CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
By the time I began watching, Star Trek was already in syndicated reruns, which WPIX in New York broadcast every evening at six. Whenever I think of it I first picture the small dark bedroom, a bedroom of mismatched furniture and red and black hound’s-tooth carpeting, my own bedroom that I had for about ten years and where I habitually watched the show.
It was the repetitiousness of syndication that allowed the show’s influence to snowball, the iteration of those seventy-nine episodes, the cycling and recycling through the show’s three full seasons over the course of a year. This was during that strange, febrile period between Star Trek’s ignoble cancellation and the first, dismal, feature film; when the show had just hit its stride as a cultural phenomenon and the matter of its interpretation and significance briefly resided in the public domain.
It seems to me now that what the show offers is the enjoyable opportunity to temporarily accept a pleasantly false syllogism which goes something like: the Star Trek characters are complex, deeply conflicted people who heroically prevail; I am a complex, deeply conflicted person: therefore, I will heroically prevail. At the time, what I derived from the show was valuable guidance in my difficult, intense, and unending search for an identity and meaning, which seems reasonable enough given my age then. Still, this mortal identification with the fabricated idiosyncrasies of TV characters is linked directly to the exigencies of prime time network television ca. 1966—the need to sell ad time motivating the near-total substitution of the heroic virtue for the tragic flaw—and I think it is funny, strange, a little sad, and ineffably attributable to the guileless ignorance of children, particularly hormone-drunk boys.
I can say this because my identity finally arrived; it speaks now: this is the memory of obsession, not the thing itself.
Or so I believe.
I didn’t think any of this at the time, of course, as the country Fordishly whipped inflation and I chugged toward a disastrous encounter with adolescence, which still lay at all the distance of rumor. Each afternoon I’d take up position on my bed to read Marvel comics, masturbate, and, at six pm, watch Star Trek. Star Trek’s airtime often conflicted with my mother’s dinner schedule, neither would wait, and my miniature assertion of myself—the designation of this long-cancelled relic as “my show”—was the opening shot in a gradually expanding war my mother and I waged for the next several years.
In school, at the lunch table, amid the flying food, we adopted an academic approach to Star Trek. Directly admitting the extent of our emotional involvement with the show would have constituted a definite gaffe, and so we appreciated it quietly, trading memorized lines of dialogue (real esoterica, none of that “He’s dead, Jim” stuff) and noting inconsistencies of a technical nature, failures of tone, etc., that became apparent from episode to episode.
Years later I discovered abundant examples of adult literature that demonstrated to me that grown men could devise a sophisticated language to justify the continuation of what essentially was a boy’s game.
Which is not to say that I didn’t play less subtle Star Trek games—by myself, of course. I broke three pairs of eyeglasses in the practice of palming them and whipping one of the earpieces up like the cover/antenna of a Star Trek communicator. Let me clarify: I was a boy who spoke into his eyeglasses.
And what does this have to do with anything?, you may well ask.
Many fans of the original Star Trek believe that the episode “City on the Edge of Forever” (written by Harlan Ellison, directed by Joseph Pevney, guest starring Joan Collins) is its finest. In it, Captain Kirk grapples with the sort of classical conflict which often preoccupied the show’s writers: save the woman he loves …; or save the universe? Ellison made a tremendous fuss over the changes that were made to the original script he’d tendered, but I read his version once, feverishly, standing up in a bookstore someplace, and I think the story editors made a good call in fixing it up. I read it in the 8th Street Brentano’s, maybe; or the Marlborough Bookstore, also on 8th Street; or the Barnes & Noble Annex on Fifth Avenue, or maybe the old Science Fiction Bookshop on Eighth Avenue. Just to think of these places makes me brim with helpless nostalgia.
What’s happened is that Dr. McCoy has accidently injected himself with Cordrazine, a kind of 23rd Century crank, and in his temporarily insane state he leaps through a time portal standing amid a set that looks like a miniature golf course with a Roman Forum theme. He travels back into history and really fucks things around: the Enterprise is gone, Star Fleet is gone, the whole United Federation of Planets is gone, or so says the Guardian of Forever (as the time portal identifies itself): they’re all just shit out of luck, and someone will have to jump in after him and straighten things out.
So Kirk and Spock travel to a past that is “blighted and ugly” compared to their existence. It is “blighted and ugly” compared to our own, “blighted and ugly” compared to the existence in which its interpretation was contrived. It’s Depression America, a cityscape of deprivation created on Desilu’s backlot, and its whole point is blight and ugliness; to compare it with the actual is inappropriate. Television delivers the message with its usual brutal efficiency, though the way this soundstage skid row actually looks is quaint and nostalgic. But it is blighted and ugly—because “my show” says so.
Around the time I was first watching this episode, flat on my belly and about twenty inches from the screen that dominated my room, New York was rather spectacularly going broke. A certain laissez-faire sensibility dominated the city. As the dots on my television were reassembling into Kirk and Spock’s diorama of hardship, with cute bums stealing quaint milk bottles off back steps in tidy little alleys, the South Bronx was being burned to the ground so that landlords could avoid paying property taxes local government was suddenly desperate to collect. The city became simultaneously threatening and strange and new and exhilarating. Possibility ran rampant.
At twelve, I was unmoved by the majority critical opinion in favor of “City on the Edge of Forever”: my own juvenile preference was for an episode entitled “Arena,” which has an overmatched Kirk fighting a hideous alien opponent, the Gorn, down on the desert surface of an asteroid. The one-on-one fight has been arranged by alien interlopers, the vastly superior Metrons, who are peeved over the border skirmish between the Gorns and the Enterprise that’s spilled over into their space. The unimaginable technological and moral supremacy of the Metrons is summed up by their simple, unadorned, androgynous appearance (the equation of unbeatable power with an innocent, classical, pastoral, or simply harmless mien is a trope common to Star Trek, one expression, perhaps, of the deep Vietnam-era anxieties the show revealed in many ways). At the end, Kirk relies on his wits and manages to disable the Gorn, but it is his easy moral superiority (“I won’t kill him! You hear me?”) that shows the Metrons who’s the really advanced being. The show’s argument, I suspect, was that the ambiguity and complexity of life as a major military power justified certain difficult decisions (the extraterrestrial villages of Star Trek were forever being destroyed in order to save them) and that the granting of reasoned exceptions to these decisions (“I won’t kill him!”) was the true measure of superiority, a line of reasoning the rarefied, aloof Metrons could never understand.
Also in this episode, Kirk’s plight is piped into the Enterprise’s main viewscreen in a closed-circuit broadcast. His crew watches—helpless, rapt—as Kirk saves them all. The show’s writers apparently developed a real fondness for this convention, since they wrote it into several subsequent shows. I spent many hours fantasizing about saving the world while all the pretty girls in my school watched on a large-screen TV. At that age the idea of my saving the world one day had not yet become completely ridiculous. The idea of “all the pretty girls” (this was the true extent of the world I was interested in saving) becoming enveloped by danger seemed more than possible, especially in the hazardous city we then inhabited, and my own role as their unexpected savior—who would have guessed?—became a sweet one in my fantasies.
So Kirk and Spock steal some clothes (“Steal from the rich, and give back to the poor—later,” explains Kirk. And will he ever), which fit perfectly, and are discovered by one Edith Keeler (Collins) as they change into these ill-gotten disguises in the basement of her soup kitchen. Kirk steps forward and admits to the theft and you can tell Edith is thinking Finally in the Midst of All These Damned Drunks is a Man Who Can Accept Responsibility. It’s About Time. Though from the soft way they photograph her you can also tell that she hasn’t yet given up on men, she just hasn’t thought of them in “that way” for a very long time.
The fondness of WPIX-TV’s programmers for Star Trek (I think at one point the show was telecast twice daily) allowed me to become familiar with the series’ recurring themes and formulas, and I soon discovered that the appearance of Kirk and Spock in mufti had apparently been so successful that the theme was revisited repeatedly: Kirk and Spock disguised as modern Roman slaves. Kirk and Spock as Nazis. As 20th Century New York City pedestrians. As Organian peasants. As primitive hill people of Neural and primitive townsmen of Beta III. As natty Roaring `20s gangsters. But none had quite the impact of Kirk and Spock’s appearance as Depression-era vagrants.
A pair of hoboes: what better expression of the show, the wanderlust that was always landing Kirk and Spock in deep shit somewhere? You could see Shatner saying, living to say, “They threw me off the hay truck at noon,” a dinner-theater James M. Cain.
Better yet, Nimoy: “At approximately twelve PM PST I was ejected from my clandestine billet on the agricultural conveyance.” Though at times it seemed as if the entire thrust of the series was to deny that Spock was overly stiff and cold, this is the sort of stiffly unnatural locution the show favored when ostentatiously displaying Spock’s precise, exacting erudition.
In any case, up until about ten seconds (speaking in cosmic terms) before I myself was discovered donning my own disguise (that of a teenager) by my own Joan Collins, here’s what I was doing: blindly holding a pair of heavy black eyeglasses in the vicinity of my mouth and whispering “Kirk to Enterprise,” which was what I’d say in order to underscore the fact that I was playing, that the whole thing was really a joke (wasn’t it?) and that I wasn’t taking it seriously, wasn’t really speaking into my eyeglasses hoping to have my ass beamed out of there. “Kirk to Enterprise,” I’d say in the locker room before the organized humiliation of gym class, “Kirk to Enterprise,” I’d say in the forlorn corner of the lunchroom inhabited by the “weirdos,” “Kirk to Enterprise,” I’d say in the schoolyard, that open asphalt pen that is the essence of architectural nullity. “Kirk to Enterprise. Come in, Enterprise.”
This business meant something of course; the phrase was uttered by William Shatner so emblematically, so unmistakably, that an entire episode was built around it (“The Paradise Syndrome,” in which it’s up to an amnesiac Kirk to activate the SDI-style asteroid defense system that yet another group of officious, superior aliens has installed on yet another primitive planet simply by delivering the line in his characteristic tone and meter. I think of Gen. William Westmoreland, who around the same time informed the South Vietnamese, in an ill-advised attempt at articulating himself in their tonal language, that the US had come for their women.) William Shatner, whose jovial, good-natured cooperation has been the key in the campaign to transform him into the living emblem of bad acting that he has become—but who meant so much to me, in the world I inhabited where men, where adults in general, were strangely ineffectual, swept along by historical forces of the lesser variety (the Bronx, aflame). All those messy urges and impulses, he simply suppressed; stuffed them into that silly little uniform: and then he loses the uniform, and finds Joan Collins and love and an odious burden. No wonder the episode didn’t appeal to me: more than any of the other heavy-handed examinations of Kirk’s ambivalence toward his responsibilities (“The Naked Time,” “The Enemy Within,” “This Side of Paradise,” among many others), “City on the Edge of Forever” demonstrated that Kirk’s devotion to duty was neurotic and self-annihilating.
One day I was there—sneaking a silver-foil wrapped Yodel or Ring Ding from the box on top of the refrigerator, or staring vacantly into the bathroom mirror at the range of white-peaked pimples on my face while jerking off to the school librarian or the Black Widow or a starlet on The Night Stalker, or conducting a frame-by-frame analysis of the shower scene in Psycho, or unfavorably comparing Ross Andru’s Spider-Man to John Romita’s—and the next I was cutting class to smoke pot and drink Colt .45 in St. Nicholas Park. High school had begun; the world opened up and invited me inside. New clothes, new music, new substances: this was the weight that dropped heavily into my outstretched arms. I learned to be a reasonable facsimile of a “normal” human being simply because it had become important to me to do so: not the last time I’ve had to learn this lesson.
Star Trek joined the many other things that now seemed entirely irrelevant. Packed it away in the closet, with my Wacky Packages and Mad magazines, under a haystack of dingy, grey sweatsocks. Packed it away with all that stuff of the protruding lower lip, of the solitary afternoons spent in my room listening to distant yells from outside, the unmistakable sound of a wooden baseball bat dropping to the pavement; of the forlornness of Friday evenings as the long weekend stretched ahead.
When love came knocking, I was ready.
Occasionally, you look back over the wreckage of your own life (and be assured that when you have reason to take one of these looks it’s mostly wreckage you see) to attach a cause to the destruction. And in Gretchen I’ve often thought I’ve identified mine. Things, bad things, stem from the affair, or from its end, or from the failure to have ended it when the time was appropriate and instead having allowed it to drag itself out for another year or so. For certain it’s opportunistic to think so. She was merely the first in a series of notably bad decisions. Now I rarely think of her—though for a time, for a year and a half, to be precise, she occupied everything about me; my thoughts, my whole life
her hair all over me her smell in my clothes
and now, now it sometimes seems as if I didn’t spend a single day with her, not one, so complete is our estrangement. There are a lot of people who I have difficulty believing I spent any time with, but none who so impressed themselves on my life and then left it so suddenly, so abruptly.
“So suddenly, so abruptly” being an expression of the willful blindness I obviously indulge in still.
Well, not so suddenly, then. Say after a good solid six months of screaming arguments and growing mutual contempt that made itself clear in a variety of disagreeable ways. And for a long time afterwards, when the effects of the relationship were still visible, the scars still fresh, I “hated” her. Friends appreciated this sort of effort, and she went the way of the Wacky Packages.
But I’m too old now to deny that love is love, and an unreasonable thing. It was true for me, for us, in my eyes she was fine, I loved her, and to this day I recall clearly moments of tranquility, of total contentment, moments in the sun and in the cold, gifts I bought her, clothes she wore, the smell of powder on her, the way the light fell in her room, walks we took, comic sexual moments, sexual moments of great profundity, and to have denied these things their presence and power in my life was an impoverishing gesture.
Now, devoted Star Trek watchers—anybody familiar with the conventions of mid-sixties TV drama, for that matter—know that the Edith Keeler situation isn’t merely a pitstop on the road to the episode’s successful resolution. She is not one of the usual erotic kickshaws Captain Kirk lays claim to. For one thing, Kirk loves her. For another, she is the key: through Spock’s meddling diligence, Kirk discovers that Edith Keeler’s well-intentioned efforts will keep the United States isolated and unprepared for war just long enough to allow Hitler’s scientists to develop the atomic bomb and conquer the world. Prior to McCoy’s arrival and invention of the alternative future, Spock finds, she “had been” hit by a car and killed long before the war’s beginning, enabling Right to assert its Might in a timely manner. Apparently, in an act of decency unpresaged by his previously demented behavior, McCoy will prevent Edith from dying (unbeknownst to Kirk and Spock, Edith takes McCoy and his dementia in off the street and after administering coffee, bedrest, and TLC has him back to his old self in no time).
Spock is unimpressed with Kirk’s emotional disclosure, his confession of love: Edith Keeler must die.
Spock’s presence in this episode is one of icy probity. Rarely has he seemed so unappealing, his unemotional virtue so infuriating.
It is a coldness in Spock, for sure. It is a terrible flaw. Much has been made of the fascination the character held and continues to hold for a large segment of the audience, but astute viewers must have realized the extent of his imperfection right there, realized that the Vulcans avoided much more than devastation and destruction (of the sort that might have been visited upon the earth if not for the destruction of Edith Keeler) when they renounced emotion.
One afternoon, while Gretchen showered in the next room, I began going through her personal effects. Now there was a bad habit, the one I had of going through other people’s things. And there, between the pages of a notebook, was a letter to her cousin: relating her infidelity: the lancing words, formed by those familiar soft rounded letters, succeeded instantly, without even a line separating them, by a passage recounting the details of a weekend trip to Great Barrington, Massachusetts. That I’d taken with her. This discovery occurred in November of 1980. It was Election Day, as a matter of fact.
Gretchen’s mother liked to decorate the family’s home with things that had their origins in the natural world: seashells, dried flowers, and so on. This was the season of gourds and indian corn, and the stuff sat and decayed in heavy ceramic bowls on her parents’ dining table and sideboard, shrivelling and collapsing, the mottled skins and rows of kernels lustrous even as the vegetables dried and diminished from within. Decay, decay, decay: let’s make it plain: and how many times have I written this story, failed at writing it, while trying to insinuate a connection with Reagan’s election?
Let us dispense with propaganda, say simply that if Jimmy Carter had been re-elected by a landslide I would have been just as unhappy on that day.
I learned of this treachery even as my face was still caught in the blush of my first sins. Everything sweet release at that stage; our orgasms—mine, I should say; her letter confided that I was “no good in bed”—achieved without artifice, theatrics, or experimentation.
And what did I say to her, immediately after reading her unmailed letter? I can never remember. Angry, but helpless, tasting the bitter mulch spread atop the fresh, illimitable field of my first love. What could I have said?
Kirk says to Spock, the machine, “I believe that I’m in love with Edith Keeler.”
Spock tells him that she must die.
Now, who would lose his love to save a world? Who wouldn’t just let the world go ahead and perish if that loss were to precede the apocalypse?
To go back to my favorite, my morally unambiguous favorite, “Arena”: Kirk has merely to figure out the riddle of physics, geology, and chemistry proffered by the planet’s blank surface. He realizes that the Metrons have fixed it so that one can manufacture a firearm, of all things, from the raw materials to be found on the surface of the asteroid. Despite their avowed disdain for primitivity, the Metrons are not only provident but also avid students of warfare.
In the end Kirk badly wounds, but does not kill, his Gorn opponent. Having punctured the alien’s scaly armor, Kirk presses his enemy’s own crudely fashioned knife to one of the wounds, prepares to bear down on it, but then stops, opting instead to condemn the Metrons’ spectatorism (“I won’t kill him!”): and is granted a pardon by the Metrons. This is justice, Star Trek style: an accidental break for the Gorn becomes an opening for Kirk’s moral posturing. This is Kirk at his worst. This is also what made the pubsecent hormones stir in the quiet dens of my body like fox cubs dreaming of chickens. He kicked the guy’s ass; he can afford to be generous. Kirk’s decision is an easy one, because the situation demands that Kirk prevail: he’s on TV, everyone on the Enterprise bridge is biting their nails, for one thing.
He knows just what to say to the Metrons; he probably remembers it verbatim from Star Fleet Academy.
I was overwhelmingly convinced of my moral righteousness as I prepared to confront Gretchen. To consider the ambiguity of my position—the intrusive, unwelcome fact that if I’d respected her privacy I would never have found out about her sexual adventurism—would have called for precisely the sort of nuanced deliberativeness that I never bothered with at the time.
I suddenly remember the self-justification I provided her: that I had been left without “anything to do” while she showered, and she should have known better than to leave her notebook on display. Her own self-justification: the “act” of intercourse only took two minutes and “he didn’t even come.”
I don’t have much doubt that if I’d possessed the opportunity or inclination to consider the matter for a while—say overnight—I would have composed a properly Kirkian speech that would have captured the moral high ground, defended my own transgression, and carefully, self-preservingly, avoided any of the concealed neurotic undertones that gave my adolescence its subtle coloration (e.g., the sense of being overweight, the sense of being ugly, of being clumsy, of being uncool, of appearing to be stupid, of being unpopular, of having small genitals, of having a small record collection, of being unwealthy, of having embarrassing parents, among many others), each a little stone I tended to pass when stressed or uneasy or perplexed or frightened. I could have built a wall with all those stones, but instead I tried to embrace the world—and look what happened!, is what I want to say, the confirmation of my worst fears!
I can see Shatner strutting around, gesturing, as he delivers my unwritten speech.
Of course, had I been able to convincingly deliver such a speech, had it even been capable of occurring to me that such an utterance might be preferable to, more impressive in its sententious little way than, my eventual strangled outburst—“You’re never fucking going to talk to him again! You fucking hear me! Never! If he fucking calls hang up! If you fucking see him act like you don’t fucking know him! Never!” (That perfectly despotic impulse to purge, to bowdlerize. For which I hope to compensate, now.)—then I could not have succumbed to something as devastating and irrational as sexual jealousy to begin with.
Of course, paradoxically, had I not been needy and insecure in precisely that way which demands complete fidelity, I would not have become involved with a girl like Gretchen.
Whatever it was that I may have said as Gretchen walked damply into the bedroom, wearing nothing but a towel, we ended up taking the subway downtown together in silence, getting out at West 4th Street in silence, walking the length of Bleecker Street in silence until we came to where it, Eighth Avenue, and Hudson Street meet, and then entering Abingdon Square Park there.
Abingdon Square: the “bum park,” so-called, which sobriquet might startle a contemporary resident of Greenwich Village: compared with now, by any first-world standard, New York was blighted and ugly. The very concept of “the city” seemed on the edge of obsolescence then: this was before someone got the idea that its ambience of necessity and vitality could be converted into a luxury commodity. Filthy men crammed into children’s t-shirts, at the brink of insanity, pissing in the sandbox and vomiting in the bushes of this once-pleasant West Village oasis, just two blocks from where I was raised by my embarrassing, ever-present, unwealthy parents.
The bums concentrated themselves at the park’s southernmost end. Gretchen and I moved to its northern end and, in failing light, she sat on a bench, lit a cigarette, folded her hands in her lap, and allowed me to strike her three times.
When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy return from their grueling exercise in literal historical revisionism back in the cute little Depression-era New York cooked up in Burbank or wherever, the other members of the landing party are seemingly unimpressed: whatcha doin’ back here? … didn’t you guys just hop into that temporal vortex a second ago? … you forget something? … etc. Of course it seems like only moments beforehand: Kirk, prodded relentlessly by Spock, has completed his ugly business and then entered the 23rd century as if he were jumping into a swimming pool. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he says: an expletive rare on 1960s television.
In “Arena,” remember, the crew has been watching. Kirk’s heroics are not wasted on the Metrons alone. In “City on the Edge of Forever” the situation is reversed: when Kirk’s ordeal is over, the other members of the crew can have had no idea of it, being that their very existence was impossible during its occurrence. There is a strange, blood fellowship between the three who rejoin their crewmates amid the lonely ruins of the miniature golf course. The thousand-yard stares with which they greet the others are eerie to behold. There is no tableau in any episode of Star Trek quite like this one; that of the normal gaping uncomprehendingly at its price.
What happens immediately after Edith Keeler is creamed by a Model-T, after the now-lucid McCoy, overflowing once more with the milk of human kindness, is restrained in his effort to assist Edith by Kirk, who is doomed by duty and foreknowledge to sacrifice true love?
“I could have saved her, Jim. Do you realize what you’ve done?”
What happens between this time and the time that Kirk and Spock dress in their workaday Star Fleet uniforms, ditching the dungarees and flannel shirts they’ve worn to sweep the floors and pour the coffee at Edith Keeler’s now forlorn and orphaned mission? Do they go on a bender at one of the speakeasys Edith inveighed against? Kirk slumped over the bar, McCoy matching him drink for drink, as Spock sips carrot juice and intones periodically, “She had to die, Captain.”
I suspect that what Kirk is saying to himself—whether he’s getting shitfaced or pulling himself together to go back to the future and reassume his middling position in the very hierarchy that he himself has enabled—is:
“I could have stayed and talked her out of all that peace business … ”
“I could have gone over to Germany and assassinated Hitler … ”
“I could easily have provided American scientists with the secret of nuclear fission … ”
“I could have persuaded her to shift her altruistic interests to something less politically potent than pacifism … ”
“I could have become a Nazi; and, with Edith, changed the very nature of Nazism, shaped the future from within … ”
“I could have taken her with me to the future … if there was no place for her in the past, then why not? Why not have brought her with me to share the world I know and understand? A world that I’m certain—in the way that only a lover can be certain—she would have cherished and enjoyed. It would have satisfyingly confirmed for her even what seemed the least likely of her intuitions. Why not? Why not have done that? Why not?”
And instead Edith Keeler, “Slum Area ‘Angel,’” rots in the ground, a below-the-fold item amid the Times’ local coverage, and all for the sake of this terrific future, which brings with it the very next week (or at any rate Stardate 3287.2) “Operation Annihilate”: the Enterprise crew (this time Kirk gets to lose a brother) battling malignant flying pizzas. A let-down, sure—but then, TV viewers of my generation expected the stain of tragedy to have washed away between one week and the next. That first season Kirk lost countless crewmembers and at least two close friends, watched a planet of children die horrible disfiguring deaths, saw his predecessor reduced to a state of crippling disability, witnessed the dutiful suicide of an honorable enemy in defeat, saw the personnel of earth outpost Cestus III destroyed and those stationed on the asteroids abutting the Romulan Neutral Zone “pulverized,” lost his brother to those flying pizzas, suffered endless false alarms concerning the deaths and injuries of Spock, McCoy, Scottie, and other key crewmates—and plus he sacrificed Edith Keeler, the damnedest statement in support of the inevitable since the heyday of Greek drama.
As I stood over Gretchen in the park that cold and gloomy day, the Christmas trees already bunched in tight formation on the sidewalk outside the Opera Deli across the street, I too had options to consider. I could have considered her betrayal, and the likelihood that it would happen again (it had happened before; the process of forgiveness had torturously occurred once already), and turned and walked away as I would not do for another sixteen months. Instead I lashed out. She sat and folded her hands and allowed me to strike her, as if she had been waiting. I remember the lipstick-stained cigarette flying out of her mouth and landing in a sodden pile of sand near the sandbox.
And if I’d left? What would I have had to show for it in a month? A year? Five years? Ten? It’s twenty years now and that day lives yet as the father of something that probably needn’t have happened. Kirk’s situation in “City on the Edge of Forever” escapes being tragedy precisely because he has the advantage of an express guarantee that certain things will come to pass—e.g., existence as he knows it—if he allows Edith’s destruction. History was offering no commitments to me on November 4, 1980. The future ahead looked bright, but that was only because I could simultaneously entertain grandiose ambitions and morbid fantasies. And after the discovery of the letter, what was I to expect from the future when the here-and-now seemed so tenuous, so impossibly in opposition to what I’d wanted to believe it was?
As I came to know that being loved by Gretchen didn’t mean quite the same thing to her that it did to me, I wasn’t seeking to end the love altogether. That would have seemed, would have been, petulant. I needed to know that faithlessness wasn’t love’s antagonist, that it somehow sat adjacent to love; that, at least for her, the two could coexist.
Love answers its need with love: circular, aphonic, recognizable as itself though it becomes at times—became at this time—sickly twisted, it is in itself as inevitable and tinged with the verities of classical drama as the death of Edith Keeler. I shoved her with both hands and sent her sprawling, and in less than an hour we were sitting in a fire stairwell in a nearby apartment building sharing ice cream from out of a pint container. This was how the eighties began for me: decay, decay, decay.
Kirk is somewhere in space and time between the yenta time portal and the vicious little pizzas, zipping through the galaxy at warp factor six. He has answered love’s need nobly and heroically—and it was the wrong answer. It was Spock’s answer, the way in which logic answers a logically phrased but still-baffling problem: “Edith Keeler must die.” Why, Spock? Because otherwise, “millions will die who didn’t before”: Spock putting himself in the place of those silent millions, taking the opportunity that they’d never have to sit in judgment on Kirk’s actions, speaking with all the weight and authority of that bright future that expects them back any minute now. As he heads towards the flying pizzas, Kirk is sitting at a formica table in the ship’s cafeteria—usually the setting, on Star Trek, of comic or lighthearted scenes. But it’s late aboard the ship, he is alone in the cafeteria, and he is listening to the engines pulsing as the sleek white behemoth under his command streaks through the galaxy at a velocity of 216 times the speed of light, according to the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual which you can bet I consulted regularly in those lonely hours between school and six PM. And he wonders: when he dies will he have his own grieving children to bring his body “home” for disposal? He hopes to have children. Star Trek aficionados know that Captain Kirk resides in San Francisco when he’s on earth, and I picture him laid to rest in Colma or Daly City or any of the fog belt towns there that girdle the freeways and the shopping malls with miles and miles of gently graded land ceded to the region’s dead.
He thinks to himself, as he watches the steam rising from the cup before him, that centuries of history suddenly became garbage, utterly expendable, in that one bright instant when Edith Keeler walked into the path of the speeding car, the instant when he restrained the lunging McCoy, who acted out of simple compassion, out of courage, out of gratitude toward the woman who’d taken him in off the street, out of human impulse unencumbered by the obstacle of perfection. First they were there, those centuries, and then they weren’t. And whatever he’d wiped out—was it all bad? All of it? Every minute and second of those discarded ages not worth a single plate of the colored styrofoam chips that are the Star Trekker’s standard shipboard fare?
The stone sandbox, the dark little man in the parka struggling to raise one of the Scotch Pines against the scaffolding of two-by-fours that held them up for display. She’d carried keys and makeup and cigarettes and lighter and diaphragm and address book and Chiclets in a rectangular cardboard purse covered with hot pink vinyl. The sight of it, there on the bench and simultaneously there on my rival’s bedside table, immutably stupid, filled with these same things, was what had made me strike with such sudden fury. What had I wanted as that day began except constancy, the wholeness of union? I slapped her twice and then shoved her, putting all my weight behind the thrust, sending her sprawling to the pavement where she tore her nylons and skinned her knees. Her and her stupid boxes of Rit dye and bottles of Fanci-Full hair rinse and cans of Aqua-Net spray and the thousand other feminine incomprehensibilities that I’d been dumb enough to think were private, for the two of us alone! God damn her!
Kirk wants to know what the point is of forgiving, of forgetting. He wants to know: there is no moving on. They tell him that “things” “change”; but all is shackled to the past—which speaks, with perfectly congruent, not to say arrogant, understanding of the epoch it reaches out to from its grave. To understand its meanings and nuances, articulated through the peculiar symbology of pulverized brick and faded paint and rusted ironwork it employed there in Depression Era New York ca. 1930, is to be the recipient of the gift of shamanistic vision. God’s tamed garden designates its own totems.