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Authors: Greg Jackson

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BOOK: Prodigals
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“It went on like this for pages, mesmerizing, impenetrable. At some point I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew Elena was standing over me. She took the pages from my lap, set them aside, and undressed in the deliberate way of someone alone, folding her clothes as she took them off. I hadn't seen her since that first day. Maybe I had forgotten her sad beauty, or maybe our conversations had led me to invest greater allure and poignancy in her body, the thin swayback figure, its marble skin untouched by sun. She hadn't a hint of muscle, the breasts of a boy, a fatiguing melancholy in her sloe-eyed gaze, but she was beautiful, I thought, and we made love, or whatever you care to call it, right there on the carpet, in that corner of the apartment I'd never seen.

“Rhea woke me with a finger over her lips a few hours later. I was at first confused to see Elena dozing next to me, then I remembered what had happened and searched Rhea's face for any clue to her state of mind. It was its typical mask of amusement. She seemed herself but just to be sure, thinking, you know,
I could interpret between you and your love if I could see the puppets dallying
, I asked if she wasn't upset.

“‘About what?' she said. Only then did I notice she had a heavy jacket on and a duffel bag over her shoulder.

“‘Quo vadis?'

“She laughed. ‘Denmark?' She said it like we'd discussed it all before.

“I was stunned. ‘When did that happen? Does anyone know?'

“‘Of course,' she said and looked at me sweetly. ‘Take care of Elena, won't you? She's a little directionless at the moment.'

“Time began passing more quickly after that. Elena stayed indoors all day, but I began to venture out through the city. I walked the same streets I had since childhood and hardly recognized them. I didn't know what was happening to me. I've spent my entire life here and, as you no doubt know, this place teaches you nothing if not a profound blindness to the strangeness and horror of people's lives. We live to validate for one another the insane pretext that this is normal and right, and what are we all searching for but some moment when the world's gaze falls on our gross, petty lives and says, How
special
. How
hiply
thrown together. How baroquely
casual
. I don't know … I felt crushed, just crushed, by the profligacy of a single block, the effort of it, the florid misfortune and exhausting Kabuki of other people's lives. I could scarcely pass someone on the street—young, old, men, women—without falling neck-deep into the idea that at that very moment, like me, they were taking some internal stock of their frustration and misery, of where they stood next to their most extravagant and private dreams. And what were their dreams? Or the trials of their daily lives? Was it presumptuous and condescending to think myself happier than them? But I didn't. I
didn't
. I was
not
happy. I was just young, vital, credentialed, moneyed … I am not the first person to think these things, clearly, but if it's patronizing to pretend to understand the trials and miseries of other people's lives, it is no doubt worse to use this as an excuse never to try. And the greater misery seemed, suddenly, the soulless disregard of people like me—anyone really—and not for other people's sakes, but for our own. We had reached an inflection point, I thought, the contradictions we had to live with were too great, and in the interest of obscuring them we had abused language to the point that we could no longer speak to one another. We could scarcely leave our tribes.

“What does this have to do with Rhea and Elena? I don't know. I really don't. Except they began to seem a refuge, a corrective of some sort. Was this crazy? I mean, you've been listening. What had they done but make me unfit to live? Unable to countenance the petty, impoverished, glib, bankrupt, unfeeling, and passionless world that stalked our streets and invaded our hearts? And still they felt like some faint hope amid the spires verging up into the sky, some forgotten possibility under the soles of our feet.”

I
was
listening, of course. I had been. I thought I knew the hope Tanner meant and the peril that lived inside it. Had I found a voice to speak just then I might have reminded him that it is the nature of a refuge to leave us less fit to live and that we do not blinker ourselves for the fun of it. It is out of necessity, rather—the necessity of living within ourselves, feeding our hungers, crediting the worthless strength of our emotions. In the days before I gave up my artistic ambitions there were moments, I thought, when I had caught a glimpse around the blinders, and what I saw was the landless gray expanse of a northern sea, that emptiness of pewter ribbed in wind and sun. There was no channel marker I could find. No shore to crawl up on. I simply could not concede my life anymore, my centrality to it, nor the privilege I gave to the insular language in which we invented ourselves, the endless stories that, if each were only a degree off true north, put end to end added up to a world turned upside down. It seemed to me my only choice was between complicity in this boundless small perjury and the sort of honesty that becomes self-negating.

“I couldn't help thinking of Rhea's smile in the weeks that followed,” Tanner continued. “How had she given me to Elena so peaceably? Of course maybe she cared for me little in that way or cared for Elena in a superlative sense, loving her sister's happiness more than her own. But I thought there was something more here too, that perhaps this augured a new relationship to the world of things, a correction to the awful harm embedded in our idea of possession.

“But I didn't have it in me to go as far as the sisters. After a month Elena said to me, ‘You miss her. Go.'

“‘I'm happy with you,' I said, although this wasn't exactly true.

“‘Look,' Elena said a little sadly. ‘Rhea and I made a trade-off early on, not explicitly, but in the way siblings do, and perhaps especially sisters. I agreed to see what was in front of me, see things for what they were, so that Rhea wouldn't have to. So that for her, meaning and motive never split, if you understand what I mean. So that language stayed intact. But it means she doesn't keep some part of herself for her alone, do you see, the way the rest of us do. And for my part I am too disabused to believe a lie, even a small one, and I would rather you leave than start telling me falsehoods. In the end you can't fool me anyhow.”

“So I did go. I left. I went to Copenhagen. I got a studio in Nørrebro, across the canal from the center of town. I started painting. I lived on almost nothing, coffee, bread, a little herring. I walked the city and painted. Rhea was shooting a new film, documentary, soundless. She followed foreigners through the city filming them, immigrants, men smoking in bead-curtain cafés, professors at chalkboards, cannery workers, roustabouts on the docks. I spent my nights with her, watching the footage she had shot. I found it mesmerizing, the
neutrality
of its attention, and although it was always silent I often thought I heard a sound running through it all the same, an expectancy at the edge of silence, the pregnancy of a fermata, a sound like wind passing through apertures in the distance.

“I was painting color fields during the day, gradients of bleeding hue tinged with washes and drizzles. Derivative, amateur AbEx, but I enjoyed it. I walked through Strøget at dusk, a ghost among the waves of purpose. I had a vague notion that I could fade slowly into the latticework of the world, like an image dissolving in the evening light. And I might have, had a disarming thing not occurred.

“I was settling down to paint one day when I realized I'd left a book of mine at Rhea's. Blake's engravings. I wanted to steal a color arrangement of his for the piece I was working on, so I hiked back across town and let myself into her apartment. I was wiping my feet in the foyer when it came to me that something was wrong. I don't know whether it was more than an intuition, but I felt compelled to creep through the apartment to Rhea's room, where I found the door ajar, a soft, plangent music issuing from inside. I peeked in. There were Rhea and a young woman, naked in bed. The woman was ugly—truly hideous, I realized later—but all that I remarked on in that moment was the look of earnest hope on her face, a look I recognized, that stopped me cold. I froze, or rather I saw the part of me supposed to feel anger freeze, like a person at the periphery of a black hole, and moving away from that person, floating away to a different vantage, I felt instead a kind of joy, a sense of possibility embodied in the act, written on her face, and ferrying them beyond the jealousies of time. Just then Rhea caught my eye. She smiled at me, and I … smiled back. It's strange to tell you, but it's the truth. Before that figure posed at the edge of eternity recalled me, I smiled. Before the suspension broke, before the bardo state collapsed, for a few seconds Rhea and I grinned at each other. I don't think I've ever been present with another person as deeply as I was in that moment. And then, like a plunging anchor that finally consumes its rope, the childish hurt and anger I had been expecting returned to me, tugged suddenly at my stomach, and I shut the door and left quickly, feeling very stupid and weak.

“For a long time I walked. I walked to the edge of the Øresund, to the water, where I watched for hours as the day moved to completion, a coarse gray sheet shaken out in a motion so slow you didn't notice when it settled over you, entombing the light beyond. I thought many things. I thought I had heard the Sirens' call, driven bereft against the rocks, drunk on beauty and madness—or, fuck beauty—drunk on the kaleidoscope of involuted moods, the infinite divisions within everything, the moods within their song for which we have no name. I had been crippled in the deepest way, I felt—past the point of
wanting
to be healed. But then not entirely, for within me still was some corrupted anger, of righteousness or me-ness, some ridiculous self-importance. And sure enough, when I got home that night, I found I hadn't thrown out my credit cards or passport. I still had an old phone with friends' numbers on it, my parents' numbers. My hair was a disaster, but none of it was hopeless. I had never committed, see, never stepped out with both feet. I had been
playacting
. I could get on a plane and come back. And now that I'm back, confused, adrift, in some sense unviable as a person, I have this one thing, I know this one thing about myself: I am a playactor and will never be anything more.”

Tanner fell silent. My bladder was going to burst, I feared, but I was past the point of interrupting and hadn't signaled to our waiter in forty-five minutes. Our wine was gone, as was the water in my glass, and although the evening had grown cold I noticed that my back, pressed against the iron chair frame, was coated in sweat. It is not hard to say what I felt, although in another sense it is hard to say it in fewer words than it took Tanner to tell. I had the familiar feeling of being a cracked vessel refilled by blind servants. And although this was not a pleasant self-knowledge to possess, I reconciled myself, to carry the metaphor further still, with the notion that all this water was being gathered to drown a prisoner who was free to leave. Which is all to say
better
cracked than whole.

But maybe I am just more oblique than Tanner because I have more cause for self-protection. Or maybe I have lived longer in the jeopardy he describes.
Or
. Sometimes I think we might define ourselves by such simple words—“and,” “or”—and that I merely side with paralysis over fabrication.

“So you're back,” I said.

Tanner looked at me sadly, seeing, I guess, that I did not understand or couldn't say aloud how much I did, that this is what it meant to playact, to have bought in or sold out—never acknowledging how much you understood.

“I'm not back,” he said.

He got up, laid some amount of money on the table. I didn't count. I didn't offer to chip in.

“What, is that it?” I said.

“I'm tired.” He looked away. “Another time.”

“Soon though,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Soon.”

When I returned from the bathroom Tanner was gone. I wouldn't see him again for many months.

When I did see Tanner next he had begun to fill back in. His hair was clean, his scruff shorn to a handsome stubble. The clothes he wore looked expensive and fit. He joked about our previous meeting, saying how he'd been in a state. “Overwrought” was the word he used, I think, and he described the intervening months as a
rappel
à
l'ordre
. We were at some insignificant party, on the roof, drinking cocktails out of Mexican glasses and gazing across the river at the city that loomed above. I watched Tanner as he laughed and made his way through the crowd, watched as he leaned in to make a joke or bent to catch a private word whispered in his ear. He seemed his old self and so I was surprised, later, when I saw him gazing at a print—
Ruggiero Freeing Angelica
, I believe—to catch a far-off look in his eye, a look he didn't mask right away on registering my glance but shared with me, letting it settle briefly in the wry despair of officers who, without a word, tell each other they know their city will fall. It was too much for me, this brief window on the shoreless sea we carry around inside us. I said my goodbyes hurriedly and went home, settling in the living room as voices in the dark around me wove a thin fabric from the tatters of what we have been taught to call our lives.

Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn—perhaps it is already clear—that Tanner and I had ceased to be different people. We are different in the sense that we look different, have different Social Security numbers and addresses, and that I never met the Magnusson sisters. But in another, and the more important, sense, of course I did, I
have
met them, and it has been the great joy and misfortune of my life.

BOOK: Prodigals
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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