At the Symposium on the Necessity of Beauty
It was, she was certain, bigamy—being here with her husband.
She didn’t have one, and never had, if have was the right verb for knowing someone in this way and referring to someone with this word. She had had children. Two of them. She had had friends. She had had, or, as she had heard it said, had taken lovers. Still, through all these years she had felt more or less tended to, almost thoroughly husbanded, though by what or whom exactly it was hard to say—certainly by some of the men she had been with, and by some of the women, sometimes by her own mother even, but equally often by a single idea, such as that of Schoenberg, who believed all progress in social thinking and feeling had come about through the force of longing. With equal frequency, though perhaps with less predictability, she had felt cared for by certain objects, such as a spotted yellow pear, the dark fetal curl of the dog’s tail, or a single ancient hay derrick, tall and rangy, pointing out the far end of the world. Sometimes when she went to a movie by herself—something she often did—she would tell the ticket-taker that her husband would be arriving at any minute. She simply liked the sound of the word, and she took it entirely, and many times a day, as hers.
In her sleep, by which she does not mean the opposite of wakefulness, she often did—and undid—certain personages: Patti Smith, in her man’s suit jacket and porkpie hat, just as she fisted the air and grinned during her version of “Gloria.” The Doge of Venice, as embodied in the sepia-tone variant of the Bellini portrait, because of his resemblance to a divine and errant seeming raja. Harvey Keitel, many times of the course of several years, each in a different room of her house. Gilbert Reichert, the tallest man in the world in 1952, who never let go of a turquoise hotel door key. Four consecutive nights with Herbie Hancock. That night with the hawk moth. Which brought her pollen on its eyes and back. Whose tongue was longer than its body: Could anyone blame her. The romp with Eva Slverstein, the woman with hair as short and stiff as hedgehog fur whom she had read about. Who whispered of the worlds of tiny strings vibrating in ten-dimensional space. Though she had not yet done, undone, or felt her own undoing in the midst of one, she liked to imagine the element of grand passion of the star-nosed mole: twenty-two wriggling pink snout-rays—his, the keenest sense of touch of any mammal. These were such safe things, and she, a solemn person, mother of two, still had a great many deeds to do throughout the course of each day.
Donald loves two women: the mother of his child and the mother of another man’s. For the latter he feels something dark blue and boundless, like a broken cup. He likes to lie awake nights and think about her. He sleeps unaccompanied most of the time; his home is his alone. He likes to think of his son, ten, as a nocturnal tropical butterfly, ears on his wings: a kind of home movie. A balanced extravagance, a man’s private pregnancy. The boy mostly sleeps at his mom’s. Donald likes to think of her too but not in the usual sense. No dreams of intimacy, no schemes for revenge. He feels for her something vague and precise: understanding’s affection, which he pictures as a mild noon at sea. Tired as they both had become—sometimes they’d sleep together from two sides of a room—theirs was passion in calm style, invisible as noise, growing like a second, more difficult child between them.
When they fought in sign language, you could hear the skin of their thumbs slough.
Thus often does she feel she has transgressed: the joy of her hand steeped in a vat of legumes at Fred Meyers—without the intention to steal; the tiny teeth feel of the edges of popped balloons; a view of this spiky mistletoe species of juniper tree; a glance at the yellow pollen-dusted snout of the hairy footed gerbil, the lengthened lower spine of the queen naked mole rat; a squint at a lizard licking a walking stick, at those little droplets atop hairs of the cabbage butterfly; an eye on the defensive glandular hairs along beetle pupae; one look at a male pipefish, at a stranger in the wick of a sneeze, at the female organ of the flower species solanum rostratum as it hangs to the left; a picture of a paradise tree snake, which vibrates mid-air; a wink at the tail of a trotting gray fox; the knowledge of the female pipefish; a pomegranate rent in half by hand; fixations on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot; the heat exchanger, the flywheel, the clutch; a handful of lug nuts.
She always asks him to leave halfway through the night: the man she regards as the other side of her body. At which moment she lays the mind’s horse plumb in the warm sleep-shape of one of love’s clarities: to hold and to crave were sure ways of having him twice—as like as a lung and its breathing, each equally requisite. Well she was a hard fighting horse—a stallion, lathered and reeky, with interests in smells of wild sugar in space, the faint brine at the base of girls’ wrists. He loved the women and men who passed because he could not know them. The fact that a better part of a third of her nights was spent thus occupied troubled her slightly. She had to wonder out loud: Was it betrayal, this sexual knowledge of absence, those flies round the foot of her bed, her licking this watchband of she knew not whom?