Sunday, January 14, 2018

January Reviews: Fortune Smiles and Slouching Towards Bethlehem


This year my goal is to read or listen to 25 books, and I started 2018 with two interesting collections. One was disappointing, and the other served a reminder that you shouldn't ever take any moment for granted in real life. It also gave me a reason to post this photo of Lake Harriet in Minnesota.


Fortune SmilesFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the reviews, was impressed by the author's bio and awards... and I wanted to hear stories that were different, eclectic and thought-provoking... and yet... I came away with mixed feelings about this book. Which is polite-speak for, "I really didn't like it."

I had asked the Reading Genie for three wishes, was granted them all, and then was left unsatisfied. It's not you, Adam, it's me.

I can't rate this any lower because, hell, I gave four stars to Alec Baldwin's book. Also, be forewarned, some of the endings here aren't really endings at all. Not (and I'm sighing as I write this) that there's anything wrong with that.


Slouching Towards BethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any book that takes its title from Yeats has a lot to live up to. But, personally, I’ve set the bar even higher for this collection of early essays by Joan Didion.

First, let’s get this out of the way: this is an extraordinary author, and this review is by no means a criticism of this book or her impressive career. The essay here about Haight-Ashbury is amazing, and it’s all a great time-capsule of the 1960s.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t read this book, I listened to it… the production narrated a few years ago by Diane Keaton.

The actress’ measured cadence is so articulate and clear, you can speed up the playback by half, and it’s still perfectly understandable. This is an almost magical way to experience this book. The words come at you in a crazy jumble of images that on some intellectual level make sense — but then they don’t seem coherent, the center doesn’t hold.

Personally, it reminds me of one of my dearest friends. She can do the same thing… extemporaneously, guilelessly. You go for a walk with her — say, around one of the many lakes in Minnesota — and you find yourself transported to another world of seemingly incongruous observations and one-liners and literate confessional narrative.

My friend will stop suddenly during that walk, turn to lock eyes with you, then break into a wide smile and ask, “What the hell am I talking about, anyway?” She’ll laugh at herself. And that’s when you fall in love with her.

Joan Didion, in this book, writes the way my friend talks. My criticism is that, unlike my friend, this great writer never stops, looks you in the eye and laughs at herself or admits that she doesn’t know any better than you.

Even though — I know, I know — she probably does.

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Related, and highly recommended, is the 2017 documentary about the author, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, and currently available on Netflix.


View all my Goodreads reviews

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Life in a Minor Key

Page from grandfather's notebook

Ok, so... now that I've publicly committed to writing more in 2018, it's time to offer up what I wrote creatively in 2017. Which isn't much...

One sonnet:
I have encased my soul in tempered glass,
Displayed it on the mantel in our home.
The frame collects the dust beside the vase
Of silk flowers embed in styrofoam. 
Beneath this centerpiece, a raging fire,
Timer-controlled, heats wood that doesn't burn.
The warmth is real, and I am safe. Desire
Consumed, I wait alone for love's return. 
Then in you walk... Alarms trip. Cats take flight
And lose several lives. A fake church bell sounds.
You flip the light. Night is day; day is night.
Hamlet, without doubt; Ophelia, undrowned. 
My kingdom would be bound in a nutshell,
Had not your flame out-scorched suburban hell.

One cold-weather rant:
A Tale of Suburbia 
I summon you tonight, Evangeline.
As I behold the passage of time
In the breath of the bone-chilling cold. 
My old black dog.
Cloudy-eyed, shedding,
Struggles to his feet and
Shuffles to my side. 
I scratch his dry nose,
And open the back porch door,
Exposing the darkness.
The crack in my bones. 
Come, Evangeline,
Hear the scuttling of time.
The claws of the moments we lost.
My words in the bone-chilling cold. 
I long for the warmth of our souls.
I mourn for the warmth of our souls. 

And three haikus, with photos:

Casting sheets of clouds
Over a muddy river
Ohio, as a ghost


Captured, brown and green
We hold hands in bright colors
And head for the light

Rain at dusk in Queens
Exploding sky to the west
Gatsby in New York

---------

All seem a bit sad -- which actually doesn't mirror my real, outer life... or the spirit of my grandfather, who I loved very much and who used to collect jokes, whimsical thoughts and fragments of poetry in his schoolboy notebook.

Our inner lives are more complicated than our outer lives, though -- and that's not a bad thing. I think our inner life is more fragile than what we let the outside world perceive.

I was reminded of this while reading Entertainment Weekly this week. Check out this story about how Nivana's "Teen Spirit" sounds so very different in a major key, and listen to each version. The original is much more powerful.

Artistic expression in a minor key mirrors real life more than real life itself.

Ok, so... that said, look for me to post something here each Sunday in 2018. That's my goal. And if there's a hint of sadness in what I write, don't worry, it only means I'm trying to scratch beneath the surface of my ordinary life.

Meanwhile, I've posted a photo from one page of my grandfather's notebook. I used to think "A Vegetarian Romance" was original, but a quick Internet search confirms that this was printed at least as early as April 1926 in Brooklyn Life. It was probably around before then, given that my grandfather's notebook predates The Great Depression.

The text also appears in Milton Berle's book, "Private Joke File," published in 1992, without any attribution. So if Milton Berle can steal it, so can my grandfather.

A Vegetarian Romance (source unknown)
"Will your celery keep two?" asked she.
"With carrot will do, and I think, dear,
Something better will turnip," said he.
She replied, slightly radish from blushing,
(Though her rouge was parsley the fault).
"I've always bean true, and I'll still be,
Though your kale may not keep us in salt."
So off to old Pars'n Ipp's cottage
Onion road, the wedding to stage,
They spud, and it took but a second
In this modern taxi-cabbage.
But you can't beet a taxi-cab meter;
Appeasing the bill left him broke,
Caused a lump to sprout in his thorax,
And nearly made poor Artichoke.
However, they were not cress'fallen;
To the house on the corner they went,
Woke the Pars'n Ipp from his slumber,
On the greensward held the event.
Of a Cole 8 he made her a present,
And they now take a spinach night —
And this is the endive my story
For there isn't mushroom left to write. 



Sunday, December 31, 2017

Short Story: 'A Triptych for Virginia'

Black Clouds by Alexander Calder, exhibited at The Met

One resolution for the New Year is to post more original writing on this blog. I once tried writing a novel, but re-reading it lately, it seemed dated. For one thing, the 1980s plot didn't hold water if the main character had a cell phone. For another, I think the narrative was watered down by too many words. So I've cut 70,000 of them and turned it into this short story, with some original photography.

---------

A Triptych for Virginia

By Bob Varettoni

“Killing the thing you love and spending each night with its ghost.”
– Mark Strand,“Formulas for Oblivion” (1971)

Panel One (Flight to New Jersey, 1985)
         I waited in my car, taking in strange, salty air as Virginia packed a bag. Locking up her friend’s house on Chincoteague Island after midnight, she was bundled in a bulky sweater with a gaping hole over her heart, where a large scarlet R had been partially torn. Through it, I could see her srevoL rof si ainigriV T-shirt which, earlier that evening, I had been guilty of turning inside out.
       In tattered jeans, blue Keds and her father’s vintage California Angels baseball cap – with a white halo outlined on top – she was dressed as if she was running away from home.
       We had agreed to split the driving, but Virginia curled into a cocoon in the passenger’s seat and fell into a deep sleep almost instantly. Heading north, I drove in silence for hours, trailed by the light from three planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – reflected in the rearview mirror.
       At about 4 a.m., the darkest hour, we entered an unlit stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, and Virginia began to stir.
       “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
       “Why are you always sorry?” she asked, yawning extravagantly. “Where are we, anyway?”
       We’re skirting the Pine Barrens, I explained: more than a million acres of sand-based soil in the center of New Jersey. The rain here combines with acid from decaying pine needles and leaches minerals from the sand, forming bog iron that used to be mined in isolated communities. A few are now ghost towns.
       This is the home of the Jersey Devil, and I told Virginia that most artists depict him with cloven hooves and a tail but, other than that, he’s an amalgam of animals – the body of a kangaroo with bat wings, the head of a dog, the face of a horse… or not.
       It seems cartoonish until you realize the Jersey Devil is that much more terrifying because he can take any form. As soon as you are comfortable seeing him one way, he changes shape. You can’t pin him down, or sometimes even recognize him. He’s always out there, somewhere in the New Jersey woods.
       While I went on like this, Virginia barely listened. She curiously inspected the buttons and dials on the dashboard and adjusted her seat forward and back. Then she opened the glove compartment and took out the photo I kept there.
       “Wow. Who’s this? Looks just like my sister... Chubby ankles though.”
       “I know,” I said. “Her father used to call her Helen-melon.”
       “That’s Helen?”
       I had been one of Helen’s many suitors, as Virginia was well-aware. The photo she was now holding was a poor Polaroid, and the colors had grown darker over time. Taken at a Halloween party, Helen is wearing an orange rain slicker, stuffed with my bed sheets. I don’t know where she got the green tights or the matching beret.
       “Why,” Virginia asked, “would you possibly keep a photo of your old girlfriend in your glove compartment?”
       “Because,” I said, “it reminds me of why I loved her...”
       It was just a fraction of a second, the blink of a camera; but the image personifies my first love.
       “…Dressed like a pumpkin, she almost looks vulnerable.”

       “You’re very sweet,” Virginia mused after a silence. She had carelessly flipped the Polaroid to the floor mat. “In a strange sort of way.”
       “How’s that?”
       “All this stuff about your old girlfriend... I feel sorry for your future wife. I’ve never met anyone so affected by their past.”
       “It’s nothing,” I said. “Sometimes it makes me try to be better.”
       I told her about how, with my irregular heartbeat, I had trained for several years to break the freshman Warren County high school cross-country record of the boy who eventually replaced me in Helen’s heart. The time and distance had been enshrined on a plaque in the front entrance of the gym. A grown man, I eventually bettered the time of my 13-year-old rival.
       “I got the idea from the poet Byron,” I said. “When he was young, he swam the Dardanelles to impress a woman, and years later Edgar Allan Poe swam the James River in imitation.”
       “Byron… Poe… quatsch...” Virginia recited dreamily. “I wonder what you are. I thought you said you were an accountant.”
       “That’s right. I haven’t lied to you yet.”
       “Yet? Well, what are you trying to become?”
       “An auditor.”
       “No. Really. Are you a writer?”
       “What’s a writer?” I argued. “Blake worked as an engraver; Milton – before he went blind and wrote ‘Paradise Lost’ – was a propagandist for the English Parliament. Andrew Marvell was his assistant.
       “Dante was a politician. Poe, when employed, was a magazine editor. Matthew Arnold was a school inspector, and William Carlos Williams was a doctor who lived about a hundred miles up this road. Oh, and Wallace Stevens – that’s my favorite – he was a vice president for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. He composed poems while walking to and from work...”
       I paused. “...You can stop me from babbling at any time.”
       “I don’t want to. I do think you’re strange – but nice.”
       “Don’t be so sure. I think that if I ever did write a book, it would be about me, as a middle-aged man, being seduced by Helen’s daughter.”
       “That’s a perverted idea for a plot.”
       “Blame Goethe. It’s his idea. I rarely have an original thought. Anyway, what makes you think I’m nice?”
       Virginia turned to face me.
       “I trust you,” she said.
       “You shouldn’t trust strangers.” I barely knew her, and already I was dispensing protective advice.
       “I trusted you from the moment you looked directly into my eyes.”
       “Trust at first sight? I shrugged, then exhaled an indifferent breath. Like Old Faithful.
       “Beats love,” she said.
       Another silence followed as we sped through the woods. Then I heard her soft, dissonant voice in the darkness.
       “Will you promise to write something for me someday?”
       “Sure, I promise,” I chuckled. “So, you think I’m a writer, after all?”
       “No,” Virginia yawned. “I think you’re the Jersey Devil.”

       It was almost dawn, and Virginia closed her eyes, adjusted her Angels’ cap and curled in her sweater for warmth.
       In my mind’s eye, looking back, I see the bright morning star of Venus on the horizon as I continue to drive up the Turnpike. Upon my sleeping Hester’s face, ancient Hesper has combined with the waxing moon to cast a shadow that flickers and trembles, like my long-ago desire, as starlight shimmers through the thinning ranks of pine trees along the side of the road.
       I wish I may, I wish I might, now, make the sun stand still below that distant horizon – as if my car were a Mason jar and I could punch air holes in the top and look through the window to see this curiosity named Virginia, in the seat next to me, lazily stretching her butterfly limbs.
       Then I would take my car in my hand and hold the both of us up to the faint and heavenly light.
       I want to examine that tiny version of myself I am now trying to preserve – still so very young... yet blissfully aware of being teased by the Hand of Fate which, at that moment, rested in my lap.


Panel Two (In and Out of Love in New York)
       Virginia was an artist. She often dragged me to galleries and museums in and around New York and talked about diptychs and triptychs, perspective and ideal points. I’d call them dipsticks and TripTiks, just to annoy her.
       At the Museum of Holography (since closed), she tried to make shadow animals. At the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, she stood in imitation of a variety of nude goddesses and tried coaxing me to my knees as if I were Pygmalion. Virginia also tried to show me every mobile by Calder on public display in the New York area, since he was her favorite.
       In the days before we first broke up, a Giacometti pointed at me accusingly as we stood in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. In one of the main galleries, a docent lectured in front of a Picasso depicting five women in increasing stages of abstraction, from left to right. I pointed to the second-most realistic image, toward the left, and said jokingly, “That one reminds me of you.”
       “Yeah, well,” she said, “I feel like the one on the right.”
       Looking back, I realize how on and off our relationship had been in real life.
       One time Virginia plucked a scrap of paper from my back pocket, waved it in the air and mischievously accused, “Ah-ha, another woman’s phone number!”
       It was.
       When that casual relationship ended too, the other woman taunted, “Go ask Virginia out again; she’ll always love you.” Bad enough, it was a vindictive thing to say. Worse, it didn’t turn out to be true.
       I’ve read that Dante spent days training his pet cat to sit on a table and hold a lighted candle in its paws while the poet did his reading. Another story claims that Poe often wrote with his favorite cat seated on his shoulder and that his wife slept with a cat curled on her chest to keep her warm.
       Tonight, my cat sits silently on the ledge above my desk, staring at phantoms over my shoulder – or at the inverse motion surrounding all my inaction.
       I used to love cats. As a boy, I had a black-and-white tabby that followed me everywhere. Every movement I made seemed to be the most important thing in the world to him, and I imagined myself, like St. Francis of Assisi, able to communicate with animals on some ethereal level.
       Now, I’m sure of it. I resent my cat because he ignores me, except to perch high above and suck the Muses from the air while I try to write.
       I used to be good when I was a younger, but now I live my life by rote. My good intentions are like all the poems I’ve admired and memorized. Like Virginia, my cat has a sixth sense about my true nature.
       I used to be a romantic devil. Now I’m just a devil.

       Consider, for example, this scene one autumn night in 1986 when I lived in New York and excitedly dialed Virginia’s familiar phone number. It was during a time we were both in love.
       “I need to see you tonight,” I said.
       “Why?”
       “Because there aren’t any clouds, and there’s only a quarter moon.”
       “Oh... Sure.” Sometimes Virginia could be so trusting.
       “Meet me at nine at the rock by the park.”
       “It’ll be dark.”
       “So what? Chicken?”
       “And cold.”
       “Bring a sweater.”
       “Just don’t leave me alone.” Other times she could be so prophetic.
       I didn’t leave her alone that particular night. In fact, I arrived early at Mount Tom, the rocky, 30-foot hill overlooking the Hudson River at 84th Street and Riverside Drive. It was named after Thomas Brennan, whose family owned a farmhouse there in the 1840s.
       Virginia was already waiting.
       I approached from the park side of the street as a row of lampposts lit. The craggy hill is clearly visible from the street, and the clearing on top has a smooth, cool surface of slate. It’s just high enough to look out over the treetops of Riverside Park for a clear view of the western sky, but far enough removed from the street to ensure privacy. Neighbors often gathered there to sit and talk, drink and share cigarettes. Then, in a puff of smoke, they’d disappear.
       “I’m coming to get you, Barbara,” I said, imitating a monster-movie voice and placing my hands around Virginia’s neck from behind.
       She shrieked. “Hey! You scared me!”
       “Where have you been?” she asked, after we kissed. “And who’s Barbara?”
       “It’s ‘Night of the Living Dead.’”
       “How romantic. I’ve been sitting here waiting. My heinie’s cold!”
       Her untamed contralto broke sweetly as it rose in melody... in imitation of no one. The unique pitch of her voice – combined with off-handed, off-key German words and phrases borrowed from her grandmother – made her a knock-off of Gatsby’s Daisy: not a voice full of money, but a voice full of loose change.
       “Loose change under a mattress,” she’d add, before anyone else could tease her the way we all always did… me, her sister, her friends… all in the guise of loving familiarity. We were a rotten crowd, and she was worth the whole bunch of us put together.
       “You’re early,” I said to her at Mount Tom. “And don’t you think you should have worn pants?”
       Virginia rolled over and stretched negligently on the rock, striking the pose of Courbet’s “Woman With a Parrot.”
       “I thought you liked my legs,” she teased.
       “That’s not the point.”
       “The bus was early,” she said, indefinitely nodding in the direction of the stop on the corner. “Besides, I knew you’d be early too.”
       I bent down, nudged her gently aside, and whispered, “Your legs drive me crazy.” Then I spread out a picnic blanket to lie down by the side of my darling, my darling, my life and…
       “My sweater!” I exclaimed.
       “You told me to bring one.”
       “You mended it!”
       It was the Rutgers sweater I had given her when we met in Chincoteague, to protect her from the cold.
       “Like it?” Virginia asked and thrust her chest forward in a provocative pose even Courbet couldn’t capture.
       “Hell, yes,” I said. “But I didn’t know you could sew.”
       “My sister sews,” she said. “I’m the sister who rips.”

       From the clearing on top of the rocky hill, we had an unobstructed view of New Jersey, especially the trees of the Palisades to the northwest. We didn’t see many buildings, except for a few high-rises, and we were above the cars and lights of the West Side Highway. It was my favorite spot in Manhattan for stargazing.
       I lived nearby, in a sublet on a street lined with brownstones and filled with signs... those on front doors requested no menus and those in car windows offered no radios. A sign on one building noted that it once was the site of the Brennan farmhouse, where Edgar Allan Poe lived when he finished writing “The Raven.”
       “I love to watch the stars,” Virginia said, as I rested my head in her lap.
       “They love to watch you too,” I said.
       “God, you’re so corny,” she said, playfully swiping my wandering hand. “Who says stuff like that?”
       I kissed her, and she giggled.
       “I like it here,” she said, cuddling close. Then, uncannily, she asked if Id recite a poem.
       We were in the exact spot where Poe used to linger for hours. I’m fairly certain Virginia didn’t know this, but she intuited the significance of my every furtive impulse.
       “Not now,” I replied. It would have been sacrilege. “I’d rather look at stars.”
       I had brought my binoculars, and I turned from her to point them at Polaris.
       “Well, that’s the Little Dipper,” she huffed. Rejection at short notice was my specialty.
       I followed the imaginary line from the Pointers in the nearby Big Dipper through the star on the tip of Cepheus’ crown. From there, it was easy to adjust my sights on Cassiopeia, the oddly shaped W, and, finally...
       “I can’t see it,” I said. “Too many lights. The city is too bright.”
       “You always think it will be darker than it is. What are you looking for, anyway?” she asked.
       “A princess with her hands bound.”
       “Excuse me?”
       “It's a constellation of a woman chained to a rock. If you look to the side of her right knee, sometimes you can see a blur of stars...”
       “Like Van Gogh.”
       “It’s another galaxy – three million light years away, with a hundred billion suns... It’s the furthest thing anyone can see with the naked eye.”
       “Well, you’re cheating,” Virginia said, reaching for the binoculars. “That’s technically not your naked eye, and I don’t see any princess.”
       “Yeah, neither do I.”
       She stopped trying to yank the binoculars away.
       “Stop making fun of me,” she pouted, then sat up and gave her knees a Freudian hug.
       “Wait a minute,” I said. “Stand up.”
       She awkwardly struggled to her feet… an angelwing emerging from a cocoon.
       “Turn around,” I directed.
       She folded her arms, shyly, reminding me of when her bra snapped apart in ruins in my car right before we arrived at a late party. She nobly spent the rest of the night self-consciously and imperceptibly trying to conceal the front of her blouse... while in fact illustrating her flair for unintentional seduction.
       “This is getting kinky,” she said, dorsal view. “What? Did I sit on something?”
       I was staring at the underside of her knee.
       “No, look...,” I said in amazement. “I never put two and two together before, but you have a...”
       “What? My birthmark?”
       “Yes! Just like Andromeda...”
       “Oh, great. Who’s Andromeda?
       “It’s the constellation I was telling you about. The galaxy, right here.” I touched the birthmark behind Virginia’s knee.
       She eyed me suspiciously. “I still think you’re trying to make fun of me.”
       “Oh yeah…” I challenged. What are you going to do about it?”
       “I’m going to kiss you to death,” she said, pecking at my ear, my neck, my chest.
       “Hey! Stop!” (“Take thy beak from out my heart!” whispered the voyeuring poet in my brain.)
       “You stop!” (One of us had been tickling her in retaliation.) “Besides, I’m serious,” she said while laughing. “You don’t really love me.”
       “Of course I love you.”
       “Oh yeah…” she parroted. “How much?”
       “How much do I love thee? It’s like this: if you take all the great love affairs of all time... Petrarch and Laura, Paolo and Francesca, Othello and Desdemona...”
       “Hey, he killed her...”
       “OK, forget Othello. Think Romeo and Juliet…”
       “Both dead.”
       “They’re all dead.”
       “Then what does it matter?”
       I shrugged, then continued, “Catullus and Lesbia, Dante and Beatrice, Edgar and Virginia...”
       “You know about Edgar?”
       “I meant Poe and his wife.
       “Oh, of course... that's who I meant too,” she said, enjoying her joke. “Try naming a couple from the 20th century.”
       “OK, Gatsby and Daisy...”
       “And her husband Tom?”
       “You’re missing the point,” I said.
       “There’s a point?”
       “It’s all about us. If you take all the great love affairs of all time and you considered how much they loved each other... if you take all those love affairs and rolled them all into one... Catullus and Lesbia, Dante and Beatrice...”
       “Yeah, yeah... You talk too much, you know that?”
       “...They’re like that streetlight over there.” I paused. “And we’re like the light from the North Star.”
       Virginia kissed me.
       “They’re that abandoned car. And we’re Detroit.”
       She kissed me again and tried to put her hand over my mouth.
       “They’re that plane heading for Newark,” I said, pointing to the sky. “And we’re a plane heading for Florence.”
       She kissed me yet again. This time, she grabbed my pointing arm and pulled it down with two hands. I laughed as she tumbled on top of me. We shrieked like children in a playground, and she jabbed at my back with her claws.
       “Hey,” I said, and she screeched even louder. “OK, OK, I give up.”
       “That’s better,” she said. We were both out of breath, and I was flat on my back with a clear view of dozens of stars flickering over New Jersey. Virginia had pinned my hands to the ground and was straddling my hips with the bare flesh of her thighs. She put her finger to my lips to stop me from saying another word.
       She leaned over me and whispered, but I couldn’t make out what she said.
       Looking back, I think she was trying to tell me the secret of real, not fictional, love. I think she was trying to tell me we should have talked less, and fought more.

       I last saw Virginia two years later, long after we had broken up for good, when I found myself in Inwood, the neighborhood where she lived when we were dating.
       Trying to avoid a traffic tie-up on the George Washington Bridge on my morning commute from where I now lived in suburban New Jersey, I wound up heading into the primordial heart of upper Manhattan. Like one of the discoverers of the New World, I made a wrong turn.
       Hundreds of years ago (as I had read in a book at the Dyckman House museum, which Virginia and I visited one sticky summer afternoon in search of air conditioning), Indians inhabited the land in this neighborhood. Their descendants tried to flee from Dutch settlers by crossing the Hudson to the Palisades in 1643. Soldiers followed them and slaughtered the entire tribe in a single night.
       I pulled over and found parking on a street where, 345 years earlier, I would have heard chilling screams from across the river, echoing in a primeval forest of steep rocky slopes and glacial potholes; caves and schist outcroppings; huge tulip trees and hemlocks.
       To this day, I’m not sure why I got out of the car and started walking to the east. I was sure, somehow, that Virginia still lived here.
       A bright morning sun appeared from behind rain clouds and reflected off bits of broken glass on the ground, as if the sidewalks were flecked with diamonds instead of round, spiked chestnut seeds and drowned, conquered worms. A swallow flew overhead, and I crossed the street to avoid a roaming, unleashed dog. Long spring shadows preceded the people walking toward me, while I had no shadow at all.
       Soon I was approaching Virginia’s apartment building.
       I saw a woman – a Juliet without a Romeo – leaning from an open window on the top floor. Longfellow was right; forests do shout. A broadcast from a Spanish-language AM radio station competed with the wailing of an unseen baby. At the edge of the street, at the bottom of a hill, I thought I saw a Haitian madman flailing his arms, but it turned out to be just someone struggling to put on a backpack.
       It was sometime before 9 o’clock, and I waited and watched the workday begin.
       The rocky hill leading to Virginia’s building didn’t seem as steep as I remembered it. Still, the top was far enough away so that one person was indistinguishable from the next as residents descended on their way to the subway station on 207th Street, where the A Train began its journey south into Manhattan proper.
       An endless variety of people approached and passed. The diversity was astounding. All had come here today, just as the Dutch, Chinese, English, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Poles, Russians and Syrians had arrived decades and centuries ago. Yet none have been able to claim this part of the island as home. We’re all immigrants here. We all just come and go.
       I stood amid the last remnants of a deep forest that has held hope for so many, simply because it provided the best perspective for me – Zaccheus in Inwood – to try to catch a glimpse of Virginia.
       Then, from precisely nowhere, I saw Virginia at the top of the hill, and I recognized her immediately, even before I could see her face.
       I ducked for cover before she could see mine, and followed her as she turned the corner to the A Train. As she passed over a subway grate (where, again short-skirted, she once imitated Marilyn Monroe), she was shrouded in steam so I couldn’t see her feet touch the ground.
       I pursued her as she descended the stairs to the station. I gave a stranger a $20 bill for a single token because I didn’t want to wait in line. He started laughing at me, and I had to dart out of Virginia’s eyesight as she turned toward the commotion.
       I watched as she headed for the middle car, near the conductor, where I had always told her she’d be safer. She took a seat alone on a metal bench.
       Unable to bear it any longer, I followed her into the subway car.
       I didn’t know what I intended to do or say. She even glanced at me as I made my way toward the open doors, but didn’t react.
       I stopped short, a few feet right in front of her, and was about to say, “Hi.”
       “Hey, watch it!” said someone who bumped me from behind. It was an old man, wearing a bedraggled raincoat. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in weeks.
       “I’m sorry,” I said automatically.
       When I said this, Virginia recognized me immediately.
       In the same moment, I awkwardly pirouetted to avoid the homeless man’s bag of worldly possessions.
       “I’m sorry,” I repeated, now looking directly into Virginia’s eyes.
       “Get lost,” said the old man, wildly swinging his bag to lift it to the bench opposite her. This forced me backwards yet again, as an efficient two-note tone sounded.
       I was completely out of the subway car when its doors slid shut between me and my other life.
       The conductor poked his head out the window and looked at me. I realize now that he was about to open the doors to let me back in, but at the time I was shaking my head “no” because what had just taken place wasn’t what was supposed to have happened when I saw Virginia again.
       A low flame numbed the movement in my arms and legs and even took control of my tongue. I couldn’t speak, and I leaned against a pillar for support. Virginia had, quite literally, taken my breath away.
       The train started to pull away from the station without me, as the homeless man flashed a toothless smile.
       The lights inside the subway car flickered like my arrhythmic heart. In a blinding flash, the train approached the tunnel at the end of the station, and I saw Virginia hunched in her seat with her elbows drawn tightly to her stomach as if she had been shot.
       It was a grotesque pantomime, followed by darkness.
       If this were fiction, I would conjure someone else to sit beside Virginia, put an arm around her and comfort her as she sat on that train. I’d write about someone who loved her the way she deserved to be loved.
       I was never that person. Not even once.


Panel Three (Holy Thursday, 1993)
       After a fitful night, I drove in early from Jersey and parked my car on Manhattan’s East Side, intending to head straight home after work. Instead, since my walk back to the garage in the evening spring rain took me in the direction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I felt compelled to stop inside.
       It was illogical. I pass so many churches without giving them a second thought and, theoretically, a man can pray anywhere. But I couldn’t pass by St. Patrick’s. I suppose, after all, that’s why they build cathedrals.
       The majestic gold-leaf front doors – the ones with inlaid statues – were open wide. This was rare and signaled a special occasion. From outside, I could see a crowd and a colorful, dry and brightly-lit ceremony in progress.
       On a cold December night more than seven years earlier, when these doors were locked, Virginia and I had huddled for warmth against them. She was sandwiched between me and Mother Seton, and it looked as if Virginia’s bohemian aspect and dress were being captioned by the scroll meant to identify the statue: “Daughter of New York.” We were with her friends. The whole group of us sang Christmas carols to passing strangers on Fifth Avenue and those gathered on the cathedral steps.
       Tonight, I ventured inside these very doors and lingered in back among the milling tourists. At the front altar, a cardinal was washing the feet of an old priest in a wheelchair. One altar boy precariously lit a high candle with a taper, and another let out an echoing cough amid a billowing cloud of incense.
       I stepped forward to get a better look, and in an instant left New York behind. I seemed to be in ancient Babel, surrounded by a din of voices without meaning. No one was paying much attention to the still-distant cardinal. I could hear the gift shop doing a brisk Holy Week business, and an usher offering envelopes soliciting donations. Several women clutching rosaries cut in front of me past the center aisle like a gaggle of squawking geese crossing a country road.
       In the middle of this tumult, I whispered Virginia’s name.
       Years ago, I had felt embarrassed while singing the Christmas carols. My hollow, out-of-tune voice had trailed the others by half a beat, and I tried not to let anyone hear me. But I was not embarrassed tonight.
       In fact, I called out for Virginia again – louder and with more urgency, so that those around me could clearly hear. When I said her name yet a third time, I felt sure that Virginia herself, wherever she was, could hear me as well – as if, by some magic, I could summon her once more to the cathedral.
       But no miracles happened there tonight. There was just a man, pacing among the inattentive tourists, babbling to himself.

       Why did I call out her name?
       I didn’t plan to; it was more an impromptu attempt at an exorcism, I suppose.
       I’ve been writing more and more lately; stirring old memories. For the past few weeks, when I have managed to sleep, I have had vivid dreams of Virginia. Unfortunately, they are vividly dull.
       One night, I am living in her Inwood apartment, and on the kitchen table I find a half-eaten apple, teeming with roaches. The next night, I hand her the string to a kite, but when she takes hold, it turns out to be a literal loose end. On the third, I kiss a drop of blood from the tip of her ring finger.
       Symbolic, yes, but nothing magical. If these dreams were fantastically choreographed or blatantly sexual – say, for example, if I had tasted Virginia’s body before I tasted her blood – I could abide them. Instead, their monotony… and monogamy… is unrelenting. Virginia and I often go through the routine motions of a real-life marriage... while, wide awake, I’m just like everyone else, routinely going through these same motions.
       If these dreams were all I had, I would awaken myself nightly, slip from the bed where my wife is sleeping with the cat curled on her chest, and let my dreams go on without me. Then I would sit at my desk and finish writing my love story. It would have a predictable happy ending, based on all my unfulfilled and unconsecrated desires.
       But last night… last night, I had a better dream than this.
       Last night I had a dream very much like others I have had at odd moments over the past few years. These dreams, when they come, have a consistent theme: No matter what the plot or circumstance, Virginia and I are always, in some way, arriving “home.” I wake up feeling as if my sins have been forgiven.
       In these dreams, as in real life, Virginia is neither friend nor lover. She is, instead, a curious host of salvation.
       If there is something missing in my life, at least I can take dim comfort in its recognition. This longing for a home that isn’t where I live tells me that nothing can be truly understood. I find this reassuring. Through Virginia, I can put a face on my most deep-seated longings. Without this… obsession, I would be consumed by petty day-to-day worries, and even my dreams would be just like everyone else’s.
       In real life, today, Virginia is surely imperfect the way I am imperfect alone and without her, and the way we were imperfect together. But in rare dreams she touches a diminished chord that resonates with some part of perfection that lies deep within me.
       I believe this to be my soul: my link to a real, deathless place beyond an ethereal, timeless horizon where anything is possible. Artists might call this the ideal point. Churchgoers call it heaven. My unguarded mind calls it home.
       This Virginia, my Virginia, is a grubby, sensual, underdressed and unredressed version of what an old-fashioned family Bible depicts as a winged spirit in a flowing white gown. She proves there are parts of me that, for all my introspection, I still cannot fathom. This angel strips away the layers of my ordinary life. She is absurdly unrelenting in guiding me toward a greater destiny. At night, when I am least protected, she imparadises my dreams.

       Had I but world enough and time, I would write something grander for Virginia than this triptych in memoriam. I would place rock upon rock, word upon word, to form solid walls with Byzantine mosaics of aurochs and angels atop a carefully planned foundation. I would imprison her in a Yeatsian tower and free myself to become the kind of person who could love someone in real life the way I love Virginia in my dreams.
       Had I but courage equal to my desire.
       But I’m no hero. My Andromeda has no Perseus. I’m merely an alchemist. Using dissonant dreams as base metal, I summon these words to transubstantiate past into present, blood into ink, body into soul.
       Lord, you’ve had your chances. I’ve surrendered my desires, but no one noticed. I’ve longed for your forgiveness, but it eludes me. I’ve even ranted in your cathedrals, but you didn’t hear me.
       But you – even You – can’t take Virginia away from me. No one can make me forsake her, and no one can steal what I can turn into gold.
       Because no one can ever love her as much as I do when I write.

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Photos (from top): New Jersey woods, two views of New York from New Jersey, St. Patrick's Cathedral.

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