I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Mr. and Mrs. Tell ran the place from floor one. They hardly spoke. A longtime ago they’d gotten thoroughly fed up with their respective jobs in law and order. They took their savings to Maine, buying a house they decided on first view would make a dandy bed and breakfast. Lunch and dinner, the Tells decided, were too elaborate and required conversation skills they cared not to develop. They liked mystery novels and exchanged the thin volumes with each other at a compatible rate. Simenon mostly. Vivi explained she and her brother would be needing a room until they could find something more permanent.
“Our parents died in a terrible automobile crash. Recently,” Vivi offered the Tells. “We’ve come to Maine to recover from the pain.”
The Tells, unenticed by the mystery, did not break their vow of silence. They collected the week’s rent like bribe money, retiring to their quarters decorated with field flowers hung upside-down to dry.
Vivi had Howard rehearse their little playlet of lies until his performance was at least adequate. But adequacy was not needed in Maine. The people were believing and untheatrical. When they reiterated their car crash scenario, the Maine people shook their heads, nodded or tilted them to one side as if to say, “There, there, life sucks.” A lot of them said, “Good luck!” with no irony. In coffee shops, grocery stores and public streets, people passed by saying hello in the most ordinary way imaginable.
It just proved what Vivi suspected long ago, that no one was interested in a well-rehearsed performance.
Despite this bit of theater, unnecessary in Maine, the two of them fitted in immediately as welcome strangers. The cow-like girl in the ice cream shop called her Bibi until she was corrected once and Howard was Howie to the people who shook his hand and inquired as to his interest in joining the local little league team which was in need of lively recruits.
The main event during this guest house period was fertilization. Vivian decided to have Howard the twelve-year-old father the baby the gypsy said she must have.
The logic that led to this solution included these thoughts: I’m not going around giving HIV tests to male residents regardless if they’ve been tucked away in the boonies, a virus is a virus; secondly, I’m not about to get attached to someone who’s going to get all sentimental on me and say let’s raise our baby family-style when I have no connection with the character other than a dip in a gene pool; thirdly, I’m sick of it! Sick of connecting and reconnecting with people who lead you in the end down a ditch marked personality disorder! I’ll have the baby with a near-baby (somehow), have it and worry about the repercussions later. No one can say I didn’t go first rummaging through my own history for a suitable partner, but ask anyone how immature and un-enlistable contemporary men are, they’ll tell you.
Fourthly, Vivi wanted to be rid of her sexual history. When she thought of her sexual history it made her sick. But most people’s sexual histories make them sick. Finger-painted portraits, slapdash school. Eek!—one ran from the gallery of faces like a cat afraid of mice.
After visiting her parents in their rest home, Vivi returned in the cab with Eartha to its twin building some miles away, their summer hotel. It was there, that summer, Vivian had her first and best sexual experience with another human being.
The halls of the Catskill hotel were papered with tremendous roses fringed at either side with maize, grey ribbons and pea-green ferns dotted with black and silver. This old, weird paper was met at the floor with bigger roses yet, on the runners, worn-out wool, blooms squashing their readiness in swirls under the shoes of the guests.
The fifth floor housed the waiters. Sexy college men who shared one large messy bathroom. Boys whose parents had been one-time guests of the hotel and stuffed their sons away on the top floor to descend three times a day to serve cream of anything soup, grey sole, chops, corn-on-the-cob, stewed tomatoes, chocolate-chocolate cake, and ice water, all for tips, the salary already delegated to tuition, the tips for spending money all year at school. To Vivi and the several flat girls who swam around the blue-green grounds of the hotel, the college boys seemed like big sweaty fish well worth the trouble it would take to wrestle them down among the yellow chicory and frothy bee-laden clover.
Vivi met Hap on the stairs as he rushed late to set the tables for dinner. Evil Mr. Spartacus, with his never-shaven chin and funky work-happy scent, stood sentinel near the dining room at four-thirty when the college boys would run in from their lake-swims, hair combed back and eager little loafers dancing back and forth from table to table with forks, plates, and ice-filled glasses.
Although Hap was late and Mr. Spartacus (his real name was something else but everyone, even the nice people, called him Mr. Spartacus) was standing there like yesterday’s bad lunch, Hap stopped in his tracks when he saw Vivi leaned-up against the porch and gave her a squeeze, saying, “Come on, smile, I’m in more trouble than you are!”
That was nice. She knew she must’ve looked a pretty sad creature leaning up against the wall like a girl who’d just gone to visit her out-of-their-minds parents. She forgot about them and determined to make eye contact all through dinner which turned out to be easy thanks to an uproar a side dish of beans created in the dining room. A joker started a joke and it flew like gas from table to table with the laughter building atomically and exploding every time the punchline was detonated. Vivi and Hap smiled.
When Hap smiled at Vivi—and you know this—all the unhappy details of living slid off the side of the world like beans from a slippery dish. Her mother and her father, her unformed figure, her bitter aunt, the kids at school, the people on the news, the people everywhere you looked.
Hap had comic book blue-black hair, shiny, full, and stacked up like a licorice sundae on his pretty, white head. His smile could make him money in Hollywood, the guests told him. How convincing your smile was had a lot to do with how large your tip would be from the table you attended. The waiters convened in an anteroom leading to a gigantic kitchen. In it, they’d evaluate their various tips and ridicule both those that under-tipped and over-tipped. Hap never participated in these tipping debates. His specialty was girls. They’d run to him.
Up behind the hotel was a small forest. Guests with children told them never to go into this forest, that it was pitch dark and filled with snakes.
It was filled with snakes but those little garden variety kind that could never harm anyone and could almost be described as friendly. No, it wasn’t the snakes the parents feared but the sex. The small forest was famous for modified staff orgies. Staff from various hotels lit fires and danced around roasting hot dogs and, eventually, coupled off to shuffle horizontally on the evergreen beds of sappy cones and strewn needles. In the morning, old people would come across the prophylactics while collecting pine for pine pillows, a cottage industry for many retired with still busy fingers.
Vivi only heard of the snake forest orgies and didn’t entirely believe they took place. A wild woman from town, who was too far into her late twenties to be standing around teenagers demonstrating new dance steps with her blouse half-unbuttoned, told Vivi she should unload her aunt after dinner and follow her up into the hills.
Ordinarily Vivi did just what her aunt instructed. Not because she was so impressed with her aunt’s angle on everything (which didn’t require a second opinion to be labeled frustrated) but it just was not worth it coming up against her over-sized opinions on a world that she said had repeatedly showed her “the back of its hand.” When they first checked into the hotel (whose name was Good Air), Delila was in front of the screen door, gyrating in a barely observed dance instruction blocking the way to the main desk. Eartha said, “Stay away from that woman.”
The night Hap took Vivi up into the woods to partake of the staff party, Delila, a non-staff, was there dancing around the fire. Her face flickered in the firelight as she pretended to sing along to the lyrics of songs blasting out of a portable record player someone had brought. She did this to cover the fact no one would talk to her. Very young couples smoothed themselves down between the bushes and trees, knees buckled this way and that. Vivi was a little surprised no boy would attend to Delila, as she believed teenage boys liked girls ten years their senior to instruct them what to do. Hap was a perfect gentleman, leading Vivi around the gallery of refreshments half-stuck out of brown grocery bags, boys, girls, and new dance steps tried by jumpy unmatched singles. Vivi waved casually to Delila to acknowledge her presence but Delila pretended not to see, casting her perspiration-ringed eyes to the beady stars. Hap stroked Vivi’s face tenderly and kissed her. Then they walked down the hill back to the hotel.
At night, late, in bed alone, listening to the hotel nightclub abuzz downstairs where her aunt paced the veranda in pursuit of human interest stories, Vivi reviewed the lovely evening in anticipation of their next day date.
They would row, he said, out to a lake crowded with water lilies the color of yield signs.
When they got there, they felt compelled to yank the rubbery blooms from the gloomy water. This was prohibited and those who’d not hid the flowers had to hand them back to the cop in the booth at the mouth of the lot.
Before reaching that smokey mouth overflowing with stalled cars handing back their water lilies and arguing briefly before gassing it, Vivi and Hap made love.
They made love in the rocking grey boat and it was gentle and sweet, the airy voices of the swimmers at the opposite side of the lake making countdown music toward a first and breathtaking climax. Even the mosquitoes seemed to defer to the event, halting their stinging transactions in the name of Venus.
When Vivi recollected the youthful but gentlemanly finesse of Hap, she felt grateful her indoctrination had not been all mucked-up as many had been mucked-up before her. Like Janice S. who was hurt so badly by two brothers she made in art school that her mother had to take her to Philadelphia for a “dusting and cleaning.” Or Lori R. who allowed an older man to indoctrinate her but this older man had such particular and obscure tastes that he completely misrepresented commonplace sexuality to lure the girl into a series of dazzling contortions she would for some time confusedly expect and, on several occasions, embarrassedly demand. Or Andrea T. who had a perfectly healthy looking young man drop dead on her from a congenital heart failure and for an hour and a half kept saying to the dead boy,“You’re joking, right? Get up, you’re joking.”
Every time Vivi heard one of these awful stories she’d silently thank pleasant Hap who did not rape her that night at the snake orgy when she wondered if disobeying her aunt would be rewarded with some scarring brutality. Although Delila wasn’t at the lake the day of Vivi’s de-virginization, she always inadvertently conjured the 29-year-old woman’s wet red face shaking around the live fire. “She’s so old” she heard one of the girls who came in from town to vacuum the halls say to her little man, an 18-year-old who chopped greens in the hotel kitchen and was called the salad man.
So, later, when Vivi was with Mark Turin or Noland Ashman, Delila’s “old” young face would appear, pretending to be involved in the lyrics of a song so as to be present as long as possible in the snake garden darkened by night and staff maneuvers. Hallucination, humbug, a completely unimportant girl—probably someone whose fattier beat her and who escaped nightly after grueling chores or punishing neutrality to the one hotel in walking distance, Good Air, with its path up the mountain—Delila visited Vivi’s brain for years. She could see it still.
And it wasn’t every man she was with who could receive the commendation of Hap. Some men are sexually expert but they like to enslave you. That’s part of their inspiration. Mark Turin, before they went to sterile Denmark, tried to wrap Vivi around his little finger. He’d call from phone booths at freakish hours and demand sex. He’d invite her over for dinner and she’d go upstairs to his apartment, find the door open, enter, and find Mark naked and erect and waiting on his bed for her. Like a madman. Only sexier and with enough performance skills to overshadow the shadier aspects of loveless desire. Mark Turin had a weird turned-on grin that flashed like a motel sign for a couple caught in an adulterous downpour in the suburbs. He knew about sexual dependency, how you don’t bother looking for what you can have thrust upon you. He worked his appetite for Vivi (she had lovely breasts and sweat he told her tasted and smelled like spring water from a science-fiction galaxy) until their Danish break-up.
When Noland was in her, it never felt bad but she grew so bored. Her hand, one of them, would dangle off the side of the bed and she would say to herself quietly in the ruckus of his groans and heavy breathing, “I’m dead.”
So, in short, she was always waiting for revivification. Contemporary mythology explicitly states that such an event can be anticipated in the good luck of love. In the absence of such fortune, the uncoupling kind are directed to God’s glare. Spiritual heat, although long in coming, is said to warm even the most frigid of customers. Those without patience, or struck with a sore need to witness fruition, may seek the advice of fortune tellers. In such an event one may be called upon to meet strange challenges.
Vivi spent an afternoon in the town library, leafing through dusty old copies of Parent magazine and anything else she could find that could say how detrimental it might be to have a child with a child.
There is no literature on this subject in America. The best you can do is pursue little anthropological texts on the subject of unique rearing practices in obscure countries no one ever talks about. She looked at those without optimism.
At the library, she met Cummings Went, the librarian. Vivi had never met a male librarian before although she knew there must be hundreds of them somewhere. As if reading her mind he said, “I’m not the real librarian.”
“Oh, no? Who’s the real one?” she asked because it would be nice to make friends and the building was stark empty of people, June already, the end of June.
“The real one isn’t alive anymore. She lived for a hundred years and then vaporized. I’m Cummings. Went.”
“Happy to meet you.”
“Happy to meet you.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Books on child rearing, conception, things like that.”
“I wouldn’t know where to find anything like that. I’m a stranger here myself. Tea?”
He had a thermos of freezing cold lemony tea. He poured Vivi a cupful of this into a red cup that said Merry Christmas on it.
“And a Happy New Year.”
It was nice to talk to another adult after the silence of the Tells. Cummings Went had light hair, horn-rimmed glasses with thick lenses that made his eyes seem larger and more startled, and a thin little mouth with a gigantic tongue that wiggled around gymnastically without spray or smacking sounds.
“What are you doing here in town?”
He asked clear and open so she told him. She told him all of what you know. Spark and Ellen, Howard, even some of her earlier stuff, just to make plain her state. About Noland. Drew Lansing. What the gypsy said.
“Dear me,” said Went. “Dear me,” he repeated. “My goodness.”
No one came into the library. It was a forbidden zone. Not even a dog would run up to its wire door to peek in. It had a little balcony of even-more-untouchable books, leather-bound things with faintly embossed titles. Micro-film and video had not found their way to this book hideout. Dust perfected the light; motifs for ballet sets were created by the shadows the leaves made from the trees outside the window—elms, maples, anyway large green things that would change their attitude quick enough in a few months time.
“I’m going to help you. Somehow.”
That’s what everyone wants to hear. But without the somehow. But even with the somehow. Anyhow.
“I’m going to help you. Somehow.”
“Could you? Can you? How? Thank you,” said Vivi, trying to sound neither too cynical nor too optimistic.
Frankly, he seemed a bit the nervous-wreck type, this Cummings character, balled-up tissue in his hand, face drained of color although still retaining some Dennis the Menace youthfulness, khaki summer clothes out-of-the-dryer wrinkled. He was one of those fair people who go from young-looking to old overnight.
“I need to help someone very badly,” he said honestly. “My grandmother has a house,” he added after a pause.
Sometimes a person will say something very simple, a sentence, and you experience it as a benediction in a waking dream. The way some people propose to have met their mates. They said oh pardon me blah blah blah and the other is aware a garage-sized door has opened in their life where they will now be able to drive through to a whole different countryside. Cummings Went was not going to propose to Vivian Jump, not marriage. But living arrangements. With knowing mostly negative information he was opening his situation to her.
His grandmother’s house, he said, was on a little island just a short boat ride away. He’d inherited the house recently from her but preferred, for now, staying on the mainland. He was staying at another little guest cottage situation, a noisier place than the Tells but nearby. He didn’t want, he said, to live in the grandmother’s house alone. Too big.
“Come see it. You’ll be amazed.”
“I guess I could come see it. I don’t know. I don’t know if we could actually stay there at all. I would have to show it to Howard.”
“He’d love it. Does he have a bicycle? You can ride a bicycle around the living room. It’s huge. Absolutely huge. Howard will adore it.”
The way he just absorbed the idea of Howard so quickly, maybe he didn’t get it.
“But what do you think of what I told you? Don’t you think it’s too outrageous and I shouldn’t go through with it?”
“No, absolutely not. You should definitely go through with it. Absolutely.”
“Because, as you say, you never know who’s infected, and you want to start off with a clean healthy baby, one that’s not going to break down before you even get it on the road, so to speak, my goodness.”
“But the sex aspect of it is frightening, it frightens me. I don’t look forward to having sex with a child, it’s wrong.”
“He’s not a child.”
“Almost 13, you said.”
“Okay, almost 13.”
“And he’s done it already, right? So we know he makes sperm.”
Howard, one day, told a longish story made short by abbreviated story-telling skills of his sexual initiation as engineered by a contemporary named Hazel Rose.
Hazel Rose was the only girl who did well in school, a school few of her peers felt pressured to attend, a large red ancient school decorated with cream-colored gargoyles holding up cement torches presumably toward higher thought. In this neighborhood of extreme wildness, in which drugs were trafficked with speed-demon frequency, the school’s solution was to place the school yard on top of the school. On the roof. For safety, high metal fences were erected around the turrets and forbidding little gargoyles. Gravel was then spread over the tarpaulin, basketball hoops put in place and the children set to roam from one end of the lidless cage to the other. It was Hazel Rose who most enjoyed the large uninterrupted expanse of sky above them and would visit it after her amorous assignation one floor below in a cul-de-sac on the stairwell leading to the roof.
Hazel’s plan was to try the various boys of her school, all essentially children like herself, and she was a gentle, childish lover unsparing of her desire for new inexperienced partners. As she had not yet begun to menstruate, she took no precautions (although some of those boys who had older brothers insisted on using the decorative white toys and carried them after the act to the grilled turrets, tossing the white balloons to the havoc below).
Howard said he was with Hazel once, twice, three times. He never hurt her, she said. She even let him once come home with her and let him watch her do her homework and put the finishing touches on her diorama for the science fair. She won the science fair.
So, Vivi said, Howard knew what to do, taught by a fellow juvenile.
“Well, then, you mustn’t worry, it’s all going to work out. Weird things have a way of working better than the mundane. Often.”
How do you figure that? She was going to ask but abandoned it.
They were becoming friends. No, foundation really. You choose a friend quickly in certain situations: someone to help you with your life jacket should the ship go down.
Everything is going to work out, she chanted to herself in the empty library as the librarian deacon of this newfound religion led her out of the unpopular building and to his rented car outside.
He wanted to show her his grandmother’s house right now. He held on to his giant thermos and drove.
Vivi’s Aunt Eartha would take her on Saturdays to the library nearest them. Her aunt had checked out books last week she would check in again this week. Sometimes her aunt would force Vivian to listen to her own tiresome pages. She even went as far as to read to her the anecdote about visiting the mad parents in the Catskills. “Well, what do you make of it—is it good?” she would ask her bewildered niece.
The shittiness of her private texts made Eartha hate other books and she belittled the plots of those she actually had read. She reduced everything, even instructional tales, folklore and sweeping epics, to short, acidy put-down. As a result, Vivian had a lot of trouble accepting people and the story of their lives at face value. This was a big handicap in the acting world where one’s natural-born gullibility was asset-supreme in accepting impoverished scripts with sketchy plots and stick-figure characters. “Go home and come up with a character—and don’t come back until you have one!” one director shrieked at her during a rehearsal.
On several occasions when friends would drop by, they would remark on the enormous amount of food on the kitchen table. Her aunt always shopped as if for a gigantic feast, the table covered festively with nuts, squashes, potatoes, turkeys, hams, raisins, dough, gingerbread—it always looked like Thanksgiving or Christmas was later that day. But instead of any particular holiday it was only a non-specific food fest in which her aunt seemed to, shuddering, be swallowing all the earth could provide.
An acting partner volunteered this on the subject of her aunt to Vivian: “She’s sex-starved.”
After she found out something was going on in or around the hotel between her niece and a waiter, she shortened their holiday by weeks.
On the subject of sexual starvation, Vivi’s new friend, Cummings Went, driving to his grandmother’s house, shrouded up ahead by light fog, offered this: “Dear me, we needn’t get on to the subject of the sex- starved without reviewing my scanty diet. I had so much love in me as a child it was a sin. I loved everyone so much. Not like that Hazel child but with a shivering wholesome love the way animals must love nature. Anyway, as you can well imagine, I was tortured freely by my peers. Tortured so consistently in the vain of name-calling, mimicking, impersonating and out-and-out rock-throwing, that I grew to fear my fellow man. It’s the saddest story a person can tell. I kept to myself and when that frightening time of feverish necking arrived in adolescence, I was but a grim witness with no one to hold or kiss! Is it any wonder—and of course it isn’t—that years later when I was led down desolate roads I galloped unharnessed, happy to be a part of anything? Scott Freeman—he’s dead now—I worshipped him! I know now I was only his sidekick. So what—I was half-happy! Scott was a sex maniac. In a way. In every way, actually. And I was so repressed I followed him around like a lovesick dog. No bone was too small for me to fetch. When I think of it! He liked sex clubs. Have you ever been to one, a sex club?”
“No,” said Vivi, half-lying. Magda Loss dragged her one night to a place practically in the river that smelled of freshly-killed meat where, in the middle of a cement room, a not-unattractive woman sat chained up, laughing hysterically and kicking men with her high heels who came presumably for a good kick.
“Well,” Went continued, “you haven’t lived until you see what goes on on this twisted planet some people actually have the gall to want to save. Every kind of weirdness and Scott who was very beautiful, take my word for it, gladiator torso, Ken doll face, which I like—he just dived in head first. And, you know, sex is addictive so no night would pass without a dozen to fifty foul new entwinements. One place we would go had an open air roof and the whole of heaven was there as witness.”
“What did you do during all this?” asked Vivi, although she knew already all he ever did was stand and watch.
“I stood and watched! I died a thousand deaths, as all must whose great capacity for love in this world makes them freak attendants at the wedding of pleasure and expediency!”
Without stopping to as much as lock the car doors, Cummings climbed into a little dinghy-type boat with Vivi, and the boat went to the island.
“If only once I had said I love you Freeman, I could love myself now. I could forgive myself. I took care of him in the end, you know.”
“Well then he must have known you loved him and you didn’t need to tell him.”
“I don’t wish I told him for his sake—he’s dead! I wish for my sake! I’m the one so terribly alone now in the world! I’m not frightening you away, am I?”
“No,” Vivi said and told him about Kevin and Drew again.
“Right. But everyone’s story is different. Even if they sound identical. Even if they’re damn repetitive and you want to jump out the window if you hear it all one more time, everyone’s heart is an original—I know that now. Creeps tried to make me believe otherwise. This world has a vendetta against love, I can tell you that, but I’m not dying without knowing love again—the pure uncluttered love of my early childhood—do you know what I’m talking about?”
“I guess so.”
“You know what I’m talking about. It’s written all over your face. I may seem pathetic standing around some outpost library as a stand-in librarian when I don’t even know the Dewey Decimal System—but I can tell you for sure I am not pathetic. Desperate once yes admittedly—five six seven hours watching Scott kiss and do other things while the sun goes up on Sunday morning, this is pathetic, but I have resigned, thank you, from that church of worship and the god Scott is dead as I suppose all gods must die. Here we are. Climb out.”
After the water stopped competing with Cummings, making that lap and spit racket it likes to make conversing with boats, they reached the island.
It was hairy with gray-green grass and a white picket fence built in a spiral leading nowhere up a lane, down a lane, and back down into the soil.
“I’ve shocked you, haven’t I? No, I haven’t. You know. You just know, don’t you?”
There’s no arguing with people when they use this tone of voice. Vivi used to think only inebriated people used it but then it became clear everyone, even tea drinkers, had this pop-out voice of emphasis, the voice that speaks from the vantage point of all lost.
As they walked up to the grandmother’s house, Vivi reviewed her plan, always repeating what the gypsy said as if this protected her from any responsibility. She haft-hoped Cummings would stop her but she knew also from her brief work with Greek tragedies (and comedies) that once the machine of fate has set itself in motion it’s useless to fumble with its big wheels.
Harry Kondoleon recently published an anthology of plays, Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise (Theater Communications Group). This is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Human Nature.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee