ODE TO PURGATORY
Here in Purgatory, there is a table with two French women talking quietly, across the room. Other old people like Joe and I start walking in, greeting one another, and sitting down at small tables in preparation of the daily noontime jazz performance, which is free of charge. "Mornin' Rena." "Hello, Joe, how're you today?"
Since I am in my 70s, I am allowed an opinion, and I say that heaven and hell are subjective, really, they are both in this life and afterwards and there are no simple answers. People say, "I've been through hell." Sartre tells us hell is other people. Some people are born the sons of rich men; they get elected to mayor and hire their spoilt cronies to run the district. Some are born American, do crossword puzzles, and eat organic food; someone in war-ridden Iraq has a birthday of November 1, 2003, Baghdad. Don't talk to me about original sin, or being born under a bad star. Some people find love--the real kind, honest and dirty--and others marry high school sweethearts out of obligation, staying with them because nothing else appears tangible.
This place is where you do time before arriving in bliss, where you wait on the upswing to heaven. This place is the fulcrum of a seesaw lever, each end of the lever requiring the existence of the other. One end is that of creation. Of gourmet cupcakes and spontaneous poetry readings in red-lit basements while snow swirls outside. Of possibility, of politics and art intermingling, of community gardens, and French feminist films. Of knowledge, of connection. The other is of prose. Oh, the flattest prose. Of fast-food strips. Of plaid couches and television at night; microwave popcorn in the sofa cracks. Of the scent of pollution, the tinge of corruption. Of refinished basements and hypocritical priests. The redemption here is only that it's so ugly that it can be beautiful; flames from factories burning blue, white, and orange, reflecting off pools of what looks like clear pond water.
Joe and I sit together, arms clasped, whispering, as young people bustle around us, preparing for the performance. He is wearing the purple sweater I bought for him three Christmases ago. I am wearing a large-brimmed royal blue suede hat and vest, with a turquoise turtleneck. (The jazz singer is warming up her voice and "testing 1-2-3" on the microphone; she just complimented my hat.) We come here most days for these noontime shows. While the bustle of preparation continues, and the woman onstage murmurs in the microphone, a man sits down at the piano and starts playing random bars of up-tempo jazz.
There is a cafe just outside this room with muffins and weak coffee and prepackaged sandwiches. Mealy apples. People stream in from the cafe carrying Styrofoam cups, and one of the French women enters with a plastic knife and a sandwich wrapped in cellophane, sits back down at their table, and slices the sandwich in half. I feel a little embarrassed for our stale American sandwiches, remembering the "grilled cheese" street-vendor sandwich that I ate on my one trip to Paris, the crusty baguette with brie and tomato, how I sat on a bench on the banks of the Seine and ate it while watching a caricaturist sketch.
The first time I brought Joe here, a poet was performing his homage to Miles Davis. I found him egomaniacal, but Joe was more forgiving, and enjoyed the show despite how seriously the man took himself.
Thirty years ago, I saw a friend's Japanese/interpretive dance performance here; this was before she betrayed me. Nine women dressed in scraps of sheer material and wore whiteface, slamming into walls and one another between their fluid movements.
Here in Purgatory, there is a little spillover. There are no simple conclusions. The room is dimly lit on an overcast Tuesday and people are chattering. The man talking to the beautiful black jazz singer with high-heeled boots just sat down at the piano, and writes something on a scratchpad. She takes up the pen and writes something else. A woman walks in with a backpack and sits down to write in a notebook. She keeps looking at us and scribbling.
Later, after Joe's doctor appointment up north, he and I will cook dinner for Patty and Charles. We need to pick up a bottle of wine, and a cake from Ann's bakery, he just reminded me. His memory is better than mine these days, and he jokes that he's going to buy me one of those electronic buzzer gadgets that you attach to often-lost items like keys, wallet, and glasses.
Grace is across the room at a table next to the French women, and we can see her begin a conversation with them: "Oh, you understand English?...Well, where are you from in France?... Paris?... Maurice Chevalier, you know about him?... Don't laugh, I thought that he might have been before your time...." They are polite and answer her smiling, and she walks away towards the cafe on her enormous white Nikes, content, and carrying her cane.