Roger is examining me as though I were one of his botanical rarities. He taps his pipe on the bench, committing a shower of sparks to the wind. He looks at me with deep professorial concern, turning over each of my oddly shaped leaves. "Just what are you looking for?" he says.
"Me? Oh, I don't know. A course in post-apocalyptic living maybe."
He laughs. "You mean you're expecting the apocalypse?"
I laugh. "You mean you missed it?"
My breath steams in the air, condenses into clouds, blows away, dissipates some yards distant, disappears with the cold and the wind and time and thin layers of memory, the flimsy remembrance of yesterday, steaming in the air, condensing into clouds, blowing away, dissipating.
Time parodies the parody of first romance.
I was in the library the first time that I saw her, gliding among the narrow stacks like a leaf on water. I was young and I was in love with her immediately, it was as simple as that. I had a copy of Marcel's Metaphysical Journal in my hand and I dropped it. She bent down to pick it up, bent like a sapling in the wind, and handed it back to me, smiling. "It's a pity you don't read French." she said. "It's really much lovelier in French." I was lost and I knew it. I inhaled her as she passed.
We walked in the cemetery at night. It was dark and quiet and from the hill you could see the lights of the city and it didn't seem at all like the dull midwestem place that it was. She sat on top of Ernst Petersen and I sat on top of Lulu Mae Silverman. I was grateful to them for being there. I was crazy and I knew it and I didn't care. I knew that it was a scene out of a movie or a book and that we were playing it, but playing it didn't make it any less real or wonderful, just bearable. I had forgotten everything else I had ever known and I realized that it was wrong and dangerous to do so and that it would not be bearable at all if not for the scene and the playing at it, so I did not let myself think of other things.
We were in the snack bar. I had a coffee, she a hot chocolate. It was winter and the ice carelessly frosted the big windows that look out on the tennis courts. "They look so sad without their nets," she said. I was wearing my best intellectual feathers, fanning precise and colorful sentences. I was talking about Albee and about the Renaissance and about Arnold and Eliot and history and cultural decline and cycles and Toynbee, and she was smiling and looking out the frosted windows across a vast space at the tennis courts which were without their nets.
She was a Sagittarius. That was one of the petty facts I liked to collect about her. She wanted to go to Africa and learn Afrikaans. She liked roses, tolerated carnations, loathed daisies. When I asked her what kind of animal she would be if she could choose any one she answered quickly, "A horse, a race horse." Then she added with a difficult smile, "A stallion." When I first met her, she wore her hair long; later she cut it. The first time we loved she pouted because of her small breasts; she cried and said she had disappointed me and would not be consoled.
She wanted to be a dancer. "I was going to be a teacher," she said. "My parents wanted me to be a teacher. I went through a year of it, but it was no good for me. I couldn't wear that kind of person." She danced marvelously. Sometimes we would walk in the park in the afternoon and she would break away from me and dance in the grass to her private music and the air would make way for her. It was wonderful and I did not believe that I could be so lucky. I told her that she should find a better school, one for dancers.
"No, that wouldn't do," she said, "that wouldn't do. It would mean leaving you, and we don't have that much time anyway, maybe this year at most. C'est triste, mon cher, triste, love in autumn. No, I won't leave yet. And I won't be a dancer either. Everyone wants to be an artist, you know, but we can't all be." She said it Albee for my sake and smiled at the small joke. Her eyes hinted rain and it worried me, but when I asked her what she meant, why she wouldn't be a dancer, she only repeated, "C'est triste, c'est triste, le bonheur."
She was tying my soul in knots and I knew it and was defenseless against it. "It's only to arm you," she said, "to arm you for what comes later." She was disappointed because I could not dance, but she said that we were even now for the first time that we loved and for my disappointment then. I wanted to protest that she had not at all disappointed me, but she would not listen, she waved my words away. "Maybe next time we meet I could teach you to dance," she said. "Maybe next time my breasts will be larger. Anything can happen you know."
It is not true that she was silly, flippant, childish, naive. I did not understand that then, I only knew that later. I thought I knew a great deal about women, but it was all from novels or movies and I treated her like a man, I expected her to think like a man and when she did not I thought it was all Cinderella fantasy or other nonsense. I did not know then what I know now, that when a woman is in love what is real in her is not in this world and what is in this world often looks and sounds silly to a man, who cannot leave this world until he is ready, whether he is in love or not. I did not know that then but I have lived with it and thought about it for a long time and now I think that it is some kind of law, some necessity of this world and the way people are in this world. Someday the psychiatrists and the psychologists will discover that law and they will pick it apart and find a way to say it precisely and scientifically and they will kill it without knowing it and those of us who discovered it earlier on our own will be quite lucky to have done so and some of us will come to believe in God and in divine providence because of it.
We were walking in the stream, our shoes off, our pants legs rolled up. The water was unhurried and warm, the stones in the stream bed smooth and slippery with moss. We walked out to the large flat rock in the middle of the stream and climbed up on it and lay back in the sun. We put our forearms over our eyes to shield them and lay there holding hands, and suddenly I knew that she was gone. I turned and looked at her and she looked at me and we both knew it. We lay back and slept for an hour and then slipped back into the stream and walked back to where I had left the car. We walked back in the warm unhurried water and did not say anything.
Sometimes she comes at night. I do not know if it is my imagination or some odd species of dream. She is light and gay and dances and says that she is happy to see me and to be away from the cooking and the dishes and her little boy and her little girl. She chides me for brooding so much and for not working on my book. She says that she is angry with me because it was on account of the book that she could not be a dancer and I say that I know, that I figured that out, and that is why I cannot yet write it. She thanks me for the letter that I wrote and did not mail and says that she received it anyway. She tells me that her husband is a good man and that she loves him and that he makes her happy and that the children are wonderful. She tells me that I think of her too much and that I do not pay enough attention to my own wife, which would seem very stupid to me if I truly knew what I was doing, and that my wife knows all about it, about everything, and that she also thinks I am stupid about it and sometimes laughs at me for it, which is only right. She tells me that I must on no account let my responsibilities toward my own son interfere with my writing because I have been stupid enough about such things already. Above all she says that I must not worry about anything because everything is going just as it ought to, just as she always knew it would, and she says that it is no longer 'triste' and she laughs because she knows I will worry anyway.