CONJUNCTIONS:68, Inside Out (Spring 2017)
Once, there were two lovers, separated by a wall that divided their city, a wall they had helped to build, recruited by the warring city fathers, who declared that only a wall would ensure their freedom. It was across the wall, trowels in their hands, that they first saw each other, lovestruck as soon as seeing. Such amorous gazes between separated wall builders were not rare, but soon were outlawed, stolen glances being treated like common theft and punished with solitary confinement or, when those found guilty were deemed incorrigible, blinding. Looking away became a way of looking, a trowel’s clicks a code, the placing of a brick a form of erotic suggestion. Every day there were reports of frustrated lovers being shot while attempting to cross over, whether by burrowing under the wall or by clambering over it. Most of the wall was impenetrably thick, and there were stretches of two separate walls with a no-man’s space between, but in a few places it thinned to the depth of a single brick. The lovers sought out these places by knocking on the wall with their wooden bricklaying mallets, their ears pressed to it, and when they found a thin place, they whispered into it, expressing their desires and their frustrations. These whispers stirred a hot wind that authorities said eroded the wall, so that too was soon forbidden and severely punished. Posters appeared that reminded them that freedom was not a given, but was a privilege that required discipline and sacrifice, but such admonitions only further distanced them from the city fathers and confirmed their desires. Once, in a dark crannied crack in the wall, created perhaps by someone attempting to break through, the two lovers were able to touch, which only intensified the fever of their desire. It was dangerous, they could die at any moment, they didn’t care; what they could not have, they could imagine, and for a precious moment, in urgent whispers, they spoke to each other of their imaginings. Curfew interrupted them, the terrible sirens. When they returned, the crack had been filled with cement, the wall thickened, and afterward the two lovers had only their memories of what had been until then the most beautiful moment in their lives, memories that brought tears to their eyes.
Slowly, as frustrations mounted, resistance emerged. Trowels were dropped. Graffiti appeared. People were seen carrying emblematic slivers of bricks chipped from the wall and wearing inflammatory “Knock It Down!” pins. Many of these early protesters were martyred, but the numbers steadily grew, each new protester emboldened by the sacrifices of others. Demonstrations sprang up on both sides, demanding the wall’s demolition, and the two lovers joined them. There was no time now for stolen glances, passionate whispers into the wall; the fall of the wall became their life’s project, their existence all but defined by it. Their hearts told them the wall must come down, and so did their reason, but it was not easy. Many were imprisoned, lives were lost, but yet the resistance spread, up and down the length of the wall, until at last it was broken through. Shots were fired, many of the bravest fell, but the power of the authorities was waning. They could no longer repair the wall as fast as it was being dismantled, and suddenly one night those in power simply vanished, the wall crumbling as if made of sand.
An explosion of happiness! The end of tyranny! Parties broke out across the city. Fireworks, free beer, dancing in the streets! The two lovers ran, stumbling over the rubble, through the crowds of ecstatic strangers into each other’s arms, and over the hours and days that followed, celebrated their love in as many ways as possible, and over and over, almost unable to believe what was happening. How could they have surrendered so abjectly to such a bitter fate engineered by others? they asked themselves. The past now seemed as unimaginable as this present had seemed so recently.
What was left of the wall, an insult to humanity itself, was destroyed. Some kept small fragments as souvenirs, but most wanted nothing more to do with such a cruel obscenity. Streets were laid, linking the divided city, and lined by beautiful new buildings, none made of brick. The no-man’s-land became a public park with children’s playgrounds, and trees were planted, memorializing the fallen. The day the wall fell was declared an official holiday, celebrated with parades and circuses. The “Knock It Down!” pins became collectors’ items. The nightmare passed into history, read about in school by the new generation, for whom it was something that happened a long time ago. An excuse for an annual party and a day out of school or off work.
Then, as time passed, the two lovers, along with many others who had lived through the construction and fall of the wall, found that they missed it. They studied old maps, took walks along its buried contours. Sections of the wall were said to exist still; they searched for them, getting lost from one another as they did. They accepted that, discovering that the wall had been a barrier to their desires, and a stimulus to them, but freedom had deprived them of their intensity, provided other options. It was a time of separations, divorces, reconciliations, new loves to be found and lost again. He took a position in a distant neighborhood, she raised the children with a new husband, then later by herself.
And meanwhile, slowly, though none knew how, the myth of the “city fathers” having crumbled with the wall, the wall itself, as if seeded by the chips of bricks that had been left behind, did indeed return, or seemed to, seen by some, if not by all. A kind of personal choice as with all perceptions of reality, though it did not feel like choice. Perhaps its reappearance, to those who witnessed and acknowledged it, was provoked by that longing for a significant life the estranged lovers felt, for there they were, gazing at each other across the wall, real or imaginary. They nodded curtly to each other, looked away. They could have stepped over this young wall, but did not, for their separation had seemed permanent and desirable.
But the rising wall drew them back again and again and, over time, feeling that they had something to share, even if only their disappointment, they allowed a cautious friendship to grow between them. They did not try to breach the wall or recover what they had lost, but conversed quietly over it, recalling dispassionately the tyranny of the old wall, their impassioned resistance to it. Though monstrous, the old wall gave so much meaning to our lives, one said, and the other: Well, meaning, that old delusion. Which, when sought, is just another form of nostalgia. Sort of like love, you mean. No, love, whatever it is, is real in its stupefying way. But it’s not enough. No, and there’s not much else. That’s very sad. It is. Sometimes I cry. We had some good parties, though, which wouldn’t have happened without a wall in the way. There’s probably a moral, but I don’t want to know it. Do you still believe in the city fathers? Sure, they shot people. Well, somebody did. Do you remember those people who were blinded for gazing at one another? Yes, it was horrible. I saw one of them the other day. He’s a prophet now, or claims to be. Wouldn’t you know, another blind seer. What is he prophesying, the end of the world like everyone else? No, its damnable continuance. He’s a pessimist.
That made them smile, but they didn’t know why. Or did know, but wished not to acknowledge it, even to themselves. Because: if bitterness overtakes you, what choice remains? They talked about their children and their children’s children, the passing of the elders, what, if anything, they still believed in (well, the good, the true, the beautiful, they joked), and whether the return of the wall signaled the return of tyranny. The tyranny of time maybe, one of them said. Sounds like a popular song title, said the other: “The Tyranny of Time.” Everything’s a song title when meaning’s just another tune to play. Like “Knock It Down,” that violent sex song the children are dancing to. I have to confess I still have my old “Knock It Down” pin, but I never wear it, not even on the national holiday. The children, in their terrible innocence, just point at me and laugh. I know, my old mallet and trowel are still hidden away somewhere like secret sex toys. It’s a strange feeling when the story moves on without you. Yes, at the time, I thought it was about us, but it was only about itself.
Later, they would wonder why they had remained on opposite sides of the wall, as if their conversation depended on it, as perhaps it did, the wall shielding them from anything more disquieting than banter, while serving at the same time as a kind of playing surface for it. That surface rose until their wistful sallies were more like lobs. They could no longer see each other, nor were they hearing each other as clearly as before, their voices lost in other voices behind the thickening wall. It might be our ears’ fault, one shouted. Our years? the other called back. No … well, maybe … The distance was too great. They turned away, aware that the loneliness they felt was in effect that freedom they’d been promised when citizen bricklayers still, and sadly they wished it so.
Robert Coover has published more than twenty books of fiction and plays, his most recent being A Child Again (McSweeney’s), Noir (Overlook), The Brunist Day of Wrath (Dzanc), and Huck Out West (Norton).