From "The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman", by Elizabeth Gumport
"In order to avoid making her suicide the climax of the film, which would mean once again presenting it as central to her life and work, Willis frames Woodman’s story with that of her parents. The Woodmans begins and ends with Betty and George discussing their own work, in particular a sculpture Betty was commissioned to produce for the American Embassy in Beijing, and whose progress Willis tracks throughout the film. Its installation is at once triumphant and bittersweet. The elder Woodmans often feel their reputations depend on their daughter’s—as if, as Betty puts it, “she’s the famous artist and we’re the famous artist’s family.” George recalls that Woodman killed herself a few days before the opening of his own Guggenheim show.
The Woodmans dispenses with the image some may have of the young photographer as a tortured naif, whose suffering was uncorrupted by ambition or the desire to do anything besides disappear.
Francesca cultivated her reputation and knew, as her friend Betsy Berne wrote, “how to play the game.” Having artists for parents, one friend informs Willis, made success seem imperative, and obscurity particularly painful. It was necessary, she told her father, to make at least one career-related phone call every day. The process of creating a coherent public image is explored in her journal, where she often referred to herself in the third person. In one 1975 entry, she mentions having shown the journal to a friend. “Does it,” she writes, “read as a book one wonders.”
Woodman’s interest in self-presentation—and self-preservation—emerges even in a note written around the time of her first suicide attempt. “I finally managed,” she explains, “to try to do away with myself, as neatly and concisely as possible…. I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you, and some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.” Woodman reverses the traditional terms of the arrangement: death, like photography, is simply a series of chemical reactions. Living is “erasing”; dying a way of ensuring that what was will continue to be, of fixing certain things in place. When Woodman died, she left behind an unpublished artist’s book, a set of five images, called Portrait of a Reputation. "
"...Woodman reveals the injuries that occur in the time it takes to produce a single picture: hair turns wispy, flesh fades and stretches into smoke. The longer her shutter stays open, the blurrier and more transparent bodies will appear, until at last they disappear. Shortly before her death, she began experimenting with a particularly long development process that required her to spend several hours producing a single photograph. In the end, her camera captures not the girl but the long moment it looked at her."
The Woodmans is showing at Film Forum in New York through February 1.
My marvelous aunt, who has read my work for years and gives me all kinds of fantastically useful feedback, sent me this quote a while back- from an artist named Darlene Allen:
"Eventually your art will become someone else's souvenir of your life."
My aunt's an elegant one, and couldn't resist tweaking it a little:
"I thought one could easily change it to "your supposed life," she said.
I wrote back:
"Oh, I love this. Especially with your addition of 'supposed.'
Souvenir is so perfectly placed. I know that I have flags-souvenirs- in my heart and my head for all of my artistic heroes- what I imagine their lives to have stood for...
It's true through: ultimately your work is taken all of a piece and is assumed to be you..."
Fantastic weekend, managed to be somehow lazy and productive. Those quiet, lingering days have a way... been spending stacks of hours at the new cafe down the block (literally half-way down the block: they know me pretty well already...) and what is it that is so satisfying about meeting friends out, working together, chatting, then working on after they've left? I could write a book of love letters to cafes, coffee shops.
Re-vamping the query.... yet again. I stumbled into QueryAgentConnect, which has turned out to be a very helpful crit forum. Lots of serious, hard, fast workers with solid input. Much appreciated.
Both Andrew and I've had some great news today :) He won some major clients over this morning- and tripled the size of his branch of the company. And it's only January... looks like its going to be a massive year for my sweet beem. And I got another scholarship! This time to Martha's Vineyard: two weeks in April to write, and with a stipend, too. (!!) Awfully nice to have two things to celebrate on the same day :)
Kind of inures me against the (often very kind) rejections from literary agents that periodically turn up-surprise!- in my inbox, haha. Every now and again a request for the full manuscript... every now and again polite demurrals, saying that it's just not what they're looking for...
inure, demurral... I've got to get Proust finished up, or he'll infect Savages, hah.
Snow Landscape, in a Glass Globe - by Jean Valentine
A thumb's-length landscape: Snow, on a hill
in China. I turn the glass ball over in my hand,
and watch the snow
blow around the Chinese woman,
calm at her work,
carrying her heavy yoke
uphill, towards the distant house.
Looking out through the thick glass ball
she would see the lines of my hand,
unearthly winter trees, unmoving, behind the snow...
No more elders.
The Boston snow grays and softens
the streets where you were...
Trees older than you, alive.
The snow is over and the sky is light.
Pale, pale blue distance...
Is there an east? A west? A river?
There, can we live right?
I look back in through the glass. You,
in China, I can talk to you.
The snow has settled; but it's cold
there, where you are.
What are you carrying?
For the sake of what? through such hard wind
-And you look out to me,
and you say, "Only the same as everyone; your breath,
your words, move with mine,
under and over this glass; we who were born
and lived on the living earth."
It’s 4:30 in the morning, my roommate’s lover rolls out.
I hear him leave and pad out naked into the dark to check that he’s locked the door behind him- and he hasn’t-
-the burbling fishtank, the silent kitchen, everything blue in the dark-
“Moonlight. Her shadow flew over the room like a sweeping hand as she dipped to fluff her hair, still listening. The expectancy of silence. As if these rooms were waiting for something to happen. Their sudden, prickly closeness pressed in around her like cupped hands: where was he? Mary turned on the light.”
And now I can't sleep. I run from room to room in the house of my head, looking for a place where I can stop thinking. But each of the rooms- I’m dreaming now- has something off about it, until finally I’m in the garage of my parents’ old place on Alvamar. I slip into a sumptuous black town car- whose?- I’m cradled in its cool, soft black leather; sinking into deep sleep, into a final absence of thought.
Then there's a sudden, blistering awareness of the garage door being opened; I’m turning, there’s a trollish man leering there. Red-haired, with an anonymous, generically terrifying face. I’m simultaneously trying to cant myself back against the horn, to slam down the garage door opener, but my body is locked into slow gear. I jolt myself awake, whacking the lampshade so that Andrew flops over, groaning.
Then, as I waft about in unsleep, something whole comes to me. I write it down.
It comes to me now, who the man in my nightmare is.
he’s the man from the soup kitchen in my hometown. I remember that I wrote a story with him in it once, and do a quick search through the old stories on my drive, using terms that I think will be in it.
And boom, there it is. Titled Separation, although I could have sworn I'd always called it The Lizard King. I wrote the thing a long time ago, and there’s bits of truth stitched in between the fiction, so its sort of like having a conversation with my 15-18 year old self. Maybe you'll like it, too. This seems like as good a place for it as any.
Separation, by Pauline West
He was basking in the sun, letting this girl pour herself all over him. She’d been buying him drinks all afternoon, but now he started singing to me from across the patio. He had a wonderful voice. And his eyes could charm the halo off any girl’s finger.
But I hardly reacted. You’d have thought beautiful older men sang to me every day. The thing was, I was there pretending to be a sophisticate--pretending to be glamorous, wearing an old dress out of my grandmother’s closet. It was a dive where the real artists went, and I wanted to make the right impression.
He came to sit with me. I let him stay. The way he moved and spoke made me think he was some kind of lounge lizard king, and I liked it. Before I left, he made me promise I would see him again. He wanted to show me his poetry, he said.
“I hate bad poetry,” I said.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” he said.
“It’s working. You keep messing with your hair.” I reached out and smoothed it behind his ears.
We started seeing each other all the time.
“It doesn’t bother you that I’m fifteen?” I said.
“How old do you feel?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
But Tyler was twenty-eight or something. The truth was, I still felt like a kid. That’s why I wore my grandmother’s dresses. I wanted to learn how to be a woman, a real woman, like my grandmother. She was halfway famous once. When I was little she told me it was because her dresses were magic. “Black magic,” she said. “You can have them when you’re old enough.”
I believed in those dresses. They made me feel like her—mysterious and remote, carelessly elegant. But I wasn’t. I was only a girl, abstract, unfinished. No match for the lizard king.
We liked to sit on the bridge with our legs dangling and throw berries at traffic. We could never do it for long before somebody tried to come up after us, but that day we’d stayed longer than usual. He was teaching me how to smoke.
“No, no, you aren’t breathing in right. You have to breathe it into your belly, see, like this? And then hold it there.”
It burned. “I’m going to swoon,” I said.
“Swoon?” he said. “You read too many books. Come here.” He took a quick, sharp hit, and grabbed me. “Breathe in,” he said, and exhaled into my mouth. I sucked him in and held him there, staring at him while I did it. Something lit and flared at the end of my spine, making me tingle up and down. I glowed at him.
He smirked. “I feel like we just kissed.”
“Kiss me really,” I wanted to say, huskily, like an old-time movie star— but really I just sat there, staring.
He laughed, and helped me stand.
“Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe,” he said. “If I say it a fourth time, you’ll belong to me.”
But after that he was silent.
Our hands lingered; then he had to go away somewhere. I wandered home alone, high as a bat. I teetered at stoplights, waiting for the light to change, and men honked crazily.
I was seeing halos around all the streetlights and it got me thinking about how I used to believe in angels. For some reason I thought the Virgin Mary was my angel. I had dreams about her coming to me in my sleep and everything. Probably in some other age people would have thought I was some kind of shaman. But you learn to be secretive in Catholic school, at least if you've decided not to believe in all the parts that they teach, so I kept Mary my secret.
Stoned and alone in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I couldn't, and felt ashamed. Because I was the kind of girl who was still trying to see angels, or because I no longer could? You tell me.
Another night, Tyler and I were out walking. We’d spent all day together. Now it was dusk, lights were coming on in all the houses. People’s windows were open, and from the sidewalk we could hear inside--people setting their tables while their kids played. Televisions on in the background.
“Electric light takes away the mystery,” Tyler said. “Anytime we feel like it, we can just flick a switch and see what’s really there and what isn't.”
“Huh,” I said. He was always saying things like that, practicing how he sounded. He didn’t care very much what I thought because I was too young to really count. When he started talking like that, I’d just smooth down my dress and relax, letting his handsome voice trail all over me. I didn’t even need to listen to what he was saying. I felt like we were inside a beautiful painting. That was all I cared about.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at him.
“Well, I like to see things as they are,” I lied. “Not the ways I’d imagine them, if everything were dark.”
“I bet you’d believe in God if we didn’t have electricity.”
I shrugged. “He’s the best bedtime story I know.”
“Maybe you need a new bedtime story then.” We stood close together.
“Look, watch this,” he said.
He swept his hand in front of us, and just like that, all the lights in the city went out. He pressed against me in the warm dark.
“Do you believe in God now?” he whispered.
Shrieks and then laughter lifted around us--little kids running to get candles. Soon little dots of light showed behind the curtains of people’s living rooms.
“I love the smell of matches,” I said.
He came closer. I was aware of the warmth of the road as it drifted up beneath my dress. My grandmother’s perfume slipped out from the warm fabric and coiled behind my ears. Ask him to give you a bed-time story, it whispered.
“No,” I said.
He walked me home. He didn’t turn the lights back on, and I was glad. I was embarrassed. For all my bravado, even in my grandmother’s clothing, I still couldn’t figure out how to be a woman. What was my body supposed to do when it was kissed? I was aware of my posture, my movements, but I did not live inside those lines: my body was something separate from me. Where I was actually located, I didn’t know, but I knew that a kiss, a real kiss, required for me to meet him halfway, which I could not do.
I liked the idea of him, and the ideas I had of sex and forgetting, freedom—but suppose you did give yourself over, what if you lost yourself forever? I wanted to learn to live inside my body, live in the moment, but I was so terrified I’d be taken. You can’t ever really trust someone else, especially not with yourself. My secret self was safer where I kept it—in a place unknown even to me.
And Tyler could swallow women whole.
I’d seen him do it—women he introduced to me and then discarded, replaced—women who loved him, who gave themselves to him. They trusted him because he was beautiful. But he ate them whole like fruits, and threw them away. Each one of them probably thought she was going to be the one to change him, but he was insatiable.
I imagined his discarded women drifting like ghosts in the streets, Tyler turning the streetlights out after each of them, one by one. If you love somebody and they throw you away, you can never get over it. Part of your soul disappears, becomes a ghost. My mom was like that after my dad left. She was helpless, like a ghost. Grandmother had no sympathy for it. After a while she didn’t visit us anymore.
Maybe that was why I used to feel like the Virgin Mary was hanging around me all the time. I needed somebody. I’d feel the Virgin touching my back when I was asleep; I was aware of her still when I woke. The way I imagined her, she was very feathery and pale. I believed she was next to me all day, no matter if I was sucking dog kibbles or terrorizing my younger brothers. It was like some kind of secret superpower.
At our school we put on two masses a week. On Sundays, we had to go to a third mass, and afterwards my mom would volunteer us to work at the LINK kitchen, which was this free slop line for the homeless. You chopped up stuff and prepared it, and then you stood behind these big tables and doled it out to the bums. All kinds of them came through. Scary ones, junkies, drunks. Once time there were a bunch of hippies. You didn’t see a lot of those in Kansas. They all walked like they were dancing, and their eyes were shining, some of them were even singing. I told one of the younger guys that his scarf was very beautiful.
He didn’t miss a beat. He dashed it off and tied it around my own neck so that I looked like some kind of Parisian. I couldn’t believe it. The scarf was black silk with red and orange tie-dye. I’d never met somebody who just gave people things, and all I could do was look at him with this big stupid grin.
“Wear it in health, girl,” he told me. I looked for him after we were done serving but I never did see him again.
Mostly it was scary there, but when I felt the Virgin’s hands on me, I could do anything. The hungry people would smile or cough, their mouths were black with desperation—a lot of the time my brothers ducked under the table and hid when someone really creepy came through, but because of the Virgin, I could take up their ladles and serve for them, too.
We could have hidden upstairs in the church, but we didn’t think that way then. That’s the funny part about being a kid—you haven’t figured out how to protect yourself yet. We figured we were stuck there until mom came back, and that was that.
Anyway, one Sunday we were really busy, and I had to go into the outer room for some reason, I think to get more bread. They kept the bread in the room where the bums ate so that if any of them wanted to take a bag home they could take it without needing to ask. As I walked out into this room, a little redheaded man grabbed me. He and I were smaller than everyone else, standing well beneath the sight line of the crowd.
We were the same size, but he was old. He put his face right up to mine. It was terrifyingly blank, emotionless, something from a nightmare. I’d seen him before—a lot of places downtown gave him free coffee and food, like he was some kind of mascot, but now he clamped his hand over my face and started to drag me to the men’s room. He hobbled; one of his feet was clubbed. I saw everything like it was happening from far away, in slow motion, like a dream.
I screamed and screamed, but only inside. My angel had vanished. I felt like one of those baby gazelles you see when the crocodile has it by the neck and the gazelle understands that it will die, but then somehow my mom came from out of nowhere and grabbed me back. She hustled me away from him, and as soon as we were alone she shook her finger in my face.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “Do you hear me? Nothing ever happened, nothing ever happened.” She stood next to me the rest of the afternoon until I’d finished my shift, and then she never took us there again. We didn’t talk about it either. I forgot about my angel Mary. I wore the black silk scarf all the time.
A couple years later I took to wearing the scarf wrapped around my hair, always with these big gypsy earrings. I still religiously wore my grandmother’s magic dresses, even though I’d worn them ratty by then. I was seventeen, and I believed in Jack Kerouac, too, besides her dresses. A fraying black ball-gown seemed like something he would have liked, and I didn’t feel right wearing anything else.
I also had this idea that I needed to get away from the ordinary, safe little life my mother craved, and was always trying to create with her new boyfriends. After a particularly bad day at home, I decided I should see the world instead. Tyler would take me, I figured. We’d been in and out of touch, but when I called him the first thing I said was, “Remember how you told me anytime I needed you, you would come and get me?”
“Yes,” he said.
If he didn’t recognize me right away, he played it off beautifully. And his voice, oh his voice, it was more wonderful than ever. Low and intimate. There were some people at our old bar who called him the Radio, because he was such easy listening. I loved the nights he brought me to parties and I could fall asleep on sofas beside him, his voice slipping into my dreams.
“Where are you?” he said, sounding like he was already right next to me.
“I’m under the tree,” I said, knowing he’d remember the one that I meant.
It was an old tree, easy to climb; we used to climb up into it sometimes instead of going for a walk. I waited for him a long time, day-dreaming about skittering all over the world with the lizard king.
And suddenly he was there.
He was nothing like I’d remembered. His voice didn’t match him anymore—he was skinny and dirty, he was broke, he’d stopped writing (“everything’s been said, anyway,”), and the ponytail I loved was gone.
But I decided to believe that these things were what made him a true poet. He was too pure to care about the conventional trappings of success and competence. We took off in his car, a little hatchback.
He squeezed my thigh, a little shyly. “Watch this,” he said. He waved his hands, and all the stoplights flickered out.
“Seen it,” I said.
Still, it was nice: driving all the way out into the country without having to stop once.
We camped three days. The plan was that we’d live on fish and flowers, but that didn’t work out, so we were always going back to town to get donuts or pizzas out of the dumpsters. Tyler knew all the places.
“I live outside the system,” he said, pulling out a spotless long john. “See? Live free or die. None of that J-O-B stuff, not for me.”
But all the time he was watching me carefully, like he was worried I didn’t believe him. He took a huge bite of the donut. I noticed the skin under his neck had become loose, deflated, like an iguana’s, and all I could think of was that old Peggy Lee song—“Is That All There Is?” I thought we were going on this great adventure, but instead I’d just become another bum. I wondered if this was how that redheaded man fed himself, too.
I was still a virgin and wanted to wait, although I didn’t understand why. Catholic school gives you these knee jerk responses.
“No,” you hear yourself saying, to everything: “no, no, no.”
Tyler said he understood. At night he just kissed me and held me, even though I knew he thought I owed it to him. He’d grind on me from behind, kind of softly, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and this made my heart turn cold.
I started to hate him.
It was only when he went into the trees to take care of himself that I’d think anything nice about him at all. Maybe we were spending too much time together, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be, except inside a book. I wondered if I would have felt different with a real artist, maybe, instead of somebody who just looked like one, talked about being one.
“We should go,” I said, on the third day. “My parents will have called the police.”
“They don’t know about me, though, do they?”
I chewed on my thumbnail. “I forgot my journal,” I said.
So we drove all day and night to Monahans, Texas, where just about everybody is hiding from something, and they know better than to ask you any questions. We got ourselves jobs at a steakhouse. Everybody there stole food all the time, so we always had enough to eat.
We skipped out on rent all over town for months before anybody caught on. Our last night there, with nowhere left to go, we hiked into the sand dunes and went wandering deep into the shifting landscape. Oil pumps heaved up and down under the moon like they were kneading something shameful back into the ground. Scorpions scuttled all over the place.
“Put on your shoes,” Tyler said. Things had changed between us. His voice was bright and hard and flashed in the air.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to.” Even after my feet started bleeding, I wouldn’t put on my shoes. Everything was fine.
Finally the sun roared up on the horizon, and Tyler said he thought he’d go to Mexico. The way he said it, I knew that I wasn’t invited, even though by now he’d said my name plenty of times.
It didn’t count unless you said it four times in a row, though. “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.” I said. “Tyler.” He looked beautiful all of a sudden, with the sun coming up behind him. I felt bad how things were turning out. Also he’d seen me grow up, and I knew that little-girl part of me was going to go with him the moment he left.
“Okay,” he said.
“Listen,” I said.
Someone had tipped me with a little vintage watch on my last day at the steakhouse, and I’d kept it in my pocket. It was the kind you could hear ticking.
Tyler didn’t wear watches because they always stopped when they touched his skin. He was the kind of person who could have turned everything off in the world if he wanted to, but I guess he was afraid. Neither of us was quite all the way shaman. I bet you my grandmother was, though.
He listened to the watch’s polite ticking and smiled. The watch had a picture of a penguin inside, and the man who gave it to me had taught me the word “penguid,” for somebody fat who waddles when they walk.
“It’s for you,” I said. I strapped it to him and listened to the watch’s heart drop silent. “Don’t forget about me.”
“What will you do now?” he said.
I was as surprised as he was when I heard myself say, “I guess I’ll go to college.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and that meant something, because he'd always called me Marlowe.
But I wouldn’t let him kiss me goodbye. I saluted him and went off in the opposite direction. I didn’t look back until I was so far away I knew he couldn’t see me, and then I sat down and cried. You might think two near-shamans might have made a whole person between the two of them, but you’d be wrong.
Now there was even less of me than when we started. My body felt different. There was less of me for the sand and the wind to push against. But instead of blowing back into the desert, it was easier to slip away.
Sometimes I dream that the little man comes back and gets me. I dream that my mother never shows up to save me, and the man takes me down with him, all the way to the darkness. But the Virgin follows me down. She stays beside me the whole time, feeding me dreams within dreams, so that I look the other way and my heart stays safe.
I wonder about what I remember. Maybe it didn’t happen that way—maybe I just wish it did. I’ve asked my brothers about it. They don’t remember our mother ever coming into LINK to pick us up, much less working beside me on the line. So I wonder if time has scabbed across the truth, and it is hidden inside me where I cannot get at it—black under the skin, like a broken blade, my body healed tight around it.
My family has a bonfire every November. We come from all over. My brothers and aunts and uncles, all the cousins. There’s a lot of us. The fire is for brush, but sometimes we also burn old chairs, bad photographs, or court summons. When my grandmother was alive, she threw all her rings in, and the fire burned blue for hours.
I hadn’t been to the bonfire for a long time, but a few years after Tyler left me for Mexico, I decided to show up. My family and I were strangers to each other by then, but they were surprised and happy to see me. They let me stand in their circle to watch them burn up their pasts. We ate gumbo and they sang songs and asked what had happened to my pretty dresses. They seemed pleased that I was in school, and it was nice to see my brothers again, although there wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew where our mother was. I guess I wouldn’t have known what to say to her either.
After a while, I walked back to my car. I had parked a long ways off in the dark. I couldn’t see well. The fields waved in slow currents and it was like crossing a river at night. The world stretched out wide and dark, but I wasn’t afraid. It occurred to me that I was part of it. I was part of everything all around me.
I belonged to it—the prairie, the darkness. Even to my family behind me, huddled around their vanishing pasts. And this vastness, it belonged to me, too: my grandmother’s magic, still alive in her dresses; my mother’s lost ghosts and her angels—I could even feel Tyler somewhere inside me, too, very small as he went across the desert, looking for the place that would love him.
I hoped he would find it.
"It had at once suggested to him a world... of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him... when he returned home he felt the need of it: he was like a man into whose life a woman he has seen for a moment passing by has brought the image of a new beauty which deepens his own sensibility, although he does not even know her name or whether he will ever see her again.
Indeed this passion for a phrase of music seemed, for a time, to open up before Swann the possibility of a rejuvenation. He had so long ceased to direct his life towards any ideal goal, confining himself to the pursuit of ephemeral satisfaction, that he had come to believe, without ever admitting it to himself... that he would remain in that condition for the rest of his days.
.... He would be extremely precise about the recipe for a dish, the dates of a painter's birth and death, and the titles of his works. Sometimes, in spite of himself, he would let himself go so far as to express an opinion on a work of art, or on someone's interpretation of life, bu then he would cloak his words in a tone of irony, as though he did not altogether associate himself with what he was saying.
...But that night, at Mme Verdurin's, scarcely had the young pianist begun to play than suddenly, after a high note sustained through two whole bars, Swann sensed its approach, stealing forth from beneath that long-drawn sonority, stretched like a curtain of sound to veil the mystery of its incubation, and recognized, secret, murmuring, detached, the airy and perfumed phrase that he had loved. And it was so peculiarly itself, it had so individual, so irreplaceable a charm, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend's drawing-room, a woman whom he had seen and admired in the street and had despaired of ever seeing again. Finally the phrase receded, diligently guiding its successors through the ramifications of its fragrance, leaving on Swann's features the reflection of its smile.
But now, at last, he could ask the name of his fair unknown (and was told that it was the andante of Vinteuil's sonota for piano and violin); he held it safe, could have it again to himself, at home, as often as he wished, could study its language and acquire its secret."
-Remembrance of Things Past, Vol 1: Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust.
Here with the night, I take a breath and close the pages, I remember a song.
"There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea..."
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day, a magic day
He passed my way, and while we spoke
Of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn-
Since the death of my brother I have had difficult dreams.
We went home for the holiday, and my mother made a cake for him; the chocolate peanut butter cake she’d made for him on his last birthday.
On that birthday, James has been uncharacteristically excited about the cake- isn’t it strange, what takes on significance when someone has passed?-when someone has been ‘gathered in,’ as my friend Sandy calls it-
James and my mom had gone together to get all the ingredients. He’d helped with every step of making it. The cake itself, its sweet filling, the decadently thick ganache with its muddy black gleam. Then they ate the cake with relish, that day late in July of last year. His last year. My brother, my parents, and the siblings that still live in Kansas, putting aside a large piece to take to our grandparents afterwards.
Now my mother will make the cake to remember him by. Once on his birthday, she says, and again for us all on Christmas.
At home over the holiday, we stand and eat the slices quietly in the kitchen, thinking of him.
Now his cake is in my dreams.
I saw it a few nights ago, inset vertically into a wall; I stood beside it and saw that it was filled with blood, and then I wept, my throat twisting tighter and tighter, as if it were a dry vine. It was a long time before I broke free, finally opened my eyes. A long time before I turned to see Andrew lying beside me, watching me quietly. He held me. There isn’t anything you can say, of course. And worse still no way to understand it, to make sense of it.
For a while I tried to. I tried to think of him at rest, of his being inside of everything. The wet grass on short lawns, the robins that he loved. I tried to think, ‘Now he knows everything’; ‘Now he is at peace.’ A sunlit absence.
But something in me has turned.
On Friday Christopher came over, wearing a light, silky white sweater with soft grey stripes. His favorite leather walking shoes with the elegant stitching along their seams; the tremendous care Christopher uses in choosing everything, then in living it through. We haven’t seen each other in weeks- he’s been working out of town for weeks at a stretch, so that he has plenty of padding when he opens his office later this year.
“And also,” he says, “because I’d like to travel first. And when I travel, I go for a long time.” We hug each other hard, and then we walk out. We will talk all night.
There’s a cool, heavy fog resting over everything, blurring the street lamps and gas lamps into pools of soft, hanging light that is strung in front of the quiet houses. My city sleeps.
We can feel the fog between our fingers. The chill against our necks is delicious. We stand on the porch debating where to go.
“I want wine,” I say; “there’s this place on King I was reading about, Bin 152; wine and cheese…”
“Did we talk about that?” he says, “I’ve been wanting to go there, too!” We decide to wander down along the Battery, exploring the fog, while slowly, deliciously making our way up towards the wine bar, which of course will be open until 2 am, so we have plenty of time.
But quickly, first, there’s a little tiny place he wants to stop in on. It’s tucked away in one of the tiny jewel box neighborhoods of downtown Charleston.
“I walked by it once,” he says. “I remember there were velvet curtains, it looked very decadent, and mysterious, like some place Anais Nin and Henry Miller would have gone.”
“Ah, we’ll go there!”
Driving, the headlights of other cars flare out from nothing and then are absorbed again, as if into a deep, ashy sea.
“I like this,” he says.
The bar is called Elliotborough Mini-Bar. It is tiny; barely larger than our kitchen, with a wood panelling on the walls, floor and ceiling that makes us feel as if we are inside a tiny ship; especially with the cold outside, fogging the glass. There’s a man with a guitar in the corner. The playlist: Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash.
We sit at the bar and each drink a glass of wine slowly, talking, oh, about everything. Love and hopes, art. People fan in and out, wearing long, elegant light winter coats; glazed looks of contentment. The beautiful fog.
Suddenly the bar closes, its eleven at night. We’re shooed out onto the brick sidewalks, our ears ringing with new silence, and the air has emptied over the city. Everything has a washed clarity, as if a hand had carefully tightened up the pencil lines. We park on the Battery and look out at the ocean where the fog still rolls in the distance over the Atlantic, blurring the seam between above and below, and we go wandering sneakily between all the grand old mansions which have stood there for centuries- slipping down narrow, cobbled alleys lit only from the moon, their walls spongy with moss and fern. There’s a strange sense of ownership that comes with walking at night. The way lions and jaguars must feel, as if they own everything that they see. We pass old gardens, flickering lights, and everywhere there is a rich, metallic silence thick in the air.
We speak in whispers.
“This alley,” Christopher says, “think who must have walked here, in the 1600s. These doors- we have doors like this in Peru; mahogany grows there. Feel it, isn’t it beautiful?” He touches the massive door respectfully and then stands back, looking up at the old iron hinges that extend along as far as our arms.
“To maintain something like this, here where it is so wet…”
“We had a piano growing up. The tuner came out every so often to check in on it. Maybe there’s a man whose life revolves around checking in on these doors, keeping them right.”
Where are all the people?
We follow the wet road as it curves back down towards the water, and find an ancient old house that is under construction. It looks like a dungeon from the front, like an old stable from the side, with archways and a curious little courtyard. The gate is open.
We slip in as if we are slipping out of time. The mud is churned, wet and soft beneath its thin dark crust, like ganache, like stirred time, and we circle quietly in the small courtyard, looking at the secrets that will be veiled very soon. There’s a port-a-john, too. Not a car goes by.
As we find our way back towards King Street, Christopher asks me about my dreams. We always tell one another our dreams-
In a sudden, desperate rush, I tell him about my nightmare. The blood and the cake.
“What do you think it meant?” he said.
We walked along quietly as I thought. Two men passed us, one of them wearing chef’s pants and a beard, talking about his diversion. Christopher remained intent. He doesn’t even seem to see the other two. They disappeared down the street, their voices with them.
“I think it must have meant that it’s been senseless of me to try to frost the situation, to try to make any sense out of it- his death was a horrific tragedy. And that’s all. He was in terrible pain. And then he died. That’s what happened, that’s all that happened. There’s no sugar-coating it. There’s no sense in it, either.”
“What shape was the cake? Was it a circle?”
“Actually- it wasn’t. Which is relevant because when she makes his cake, it’s always a circle. But in my dream it was a rectangle, like the cakes she made when we were kids.” I looked at him. “Because, you know, there were six of us. She had to make a lot of cake to feed all of us. I guess that must mean it was about my childhood.”
“And was it cut?”
“Undigested,” he said. “Maybe you are still processing things.” He asks me to name the dream- to make it a little less painful, I imagine, and after some reluctance, I do.
Now we had found Bin 152, which was on the low end of King. It was a simple space, quiet, with only two other threads of people in it. Drinking wine quietly, end of a night. We were hungry. We stood at the bar and ordered with the studied focus that comes with a sudden floor-drop in blood sugar.
Taleggio, prosciutto, red wine; I tell Christopher about the orgasmic Epoisses de Bourgogne Abby and I brought from Ted’s Butcher Block to Billy & Tony’s; “I’ll have to bring you some.”
“Yes, we need another wine and cheese night soon.”
We sit by the front window in curve-back chairs, waiting for our cheese board.
“I have these imagistic dreams,” I say, “Whereas yours are journeys.”
He smiles at me fondly, and I ask for his dreams.
He tells me. We sit and discuss, we talk about dreams that sometimes one has to live with for a while, as if they were paintings to be visited again and again, learning a new thing slowly each time.
We talk about love, about those who present unconditional love.
“For people like you and I, it drops them in our estimation, doesn’t it? Because we feel someone should have to be worthy to be loved. And yet, it’s so pure when someone can love that way. It's so beautiful.”
“Yes,” he says.
It’s 1:30, then its 2. Time to go home. Now people are in the streets, there are voices in the distance, turned out from other bars.
We hug goodbye.
“I love you so much,” I say to him; fiercely, strangely.
He laughs. “I love you,” he says.
Inside my Andrew is waiting for me. We sleep late into the morning. I finish making the croissants, and he adores them. I put them by a window to cool, and he keeps sneaking back towards them, sneaking off flaky tails. I give them to him for his breakfasts all week, with a fried egg and cheese inside. With black grapes, and blacker coffee…
We’re making plans for the small supperclub we’re running now in lieu of Boomchow, which he’s had to put to the side for now. (Too busy with his freighting business.) However, the buy-ins for this tiny supperclub (10 people, who all pay in cash, for gourmet meals 3x a week) will cover both our food bills and then some, allowing us to save a little money in joint for a down payment on our someday house. He knows how desperately I want more solitude. I love to see friends a few times every week, and certainly I love our dinner parties- even the occasional wild shit-show- but there’s a social tax that comes with living with others. The constant flow of people in and out of the house; to have to stop what you’re doing all the time, unless you happen to be hiding when they come in...
(It’s expensive to just get along in Charleston, much less to set aside enough for a down payment on one’s own place. We’re paying as much for our little room here as we did for the three bedroom adobe we had back in Tucson, the one with a huge yard and our own pomegranate tree.)
The day escapes. We cook late: six huge chicken pot pies for our subscribers. I alternate putting in the billing and bookkeeping for my dad’s office with chopping & stirring, sliding in pies, trimming, covering and uncovering crusts. They are all of them beauties.
Next day in the early morning I go out with Sandy to Magnolia Cemetery. As is our wont, he shoots pictures while I look at trees, birds, mausoleums.
Wearing his duck boots, and a thick khaki jacket, Sandy tells me stories in his elegant gravelly voice between taking photographs; stories about the French and English Charleston aristocracy; how he and Donna met back in the late 60s. Stories about architecture, about the construction of the mausoleums. Memories of photographs he snapped here decades ago, capturing the statues and wrought iron gates that no longer exist.
We had a lovely time, we always do. But when we said goodbye, he asked me if I was feeling all right. We were sitting in his car in front of my house. There was an open mug of coffee between us in the shape of a camera’s lens cap: a Christmas gift from his daughter.
Stray kittens went skittering back and forth across the road. Startled, I apologized, explaining that I’d slept badly, that I’d been thinking about my brother.
Sandy responded with a story, the way he does.
“One of our friend’s children committed suicide when he was 18. He hung himself. The thing that was perplexing was that he’d had everything. John was the top of his class. He was handsome, he was an excellent sailor. His family, they were all sailors. There was no note.
But the pastor told us this story afterwards- it was at the wake, or maybe it was at the funeral, I can’t remember. John had been in some kind of race. He’d got his sailboat so far ahead of the others that he couldn’t even see any of them. He was winning by such a stretch that it wasn’t a race at all, he was that good. Then for no reason at all, he did a jib twist, or some such thing- which you really don’t want to do, and he capsized his boat. He nearly died right then and there.
Then, not long after, he did the same thing again. It was if he wanted to die, as if he’d already outpaced the others and was just- finished already.” Sandy paused. “Or anyway- wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
Because the really bad twist was- about six months before that, John’s uncle, the man he was closest to in all the world- his uncle shot his brains out in a sailboat.
Then John’s father made him come out with him to clean the boat afterwards. ’m sure John never got over it.” Sandy sighed, looking out the car’s window, thinking of faces I had never seen.
“Well, that's a depressing story,” he said. “I guess I don’t know why I told it to you.”
“It’s all hard sometimes,” I said.
We hugged and kissed cheeks and then I went in. I dissolved into numbers, a computer screen: working standing up beside the big window in our bedroom (so to not be bothered), my laptop propped on top of the dresser… the day and then the week beginning to fold away into work...
My best memory of James is after a wedding. It was late at night; we were running around the outbuildings in the dark. Sam was there, and Haydon, Sean, Andrew. We were yelling and happy, and James and I had been out in the hall earlier, talking about forgiveness, betrayal, our plans for tomorrow, for the next year and the one after that. We were exhilarated, intense; we’d been very close, and then had had a falling out, now we would be close again:
I grabbed him and hugged him- I grabbed the sides of his face and pressed his forehead to mine:
“I love you so much,” I said. “You and me, we aren't like the others, so we have to stick together. I understand you and love you so much. It is going to be ok.”
And we were crying and he said he loved me too, and thank you, yes yes we were the same. We were running again- oh James I wish we were still running and never had to stop- but not long after that he fell down again, and truly I could not understand. It is a disease, they tell you: why could I not understand? God help me, I thought it was weakness. I thought that if he just pulled himself up-
But his demons always ended up pulling him down.
And although James would continue to scrape upwards, and then to fall down again- for many years-
to claw upwards, and then to fall down again: although he would sell his music, although he would win a golf championship, although throughout it all he would stay in school and teach our youngest brother ways of being a man, I stopped knowing how to love him. And James and I were never able to get back there again, to press our foreheads together in that blood-deep, bone-deep understanding.
Deeper even than that, my dear. One black ship knows another, after all.
Yet I stopped knowing how to love you.
Yet you went on loving me, in your gentle, selfless way. Expecting nothing, always ready to forgive, to understand.
The forgiveness, the understanding you needed from me, which I was unable to give. Would that I could give it to you now. I would give anything to give it to you now.
Sail on, my gentle brother. Good ship, gentle night: rest in peace. We are still the same. We always were. I am sorry for letting go of your hand-
You never let go of mine.
Everywhere I look, there are people just trying to get through their day. For some, it is a heroic struggle just to smile. That tall, uncertain boy crossing the room, his familiar shaky smile. When it costs us nothing to be kind, to love without expectation- why is it so hard to remember?
As I write this, my cat lies dreaming of his mother, sucking at the air. And I am suspended between worlds.
Speaking of dreams to be visited again and again, we have one of Sandy's framed photographs over our sofa. Its a close-up of rusty materials; a red metal 'moon' hanging above a torn blue sea. I look at it all the time, and the image brings me more happiness than I can express. You can visit Sandy's website at the link below.-
Cheers, Sandy dear. Thank you for your stories, in person and in the frame.
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
ratings: 27 (avg rating 4.04)
ratings: 24 (avg rating 3.46)
Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
ratings: 10 (avg rating 4.40)
Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.17)
Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.25)