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Fiction

Fiction Issue #73

Becoming Water

Jim Marino

 

She thought I must be a philistine or a fool to part with my books. Not even course books, but my own. “You can’t sell that,” she said, and came so close I could smell her leather and her sweat. “Don’t you like it?”

“It’s wonderful,” I said. “I loved it.”

“You need the cash.” She ran her fingers down eleven spines, Auster and Austen and psychoanalysis and the history of Rome.

“No.”

“I have this one.” She caressed The Drama of the Gifted Child, turning pages she had already read and possessed and left waiting on her apartment’s shelves. I knew how she felt. I wanted those books, too, and never more than when I was holding the money in my hand and going out the door.

She asked if I studied English or psych and I said law, which she said made sense. She said I looked “corporate.”

I got nineteen dollars for those books, and she bought one, claiming she couldn’t wait: “Little book, you’re coming home with me.”

I traded my nineteen dollars for a bottle of water, a can of whipped cream, three lubricated condoms, and a peach. We shared the peach in my bed before she left, letting its juice smear our lips. The whipped cream we had eaten already, from her palm and long fingers, the crook of my neck and the back of her knees, from our nipples and thighs, the sole of my left foot and the smooth ridges of her spine. The water I drank alone without hurrying in the cool dark after she’d gone. What was left of my nineteen dollars then? One unused condom, an empty can, thirty-seven cents on my dresser, and the damp stone of a vanished fruit. But the transformation I liked best was books becoming money and money becoming water and cold water drawn slowly into my body to disappear. I thought about those changes and I slept.

Piper had left her new book open on my floor, as an excuse to return, but didn’t need one. I put the unopened condom between its pages to mark her place. I’d already read it, and it was too lovely to keep.

#

She wrote me a postcard in lavender ink. Why don’t you have a cell phone? You’re my first one-night stand. The other side of the card was Degas, a dancer’s face flushed by lights. Her second postcard was also Degas, a horse led by its jockey. Her ink switched to green. Do you believe in two-night stands?

She’d put those cards in my hand after we’d talked for an hour on the sidewalk, explaining how she was locking her bike here, how I was walking back from the river, how these were my sweaty running clothes. Somehow, explaining this to each other took a long time. The last warm afternoon of the fall was giving way. She’d given me the cards as a goodbye, and I’d begun reading them in the wrong order.

“There’s no address,” I’d said. She didn’t know it but had bought the stamps. She’d put one with a bluebird in my right hand and another in my left and then she’d walked down the stairs to the Red Line. I watched her go.

I put her cards inside one of my books on Zen and called her before dark. I tucked the stamps into a corner of my windowpane, because they seemed like such small things to acquire.

#

“Even your bedroom’s impersonal,” she said. “Like you’re covering your tracks.”

There was a bed, a night table with the book I was reading and a clock radio that could play my one CD, a dresser for my clothes, the landline, a desk, a chair, a computer, a print showing two geese and the moon, my law books on the desk in their row, three books I was done reading stacked by the door, a pair of postcard stamps in the window, and my two books of Zen on the dresser, one with her postcards. I had a cushion and a foam pad I sat on for Zen, and the table-top ironing board I’d bought in high school.

“Classic corporate anal-retentive lawyer, right down the line,” she said. “Except the books about Buddha.”

“And the woman in my bed.”

“And the fascinating woman in your bed. But don’t fool yourself, lawyer-boy. Buddhist is as Buddhist does.”

She called my ironing board the key symbol of my budding intellectual property lawyer’s soul. Compulsive neatness. Futile efforts to impose order. I said I’d had it since I was seventeen, and then had to tell the story.

I told her about living in the Volkswagen. It was the spring after I’d gotten into college, warm enough to sleep in the car. I bought the ironing board from Target and kept it in the trunk. I explained how I’d do homework in laundromats until two in the morning, while my spare clothes dried, and shower at the Y. And the school didn’t know for the first two weeks, because I looked as I always looked before, and my parents couldn’t bring themselves to tell anyone.

“Wait. You ran away from home, but kept going to school?”

“Shit, yes.”

“What did you do for money?”

I told her about the history prize, five hundred dollars, how I planned to make it work. She went back to the beginning of the story and never went forward. Father drinking, uncontrolled anger, inappropriate behavior: the textbook. The checklist.

“You must have felt awful.”

“Of course. It was awful.”

“Maybe journaling would be therapeutic.”

I didn’t answer. The story isn’t complicated. She knew everything she thought it meant right away.

#

I ran down Quincy Street past the bookstores and Harvard dorms to Memorial Drive and the sheltering elms and the river. I counted bridges, combined different loops for seven miles. On Sundays, I would run longer, two hours and more before I stopped to sweat and breathe and consider the decaying trees.

“There’s no weight left to lose,” she’d tell me. “Ask why you do it.”

But when I was running, running was all the reason in the world. Then I would walk along the Charles, tired and thirsty and pleased, knowing the value of each breath and the pure desire for water. I loved the river with its breezes and footbridge and the fish you could sometimes see in the shallows. For all the pollution the eye would not reveal, I wanted to dive and drink, to inhale all the cool living water I liked, and I felt sure that if I stripped and plunged into that moving cold, I would come out as clean as I would ever be.

#

It rained and wet the crooked bricks in Harvard Square. We sat drinking tea and watched umbrellas bob through the streets, while she told me about commitment.

“I can’t give what you’re asking.”

“What did I ask?”

“Not what you ask out loud. In the way you sit. The herbal tea. The sweaters.”

“Sweaters don’t ask for things. They lack emotional capacity.” She told me not to joke.

I said, “If I wanted commitment, I wouldn’t ask for tea.”

“Then what do you want?”

“Things that can’t be taken away.”

She shook her head and stared. “That’s not realistic.”

“If you say so.” I drank the last of my honeyed tea. It’s better to do without caffeine, which wakes when you want sleep and leaves you restless when you need rest. It’s better to do without things if you can.

#

She asked why I meditated, but I don’t. I sit. The word “meditate” is false to the thing, makes a mystery of something simple. I sit. When I sit, I breathe. Doing both is hard enough.

She asked what I thought about. The reason for sitting is not to think. When you can let go of taxes and traffic and the curve of an acquaintance’s thigh, you learn to do a thing with your whole self. It is so hard, so nearly impossible, to breathe. There can be no distractions. I inhaled. I exhaled.

“Give your breath the attention it deserves,” I told her. “You’ll miss it when it’s gone.” She laughed. She thought I had a sense of humor.

If you learn to breathe honestly, you may receive a vision, which some prize as a sign of enlightenment, to be discarded quickly because it is prized. When a vision would not depart, I was stuck. Distracted. I was obsessed with water. I sat, only to see wind on waves and sunlight gilding ripples. I heard sounds like faraway rain. I clung to the Zen essence of water without understanding and could go no further. When I tried to force water from my mind, I lost count of my breaths and sat only thinking of her.

#

She marked my body, biting with her white teeth, scratching her way down my skin and up again, bruising me with her knees and sharp, baby-pink heels. Her nails dug into my flesh, leaving dozens of tiny, waning moons. She said, “You’ll have to explain how you got those marks on your neck.”

“Everyone will know how I got them.”

She laughed and rolled onto her back. “I wish I could watch. Poor flustered proper Catholic you.”

“You want to follow me around this week?”

“I don’t know.” She was running two fingers up my stomach and down. “Let’s enjoy this while it lasts,” she said.

“When else would we?”

Her apartment was crowded to the roof with second-hand carpets laid across old rugs, folding Chinese screens, handmade shawls draped over a standing mirror, journals and notes stacked on her reading chair. Her books were a vagabond library crowding her nightstand and bedroom shelves, the half-sized bookcase wedged into the hall, and coffee tables and milk crates under her bed and suitcases in her closet. Books were stacked sideways between the floor and ceiling, so she could read the titles on the spines. I imagined those books tumbling onto me so I could never climb out.

I stood in her shower and washed her saliva from my body. I was tender with the bites and bruises she’d put where no stranger would see. When I came out she was lying on her bed pressing my sweater to her nose, one gray wool sleeve around her neck.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It has your smell.”

“Keep it.”

“You’re not leaving like that,” she said when I had dressed. She pointed at me and I didn’t know why. “Your neck.” She wrapped one of her scarves around my throat. “You can borrow this. But I need it back.” It was a bright red plaid, and scratchy, but I wore it so she could walk beside me in the street. When I called to return it, she could not meet me, or had no time, or would not answer her phone. I knew that if I never saw her again her marks would be on my body, and that even if I saw her again, they’d fade.

#

Her postcard read, I’ll miss you. She’d slid it under my door with a stamp but no address. The card had a famous picture, kissing lovers on a Paris street. She’d picked the photo for its meaning, agreeing with the words or questioning them, because Piper thought about those extra meanings. I could not find them and would not seek them, after years trying to let things be what they were.

I ran an extra two miles that day, and three the next. I sat on my cushion and pad and breathed. I drank water. I read a book about depressive illness and put it aside when I was done. I gave away the print from my bedroom wall. When I had eaten and worked, I slept.

#

I washed my clothes in a laundromat and read a book about the Huaroni in Ecuador, who give away what they own and trust the forest to give more. It was snowing outside, and dark. She came in, with snow on her hair, and told me it was by chance.

“I’m leaving for Christmas in an hour,” she said. “I’m lucky to see you at all.” She wore my old sweater. It came halfway down her thighs. “You still have my favorite scarf,” she said.

“I mailed it to you yesterday.” The snow melted into teardrops on her hair.

She talked about her dissertation, her famous suicidal writers. “Hunger for life,” she said,
“and fear.” She rested her fingers on my ironing board. “Is the laundromat like a safe haven? Or does it bring bad memories?”

“I wash my clothes here.”

“I keep wearing your sweater,” she said. “I know I should give it back.”

“Keep it.”

She looked unhappy, she who kept so much and hated what others gave her.

“You don’t need an excuse,” I said. “Come home with me.” She made a sound like surprise. Three hours later, she left for Christmas.

#

She wrote to me over the holidays, from her parents’ house in Pennsylvania. Her cards said she hoped I was “doing all right with things.” I saw my parents in Vermont, who wanted to hear about jobs they hoped I’d get. Piper wrote about winter and love. I read Jung during bowl games and ran on pavement ice. Keeping my balance hurt. I had to slow and shift my weight, straining the little muscles that kept me upright and moving. I trudged miles against the wind, flailing my elbows. It was at least a kind of movement.

#

She said freedom was saying what you liked, when you needed. Her voice ran through walls and air and living bodies, as loud or soft as she chose. She could laugh in libraries, tell a secret on the Red Line without strangers hearing, set two wineglasses humming her tune. The phone could only mimic her without warmth and vibrate like a drilled tooth.

“Was it a disaster?” she asked. “Did you flub the interview? I think you could do that much for love.”

I was in Austin, at a law office. It was drizzling there and warm, even in February.

“Come back,” she said. “It’s stupid how I miss you.”

I had an hour to kill before going to the airport, and one light bag. I walked and breathed the warm rain.

#

Three suits. Seven ties. Six white shirts, underwear, and twelve pairs of socks. A pair of black shoes. Running shoes and shorts. A raincoat and umbrella. A wristwatch.

A toothbrush, comb, and razor. Wallet and keys. Plates, pans, bowls, spoons, knives for cutting fish or spreading jelly, forks, pots for cooking soup or rice. A table, bed, and shower curtain. Pillows, sheets, at least one blanket. An ironing board. Lights.

So much. So much even to begin in a new city, and then a company cell phone I could not refuse. It made me nervous.

#

I sold my clock radio. I sold my one CD, the string quartets I’d listened to through law school, in its original case.

“How could you not lose the case?” she said. “You never took the disk out of the machine.”

“Why would I take out the disk? I only had one.”

“I know. But why keep the case?”

“So I could sell the disk when I was done.”

“You worry me when you do this. I can’t follow you to Texas.”

“Of course not.”

She asked me what I meant, and I had to say the same thing again.

#

Siddhartha Gautama sat below a tree and reached enlightenment, releasing his attachments to the illusory world. This constituted schizophrenic withdrawal with autistic overtones. Lacking proper therapy and drugs, he freed himself from sickness, want, and death. He became unable to function in normal society. He gained profound fulfillment. He lost his capacity for emotional connection. He was humble, benevolent, delusional.

Patients in therapy, talking about their problems, become the Buddha. When they speak truth out loud they are enlightened, and their illusory problems are banished. Therapy shifts attention to more complicated problems which are even less real. Patient and therapist unravel webs of illusion. They weave it into new patterns. They fulfill themselves. They analyze themselves. The self is a hallucination.

Did Buddha require psychiatric diagnosis? The only sound answer can be mu, which means not yes and not no.

The answer “mu” is an obstacle to enlightenment.

#

I gave my spare clothes to Goodwill. I enrolled in summer courses with a Cambridge crammer, to prepare for the New York and Texas state bars. New leaves started their lives in the trees, and I no longer owned any sweaters.

#

A postcard of Gauguin’s Tahitian women: You can’t outrun your issues.

She was wrong. Every day I could run past the first aching stiffness in my muscles to a place where my steps were smooth. I could run past worries about speed or form, which then took care of themselves. I could run past anxiety and schedules and law review, past Piper’s psychological dissections and the desire to feel her skin. I could run past fear of commitment or hunger for it, past wanting to make partner, run past boredom, ambition, and greed. I could run beyond thinking to a place where I wanted and decided nothing, where I had no desire to run faster or slower, continue or stop, where I no longer had to want even the running. Then there was only my breath, and my pulsing heart, and my feet falling one after the other along the road, and I was free of every desire but water: the simplest of wishes and, I hoped, the cleanest.

#

A postcard of Botticelli’s Venus: I’d outrun you if I could.

#

June came, and my parents with it, to see me get my degree and hug me on a small green patch of grass. I kissed the worn briefcase-leather of my father’s cheek. My mother asked Piper what she’d do when she finished her doctorate.

“Go to Africa,” Piper said, “to end world hunger with Lacanian literary analysis.”

“Goddamn,” my father said. “This one’s a pistol.” Later, in the restaurant where they took us to celebrate, he told her stories about factory work in Michigan and going through law school on pennies and cigarettes. He told stories about me, trying to embarrass me with his pride, and Piper told one to him. My mother made her tell it twice.

Later, in the darkness, she asked how I could act so close with my father, after what he’d done. “It’s like your father never drank or threatened you.”

“I argued with him about that for five years.” Her bedroom window was open to the warm breeze and the night traffic’s sounds. “Don’t you believe? With all that theory you read, isn’t anything ever worked through?”

“Not if you pretend you’re over it.”

#

I gave away my running clothes. I wouldn’t need the sweatpants or fleece. I gave away my wrist weights and reflector vest, the track suit and the cap I’d used to keep off the rain. When it rained, I ran in the rain and I liked it.

A July storm made the surface of the river dance and took boughs from trees a century old. My shirt’s gray cotton soaked black and clung to my skin, flapping at each step. I was so wet that I could not get wetter and didn’t need to worry. When I reached my apartment again she was waiting inside, uninvited. She had not turned on the lights. The guilt in her face slid evasively toward anger.

“How can you leave your door unlocked?” she asked. “Someone could take everything.”

“I’ve thought of that.”

“I was sitting here wondering if things were missing. Where’s your clock?”

“I sold it.”

“What could you sell it for? Two dollars?”

“Good guess.” I went to the refrigerator, took the water bottle, and drank. The water was cold and good. I took off my wet shirt. She was wearing layers of clothes, a long skirt and blouse and the gray sweater and a raincoat, carrying an umbrella. The moisture in the air made her hair fuller and wilder.

“I’m worried for you. You didn’t have to sell the clock.”

“I didn’t need the money, if that’s what you mean.” My hair was slicked down onto my forehead and water kept dripping off my skin and I drank.

“Didn’t you even wear your track suit?”

“I gave it to Goodwill.”

She came close to me and squeezed my hand, so I squeezed hers. She smoothed the wet hair from my forehead, and her voice got soft so I’d have to listen harder. “You know this is what the suicidal do. Giving things away before killing, trying to kill themselves.” Her eyes were wide, and the dimness made her pupils large.

I kissed her cheek. “I want to be alive.” I put my raincoat on with no shirt and walked her to Inman Square. Then I came home and stood under the hot stream of my shower, trading sweat and rain for the soapy artificial flood. She phoned three hours later.

#

I rented a Honda, large enough for everything I hoped to own, for a month. Piper laughed and said it was almost as buttoned-down as me.

We tangled together in the back seat, parked in Concord near a wooded pond, and she sought every fading mark she’d put on my body, returning each bite and bruise to its first color, fitting her nails into their familiar grooves. Then we stood in the water with our bare feet, listening to the moving leaves and the cricket song. The half-moon laid a carpet of light from the shore to the deep center of the pond, and while we stood there she talked about her beloved suicides, Sexton and Woolf and Plath, Berryman and brutal Ernest. She squeezed my wrist and said, “Promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”

“I don’t have to promise.”

“You’re so inexpressive, and never talk about having to leave. It’s scary.” She was stirring the water with one ankle, and her hair had fallen so it hid her face.

“Why are we talking about suicide again?”

“Because of you.” Her voice was small, firm, profoundly angry. “And your tendencies.”

“No,” I said. “Not mine.” She walked away from me. I thought how close we were, how if we had kept talking we might have reached the moment when you know how a relationship is wrong and see yourself reflected in that choice of wrongness. We might have shared a piece of truth. Instead, we searched the bushes for our shoes.

#

I gave away my books on Zen. I left the book about practice on the giveaway shelf in the Porter Square subway. I gave away the collection of stories and koans on the street. It had long ago worn free from its cover, and three fat bits of yellowing tape held the pages together. I read the first page and turned it over to read the other side. Then I gave the page to a stranger walking by. Then I did it with the next page. “Hello,” I’d say, “would you like a page from a book?” If I asked pleasantly and was patient, someone would, and then I could read the next page. I gave the book away in Harvard and Central and Kendall Squares, in the stations of the Red Line, on Park Street and Boston Common, by the Swan Boats in the Public Gardens and along Newbury Street by the expensive shops. It took me a morning and an afternoon. Police approached me twice, but I spoke politely and moved along and they found there was no law against giving a book away on public sidewalks. I had learned long before that if you dressed and spoke in certain ways, you could be free. No one would suspect you lived in a Volkswagen. You could interview at law firms with bite marks under your clothes, sleep with professors’ wives, write anarchist propaganda under other names. You didn’t have to believe in America or Jesus, or the things people paid you to do. Everything was permitted if you cut your hair and pretended money was real.

I had three pages left when I reached Kenmore Square and gave the last away on the bridge over the Turnpike. Only the empty cover remained, and the postcards I’d kept between the pages. Piper was waiting with two friends at the ballpark. “I told you he’d be on time,” she said.

Her friends asked if I was nervous about my bar exam the next day.

“I’m thirsty,”” I said, which was true. Later, I was hungry, and we ate. Piper put her arm through mine, “At least,” she told her friends, “his feet are on the ground.”

#

It rained, hard steady rain slapping the pavement, and lightning flashed as if summer had not ended. She did not answer her phone. I went to my apartment and ate the last food I had, some rye bread and two apples. I finished the water in the refrigerator. All that was left in the apartment was the ironing board and an empty paperback cover with Piper’s cards inside. I read them a last time. Then I saw the two stamps I had tucked into my windowpane and realized I might have left them there, where I could never take them down.

I went out with the two stamps and the postcards I could not throw away. I bought more stamps and mailed the cards to people I did not know. I mailed her confession of longing to the American Civil Liberties Union. I mailed her meditations on doubt to Boeing. I mailed her words about ambivalence to a rich man in Chicago who had funded my college scholarship. I mailed a blunt declaration of lust to the Chair of the Federal Reserve. When the cards were gone, I stamped the two halves of the paperback cover like postcards and addressed them to a Zen center in New Mexico, leaving the message blank. I walked to the bookstore on Massachusetts Avenue where I had sold my books and stood looking at the things I had once owned.

I came home and found a postcard in a Ziploc bag on my windshield. It said, Dying is sad.

Her apartment door was unlocked, with no police outside. I let myself in, as she had done at my place, and wondered if I were becoming her. A string quartet played, like a dishonest soundtrack from an art film, and angered me.

She was on her bed with no shoes, crying. Books and letters covered the floor. Nowhere to step without treading words.

“You didn’t.”

“No,” she said. “I’m a lie. I can only pretend.”

I sat on her bed, touched her stockinged foot. My raincoat soaked her sheets. “Why?”

“Because we are what we’re afraid of. I faked and rationalized, but I knew what I was. I became it anyway.”

“But you’re not. You didn’t.”

“No. I had to pretend, so you’d come. All I do is pretend.”

I took her hand. I was crying too, with the salt taste running into my mouth.

“You’d leave without saying anything,” she said. “You aren’t there to be loved, and I’m not either. We’re pretending to be real.”

“It hurts to be without you,” I said, “and I’m frightened. Afraid I’ll never be whole if I leave.” I heard myself say it and knew it was true. The words sounded familiar the first time I heard them.

She pressed her face against my coat. “Are you tired?” I asked. The string quartet on the stereo had ended.

“No,” she said, and sniffled a laugh, embarrassed. “Thirsty.”

“I’ll make some tea.” I let her go and stood up.

“Really?”

“Yes. I’ll be right back.”

“Take off your shoes. We never wear shoes in the house.”

“Of course.” I left them by her bed.

“And your coat. You can’t walk around dripping.”

“That’s right.” I folded the raincoat neatly and set it on her reading chair, across one of her open journals. Its pages darkened, warped. I kissed her forehead and smiled.

I boiled water, found her favorite mug, and left a tea bag in it. What else to do? I knew my illusions now, my fears. I washed my face, walked down her stairs, and went out the door. The rain soaked my shirt. I left my ruined socks on the sidewalk. I took the ironing board out of my trunk and leaned it on her second step. I got into the car, turned the key, and pressed my bare foot to the gas pedal. It took two nights and a day to reach Austin, and on that first night I stopped only once, outside Concord, where I stood on the roadside in the rain. I kept my face toward the night clouds and thought about nothing but the slippery beauty of water, which could take its shape, for a fraction of a second, in my hands.

By Jim Marino

Jim Marino’s other stories can be found in the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Santa Monica Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. He lives and works in Cleveland.