What Ed recalled so vividly, Dora remembered only vaguely. She did not
recall the weeks in the New York apartment she’d shared with Rafe, the weeks
after Marc had married Emma. She remembered packing up Rafe’s clothes and
books and sending them to his mother with one of his classmates from Yale.
It had rained, and she remembered the smell of wet cardboard; she remembered
that the boxes hadn’t even filled the trunk of Dave’s Buick. She remembered
Marc’s visit, word for word, gesture for gesture. She remembered the yawning
gulf between them—he, so cold, so far away; she, so broken, so aching with
loss, wanting to beg him to stay, unable to reach across the vast
misunderstanding that lay between them. When he got into the elevator and
the doors closed, she seemed to lift from her body; she could see them
both—herself and Marc gasping, choking on the air around them. She could see
Marc through the walls of the building, into the elevator shaft. She
remembered thinking, I must do something. I must stop this. But what had
seemed possible when viewed from that spot above her body became
inconceivable when she snapped back into her heavy, weighted, impossibly
sluggish flesh and bones. She couldn’t move. That’s the part she couldn’t
remember—the not moving. The days and weeks of not moving.
Then her parents were there. Her mother was getting into her shower with her, washing her hair, soaping her body. The water stung. Her mother didn’t say a word.
“What are you doing here?” Dora thought to ask when she was wrapped in one of Rafe’s huge white towels.
“We’re here to take you home,” her father had said.
“But I live here. My job is here.”
“You don’t have a job. This isn’t your apartment anymore.”
“Rafe won’t know where to find me when he comes home.”
“Rafe is dead, honey. He died in May. In Los Angeles. Don’t you remember? It’s mid-July.” Her father looked as though he might cry.
“Of course I remember. I’m not crazy.”
“No, of course you’re not. But you need to come home with us for awhile. Then if you want to come back, you can.”
Several weeks later, going through her belongings—and what were left of Rafe’s— in her parents’ garage, she was surprised at how little there was. Daybeds, a coffee table, Rafe’s TV, an aluminum pot for cooking pasta, a frying pan, odds and ends of kitchen utensils, mismatched plates and stainless steel tableware, a small bookcase and two boxes of books, clothes that hung on her like clothes passed down to a twelve-year-old by a much older sister.
She stayed with her parents for six weeks. She helped her mother clean the house. She didn’t know what else to do to be helpful.
“You don’t have to do that,” her mother said. “It’s not dirty. You cleaned it yesterday.”
It might be the bathroom or kitchen floor, the walls in any room, kitchen counters or cupboards, refrigerator or stove, any closet in the house, the attic, the laundry area in the basement.
“I don’t mind. As long as I’m here I might as well be useful.”
Late one night, Dora woke to her parents arguing. They weren’t loud. They whispered and hissed at each other, but their energy was “loud.” It filled the air with static and heat. It made Dora’s scalp itch.
“She’s driving me crazy,” said her mother. “She doesn’t talk. The only thing she does is clean. She’s compulsive about it.”
“What’s the harm?” said her father. “She’s getting stronger. She’s eating. As soon as she’s recovered, she won’t want to be here any more. Just let her be until she is.”
Tears leaked from Dora’s eyes onto her pillow. I’m all right, she thought, I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go. She got up and went to the bathroom. That was easy enough. She could stop the argument by doing that. Her parents fell silent. Then she took her book—the latest Ludlum thriller—and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk.
“Having trouble sleeping, baby?” Her father sat down on the other side of the table.
“Not really. Had to get up to use the bathroom and I thought I’d read for awhile. I can tell I’m a lot better because I can concentrate enough to follow this plot.” She held up the book. “Couldn’t do that a week ago.”
They sat in silence.
“Do you want to talk about anything?” Ed asked.
“I don’t think there’s anything much to say.”
“Would you like to talk with a doctor?”
“You mean a shrink?”
“That’s what a head-shrinker is. No, I don’t think so.”
Much later in her life, Dora wondered why she hadn’t agreed to therapy. In retrospect it seemed a sensible thing to do, but when she was 24 and recovering from what all would refer to—usually in whispers—as her nervous breakdown, stark terror had met her father’s suggestion.
They can’t put me away unless I act strangely, she thought. And I won’t act strangely. She knew her mother thought her cleaning was compulsive, weird, so she stopped. She looked at the want ads in the Hartford Courant for jobs and apartments.
“I don’t think you’re ready quite yet,” her father said.
She knew it wasn’t normal for a grown woman to live at home and not work. She knew she had to do normal things soon.
Once, her father caught her crying in her room—he’d come home earlier than usual.
“What’s the matter, baby?” His voice was so sympathetic, his concern so genuine, that she tried to tell him. It had been a mistake. He didn’t understand. He couldn’t. No one could.
“Daddy, I couldn’t stop Marc from marrying Emma. I should have been able to but I couldn’t. I could see him through the walls. I could see inside his head. He didn’t want to marry her. And she’s not what he thought she was. He’s so unhappy. He and Rafe come in dreams. Sometimes when I’m awake. They won’t stay separate. They turn into each other. It’s almost like…Marc is supposed to look like Rafe. But then they’re separate again, and I don’t have either of them. They’re both gone. Sometimes I don’t think I can stand that. And just when I think I’m going to die of pure lonesomeness, they’re both there or they are both in Rafe’s body or in Marc’s eyes, and they are more real than…this book, this glass of milk.”
She saw the fear and confusion in her father’s eyes. She’d known he wouldn’t understand.
“There are a lot of good doctors in Middletown, and more in Hartford. I don’t understand how the human mind works. I feel so helpless.”
“No, Daddy,” she said quietly. “They wouldn’t understand either. I don’t understand. But I know it’s real. I may be crazy, Daddy, but if I am, it’s from being so alone.”
“You’re not alone. I’m here. Your mother’s here.”
“I know, Daddy, and I appreciate that. It’s a different kind of alone.”
“I can’t. You wouldn’t understand that, either.”
Dora wanted to. Her father loved her. She knew that. He would try to understand. Maybe if he tried hard enough...if she tried hard enough. She struggled for some metaphor that might make sense to him.
“Imagine, Daddy, that when you go into the garage, you see a magnificent painting taking form on the wall. It isn’t being painted with paint, but something else you can’t understand. Imagine that it is the most beautiful and remarkable piece of art you’ve ever seen, and that you know somehow that it is being painted from inside the wall instead of from outside…that it is being created from—or by--pure soul. You want to share this painting, because you know for sure it is the most important, the most wonderful experience you’ll ever have in your whole life. Trouble is, nobody else can see it. And if you mention it—and you have to every once in awhile because it is so stunning—people look at you strangely. Not only that, if you insist, they turn away, and you can hear them mumbling, he’s crazy.
“That’s what it’s like, Daddy. Things happen that I don’t understand. But I know they’re real. No one can help me understand them, because no one else sees them. If I go see some head-shrinker, he’ll say, she’s crazy. And that will be that. I’m not crazy.
I’m just lonely enough to die. It’s like being in solitary confinement. Forever.”
“You sound as though this has always been true.”
“I think it has.”
“What was it about Marc and Rafe that…pushed you…made it worse? Unbearable?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t feel lonely with them. But I seemed to need both of them. Marc could have been enough, but I was always afraid he’d leave. And he did. Rafe never threatened to leave. But he did, too. Not on purpose. I know how this is going to sound, and I don’t mean it that way. Rafe was so here and now, so grounded, so…uncomplicated. I could be in this world in this minute or hour; I could be full of this life. I don’t know if that would have been true if we hadn’t danced. I could never separate Rafe from dancing.”
“I think I understand.”
“They both wanted to marry me. Marc was so complicated. So afraid of me, though I never understood why. So afraid that I’d leave him. It made me afraid that he’d leave me in self defense. And that’s exactly what he did.
“And Rafe—I couldn’t even imagine not dancing with him. I’m not sure there was anything else between us. I tried to imagine a life with Rafe in which we did the ordinary things that people do, and we didn’t dance. It was stifling. I could hardly breathe. He was my best friend for awhile, the person I trusted most in the world, the keeper of whatever joy there was. But if we couldn’t dance, perhaps there would have been nothing.
“And now he’s gone, and there is nothing. It’s so…empty.”
“That’s grief, girl. It may never go away, but it will be less intense after awhile.”
“I think this is not ordinary grief.”
“No grief is ordinary.”
“I’m trying so hard, Daddy. I want you to understand.” Tears were streaming down her face. “If Rafe had lived and if we could have kept dancing or if Marc had been able to enter into whatever it is that’s between us, I could have given myself over to this life without fear of some eternal, irrevocable loneliness.”
“There will be others. Children, perhaps.”
“Distractions. Anchors to this world.”
“Wasn’t that what Rafe was?”
Her reply was not audible. Her lips said, “Yes.”
“So it will happen again.”
“Not in the same way. I didn’t know Rafe was a distraction when he was alive. His energy lit up everything around him. I thought I loved him. I did love him. In the moments he occupied.”
“Maybe that’s all any of us gets. If we’re very, very lucky.”
“Maybe that’s all we get if we think that’s all there is.”
“You’re losing me, baby.”
“I know. I love you, Daddy.”
“I really am all right.”
“I can see that. I don’t understand a lot of what you said. But I understood the painting in the garage.” Tears filled his eyes. “It would be awful not to be able to share something like that.”
Twice in Madrid, an essay (john I’ve got a couple of photos to go with this)
In 1985, I went to Madrid, with my husband and two of our three children. The younger of the two, Amanda, was six. Her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and her penchant for Houdini-like escapes, kept us alert and frazzled, though we failed in our vigilance far too often.
We stayed in a simple, comfortable hotel four flights up over Gran Via. Prince, dangerous and resplendent in black leather, his motorcycle primed for action, filled the wall across the street, a billboard advertising the movie, Purple Rain. Amanda wanted to ride off with him.
Instead, she ran off with gypsies. She escaped to beg in the streets. In 24 hours, she’d perfected her technique—slack face, hands cupped and extended in front of her, as though they might collapse from hunger-induced weakness at any moment. She moaned, alms for the poor, as though her life depended on the generous and merciful.
Being anywhere with Amanda was an exercise in survival. Finding anything that might fix her attention for more than a few minutes took inventiveness and relentless perseverance. She, on the other hand, had no trouble finding things that interested her, though she had to cut loose from us to get to them. She thought riding, lashed to a cross, in the Good Friday festival that flowed beneath our window, looked like a splendid way to travel. When I caught up with her, she was trying to talk the guy off his cross, scrambling alongside in bare feet and pajamas.
She loved the Wax Museum, her favorite scenes: the rack from Spanish Inquisition; the depiction of Goya’s Los Fusilamientos del 3 de Mayo; and the gored, bloody, and dying Manolete. She had a great fondness for blood.
But it was Hieronymus Bosch at the Prado who fully captivated her: all those strange little people and animals, looking more like things from outer space than an artist’s invention at the start of the 16th century. Once she’d discovered Bosch, she refused to budge. She could not be coaxed or lured or bribed with promises of food or drink, even really great blood— the original and bloody Goya downstairs. She was not impressed. She’d been seduced by Bosch, and there was no moving her. The rest of us
took turns on Bosch-rotations. We spent the whole day in the museum, while Amanda communed with Bosch.
This summer, I traveled to Madrid. Alone. I did not go to the Prado. Instead, I spent the day across the street at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza where I found several paintings by Emil Nolde—the lush oils of his early years; the watercolors he took up so the Nazis couldn’t smell his paint.
I spent hours, every day, sitting at one café or another on the Paseo de Recoletos, white flowers from the trees drifting into my hair and coffee, feeding crumbs to the sparrows that perched on the arm of my chair, my plate, waiting for a handout.
I walked slowly, ate leisurely meals in small, quiet restaurants all over the city. I talked with strangers, read poetry lying on the grass in Retiro Park, and browsed in shops where everything was breakable.
Just once, time warped, flew off in all directions: I snap a photograph of Amanda, six, in a red crew neck sweater, surrounded by tulips on the Paseo del Prado. It is the moment before she spots an old woman feeding pigeons, an enormous cloud of wings and feathers whirring about her head. Amanda runs into the cloud, and the crone fills her hands with cracked corn. Old woman and little girl are caught in the same rapture until the corn is gone, and the birds settle to the ground, a vast sea of bobbing and cooing.
An old woman feeds pigeons this summer in the same spot. She is frail and full of the same delight. She talks to the birds, seems to know each one. I get as close as I can with my camera.
That’s when time spins out of chronology: Amanda is six. Then she is an old woman sitting on a granite wall, rapture filling her face, her body. All is flutter and grace. I’m long gone. Watching. Filled with wonder. Still unable to keep up.
© 2004 pitpinegar.com