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Authors: J. D. Landis

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Lying in Bed

BOOK: Lying in Bed
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Lying in Bed

a novel by

J. D. LANDIS

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

For
DT
My wife
With love
JD

What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world but there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself.

—Virginia Woolf

Contents

8 P.M.

9 P.M.

10 P.M.

11 P.M.

12 A.M.

3 A.M.

Labyrinth

8
P.M.

I am lying in bed, waiting for Clara.

Actually, I am not lying in the bed. I am lying on it.

I am lying on the Double Wedding Ring quilt that was Clara's gift to me when we married just over four years ago. For so common and popular a pattern—with its circles within circles, a happy emblem of the willing commitment and submission of newlyweds to the gyve and take of marriage—it is an unusual example of the craft.

Huge for a quilt from its time, the Civil War, it is actually large enough to cover our bed, which was custommade for us, as was most everything else in this vast loft, aside from the antiques, before we moved in on our wedding night.

It is a larger bed than what is called king-sized. So we call it emperor-sized, not to celebrate our condition of sovereignty in our secluded home up here atop the city but to make a private musical joke. It was in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto that the cadenza was first written out,
and this bed has been the rebellious site of our endless improvisation as Clara and I have played upon the flesh of one another in the deepening nights of our marriage.

Like the Great Bed of Ware, ours is square and consequently so is the quilt, as if it were from the century before its own. It is also unusual in its provenance and condition.

It is Amish and yet vastly more colorful than those enviably simple people were allowing themselves to produce at that wretched time. I imagine it being made in secret by one ambitious and beautiful young maiden who found its colors in the innocent blue of the sky and the promiscuous red of the blood that saturated the black Pennsylvania soil as this beloved nation sent an axe through its own neck.

The Double Wedding Ring design had appeared very little before that civil war and even then was not widely dispersed until the first few decades of the present century, which, appropriately, has run completely out of decades now and approaches the open mons of the millennium deadened by the safety on its senseless glans.

Like most Amish quilts from that time, this one is made of wool, though the wool has softened to an almost silky texture. Yet it sustains itself in defiance of the disintegration visited upon virtually every other quilt of its age and fabric by what is called the “burning” rendered by the natural dyes.

It is that survival, more than the cherishable but trite symbolism of the interlocking wedding bands (which the Amish, like Clara and me, do not choose to wear), that renders this quilt precious to me. Marriage has become the most disposable of our American institutions, as desire is discarded like some withered membrane from its flesh. But I am determined that ours will escape the disintegration of familiarity and will last beyond its own time, beyond death
itself.

I am in love with marriage and find it even as mysterious as I hope always to find my wife. At the same time, I am forever attempting to solve its mystery, and hers. I have always wanted to know the truth of things, though I am aware, as Nietzsche said, that it is a condition of existence that those who lift the shroud from truth shall perish.

But I have perished before.

I
AM LYING
in bed, waiting for Clara.

Actually, I am not waiting for Clara. Clara left not twenty minutes ago. It is much too soon, and too early, for me to be waiting for her to return.

In fact, I had been waiting, with some impatience, for her to leave.

We have not been apart often enough in our marriage, not at night. It is true that we spend every day apart, she at her shop, I here, listening to my music, thinking my thoughts, pursuing my job, which I take delight in describing to the Internal Revenue Service, who are the only people I am obliged to tell what I do, as repairman, that great fixture in American life. (I got the idea, I must confess, from my father, who had called me a born diaskeuast, which has come to mean someone who fixes things. And while I've never been a diaskeuast, the Greek root of that word—
skeuos
, meaning
tool
—brought forth the image of the repairman, to mention nothing of its vulgar invocation of the male member. Words are so seductive!—is it any wonder I was ravished by them to the point of total surrender and virtual eradication.)

I have been audited but once, for I am immaculate in the handling of my finances, which are considerable, though through no effort of my own unless inheritance might be
considered an endowment; and the audit was indeed occasioned by my reporting of this bequest. On that singular occasion I was rather disappointed that the agent assigned to my return did not ask me just what it was I repaired. I wonder how much more deeply she might have probed into my ultraconservatively invested, slowly compounding tower of Treasuries had I been able to give my answer to her unasked question: “Myself.”

Just what sort of repairman did she think I was, sitting before her in my daily uniform of tweed suit (trousers cuffed; poplin come July), Oxford shirt, club cravat (unlike Wittgenstein I am perpetually betied), sturdy brogues that might as well have come with a lifetime guarantee, aristocratic sandy hair, horn-rims from behind which my print-betrayed eyes gazed at her with the knowledge of how everything worked except the actual things of this world and, of course, me?

I like to think that what fooled her were my muscular build, courtesy of my father as my money had been the hereditament from my mother, and my hands, which are so large and architecturally veined and fiercely jointed that they frighten even me.

It is as if from birth I knew there was no place for me here. I had been born with the body of an athlete and the face, as my late mother used to call it, of a matinée idol, but I refused to put either to use and would not have known how to do so even had I been so inclined. I did not want to “do” anything. I did not want to “make” anything. I did not want to “move” anything. I did not want to “influence” anything. I did not want to “change” anything. I did not want to “teach” anything. I did not even want to “have” anything.

I was a bad American boy. I could find no local heroes
(not among the living, certainly, but also not among such contenders as Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, any of the James boys—and I include Jesse and Frank, William and Henry—and Santayana). I could keep no friends, for the boys always wanted to explore the world and the girls my feelings. I knew no love.

I knew no love until I found Clara.

And while Clara and I do spend each day apart, and she tends to come home rather late from her shop, we are so locked together at night—in conversation, in the sex that must be every marriage's interbastation, in huddled sleep on this huge bed in this one boundless room that is our home—that I have been looking forward to this time alone ever since Clara told me this morning that she had a dinner date for tonight.

It is hardly unprecedented for Clara to be out at night, though rarely for dinner and then typically to meet with one of her sources who has trucked or vanned in from Kentucky or Indiana or upstate New York or somewhere else in that other America with what usually turn out to be unworthy pieces anyway, according to Clara, who will always ask me to undress her myself after one of these frustrating get-togethers, as if to affirm a need for me so great that she could not even step out of her clothes were I not there to undo and catch them, or to challenge me to find upon her the excoriations of another's touch.

More commonly when she is out at night, she is catching up with the things that most people, who don't work as hard and as independently as Clara, find time for during the day: seeing dentists and doctors, who I sometimes think only pretend to keep evening hours just not to lose so charming a patient; hectoring her accountant, who persists in telling Clara that she is merely lucky to be
doing so well, particularly in so volatile an economy, and that therefore she should be putting more money aside for old age instead of tying it up in inventory; and on irregular but not infrequent occasions going for a workout and massage to her health club, from which she returns burnished and avid.

Usually Clara goes to wherever she is going directly from work. It is rare for her to come home and change, as she did tonight.

Perhaps that is why I was so eager for her to leave. But I could hardly express my enthusiasm for her absence. That would be unkind and open to misinterpretation.

So I put my arms around her and drew her to me. “I'll miss you,” I said.

She rested her head on my chest. We are the perfect height for one another. “It's not as if I'll be gone all night.”

It had never occurred to me that she might be gone all night. It was a most provocative thing for her to say.

“I'll miss you if you're gone for five minutes.” That was the perfect thing for me to say. But, then, it has been Clara who has taught me how to speak.

But I do not miss her.

I am lying here, as I had known I would, luxuriating in solitude. Darkness is now falling on this late-summer evening. I watch it while it eats the light as it spreads down my body on the bed and slides off my shoes on its way across the loft.

I am alone again and silent in the night.

But there is no pain now, as there has been pain so often in the past.

I am married. Nothing can hurt me.

I
HAVE NEVER
been married before. Neither has Clara. We
entered one another without the nearly requisite modern encumbrance of an ex-this or -that.

There are no in-laws either. Clara claims to be an orphan, by fiat. She banished her parents from her life for the cruel trick she feels they played on her the day she was born. I have made no attempt to get her to reconcile with them, not out of fear they won't like me, for Clara likes me well enough, but because their absence from our lives allows me to be that much more alone with her. Also, I cannot bear the idea of looking at two people and being forced to realize that Clara got her purple gaze from this one and the twilit incandescence of her hair from that, her forthrightness from him and her lenocinant smile from her. I detest echo and reflection, replication and even semblance. I repudiate the tyranny of gene. I do not want to see her in anyone else. I want her to exist as if she had sprung into being directly from the touch of the power she judiciously calls It.

I am a literal orphan on the maternal side and might as well be on the other too. My father and I have not spoken since the reading of my mother's will. This is not to say he was unhappy with the will. In fact, he had devised it with her. It was me with whom he was unhappy. It was me with whom he had always been unhappy. And so he had arranged with my mother to provide for me for life. That done, he left my life.

Clara, who has never met him, detests him on my behalf. While I sometimes wish he could know how I am finally content (with her, of whose existence he is not even aware; with myself), I cannot betray her by calling him. And I believe he would rather cut off his hands than use them to pick up the phone to call me, though that does not stop me from imagining now and then when the phone
rings that it is he. But that could not be: our number is unlisted; I have not answered a phone in what must be nearly five years now; and he believes I live a continent instead of merely eighty blocks away, for Clara arranged to have him mailed from San Francisco a mawkish printed card, signed by me, four Christmases ago.

And we have no children, Clara or I. “Or at least none that I know of,” I joke of myself. It is, obviously, not a joke a woman can make. If a woman has a child, she knows it. A man might never.

But I have no reason to suspect I have a child somewhere. My sex life had been severely limited before Clara, and I had insisted, on its one manifestation, that I wear what I knew then only as a safety.

That singular time, when I lost my virginity to a girl who sat next to me in my freshman philosophy course at Yale and who in fact introduced me to Nietzsche by mockingly calling me an ascetic priest until I finally gave myself to her, I proudly produced said safety that I had bought in a pharmacy on Church Street and like nearly every other American boy carried around with me “just in case,” though in my pocket, not my wallet, for even then I never went out in the street with a wallet, having realized, prophetically, that New Haven was a miniature Manhattan and that the races played a game my father called, quite wittily though with the utter disgust of the righteous, Involuntary Socialism. “What's that for?” asked the girl, whose name was Cosima, of all things, or at least she called herself Cosima, after the Cosima with whom more great men have been in love than perhaps any woman in history. (I never did learn her real name.) “Birth control,” I answered. “I'm on the pill,” she said and waved the thing away. “I still need it,” I said, though I had no logical reason
to say so, for this was 1978, and AIDS, while it had by then entered our bloodstream, was unknown. She took the little packet from me and held it by its silvery edge between her lips as she proceeded to unbuckle my belt and unzip my fly and lower my tweed trousers and then my boxers. “Look at you,” she said, which I didn't realize then might be a common female expression at such a moment. And so I looked at me. As I did, Cosima expertly ripped open the packet using her teeth and the fingers of one hand while the other hand held me upright. Then she fingered the safety by its edges like some rare coin and began to unroll it upon me, seeming to urge it along with the flitting tip of her tongue. And as she left the glans behind and headed down the helve toward where her other hand was redundantly holding me straight up, I felt my whole body rise from her dorm-room squab and a great bolt of feeling ascend from my groin through my stomach and chest and throat and into my brain, where it horrified me by obliterating all my thoughts and did all it could to burst open my skull. I had closed my eyes involuntarily, quite as if I'd sneezed, and when I opened them I saw the reservoir of the safety tipped over along the side of my penis, bulgingly awash with my semen. Cosima was staring at it. “You came,” she said glumly. “But that's okay. It happens.” Her fingers had not left the bottom of the safety, and now she removed it from me, not rolling it up but gently pulling it until it came loose with a succulent pop and hung morosely from her fingers like a torpid windsock. “No need to apologize,” she said, which made me realize, like some naïf Adam, that an apology might very well be what was required of me at this moment. “It was very exciting,” she added. “One minute I was hardly touching you and the next minute you got even harder and I literally thought you
were going to explode, I mean your whole thing, your whole cock, I thought it was going to explode in my hands. But all it did was come. Thank goodness. I never saw so much come in my life.” She hefted the safety as if weighing it. “Of course,” she went on, “I never saw anybody shoot right into a rubber before. But it was still prodigious. You must not have come in a long time.” She seemed to expect me to say something, but I did not. “How long has it been since you came?” she persisted. “A long time,” I said. She smiled. “I thought so. I can tell. Not just by this”—she waved the safety above me before releasing it so it fell to the floor—“but also by this.” She reached down with the other hand and took my penis in her fingers. However much it might have fallen off, it now stood straight again, not because she was touching it, I realized, but because of the words she had been saying, the language she had used that had aroused me once again. “Look at you. I'll bet you last a lot longer this time, though it's all right if you don't because I don't care, I really don't, I just want you inside me and you can come if you want to, really, you can come whenever you want, I just want you inside me.” As she spoke, she kept hold of me with one hand while she rose on her knees on the thick cushions and put her other hand up her skirt and wiggled her hips above me and finally got her undershorts down to her knees and bent over to push them toward her feet. She sighed when she removed the drawers over her bare feet and brought them up in her hand. “Do you like them?” “Beautiful,” I said, for they were indeed, not for their soft fabric or their lacy trim but for their very form and what they signified and where they came from and how they fluttered in her trembling fingers. She let them fall onto my tie and lifted her skirt with both hands and stuck its hem between her
front teeth and placed her hands open and flat, palm down, on her stomach and rubbed her way slowly down until the tips of the first two fingers of her right hand disappeared between the lips of her vagina, which she then spread open with the fingers of her left hand so I could see. I could see, and I was seeing something I had never seen before. “I'm so wet,” she lisped from the hem of her skirt in her mouth, “so very wet,” and, in my innocence, I thought of rain, sordid yet soterial, falling down on both of us, she with her head back now, in her ecstasy, I somehow watching her fingers move and seeing the vulnerable curve of her throat at the same time. She came forward on her knees over my thighs and adjusted her body so she was on the flats of her feet, squatting above me. Then, as she released her skirt from her teeth, she started to come down upon me. “Wait,” I said. Her eyes returned to mine. “Are you going to come again?” she snarled solicitously. “No,” I answered, “but I need one of those.” I pointed down to where I thought the spent safety must have landed. “You must be kidding,” said Cosima. “No,” I confessed. “Why?” she pleaded. “Birth control,” I repeated. It wasn't enough she was on the pill. I would do anything to keep from replicating myself on this earth. I wanted to be alone in my desolation, not bequeath it. “Well, did you bring another one? Tell me you brought another one. Please tell me you brought another one.” “No.” “Then how are we going to …” She sounded as if she might burst into tears. I took her hands in mine by putting my fingers between hers, whose bones, I realized—for this was the first time I had ever held hands with a girl—I might easily have snapped in half. But I merely straightened my arms so she rose in the air and I could wiggle out from beneath her. “Wait here,” I said. Cosima fell back against the arm of the squab. “Where are
you going?” I pulled up my underpants and pants together. “To buy another one. Don't worry. I'll be right back.” “You must be nuts,” she said angrily. Then she started to laugh. “You must really be nuts. Remind me not to get involved with freshmen ever again. I mean, don't bother. I can get myself off. I hate rubbers anyway. I'm on the pill, for God's sake. My roommates are coming back any second. Don't bother. I won't be here when you get back.” I ran down the steps of her Vanderbilt Hall entrance and raced across the Old Campus and fled out the gate and dashed into the pharmacy on Church Street. When I got back to the Old Campus I realized I could as easily go to my own entrance and my own room as to her entrance and her room, but I went to hers. I knew she would not be there, or if she were there, her roommates would be gathered around her, and they would be laughing, and when I stepped back in and she pointed at me and threw her head back in even greater laughter so that she once again exposed her throat to me, now not in passion but in derision, they would all laugh even harder and I would be forced to join their laughter, for it was indeed funny, it was like something out of Molière, I realized, whom we were reading in French. And it must have been my thinking about being a character in
L'École des femmes
that had me laughing, instead of envisioning the breaking of her delectable neck, when I reached her door. I had expected it to be closed, locked. But it was open, just as I had so discourteously left it. And there was Cosima, on her back, sunk deeply among the pillows. She had taken off all her clothes. She had lit a candle against the fading light of this springtime freshman day. “C'mere,” she ordered. “I didn't think you'd be here,” I said in my surprise, “or else I thought your roommates … I don't understand.” “I don't
understand you either. I don't want to have to understand you. I just want to have you inside me.” So she did.

BOOK: Lying in Bed
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