THE BITTER REDS
How do they know so much?
It's a mystery. It's an outrage. I sit here without knowing. I'm the middleman in the middle of nowhere. It's exceptional. Nothing derives from nothing. Sometimes the tea tastes bitter, sometimes sweet. Whatever the difference is between these two I'm here to record it on paper like a stone tablet with engravings from the days of yesteryear. I'm trapped there, too -- but you go forward and it's all explained so nicely.
The way she sits with one leg thrown over the other and her little pink ankle sock peeking out below the hem of her jeans. Off-white sneakers with a bold orange swoosh and a matching pattern of air holes. Her friend smiling with such silly expectation, using words like "confrontation" and "sensible." I dribble and weep on the page. Its ruled lines run from edge to edge but one line bleeds blue under the fallen wetness from my face.
I have a cousin who's ready to give up. In fact, he gave up seven or eight years ago. Now he works in technology. He sells it like a rap singer sells gunshots. He passes me his business card all the way from Florida. I read it under the lamplight. It makes me imagine the diseases of the South. I lived in the South once. I went to Stone Mountain Park outside Atlanta. I watched a revision of the Civil War reenacted. I stood up in the park of grass and stone and laser lights and said: "I am a walking civil war."
"Sit down," said the girl on the blanket beside me. She was buttering her bread. She coughed in the sultry summer night.
"Summer colds are the worst," she said later.
We kissed in the car. I was dropping her off in a place like outer space. Once she exited the car she'd break away from my gravitational field for good. I couldn't hold her even in the darkest summer night.
"I'm sick," she said. "You don't want to come in. You don't want what I've got."
"I do want what you've got," I said. "In fact, I've already had it."
"Oh," she said.
"But I want it again," I said.
She was opening the door, escaping softly in the night. I put an APB out on her dog. Her dog was missing. She didn't have a dog and I wasn't a police officer. But I put an APB out all the same.
"I understand," I said.
"We want you to go away."
"I'm going away," I said.
I can almost hear the hammer on the hammer's block. A crack of attitude and authority. The judges are naked beneath their dark robes. Even Judge Judy, beneath her dark robe and lace collar. She's like a priestess of the dispossessed. She's scolding the world for being out of order -- and it is out of order -- and all her scolding changes nothing. But I believe in it. I believe in it like the bowels that have shaken and rumbled within me my whole life. There are certain sounds and feelings that one can believe in. They do not arrive very often. Usually it's just used-up time and repetition, and repetition again. The science of since then. And since then some more.
I want to go for a walk. I'm telling you it's my birthday. The girl in the rattan rocker is wearing an Afghan wrap as if she's a Middle Eastern or Arabic queen. But she's no queen. She's a harlot in high heels, peddling positions of the pointblank. I don't want to talk to her. And she doesn't want to talk to me. Everyone knows so much -- even in my dreams. The answers are crystal clear in the mouths of strangers, lovers, former partners, breadwinners, moneychangers, benefactors. The loaves that've been taken out of my mouth. I want to eat a second and third helping. A fourth helping. Why isn't there ever enough food? Why am I never satisfied? Anyway, satisfaction is a crime. At best, at our very best, we are meant for joy.
Ah, the walls that once fell and the foundations that have been shaken.
"What state are you from?" I say.
"Virginia," she says.
"I once loved a girl from Virginia," I say.
She nods disinterestedly. Then she slaps one hand against the other. She's full of tiny gestures of authority. Her authority is unquestionable. I'm standing in the shadows again, writing my shadow journals. I try to emerge. This is our 10,000th conversation, even if we've just only met.
"Virginia," I say. "Virginia is for lovers. Remember that?"
She shakes her head no. I tell her it's a painting by Pablo Picasso from his Bitter-Red period, but he never released it to the public. "At least not during his lifetime," I add. The Bitter Reds -- paintings that transfused blood into the bloodless, the libidinously forlorn.
"I thought there was just a blue period," she says.
"The Bitter Reds were too dangerous," I say. "Too volatile and alive."
"How long has Picasso been dead?" she asks.
"He's not dead," I say. "We're dead. He's just asleep."
And then she goes to the bakery to buy several loaves of bread. This is the most genuine act she's performed in months. I want to fall down on my knees and cry. But I remain stolid and immovable. I train my eyes on her. It's almost like I have a tiger's eyes, night vision, infrared, something that sees beyond normal seeing. Something that stalks and then forgets itself.
She dumps everything out on the kitchen table. She's not my girlfriend and we're certainly not in love. We haven't been in love in ages and never, really, with each other.
"I think you should leave," I say.
"I'm leaving," she says. She runs her fingers through the little mound of pay dirt on the table.
"I've got a lot of problems," I say. "There's something wrong with me."
"You don't have to tell me," she says.
She plants her fingers in the dirt, almost like its fertile soil and her fingertips are seeds.
"I've been thinking about God," I say. "I've been thinking about Creation."
"Don't," she says. She turns her back on me. She's already out the door before I've got a chance to understand what's going on. I mean it's true that it's 37 years later and I've been timing my life and counting down the minutes with an old egg timer. I thought the yolks would've broken by now -- but no. They seem so much more fragile than the heart.
"I've committed every crime," I say.
There's a sudden dull silence for which I'm grateful. I'm tired of talking. Even original conversations have become banal and tedious to me. I've used up my flesh and blood like an old cat's ninth life -- but I can't change it.
"Have you ever seen the movie Cat People?"
"No," I say.
"You've got glowing green eyes and full lips. It's unusual," she says.
"I'm not one of them," I say.
"I thought you hadn't seen the film."
"I haven't," I say. "But everything is a metaphor for something. Especially the outsider. I've been driven to the limit by the pomp and circumstance of the outsider. Just forget it."
"Excuse me for complimenting you," she says.
"You didn't compliment me," I say. "You insulted me. Even though that's impossible."
The tables and chairs in the room are perfect. The window shades and the heavy burgundy drapes and the marble-slab coffee table -- everything is perfect. It's a perfect set-up for a life unlived.
"Sometimes you have to walk away from everything," I tell her. "Sometimes it's an antiestablishment wrap-around. Sometimes you're just back to from where you came."
"And sometimes it's pay dirt," she says.
"Yes, sometimes it is," I say.
She doesn't respond. She's remembering the day she turned 30. It all seemed so promising back then. The world was her oyster, they had said. Now she feels left without even the slimy shell.
"Don't cast your pearls at swine," she says, tiresomely.
She's up on a kitchen stool, reading the King James Version of the Bible aloud. The sullen good news of the New Testament. But she's only wearing her violet underwear and a see-through shawl. It's made of black lace and tinges her skin a darker, more sensual color.
"I've lost the lust," I say.
"I understand the lust," she says. "I don't understand the love."
"The Nubians," I say. "The Nubians are coming."
"Is that something like the British," she says.
I nod my head gently, ever so gently. I'm suddenly thinking of other things. Another time, another place. The slipstream escape. And yet, the Nubians are coming. At least of this, I can be certain.
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