You Can’t Walk the Sun with Your Fingers
A strikingly lovely young woman was sitting alone at a table in Christopher’s section. He approached and ventured, “Do you still visit your family’s painting at the Legion of Honor?” Glancing whimsically out the window she inquired, “Are you still thinking of faking your own death?” Christopher hesitated, looking down as she continued, “Maybe you could do what most people do—fake your own death by getting a career.” He looked at her directly. “That stuff about faking my death was just something I told you to get your attention.” Without responding, she reached into a large, loosely constructed purse, pulled out a tidal chart, and handed it to him. “How do you think they figure these things out?” she asked. “Does someone stand by the shore and draw lines in the sand and make entries in a notebook, or do you think it’s all math?” Then, as if coming to her senses, and before Christopher had any opportunity to answer: “Oh, I’ll have a cappuccino, three lumps of sugar on the side … What do you have that’s chocolate … Oh, never mind, I’ll have a panna cotta.” When Christopher returned, after placing the cappuccino on the table, having completely forgotten the panna cotta, and not looking at her at all, he said, handing back the opened tidal chart, “High tide’s at 7:10, would you like to go with me and watch the ocean turn?” “That’s an Atlantic chart,” she sniffed, “it’s from my trip to the Cape.” Wrong-footed and embarrassed, Christopher tried to recover, but she was already on to something else; fishing in her purse, she asked distractedly, “Can you explain exactly how the exception proves the rule?” and—before he could respond—“Where’s my panna cotta?” Christopher, flustered, turned on his heels and headed for the kitchen. Meanwhile, several of his other tables were beginning to feel ignored and a woman practically grabbed him by the sleeve as he rushed by: “May we please order?” He heard this request as if through a delay mechanism and paid no attention to it. By the time he returned with the panna cotta, the young woman had a sketchpad out and was drawing a portrait, in pencil, of the angry customer. “I think you’ve landed on her wrong side,” she said mischievously as she dashed several violent strokes on the pad and, not looking up: “Well, no matter, the world is full of people like her.” Christopher stood unhurriedly, looking at her. “The world is not full of people like you,” he said slowly, “beauty like yours is the exception, and it proves the mundane rule of everything else.” She looked up, shaking her blonde hair slightly, and for a moment became very calm. His eyes rested uninterruptedly on her face, on her eyes, blue gray like the centers of waves, and, after a long while, she said, “You can’t look at me that way without my having to kiss you.”
With barely an explanation to the manager, Christopher abandoned his post. Walking from the restaurant, she slipped her arm through his. “I’m Abigail,” she said; then, pointedly: “Never, ever, even once, call me Abby.” “I’m Christopher Westall,” he said, “where would you like to go?” “I want to take you to a secret place,” she whispered. They walked to the lower Haight, up Fillmore Street, through an alley, and into a shabby apartment house. “My family owns this awful building,” she said, “and the manager lets me use this little room.” At the end of a glaringly lit hallway, next to a shared toilet and sink behind a half-opened frosted-glass door: another, crudely padlocked door. Pulling a key from her purse, Abigail popped the lock, pushed open the door, which scraped the slightly bowed floor, flicked on the light, and led him in. From nowhere, she said, “My father faked his own death.” “He did?” “Yes, vanished without a trace—walked off in his pajamas one morning and was never heard from again.” “You mean Jonathan Ruskin? You’re Jonathan Ruskin’s daughter?” “Yes, I suppose you’ve heard the story, everyone has.” She scraped the door closed behind her and threw the inside bolt. The room was more like a very large closet than a bedroom. A narrow window overlooked a light well, and a blue silk lantern covered the single low-wattage bulb in the ceiling. A large, ratty daybed, taking up most of the room, was pushed against the wall under the window. It looked like it had come from the Salvation Army. Along the walls were several low shelves that could have been discarded from closed kindergartens. Even before his eyes adjusted fully to the dimness, Christopher was clearly taken aback by the location, size, and condition of Abigail’s secret place. Observing this, she blurted, “I don’t live here.” She sat on the edge of the daybed and explained that she could barely stand to be in the family house in Pacific Heights. “My mother drove my father away, had him declared dead, and expunged him piece by piece from the house. Even our favorite picture, Rainy Season, was sent away. Never, ever ask to meet her, and never call or come by, because she’ll get wind of it, and I simply couldn’t bear it. She’s strangling my trusts in her clenched little fists—I’m a beggar in my own house—she won’t even buy me a car or decent clothes, she made me go to that disgusting public Lowell!” Christopher imagined she might have been pleased with Lowell if she’d seen Washington, but she was clearly indignant, so he didn’t say so. He looked at her sympathetically and, as there was hardly room to stand, sat on the daybed beside her. “I smuggled my father’s favorite things,” she continued, “in my purse, one by one, to this room, and none were really valuable, so none were ever missed.” “Where do you think your father went?” Christopher asked softly. Abigail pulled a scrapbook from under the bed, laid it on her lap, and leafed quickly through it—article after article about the disappearance. “I borrowed money, from a cousin, to hire private detectives, one after another, to no avail. Tell me, Christopher Westall, do you think a question that will never have an answer is still actually a question?” Christopher looked at her piercingly. “Yes, I do,” he said. She put the scrapbook down and he looked anew at the contents of the cluttered shelves. Many of the things were unremarkable, but mixed among them, many fine things shone, many very fine things, things very valuable and rare. “I smuggled them out,” she repeated, “just the things I could carry, his favorite things, gradually, one at a time.” Christopher blinked. Never had he seen such a strange profusion of objects—trashy bric-a-brac; folded teak plate stands; a sterling colonial inkwell; antique fountain pens; fine porcelain jars; gold boxes; an inexpensive watch; small, perfect bronzes; jewel-encrusted frames holding miniature portraits; and, lying on their sides, a few Moroccan bound books with gilt pages and titles in French.
Christopher tentatively waded a little deeper. “Can’t you just talk to your mother?” Abigail responded sharply, “I suppose you haven’t noticed that narcissism is a safe that can only be cracked from inside.” Christopher tried to suppress a smile. “Oh, and I suppose you could talk to your mother.” “Not exactly,” he said. Then, leaning forward, he playfully placed an ear near her heart while mimicking, in the air, the turning of a safe’s combination dial. “You just stop it,” she said, starting to laugh and kicking off her shoes. There was little heat in the room, and he drew her close. She guided his hand to her breast and kissed him on the mouth. She pulled him onto her, unbuttoning his shirt, then pulling off her blouse. Soon, they had stripped completely.
Of her naked body this: that he had never seen anything so beautiful.
Roof of Ash
He was almost desperate with desire for her. But then that feeling came as she touched him—like numbness from holding ice. He could feel all the airways closing in the crowded room. He felt the numbness climbing up inside of him, and though he continued to touch her breasts and stroke the warm inner curves of her thighs, it was all becoming wooden and made up, and he couldn’t feel any of it anymore, only the trying to make it seem like real touching and real feeling and real responses. Now she was only a distant, formal enactment of something he could not reach, and the more she reached for him and wanted him, the deeper the buffering became, and now he was falling through countless shatterings, through myriad glistening shards fanning him, and his penis was not a part of him—his hands were not parts of him—his thoughts were not his thoughts. He was all cut off. Now she was growing cold, closing down, asking what was wrong, with tears in her eyes. He rose to his feet that felt like they were wrapped in woolen layers, reached for his clothes, said some things that didn’t make sentences, and fled. It was cold and windy and he was naked and trying to put his clothes on as he hurried down the alley and his life was falling in like a roof of ash.
Just under the present how everything was gone—something gone like that—on the underside of the fabric called light, how light rested in the hollow of its clearing, in the hollow it made, in the clearing, against an unfindable edge that could never rest, upheld in motion, as the past upholds the present as it flees.
A perfect hiding: hiding where the hidden assumes the shape of the hiding place, like mercury folded in the curves of a silver pitcher, like the meaning of a word, hiding in the letters of an unknown language, like one side of a piece of fabric hidden just underneath, that can never touch its own other side, except if bent—if he could only find a corner, lift it, and fold it over into light.
And he knew that the opposite thing was a hand-in-hand thing with light, the way the indentations in the page were a hand-in-hand thing with words. He knew that light hid its opposite just underneath, on the opposite side, the way the pen, pressed downward in a moment of automatic movement, transmitted a double world.
And he knew that he would never see the opposite thing for all the light, that even pitch black hid it perfectly.
You Can’t Walk the Sun with Your Fingers
The next afternoon, Abigail came to the restaurant and said that she wished he’d stayed with her—that they didn’t have to hurry anything—that she already missed him.
Christopher could never seem to locate Abigail. She always seemed to be somewhat somewhere else. Like trying to find the source of a voice in a large unfamiliar house—now closer—now closer—now suddenly farther away. And there was something in her bearing, an immateriality, a breathless, assumptive restlessness that put her, at least for Christopher, beyond reproach or question.
“I don’t suppose you play bridge,” she inquired haughtily. “In fact, I do.” “Well, my bridge friends and I play practically at the tournament level, of course we can’t be bothered to compete, but we’ll have to get together and try you out.” Christopher agreed, but this, like so many other promised gatherings, never materialized. In fact, Christopher never met any of Abigail’s seemingly countless friends.
They met, irregularly, at the secret room and at his apartment in the Haight. She had the feet of a ballerina and the temperament of a harpsichord, and she possessed a certain willingness to be cold.
She left a pad and pencil by the bed. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she’d sit up, turn on the bedside light, and start to draw. One time she said that when she couldn’t be awakened by the muse, the muse donned a little scuba suit and dove into her dreams. Often, she slept fitfully.
She said that she had to go sailing with friends. She said that her mother never left the house and managed to be indifferent and interfering both at once. She said that she would be at her grandparents’ house in Tiburon all weekend. She apologized that she couldn’t bring a waiter to their home. She said she was going to a private opening, a party at the Clay Jones, the opera as an obligation to her aunt. He felt like he was barely able to cling to the edge of her life, as if her life was a spinning disk and the centrifugal force was pushing him constantly out of her attention.
The Door You Have Opened
The door you have opened is not actually part of the room you will enter.
She said, “Whatever you have sexually, it will be enough.” But it was not enough.
He knew that there were no corners that you could see because seeing requires light, and he wondered—if he could walk his fingers along a seam to an edge and in an instant roll them underneath, could his fingers touch it?
One morning, Christopher heard furious honking outside of his apartment window—Abigail, seated in a gorgeous eggshell convertible Mercedes with red leather seats, was gesturing wildly for him to come down. “My aunt’s in Europe and her driver slipped me the keys. I don’t really have a license, but you don’t mind, do you?” Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, at high speed, her eyes fixed on the road, Abigail asked, a little loudly above the hum, “Do you think that neurosis is when you lie to yourself so much that other people start to notice?” Christopher, who’d been looking through the blurred bridge railing down to the boats on the bay, turned and responded, “I think it’s when your past is like a floor set on water and it won’t right itself, so you’re shifting your weight and contorting yourself in ways that only make sense to you because no one else can see how you’re trying to balance yourself, how you’re trying just to stand.” On the other side of the Rainbow Tunnel, having slowed a bit, she continued, “Like when your father walks out of the house one morning and never comes back, a past like that?” “Yes, like that, and you’re trying to balance your life against that loss, or like when your father is in your house somewhere but you can’t ever seem to find him.” Abigail did not turn her eyes from the road. Neither said anything more.