The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 2, No. 2

Love's Lesson

by Edna O'Brien

Midsummer night or thereabouts. The heat belching up from the pavement, trumpet or was it trombone, hungered hands outstretched, twigs of brown weary in the asking, that gasp of unspent semen and on your cummerbund a ruby scar, the signifying kiss.
      Cities in many ways are better repositories for a love affair. You are in a forest, a cornfield, or walking by the seashore, footprint after footprint of trodden sand, pebbles, bits of driftwood mottled and hewn by water, the kiss or the handshake lost in the vastness of things, of sea or forest or cornfield. In the city there are places to remind us of what has been. There is the stone bench, for instance, where we sat to quench our thirst, but really to call it into existence, the little copse of young trees shivering not from cold but from heat, a wall with two water nozzles cemented together, tubers, bearing the trade name Siamese, yes, a bit of wall against which you threw me cruciform-wise to press your ebullient suit.
      Will you give me one night in one city, was what you said. Yes. Yes, was the answer. We walked up and down not knowing what to do with ourselves, not knowing whether to part or to prolong it, and within the gusts of heat, a little shiver, portent of dread. I asked what you thought of the tall, brown building that seemed to sway like a lake above us, a brown lake of offices, deserted, and poised as if to come heaving down into the street, a pell mell of glass and drowning screams. You admired it but would have varied the cladding. I found the words so quaint and teased you for it.
      Only fools think that men and women love differently. Fools and pedagogues. I tell you, the love of men is just as heartbreaking, just as copious, just as disseminating and in the end as barbaric as the love of women. Men have talked to me of their dalliances. A man I met at a conference described to me how he, who had been unfaithful, for twenty-odd years, upon learning of his wife's first infidelity, went berserk, made a car ride, beat up an opponent, came home, broke down, sat up with her all night thrashing out the million moments and nonmoments of their marriage, the expectations, the tedium, the small treacheries, the large ones, the gifts they gave or meant to give, and then, weary and somehow purged, they had made love at dawn and she had said to him--this unslept, no-longer-young but marvelous wife--If you must have an affair do but try not to, and he swore not to but feared that somewhere along the way he would succumb, yield to the smarms of the Sirens, be sucked in.
      Of all the things that can be said about love, the strangest is when it strikes. I chose the verb advisedly. For instance, I saw you once in a theater and you struck me as a rather conventional man. I thought, there is a man with a wife and possibly two motor cars, a cottage in the country to which you repair at the weekends, one car stacked with commodities, cereals, virgin olive oil, things like that. Maybe like my friend you have sat up with her one entire night, atoning, and maybe it seemed as if everything was forgiven, but something always remains and lodges.
      I knew you by reputation, and read about your buildings, those wings and temples and rotundas that have made you famous and bear the granite melancholy that is your trademark. Between that austerity and your wine-red cheek, where the blood flowed in a velvety gurgle, I saw your two natures at odds, your caution and your appetite.
      We walked and walked. The truffle hound and his moll pacing the teeming street, wishing that the pavement might open and draw us into the soil and the succulence within. We stood outside my hotel and looked at the display, pictures of master bedrooms done in golden chintz. You did not come up. But it was a near thing. Words and tongues slurped together. The allegorical mesh.
      Your gift arrived the next day after you had left. It stood in a cake box, the pot filled with pebbles, friendless, gray-white pebbles that recall wintery seashores. The orchid itself resembles a pleached butterfly, white, eager to escape its spindly stalk, but it stays, a captive, its face milk white in the dark. I imagine giving it hands, black spidery hands that will tell me the time. I think that if I know the time where you are, in your country, that it will draw us nearer, hasten things.
      You had put me in such a flowing state of mind and body that I determined to befriend those I met. A tall black wraith of a man with one missing eye put his hand out for alms and on getting it launched into a spiel of how he fought to defend the right of God in the Civil War. The fawn flap, eyeless, had the delicacy of foreskin and brought nearer our charioteering. I became a little reckless--why not after all those lampless years.
      Strange how suited we were. The right height, the right gravity, the right crouch, and oh, idiocy of idiocies, the right wall. Does something of us remain there, shadows, like the frescoes in caves, sometimes seen, sometimes not. Will you give me one night in one city, was what you said. Yes. Yes, was the answer. Yet a friend who saw us leave a room together said that I looked back at him, disconcerted, like Lot's wife.
      An affair. It is a word we all know. A state of unequilibrium. So many dire things happen, plus so many ridiculous things. Letters getting opened by the wrong source or the gift of a little trinket going to the wrong address. Wrongs come galloping in. A woman I know read the list that her husband's young mistress had jotted down for her Christmas stocking--wines, victuals, a bracelet, and last, but by no means least, a baby. Yes, in capitals--a BABY. The wife went into action. She took him to the Far East on a cruise, around islands, all very rustic, wooden boats with wooden chairs, huts, dancing girls; garlands of gardenias put around the necks of the estranged mistrustful pair. Before she left the wife had done something rather clever and rather vicious. She had sent the brazen young woman copies of other letters written by other women allowing her to see the idiocy, the cupidity, and the similarity of those missives, reminding her that unfortunately she was one of many. A touch of the Strindberg. Another woman, a friend, told me that she first got a whiff of her husband's affair not from his neckline or his handkerchief but from the simple fact that when his mistress came for cocktails she brought her rival a bunch of dead flowers, carnations. Later that evening, when they all repaired to a restaurant, she saw husband and mistress cooing, she remembered the dead flowers, stood up and made her first somewhat pathetic scene--I am going to the bathroom now and then I am going home, was what she said. He did not follow immediately but soon he followed, found her eating the flowers like coconut shreds and he simply said that he hated scenes, women's scenes, then went out onto the veranda and walked up and down, but stayed, as she said.
      A woman calls from the coast most days. I met her after my lecture and sensed that we had something in common. A little thing happened to unite us. The contents of her handbag fell out and I said what's wrong, Clarissa, what's wrong, at which she turned and asked if I thought she was having a breakdown. She is seeing a trauma specialist. Her mother, whom she scarcely knew, has recently died and in the wake of this death a mountain of troubles have come galloping in. Her mother's death has opened the lid. Her mother, who was beautiful and I believe rich, never really discussed things, and is causing her now to drop handbags, oversalt the food, and have a sherry in the morning, she who does not like drink. She wants to ask her dead mother a key question about a naked man in the room. Her mother shouted at her to get out. Was he father, grandfather, or lover. At camp, when she was young, she saw a photo of a woman who resembled her mother, which she went and kissed when others were out of sight. She kissed it and smelled a nightdress, hanging by itself in a wardrobe. It smelled of mother. She has something to tell me but she does not know what. She trusts me because of the debacle of the handbag.
      Graffiti, graffiti, graffiti. They seem to be done by the same unseen phantom hand. Defecations of hate. There was even one on the torn leatherette of the backseat of the taxi. The driver kept hurtling against his cape of beads, his photo staring out of a hanging tag showed a sour, bearded, clumpy face. Suddenly he was shouting to another driver who cut in on us--Mohammeds, Mohammeds. I asked why he said that, to which he replied that they were all dirty, unwashed Mohammeds, and looking at the bearded photograph, I thought this man has forgotten everything, and I wanted to tell him something human, how, for instance, when you decided not to come up you picked up your rucksack and said you would walk home to your hotel. The rucksack was a deadweight. Had you stones in it. What did you think as you walked home.
      Earlier at that function, at the long table, you were flushed from nerves and the hot flame off scores of candles. We were not together, but in the same archipelago as you said. There was also a hint of shyness to you. You were talking to a woman and I knew by your hesitance that you knew she desired you but you could not return her ardor. Her skirt was glaringly short. She spilled red wine on her thigh. She asked for advice, sundry advice. Someone suggested white wine to counteract the red, for good measure someone else suggested salt and she handed you two dainty little cruets filled with salt and pepper with which to minister to her. It was then you looked across at me, it was then you caught my eye through one of the cubed spaces between the twisting trellis of iron sconces, indifferent to the red and white wine in an estuary on her thighs. A great glorious surge of pride took hold of me then on account of both of us being so smitten and in that firmament of hectic candle flame we fell. Chambering. Chambering. Later, when we had all stood up, you saw me link a man both to be friendly and marginally to nettle you and quite openly you said, am I taking you home or have you better fish to fry.
      I wish you were only torso, only cock. No penetrant eyes to welcome me or send me packing. No mind to conjure up those little qualms that nascent lovers indulge in. No holdall of memory with its entourage--mother, father, wife, child--calling you back, calling you home. I wish I were only torso, to meet you with my wares. I recall a postcard of the seventh century, a headless woman, a queen, her body pale apricot, leaning a fraction to one side, her girdle gossamer, breasts like persimmons, one arm missing, the second lopped at the elbow, pregnant with her own musks.
      I have been to our wall, to pay my respects. You would think it was the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where I once was and stuck a petition written on a piece of paper, hid it between the cracks. People see me standing there but make nothing of it for they too loiter for no reason. It is a city of nomads. You see a man or a woman with carrier bags or without carrier bags, walk up to a corner, cogitate, and walk back again. Everyone eats on the street, you see hollows of bread, stumps of pickled dill, noodles with the elongation of maggots, phosphorescent in the sunlight, tidbits for the pigeons. People sit on steps, or sit at empty tables and stare. They are homeless or they are lonely or both. One such woman I have been told was a bridesmaid at Grace Kelly's wedding but came down in the world, went "cuckoo." Cuckoo is a word they use all the time. Why is she thought of as she. Treachery perhaps. Woman's treachery, different to man's. A mutual woman friend said your name, said it several times in my hearing, to unnerve me. Her eyes glittered like paste jewelry, that pale unchanging glitter which palls. But men and women are alike in this curdle of jealousy. I don't want to see you get hurt, darling, a male friend said noticing my shudder. Actually it was peas falling off a fork. Are you leaving it here or are you going home to it he asked. Neither I said. That flummoxed him.
      A tall, red-bearded figure, a "Finn McCumhal" of the pavement with green eyes and a tartan rug that he wears as a toga. He sells things. He had prints, cheap prints--spots of red and green, like swarms of undroning bees and the wounded orchids of Georgia O'Keeffe looking both spent and fertile. I wondered if he ever felt down in the dumps. He looked surprised. Said never. He was a mountain man and a Green Beret man. Plus I have God. Yes, that was his reply. Plus I have God!
      Hot food.
      Homemade pizza.
      Warm brisket.
      I could not think what to eat. I had gone downtown to do some chanting, to chant the taste, the touch, the smell, the half taste, the permeability of you, out of my mind. I thought I knew the place from a previous pilgrimage but found myself in wrong hallways, talking to janitors, who were surprisingly talkative, the old homestead and so forth. I went to telephone, to find out from information. The kiosk looked to have been someone's ongoing abode--a dirty baseball cap, punched cans, orange rinds, and a cassette tape in such a tangle that it looked animate. On the wall a neatly printed card--"WordPerfect in ten hours: Lotus." WordPerfect in what. The Lotus was a riot. Up the street two of the most pugilistic women I have ever seen, denouncing pornography. They had photographs of breasts being spliced, then hanging off, skewered with arrows. In the café a newly married woman gave a dissertation on marriage, said, Yes . . . It's good to be married . . . He's a great anchor, Frank . . . I wouldn't have said that six months ago . . . Not overnight do you trust a husband, but it comes . . . It comes. Then she described their getting a dog. Her husband wanted a large dog, a Labrador. She wanted no dog. Eventually they settled on a small pedigree poodle as being a compromise between no dog at all and a large dog. They have named her Gloria, after Gloria Swanson.
      Clarissa called very early. There was something she needed to tell me. She has had female lovers as well as men. It is not that she is promiscuous, her needs change. I asked her what it was like. She said it was a hunger for a ghost, a hunger not altered by man or woman and not altered by marriage. Then she said something so poignant that I wanted to go to her immediately. She said the reason love is so painful is that it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give.
      My room is a washed pink with gilded mirrors and a chaste white bureau that looks like a theater prop. The center drawer does not open, the side ones do. On the lining paper of one I wrote with your pen, I wrote Remember. Another occupant will come in due course and think there were high jinks. They are bound to think that. Even though you didn't come up I stood in the doorway, watching each time the lift door was opened and people disgorged. Some were quite drunk, one couple gallingly amorous.
      One poor creature yesterday, on her throne of rubbish, wept. I said, why are you weeping. A man had played a dirty trick on her. He had put a hundred dollars in her plastic mug and taken it back again after some altercation. In the window behind her a ruby necklace on a dainty velvet cushion that simply said circa 1800. Riches untold. Yes he played a dirty trick on her. It was the word dirty that set me thinking. Had there been a proposition of some kind. Farther down a tall black man held his cap and said the same thing again and again--I'm broke. I'm homeless. I'm broke. He scratched his head when he thought of Georgia. A third one was more vociferous, said it was a city of abuse, a shit hole, abuse. His trolley was lined with covers of Rambo, Rambo's chest and torso and bearing staring out at me and on the wall above someone had written "You're dead." I have never felt so alive, so ravenously alive. Out there on the street, after I had done the rounds, the sky darkened and thunder began to rumble as if marching in from the backwoods, from Georgia itself, marching in on the city, and on the elect in limousines stately as hearses, marching in to hearten the homeless. Many of them look like country people because of their torn boots and their torn fillets of clothing. Late at night I saw the Rambo fiend pee on Rambo's roped muscles and laugh. The trolley was a swamp. Farther up a man was bent over a refuse basket. What struck me was his hair. A short bouclé crop of it, titian colored. He had the stealth of a hunter. What he hauled out was a loin bone with shreds of meat, half cooked, dripping. Without ado he began to gnaw it. His eyes were incomparably placid. I thought to approach him to give him money but didn't dare. The pupils of his eyes were too proud and full of distance, that unfathomed distance of the savanna, his sacrament with the bone too complete.
      I went to a hen party--women in short skirts and slashed hairdos. What hat de clock? one woman said, remarking how the English language had originated in her part of Saxony. Her husband had recently left her for a younger woman. She travels. Her theme was funds. Stella, the acquaintance who invited me, had a stricken look. She stood in the doorway with a child clinging to her, holding a handful of cutlery and trying by her expression to tell me that much had happened, too much since we last met. In a moment, darling, she kept saying to her daughter who had a little paper crown that she wanted clipped to her hair. Stella's sister was an altogether more assertive type and looking through the French windows into the garden, she complained about the unlaid table.
      I ironed the cloth, Stella said. It was only half ironed. The creases on it were like the mimicry of waves upon water. It had begun to drizzle. The glasses in which the drinks were going to be served had encrustations of fruit on them, pineapple and melon in sugar-coated ungainly wodges. Each woman, as she arrived, brought the flummox of her sex with her. It might have been the short skirts. They seemed not like garments but like weaponry. Each bore a gift. It was a birthday but I did not know that. One woman brought white roses to an aunt, which she held to her chest as she might an infant. She wanted bourbon and inveighed against the iced tea that was being offered. Another woman, very thin, with darting pupils insisted she had the perfect cure for jet lag. Wherever you are, or happen to be, you simply alter the time on your clock and go to sleep at whatever is your usual time and wake up likewise. What hat de clock. I ground a biscuit, out of nerves. Stella got down on her knees to wipe it up and by mistake overturned a glass. I'll keep you to that, she said, it was something I had described from a book. Some sere moment. The rain by now was coming down in buckets and sadness was seeping into me. I thought I would have to think of you and to think of you I would have to be alone. The capable sister was making a raspberry dressing, said I could not possibly leave, but I did. I was given a present on the way out and in the street I opened it. It was a ladle onto which the rain fell in fat spatters and standing there in that leafy suburban limbo I thought of you with every pore of my being, drew you into me as if you were sun, moon, and rain and prayed that nothing will come between us and that one night, and senselessly led on by longings believed it would happen.
      On the way back I asked the taxi driver to go by the river. My mother had come here by boat over eighty years ago and in some way I was trying to imagine a voyage that took flesh before I was born. You see I have always thought that in some way my mother has come between me and the man I hold dear. I was trying to imagine myself there ahead of her, as if she had never been, I was trying the impossible, which was to shed her. In the little walkway by the railings were the invalids and their nurses. In starched uniforms they stood stolid behind the wheelchairs. It was the invalids that frightened me. The spleen in their expressions was quite shocking, quite pitiless. It was like a sickroom although we were out of doors and the patina of their skins recalled those sad, studious, elderly misfits in Rembrandt's haunted interiors. Their eyes frightened me most. Eyes onto which the pennies would soon be pressed. The cruelty in the eyes could be quenched only by these compresses of metal. Their lives, their youth, even their wealth was already dead to them and I thought I am alive, you are alive, and remembered the night of our simmer, your throwing me against the wall quite cursorily as if you wanted to smash my bones.
      On Saturday there was a group by our bench, under an arc of trees, young black men with shiny plaited hair. They did headstands, armstands, they became trees, the trunks and limbs of trees, then bodies crawling over each other like larvae, then upright with the prowess of panthers. "Break dancing" it is called. They were wearing white cotton T-shirts with black lettering and in the sunlight the black seemed like pitch. Die or Dance. Dance or Die. I never know which is which.
      Mercedes does the room. She has a skill at crying. Her tears are plenitude itself. A few of them would fill a coffee cup. Some months ago, her man failed to come home, he who had shared her bed for a year. Only the next day at work did she learn why and then merely overheard it. He had had a massive heart attack while holding the car door open for his boss and had died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. The boss, or none of the people in the apartment building, knew of his relationship with her because of their not being properly married. His funeral, which she arranged, was a lonesome affair, her lawyer, herself, and one wreath. Chrysanthemums, she thinks. His wife is making her claims. First it was artifacts, then his watch, then his cuff links, then the one valuable watercolor that he owned. She dreads that his wife will come and occupy the apartment. She has had to bring her brother from Colombia to stay indoors all day. He plays the guitar and eats. She eats too. Every day she says the same thing--Oh Lord, learn me how to bear it--and embraces me as if I had some influence with the Lord. She says he was the kindest man alive, washed her feet, pared her corns. She also says if I can get a photograph of you or handwriting she can have a friend do spells. It involves the blood of cockerels but she assures me it is not sinister.
      Clarissa has read my thoughts. I am invited there. She has a cottage on her grounds. We make no secret of our muddle. She says to have a woman carnally opens up as many minefields as to have a man. She thinks it might help me. She is not sure about you. She has misgivings. She thinks you might be a philanderer. I tell her that just is not so.
      I bought an English newspaper to catch up with you. Reading it I could picture those hamlets, steep country roads, faded coats of arms on manor gates, old people's homes, and a dream of convolvulus like plump white birds just silenced. Then the picture slid into night, that hushed, de-peopled time of night when the cottages that Shakespeare wrote of are sunk in dew, poplars along a hillside, fairy lights still twinkling outside the shut public houses, and I thought of you as being part and parcel of these things and prayed that you would admit me to that land of yours, to those cold and mocking sensibilities, sprung from the loins of admirals--give me my innings. I wonder why you chose me. A death perhaps. A close one's death. Often it is a parent. Departures make us deep, they cut, so that we run here, there, and everywhere to find that missing self. I detest those cozy hush-hush affairs that your race excels at. I sniff them all the time. Women in their upstairs drawing rooms, done up to the nines, at lunch hour, standing by the folds of their ruched curtains, besmirched. Sherry and gulls' eggs in wait, the marital chamber stripped of all traces of a spouse. Lamb cutlets and frozen peas for the entrée and lots of darling, darling.
      When one is smitten, what does one want known, unknown. If for instance you say I am hell to live with it has a certain bravura to it, and does not simply mean that you are lazy and sullen indoors and expect someone else, a wife, certainly a woman, to pour the coffee or put a log on the fire and that you show yourself to best advantage when visitors are coming up the path and soon you are making jokes and pouring wine, flirting even for courtesy's sake. Oh how I hate the façades of ordinary social life. Sunday lunches, Sunday dinners, Sunday teas, the gibberish that gets trotted out. A woman telling the assembled guests how clever her Charlie is, while notching up grievances inside. It's everywhere. I was with a couple one Sunday and the wife pronounced on some book, a spy book, whereupon her husband said have you read it and oh the look, the withering look she gave back to him with a have you read it and in the icy aftermath a hundred thousand spermatozoa congealed.
      The tenderest moment I recall was when you saw me come up from the ladies in that dark catacomb of a place, saw me look around, a bit taken aback at how jarring it all was and then make my way by a long route back to my place setting, a detour so that I would have to pass close to you but of course not touch you, simply pass, and what happened was, you guessed, you stood up and said my name with such urgency and such pity, like star-crossed lovers in a fable. You kissed me. They saw you kiss me and they nudged, our friends twigged. I don't know how I got back to my chair.
      Sometimes I think you might have returned and be standing in front of the wall, gazing. I went on a little gallop before dark. It was quite beautiful, warm and pregnant with that kind of excitement that evening heralds. Musicians had gathered and taken up their posts at several corners. Skeins of sound sweetening the air. At one corner a young African held up his wares, ropes of pearls, scarfs, soft plumes aslant in the wind. Magic, ritualistic. The whites of his eyes were orbs, full of the wonder of evening, the wonder of Africa, the sense of a day done, even though he was possibly going home to a hovel. It mattered not to him that I didn't buy. The violet hour when Lilith, guardian of night women, sets forth. The homeless had already decamped for the night, in doorways, in recesses, on church steps, lying there, heaps of half-filled potato sacking. I watched one man turn over on his stomach and I am certain that he was dreaming. I thought perhaps of food, the maggoty noodles, and then I thought no, of some great feast, baskets and platters and cornucopias.
      Thunder shook the foundation of my room but I was shaking anyhow. I had had this dream that I had telephoned you in a hotel in Zurich. You were out. I telephoned again and again. A man--I believed he was Moroccan--was getting impatient but I persisted. At one minute to midnight I called again but you had not returned. Then, five minutes later, I was put through and you were sound asleep. You must have come in tired, or maybe a little drunk, and flopped down under a big duvet. You recognized my voice immediately and said, how did you know I was here. I put the phone down because I sensed the naked terror of a man who believes he has just been trapped.
      Yes, thunder shook my room and lightning lit up the showroom across the way. Without any deliberation I rang the airline. There were spare seats. Probably because it is midweek. What made me do it so suddenly. As far as I can honestly say, it was the simple action of looking out the window to the room across, the rather shabby showroom where they exhibit dress material and costume jewelry, put them on dummies for customers to view. The lightning had illuminated the fawn torso and just as quickly all was quenched, devoid of jewelry or raiment. It gave me a chilling thought, which is that darkness is our last abode. It brought whisperings of death, my father's death (even though I had wished him gone), my own and yours.
      And now in the sodden rain with the East River veritably swollen, tall buildings and warehouses draped in rain as if in their own sackcloth, I set out for home but not for you my friend. Oh no. Sooner or later one has to give up the habit of slavery. In singling out only the lame and the halt, watching every move and muscle of the starving, I felt myself to be at one with them, to be an outcast and I realized that meeting you had magnified my hungers a hundredfold. That cannot be love. Or can it.
      Now we will never know for sure.