|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
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About the Author
Jessica Levine’s fiction, essays, poetry, and poetry translations have appeared in Amarillo Bay, California Quarterly, The Cape Rock, decomP magazinE, Forge, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Poetry Northwest, North American Review, RiverSedge, The Southern Review , Spoon River Poetry Review, Willow Review , and elsewhere. She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002) and has translated three books from French and Italian into English. You can visit her at www.jessicalevine.com, where you will find links to some of her shorter works.
Read an Excerpt
One of my social duties, as Ben's consort, was to attend the holiday party given by his department at Princeton. I’d skipped it the previous couple of years, feeling rebellious, but now that we were commuting, it seemed important to show up. As Ben was helping to organize the party, rather than have him pick me up at the station, I took the "dinky" or shuttle train that connects the main line to downtown Princeton. The word "dinky" still conjures for me the quaint world of Princeton—the dark-shingled Nassau Inn, the little lingerie store run by sexless crones, and the pancake house with its striped French awning.
From the dinky station it was a short walk to campus. A cold mist rose from the grass in translucent, mauve layers as I crossed the green. Walking into the party, I saw familiar faces—the eccentric, kilt-wearing chairman, the eminent scholar of Victorian fiction (a mother of four said never to sleep, like the prolific authors she studied), and the medievalist who wrote about baseball to prove his breadth of vision. I nodded to the pert departmental secretary who always talked about moving on to do a graduate degree but never did. Then there were the graduate students—the guys intensely talking about Derrida, and the women in black cocktail dresses, nervously trying to impress their professors.
I scanned the crowd for Ben. He walked in from the departmental kitchen, bearing a paper plate loaded with French bread, cheese, and grapes. He looked sharp in a charcoal jacket over a black cashmere turtleneck and a pair of black corduroy pants. Just seeing his good posture, the legacy of years of fencing lessons, made me feel more balanced. He put the plate down on the food table and approached me. I put my arms around his neck, and his kiss came to me at a soft angle, like a trumpet vine flower. Sandra was wrong, my desire for Michael wasn't the result of something "missing" from my relationship with Ben; it was a separate thing, an emotional inconvenience that would be resolved once he was safely parked somewhere.
"You look beautiful," he said.
"You look handsome," I said. "I see our tenants are here." When I'd moved into the city, we had sublet the two bedrooms downstairs to three graduate students in English, George and his wife Helen, and another woman named Mary Jo.
The three of them stood to the side, quietly sipping apple juice, undoubtedly afraid to get drunk in front of the faculty. Mary Jo was wearing a double-threat little black dress with a neckline so low and a hemline so high that both her breasts and ass threatened to pop out when she leaned over the buffet table. I wondered whether Ben found her attractive, and I remembered Michael's warning, the day I ran into him, that Ben might play around if I moved into the city.
Ben saw me looking at them. "I've made my contribution here setting up. Let’s go home and do it before the kids get back," he whispered. He always called our tenants "the kids."
"You'll have to wait," I teased. "I just got here and I'm going to circulate a bit."
I walked over to our tenants.
"How are you guys doing?" I asked. "Everything okay at the house?"
"It's very quiet," George said. "I'm getting a lot of work done." His pattern was to study late into the night.
"The right front burner on the stove still isn't working quite right," Mary Jo said.
"I'll look at it again," I said. "Maybe we need to get the repairman out again."
The conversation jerked forward in stops and starts. Then I was pulled aside by the secretary, interrupted by the Victorian scholar, and finally head to head with the kilt-wearing chairman.
"So you're gracing us with your presence," he said. "To what do we owe the honor?"
I was jolted by the resentment in his voice, though it was typical of Princeton that the chair would keep track of my absences from departmental functions.
"I—I," I stuttered.
Ben came up behind me and said, "Julia is now a successful businesswoman in Manhattan."
The chairman gave me a veiled look, clearly suspicious of anyone who chose to live her life outside the University, in the Real World.
"Power to you," he said simply and moved away.
A slim woman with a very short haircut, wearing an oversized man’s suit, came up and touched Ben’s sleeve.
"Is this Julia?" she asked him.
"Yes, and Julia, this is Lisa Gould. Lisa was just hired."
"What’s your field?" I asked.
"Wow," I said. I was surprised that Princeton had done something as radical as a gay studies hire. "I hope you’re happy here."
It was hard to imagine her happy. The smile seemed forced, and she held her shoulders up tight. "Excuse me," she suddenly said, glancing across the room, and darted away, moving toward a woman close to her age, with the same haircut.
"That must be her partner," I said.
"Yes. Her name is Dana." Ben dropped his voice. "Rumor has it that she’s mentally unstable and that Lisa has her hands full taking care of her."
"Really?" I gazed at Dana, feeling a surge of sympathy for anyone who followed her partner to Princeton. "Well, if she's not crazy now, she will be soon, anyway."
"It's not that bad," Ben said. "Brie, wine, ivy, and money."
"You're the one who complains about it all the time, calling your colleagues 'stuffed shirts’ and ‘dead wood’ and all that."
"Come on, let's get out of here."
Grabbing my hand, Ben pulled me out of the party. It was cold and dark out, and we ran to the parking lot.
"So what's the story with Mary Jo? I think she has designs on you," I teased. "And you probably have the hots for her..."
"How could I have the hots for someone named Mary Jo?" he responded, imitating my emphasis. "Please! Mary Antoinette, maybe, but Mary Jo? You must be pulling my leg!"
"I must be—what—your leg?" I reached across and, placing my hand on his thigh, began to slide it upward. He took my hand and kissed it, and for a brief moment I looked forward to bedtime.
The darkness grew thicker as we left the streetlights of the town and, passing the silent headquarters of the Educational Testing Service, turned right onto the road to New Hope. As a child, I'd often fantasized about a life filled with the rural pleasures I’d missed growing up in New York—dogs and cats and maybe a horse, opening the windows to the smells of spring and walks through snow-covered woods. Then, when I left home and felt lost in New Haven, then Princeton, I began to believe that I could only be myself in New York. But the house in Princeton still gave me a taste of what I'd missed as a child, and I was glad it would be there for me if my New York plan didn't work out.
Ben turned into the driveway. There was the white front door of our little house, lit up by the iron porch light. Stepping inside, I switched the lights on, and our large living room with its brick fireplace and overstuffed second-hand furniture came into view. Everything looked neat and a little shabby in a homey way I treasured.
As we went upstairs, I knew we would get undressed and make love. Part of me wanted to, and part of me didn't.
I had read in some woman's magazine that the way to manage wandering desire is to redirect it into one's principal relationship, and as I took off my clothes, I set myself the task of rechanneling my erotic energy from Michael toward Ben.
Part of me was wishing that I was undressing for Michael, not Ben. Part of me was rebelling, saying, I don't really feel like doing this now, because when I do, there's always the feeling of something not being met.
But I kept on undressing, and when I'd taken all my clothes off, and Ben had, too, I got into bed and felt our bodies come together with the familiar warmth. When he took my head between his hands and said, "You sweet thing," and his hand moved down between my thighs, I remembered what it felt like to be loved by him—I felt that in some way it was sufficient and even wonderful.
And the two feelings—the feeling of it being sufficient and the feeling of wanting to get the hell out of there in order to get something else, something more—kept on alternating as his kisses followed his hand and the arousal washed over me. Was I making love with Ben because I wanted him, or because I needed to have sex and he was available? The question receded when he got on top of me and, moving in a technically perfect way, took me over the top of the wave, leaving me, on the other side, in a place that was simultaneously sweet and fulfilled, sad and hungry. I'd had my ecstasy but my heart continued to itch. I couldn't quite understand it—the combination of sexual pleasure and then the empty feeling inside—the feeling, somehow, that true contact hadn't been made, that I hadn't gotten what I needed. Maybe Sandra was right—something was missing. But was it something in the relationship? Or was there was something missing in me—the ability to connect fully? Maybe I was the obstacle to the intimacy I needed.
We'd been together long enough that, after making love, we usually didn't while the time away lying in each other's arms. Instead, Ben would shift gears, saying, "I'd like to read a bit before going to sleep," and reach for his book. But tonight he held me longer. He took my left hand and pretended to read my palm. "I see a lot of sex in your future," he said. And then he added slyly, "And babies, too."
It was the first time he had ever talked about sex and babies in the same breath. I was so startled I couldn't respond. Then he kissed my fingers one by one, starting with the thumb. When he got to my ring finger, he drew an imaginary ring around it and gave me a questioning look. I felt both delighted by the hint and irritated by his indirection.
"How many?" I asked.
"Three, but if that's too many, one or two."
"There's a big difference between one and three," I said. I remembered Michael and felt the confusion come up again. Was it possible that I didn't want to talk about marriage or babies? Now that Ben was finally advancing toward me, why was I retreating? Restless, I got up, went over to the closet where I still had some clothes hanging.
"So, you think Lisa is going to make a good colleague?" I asked. Departmental gossip provided an easy way to change the topic.
"Yes, she would seem to be very civic-minded, like someone who will pull her share in terms of committee work and so forth. And what an accomplishment—getting a job in gender studies here, in the ivory tower of conservatism. I'm amazed it worked out." He didn't mind my changing the subject. Maybe he was even relieved.
"What do you mean?"
"The job was advertised as twentieth-century British lit, and she refashioned it to her own liking."
Rustling through my outfits, I knocked a hanger off the pole.
"What are you doing?" Ben asked.
"Looking for an outfit for the holiday party I'm thinking of having in the city," I said, enjoying the sound of the first person singular. "Maybe one of those parties where you ask everybody to bring somebody, so you can meet new people."
"Oh?" he said.
"Yes," I said. "It will be a kind of housewarming slash Christmas slash welcoming Anna back type of thing," I said.
"Sure, if you want," I said. My parents had never celebrated Hanukah, and I hadn't known what to do with the menorah the first time Ben brought one home and set it before me. I continued to rummage around in the closet, pulling one black skirt, then another, out of my dull wardrobe.
"Are we going to have a tree here or in New York?" Ben asked. We always had a Christmas tree.
"I don't know," I said. "Why not both?"
"Why not both," he repeated, with a drop in his voice indicating a melancholy about our commuting. Looking at him, I glimpsed sadness in his eyes, but then it was gone. It was hard to know how Ben really felt about anything because he was so private. And, sure enough, he switched gears again.
"Remember those ornaments you made? I wonder where we put them."
"They're in the hall closet, I think."
Ben got out of bed and followed me out of the bedroom. The hall closet was jam-packed full of boxes and valises, but it took us only a moment to find a carton marked "Xmas stuff." Back in the bedroom, he set it on the bed and opened it. Inside were metallic ball ornaments on which I'd glued strips of lace and sequined trim.
"These are so beautiful," he said. "You're so creative."
I picked one up and turned it, examining the precision with which I'd attached the sparkling strips of fabric.
"Occasionally," I said. "Only occasionally."
In New York, I lived for my meetings with Michael, yet still thought of playing matchmaker. Our next meeting confirmed this was the right thing to do.
We'd agreed that I would cook him dinner in exchange for a lesson, but I hadn't had the time after work, and, when he came in with sushi-to-go and a bottle of cold plum wine, his generosity was easy to accept.
"Since you've been a good girl, I've got something special for you," he said. He set the food down and, opening up his black shoulder bag, took out some composition paper covered with his spidery musician's scrawl. "I've written my first piece in five years."
He went over to the piano and, sitting down to play, drew himself in and upward in a postural gesture of coming-to-attention so familiar to me. Reaching for the keyboard with the smoothness of someone who knows exactly where he's going and what he has to say, he cracked open into a composition that rose and fell like jagged lightning advancing and receding on the horizon. The music had moments of gorgeous melody and moments in which melody was smashed like a tree twisted in a storm. There was joy in it and defiance of the fragility of joy. It was the act of a man turning himself upside down and inside out, like a bulb planted with the wrong end down that flips itself over magically at the spring equinox and sends its first green sprout toward the sun. Michael had in his piece put some very intimate part of himself on display, and I was touched by the faith implicit in the enterprise. If a composer doesn't believe that someone out there will be generous enough to listen and try to understand his work, he can only dread humiliation.
"Wow!" I said. As Michael swiveled around on the piano bench to look at me, proud and beaming, I was certain for a burstingly ripe second that I was that someone out there for him—that I was his muse. He had written the piece for and because of me.
"And you mean to tell me you hadn't written anything at all in five years?" I asked.
"It was that business with Karyn," he said. "I was so devastated afterwards that I ran dry."
He turned back toward the piano, began improvising. His words scorched. For, like Karyn, I was already taken, and he could never love me, because that could only bring another heartbreak. If I were his muse, I would be an untouched one.
I listened to him play, remembering what he'd told me about his affair with Karyn: "It was physically very passionate but, at the same time, that was the least important part of it." I felt haunted by his confession of love for this other more powerful and talented woman. I wanted to know more.
"But why," I asked, interrupting his playing, "why did you go back to her place that day to have sex? Didn't you realize you could get caught?"
Standing up, he went over to the table to pour himself some plum wine, then sat down on the couch about a yard away from me.
"Of course I knew we could get caught. I think I wanted to get caught. I wanted her to leave her husband—that's why I brought the thing to a head." He stopped, looking confused, as though it had been recent. "I wanted to break up their marriage. What I did was unforgivably destructive and, maybe this is over-interpreting, but I think I wanted to do to some other man what my best friend did to me when he exploded my marriage."
"Go on." I was barely breathing.
"I felt horribly guilty afterwards. In fact, one day I walked into a church and went into confession. I said to the priest, I’m not Catholic, but would you listen to me please and forgive me? I was in a crazy state of mind."
"You went to confession?"
He smiled. "Yeah."
"Your marriage…You never told me the whole story."
"Okay. This is what happened. I was at my parents' vacation place in Ontario with my wife. It sounds funny to say 'wife' because we were kids, still in college. So we were up there alone, my parents hadn't come up yet. Then my best friend shows up for a visit. One day I go down river by myself to get some supplies, but change my mind because the water looks active, and I end up fishing instead. I go back, real proud of myself because I'd caught a really big trout, and I see the camper door's shut. I creep up and peek through the window. The curtains are drawn but there's just a bit of a crack between them, and I see my wife's on top, my best friend's on the bottom with his hands on her bare ass."
"Didn't they realize they might get caught?"
"They thought I was going to be gone all day getting supplies. Just think—if I hadn't caught that fish, the rest of my life might have been different."
"So then what happened?"
"I waited politely—God only knows why—till they finished, then I knocked on the door. The worst part was that she climaxed just before he did. I mean, she came while they were screwing, which was something she could never do with me. At twenty-one I wasn't a great lover, I guess. Anyway, I knock on the door and swing it open, she grabs the sheet and pulls it up over her tits like she's in a cheap movie, and I start yelling and throwing things. They packed in a jiffy and left camp together. My father walked me through the divorce when I got back to New York." He took a breath. "So you see, I have a long history of triangulated situations."
I stood up, agitated. "What ever possessed you to leave them alone together? Didn't you have any suspicions?"
"Of course I did. I guess I was testing her."
"And so you make a connection between that and Karyn?"
"Sure. I wanted to make some other man suffer the same torments of jealousy that I'd been through. Of course—this is the irony—I only ended up being victimized all over again." He craned his neck slightly, as though reliving the slash of the knife.
"And you feel sorry for yourself," I said. "You use your divorce and Karyn and everything that happened in between as an excuse to give up and stop looking for someone."
He looked startled. "Go on," he said.
"You're just drowning in self-pity." I was so angry I paced the floor. The way he wore his broken heart on his sleeve infuriated me—what woman could resist so much woundedness? I felt manipulated. "You've just given up so you can enjoy being miserable."
I sat back down on the couch, exactly where I'd been before, except that the yard between us now seemed a lot wider. The pelvic pain, which had lessened with Dr. McCloud’s treatments, grabbed me again.
Michael sank deeper into the couch, staring off into space.
"You're right, of course. You're so astute, Jul." He wasn't defensive. Maybe that's why he got wounded so deeply. "I've been walking around as though I'd been damaged for life. I should get back in the ring."
He stood up, went over to the brown paper bag, and started unpacking the sushi dinner. I went into the kitchen to get some plates. Our both thinking so hard filled the silence with static.
We sat across my little table, eating sushi. Then he spoke.
"It's been so long," he said, "I almost have the feeling of, do I remember how to do this? The dating thing, I mean. And even though I'm out and about all the time, right now there doesn't seem to be anyone I could ask out."
"I'm going to have a holiday party," I said, "and there'll be a couple of women there you might like to talk to. My cousin Evelyn and this woman I work with, Betty."
"Setups of that kind never work out."
"There's that pessimism of yours again."
He laughed. "Okay. But what about Ben? What's he going to think about my turning up? You never solved that."
"You can come with Anna—pretend she ran into you, instead of me."
"Anna never liked me very much, especially after I critiqued that orange painting of hers."
"Critiqued and knocked over," I reminded him.
He winced. "Yeah."
"That was a long time ago. I talked to her about it and she's willing to help out."
"Then you and Ben can be friends again—and you and I can be aboveboard, which is what you wanted, right?"
"Yeah…I guess it's time for everybody to forgive everybody," he said.
"Yes," I said. "Absolutely." I breathed into my belly to soften the spasm. I needed to shift the conversation away from relationship issues. "That piece you just played for me, Michael, it’s really amazing."
"Thanks. Now it’s your turn."
"What do you mean?"
"To share something with me."
"I don’t have anything. I told you I don’t write anymore."
"Well then, why don’t you trot out the famous sonnet? I’d like to read it again."
"Enough with the sonnet already. Anyway, I don’t have it here."
"I don’t believe that. You wouldn’t move into the city without your sonnet."
"You win," I said amiably and, getting up, went over to the filing drawer under my desk. "It’s in here somewhere." I took it out, glanced at it, placed it next to him.
Michael swallowed, wiped a little red egg roe off his mouth with a napkin, cleared his throat with a theatrical "Ahem," and read out loud:
"Sonnet by Julia Field
It’s dusk now; climb ahead; race the last stair.
Let hands still cold-bit draw the curtain soft.
You light the candles, my cheek in your hair.
We roll the covers down, close in our loft.
The clothes slip off us as the chalk peach falls.
The tangled hues of wheat-felt marble dance,
and sea velvet, warm and wet, sways and calls
deep and deeper: soon we won’t have the chance.
Embedded in parting, desire should cry.
But now we’ll touch into the night; ride high
the quivering wave that unfurls and leaps;
fill to burst this moment, threatened but fired;
swim drunk together until we’re too tired
(to think of the purple cabbage or hope it keeps).”
There was a moment of silence. "It’s damn good," he said.
"Yeah, it is, isn’t it?" I was pleasantly surprised.
"I’m not sure about the ‘wheat felt marble' image, but the ‘purple cabbage’ is great.’"
"Fuck you," I said, and crumpling up a napkin, threw it right at his broad, majestic forehead.
When Michael brought me two more compositions the following week and played them for me, beaming with pride, I felt sure I was his muse. And I began to feel that he was mine. The next day, during my lunch hour, I wandered into a stationery store and bought a small notebook with a hard black cover. As I stepped outside, some words in my head demanded to be recorded. Leaning against the storefront window, with the display of file folders and staplers behind me and my handbag tucked under my arm, I wrote:
Inside the long quiet day,
I wait for the voice
that gives me joy.
I hear the music
you make in my life.
As a beginning, it wasn't very good, but I knew that I would have to produce some bad poems before getting back to the good ones, and I didn’t mind. I was too elated by the return of my poetic voice to continue torturing myself with the judgment of mediocrity. I had, finally, to accept myself for what I was—not the kind of poet who gets inspired by plums in the fridge or a jar in Tennessee, but one who needs passion to get going. And Michael was the provider.
For years my voice and heart had been muffled by a cotton batting made of self-doubt and self-deprecation. But now Michael was stripping that batting away as I did the same for him. Joyfully I watched our friendship bring him back into the world of self-expression, as, glowing like a toddler who has just learned to walk, he played me a new composition every time we met. I didn't tell him I was writing again, too, because my poetry was about him. But that was all right with me. What mattered was that he was my inspiration, that I was creating bits and pieces of verse that, like a mirror made of mosaic-sized shards of glass, served as adorning reflectors of my life. Certainly I could suffer the hardship of an unrequited attachment when the reward was stepping so much more fully into what I had to say.