Tempered Glass

May 3, 2013 § 13 Comments

Breaking Glass

Breaking Glass

By Jacqueline Austin

So I got up to take a bathroom break this afternoon, and with a sudden enormous boom, the shower exploded in my face.  Broken glass flew everywhere.  It crashed on the ceiling light and hit me in the chest, my arms, my hair.  I ran outside barefoot.  There was no blood.  My feet had not been cut.  There was glass on my shoulders and my clothing but the door had fortunately caught the shrapnel, so I was lucky — I guess.

After a few minutes of standing outside in the beautiful, hot, serene day, with birdies chirping in the blossoming trees, and the glad laughter of playing children wafting gently to my throbbing ears, I felt like a fool — but curious.  Surely exploding wasn’t part of a shower’s usual repertoire?  It wet people, it held in water — that was it.  And doubting my experience as usual, I went back in.

But from my kitchen I could immediately hear something which sounded like a rushing river, with popcorn popping over it, and there was an ominous smell of dust.  I went to the bedroom door, and made my way over a scattering of small, square pieces of glass, which crunched almost restfully underfoot.  The door had blown shut but I opened it, screeching over jagged glass.

My bathroom had been in a tornado.  It was buried ankle deep in what looked like slushy ice.  The shower door was intact, if skewed on its hinges, and creaking.  The heavy tempered glass wall next to it, though, was now more hole than glass.  The part of the wall that remained, crackled and crazed, as I watched.  It bowed outward infinitely slowly, but it held.  The slowly breaking glass was so beautiful, I almost touched it, but realized it might take only one gentle tap to explode once again, in my face.

I’m used to people exploding, but not showers.  I did what we all do now — went on the Internet.  Dozens of pictures of blood and glass later, I realized I was a very lucky girl.  That’s what my folks always used to call me — a “very lucky girl.”  They’re dead now.  Maybe that’s part of my very luck.  Maybe not.  In any case, tempered glass just does that sometimes, explodes, and it generally explodes while we are naked in the shower, all soaped up, with our eyes shut, groping for our washcloth.  Killer shower walls are apparently responsible for many ER visits; perhaps not for deaths, but they are bad enough to be up there on our daily list of terrors we would fear, if we weren’t so lamentably ignorant.

I called a shower glass place and was lucky again.  A guy came right over, clad in a canvas work suit, carrying an enormous bucket, heavy duty vacuum cleaner, glass-poking prod and willingness to do a messy job.  He thanked me for my business, and while he poked out the remaining glass — slowly and carefully — he told me that his divorce had just been finalized the previous week.  His name was Che Guevara.

“No,” I said, “not really?”

“Yes.  Why?”

A question about parental naming practices led to a discussion of abusive fathers who drank and left their families high and dry; of cheating wives and the boyfriends they lied to (“She told him she was single!”), and — big swaths of glass were dropping, crashing as he spoke — how he was going to leave this job as soon as he got his teeth done.  He didn’t like the thought of dentures.  Two more months of shower glass replacement should be enough to pay for four dental implants and a week or two of decent recovery, and then, “my friend,” it was off to parts unknown.  The ex wife had taken the ranch, the house, all the proceeds of his entire life, but that did not matter.  His dream — after the teeth — was to buy a really fine metal detector, and head south.  Over the border south, to his old land, to meet his compadres.

He had given each of five compadres one of his houses, and a car.  They had gotten married.  They had kids, some even grandkids.  And now these five compadres owed him, or his name wasn’t Che Guevara, some of the fat of their happy new lives.  Each of these friends would drive him, and would wait in the car for him, on the outskirts of some piece of history that only he knew about.  For in the time between being a house and car man, and being a shower glass repairman, Che Guevara had not been idle.  He had, in fact, been going through the Internet, scouring libraries, listening to people’s tales.  At that middle time of his life, he’d had a career as a private investigator.

The worst thing about being a private investigator had been times like the day a fugitive held a gun to his head, and the FBI had shown up in the nick of time.  And the best thing about being a PI, and learning skills of detection, had been that he had learned how to detect treasure.  The treasure of the ages.  So while a compadre waited in the comfort of his gifted car, Che Guevara would pick up his metal detector and go into the wilds that only he knew about, alone.  And there he would find treasure.  Well, *more* treasure, actually.  Because one day, the first day he ever hunted treasure, Che Guevara had found a cache of silver.  He’d given 800 pieces of silver to the owner of the land.  He’d given 800 more pieces to the government, to pay for taxes.  And he’d kept 800 pieces of silver for himself — silver coins that had been worth only $10 apiece at the time, but were now worth $50.

By now Che Guevara had finished knocking out the glass.  He was carrying it out in bucket loads.  Four enormous loads it took, to carry out that glass.  It shimmered and shone, and whispered over itself as it shifted.  At the end of Che Guevara’s story, there was no glass surrounding my shower.  In fact my shower looked just like it had that morning, when it had glass — only one couldn’t shower in it, and one could walk right through what still kinesthetically felt to me, like a wall.

Che Guevara counseled me to vacuum three more times, and to wash the bathroom, before I went in without socks and sturdy shoes.  “Three months from now you’ll still be picking up glass,” he said.  “Three months from now, when I have my teeth.  And my treasure.”

Copyright 2013 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.


My Poetry, Stolen Away

January 10, 2013 § 2 Comments


Portrait Miniature Of Princess Louisa Carlotta (Back), Anonymous (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

By Jacqueline Austin

My poetry had been stolen away and I needed to go on a journey to retrieve it.

I got into my car–a 2008 Toyota Camry.  I was just about to put the car into reverse–I always put the car in reverse–when someone flung open the passenger door, and got in.

I couldn’t identify my unwanted companion.  And the car broke down almost immediately.  My unwanted companion followed me out of the car.  Together, we walked, hand in unaffectionate hand, down a weedy treacherous slope, descending into the dark by the side of a roaring freeway.  There was no path–just rocks, garbage and glass–and my unwanted companion’s feet kept skittering, trying not to slide.

Neither of us had phones and I began to resent my poetry for dragging me out like this, without warning, after abandoning me in the first place, which it had promised, when it arrived long ago, all at once, that it would never do.  What did my poetry think I was–a clown, a fool?  Did my poetry really expect me to believe it hadn’t gone willingly, happily whoring off with the first pretty face to come along?  Who did my poetry think I was?  Was I born yesterday?

My unwanted companion and I found ourselves just outside a small-town mall.  The only unusual thing about it was its name, The Island Of Lost Boys–something to do with a Pep Boys which had once been there, but now wasn’t.

The only clothing store at The Island Of Lost Boys was a dilapidated suit shop for men and boys.  Yellow plastic hung in both the windows, draped like aging skin; the suits within protected, like incubating illnesses, from sun and air.

Though The Suit Shoppe carried nothing I could wear, or ever would, even if I could, I ran inside.  My clothes were shot.  A fancy gray shark skin suit was the only thing which might fit me, and so I traded my unwanted companion for the suit.  It always helps to be dressed in something sharp when it’s one’s turn to get up and speak, and what could be sharper than something young in shiny polyester, woven for a time, place and body that are not, and never could be, one’s own?

The suit was carefully packed into a box by a grinning salesman.  It took me a while to climb back to my car, which now seemed to be parked not by the freeway, but in front of a suburban tract house, circa 1949.  And by the time I got to the door, the box was no longer under my arm.  Very vaguely I remembered another salesman smiling; he had put the box in a safe place for me while I continued to shop.  And with a sinking heart I realized that this second salesman had definitely not been an employee of the store, or any store, and that I’d passively allowed the salesmen, one legitimate, one not, to steal my birthright–couldn’t my companion have been my poetry, but old?–without creating a scene.

The door was open.  I walked inside, and, very upset, lay down.

Next thing I knew it was morning.  I woke up going through my list of friends, ticking off where everyone would be in the next five years.  This one would be rich.  That one, dead.  This one, drunk.  That one, arguing bravely for her family.  This other one, still at sea, as she’s been, ever since we met.  Her boyfriend, working hard–he always works hard.  No reason to look up from his work, in the next five years.

And as for me, I’d gone and let myself become irrelevant.  That’s an awful thing to let happen to a friend of the heart.  The key to knowing one’s poetry, at any age, is having a future.  I must design the future I wish to have, and that includes recognizing my poetry, wherever I might find it, no matter the wrinkles on its feet, the shadow on its face, the shakiness in its dark and wizened hands.

Copyright 2013 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.

The Story of an Intellectual Snob

December 14, 2011 § 7 Comments

NY at Night, 1903, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By Jacqueline Austin

I had the idea, in puberty, that I wanted to compete against the best of all geniuses, each in their own discipline.  Why should one of unlimited intelligence (I was modest) be limited by conventional categories?  I decided to train each of my senses separately. Then, and only then, would I be able to see (feel, hear, taste, smell, intuit) if there were any true divisions in epistemology, psychology… whatever.

To my pre-teen self, all endeavor was one.  Divisions, categories and limits were just habits, shackles, brought to us, then locked onto us, by our collective history (“our” meaning my, and my sisters’).  As such, these were downers and should be ignored.  Why chain ourselves in dungeons of the mind, when we were actually outside in Nature, playing, being kids?

As a pianist from the age of three–my mother, a retired child prodigy, had expected, but  not gotten, greatness from any of us–I felt that I was already prodigiously expert in music.  My vast experience as an accompanist for all our school plays, and the vigorous clapping of parents and friends at every one, was all the proof I needed.

To me, such a mind as mine had never before been encountered.  Proof?  Ha!  Only little minds, say, of eleven year olds, required proof.  Twelve year old thinkers who could reify the senses, were beyond such things, and could, if only he wasn’t dead, go talk to Einstein.

Six years later.  Yale.  After a skip and a hop into biochemistry, music theory, composition, philosophy, and History of the Arts and Letters (a four year course in Western culture which I, alas, opted out of in sophomore year), I decided that to get ahead, I must get over certain feelings of intellectual inadequacy which were, mirabile dictu, springing up.  Why not return to my roots?  I could major in painting (sight), do a lot of cooking (taste), and participate in martial arts and the sexual revolution (touch).  All the senses would thus be covered.  I would really, truly, finally! be a genius in everything.

I tried to write a journal following my amazing travels through the halls of thought.  But again alas, I would no sooner put a piece of paper into the typewriter, and type “A,” “The” or “Once,” when I’d find myself ripping the paper from the typewriter, screaming at myself, “How cliched!”  “This is not worth doing!”  By the end of the day, I’d have a mountain of paper, all crumpled up, each page with one or two sad words on it, but writing couldn’t be all it was cracked up to be, anyway, since I couldn’t do it.

After painting my way out of Yale, graduating by the skin of my, uh, models, I set up in New York, as an artist–with a plan.  A plan for real, true greatness.

First I would explore synesthesia, via art.  I rented a 100-foot long loft, with floor to ceiling arched windows.  I was an artist, and there were those windows, so pretty, so metaphorical, so big, so I made art on all the windows.  By day, though, the art was pretty well invisible.

By night, it was too.  My beautiful, meaningful art, created by one so talented, so brave and so young, was obscured by fires all across downtown Manhattan.  I could see these fires from my window, and they were much more interesting than my art.  They were set each night by landlords who wished to collect insurance money.  At the time, the lower East Side, down to Little Italy, was just starting to increase in value, but there was some kind of legal limit on how fast landlords could kick out old school New Yorkers.  Because the poor, downtrodden landlords couldn’t increase rental fees for the demanding masses, as fast as they liked, arson was the next best alternative.  Every night, pretty orange fires would spring up, one, two, five, a half dozen or more, from the bottom to the top, and both sides, of my 100 foot panoramic view.

Whenever I stayed awake too long at night, I sat on the fire escape, naked (nobody could see me, as downtown was still pretty well deserted), cultivating a certain weary sympathy with these landlords.  Wasn’t I doing the same as they were doing, with my own physical real estate?  Burning the candle at both ends, to collect cosmic, yet unearned, insurance payments?

Now came a series of jobs not good enough for me.  Had I settled down to any job, no matter how far away from my ridiculous ambitions, I would have had some chance to reach my as yet unarticulated new goal, of being loved.  But no, each job was stupid.  If no one did that job, society would be better off.  Rather than change things, or even entertain the idea that change was possible, I would quit each job, metaphysical virginity intact.

What would I be, I thought one night, in ten years?  Jack of all trades; master of none.  Senses trained and raring to go.  But no direction, nor means, of finding their proper venue.  A great anxiety descending, like a clammy yet electrified fog, over my talents.  My senses twinkling out one by one ahead of me, like these sirens, wailing to the fires, as my naked back pressed shivering against the glass edging my art, demarcating my insubstantial efforts, from the great and smoky beyond, outside their home.

Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.

Pain and Music

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Libation Scene, courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Pain–pain and music.  They take their course.  All through the night we’d stayed awake and toasted, in clear cool invisible wine, our lives, and how they hurt–and how.

Why was the wine invisible?  The room was dark.  The music was quiet.  Sleep was a laugh.  I was in pain–I’d fallen.  My husband had called me the night before.  I’d been in the middle of a dream, performing a Schubert impromptu onstage, naked, because all performance, really, is naked, whether you’re conscious, or not.  To cut a long story short, I’d forgotten I was in a loft bed.  And so when I leaped up and out from the stage, into the silent crowd, still playing, I was leaping out into real air.  Dark air.  I was in fact about to land on my knees in the dark, and to break one.

Far away, my husband had also been having problems–who didn’t?–and bad, sad dreams.  And ringing in the ears.  And a hammering, nagging something, between the brown, liquid eyes he’d been trying so hard to keep closed.  Who didn’t have pain?  Who couldn’t?  Who’s able to sleep?  Who cares?

So that’s why we were drinking.  In cold, cumulative sips.  One bright sip after another, all night long.  Finishing each glass, and then pouring once again.

Before we drank each glass, we spilled a little on the floor.  Someone had been reading about the ancient Greeks, and that’s what we were doing, being ancient, and Greek.  It was something to be, although we don’t believe in the gods.  And it was something to do–libation.  An offering to the dead.  Although more people live now, than have ever died.  Maybe it’s the dead who should be pouring themselves out, to us.  Especially as the population is exploding, and will grow more.

And we were discussing old things.  Ceremonies.  And distant places.  Places separated from us by time, or space.  My friends were speaking.  The sweetness of their imagination was oxidizing as it hit the dark night air.  One of the men, who had gastric issues, was belching.  Garlic is disgusting if you’re in pain; when it’s already been ingested by another, then returned to you, it’s worse.

Someone put Brahms on.  One of the friends had brought a record player.  They’d been buying up all the dead folks’ records, in Amoeba.  When a record changes hands, what happens to all the old listening?  Does attention leave a track for those inclined to follow?

To take my mind off my knee, my friends tried to entertain me.  They struck up an argument about refugees.  Cambodians, mainly.  Why Cambodians?  Because they were in the news that day.  Several Pol Pot officials had finally been brought to what they call justice, and an article about them, in this day’s LA Times, had been read by all.  Of course, the officials were now 86, 79 and 94 years old.  One of my friends argued that a pathetic old man can’t remember what he did in the years of his strength.  Is the old man responsible for the young man’s actions?

Another friend, a woman in her 50s, told me about some Cambodian people she’d met, long ago, in New York.  One man, a prince, hadn’t been able make his living princing, and had to become a taxi driver.  The head of the national dance company worked as a janitor.  A young secretary–they still had secretaries then–had been so starved that she looked like a 12 year old boy (she must be in her 40s now), had three bullets still embedded in her slender right thigh, years after she’d gotten away.

Why hadn’t they been removed?  another friend asked.

Who was going to take them out?  was the answer.

The bullets had been there for seven years.  “I have wounds all over my body,” my friend remembered the young secretary saying.  “I was in a suicide squad from 1970 to 1975.  I would crawl around with the other kids, on missions.  We wandered through the jungle, looking for Communists to blow up.  They Communists were blowing up our families, too.  But it wasn’t that simple.  Some of the Communists were actually from these families.  Some of the suicide children were our brothers and sisters.  But then the problems of my squad, these family arguments, were simply resolved.”

How?  another friend asked.

The Communists blew them up, was the answer.

“Here was this woman, gripping my hand so hard, one rainy day.  And she was so strong she broke my finger and I had to tape it up.”

What had the woman done between 1975 and the time you met her?

What did you do between the time of libations, and today?

Forget about Cambodians, said a third friend.  Think about the children’s army in Somalia.

My boss, who went around the world last summer, said a fourth friend, was almost captured by Somali pirates.  Those pirates were in their teens, and they’re still around.

Way to ruin a story, said the first friend.

Fuck you.

In the pain from my knee, listening to Brahms, I began to dream I was seeing a blue light.  It was like the light from the street lamp I could usually clearly see, though not tonight, through the window across the room from our wine and music and pain and shadow-soaked rug.  Though we’d pulled down the shades tonight, the light was leaking in, bright around the blackness of the rectangles.  The light, half present, half seen in my dream, cast long, wavery shadows through the room, like the currents of a river.

Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.

The Story Of The Traveler

November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

by Jacqueline Austin

Courtesy of Tamar Levine http://www.tamarlevine.com

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.

3.  Background
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.

Y smiled.

“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 

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