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The Motion of Light in Water
Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village
By Samuel R. Delany
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Samuel R. Delany
All rights reserved.
THE PERIPHERIES OF LOVE
THE DELICATE PURGATION OF a tongue
turned back upon purgation: paradox
within a more intriguing paradox
of involuted mouth. The large eyes' long
panes reflect ritual violence
hung in a room apart, the separate
bright strands conglomerating intricate
woven patternings of death and silence,
the geometric flights of music, each
intoning a formality in speech:
If you are angle, I am complement.
If you are circle, I am circumscribed.
If my hands mold, yours is the form described.
Your voice is my familiar instrument.
I sound a note, and you complete the chord.
Your eyes are an inscription in my hand
that reads my face and tells me what I am.
My singing resonates beneath your words.
A more completes a move; as games are played,
if I betray, you are the one betrayed.
—Marilyn Hacker, from "The Terrible Children" (1960)
1. Demolition for the Village View Apartments hadn't quite finished: July dawns you could still wander the small streets (shortly to be replaced by concrete paths between scrubby lawns and red-brick buildings) and, among the devastated acres, catch sight, in the muggy morning, of fires here and there beside one or another still-standing tenement wall. Off beyond the Jacob Riis Houses with their green sliver of park, the East River's sluggish oils nudged the city's granite embankments or bumped the pilings beneath the Williamsburg Bridge: girder, cable, and concrete rose from among the delis and cuchifrito stands, the furniture and fabric stores, the movie marquees on Delancey Street to span the night waters—where cars and subways and after-dark cruisers took their delicate amble above the blue-black current banked with lights—before, above the Navy Yard, striking into Brooklyn's glittering flank.
In the summer of 1961 no one had yet named it the East Village: it was still the Lower East Side. It was the cheapest neighborhood in Manhattan. Rumors of three- and four-room apartments to be had for thirty-five dollars a month ran through the bohemian population of the city—as it was still called back then: the young people who came down to Washington Square Park on Sunday to play their guitars and sing, which included me and any number of my friends, or the slightly older ones who hung out in Village coffee shops.
After three days of looking, the best Marilyn and I could do was a four-room apartment for fifty-two dollars a month. How we wondered, would we pay the astonishing rent?
1.1. Behind the public school, the five-story tenement toward the end of East Fifth Street was the building into which the landlord, who owned a goodly number of apartment houses in the neighborhood, just happened to put all the interracial couples who came to his dim, store front office out on Avenue B, looking for a place to live.
On the top floor, there was Terry (eighteen, plump, and Italian, from upstate New York) and Billy (thirty-five, black, and vaguely related to me by marriage). They and their one—then two—offspring lived together in a living room crowded with a foldout couch and a kitchen very full of a newly purchased washing machine. Shortly after we moved in, Bill and Terry took over the management of a tiny Greenwich Village coffee shop on the north side of Third Street between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Street, the Cafe Elysée, where, with my guitar, I would go to sing in the evenings and pass the basket, along with the likes of Tim Hardin, Karen Dalton, Dick Glass, Lisa Kindred, Fred Neal, my long time friend Ana Perez, a friendly and talented youngster, Vic Smith, from whom I learned endless guitar riffs, and an extraordinary blind Puerto Rican guitarist, Jose Feliciano, who slept on our living room daybed for a couple of weeks before taking an apartment upstairs in the same building with his girlfriend (and later wife), Hilda, Ana's sister. Alex, who was a very lanky, very black, very stoned folksinger, and his wife, Carol, who was a very blond, also very stoned dancer, lived on the fourth floor. I was nineteen. Marilyn, my new wife, was eighteen.
Neither of our parents and almost none of our friends knew: she was pregnant.
1.2. We'd rented the four small rooms on the second floor in July of '61. Diagonally across the tiled hallway from what turned out to be a local "shooting gallery"—an apartment where neighborhood addicts dropped in to shoot up—our flat was filthy when we moved in: the gray floorboards were littered with newspapers, orange rinds, an apple core, tuna fish cans, torn paper bags; the sink counter was strewn with matches, candle stubs, twisted spoons; and a hypodermic lay on the splintered flooring by the sink—detritus of the junkies who'd had the place before us and who, according to the other tenants, had spent their three-month stay without ever having the lights turned on. Primitive drawings sprawled the dirty, lead-white walls, and in the front room foot-high green-, blue-, and red-crayoned letters proclaimed:
HEY, HEY! WE FOUND SOMETHING THAT PLEASES THE CAT!
Over several visits we cleaned it out and got the electricity working.
1.3. One sweltering afternoon, leaving the place, as we were crossing Fourth Street, we ran into an old high school friend, Sharon, just married herself to a restauranteur named Mickey Ruskin. When she heard our story, she was quite sympathetic. "You know," she said, shaking back her dark hair in the hot city sun, "I could lend you fifty dollars right now. Why don't you call me this evening?"
So Marilyn did.
And she did.
2. A young friend named Paul, close to me and devoted to Marilyn, a bright adolescent with hair paler than cooked yolk, soap-white hands, and pink-framed glasses, a kid who wrote sonnets on classical subjects and who'd been helping us out in every way he could, ascertained, by searching through the Columbia University Law Library, that, because of different age-of-consent laws for men and women, not to mention miscegenation laws, there were only two states in the union where we could legally wed.
The closest one was Michigan.
2.1. The August night before we were to take off to Detroit, I spent in bed with an older, sensitive man and my mentor since my seventeenth year. "You may consider this your wedding present," he told me. "Roll over." Between bouts of sex, we talked of some of my reservations over the whole thing. As the lights from West End Avenue's traffic moved under the bedroom's ceiling, he said: "Marriage isn't so bad. She's a very smart girl. It may, in fact, be exactly what you need. I never regretted doing it—it's been quite wonderful for me. How children will be for you, of course, I'm not so certain...."
But, like many adolescents, while I felt parenthood would be the fun, the challenging, the meaningful part, the rest I wasn't so sure of.
2.2. The next day I went down to New York's old Greyhound bus station, where I met Marilyn. Among those dingy blue and yellow walls, she was excited and pleased and stuttered a lot. Probably we both did. And talked very loudly.
On the bus, our notebooks in our laps, we discussed poetry and Jane Austen and what the most compressed language we could possibly think of would be like.
What about one where every word was only a syllable?
No, what about one where each word was no more than a phoneme, with vowels for verbs and consonants for the other parts of speech, so that single syllables—rup or fnim—would stand for entire simple sentences: "Dorothy likes avocados" or "Iguanas will often gossip incessantly."
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ...
When we got finished with it, it came out something like: "Hyrnyroiyop...."
Then we got to work on: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want...."
While leaves flickered outside the bus window, pulling from the jungle gyms of power stations or backyards strewn with broken swings, car tires, and refrigerator doors, we went on like this for hours.
Finally Marilyn dozed against my shoulder, while evening grew all indigo behind the drifting broadcast antennas, blipping their red beacons.
2.3. In Detroit, while waiting out the three-day period of "residency," we sat in coffee shop booths at formica tables, writing the opening chapters of a novel about a dead horse, a little girl called Messalina Schmidlap, and a lady taxidermist named Octavia Declivity. It began: "One day, on the outskirts of Detroit, in a field of blowing grain, a horse died...." Holding hands, we took six-hour walks through the city or crossed into Windsor; and slept the night in separate Ys—Marilyn becoming sad and nervous when we had to part for even that long, while I became confused and resentful—before, next morning, we would meet for coffee, eggs, danishes....
"I'm trying," Marilyn would explain, "to picture what it would be like, on the top floor of the YWCA, to have a horse barbecue...."
2.4. We were married in Detroit's City Hall, a bit past eleven o'clock in the morning, August 24, 1961.
In the small, bare, judge's office beside the empty court, while the pedestrian ceremony took place, with the judge's secretary and a policeman as witnesses, Marilyn broke out in barely suppressed giggles. As we were leaving through the beige-paneled courtroom, I asked, "What on earth was that about?"
With one hand she held mine tightly, while with the other she still carried a small bag of breakfast doughnuts. "I kept imagining," she whispered in the echoing hall, "that, when we came out, we'd find a dead horse in front of the judge's bench!"
Returning by bus to New York at August's end, the first thing we did, after walking from Thirty-eighth Street, up past the Port Authority Bus Station, was to go see Gone with the Wind, which had just been revived at Forty-second Street's Harris Theater: in part two, where Vivien Leigh, Butterfly McQueen, and Olivia de Havilland make their way by wagon from the flames of Atlanta, suddenly their horse keels over, clearly defunct, and Butterfly McQueen cries out in her childish soprano, "Miss Scarlett! Miss Scarlett! The horse is dead ...!"
We howled for ten minutes while, around us in the audience, black women and Puerto Rican men tried now and again to quiet us.
3. The obligatory rapprochement visits to our families?
On my first trip home, while Mom dithered a bit, wondering why on earth we'd done it, my grandmother asked to see the marriage license and, after reading it over with her glasses held away from her nose, announced: "Well, then, you're married. And you have an apartment. All right, what kind of things do you need?" Both were, basically, very glad to see us. Various relatives got called and informed. Congratulations warmed the afternoon.
Marilyn phoned her mother. Then we took the subway up to the Bronx. In the apartment house hall, we took a breath and rang the bell. My new mother-in-law, Hilda, answered the door; and, though I followed Marilyn into the apartment where all the slipcovers were clear plastic, after the perfunctory greeting, Hilda didn't speak to me at all. She didn't say much to Marilyn either. Basically she seemed stunned: but after a strained, mostly silent twenty minutes, when we were getting ready to leave, she managed to blurt: "You'll come up to dinner—on Friday?"
Although the invitation had been directed only at her daughter, Marilyn said: "All right. Chip and I will be here."
And Hilda looked at me, startled, blinking in surprise, as if, once again, she'd forgotten I was in the room.
3.1. That first night back in the city, at my mother's suggestion, we spent at my childhood Harlem home, which my mother still owned, up at 2250 Seventh Avenue and where Brother sometimes lived above my father's old funeral establishment. We slept on the couch (really a double-width daybed with a bolster along the back on which, when I was not yet three, I'd been first allowed to hold my baby sister, newly returned from the hospital. I began to cry from seeing the furniture among which I'd lived till I was fifteen covered with dust and practically unmoved since my family had left the place, the hand-carved boat I'd been given for my twelfth birthday askew in its stand before the fireplace, its sail torn and fallen over the jib, the same drapes still at the back windows, heavy with the dirt of four years, while Marilyn tried to comfort me.
We left before five in the morning.
Just after dawn, again on the Lower East Side, we threw ourselves into more cleaning, straightening, and fixing, sleeping on the floor over the next few nights till some friends, Randy and Donya (my musician friend Dave's and his young wife's roommates), who lived up near Columbia University, loaned us a daybed.
3.2. One of Marilyn's old boyfriends, a Puerto Rican graduate student at NYU, some years my senior, named Rick, dropped by with a wedding present for me: half a dozen dried peyote buttons. "You should try it, Chip. I really think you in particular would get something out of these. You're an interesting kid." I put them, in their small brown paper bag, in a glass dish at the side of one of the kitchen shelves, where they remained, untouched, more than a year.
3.3. A day later, Dave and his wife threw us a combination house-warming and rent party, during which we collected some twenty-eight dollars in a zinc pail tied to the living room light cord toward the exorbitant fifty-two-dollars-a-month rent. That week I wrote an English paper for Dave on the first three pages of Finnegans Wake. He didn't have time to, as he was composing a new piece involving twelve instruments that, through the course of it, played all twelve notes of the scale at once—save one, the single and silent tone moving through the insistent cacophony, making an absent melody. The piece was premiered at a Hunter College concert of new music. I believe I helped out a few times at rehearsals. (And the paper earned him, he later told me, the only A+ in his English class.) I didn't make the concert. But I remember walking beside the wire fence along Houston Street's overgrown half lots, now to, now from, the bocce courts at the Second Avenue subway station where, in shirtsleeves and gray fedoras, the elderly Italian men (and even some Ukrainians) cracked their big wooden (and small aluminum) balls into each other's, through the autumn, while I pondered the implications of this musical piece that was, theoretically, music's inverse.
A trip to the New York City Rent Commission brought up a building inspector who brought down our rent to forty-eight dollars, on account of the substandard plumbing—and earned us the landlord's undying detestation and, a few weeks later, an invasion of plumbers and carpenters, who tore holes in our kitchen and bathroom floor, through which we could see into the apartment below, and holes in our kitchen wall, through which, a few days later, we could look at the new copper piping.
3.31. A couple of weeks before we rented our apartment, on one day The Daily News carried a story of a house just down from ours in which a rat had gnawed the head off a baby and, on the next, the tale of an apartment building across the street where some juvenile delinquents murdered a neighborhood cop. They'd hauled a concrete paving block up to the roof. Then, down in the hall, one kid blew a police whistle. When the cop ran up to the doorway to see what was going on, the others, looking down over the roof's edge, dropped the block on him.
3.32. A couple of weeks after our marriage, my uncle, Judge Myles Paige, invited us up to his summer home in Greenwood Lake, where we spent the Labor Day afternoon nearby at another uncle's home (Judge Hubert Delany), down by the lake itself, in a bevy of relatives and old friends of my family, while a cousin inveigled us to go water skiing.
And our friends, Dick and Alice, living then in the Van Rensselaer Hotel in the Village, besides taking us out to innumerable restaurants over those early months (I sometimes wonder if we would have survived without them), carried us off to a postwedding celebration at Palisades Amusement Park, where we all rode the Ferris wheel and roller coaster to calliope music above the waters at Jersey's edge.
Excerpted from The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel R. Delany. Copyright © 2004 Samuel R. Delany. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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