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And while this town, with the university at its heart, harbored more Nobel laureates than any other and there were other major and minor geniuses of every kind all up and down its social ladder, Berkeley had the pretense of hating pretense. It preferred its geniuses dead, its great houses to be wooden and old, foursquare and democratic, like those designed by Bernard Maybeck.
I ated that ouse, Veronique said to Anna one day, ated them for making it. Then when the lorry comes and I see they ave that what eees theeeese thing? heeeese baby swing? and my hurt breaks for them and my ope flies up again.
So it always honestly did come to the same sad questions, Anna realized, the ones all the interesting women they knew struggled with: How to negotiate the inward and outward currents, when the job of making a household ran against the pull of a worldly ambition? How was anyone to accomplish this once mute and simple act, that of raising children? And how, in the face of the awesome privilege she and her friends enjoyed, to justify these twin burdens of despair and jealousy?
The disappearance of the mass of the Baxters' house seemed to be a poetic technique Anna might study and employ if she ever wrote again. She envied the painters, like Gina Baxter, or the architects, like Alec Baxter, those who made wordless physical objects, who put walls up, hung paintings there, things thick with dimension, dense objects that didn't depend upon the little markings that made letters that stood for sounds upon a page.
She and Veronique drank wine as the sun went down, Anna watching the Baxters' house as its essence changed. How to be completely and truly present onthe other side of the work, she wondered. How to give away nothing yet still speak with intimacy? How to become spare and empty without indulging her own strong impulse toward self-annihilation?
Anna had done her graduate work in Emily Dickinson--she hadn't finished her dissertation. Not finishing her Ph.D. now seemed emblematic of everything that was turning out to be wrong with her, motherhood being corollary to that earlier banishment. When she was in graduate school, she'd once attended the reading of a paper called "On the Anonymity of Mothers," concerning the mothers of various early presidents of the United States about whom almost nothing is historically known, often not even the dates and places of their birth.
Anna, who was tall, had been taught by her mother to stand up very straight. Forgetting herself as completely as she did, she remembered the length of her body sometimes only when she abruptly stood and was made dizzy by the altitude. As she stood to ask a question at the end of the paper's presentation, and an old embarrassment swept through her, that of the big, shy, sweating girl, the awkward adolescent with enormous feet who'd always tried so hard to stay anonymous. She began to blush, to stammer, spoke softly, haltingly, then sat down, having become too nervous to even listen to the answer. And so it was, she saw, that self-consciousness might prove terminal, the inescapable gravity of constant self-reference. She was flame-faced as she left the hall, ashamed, ashamed too of being ashamed. Her hot face pulsed with every heartbeat going me, me, me.
Ravi traveled; Veronique was stuck up the hill at home with theee keeed. She now had two babies, but Veronique didn't bother with an s to form the plural. Veronique, who was bored, sometimes watched her neighbors with binoculars. The Baxters had uncurtained windows. They were an attractive couple, one so big he was almost lumbering, the other diminutive, each dark-haired but with mysteriously fair-haired children, all moving through the spacious wood-planked rooms as if on their way somewhere. Alec was well over six feet, so tall he needed to bend over with his face gone grave and solemn to listen as his wife spoke. Gina was stylish, antic. She talked and talked, Alec listened. Gina had stopped growing quite early in adolescence, Veronique said. It was all her various tragedies, she added, somewhat callously.
Gina Baxter was now very busily accruing some notoriety, having recently gone beyond painting to work both behind and in front of the picture plane. This was her return to realism. Gina did seem poised on the brink of something--her friends had begun to eye her cautiously. The odds against her turning out to be any good at all were, of course, absolutely astronomical, Anna knew, the Bay Area being something of a backwater in the plastic arts. The lucky people, Anna thought, were people like Veronique who never noticed the difference between what was good enough and something that might actually matter. That was art's secret trick, Anna thought, that so few did it well, that no one knew exactly why.
Ravi, in electronics, was getting quietly rich. Veronique had never been more miserable. Come up ere, Veronique demanded. Bring that one up ere to play with theeees one. Stop and buy me a pack of cigarette. Do this, Awe-naw, or I will keeeel myself.
Veronique, who'd quit, was now back smoking Marlboros--she called them theee Red Death. She smoked as she painted cowboys and Indians in oils on the walls of one bathroom. She painted faux naif tepees and saguaro cactuses, all of this awkward, childlike. She used unmixed colors straight from the tube--raw umber, burnt sienna, cadmium red--and as she painted er ope rose up again.
It was art that did it, Anna knew, the act of being within the moment of creation, that lit the dim places in the brain with the thought of the other, better, more fully imagined West, the place the real desert sun still rose and set. It was there, in art, that the neurons gained the power to come alive and fire across the great bow of eternal darkness.
Despite herself, Anna found her own hope rising too. She had Maggie, the little girl born as a kind of miracle so late in her marriage she had already lost all hope. Her book of poems would be published by a respectable press in a year or two. She had a marriage that was probably as good as most, at least as good as the one her parents had--she thought of her own marriage not as a deepening spiritual bond, rather as a kind of equity of all the many years she and Charlie had each put in.
Anna believed in making poems as anyone might hold to any religious faith, that a hurt and broken world was made more whole by these irrational acts of faith. God existed, if He existed, in all enactments of love and grace, in every gesture made toward creation. Anna believed this. She also believed writing a book of poems was almost exactly like lighting a box of kitchen matches, one by one, and pitching them down a well.
They sat out on the Chakravartys' deck in good weather while Veronique, who had never heard of sunscreen, became tan, and their children grew and Anna basted satin binding onto the quilted baby blankets she made for charity. Maggie was getting bigger. A poem, or some lines in one, sometimes broke free, ran wildly, then came back to her in snatches, like the lyric of a song she was only now remembering.
Anna slept with a handsome man who, while mocking, was nice enough. He was reputed to be her husband. Charlie Shay was an experimental musician who taught at a women's college in East Oakland. He was startlingly good-looking--she'd recently begun again to notice. He was even better-looking than he ever used to be. This was not a man who was going to lose his hair or thicken around the middle. Charlie got on his mountain bike nearly every morning and rode it straight uphill to Grizzly Peak, his bright cheeks there cooled by the dazzling fog.
Anna's mother called to ask what fruits and vegetables were arriving in the market, to hear what Maggie was now up to. Margaret Bell fretted over her daughter's lack of happiness, more noticeable since Maggie had been born. It was a nullity that came and now resided. It manifested physically, an emptiness framed by the muscles of Anna's lower abdomen. She could never tell her mother this. She often felt a little sick, also ashamed of feeling sick. Her mother was Yankee, tough-minded, stoic. Anna had nothing real to complain about.
The Cold War had ended, the wall in Berlin came down, but Anna was still at times so panicked her hands shook, terrified she couldn't save her daughter from an ecologically imperiled world. She awoke in the middle of the night to the indelible vision of a black sun rising over a nuclear desert, the sky a cold and quiet blue. This was the color Georgia O'Keefe discovered by looking through the white eyehole of a sun-bleached cow's skull.
Anna still referred to her own husband by both his names, Margaret mentioned. Was it that Charlie's first and last names were like his longitude and latitude? she asked. Was Anna, after all these years, still trying to get a fix on him?
Anna was startled by her mother's comment. If she complained, she didn't mean to, as complaint made her feel petty and disloyal. She did lately worry that the man she thought of as "Charlie Shay"--this went back to their days at Stanford when there were several Charlies in their circle--might lack something that seemed increasingly essential, the vacuoles of irony that bubbled up in a personality at the level of the cell.
When, for instance, Anna told him she intended to call her book of poems Outdoor Survival Skills, Charlie lifted his clean, strongly muscled face and gazed off so intently that a hot saltiness rushed to fill the back of her mouth. She looked down at the uselessness of her upturned hands, long fingers that lost feeling in the cold or rain. The two were out to dinner, were having lobster and champagne. She swallowed hard against the same ache that rose from her belly and now settled in behind the muscles of her jaw. Her throat closed, she'd never known such emptiness. Would she ever meet a man for whom she didn't need to explicate?
Anna's throat ached, her heart ached. She was thirty-eight years old. She'd been married for more than fourteen years, and still hadn't found the road, she recognized, the one that would lead her home.