Hamilton Stone Review #19
My Date With Russia
A man with a Russian accent startled me in bed near midnight. I was alone in the woods reading about three hundred students who lay flowers on a poet’s monument in Warsaw in 1968. They were beaten with clubs. The flowers were beaten. I read about the secret police watching a conversation with a radio. If you wanted to get the news, you could stop in Vienna, you could listen anywhere. The waves of news. In bed, my phone rang, and when I said hello, the man with the Russian accent didn’t speak at first, struck dumb, and then an almost stammer, then he said, “Sorry.” He hung up. He called back. I let it ring. He didn’t leave a message. I thought of calling him back to ask where he was calling from. The country and the year. The date. I wanted to know where I’d gone. Where my voice had been heard.
My friend had given me a book about a woman who remembers her other life, the one before. And there’d been so little time between her lives, she’s able to find her old family, still alive. It’s like she’s living both lives at once, stepping across the water to enter one, leave another. I was holding her story in the aisle of the bookstore when the Russian boy spoke to me. He was tall, big-shouldered. He was saying he liked books like these, sweeping his hand in front of the metaphysical spines. I took it as a sign. He was so much younger than me, but his accent made him a little older. Together we walked into the music section.
The Russian boy asked me out. I was in his car one night. It was very clean, the lights on the dashboard like a landing strip. A car older people might like, a four-door, elongated. A car you could sleep in. Dark like a den. The music on the radio was terrible. Peppy disco music. He was dancing in his seat, big shoulders moving, hands like puffy boxing gloves on his steering wheel. He was singing incomprehensively along. Maybe the ‘80s for him are like the ‘60s for me, a place he’d like to go, the place he was born. The only thing that makes disco bearable is drunkenness, and I didn’t drink. I can’t imagine I would have borne the music quietly. The only thing I remember the boy saying is “I could be Russian mafia” which infuriated me, his trying to intimidate me. I said, “I could be Russian mafia” with the emphasis on “I.” The Russian boy snorted a little, “No you can’t,” he said. I’ve seen them in movies, the Russian spies—I’d be a perfect surprise, American, no apparent accent. But then I’d uncape myself, fling off my blond wig to show my long brown hair ringed in a hat made of fur, my alphabet full of fences, a laugh like Natasha.
On Park Avenue, in the ice cream store, he tried to make me taste a spoonful of his grenadine sherbet, dripping like frozen plasma. If I obeyed, leaned my head toward his, swallowed the red stuff, it would be like a potion, his romantic spell. I shook my head. He insisted. His face looked pugilistic, fleshy with demand, huffiness. I leaned away from him, back into my chair. If he could have pried my mouth open, scraped the spoon on my teeth, he would have.
After that night, I was sick every time he called. Once I found soup outside my door. No note. Once he said he hadn’t received any mail. On days I don’t get mail, I think of him.
My family does come from near Russia, the border with Finland. You can see Russia from their town. Overrun, they’d had to leave during the war. One relative came home to find the church bell buried in the garden. The King of Sweden adopted him because of his athletic ability. But when he was older, a ski instructor, he married an even older woman who thought she’d be childless all her life. They had children. They worked. One day, my relative went into the bedroom for seven years. He wouldn’t come out. He slept like Sleeping Beauty, his wife raising the children, cooking, working. After seven years, he walked out of the bedroom.
Nearby, on the side of the road are The Quiet People, even quieter than my sleeping relative. They don’t even breathe. A field of people made of sticks and straw. In winter, most wear coats, some with pajamas. They sleep standing up, so their dress is eclectic. They all wear snow, and face the same direction. Waiting patiently for someone to appear.
It looked like a diner, felt like New York – there were tables, performances could happen here in the future, but I didn’t see one. I had my computer, and the man who had died came over. Maybe he worked there. He stood to my left, me at the high table with other tables close by, and looked close at the side or back of my computer. I wasn’t alone, a rarity. He advised me. His skin was so radiant I forgot he was dead. I asked, “How are you?” And by the way he nodded, murmured, but looked away, I knew he was okay, but the memory of fighting, of what he fought, was with him.
I was so glad he was alive. And then he was in front of me, a photo of ourselves—a head shot, shoulders. Like we were in a photo booth, the diner a big photo booth. He said for me to go
ahead, and another picture was taken. Outside the diner was a crosswalk between the streets, and he and I began to walk across. The crippled came toward us. One in a wheelchair so low you couldn’t see the wheels, another harder to see now, but bent over, stumbling. And each had a person with them, a friend who held the arm or guided the chair, speaking with the person
who was hurt. This was before the white horse.
Before I was riding the horse, the reins in my hands, and he sat behind me. We weren’t in the city anymore, not even a city neighborhood, but I wouldn’t swear to that—tall houses appeared on either side of us, tall stores, but quiet, no cars.
I said, “The houses on a Saturday look like a movie,” and I stumbled over Saturday and what I meant, but he knew what I meant and didn’t need to make me feel stupid. I meant that when I was a child sometimes we’d drive around the streets on a weekend, look at the houses
my grandfather had built with his hands, where other people lived now. And now every single house in that town of houses that he built is owned by someone else, and there is no one to drive around with me and show me which ones he built. No one can remember. Sometimes I think I’d know, but most of the time I think the owners keep the making inside like a secret.
When I was alone on the horse, I knew the man was inside the white building we’d come to, in one of the larger rooms. Bethany was there, she’d been with us all along the ride I think,
and quiet. Which scares me now because I love Bethany and her husband and children, her blond hair Joni Mitchell thin like wind, and the way she never tells you where she’s been or what she’s going to do next, she never tells you the news as if that’s more important than talking to you right that second, it’s always the second she’s with you that counts with Bethany, so that you feel alive when you talk to her since she treats you like that, not like a daybook or a diary or a dartboard.
The building was multi-parted, cubed in different sizes with more than one door. I didn’t even know I knew how to ride a horse. Bethany was standing beside me and the white horse.
I’d thought she’d been quiet because she was shy of my friend, his kind of fame. But I don’t think that was it. We talked a little, and she went back to him while I rode. My horse and I turned
to the left, the road marked that way with white dashes that led up the steps, many steps into the building beside the one my friends were in.
In life, the man hadn’t been my friend—he’d hardly known me at all, just a passing by, my annoying inability to stand up and talk for myself and others, my shakiness where he was all calm adrenaline. Still he’d been kind, tried to send me to a city where I’d learn to speak up,
offered to pay my way, and I turned away into the ocean where I floated until I forgot what answer I’d given him. And when I wrote back in a letter of excuses, it came back unopened. So, I’m glad to see him also because it feels like forgiveness.
The horse and I are allowed inside the building, but that seems crowded, so we turn back to the unmarked road and ride around in a circle that I know will eventually take me back to him, his room. A white horse can be a messenger from your true self, from the unconscious. The radiant man who had died rode it with me, until I could ride without thinking, I mean the horse knew the way.
At night, I walked around the lake behind my apartment. Passing under the highway was a kind of portal. Near the underpass, flowers fell on the sidewalk. The lights inside the quiet houses made me wish the owners would invite me in. One house had a spiral staircase on the first floor that went somewhere unseen. Another had a porthole in a second floor window that made me feel at sea. One had a video camera at the plate glass window, aimed outward. Giant dogs sprawled on a lawn like ornaments. No one spoke to me. Sometimes I wondered if I was a ghost. One Saturday, a house on my walk was open. Someone had died. Her estate on sale. I found drawings on off-white squares of paper, silhouettes, two penciled hands. The hand is a talisman in Islam; a silhouette is called “the five,” each finger a place to write a prayer.
The drawings were signed, titled. One was “My Hand”; the other “Hugh’s Hand.” Twenty-five cents a piece. Her hand in air, his rested on an armchair, two veins visible, dark shadow inside his jacket cuff. Her hand reached for something, thumb bent to pick it up. How did she keep her hands so soft? Soaking her hands in a candy dish of liquid emerald soap? The saleslady said Marie had hand-painted all the flowers on the china. I wouldn’t have had the patience, she said.
There was a book of poetry on a cushion as if she’d left it there. I opened to the first poem, “The Tricyclist,” and read it beside her yellow couch. “I hold/my breath/and begin/to disappear.” It’s signed, “For Betty! Poems from the Lusbury days! Malcolm/February 10, 1979.” I found “Betty” in the middle initial of her signature on the drawings. But the saleslady kept calling her Marie, said she died at 94. All her phonograph records on sale, the bottles in her bathroom. Hugh long gone from this pink concrete block I’ve passed a hundred times, disappeared into the darkness of his sleeve. I never saw my neighbor wearing the mink coat laid out on the bed, the little hat, or blue sweater that I carried around her house in my arms like a cat.
As a homesick immigrant, I long to mix in with my people whenever I return to Mexico. Once I was in Taxco, in the state of Guerrero. My family is from Michoacán, so I made do on this visit as an interpreter at a writers’ conference. My private time was only in the evenings, while the gringos were having dinner, socializing with each other and not speaking to the citizens of Taxco through me.
At dinnertime I sit at the town square near the church and soak up the evening energy—children running, music blaring, vendors displaying their wares. It is Semana Santa, a week of daily festivals, and tonight the ceremony of the virgin’s pilgrimage. A statue dressed in silk is brought out of the church on a platform carried by four young women. They walk at the center of a procession through the square and out of the town, the followers illuminating the way with large candles.
I join them, pretending I’m one of them, a faithful, a Taxco native. We walk down the mountainside, through the dark dirt road that leads to a nearby village. A chapel bell rings, the virgin is deposited inside the church, and then everyone simply blows their candles out and goes home. This is their village.
It is not embarrassment I feel as I stumble uncertainly in search of Taxco in the pitch dark, or even fear after I lose my way and wander the dirt roads for another hour or so. When I finally catch sight of a streetlight on the main road I do not feel relief; I feel cast out of my people’s paradise.
Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays
from Vectors 3.0: Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays
138. Clarity, even in person, can be pretty hard. Telephones are harder: if I can't see your eyes, how do I know what I'm saying? With writing, misunderstandings multiply, since tiny shifts in tone and speed are no longer audible -- the writer tries to compensate by managing rhythm and punctuation and deploying a larger and more nuanced vocabulary than we need for speech. Along comes e-mail and from all sides the complaint that it is a peculiarly toneless genre that regularly offends and annoys and misinforms. Though screens are not as stable as pages, e-mail is not essentially different from other writing. The difference is us: we write it too quickly, we read it even more quickly. A lot of e-mails are work, to be gotten out of the way. And even the young, who grew up with it -- especially the young, who grew up with it -- seem incapable of reading further than three sentences before flapping off into some heaven of I already know this. Not a problem if the e-mailers or texters are in constant chat and so deep in a shared context that misunderstanding can be averted with crude steering like smiley-face and LOL, or if they're using the form as a kind of contentless I was here, the way people used to leave their cards. But the temptation is to e-mail little essays. The temptation is, worse, to try to replace our unpredictable and wounding social drama with writing: the protection of its distance, the smoothness of its infinite rehearsals. But who has the patience to be a good writer all day? Inevitably, we send too soon and get back reports of the damage. I resolve to quit e-mail and get a life. Or maybe just do one more revision. Thanks for reading to the end.
68. Let us explain to ourselves the difference. A rock might be very big, like Plymouth Rock or the Rock of Gibraltar. Or underground, as in bedrock. A rock is rough. A stone is smooth: it might well be cut into a gravestone, a cobblestone. Rocks you clamber over, stones you step on. What's that brilliance on her finger, a rock or a stone? The rock-thrower is anonymous. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
87. Tragedy and comedy ended with death or marriage, but our shows, mystery and sitcom, begin with them.
88. We don't blame the victim, already murdered when the show starts. We don't even blame the perp too much -- we just want to find out who he is. We don't blame the cops for blaming him. Best of all, we don't blame ourselves, so trivial our own crimes in comparison. And if anyone wants to blame us we 've got a perfect alibi for prime time.
89. You have the right to lie when they have no right to ask.
90. Since God died, no one has remembered you. But now it seems your DNA is everywhere and could be followed like a trail, if you could just act suspicious enough.
91. The boutique wants you to think you're collecting, the discounter that you're stealing.
92. The thing about the natural world, beautiful or bleak or bleakly beautiful, is that nothing seems to be in the wrong place. From this window, however, I can see the trowel I left in the yard, and I'm going to have to do something about it.
93. The way your walk changes entering a store or museum, slowing, widening a little, eyes sweeping level. Foraging on the ancient savanna for something to eat, something to use.
94. The Mystery we're absorbed in takes precedence over all the mysteries that won't be solved when the hour ends, a protective parenthesis within the larger stories of Love and Work, which are inside the story of Life, which is inside Big Bang. Actually scale is irrelevant: it's just as likely we'd use cosmology to distract us from a bad day at office. Theoretically all these are contained within a larger Storylessness, but that itself is only the romantic story I have at last attained freedom, which in an instant decays into more stable stories such as I'm so bored I'd rather be afraid or I must punish the deluded masses with this hard truth or Let's watch TV.
71. That little bird, pretty calm there in the snow, is cold, but it must be a discontinuous and lightly registered sensation. Cold. Peck peck. What's that? Oh yeah, cold. Whereas I would be desperate in a few minutes thinking about freezing Forever and Ever. Somewhere in evolution we traded endurance for foresight. Intelligence is the ability to worry in detail.
72. That half-second between stubbing your toe and convulsing with pain? Some people live there.
73. We ask What's the worst that could happen?, see that it wouldn't be so bad, calm down a little. What I want to know is: what is that Worse than the Worst we have to figure out over and over is not going to happen?
74. The squirrel struggling in the road. Something very deep says If it can't live it should die. I kill it with a stick. Maybe to stop my own suffering, but I don't think so: I'd rather walk away. Maybe Nature wants me to think this way about my own kind? The thought struggles in me. I kill it with a stick.
75. Stones, toys, ants, birds, children: the more we decide is less than human, the less human we become.
76. Her grief repeats with a high cracked sound, like an engine in which something has broken loose and is smashing around. People scare us when they're like machines, when they're so human.
77. If we were really sure of our freedom we wouldn't be so discomfited by those who make passion a habit, or habit a passion.
78. Slug, fungus: part of your body has fallen out. Snake, rat: part of it might try to get back in.
97. Joe Cool is playing Cold. And his babe is Hot, which is also play, and in that more like Cool than like Warm: no one exclaims delightedly "Man, that's Warm!" We'll pay to watch the players of Hot and Cool, but we flee the salesmen, priests and politicians solemnly emitting Warm.
98. That our feelings flicker so obviously in our faces must mean Nature thought it was more important that everyone be able to read them than that individuals be able to hide them. Maybe it tells us, too, that the most dangerous faces are the ones behind which there is no feeling at all.
99. Glasses, for example, have gone from uptight to wide-eyed and back again. Fashion is feeling, opening and closing, cycling between warm and cool, welcoming and slick. Or rather, it decides which half of feeling will be paraded, which half will seem hidden, and somehow truer.
100. The sun's so bright it has no face.
101. Yet sometimes maybe I decide to let an emotion I really could conceal flit faintly across my face. If it seems I betrayed it unwillingly, you are less likely to respond as if you had seen it. Though maybe that little bit of acting is not really a conscious strategy but a deep instinct: in the animal world, too, emotions are often merely theatrical, and so many threats, fake fights and sexual displays send messages but end in nothing.
102. More and more graduates of the School of Theatrical Parenting. The guy being a Good Father so loudly we can all appreciate him, the woman with the wailing infant rolling her eyes as if to say "Can you believe this baby?"
103. Passion is faintly rhetorical, as if we needed to convince ourselves we were capable of it.
104. Am I trying to help, or do I just want you to like me? The way feelings are, it's not so easy to distinguish your happiness from mine.
105. Her grief is eased when all grieve with her, his when he sees that grief is only his.
106. Those so thorough you cannot in mercy ask them to do anything. Those so empathetic it is cruel to tell them a trouble.
107. I say Be reasonable when I am afraid to feel what you feel.
I have to write something difficult soon. A close friend of mine died earlier this year, leaving a one year old son. We are putting together a memory box and I have decided to try to do her justice in words.
We were teenagers. We discovered the world; bleached each others hair; escaped from small town to big city, screaming with laughter all the way. We were brave together.
The problem is that I haven't really had time to think about her death as Angel has been so ill.
I don't know if I'll send you this. After all, I don't know who it's for. You won't remember your mum, but a whole chunk of me has disappeared...
I really can't send that. How old will he be when he reads it? Nine? Or when he understands it? Fourteen? He won't care. I need to write about my friend Jane, not force my grief on an unknown youth in the future.
I''m going to write something else instead:
!!GOOD NEWS FROM THE FUTURE!!
Last night my future self came back to visit me. My God he was beautiful. He kissed me and I have to admit, I swooned. I made him a cup of tea which he drank with pleasure and a faint nostalgia. After he had hugged me as only I would know how, he told me everything would be alright.
He told me that in the future they solve the fuel crisis and everyone can leave the lights on as long as they want. They have towed an ice asteroid into low orbit and so now
if anyone wants more rocks for their scotch, they just hold up their glass and scrape ´em off as the berg cruises past.
In the future everyone lives forever. The question: “Why do I have consciousness when all it allows is awareness of approaching death?” has been neatly side stepped. No one slowly degenerates while struggling to bear it with grace.
In the future everyone lives forever and even if you die, it doesn’t matter. It has been scientifically proved that this life is just a step on the way in the evolution of the eternal soul. People regularly switch off their left brain and commune with Oneness. So they all know it’s true.
I told myself that my posture would reassert itself in the future, my spare tire would be reabsorbed, and my hair would grow back as glossy as my own.
I told myself that Angel's tumors are benign.
Apparently in the future everyone lives forever. When I asked my future self why they live forever, if this life is just a step on the way, he stared at me crossly and didn’t answer. He blurred in and out of focus like static and eventually disappeared, leaving a faint oily stain on the rug.
I was in the middle of a London run when I got the call. Angel was in intensive care. Puppeteers have to be obsessive, the show must always go on, yet there was no way I could continue. I had to get back to Spain.
He had hepatitis C for so long. Maybe he still does. But that, says the doctor, is the least of Angel’s worries. The drugs he was prescribed to kill the virus dealt a deadly blow to his weakened liver instead. Now it is limping along, a scarred, lumpy mess, barely able to cope.
No salt. No meat. No work. He's on beta blockers to lower his blood pressure because he could bleed to death at any time. No stress.
I’m outside the bunker as the last light fades from the sky and heavy rain spatters into my face. My waterproof hood cuts down my vision but I know there is something wrong. Something bad coming. The threat grows in my chest. I turn to escape but I trigger some ancient mechanism and the bunker door slowly begins to grate open.
The monster is there, skinless and grey. Muscles slide over exposed bone as it looks up and surges forward. I run but the ground dissolves and my feet slide in the mud and the electric buzz of panic tells me that it's just about to bite--
I’m outside the bunker. There is no wind. The threat builds. The door splits open and a slick, muscled hand reaches through as the ground turns to cotton wool beneath my feet...
(Nightmare, September 30th 2008)
We thought Angel had cancer. He still might, too. He has a biopsy on the growths next week and it's complicated by the fact that his platelets are so low. (Spleen, pancreas, bone marrow; all compromised due to, well, the fact that his liver is a scarred, lumpy mess.)
The first time it happened, he sat on the sofa, complaining as usual. He felt faint. He felt sick. He was dizzy. I meant it when I said if he was just going to sit around being useless he might as well go back to bed.
He threw up. Blood. Lots of it. Over the next few days, while Angel stabilized, I cleaned around the washing machine, behind the shower curtain and up the walls, I reflected on my sensitivity as a partner and how I could always be relied on for a comforting word.
Ten years ago, I was told I had a job as an actor in Spain. I had week to go, to get my head around it, organize for a 3 month absence and pack. I didn't do much organising. I did stressing instead. My mum offered me a Reiki session to relax me.
I lay there, swathed in loops of incense smoke, listening to taped woodland birds. I began to drift off as the warmth from her invisible hands led me from temple to throat
chakra. Suddenly there was a noise on top of the wardrobe. A bird had come in through the open window before we started and had only now summoned the will to escape. I stumbled from the table and cupped the bird in hands that seemed too big, too solid. My mum was shining, determinedly at peace.
At the window, I opened my hands and the bird leapt, fell, struggled back up into the air, crossed the empty space, lifted, lifted and smashed into the shop front on the other side of the street. The flight was shaky, beautiful, brave and in the end, doomed.
I then left Britain, met Angel, and after my three month engagement in Spain, I stayed and we had six, seven, eight soaring, exhilarating years together.
The witch sits on a low table wearing a miniskirt, leggings and ten-hole Doc Martens. She's cut her hair to the bone and has many tiny, greenish teeth. She grins but her eyes don't smile. A mad rage burns there and it means only pain. I turn to run.
The spell doesn't hurt exactly. It hits the small of my back and I can feel my nerves, like nosebleed bloodclots, being pulled gently from my body through the wound. My legs won't move and my neck bristles, then spasms as I feel her teeth begin to bite--
And I’m back, trying not to catch her eye as I sidle from the room but knowing, ah, here she goes, she'll raise her head...
(Nightmare, October 1st 2008)
So the blood can't get through the scarred lump of liver and it backs up into the nearest vessels. They swell and eventually burst. The last time it happened, Angel needed twelve transfusions, which is more blood than the human body holds.
This week he was told that he will be on the list for a liver transplant. That really is the end of pretending this can return to normality. There is more than the present, day
to day risk of mortality, as he will be on major drugs, and it is major life changes for all, and there's no going back.
And really, I'm a shallow, happy go lucky, selfish actor who has ended up caring for the person he loves and... It's so odd.
I can't go back to Britain to work. I'm needed here. I've lost the most prestigious job of my career and now I need something to fill the time. Something to escape into while Angel is playing dominoes down at the village social club.
I have a computer game I want to play. It's a visual wonder of twilight adventures, ancient temples, dungeons, the works. I could easily disappear into that world but when I come back, the witch will be waiting, sucking her teeth and grinning as she sets her skinless pet to hunt me down.
So the game waits on the shelf. I want it like I want a long abandoned cigarette. But I'm gritting my teeth and writing word by word. I'm defining the world, changing it, and everyone knows that takes discipline. I'll need that game in the long months ahead as Angel recovers from his unusually uneventful liver transplant.
It's only bad while I try to run. I've woken, gasping and thumping with each new version; it can speak; she has a knife. I've laid there, cried a few times at the loneliness of it, moved from reasonable dread to fanciful fears; Angel out fishing, miles from hospital; myself with cancer too; brutish family taking over the funeral. I think of who I can call at 4am in the morning and I remember Jane has gone.
(Nightmare Summer/Autumn 2008)
OK. It could happen. Something will. He is likely to bleed again, he almost certainly will have bad reactions to some aspect of the transplant. He might die. He could, is probably going to, will; those are the words I need.
Because then suddenly, I can cope. Yes, the worst might happen and now I can sleep. The worst might happen and I'll deal with it. It's only when I try to escape the fear that it runs up and kicks me in the back.
Everything you dream is you. I know that. I know I am frightened. I don't need nightmares to tell me. But then last night I wounded the monster as we raced across the sky on pushbike zeppelins; I could pedal and fight back and at some point we landed by a river and made peace.
Angel and I went to the beach today but it was cloudy so we didn't stay long. Instead he cooked tuna steaks in onions and peppers and tonight we'll watch a film. Maybe he'll ask, "Danseen weeth me?" and I'll melt all over again and let him shuffle me around the sitting room as the credits roll.
And I will write more words tomorrow. Words that define the future like "Angel" and "is" and "well".
Whenever I need to make someone laugh, I think of Jane and she laughs first.
Whenever I need to tell someone a hard truth and leave them unscarred, I think of Jane and she leads me step by step to their smile.
Whenever I have to face something that terrifies me, I think of Jane. She linked me to the world and she translates me still. Together we are brave.