The Story Of The Traveler
November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
by Jacqueline Austin
1. But First, A Toast…
But first, a toast to unlove-love: to that which negates its own success.
Seduction! (Comes the answering cry, “Seduction!” And down the hatch goes drink #1.)
Betrayal! (A smile.)
Consummation! (A hand removed from one’s certain grasp.)
Parting! (Oh, oh, oh, it’s off to work we go…and down the hatch go 2, 3, 4, to amplify what’s gone before.)
Drunk, messy… embraces… a sound of ripping cloth…
The un-new new: here, in this room?
In a haze of bleak obliqueness, a holy vow:
“Let’s never say what is necessary–”
“Only what is not.”
2. Gametes As People
X’s friend Y was a traveler who wished to be more than a friend to X.
So one night, as they sat together in a bar, Y ordered four of X’s favorite drink and then, by some spiral logic of seduction (“This’ll turn her on,” he thought,) decided to reveal an odd, perhaps excruciating travel to X.
Y had just read X’s article on the waning of certain ways of life. It was titled “Comparing Shades of Gray: The Future of the Past In Primitive Cultures,” but he’d liked it anyway. X’s tone in it had been, after the first obligatory dryness, sad and poetic, a collage of impressions from all over the world. Though X had never been anywhere except New York, she had read extensively, and her article was, for the most part, surprisingly true and real. Her speculations about “primitive people” were more sensitive than those of certain very well-seasoned anthropologists against whose views (“the death of vision”) Y had strongly editorialized in a number of television shows, academic journals, and magazines.
X had written the article while under hypnosis, in a state of trembling nostalgia for what she had never yet known.
Their immediate background: a mahogany bar in Soho. A mile of bottles from all over the world. Glasses in the shapes of balloons or cylinders, borne by casually artistic serving personnel whose hairstyles, flourishes, and sneers proclaimed them to be really, at heart, several steps higher on the ladder of life than the people they were–but this is tangential. On the restaurant’s darkly lit plant-shadowed walls (as in a glossy of the Tropics), paintings of misty lavender clouds.
Y’s lips were moving. Words came out and fell on X.
Odd–excruciating: is this the way Y seduces?
This night: why not any other?
4. An Egotist Persuades Himself To Become Ardent
Five nights earlier, as Y shaved–he shaves twice a day–and admired himself in the bathroom mirror:
“… to become ardent. But how?”
First Y renamed Janine. He ran through all the names he knew from A to Z, and settled on X.
“Distance… closeness…” He re-called himself: “Y!”
Three nights earlier, same time, same place:
“Let me leap with X into a warm and distant plane!”
And tonight, while Y was shaving his chin:
“X–(in this form, what’s the next thing I must say?”
“X, oh X–I worship thee!”
You see, Y wanted only to give his X herself.
5. Although She Was More Than An Egg Preparing Itself For Fertilization,
at this time, Janine was simply waiting.
6. Their First Drinks Together As More Than Friends
X (among the clink-clank of plates and glasses; smoke): “Oh, margaritas, how lovely! We’ll have to drink them fast. Y, you’ve never been like this before… Poor Y, you’ve cut yourself shaving–does it hurt?… I feel so free… Perhaps because it’s Saturday…”
And, after the second drink: “Where have you been all my life?”
And, after the third–the fourth–the fifth–
She had never been this possible as mere Janine.
“Tell me where you’ve come from, Y.”
Her eyes sparkled. Her brown hair shone and it swayed as she leaned forward.
7. A Country Y Had Visited In Which There Were No Jails
“No jails?” thought X. “How can that be?” And a vision formed in her mind of hands reaching into her pocketbook. “Who would protect one’s interests?”
It was objectionable to her to think that she might need Y to protect her interests.
“Criminals loose on the streets?” X was, like Y, a child of privilege: an aristocrat. She secretly felt French.
The idea of anyone’s hands reaching into her pocketbook made her shiver.
Y must have come from some place else.
8. Sounds Like He’s Lying
Y described a society which was both revolutionary and modern–in which the laws were based on psychological and physical truths.
The system of justice was very simple. A person suspected of wrongdoing would be brought, at dawn, before a court consisting of 144 people chosen from the citizenry at random. The case would be presented by accuser and accused, who were often lovers (here Y glanced sharply at X), or at the very least, knew each other, preferably in the Biblical sense of the word. For who could accuse a total stranger?
The court would listen and ask perceptive questions. This process was called, in all seriousness, courtship. After each participant arrived at a view of the truth–this was signaled by the symbolic closing of one’s eyes–all would vote.
9. The Guilty Person Would Be Sent
The guilty person would be sent, on a ferry which left the next morning, to an island. This island was so small it was all beach. There the criminal would be buried in the sand, up to the neck, for a specified number of hours. The length of the sentence depended on the seriousness of the prisoner’s crime, but was never for more than eight hours.
X thought of the times when her brother and sisters had buried her in sand. The sand was heavy, but pleasantly so. The only problem would be in ingesting or eliminating food. By the time eight hours had passed, the physical pressure might become uncomfortable, but it certainly wouldn’t qualify as torture.
Sand was like another body on top of you.
10. It’s A Snap
“But what’s so bad about that?” said X, fondling her drink. Beads of condensation coalesced and ran down her wrists.
“They don’t all start out as sweet as you, so first they make them sweet, and then they immobilize them!”
“Why, Y? I still don’t understand!”
“I saw a prisoner once,” he said. “A man who had stolen a snap from a woman’s skirt. Usually such a minor crime merited a sentence of only fifteen or twenty seconds. But this man was sentenced to two point five hours because (a) the snap was on the skirt which was on the woman at the time, and (b) this odd act had actually aroused him. Also, at the time, he was close–quite close–to the King.
“Why he chose to steal, I do not know,” continued Y. “Perhaps it was an allegorical act of some kind. The people there speak a language of gestures…”
“French?” said X, and from Y’s expression, saw she had blundered dreadfully. Her skin began to burn. She rummaged in her pocketbook for a fire extinguisher, with which she pretended to dab at her makeup.
After a moment, Y lowered his eyebrows from the alarming height to which they had been raised.
“Why did I say ‘French?’” X thought. “But then again, why in the world shouldn’t I say ‘French?’”
“…Or a language of the deaf?” she continued. “Y, I’m asking you, seriously, do these people speak with their hands, or what?”
“Or what,” said Y.
“Yes, I’m disturbing him,” X thought. “He’s known a lot of foreign women–but it’s finally home-town X who reaches him.”
“Waiter,” she cried, snapping her fingers, “more drinks!” And Y smiled at her triumphant smile.
“This is fascinating,” said X. “Please continue, Y.”
“At your service,” he said.
“Oh, dear, how gallant.”
“Merci,” he said.
The waiter, sneering, delivered their drinks. “Ne pas,” X was saying. “Ne…pas.” Her lips pursed and ploded and hissed and pursed. Red, red, red. “Ne…pas.”
11. A Paraphrase Of Kafka
“I had gone to that country to take some pictures for a men’s magazine, and was interviewing the King, who asked me to call him ‘Franz.’ It’s not every day I get to tutoyer royalty, and I was a little bit rattled, as strange as that might sound. Anyway, brother Franz hinted that I might like to see a few of his country’s sights, not open to ordinary tourists. He suggested that I visit the punishment island on that very day.
“The ferry to the island was an old fishing boat. When we arrived, at about ten in the morning, the prisoner, silent, in chains, was dragged away by some soldiers to be “prepared” for his punishment–stripped naked and rubbed with fat and sugar. I was escorted, by the island commandant, to a small observation tower near the strand.
“Two soldiers brought the prisoner, who was still, oddly enough, wearing eyeglasses, to a hole in the sand. They pushed him in. His eyeglasses fell off. They lay there, reflecting a blinding light into my eyes, so annoying me that I forgot to take pictures. The soldiers filled the hole loosely with sand.
“For the first half hour the man looked fairly comfortable. He even sang. Then, a few minutes after eleven, a crow flew down and suddenly pecked out the man’s left eye.
“He didn’t scream. He didn’t seem to react at all.
“The island was getting hot. The criminal’s face turned red from sun and blood.
“After about an hour, the commandant handed me a pair of binoculars. I couldn’t help but look. I saw ants crawling all over the prisoner’s neck and into his ears and his swollen eyelids. Flies swarmed against the eye-that-was. The commandant told me, between brushing off sweat and slapping mosquitoes, that there were eels in the sand, and crabs, which would sometimes eat a prisoner’s legs.
“The time finally ended. ‘Perhaps,’ said the commandant, straightening her wilted uniform, ‘the prisoner has atoned for his crime, don’t you think?’ We chatted about methods of punishment, about which the commandant was well informed, even literary. She picked up my camera. She even snapped a couple of pictures for mer.”
X interrupted. “I thought,” she said, in a small faraway voice, “that in these cases it was the custom to write on the prisoiner’s–uh–body…”
Y smiled. He snapped his fingers for more drinks. X’s skirt flew up into Y’s hands. Y smoothed it down for X. “You were going to ask?” he said.
X shivered. “Oh, yes. I was just going to ask you if your pictures came out.”
“Yes indeed,” said Y, “and you shall examine them some day.”
He paid for the drinks, which disappeared into X’s and Y’s mouths. All of the other patrons of the bar got up and left. The waiter, muttering that this was not right, wrote out X’s and Y’s check, but before he could present it (he was aiming toward Y), he exploded. His order book fluttered down around their table in festive bits of confetti. After a quiet, romantic pause, X murmured, “What happened then?”
“The soldiers came back, sponged the ex-prisoner’s face, and gave him a drink, very much like the ones we’re enjoying now. They dug him out very gently. One of them picked up his eyeglasses, whcih he waved away.
“The prisoner was carried to an infirmary. The commandant escorted me there. I had expected the prisoner to be unconscious, or at least morose, but he was wide awake, laughing and boasting spiritedly to a group of young, naked girls who were bathing him. They bandaged his eyes; they attended to some small sores on his legs. Then he was given a complete physical check-up, including scans and an electrocardiogram, on the most modern machines, by five or six doctors, ‘all specialists in their fields, and educated in America,’ the commandant said.
“At sunset the boat returned west to the mainland. I was in it; so was the prisoner, dressed in white. As we docked, a group of citizens ran to the pier, cheering, to greet him, as if he’d done something extremely brave. They presented him with food and a gold necklace, and looked at me with some envy. It seems, in that country, that ex-criminals are venerated, even regarded as saints. Everyone feeds them, houses them, gives them valuable gifts. And no ex-criminal ever commits a second crime.”
12. X And Y (Like Bats Finding Directions By Bouncing High-Frequency Sounds Off A Wall, Only To Find The Wall Was Not Real And They Are Trapped In A Mist), Find They Are In Love
“You say your prisoner stole… a snap?” X said.
Y looked deep into X’s eyes, which reflected back images of Y. “Yes,” he said.
“Perhaps he was really… the King?” ventured X.
“Yes,” sighed Y. “He was every inch a king.”
Y and X rose, threw down some coins, and ran to the door.
Though X demurred, they went to her place.
Two months later they were living in her bed.
X enjoyed being with the traveler. He was both gentle and kind–once it had been decided who was to be in charge. In March, they looked out the window. In April, they opened it and felt a breeze. They took long walks from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen and back. They read together and discussed books, ideas; they looked at things. X had never felt better in her life.
One day X woke up early and looked around her room. The place was a mess. Old white cartons from Chinatown were stacked by an overflowing ashtray; the rug was covered with dirty clothes. A purple miasma hung in the air. No longer did X’s place express her own existence. She stretched and yawned blissfully and looked at Y. He woke.
Together, they breathed the purple fog for a while.
“What did you dream?” said Y, as the clock chimed ten.
13. An Interruption–A Duet With Confessional Overtones
Bats wheeled slowly around the room.
X whimpered. “I hate bats,” she said.
“Yes, I know, X” answered Y.
Just then, the clock chimed ten and fell on a sock.
14. X Betrays Y By Lying About Her Dream
“I was a traveler in disguise.
“I was following the Dalai Lama from Denver to Boulder, by car, when it began to rain. His car had cloudy windows which were also raining but I could see right through them. The Dalai Lama was small and thin and he was wearing wire-rim eyeglasses. A woman, an acolyte, sat next to him in the back seat, with a suitcase of hot tea on her lap, in case the Dalai Lama should get thirsty as he rode from thought to thought.
“It was pouring. I could barely see the Dalai Lama’s rainy car, just some flags–Tibetan and American–fluttering and cracking in the dark.
“I was beginning to be afraid. I was an awful storm. The rain turned into hail. Lightning was branching and striking and sissing all around. The road was flooding–up–over the wheels, the floor, the seat–
“Suddenly I was in the Dalai Lama’s car. He didn’t notice me. Though it was the middle of the night, he was eating breakfast: a poached egg, toast, vegetarian bacon, fruit in season, tea…
“I had a Sunday Times with me, and give him… not all of it. I picked up the sections that you always read first: the magazine, the travel section. I was going to read the travel section aloud, and then the Dalai Lama looked up and said–
“That’s the end of the dream,” said X, flinging back her hair.
15. Y Betrays X By Falsely Analyzing Her False Dream
“That was not a dream,” said Y.
“How do you know?”
“Because you are telling me something which will really happen to you.”
“And a dream can’t really happen?”
“You are deliberately being obscure,” said Y. “You are so transparent to me, I can see right through you. This all boils down to…”
“Sex, and nothing but sex,” X hissed.
They got up. Y made coffee. They had a fight. The fight’s subject matter ranged over the entire last two months, and was bordered by two times, one in the past, when they had been just friends, and the other in the future, in which they again would be just friends. The corniest line was X’s, “You are nothing but a prisoner in your own penile colony.”
Then she taunted him with her lack of transparency to him, by becoming a mirror.
Y blew up and smashed a rocking chair against a brick wall. Then he stomped on an electric heater.
X began to cry.
“I’m sick of your intimidation tactics,” she said. “I’m sick of following. I’m sick of waiting for something great to happen. I’m sick of–”
“You’re so sick,” Y said, “I’m just glad it’s not contagious.”
“And you always smash me down,” X said. “Just for once, admit it. Admit you are wrong.”
Then Y said:
“Please, permit me to relate a real dream.”
X began to interrupt, but Y held up a hand and said, “Please.”
16. This Is A Dream, But It’s Obscure
“It was in a place unknown to me. You see, X, dreams always begin with a statement of location. A room with stone walls and many doors, one of which I opened. A narrow passageway led to a balcony which overlooked white sky… A dream must reveal who one is at the time… I jumped.
“A road; an aisle of trees. A shadow ahead: a man walking his dog. I ran to catch up. They passed with never a howl.
“Then angry machines were crawling behind me, honking and whistling for me to move on. I was being forced toward someone: a vague, huge presence: you.
“The end of the road was just ahead, marked with a large wrought-iron gate, then a moat, and after, a park with many trees which were all green, even down to the trunks. In the far distance were people, all rushing toward an enormous building of yellow brick.
“As I approached the gate, a boy on a bicycle whizzed by and yelled, ‘So long, sucker!’
“I went in. Mist raced over the moat. Crows cawed and pecked the air above my head. I asked a nurse, ‘Where am I?’ “Are you kidding?’ she said. ‘Where have you been all my life?’
“She pushed by and went on. In the wind created by her passing, I was sucked over the moat, through the overwrought gate, toward something beautiful, terrible, on another plane, which would cross me out, obliterate all my explorations–”
17. This Exchange of Intimacies Forces A Raise In The Ante
X touched Y’s cheek; her hand came away wet.
Together they decided that X, having never been out of New York, was deficient in worldly experience, and would have to become a traveler, too. Y thought that X would most enjoy taking a plane to California, meeting him there, and then driving back with him across the United States. He didn’t think her first encounter with another state should be tempered by–diminished by–his presence. But after that, they could meet on neutral ground and he would accompany her to the best spots: the Mojave Desert, the Black Hills of South Dakota. They could even go by ferry across Lake Michigan.
“I’ve heard, X said, her eyes shining, “that from the middle of Lake Michigan, one can’t see land. It’s like finding an ocean at the center of a continent.”
“And I’ve read,” Y countered, “that many ages ago, this land was a sea.”
Three blocks away, the waiters were talking. “Figure-ground, ground-figure–There’s always something on top.”
18. X Becomes A Traveler, Too
X flew to San Diego; Y went somewhere else. He didn’t tell X where. He had business, he said, outside the Land of the Free. He arranged to meet X two weeks later at the San Diego airport.
X had a good time, alone, during those two weeks. She went to Disneyland, Sea World and Baja California. Her exasperation with Y dissolved as it was exposed to strange, real places. X discovered a new facility in extending her thoughts, over and beyond the plane in which she had lived. Most nights, she watched the sun set in the Pacific Ocean, and slowly, a new geometry was revealed to her. One day she threw her pocketbook into the Pacific. But during the last few nights, she yearned for Y.
“Things seem so simple when I’m with Y,” she thought. “And that’s precisely why everything has become so complex. Could it be just the other way around when I’m by myself?”
At times, when she sat by the Pacific, she felt transparent even to herself, but then the tide would turn, and she would grow opaque.
There were many things to know and many places to which to go; could she know them, and go to them, with Y?
Oh, she longed to pull Y with her to this new, analphabetic world.
19. X, Excited, Waits To Share Her Discoveries With Y
One day X drove to the airport and waited for the arrival of Y. He was almost the last person off the plane. “Sweet Y,” X thought, “to give me a chance to collect my thoughts, along with his baggage.”
He appeared at the door, dressed strangely, in the same type of suit that Nehru used to wear. He wasn’t wearing his glasses. One of his eyes was bandaged. The other looked sulky, as if it was reluctant to see. Long scratches ran down one thin cheek.
Y tapped his way toward X with a silver cane.
He was trailed by a retinue of several attendants, dressed in long, richly colored robes and flowing veils. They guided his steps with loud, whispered directions in a foreign language punctuated by gutteral “phut’s” and “ach’s”
20. The Transformation of Y Causes A Religious Conversion In X
“German?” X thought. “German–germane?”
Suddenly the world burst into living color around X. The potted palms began to weave bright, strange rhomboid shapes at once parallel with and opposed to the negative spaces surrounding them. Y opened the top button of his shirt; glints of gold leaped out at X in the shape of golden letters which placed and replaced themselves until they formed a perfect shining circle. The robes of Y’s servants dripped blues and reds and greens, in wet harmony with the shiny but dry colors of the plastic seats in the economy class waiting area.
An airline attendant hurried down the disembarkation ramp with a small package which she handed to the transformed Y. She was followed by the vector arrows of her own motion. From where X was standing, by a fence obliterated by staccato bursts of living color–shrapnel tourists–she could hear Y’s voice, unchanged, deep, sweet, graciously saying “Danke schon.”
“Was it a difficult flight?” X asked the airline attendant.
The airline attendant giggled. “Oh, honey, it was a snap!” She stepped forward to shake Y’s hand, but one of the servants pushed her gently away. “No touch holy man,” hissed the servant, and the motivated blobs of purple green red blue turned to stare. “Who IS that?” said a grayblackpinkwhitepulsation to X: a classically dressed nun.
“Someone who could have used a sense of humor,” X whispered.
The traveler and his attendants swept furiously by. X thought they all glanced at her, but they moved too quickly, in a trumpet blaze of glory, for X to be sure. A hurricane sucked them into nothingness. Within the hour, a new woman, X-Janine, had rented a car for a solitary drive across the sea.
Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin. All rights reserved.
First published in ISBN 0-943568-01-3: An Anthology. Amy Friedman, ed., Farrah, Upland, Westmoreland and Granger, NY 1983