Christopher Bernard’s Amor i Kaos (part 2)
The prevailing winds, from east over the Atlantic, across gray, clammy tides, puling seagulls, their black caps and flexing, sickle-like wings, the terns’ small, quick arcs, the funny rushes and escapes along the skirt of the wave wash of the pipers hunting for small, nutlike sandcrabs. The tart briny scent, the yellow, scummy, impetigo-infecting gullies. The gray white sand grainy with tiny white and black crystals he could almost count as they separated in his palm. Clumps of salt grass covering the dunes like long green hair. The endless distant roll and crash of waves along the beach, the lulling confusion of whiteness, a serene and tranquil drama of the shore, raving and collapsing without pause from horizon to horizon.
When they met shyly in their swimsuits, the summer Christopher Pascal was sixteen and Sasha Kamenev fifteen, and their families spread their beach blankets and chairs and umbrellas under the tinkling shouts and laughter of swimmers and beachball players and sandbucket diggers and sandcastle builders not far from the lifeguard stand on the hot, white dry sand and the cool, gray wet sand along the edge of the playful lashing mindless formidable beautiful and frightening sea.
—No. Ocean. There is something grander in the word, don’t you think? said the portly man, waking him from his daydream.
An unfathomable calm under the skittering nervousness of that day.
If he remembered right. Well, not all that much, not really. It came and went in patches. Whirligigs and wormholes. Green shadows. A whiff of fireworks scratching the face of a small black sky. A blithe heart, nevertheless.
In the fall, the wheatfields behind the porch and the restless glancing avenues, mock peevish and running away as fast as they could go, as free as they could be. Racing the dust at their heels and shouting whoopee! Looking for love in the usual inept ways, and if not love, more money. A lot more money. Because it would have to do. And turned out to be considerably easier. It’s the one thing one could actually get – easier than love, easier than justice, or truth, or beauty, or good. Look at the stuff they could buy. The plunder, the stash, the loot. And they didn’t even have to kill to get them. Did they?
—I don’t know, did we? someone said out loud.
And Aeolus filled their sails as the ship surged out of the harbor’s embrace. White clouds.
—I’m sorry, old boy, did you say something? said the portly man. —No, sorry, he said. I was flustered. I …
—A lot more money, someone said passing with a nod and two boots of Blue Moon.
—Give me another. Did I ever tell you about her? She never really flirted—well!That’s the way it was then. The feminist rage of the hour. The wartime footing. The warrior’s zeal.
The glint in Sasha’s eye. Envy, pride, a lasting wreck. Miserable and perfect. Though the die hadn’t yet been cast.
—The world was on the verge of bankruptcy, yet I didn’t even break a sweat. Amazing how you can kid yourself that nothing is really wrong. The dim cowering into dimness. The ugly blond’s aggressive smile. The liter, or was it kilo, of really bad coke.
—The problem is I simply couldn’t stand you at times. But I’m helpless when you ask for help.
—Only bearable when beautiful, I say, he said with angry look, though maybe the better word is fresh. As in fish. Of course, you’re not supposed to say so out loud. They’ll tar and feather you and run you out on a rail.
The grocer’s greeting. The cop’s hand. The face gone suddenly sour.
—But why do you hate me so? you asked. —Why should I like you?
—You have a point there. I’ll learn to smile despite the shrapnel in the groin.
He hobbled to the threshold of the bar and stared outside. A herd of gazelles leapt across the tall, withered grasslands. One at a time, then in a great mass, like birds.
Then she was gone.
The dim cowering into dimness, the young student of astrobiology was looking hopefully through the latest reports from Chile. Supernova, the results from CERN, a smear from Hubble, neutrinos faster than light, or so reported, and the discovery the week before of Higg’s boson, the “God particle,” because of which there are lumps of matter aggregating into stardust, your favorite baseball team and Sasha’s crazy uncle, in the time-space continuum. Without Higg’s, the universe would be nothing more than a kind of infinitely expanding spritz.
—Like your crazy uncle, in fact. Everybody’s talking about it, above all non-scientific types like him. It gave him a certain weight. It brought her down to earth. It brought them together with a clang—or was it bang? And voila: quarks, protons, amino acids, amoebae, butterflies, panthers, doves, exoplanets and the perfection of Sasha’s face.
She turned sharply to him, and he remembered, in a flash, the solemnity of their first encounters. It would have been intellectual to a fault had there not also been a spark of desire or merely curiosity, like the static in a comb in the depths of winter. Setting off a shower of falling stars from the falling waters of her hair. For Pascal she had been part body, part mind. The mind interfered with the body, the body with the mind. The confusion robbed him sometimes of his ability to talk, and he babbled to the ceiling all night in an unknown tongue. His heart was full of pity (always a deeper motivator than lust), for she was, after all, mad as a hatter and danced all night in his bed, wild as a wounded swan.
She turned sharply to him.
—Do not forget where you are, in a garden where dragonflies weave their way across the just opening roses, their heads in crushed, pink crowds. Hiking up the boulevards to a distant krak of mountains, our exquisite china balanced on the back of a stallion, we march to the end of the sandlot and present arms to a glassful of sunlight.
The withing knots. The unaccounted-for expense sheet in question. A pale tide. A crown of swords.
She had eyed him at first with interest but also suspicion. Would Pascal be able to carry the eggs to the top flight of the tower? It was a reasonable question, requiring careful appraisal and completely candid judgment, though a little disillusioning for him. Not as excitingly mysterious as romantic love used to be. In a long-lost generation. But then explanations tended to be disheartening – it was sometimes how he could tell they were true. They left not a rack behind or even a pitying smile, just one more “I’m such an idiot!” to go down with the toad he’d swallowed for breakfast this morning. Reality can be such an ass, don’t you think? But don’t.
—Sasha never told me anything, so how could I know? Her smile was hard as rock candy. Pascal looked awful when he said that. Why are we here? Oh yes, to buy a lottery ticket.
—Sometimes it’s better not to know and just dream.
The pale tide. Remarkable for the coral formations at the edge of a forgotten beach.
Not that Pascal was a slave to memory, it was more like indentured servitude for someone who had always been suspicious of the future. In the oiled lock and subtle key of the present instance. A Sherpa on the edge of the ascent. The wary but always grinning companion. The tent half buried in the snow. The sharp smell of the wind off the ice. The photographs scattered over the rocks.
—You see, I saw them at one time, romantically, as revelations of an ultimate attainment of being, held on the hook like an elusive fish, some deep-sea denizen hiding in a pocket of the Pacific, the giant squid much talked about, never caught alive, what was no more (I came to think) than illusions of stillness in time’s gale.
—And maybe you were right. Or completely wrong! Pix on the internet are already being called archetypes.
—Enough of them in one place creates a satisfying collection. So why not in the cloud? One after another lined up like cards in a game of solitaire. Between the plates and the jewelry case, the belvedere and the slumber party, the infant and the death mask. Ringing changes on a carillon of servers forever. Or at least until the next big thing.
—There really were no excuses for how much we enjoyed ourselves! Yet we did, didn’t we?
Somehow that sounded completely wrong. Morally.
—They’re only human, after all, she said, but they’re still monsters.
—You mean, we are, he said. Raining upon us, crude and glittering, an almost unbearable munificence. Imagine a storming herd of white elephants. The perfect servant of our wishes. Has become, in a way, our perfect master. Like a cockroach swallowed whole in Aladdin’s lamp.
He was probably wrong, of course, he thought almost immediately: there were so many ways to be off target when crackling homespun glass. Bearing down on the clean formica. Folded like paper in a machine. Or leaving things out to melt. It tasted fine, but only once.
—You’ve noticed, haven’t you, she said, that novelty is no longer in fashion: everything has to be copied or, preferably, stolen.
—I carried a bucket of them from end to end of the village but didn’t have a single taker. The prayers flew up on all sides and got tangled in a swarm of drones.
—If only people could be good, she said, with a laugh, and just do as I tell them to!
—If only the world could be good, he said, and do as I want!
It was occasionally possible, though maybe it never was the point. Otherwise God seemed unfathomably cruel (even if you didn’t believe in him). As if he cared what you believed (you thought). He hangs his cloak of darkness over the firefly galaxies as if they were the shoulders of a king. But to become a king is to have taken (she thought) the first step on the road to humility. Tell your god that when he comes calling (he thought).
The sound of tapping against an empty drum. Angel’s tears. Falling stars. The smell of rosemary on the outdoor steps.
—If only I could be good, he said. There’s a photograph of a range of horses all looking east as if they had forgotten home. Quiet but not lost, soft and comfortable in their homey way and needing nothing else for the moment. It was necessarily a temporary condition. Comfort, that is, needing nothing. Not even air. Liftoff as in a flying dream, which the Jungians, those killjoys, like to scold people for having. So Swiss!
—Even C.G. could be a twerp, she said.
—I’ll fly in any dream I want to, he declared.
After a very brief pause, she cried out, Bravo! Let the light man rise!
Balloons filled the sky like champagne. They moved in a bunch above the city like a crowd of kids flying with brightly colored backpacks between their little wings, it was the sweetest thing you ever saw, they looked alive as they drifted into the distance, it was also curiously heartbreaking, there was not a cloud in the sky. I want to join you, can I, can I, I can’t wait, I want so much to join you up there, it’ll make me happy, I know it, can I, will you let me? I promise I won’t be a bother, I won’t make a sound, you’ll never even know I am here.
—So he let her rise, did he?
—She thought so; anyway, she had endless patience with him. Remarkable for one so young. I guess she loved him and that is what love is. Though he could try the patience of a saint. And did so. Regularly. With extreme prejudice. As though there was nothing easier in the world. Plangent. Obscurity. A Scottish snap. The tessitura of darkness being an extremely high and extremely low pitch with nothing at all in between.
—They swam together in the meadow pond despite her fear of tadpoles (stated) and his own fear of water mocassins (unstated). Children are like that, when not shockingly cruel, they can have astonishingly good sense. The truth was sometimes so obvious, so why all these arguments over the burning grass and the ruined fountain in the garden? Couldn’t they just swallow their bitterness and raise their hands like the eyes of so many dolphins and winnow the sea wind with the waves? In other words, get on with it? When in doubt, give up. Society wants you to be slightly stupid, so don’t give them the satisfaction. Hide under the bed, don’t grow up. Be careless and free. Eat cake when you can’t afford it. You’ll get tired of it soon enough and want to do the right thing, out of curiosity if nothing else. Virtue won’t make you happy. Not vice, not money, not love. Happiness makes you happy, then it bores you and you decide to try suffering just for a change of air. Though escaping from suffering is not the snap that escaping from happiness is. The gate crashed open and, in the dark entrance, his horns flashing in the lights from the passing traffic, the Minotaur stood, black and silent.
—Be careless and free: now, there’s a motto I like. Just as long as it includes no commitment. But it always does. Carefreeness, with its way of slanting a course toward the future however delightedly we threw ourselves into the present. Tomorrow wrested that baby from its mother’s arms. And tossed it into an awkward hour despite its rage and tears.
It made them weep where they stood on the plain between the burning villages. The smoke buried the sunrise as the flames consumed the houses.
—For every hour in the world was alive then; I remember, I was there. And the brain scientists can go hang. I don’t want to know what it is I can’t know. The taste of blood after the fight with Sam. The whiskey brown of Melissa’s eyes. The cascades of apples in the Millers’ barn behind the black-boughed orchards. I don’t just remember a memory of a memory, I thought. I remember her: Sasha. Dewpoint. Tree line. Vortex in Tornado Alley. Your hair half chucked away in the wind (he thought). Your words I could never trust (she thought). Their eyes locked in that long, awkward dance at the end of the year.
—I like that thing you found when we were talking about the book on mazes.
—Oh? You mean between the hedgerows of that funky English garden?
—And I thought you preferred guava jelly with your muffin, the glories of Nutella, chipped beef, cherries jubilee, and dead baby, that sort of thing. The sliced wheat toast. The apricot spread. The currant jam. Englishy things. Your tea is now ready, milord, would you like the Assam or the Lapsang Suchong? I so love how you fondle your shoe. The things that make one feel so, oh I don’t know, serenely above it all. But I would never have said that.
I’ll get back at you for this, he thought as he grinned, sage and savage as he always got when he knew he was getting too happy. And she saw it too.
—Some questions are better left unanswered. Take this photograph, for instance. I could swear they both look angry, but I was there, their eyes were in the sun, just before and just after they were giggling over some private joke. I’ve never seen two people who looked so pleased with each other. And themselves. The bastards! The camera can be the most cunning of liars. Just by freezing a moment, it lies, don’t you think? Because no moment is ever frozen. There is no moment to freeze. I thought, without actually thinking it, I assumed that my whole life was leading up to one perfect moment of authentic being, and there I would freeze until I eventually vanished in some vague, far-off, abstract thing called “death.” All because of photographs. Well, partly, at least. I was really young at the time. It took me a long time to realize it was the photograph that was the illusion, that had created this illusion of a final reality one became; everything before it, and after it, being not quite real. But no, that idea, which I so liked, was just one more toy to throw onto the bonfire with my dreams, the sweetest things, let’s face it, in life, the facts iffy when not appalling. Did you ever think about that?
But Sasha had already grown bored and was thinking about what color to paint her toenails, this was a fact she preferred to make as little iffy as possible, after all she did have some control over that, and she did not believe in bothering her head about things over which she had no control. She had read that once in Epictetus, a far smarter fellow, she decided, than Dr. Phil.
—No, she said primly after a moment of reflection. I haven’t.
All because of photographs (he thought again, ignoring her), and other mirrors of someone else’s dream. Which some famous brain physiologist called, in those years, the brain’s natural state. Dreaming, that is. That unquiet grave. Paintings in the gallery downstairs. Books piled in columns on the floor around the desk. Music from the third room down the hall. Portamento, that slick trickery of the devil, a sanctimonious generation had pointed out. To say nothing of parallel fifths. And espressivo was somewhere between a black shirt and a Gestapo unit. Poor romanticism being made to carry the coals of hellfire for several decades. Until even that was forgotten by the rappers, when the sanctimonious wept tears of blood.
Which was irrelevant to my sweetie (thought Sasha), since he sank into Bantock as into Bliss. The beauty of it was he could still do exactly as he pleased. And despise the taste of the rest, which after all is what taste means. Elitism can be such a consolation. After all, when choosing fruit at a store, one does not usually choose a rotten apple. On these matters we were agreed. If that is the fruit of democracy, then one cheer for democracy! And down with capitalism, that slave, and vampire, of the masses. That was too easy. But maybe not. So we began to build our island of happiness surrounded by a sea of fog, for we must hide our gentleness from them, thought Pascal. And we’ll send signals that can be deciphered only by our friends and those like-minded to us, Sasha said in her practical way. Even if we know there are no guarantees, and there may be no one out there like us. In that unquiet grave.
The stillness between the candle and its flame. Hollowed out like a decaying tree. Or a folded handkerchief in a mirror. Escaping eyes. Prevailing winds. A hypnotic torpor. The grandness of his many-pillowed sleep and how his dreams perpetuated the solemnity of that hour. As they waited, impatient and stern, for the brass gong to sound between the gleaming portals. Only words, Pascal complained. But such words, Sasha rejoiced. Keep tossing them and one or two are bound to stick. And then, eureka! A crack of light as the great locked gate soundlessly opens.
—Creative destruction? the man down the bar said. Hell, man, what happen when the creative get disappeared? Then all you got be the destruction. Kind of compulsively destroying while waiting for the creative to get off its butt, so you jus’ keep on keepin’ on, destroyin’, Jesus H, used to work, man, gotta work, always work before, till you destroy, well, just ’bout everything. And you still standin’ there with your dick in your hands, waitin’ for the creative part to kick in.
Satan sits there, weeping with laughter, you idiots, he howls, slaps his sides, gotta love ’em, they’ve done all my work for me, Hitler failed, Stalin failed, Mao failed, Idi Amin failed, Pol Pot failed, who’d a-thunk my best buddies would be Adam Smith and Milton Friedman! Hey, I’m down here! Right, come on down! The water’s warm! In fact, it’ll scorch your little buns off! I so love you guys!
—It doesn’t anymore.
Not then, not now. Despite (he thought) the multifarious extravaganzas, the impossible tasks written out on innumerable blackboards from end to end of the vast classroom, doing his sums under the torrid eyes of Mrs. Skinner and the academic elite who despised him. (“The devil? I have a Ph.D.! Of course I don’t believe in the ‘devil’!”)
—It doesn’t get any better than this despite all your dreaming. Hope is its own reward as long as you don’t entirely believe in it, otherwise you’re one of the truly cursed.
In fact and indeed, he thought bitterly.
—An entire relationship can subsist, she said one day, on good manners alone, though some people seem to think that passion . . . well.
—But bad boys excite the ladies.
—All that resentment’s a challenge. Juicy!
—And self-destruction’s hot.
—Consider yourself lucky to have been so wise so young.
—Lose your youth, lose your beauty, but never lose your manners. It sounds idiotic.
—Because, as you just said, she said, pointedly, hope is its own reward. Like dreaming. An endless delay before awakening. As in Tantric sex.
—So they tell me.
She stared at him for a long moment.
—Stop me if you’ve heard this before, she continued, mockingly. The autonomous person cares principally about her own approval. Celebrity, fame are violations of privacy. Money, power are only useful for making real her fantasies. Love is sometimes pleasing, sometimes a burden, always a distraction. Otherwise she’d be content to live in a cave on fresh bread and spring water.
—Doesn’t she love anybody?
—She’s fond of one or two friends, an aunt, a grandfather. The rest of humanity is either a potential “friend,” a lesson to learn, an instrument to be used, or an obstacle to be overcome. She doesn’t waste time worrying about them, unless she chooses to make their welfare a source of her own contentment.
—She sounds awful.
—Uberbitch. Sometimes she chooses compassion, even love – but she’ll be damned if she’ll be blackmailed by them. She constantly reminds herself that her own strength is a fragile shelter, that everyone begins and ends weak, dependent, and helpless. And the dead are the most helpless of all.
—Does she hate weakness?
—Only in her more foolish moments. Question is, will she recognize the good that only weakness makes possible – tenderness, delicacy, grace, the openness to experience that a muscle-bound strength loses like smoke in a clenched fist? Will she see in the weak what she once was, what she will be again, when old age, illness, mortality beat her in the fight—that her future will depend on other people for all of time to come?
—All of history, at least. When that wears out . . . well, we’ll worry about that . . .
—So don’t be too arrogant, guy! She winked and grinned. Got it?
—So they tell me. In mocking and adventitious tones, before being crushed between an amino acid and a nucleotide, like some nervous clone. But don’t wait too long for it. It has that strange mark of irony in the middle of its paw, did you notice?
—Not yet. Maybe later. Maybe never.
He kissed her gently on the nose.
—Get out of here!
Among the mounds of salt in the markets of Aleppo and Ghent. An unrelieved perplexity mounted on a throne. Throwing glances in a perspective of long, shadowy halls. Their worried and aggrieved looks. Painful gestures beneath a towering clock. Close to bedtime and the journey’s end. If you believe in the hour yet to come. Gin and tonics from his parents’ era, fashionable again two generations later, in tall sweating glasses held in outstretched fingerends. Pillowcases left hanging on the bannister. Arpeggios dancing lightly in the piano room.
—But I thought you loved music, she said. Was I wrong again? Even though it was more like just banging notes, waiting for harmony, sweet harmony, to unveil her losses to the world. (You said so. I distinctly remember.)
That was the day before she ported the bureau without help to the top of the stairs and pushed. What an alarm of rocking, clattering, smashing, shattering overturning of secret drawers and perfectly folded underthings went flying, tossed and turning, as it lumbered end over end down that long far-flung flinging flight of stuttering, stampeding stairs! It was quite rejuvenating though only a once-in-a-lifetime—well!—fling. And she felt so much better afterward – her eyes were sparkling for hours. She brushed her hands with a flush of satisfaction and went back to her room looking for something else to smash but alas there were only the bed and the vanity and they were too close to her heart to wreck however beautifully. So she took the old hat she hadn’t worn in ages and threw it out the window and it sailed off, spinning gently, across the yard and landed in the branches of the apple tree that was just beginning to blossom, it was the middle of May a very, very long time ago. And there it sat all summer in the sun and the heat and the rain and the night until the blackbirds slowly tore it to pieces and used the pieces to build their nests and the ants took off bits to their colony near the tulips and squirrels took other bits, no doubt thinking they just might be nuts, and the rain and weather rotted the rest. But by then she had forgotten all about it. She had been severely punished for the bureau toss anyway, but she found she didn’t care.
—After all, Sasha felt so much better afterward. As Pascal did too, when he imagined a really big blowup, dynamiting a city, say, or icing half Russia with a hose of ICBMs (he grew up during the Cold War). Though today he might be piloting a drone over Raqqa or sweeping across the hills of Yemen where he sat at his desk in Idaho, his palms sweating in the air-conditioning and his conscience raging at him for not really caring that the SUV he just blew up was probably carrying a young couple to a family reunion or a bunch of young men drunk on illicit beer, the target having lost his cellphone with the GPS code under the back seat next to a dirty keffiyeh and an empty bottle of Diet Coke. It lacked a certain adventure. Even, dare one say, heroism. And he imagined how he would be hated in the future, the faceless killer from the sky, he and his countrymen, his country. And how that hatred, like seeds, would grow into a jungle nobody would be able to cut through for a very long time to come. At the end of the grotesque civilization he called his own. This was his mantra for a season. There is no justice, there is only revenge, and it is only a matter of time before they will bring theirs home. To you. Because his dreams were no longer only dreams. They instantly oozed into reality and froze there, shining icicles surrounding his head like a crown.
—Yes, said Sasha after hearing him out. It does lack a certain heroism. Though you cannot know, he thought, what might be happening elsewhere, at another time, in another place. In the land of perhaps, the Cockaigne of possibility, far from the desert of must and will. A lake beneath a patient, murderous drone. Compact with futurity and the august, prehensile tail of a maleficent president. The stinking rage of combat.
—To say nothing of the missed purgatory of home, he thought he heard someone saying down the bar. His back was turned to him, so the words were not entirely clear. The portly man was silently discussing a pint of ale.
—Though this purgatory sent you down from paradise, the bent, denimed back beside Pascal went on, in a rather smug tone, as you awaited the end of the long penance for having been so happy and the reward at last of a secure place in hell. Called adulthood, if I remember correctly, that curious fraud, said the back, Pascal could see the back’s hand holding a glass half-full of whiskey and a single cube of ice. He nodded, as if in agreement, at his own reflection in the mirror just past the bartender’s waist.
The song of the ocean was noisy in his ear, and the sky turned violet with sunset.