A poet friend has sent me a collection of lines that were either cut from his poems in composition or never made it into a finished stanza. He has assembled these lines on a page—all gleaned from different mornings’ work and stirred by separate impulses—into a common cluster. Curiously, their meld makes a kind of sense, and their abandoned images come to life and find new homes in meaning. He calls the result “Out Takes.”
Beside my desk is a large, wire basket where I keep journals, some going back over two decades, in which I have recorded notes on my travels, reflections and observations, an odd recipe or two, ideas for a novel or an essay, the sounding of a joy or despair—odd threads to be worked into the seam of a larger work but that have never found a place. My friend’s salvage operation tempts me to do something similar, and I pull out a notebook from this pile beside me. The notebooks cover is worn and scribbled over (several anonymous phone numbers—who in that past would answer if I dialed them now?) and hangs loose from the wire spiral of its spine. I flip through its pages to come across this entry:
He had never been sure of her—never certain that she was telling the truth and that her lateness—her breathless tardiness—was due to her lingering a little too long, he could not say lovingly, over some lummox in a motel.
Flushed from these recent exertions rather than from anticipating his company, her eyes still illuminated from recent frictions, he found himself accepting her on whatever terms she seemed to be offering.
Why? It was something unexpected, he reasoned, something rather ordinary that had become compelling. Say, the slight curve of her neck in the lamplight as she read beside him, so touching, graceful and vulnerable, like the woman in Conrad’s “Victory.”
Where did this come from? Is this fiction or a residue of an actual betrayal suspended in its own, acrid gem of memory? I can’t remember what was happening in my life then, who the woman may have been, and the pages around this entry are no help; they are mostly concerned with some of Ronald Reagan’s cockeyed economic policies. Maybe it’s fiction. It’s in third person and could be the fragment of a story never written that now lies naked, without context, on this notebook page. It doesn’t read like a diary note, but is the objective voice only a mask put on to disguise my own feelings from myself? Who could this woman be, breathless and compelling? Have I made her up?
And lummox. Who uses words like that? The word only appears in the supplement of my Oxford dictionary, and it is cited as an American dialectical variation of the verb lummock, “to move heavily or clumsily.” So, this melancholy voice envisions his rival as heavy and clumsy—read muscular and inexperienced—and the dismissive tone may be a defensive flick of the finger at a younger contender. The woman has lingered over the other guy—that’s the preposition of choice—because the lummox is too heavy and clumsy to assume an active role. She’s doing all the moving.
So what is the nature of this relationship that has been so betrayed? Reading side-by-side suggests a domesticity, a homey and comfortable place to which she arrives late and out of breath. Maybe not all that exciting, for reading is seldom put to the service of fore-play, but turn out the light and settle under the covers, she with a contented sigh and he shifting into acceptance. He wants her beside him no matter what the terms.
Are they married? Those breathless, tardy arrivals can also suggest she is joining him someplace public, probably for dinner, and these moments might be worn facsimiles of their earlier rendezvous, which were a little wild and slightly dangerous. Sharing a meal is a convenient device for a scene in fiction, and I’ll say he’s just about to finish the one martini he allows himself before dinner when she rushes in, her eyes brilliant with a light that eradicates the shadows that have begun to creep into him. Her quickness and bustle suggest youth, so I’ll make her much younger, which explains his patience and acceptance of whatever she gives him. It’s part of the bargain he’s made with time. But what does he offer her? What does she get out of this arrangement? Certainly a reading list, all those books she reads beside him. What about forgiveness for her missteps, which might draw her closer to him? Then there’s wisdom, knowledge—aren’t they supposed to accompany age? Lately, he’s been steering her away from California chardonnays to introduce her to a St. Veran or the crisp rightness of a Sancerre. At dinner she digs into her food, chewing and talking cheerfully. She also likes to eat and has worked up an appetite. Several pages later in the journal, clearly long after dessert— and the rest of the page is a crudely drawn map to someplace—I come across this item:
When they got inside the car, he held her close for some little time— enough to make her uncomfortable, he could tell. Not that she resisted his embrace or even objected, but its prolongation made her uneasy. She was used to these moments progressing, moving on to another, but he was apparently satisfied to stay on one plateau without moving on.
So, on the way to his place—to break out the books—she is impetuous and eager to gain new experience and he wants to hold on to what he has. I am guessing that he is not so much satisfied with this “plateau”—this new turn in their history that he may have just become aware of in the parked car—as he is more fearful of risking a new location, one completely empty of her.
“You’re not going to tell me you’ve never done this before.” “I guess not.”
I wrote down these lines in another journal, apparently while I was having dinner at a small country hotel in the Meuse Valley. They are the same voices and several years apart, but I recognize them. I had put down my fork and taken up my pen. But what’s happening?
She has sensed his anxiety and, good-hearted as she is, manages a palliative in the close confines of that car’s front seat. After all, their dinner was sumptuous, and the figs poached in red wine and topped with crème fraîche were out of sight. I know because that’s what I had for dessert—it says so right on the page.
But done what before? The unattended pronoun teases the imagination. Her reply is whimsical, a kind of rhetorical shrug that matches that pell-mell entrance in the earlier note. The scant three words of her reply—/ guess not—suggest a perfunctory pause in the proceedings, and the rest is silence. But later, toward the final pages of this same notebook, this musing is scribbled:
How sweet he found her deceptions, her superb technique with falsehood taught her by the many who had abused her, who had left her wounded by the side of their brutish passage through her life.
Lurid prose and righteous anger, and all encased in a Proustian sensibility—read “The Sweet Cheat Gone”—but in all probability, whoever is talking may not be all that sorry about her “superb technique,” and maybe she has not regretted the various abuses, either. To credit him, he recognizes that he may be no different from all the others who have treated her so badly and that he shares the same bed, so to speak, with that lummox in the motel of the first journal. So maybe this voice has some conscience, some awareness of what has been happening to them on the different pages. The insight may be more than he can take, for he disappears from this one notebook, and I must look for him through half a dozen others before I come across him again.
Like most men, he’s separated women into different parts in order to understand the enigma, only to find the puzzle even more unsolvable.
Well, throw up the hands in Cartesian wonder—he’s tried his best, tried his judicial best to understand this young woman, tried to put some clothes on the naked truth of this affair and finally understands it cannot be explained reasonably. If it cannot be justified, it’s not his fault, either. But on a page of directions through some villages
in Languedoc, I discover the couple has reached some sort of accommodation to the fate my idle sketching has given them.
“Can you see Madame Bovary taking out the trash?”
“You mean packing up the garbage and tying a little ribbon around it?”
“Yes, something like that. “ Her voice had fallen. She had lost interest in
the idea just now.
The light through the windows fell across the back of the chair as the
light had graced her arms this morning when she raised her hands to adjust
the coil of her hair.
Well, how did they meet? It takes me a long search through a pile of chronicles in the wire basket before I come across this clue in a kind of stenographic notebook (the rest of the pages taken up by notes for a novel never written):
The several references had been pushed to one side of his desk. He would get to them tomorrow. But he had been saying that for a month. He worried, a little bit, that the filing date on one had already passed. A student might fail to get an appointment and would think her own inadequacies were to blame.
Oh, dear, this is beginning to sound like one more familiar account of an affair between a teacher and student, the stuff of academic imagination and a weary vita. Do we need another indictment of such foolish fondling? I used the plot myself in my second novel, “An American Marriage,” and I wrote that book years before I had even made up my first syllabus. Moreover, is it even the same young woman feeling inadequate, the same young woman who raised her arms in that other notebook to pose as a portrait by Vermeer in the morning light? That morning light indicates he feels somewhat responsible for her future, or is he just another canny shark lollygag-ging in the shallows and ready to feast on uncertain minnows? Those earlier entries suggest him to be a man enmeshed and powerless in his own net, but sitting at his office desk, references pushed to one side, he is in control. He has become a power to be petitioned. At this point in most romances, a phone usually rings, but it doesn’t ring until another notebook and on a page that also records a day’s skiing in Colorado.
The French have all these idioms whose real meanings you could never guess—for example, avoir du ail is an expression meaning to be lucky. But its literal translation is to have some ass.
Come to think of it, that isn’t too far off, he said to himself as he reached for the phone. It rang before he picked it up.
And it is she! I’m saying it is. She’s calling to make an appointment. She knows he’s very busy with all of his important projects— that monograph on “Madame Bovary” is still talked about in certain circles—but if he could just find time to write a couple of recommendations for her. So she enters his office—his life—bearing forms for a Fulbright or some graduate program. She finds him, desk cleared, wise, patient and randy.
The beads came from a bazaar in Tangiers, but she found them too heavy to wear comfortably. She worried his feelings would be hurt.
The first gift is rather ordinary, and it shows up as a scrap on a completely empty page. Something he picked up at a tourist stall between panels at some conference. It is an ordinary gift from an exotic place, and that combination interests but does not alarm her. But it’s too heavy for her neck—too heavy for a trinket and probably too garish to wear. She wants to be discreet—another reason not to wear it—but she’s also worried about his feelings. The net is closing around them. Meanwhile, the recommendations have been written and sent on their way, and the relationship has moved out of his office. They go on a picnic; at least somebody does.
It was cool here under the black pines, and the ground had the resilient feel of a mattress—not an especially good mattress, but one that would do. She had already lowered the picnic basket to the ground and looked at him happily.
Something about her happiness setting down the picnic basket makes me think this excursion was her idea. In private and away from worldly bothers, she wants to play Eve restoring the Garden. What’s in the basket? She’s brought food she’s learned he likes. A hard cheese of some kind, maybe an Italian pastore sini—that’s popular here in Pittsburgh, too—crusty bread, a piece of cold chicken. Fruit. Yes, a bottle of wine, too, a red she could afford and not too grapey, she hopes. She’s forgotten a corkscrew, but of course, she knows he has his Swiss Army knife. They have become that intimate. Food seems to feed this romance; on many pages, I find them chowing down. Here’s a supper in a Chinese restaurant:
“Are you a dragon or a rabbit?” She had picked up one of the paper place mats with the Chinese zodiac printed around its edges. “Is this one of your sly ways of trying to figure my age?” “Come to think of it, you must be a boar. “ “How do you spell that?”
Yes, bore, indeed. Anxiety and moo goo guy pan don’t make for an appetizing dish. But why does he worry about their ages? Maybe he’s begun to think this fling is becoming something more permanent, but if he keeps talking about it, she might start adding up their years and subtracting herself from the sum. She finds his worry boring and tries to make fun of him, but these cracks in his confidence bother her a little.
His whole family had been like that. Servants with a sense that they might have been really important, but for a cruel toss of the dice. This attitude upset her.
He wasn’t supposed to have doubts about himself—that was her department. His authority, the heat of his assurance, had drawn her to him, but these peevish misgivings startled her.
Sometimes he felt like old Monet with his long brushes dipping into the lily pond. If he could just tell the story straight out and without having to back off to bring it into perspective.
What story does he want to tell, and is this the voice of a writer, a different guy entirely? Also, I’m startled to hear him whine in this different journal. Imagine how she must feel.
All along he had played by the rules, done his turn at the pump, and held up wire on the fence for another to crawl through, but here he was on the wrong side of the fence and no one to help him.
Well, so what?
Yes, so what indeed, she might stamp impatiently. More sour apples. He’s becoming tiresome, and these petty differences are accumulating in this pile of old notebooks. A line here, a scrap of dialogue there, none very critical by itself, but when assembled, they amass evidence of discord. Something has happened to those giddy arrivals, those innocent appetites in the woods. They have begun to have arguments.
“You will never understand me/’ She canted her head to fix an earring. Was there something to understand?
Then, in another notebook, her voice pierces through some observations I was making on memory and Montaigne.
“You mustn’t try to insult me—you don’t have the wit for it. “ “That sounds like Oscar Wilde.>}
These two fragments, inscribed in journals kept years apart, create an unhappy scene when put together. She’s fixing an earring in one ear, a final attention to her appearance after lovemaking, and they have begun to bicker. She’s getting tired of his playing old Monet by the lily pond. Note the earring. Something tasteful in gold, maybe a loop, and far different from that tourist gimcrack he gave her before. So they have progressed from those early, awkward exchanges to this serious entanglement. She’s become elegant, confident and strong enough to stick him with the cool insouciance of an Oscar Wilde. He taught her that—recommended the books, anyway—and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a direct quote or a clever simulation. I want to think she’s made it up. She’s come into her own.
And who has this voice become? No longer the uncertain student, the beguiling lover. Who is this woman? C’est moi, c’est moi. I’ve read “Bovary,” too.
I see more of that spirit, more of her independence standing up to him, in a passage in a shabby notebook held together by duct tape. He, apparently, has come to her apartment.
“I’ve had a rough day. “
“How about a drink. George Dickel, isn’t it?”
“How do you know about George Dickel?”
“That’s your drink, isn’t it? I’m supposed to know these things.”
“Don’t tell me—you have a lot of brands in that cupboard.”
“I don’t do inventory until spring. If you’re still around in spring, you
can check the store. “
This is my favorite excerpt. She’s using that snappy, tough, good-girl sound of a young Lauren Bacall. She’s noted his brand of bourbon, and that suggests her interest in him, and she returns his nasty remark with a warning shot that he’d better behave if he wants to know her better. The exchange suggests an intimacy, an affectionate familiarity, but when does it take place? She’s living in her own place, and that means she hasn’t moved in with him, as the previous out-takes indicate. On the other hand, maybe she’s kept her apartment, a wary gesture, as a place of refuge, and he sometimes comes there for a visit, and they replay some of the old thrill of their early lawlessness.
But just a minute—what if I had picked this particular notebook out of the pile first? Encountering this little scene first—before that fateful afternoon in his office—would affect their relationship and require a whole new chronology. Every history is shaped by the order of its telling; even in memory, we make selections that configure the past, so the narratives of a single life can be contradictory and truthful all at once, reshuffled like cards and picked up and played out as different hands.
One thing is certain—this couple is not always together, and on several pages, he shows up at night alone. Her absence is unexplained. No quarrels are evident, and he looks into the dark silence around him.
The city continued to grow up around him, so at certain hours before daybreak, lying sleepless in bed, with the windows opened to suck in the early hour chill, he was sure he heard the sound of its growth, reaching like a strange algae up the outside walls of his building.
He’s having a panic attack, a figment of a horror film: He’s alone and hears his own mortality creeping up to smother him. Apparently no air conditioning, either. If she were in the picture, lying beside him—reading, of course—she would wool him about, tease him and make him laugh at these shadows on the wall. And sometimes he does tell her about his dreams.
One morning he could swear he could smell his mother’s apple pies baking in the apartment building. In some unit, his mother was pulling three or four pies out of someone’s oven. She had gotten into the apartment somehow—while the people were at work—and she had made these pies. Now they were done, and she would tidy up and leave. But here’s the joke: She had thought she was in his apartment, and she had made these pies just for him. She had come back just to bake these pies as a surprise for him when he returned from work. He would know that she had been there, that she had come back. But she had gone into the wrong apartment and—just to continue the nightmare—he would go from door to door, floor to floor, trying to flnd the right apartment, the one with the pies.
Misplaced affection. She knows all about that; after all, it might have been one of the reasons, in addition to those recommendations, she had sought him out. This kinship they share moves her, moves them beyond the mere semblance of a semester’s romance, and she wants to hear more of his dreams. His attempt to heal the wound in a dream, however ironic, appeals to her. He becomes the storyteller, and she likes to hear about his life—how he was before they met. It’s more interesting than any of those books he’s been recommending. And he’s right here next to her.
As a boy he enjoyed swimming long distances in a good-sized lake where his uncle ran a bait and tackle shop. Round and around, he made the circle, imagining he was Johnny Weissmuller with every stroke of his arms rising
cleanly from the dinging water and then slicing through its surface with little disturbance.
This image of him swimming appears in a small notebook, almost vest-pocket size and some of its pages torn out (what story has been destroyed there?). The episode strikes her with the clarity of that same pervasive light that sometimes falls upon her neck. She can see his arm rise cleanly—surely a Hemingway adverb—and then slice back into the water, to imply the neatness of a superior swimmer. The language excites her also—he’s introduced her to this arousal— as does the picture of him as a boy practicing the same qualities that have attracted her to him as a man. Effort and strength combined with grace warm her, and now she has seen them in an earlier version of him, and this perception somehow grants them a curious longevity. A history before it unfolds. She keeps this insight to herself, stores up its knowledge in the same place she keeps his preference in bourbon.
But who’s kidding whom? Her observations about his swimming as a boy could just as easily be reflections that he wants to think she experiences—he’s put them into her head. Or someone has.
Silences will always fall between them. Here’s one in a last journal, a final turn of the page:
Again it was as if he had come to the banks of a great river, like the Mississippi, and though there might be a bridge, even ferry boats toiling back and forth, his crossing would still be an event, an act that would leave certain familiar faces behind on one bank, and he would encounter strangers on the opposite shore.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she murmured.
“They’ll cost you more than that/’
She pulled herself up and kissed him on the mouth. “There. Paid in full. “
“I was thinking there’s a piece of pie left and how good it would taste with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.”
Food again. They read and they eat, and he has moody thoughts. They reside in the wire basket beside my desk, caught on pages between segments of my idle perceptions or maps and directions that no longer lead anywhere. I’ll leave them alone to sort out their own narrative, to tell it from any direction. Or not at all.