Additional edits: 1987, 1996, 2009
Adapted into a play (A New Theory of Vision) 2009.
Who said, “who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?”
These words gnaw at the mind. I search through anthology after anthology. The mind wanders. Worries. To whom do I speak (when speaking)? Can I remember the next word long enough to say it? Is there continuity? Do others, looking deeply into my eyes (or avoiding them) perceive these thoughts about me, and them?
She, for example. Her eyes are green. And a vermilion scarf. Contrasts are so appealing to the mind. Why does she play with her smile like that? As if she cannot commit to it. Should I interrupt myself to tell her indecision is an all-consuming acid that leaves no trace when done?
Reality check: It’s still a restaurant. As always, I am speaking. What am I talking about? I can’t hear the words. The mind dwells on these irrelevancies as I talk to both of them. Do they like me? I can’t tell. The other one is quite attractive. Is the reason for remembering who said beauty passes like a… why can’t I remember? Too late. The talk has drifted. Can’t bring it back up. It would be a rude non-sequitur. What if it were introduced as a metaphor? Metaphors are non-sequiturs. These two ladies are artists. Artists work metaphorically. They would understand, right?
Most people cannot connect even the most obvious metaphor to reality. You have to be sensitive. Most people are not. It takes years to receive culture. It doesn’t come naturally. I remember for example how much I hated “modern” art when I first saw paintings by Klee and Kandinsky. Is it worth it? Doesn’t it taint you somehow? To appreciate anything artistic, one must be trained. For example, the dress and manners of audience and actors at a play would seem absurd to an outsider untrained in our conventions. They might watch the audience instead of the players or jump up as curtain closes and rush back, to see what mysteries are being hidden.
That melody. Radio. “Music increases pleasure in food and company.” That melody. It has been playing in the mind all day. It sounds like something—what? Someone.
Am I still talking? Will I never shut up and give them a chance? Look. They look bored. They can even tell my mind isn’t on what I’m saying.
I wish they would turn down the music in here. What makes a mem… uh… melody haunt you? Three notes. Sounds like whistling. There.
Jane… Dunley? Why her? A restaurant? No. A rust-red couch, stained green carpet, chrome metal legs, fake walnut table-top, scratched; long candles that stank of paraffin, dry roses in a vase, cracked. And yes. That melody. Three notes. A song from the 1920s. The words,
“... What is the emptiness? The sound of breaking glass. The ring of the telephone. When you are gone and I’m alone?”
No, no, no. Those aren’t them.
Did we finish dinner? The plates stained with gravy. Clear, brown. Smell of blood. Dry roses. Nubs of gray-yellow corn, cold carrots, bottle of chartreuse, drained, champagne bottle, empty. I certainly didn’t pay for all that. It’s all made up, it’s from a film. Resnais, Alain. Did the melody play when she wanted to go see the house?
I shut up! About time; must have been an hour nonstop. Did I bore them? No. She talks, green eyes flash—at me? Can’t tell yet. Very slight pause. They still think I am okay. Nobody suspects anything yet. The melody is ending. Must remember the name of that song.
The house dried in the sun, blocks squatting, sullen, on the trestle. What a place to build a house, on a railroad bridge, where the engines pass underneath, rocking bricks, shaking grass blades; every fifteen minutes an earthquake. Why does the sun always show brown shadows on that sandy grey stone? Even in direct light there are shadows—a property of the stone?
We walked up to the house. Were we holding hands? Was it late afternoon? We just ate dinner—had to be past eight. The sun was never so direct, even summer, not at eight. Either we hadn’t eaten yet else I don’t recall the light properly. We weaved drunkenly. I swallowed a belch… sour champagne. Jane unhinged the gate. It creaked, we crept past; two tipsy burglars. Her hand sweated. A woman told me once that women can’t pretend they love a man when they don’t, but men can pretend. Her hand in mine was a convention. Or maybe just the cold and I forgot my gloves.
The back garden showed twisted brown remains, corpses of vegetables. Beets, rhubarb, gooseberries, one twined round the other in waist-high weed stalks. A once-garden, a matted oblique triangle sliced by the trestle wall. I detached my hand from hers and walked to the wall. Grey-brown shadow stone. The top was eye-level. Set in the top, jagged pieces of bottle glass, dropped in the cement. Impotent now, the wind had dulled the glass’s edges. But who would climb the trestle wall and risk a forty-foot drop to the tracks?
What is she talking about? Did I start this inanity? How could I allow myself to be a catalyst for such a conversation of mindless gurgles. Yes, she sounds like, water, gurgling.
There was no water. The well was dry. The hole was dug at the end of the trestle support. How could it have ever supplied water? But there it was.
Jane wandered by the house, touched the walls, must have been slightly warm. As if she remembered them.
How many times have I passed that house, before and since? It is always the same. The house wrapped itself in the shadowy vibrations of people who jilted it twenty-three years ago. Jane must have told me how long ago it was. She never said if she knew the people. Once somone had laid fresh tan stones, milky wet mortar, onto earth. Now it was shrunk, hardened by the sun, petrified.
From the black windows emanated concentric circles, like puddle ripples, like screams. What jagged bits of glass remained crammed into their frames bit the sunlight into oily reflections, like screams. But not of outrage—the obvious scream for a defiled being. No; screams for pity. The earth was done with its digestion. Yet the house screamed. Even casual pedestrians I’ve known say the house makes your ears ring.
There were no empty tins or candy-wrappers in the back garden. The only litter was dead plants, a single Newcastle Brown bottle. The label clung in fragments. Silt had collected inside. It seemed to belong. I left it. Jane ran her fingers along the edges of broken glass stuck in the window frame. Dry weeds rustled as I walked toward the stony skeleton. It was dark in the house, and stank—probably rats. The new tenants were less than friendly.
Why did Jane last so long? She was never interested. The few occasions of physical exchange rarely transcended commerce. Reaching for her hand as it ran along the edge of the glass, I must have pressed too hard—she cried out, yanked the hand away. In a few seconds, a tiny trickle of blood began. She never met my eyes; I knew what they contained. She did not take my offered hand, put the bleeding finger to her mouth.
But how beautiful the house looked in its decay, how dark and inviting! I closed the creaking gate. It rang like an instrument, three notes of a melody. Was I ever really that young student? The house receded, passed out of sight as we climbed Pennsylvania Hill, the pavement had a few cracks and puddle spots. I looked up. Jane sucked the finger.
How long has it been silent? I must apologize. The mind was drifting. Fatigue, three glasses of wine. Rotten grape juice. Where was…? Was that the discussion? It is late; there are appointments tomorrow. I should tell them, but I’ve been rude enough. That other one… Her breasts are like stippled oranges under that jumper. Is she involved?
I asked Jane once why she hated sex. She said she couldn’t feel lust. I wondered why, feared to know. No, it must have been her uptight English upbringing.
I want to yawn, but should hold it in. She’s in mid-sentence. Glad she still feels comfortable enough to continue this conversation. How long have the two of them known each other? I can’t tell things like that until people tell me.
In Jane’s room it was only me, pressing lips to lips, wrapping tongue to gums, teeth that undulated between hot and cool. I dominated her and felt used. Eventually I left. Two years since I phoned her? I must have said ‘I love you.’ How many times has that been said? It’s easy to say. What did the woman say again, about men? She couldn’t be right. My eyelids are lead. Why can’t this conversation end of its own accord?
She has green eyes… and a scar on the left temple. Bridget. Everything so dull in this candlelight. It’s quite prominent. She doesn’t seem overly violent or masochistic. Come on, I can’t tell. Who am I trying to fool? A childhood injury? Why did I come here with two women? A deep scar. Long, too. From a knife? An enemy bayonet? Does she notice me staring? It’s a new continent to explore, a long faint pink land. How far away is that house? Will I walk by it again?
Jane said all it needed was someone to live in it, give it love or whatever. She and her roommates, all students, could volunteer to paint, plug leaks, drape the walls with bedspreads, make it live again. It would take only time. Were we outside the gate or further down the road? I scratched an itch, just between the elbow and shoulder on the inside. Were we leaving or were we still in the garden? Yes. She led me onto the trestle. We walked… swam… through the weeds and the garden hissed. The tracks stared at me. Would a train pass? It was silent but for breathing, cold and slow. No train passed; no disappointment. I didn’t ask a train to pass, just wondered.
I have to go; shouldn’t stay another second! As it is, there won’t be time for sleep. If I drfited off, would they notice ? Probably. Wait until she finishes her thought.
Down in the gully were the tracks, of a stuff too cold and grey to be metal. They stretched—yawned, better—eternally in both directions, divided by wooden ties, which had always, would always divide them. Did I mention this, about being divided forever? Whatever; Jane didn’t answer. A few words, mumbled about the time, or time in general, and an early lecture. We left, closed the gate; it creaked. Three notes. Like whistling. There.
My stomach holds a perfect vacuum. I ought to call Bruno. He’d be interested… physicist. I will roll in bed endlessly. Somebody called that something. Overtired? Overtired. Soon she will stop talking. I will stop listening; there will be a bus, a door, a bed. And I will rotate, a planet, a wanderer trying just to sleep.
Will they never let me sleep.