In the 16th century there lived a Dutch painter convinced that nothing could be adequately represented in art, because, in a painting, or a sculpture, the representation of the object stands still while the portrayed object is forever changing (due to shifting shadows, the accumulation of dust, movement, etc). He had been raised in Franciscan mysticism, and he saw painting, or the constant contemplation of God’s perfect forms, as a form of devotion. It’s said that once he found his patron, he worked on only one painting for the rest of his life, a simple arrangement of two columns draped dramatically in cloth. When the light changed in his studio, or the cloth shifted, he worked diligently to correct these “mistakes”, and as a result he painted constantly. His days were haunted by periods of intense mania, where, forgetting everything, even sleep (which sometimes came to him while he was standing up) he would work on the painting without stopping for several weeks. His brush hand became weak prematurely, and his lines started to blur. He taught himself to paint with his other hand, but he never trusted it fully. His vision, too, was going: it’s said that the painting began to look washed-out, and that in one corner was a large dark area caused by his cataracts. Finally he stopped working on the painting altogether. His patron demanded to see it, hearing that the work was finished, but the painter refused. He thought it more incomplete than it had ever been. There was no other recourse: the painting was destroyed. Shortly afterwards, the painter died.
Because of the reaction of the innkeeper’s wife, I’m a criminal. Before then, I wasn’t branded. Now I can’t help but see the scar myself. I deserve what I’ll get if I ever go back to that part of town, where I’ll certainly be recognized.
Yes, I committed a crime. I came from a place where love meant just that, only love. My parents (if they even knew any better) never hinted at my “ambiguous nature”, and they never let on that it was wrong not to embody a finite definition. I am dual. So what?
In the newspaper this evening there is a report of two sailors kicked out of the Royal Navy for sodomy. The monarch has publicly denounced their actions. Certain leading ministers have gone on record: what the two sailors did was reprehensible, a crime against nature. I’ve never done anything as definite as that. I don’t know if I’m capable.
What’s true is that once, long ago, I was a romantic. I fell in love with one of the boys from my village. We didn’t think anything of it, and neither of us had ever loved anyone else before. Like all the others, we had our places to go by ourselves. If we wanted privacy, that was for good reasons: it’s better to be as far as possible from screeching chickens and nagging mothers. When I thought it was time to leave the village, and to make something of myself, we said our goodbyes.
It’s wrong to fall in love with another man’s wife, but I couldn’t help it. I was attracted by her fat arms, the way they rescinded in delicate parabolas to her fine wrists. There was something vital in her fleshy white voluptuousness, the pecking comments she directed at me, lingering over my breakfast, as she rolled her doughs by the stove. The innkeeper was stout and flat-footed. His cheekbones looked like they’d been carved, chipped is more like it, out of rock, and they were covered with a fine and irregular black moss. He glared at me, from the very moment I met him, as I suspect he must have glared at all of his male lodgers, recognizing, in some dim, unconscious gleam stirring in his lizard brain, that he was well cuckolded. His wife didn’t seem to notice his sourness. She sang in the morning while she baked. When he was finished his oatmeal, the innkeeper dragged himself outside to chop wood, resolutely setting up one log after another on his block.
It was only a matter of time, as I expect it must have been for everybody. But when the time came, we didn’t consummate. She took one look at me, and she shrieked. It was then that I realized my inherently criminal nature.
The history my family doesn’t know, and hasn’t attempted to know. Memory goes back only personally, locally: to twenty-three years ago, when the house was built by my grandfather; to twelve years ago, when we inherited it. The forest’s history we aren’t sure about: it’s mostly young; there was farmland here (the poor kind) but now it’s all overgrown. When I was fifteen I watched the neighbours’s house while they were on vacation, and the father told me that when they’d moved in he could see clear over the rows of pine my grandfather had planted, and straight to the house.
“You could ski over it,” he said.
The pine forest is new: you can see that, manmade, it’s planted in rows. When we were young we went out on foot, our grandfather in his smokey flannel, smelling of wood-splinters, chain-oil, and we cut the dead branches off the trees with a handsaw, the action almost indiscriminate, arbitrary, and so rankling–we weren’t going to trim that whole twenty acres, were we?
The deciduous forest is older, but not by much. The maples stand proud and straight, unbent by age, just out of adolescence. Their trunks straight shafts flowering at the tops like broccoli. Tipped over they look like barbells, the root systems heaving with dirt–weeds and flowers too, if it’s been a while since they’ve fallen. By then there’s a good chance that we, the scavengers, would have the trunk cut-up and laid out in piles, some to be taken back to the woodshed, split, others to be left behind, over months soaked rotten, covered in moss, and forgotten. The branches us boys dissembled with the cherished handsaws, in brown November, pulling the toothpicks over mouldering earth, or in muggy July, flush with mosquitos, the hooks and loops of our velcro branches catching on all of the young growth. These thin branches, good kindling, to be laid in their circular funeral pyres and left to collect muck.
In that forest I stood a ways off and watched my grandfather take apart a leaning tree (or a tree that threatened to lean) with his axe: first one side, and then the other. The upright, standing scar left behind after the tree came crashing down: it’s been fifteen years maybe but the forest works so slowly I bet it would still be there if I had the inclination to look for it, or maybe not, the forest works slowly, but suddenly: over fourteen years the stump softens, splinters, sprouts, and in the fifteenth year, it’s soil.
But aside from this early, oft-nostalgised family history (and the facts that attend it: J—. D—. helped my grandfather clear the trail with his bulldozer; it’s here that our dog inadvertently frightened away those hunters; this is where M—. and L—. saw what they thought was a cougar, but must have been a deer) there isn’t much we know about the property, and even less we care to know. Our early history is only ever nostalgised because inside the house it is an electronic void, we’ve forgotten the forest entirely, and I’m only able to write about it because I’ve left that house long behind.
An old man who can’t control his interjections–sometimes the weight of silence becomes so oppressive that something cracks, and silence is no longer possible.
“Jesus christ, what’s this lineup? It must be lunchtime.” (We’re at McDonald’s.)
“You’d think we were waiting for fine dining or something.” (His words are aggressive, more aggressive than they seem on paper. He’s chuckling. There is a hint of violence to his pseudo-joviality. What’s worse than anything, he’s already clutching an empty fountain drink.)
“Don’t they have enough people working back there?” (Didn’t they know he was coming?)
“Hey–they need people. You could get a job here pretty easily.” (At this point, beyond uncomfortable, I don’t even give the man the barest indication that I’ve heard him. From silence he’s found a voice, and then on to a different kind of silence.)
We didn’t wait longer than three minutes, if that.
I have a history of making a home out of between-places: stairwells, halls, closets. Of sitting on the dusty floor, with my legs stretched out, trying to convince myself, and my timid friends, that we’re somewhere. There are endless reminders (principally people stepping over my long legs) that we’re in a thoroughfare, part of the thoroughfare: only minute obstacles. Something to be stepped around. The conversation goes across the hall, between swinging legs, arms, books.
When sitting alone, it’s an effort not to look at the lone passerbyer approaching first by distant footsteps, then bodily eclipsing the entire hallway. To look would be too awkward, because it feels natural to confront those passing you, and those you pass, so we’d both look, and yet usually neither party feels comfortable acknowledging the other, so we would only look.
Tonight, in one of these halls, I wait for the class I’ll later discover is cancelled. I have a silent partner sitting across from me, obscured by a stone corner–I can see her studious in the black mirror of the door window, and every now and then, I can hear her turn a page.
It is more than simply talking. Do they think I’m blind? I can see through the half-pulled blinds in the front window, through to the office, where they all stand, hats in hand, gathered by her desk.
Her slim body rings like a bell in her dress. She turns, laughing at some joke, and in that flash of hair they can see the nape of her white neck.
“One day you’ll have to introduce us to your friend, Lena. Maybe you two should call up your other girlfriends and we’ll all go for a night out.”
Her denial is light and casual. Perfume trails smokey from her waving hand. And she slips her arm into mine; for a moment it’s easy to believe that that’s all we are, two women arm-in-arm, our backs receding to the boys.
There is a lock on her door.
Sometimes the landlord will speak to us downstairs. He breathes heavily, awkwardly, as if there is something small and feral running his lungs. His huge stomach hangs sideways out of his coat. The weight makes him uncomfortable. Unsettled, motion is his habit: he leans on things and works them over with his thin, nervous hands. He speaks drumming his fingers on the undersides of tables, or placing one palm flat on a window pane, resting his unbalanced figure, breathing his belly out while his hand twitches, while his mouth opens, and warm, yeasty air flows out underneath his overgrown moustache.
“You’ve put a lock on the door. I’ll need a key. I need access to your room sometimes. To fix the heat.”
An old submariner explains his time in the navy:
“I was prudent, which is why I never said anything. Weighing out the options it did not seem desirous to expose myself through speech. Whole acres opened up between sentences, and I took care to arrange exponential pauses between words, which buried themselves, like veins of mercury, in the sand.
“When Levin proposed to Kitty, without words, I of course understood, though, strangely, I also felt sorrow at their squandering an opportunity to speak.”
On being single, from someone who isn’t:
“Watching movies, I sometimes get a sense of the secret underworld of the single.
“On the screen, two single people are at a wedding. All around them are children, grandparents: the ceremonials that those who are single ignore, but everyone else can’t help but notice. The two single people are dancing together, sitting at a table, nearly touching hands, talking about nothing. Each is thrilled by some latent idea that the other person may be interested in them romantically, but nothing is said about it. The feeling is enough. It doesn’t need to be approached directly, in fact, it’s better this way, because if it isn’t mentioned, but nursed, it becomes the secret heart of the conversation. Someone (a friend of either, or of both) may come along and pull the two onto the dance floor, where the mood will disintegrate but the feelings and the conversation will linger, beating, in the minds and rib-cages of the two talkers.
“The feelings are sometimes acted upon, sometimes not. In either case, in bed, or in the car on the way home, or the next day (if something has happened between the two single people, who are now no longer single people, but tenuously together–or perhaps not) the night will be recounted to the minutest detail. Each moment captured and re-lived again, and again, especially those gestures or words that at first seemed inconsequential, because of their mundanity, but later took on a crucial character because of that very mundanity (which becomes ambiguity). Those moments, their endless revival (that is, until that does end, as everything does), are poetry.
“This idea of poetry can be lost when one is in a stable relationship, because love no longer seems to be of such importance. It can easily be taken for granted. But in the minds of those who are single, even without meaning to, “love”, the idea of “companionship”, infuses every gesture, every thought, so that one hardly knows which feeling is love, or more properly, the quest for love, and which is simply breathing.”
In front of me an old man gets down on his knees. Underneath a reference table lined with books he reaches with shaky hands, straining, his gut bent underneath him. Plugs in a discman. There is not a sadder thing he could be straining for. He bumps his head as he rears up, in a surprisingly childish motion, and then looks at me with such heartbroken seriousness when he realizes I’ve been watching him that I have to look away, even though I was smiling.
The city outside the fourth floor window–peaked rooftops (copper gangrenous, red-tile dusty) apartments and hotels clustering rudely in high-rises behind them–changes as I sit here reading. The changes occur slowly, when I look up, to a sudden effect.
Time is witnessed via the faces of the city in the sun. In the book Envy, by Yuri Olesha: “When I settled here, a sun speck on the doorjamb at two in the afternoon. Thirty-six days passed. The speck jumped to the next room. The earth had completed another leg of its journey. The little sun speck, a child’s plaything, reminds us of eternity.”
First, the illuminated is everything but street level (it’s too late in the day for that) the copper and red-tile scoured and glittering. Then the illumination dulls, like quartz held at an off angle in the sun; the sky turns blue as a postcard.
The high rises are making their last stand, but the peaked roofs have fallen into shadow. They look abandoned. A man in a Bruins jersey is still reading his newspaper beneath those tall windows. He is dwarfed. The light filtered on the wall in front of me is a deep orange.
The old man is nodding eagerly to his discman. Staring straight forward, he’s doing nothing else. A hand presses into his chin. What could he be listening to–Dianetics? Somehow that seems likely to me. He reminds me of man who lived, flab-thighed, in the Dianetics testing facility. With broken teeth, grey stubble, he explained how, with the power of Xenu, I could see what I had for breakfast ten years before I was born, and with this power, “play golf, occasionally get laid”.
Why Scientology (for this old man, for anyone) instead of an older religion? I think I understand for the first time: the man doesn’t want to admit that he’s lonely. The secret–to everything–is out there, somewhere, but he’d rather not associate with that long tradition of probing devoutness because in humanity, impossible to separate from the Abrahamics, he sees weakness. He would rather something that has the metallic stench of unreality, something that smells like car grease and robotics. A new tradition to obliterate himself in feints and diversions.
He doesn’t want anyone to feel pity for him. He isn’t a child, he’s an old man.
The high rises are red, the sky purpling. Black peaked roofs silhouetted.
An eternity has passed. It’s time to go.
It’s no good waiting in a wall of silence to break the silence. At lunch, I took the prettiest spoon and I didn’t get to show it off.
One only has to place himself in the library and wait for loneliness to show up. The two of us sired from the same cone of silence. I come there at odd hours, but he is always there. We are both creatures of habit, but my habit is flux and disarray.
I’ve started to scratch jokes into the desks: weeks later, when I’ve forgotten about them, I can pretend they were written by another hand.
“Who is this mischievous fellow who shares my sense of humour? And why hasn’t anyone written him a response?”
A funny story
I promise you, tomorrow, or some other day, I’ll tell you a couple of funny stories.
Everything about salamanders is lonely: their loose, soft reddish-yellow bellies hanging low over the ground, their four-toed forelimbs planted firmly in the leafy, stick-encrusted soil. They never dart across the forest floor with a lively, frightened step. The most they will maybe do is turn their blank heads and breath on you a little. They are a lonely profession.
Every day I go down to the little hillock, where, on the far side (the soil is moist because of a nearby bog), I push the crumbling logs aside and get down on my knees and gently observe these timid amphibians, taking careful notes in a small spiral-bound notepad.
It would be too much to give these creatures names. I might as well name the bends in a road, or the local divisions of air.
The notebook is flimsy and weak, the pages rip out easily, and if I really want to get any work done I have to set it flat on a rock, or, better yet, retire to my verandah, where I recount the activities of the salamanders in much greater detail than if I was actually there.
“Specimen 27M is reading Tolstoy–his masterpiece, War and Peace. Specimen 83F is impressed. 83F feels an affinity for the Russians, and would like to read Tolstoy, but so far she’s only read The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as well as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karazamov, by Dostoevsky.
“27M has never read Dostoevsky, but, feeling that he has the upper hand, doesn’t let on, instead lying and saying that he has read Dostoevsky, although not Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov.”
“‘In fact, I’ve read The Idiot,’ he says.
“‘Oh, and how did you like that?’ asks 83F.
“‘I liked it very much, thanks. But I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing out on something by not reading Crime and Punishment. I think I’ll read that next.’
Since none of the salamanders have names, neither 83F or 27M really exist. Furthermore, the activities I have attributed to them would be impossible for them to ever perform. Salamanders do not have the sufficiently advanced mental faculties required to appreciate great literature. But I believe that regardless, when I’m on the verandah writing I come to an ideal of salamanderness, that, even though it is not explicitly factual, is true because it is learned from watching their daily movements and non-movements.
In the Robarts cafeteria. I feel like Indiana Jones, the academic. Everywhere I look I am met with the gaze of lovesick students… But I’m just trying to find a place to sit. Peering into the Starbucks nook, a head turns violently from her conversation, she’s still talking, and looking at me… it’s the same in the next room, as guarding the entrance, with one ear cocked to her table-mate, her eyes on me with my tray of sushi, is another woman.
In both rooms there aren’t any available seats, so I return to the cafeteria and find a spot by the window, in a place I have to squeeze myself violently to fit. I look across the room. There’s a girl sitting opposite me, and she’s staring at me. But there’s no way around it: I know the next part is going to be ludicrous. I take my jacket off, haphazardly, and as best as I can, compress my body, one leg kicking over an empty chair, into the seat that in normal circumstances would be obviously too small for my six foot frame–and, during that struggling, the magic dissipates. I’m relieved, but also a bit sad, to see that the girl across the cafeteria spends the rest of our lunch “together” standing up and looking off to one side, talking on her cell phone.