I'm not sure what exactly nudged me forward that day, up the flight of stairs to a heavy metal door, impelled my hand to push it wider and eased my normally anxious body into an unlit hallway. I still have nightmares of the attic in the old yellow house in Leiria. But that afternoon I felt safe, as if in a lucid dream, when facing the uncanny is a benign literary exercise rather than helpless reversion to childhood dread. I reached for my lighter and suddenly a forgotten wall transformed to a noisy screen alive with naked women and airplanes, poetry,* daily calendar slashes—hundreds of them, grouped in fives—grief and loneliness, joy and love, pain and horror.
This was a prison. Polish air fighters.
Brilliant agonized men scratching words and figures into what blocked them from the salty air and sand dunes outside, projected through tiny round windows lining the eaves of this hidden torture garret, the hate of Aryan supremacy holding these men captive and distraught inside suffocating walls, while outside the wind blew cold and free over a dark sea.
When J. told me about the Nazi farmhouse and DP camps up by Denmark, I said so let's go. What we would find had been farms hiring prisoners-of-war, like his father, and old prison and army barracks transformed after WWII into displaced person camps, refugees waiting for visas from the US and Australia. We had met the year before, New Year’s Eve 1977, in the lobby of a hotel across from the Bahnhof in Frankfort. He was, and remains, my soulmate. Born in Poznań two months after Hitler invaded Poland, his life has absorbed the worst and the best of human endeavors, totaling eight decades this year.
J. was the first person I’d ever met who had read everything that I had, at the grand old age of twenty-three. He was thirty-eight. At the time we looked like a couple of hippies, age didn’t matter. More important was that we were both born in Europe, had been brought to the States about a decade later, and grew up with similar multilingual ease and multicultural dis-ease. But most of all, we were instant travel-buddies, equally at home (or able to fake it) anywhere from Moscow to Nairobi, Salzburg to San Francisco, Raxaul to Cancún. We could spend hours talking about everything and nothing, leaning back in the old leather chairs of a Viennese café or sitting on the edge of Intourist barstools just off Red Square, drinking “sweet shit,” our favorite cherry liqueur, chain-smoking Winstons, and peopling our conversations with Myshkin's messy Midus-touch, Kirilov's bewitching wardrobe, or Rogozhin's fireplace antics.
Did I love him? Can't use past tense. I do love him. I recognized who he was immediately and still do. Actually I saw him first from the back, mussy red hair over shoulders in a big green sweater, crinkly faded jeans. My perverse novel-narrator self said "there's your husband" before he even turned around, before I saw the grad student girlfriend. The problem with loving someone like this is that you don't fall in love, you don't go stupidly out of control, you don't yearn for exclusive possession of their heart and genitals. You also don't fall out of love, so when they are shifting to the long-haul with you, you're still in the throes of kindred spirit recognition. That ain't what most lovers want. Most certainly not what spouses want.
On his part, however he loved me (and it is past tense, for him), he also really loved loving. This irritated the hell out of me, particularly when he talked about how he loved all his women, the frigid first wife, the nubile grad students, even the whore in Warsaw. Because that's not how I understood love at the time. The rape endowed the male act with little resembling love, making the whole women can't separate sex from love thing completely foreign to me. But then I had yet to fall in love. That would happen years later—and J. was the first to notice, countering my loud denials—but we have a home! we have a library!
In any case long before that, before the beginning of the end of my attempt to shove the spiraling 4D soul-connection into the 2D square of institutionalized coupling, we wandered the world together. Besides the Displaced Person camps, I had also answered let's go! to his Taj Mahal fantasy, even his dream to "piss on a pyramid" (though I absented myself in Giza from the harvesting of this particular mental mushroom). We spent about a month in most countries, settling into a favorite restaurant (usually Chinese, after tiring of the local fare), making daily pilgrimages to the Acropolis, the museum mummies, the tombs and temples, the wild game parks and ocean sands, as if we were heading off to work after breakfast each morning. The good bathrooms in the fancy hotels made up for the $5 - $10 a night places where we slept, stretching our funds across four continents. Things didn't fall apart until we returned to the States.
By the time we got married I was already a horrible wife, drinking too much, insulting his friends. I tried to write my first novel in the early years, Mara, based on our reading in Egypt of Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden. The name came from the object of my crush during the first trip to the Soviet Union the year before, while Sagan's discussion of Paul MacLean's recently published Triune Brain gave me the structure: my narrator, I, was limbically in limbo between You, the cortical Keeper of the Files, and Her, the reptilic cerebellum sweetheart who had to stumble into an actual memory before You could retrieve it and expose it to Me, the chatty one telling the story. For some reason I located the novel in South Deerfield, where I had lived over a barn for a few months while working in the Geology Department at UMASS/Amherst. I planned to liberally sprinkle every Indo-European derivation of mara, mar, mère, mer, kashmar, mare, nightmare, from Sanskrit death to Latin seas and mothers, to Slavic and Germanic horses and night terrors. Didn't get very far, I think all of three chapters. I had no idea how to integrate my own dissociated personas, much less bring fictional characters into any kind of harmony. I decided I wouldn't even read a novel written by someone as uneducated as myself and went back to school.
J. and I adopted kittens, planted tulips, drove around Indiana on weekends exploring old general stores and Lake Monroe trilobite rocks like they were ancient Nabatean ruins or rare turquoise salamanders in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. The year he would have taken care of me, with his tenure-track job in Knoxville, I imploded. Couldn't do it. I tried a number of times to visit, painted a few bookshelves, tried to get to know his first wife's best friends next door. The plan was for me to write my dissertation (he had finally finished his third, on the dystopian novel We by Zamyatin) and then he would happily accompany me to my first job. I remember walking up the Tennessee street to the library wearing a maroon print skirt and flat shoes, trying to be smaller and shorter than I was, trying to fit into a mold of myself that somehow would be quieter, calmer, less likely to stick my head in a Sylvia Plath oven, somehow eager to write endless small notations on the margins of someone else's philosophical pursuits.
I read somewhere that we get up to four soulmates in life: karmic, ego, companion, and twin flames. If so, I guess I've had three, two male and one female. Maybe I'm getting one more? Nah, too much trouble. I can't figure out which was which anyway, to see who might be left. And of course I was unable to live with any of them ... well no, that's not quite right.
I do know how to live with J. I know how to fix brunch, get a fresh tomato and some dill from the garden and put them next to the scrambled eggs, just so, not too runny not too hard, I know how to sit in the old chevy Chicken Shit for hours of Nebraska highway, reading chapter after chapter out loud of The World According to Garp, I know how to squish into a twin straw mattress bed in a cheap hotel at the edge of a Kathmandu cliff, I know how to memorize pages of Pushkin on a spongy orange couch below the stain glass window that should have been his first dissertation (the second was written on a Fulbright in Warsaw, also disintegrating quickly in a perusal of Library of Congress titles), I know how to live and move and have my being, as the good Gospel says, with J. in the next room restarting the complete collection of Vivaldi flute concertos on the turntable, one more time.
The I'll dream of you on my deathbed soulmate and the love-of-my-life soulmate, the ones who taught me 'twas better to have loved and lost? Not a chance. You could not pay me to live with either one of them. If they got flown on to my desert island I'd be beyond irritated. Give me Wilson the volleyball any day. It's not just my awkward neural symptoms that make it impossible to live with the gorgeous androgynous creatures that captured my naive flailing heart. It's that they were masters of empirically equivalent theories—otherwise known as fucking liars—who went to extraordinary lengths to make me think that life was one way when it was actually another. Why would they do that? All while telling me daily that they loved me, loved me. I built my ethics on the rubble of these discarded truths, to paraphrase someone...oh, right, that was me, in the Minnesota Studies volume on Logical Empiricism. Up to that point I had not understood why Socrates, or probably Plato, obsessed so much about ethics and realism. Isn't realism fodder for epistemology, knowledge, the sciences? Even metaphysics, if you must. Then it hit me: when you impair someone's judgment you fuck with their reality. The objects of my desire, my uncontrollable slinging eros, were handing me my ethics by messing with my personal sense of external input, making me go to equally extraordinary lengths to keep their shameless fabrications afloat. Me, Ms Wise-ass with the Clockwork Orange-eyes toothpicked open at all times, scrounging around like a dumpster diver for bits of ad hoc rescues to save their worthless fibs. Betrayal is too nice. This was premeditated cognitive slaughter, systematic soul-destroying slander! Took me years to recover from each one.
J. didn't do that. True, he had a bad temper, but it flared up and died out like a dime store firecracker, the currency of a noisy family growing up in close quarters. Whereas anger flaring in the Calvinist silence of my childhood meant you could be put out to die if someone yelled at you. Like a mad nun with a metal ruler, pain followed willful outburst with the logical force of deductive conclusion. I never got used to it, my internal Babblefish garbling all efforts to memorize the basic conditioning sequence. But what sent me away from J. ultimately was not the enmeshed dailiness of sparring but rather an overarching umbrella of forgiveness, no matter how egregious my sins. I couldn't stand it. Love like that had to be suspect. Jesus Christ couldn't even forgive me, stuck me with the unpardonable sin in Romans, whatever that was. My family made that pretty clear. So how could J. compete with cosmic rejection like that? He deserved better, someone not so exhausted by pretending to be normal and female and smaller and quieter and…I guess, just always less.
Well, that plus the fact that they all loved him so much better than I could, even the whore in Warsaw. Women loved him and I was a freaky spirit doomed to live furtive in the thin spaces, hiding in cobwebby closet corners until safe to come out. Doesn’t fit a Slavic Department dinner party schedule. But standing on a dusty road outside Tsavo Park, hitching a ride through the animal grounds with a jeep-driving dung beetle expert? Or leaning over the railing of a timeworn ferry kept on the far side of Aswan Dam so it could float over the drowned ruins of Wadi Halfa, on its way past Abu Simbel to the SUV smuggling center of the Sudanese desert? Now these were worlds I was able to inhabit with J., my earthy peripatetic soulmate, like Lermontov’s demon stealing a few human moments with his beloved Tatiana.
That year he would have taken care of me. After decades of teeth-grinding proficiency, the pioneer path deteriorating into a Donner Party death march before happening onto a calmer valley, the memory still haunts me. Was I so incapable of paying the price, of letting the wet wings dry out and dissolve in the open air? Because no one has ever taken care of me since.
No wonder I'm tired.
* * *
When we left the attic-prison up in the old brick barracks on the Island of Sylt, we walked across the road to the North Sea beach. We sat quiet for a long time, huddled under tall grass on the side of a sand dune, the wind blowing cold off the deep grey waves. With all that came before and after, I recognize this place, this person, this refuge, as a home, where in his arms I could know a transient peace.
* J. copied two poems on the wall signed Johny. Later he translated them from Polish:
The First Poem
You, who were my spark of joy,
who burned like a flame in my heart,
you are lost in some abyss,
you flew to some eternal realm.
Invading my thoughts today
you are like a drug:
Once you were loved by me,
as I rocked you in my arms.
Once those were the happy days
of our joyous love.
The Second Poem
How strange this fate
to see her no longer.
That longing in my breast,
my heart beat stronger
at the sound of her voice.
my cries were in vain,
she knew nothing of my pain.
She never knew
that I would gladly
give my life for her.
22 JUNE 2019