger money and cries nigger tears, does nigger math and swims nigger laps, eats nigger food and walks through nigger cities, talks on nigger cell phones and pays nigger taxes, operates nigger computers and signs nigger checks, bleeds nigger blood and breaths nigger air, prays nigger prayers and feels his heart expand when he sees the fullness of a nigger moon.

They both listen to the sirens rising and falling in the distance. They watch the shadows sliding and tilting across the bedroom ceiling like children who lose their footing when the ice suddenly breaks on a frozen lake.

To end the story, strike the chord that pulls the dissonance of the memory back to the reconciling resonance at rest in the root of the tonic, he states that he will always remember his father’s eyes held captive in the Buick’s rear view mirror. He elaborates, saddened into inspired closure, that he had not known at the time that they were the eyes of a hypothetical nigger. What he had known was they were like driftwood, lost and powerless. He finishes by telling Sage that he tries to recall how the rest of his father’s face looked, but the only other thing reflected in the glass that day was rain.

“Oh Peace, what we let them do to us is awful.”

“It’s no good to think in terms of they, Sage. It only leads to fallacious patterns of thinking. And if you’re not careful, you become just like them, you become the they.”

“I know that, silly. Always the professor, huh? Even in bed with a ravishing creature who it should be obvious is capable of seeing through fallacious patterns of thinking, always the prof. And tell me this. If I don’t say they – let’s say purely as a semantic convenience – to whom would I refer?”

“You ask me this at 2 in the morning? That’s rhetorical, right?”

“Not entirely. And anyway, when you come right down to it, what isn’t rhetorical? Wait here. Goroshneam hala, that’s right, now I’m hungry. I’m going to the kitchen.”

“There’s nothing in there but mustard.”

“So? Looks like mustard at 2 in the morning, then. And when I come back I expect an answer, professor.”

She returns from the kitchen with a bottle of Dijon and a spoon. “Okay. How To Avoid The Fallacy of They, late-night lucubrations with professor Datcher at the pillow podium. Go ahead, tell me.”

So I do.

                                             +++

And there were the stories we told each other without words, and the stories that came crashing into our home, catapulted by the world outside our walls.

One week after Sage and I moved into the one-bedroom frame house we leased, the doorbell rang, like a discarnate chill in search of a habitable bedridden body.

Standing at the door was a UPS delivery woman, calves so boxy with beefy muscle I was surprised they weren’t hanging frozen from meat locker hooks. With the fat writing wand attached by coiled cord to the electronic clipboard she’d thrust at me, I smeared Vaseline signature on the little gray plastic window and, the transaction completed, a hasty shove in the shape of a package rummaged into my chest, imitating a bibliophile’s dogged dig to the bottom of a rare-book bin. I stood at the door, watched her stomp away in her beige utility blouse and shorts and ankle-high black boots to a mud-colored elephantine UPS truck without doors parked at the curb, trumpeting exhaust through a proboscidial tailpipe, and she drove away to the next stop on her safari of delivery.

“What’s that?” Sage asked when I walked into the living room with the box. She was practicing yoga on a Persian rug that would have sold for $3,000 or more in any carpet emporium here but had been purchased at a bazaar for the equivalent of 38 U.S. dollars in the town of Ahwaz, where Sage was born and many of her aunts and uncles still lived. A distant cousin had come to America to pursue Sage’s hand in marriage when she was 16 and, after staying 3 months, had returned to Iran, spurned and heartbroken. Each year he dutifully sent Sage a birthday present. Last year he had paid astronomical freight fees to ship her the rug.

“This is a package,” I answered, “possibly containing an earlier and less impressive pair of the UPS woman’s calves.”

It was a strange thing to say but I’d said it and Sage immediately committed herself to the remark’s capriciousness, eager as always to seize any opportunity for conversational free association. “Calves in a box, sockless or with socks?”

“Sockless, just the calves themselves.”

“So you noticed these UPS-fortified calves, I’m seeing.”

“I noticed their thickness, verging on the grotesque.”

“Calves in a box, not with the socks. Though they’d possibly be sexier with the socks, which might detract from the grotesque thickness. A woman who knows where she’s going, and gets there, rapidly, in distracting socks, could be seen as a thing of sexiness.”

“Then what you really have is an example of sexy socks.”

Sage stretched on the rug in her white bibbed jeans, insinuating herself into the asana called The Cobra, her pelvis’ press pinning the floor into submission, her back’s arch a hammock for indolent felines, head thrown back as though watching a sleek shooting star. She continued, “A woman who drives a truck, manipulating the stick shift with fetishistic gusto, hefting packages until her shirt contracts around a light sheen of sweat, as I myself am now similarly sheened. Walking through the door at the end of the day, hair tumbling from beneath her UPS cap when she lifts it, a gal who brings home the bacon on sassy calves that would require lengthy kneading, deep massage.”

“She would clearly require vigorous deep-tissue massage<” I agreed. “The kind that hurts.”

Surprise rode up her forehead on the escalator step of an eyebrow, stayed stuck at the top like mechanical failure. “Sounds like you’d like to” – she made quotation marks with her fingers – “massage me.”

“Maybe I’d like to, but I’m afraid you’ll somehow injure me with your not-so-thick but nevertheless sturdy calves.”

“Always it’s maybe with you. No massage and I’ll hold you personally responsible for my eyebrow staying stuck.”

How did she know I had focused on her eyebrow? In a sense, I wasn’t even surprised anymore by the fact that she could see what I saw, as if my eyes were first her eyes and then defaulted to my sight, wasn’t surprised that my thoughts only seemed to emerge from concealment and become fully knowable to me when the enclosion was kindled by her own thoughts refracting light first borrowed from my mind’s dimly lit corners. I didn’t want to be responsible for an eyebrow’s incarceration in perpetual surprise and so I went, found myself following my desire to its source in the sanctuary of Sage’s body.

I knelt. Her pores my tongue’s astronomy, I sought each one on her arm and mapped it by taste until constellations filled my mouth, each pore a star that held at its core a sweetly mortal grain of salt. Her shoulders reminded me that bones were more than blades, that the flesh was also home to sphere and dome, and I capped both with my palms to remember that what was round and warmly firm could resemble a cool soft spill, a tapering away that intimated escape and fooled the fingers into pursuit, my hands chasing the phantom migration of roundness as it pooled in her breasts’ bottom billow and cupping the weighted crescents beneath the unsnapped bib. The pose of The Cobra had been abandoned and Sage pulled me down, her unfluttering abdomen abetting a controlled descent backward with her arms clasped behind my head. I murmured, the black T wetsuit-tight and fused to her torso lifted, my lips falling like rambling unruly sentences seeking her nipples’ strict punctuation, the brownly puckered pinks erasing whole paragraphs jotted in haste so that it became necessary to start over again and again, until rhythm and pace yielded an unhurried eloquence.

Through the kitchen door’s window, middle-of-the-afternoon light, a mixed tint of tangerines and crisp green Mutsu apples, watercolored the walls and half the ceiling, the room recessed in an orchard stillness.

Somewhere outside a kid’s miniscule yell drifted like a kite on a five-mile string, the stillness in the room shifting only slightly to accommodate the sound, the way two obese men on a bus seat can only make room for a string-thin interstitial passenger. I remembered things, forgot them. Sage laughed, at nothing. For a moment I felt a rose-thorn prick of sadness and isolation, because I wouldn’t ever know what had just made her laugh, what quirky colors had burst in the fireworks of sudden happiness cascading down her secret world’s sky, unless I asked. And this was the throne on which my sadness sat, decreeing my acquiescence: if she answered to tell me why she’d laughed, then the silence where she lived with her deepest self would be shattered by explication and its richness would no longer be available to me except in the form of shards, fragments, dilutions.

Our clothes were gone, nowhere to be seen, as if they had removed themselves and had politely left the room to avoid prurient voyeurism. Her hands, one on either side, played along the ripple of my ribcage, touching the narrows one by one, moving on their heels as though pressing the petals of an organ. Then the ribcage became a chamber, an auditorium echoing with careless acoustics that raked my chest with silken vibrations. She played through my scales, modulating to different key signatures, then resolved to the tonic where she’d started, concluding with a gentle chord. Introducing a note of playful dissonance, she clucked a mildly disapproving triplet of tsks with the tip of her tongue. “Too thin. Don’t you eat what I feed you?” For my answer I took her hand and placed it over my heart, letting her feed on the full feast of its beating. Sage dissolved into an unabashed melt for these kinds of sentimental demonstrations, although she typically tried to quickly fix a hard bonnet of cynicism over that soft spot vulnerable as an infant’s flushed fontanel. I wanted to say you’ve awakened a hunger in me that can’t be satisfied but this would have been too much, even for Sage in her most melting tolerant mood, yet it was true, and she must have sensed it, because she swung herself on top of me with an urgency inspired by my tender gesture.

I could feel it, that melting, a liquid whisper that warmed like a thawing season from the center of her straddle and pressed an April dew on my navel. The body is weather wrapped in skin, makes precipitation in a million elaborate ways, crudely, sagaciously, primitively, divinely. “I know you,” she said, looking down at me. “Try hiding from me and you’ll find out I know exactly where to look to find you.” It was an intricate threat, a promise, an insight, a shattering observation, an answer to an unasked question, a challenge, an assertion grounded not so much in truth as in grace. My world was filled with shrouded hiding places where no one had found me because no one had possessed the stamina or desire to keep on looking when I disappeared. “I don’t need what you need,” she whispered, “so I have nothing to lose when I give it to you.” My honesty had limits, hers didn’t. My bridge to other people was veiled in mist and when I caught rare glimpses of them I dropped a monocle of observation before my eye that was yet another integument of mist. I was this way simply because I lacked either the vitality or versatility to be other ways, though other ways were a source of deep theoretical preoccupation for me. Sage was the way she was too, but that was never enough for her. That sort of loneliness was not something she saw as being inevitable. Not even the rising of the sun was inevitable for her, and I had difficulty understanding how anyone could find her way from one day to next through such a labyrinth of radical contingency, or what the reward might be.

The proof that her disbelief in inevitability was authentic was that it resided in her body rather than in her mind, and she expressed it now in the way her body disconnected from the future, from the knowledge of the pinnacle calling down to us in the aching arc we climbed. This could be learned, fashioned and refined through techniques transmitted in seminars on Tantra, but she hadn’t learned it, unless she’d taught it to herself – autodidact of the physical, mind meshed to matter, tutor to her own pupil. Her body’s sense of time did not unfold toward inevitability, instead it inhered in clairvoyance. “I don’t get it,” I responded to her statement, and she said, “No?” and I answered, “Not one bit,” and her not-unkind reply was, “Then don’t get it,” and this whole line of thinking lobbed back and forth between us and was finished off with get it, got it, good. She served me her tongue like an illegal search warrant, stripping me of all rights except that of an inalienable passion, and there was a long sigh as the straddle sank and the cold yearning space that separated us was slowly consumed and filled with compression, accommodation, rhythm, ripples of sauna-water warmth, outside and inside intermingling.

We were in precarious complicity like surfer and wave, statue-still sleeper and the wavering kinesis of dream. Kissing, our teeth clashed like enamel fenders and struck ivory spark, saliva rushing in like firefighters to flood the flames. Some of the things I was afraid of rose up momentarily and fell away – protracted sickness and infirmity, fire breaking out in an elevator stalled between floors, the kind of father I might be, a god that saw everything but didn’t give a shit (the evidence feeding this last fear the hurting indelible September 11 image in The New York Times of the Falling Man plunging to his death from the World Trade Center, his body for one misleading moment in such perfect aesthetic alignment with the building’s vertical lines that he seemed almost preternaturally relaxed, miraculously beyond fear or even resignation, as though he had decided to make a defiant sculpture of finality and fate, triumphing over the incomprehensible horror of such a death in the apparent decision to mock or embrace it, arms stretched behind him and knee casually bent in a head-first torpedo dive reminiscent of a capeless Superman arrowing sleekly from space to Earth, but other photos in the series of the same man falling made you ashamed to have dehumanized and glorified his death by attributing to it an heroic transcendence): my airy mosaic of clichéd fears, rising up from what must surely have been a cookie-cutter psyche and falling, crumbling away.

Sage more tightly wreathed my head in her hands and in the humid Cameo-soap scented hollow beneath the junction of her shoulder and arm a voluptuous pleat of flesh softly incised by the overbite of her breast’s resilient rim was maximized by her low forward bend, a spicy secluded sulcus I found so erotic that I always buried my face there, my nose and nuzzling lips smothered in the creased crush, Sage in her draping crouch seeming to succumb to what she engulfed me in. I spied a dimpled concave behind and below her right ear, abutted by the finely etched hairline’s sweep, where the skin pulsed with a tiny vein throbbing next to the small plum-colored splash of a birthmark, and the sharp left-lobed clip-on crescent moon earring sickled the stubble on my jaw, snagged in my threshing dreadlocks, was lost in their sheave’s coarse black wheat.

Her hips were a churn and with a dairy maiden’s desire to froth cream into butter, so she motioned me to butter-like textures, but butter that burned in its swirl and spread through my pelvis like a tempest.

Gravity read our minds and quarter-rolled the world and it capsized and we came to rest on our sides, our legs scissored and newly entangled, our eyes so close they crossed, our spines lengthening like swords unsheathed to slash us closer, our ears open to the tambourine jangle of breath, the orchard shadows enclosing us in thickening foliage, and our fingers glided on their tips, the cooling draft from beneath the front door unfurling a velvet tongue, the coiling and clashing, the sweat a reversal of rain as it pounded up and poured out of cumulus skin, the claws of our cries having nothing to cling to but the spiral we were riding, and then there was the letting go, the surrender without defeat that was yet an annihilation, the decimation that left us whole, the shuddering obliteration that left us unvanquished.

Gradually we slipped out of our entwinement, backs to floor and eyes flitting free association across a Freudian ceiling, fingers interlaced as though we had decided to take a casual stroll, holding hands, through the meandering orchard above, where beyond the citrus wash we saw and heard the kite of another child’s distant playful scream. A car passed down the street in a swish of hypnosis, the diminishing sound of the tires conjuring a doughy sluice through water though the streets weren’t wet. At the same time we both announced in parched voices the need to quench a prodigious thirst. The kitchen was right around the corner but the trek to the refrigerator with the bottles of Welch’s grape juice that would frost the throat with arctic nectar may as well have been, in our languor, the distance from heaven to hell.

“I’m thirsty,” Sage said. “Awfully.”

“I’m not going,” I said, “why? Because I always go.”

“Chivalry is dead and you are its corpse. We’ll flip for it.” She pretended to thumb-flick a coin, clapped her palm down on the back of her hand. “Tails. YOU LOSE. Hurry back.”

When I came back with the bottles she was sitting on the floor with the box on her lap. We had no idea who this box, the size of a dresser drawer, was from and it bore no evidence of a return address. With her feet flat on the floor, the package seemed to have been punted over a goal post of upraised knees and caught between pinioning thighs. Ripping the flaps open, she tossed aside crumpled newspaper that had been stuffed in and around as packing material. Inside was yet another box, this one wallet-sized. She opened it and the mouse of a squeak slipped through her lips as she scooted away, dropping the box.

“What?”

“Jesus …”

I put the bottles down and picked up the box she’d thrown.

Laying in a bed of blood-stained cotton was a finger that had been sawed off above the knuckle joint.

It was loosely wrapped in a note with the name of the boyfriend she’d left more than a year ago printed in bold block letters: Dodge – with a little yellow smiley face sticker grinning blandly from the paper’s right corner, on the left a heart shedding maudlin tears through a center-seamed broken-toothed rift, drawn in red Crayon thick and waxy as a daze.

The note said:

“What has it been now since you left me, 48 weeks? Van Gough had the better idea but I refuse to plagiarize to that extent, so here’s a symbol of my continuing distress, a rubber finger I bought at a novelty store. The finger’s not real but my pain is, and this is the symbol of my pain. I’ve thought about the mistake I made and I apologize, Sage. I know you’ve gone on with your life and you’re with someone else now, but has it occurred to you that he is nothing more than an interloper? If you think about what we shared, you’ll know he can never give you what I did. If you ever need to talk, the way we used to talk, I’m always here for you. You know how to reach me, forever yours and love-embedded, Dodge.”

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