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The Pissarro Affair


Am I the bumblebee in the sun's cause? - Joseph Ceravolo

It helps to have something light to focus on. I enjoy any story, as long as it does not go on for too long. I start to wonder to myself, where will it go?

The most surprising things seemed to bring Sarah joy. When my friends met her, they seemed to distrust this aspect of her, so I began to do the same. Just as I believe she is reading this, she read, over my shoulder, some terrible line in a poem of mine. The line itself had been fashioned out of the refuse of Raymond Carver and Sharon Olds; it was juvenile in their fashion and a bit in my own. I cannot recall it exactly now, but it had to do with the way water ran over a corrugated surface in utter darkness.

I do remember her saying she would not forget what I had written. Stupidly I judged her for this bit of naivete. Partly I was correct, undoubtedly she has lost the thread by now.

I have been embarrassed to write of all the rest, but not of Sarah. I was always proud, pathetically proud, that anyone like that could not only find something tolerable in my presence, but be so continuously excited by it. 

I showed her Pissarro, who I have loved since someone I can never forget showed him to me. Pissarro's view of the road to Versailles occupied her for many vital reasons, and we would go to the Met to see his work there whenever we could. I will try to list the reasons I think she liked his paintings without drifting into my own:

1) It proved that reality is basically only constructed of temporary things, like wind and rain, which can dissipate. They are merely a covering that can be peeled back with time.

2) He knew the way the wind touched the earth, and the way the earth touched the wind.

3) It showed that any place a man and woman are together, there is a road to something better.

I will not give her real name, unless Sarah is her real name. She was adopted by a loving family in upstate New York, she told me, and once asked me to meet them. I had something else to do that day, or I found something else to do. Why did I not meet her parents as she requested and maybe even required?

I will list the reasons I did not alongside the fourth aspect she loved in the road to Versailles:

1) I thought they might laugh when they saw me with their daughter.

2) I supposed it was equally possible they might cry.

3) They knew her last boyfriend, and I happened to think he made a lot better presentation than me. (He was not a better writer, though, thank God.)

4) Lately I have a hard time trusting atheists or agnostics. It is not that I think they must necessarily serve someone but it makes me uncomfortable, the idea of them not serving anything. Pissarro's given name was Jacob Abraham, but his French alias served him far better than his real name.

At the time I would not have been able to articulate this as a reason not to meet my girlfriend's parents, but it strikes me as an entirely plausible one now.

So you will not have to skim to the end to find out how this comes out, I will describe the last time I saw Sarah. We went to the movies; I can't remember what exactly we saw, but I am pretty sure George Clooney was in it. The wrinkles on his forehead were not the only reason it was hard to focus on the screen. Sarah had her legs sort of twisted around me, the way a parasite wraps around its host. (I don't think that now, but it was how it seemed then.) I knew by this how forgiving she was, since I had tried to break up with her a few days before.

I've noticed how I make you feel sometimes. Did you think I had not?

Always turn an accusation into a question. It's the perfect distraction from your own culpability in any matter.

Everything I said in those years, and much of what I have written since, was completely cynical, except as concerns the road to Versailles. Then it retains a simple beauty mostly lost to civilization after the flush of the renaissance.

A few days ago, my grandmother died in her sleep. My grandfather passed the previous year, and prior to his death he had promised to reveal several things about his wife's mother that we did not know. Since he died first, it was not possible for me to go to any other source. At a birthday party for my cousin's children, I asked my grandmother about her childhood.

Her father was a carpenter with two small daughters. He prized one over the other. On his off day he took the kids into the mountains for a picnic. (Newark has generally provided very good reasons to flee from it whenever possible.) Her mother, it was implied, had been institutionalized, either for some harm she had done to herself, or the threat of harm to her daughters. My grandmother spoke sparingly of these times, lending a subtlety to the descriptions I admired. Like many people, she had a tendency to flatten out certain parts of the tale, and omit key elements.

I am obliquely referencing the frame of this story.

I love describing the physical thrill of being with other people. I have never once not found it completely overwhelming. Isn't presence wonderfully absorbing? On the road to Versailles we can see families there, linked by arms. Even not touching is a kind of touching, rendered by Pissarro; the touching of the road to the sky, the trees to their branches, and our arms to anything that moves.

Sarah loved to look at my old photos. I have never really felt a fascination with the pasts of those I loved. I asked about all her old boyfriends of course, but only to learn how they treated Sarah so I would not make any of the same choices, no matter how effective they were. I didn't do it because I wanted to know.

(Some people are so honorable that they will not share certain parts of themselves with you unless you ask. Others incorrectly think that not telling someone you hope to love everything is dishonor.)

I never told anyone this before and I have no plans to do so again.

Sarah tossed her shoulder-length brown hair back and went about her day. She seemed always to be wearing lipstick, even when I knew she had none on. She had a fantastic grasp of how things looked on her body, which only briefly widened at the waist, foreshadowing the person she was to become. Everywhere else she was too slender.

It only came to me later, or maybe it never actually came to me, how much work had to go into all of that.

I was slow to discover Pissarro, since I was unnaturally biased against landscape painting until the age of 24. He and I are also nothing alike: he had a successful career in business that paralleled his passion without informing his life as an artist. In view of the Dreyfus affair, Pissarro told his son, "Despite all these anxieties, I must work at my window as if nothing had happened."

The only thing I have patience for is punishment through silence. Pissarro was thankfully not like that, as most great painters are not. Again and again he painted the road to Versailles from that window. I try to show how much I have changed by the fact that I am able to sit and absorb his work so much longer now. The Met is a terrible museum, but every large house has a few pleasant rooms.

I received an e-mail from a friend during the rendition of this broadside. One line in it said, "I think a lot of what you witness is how others react to you and your behaviors. Or proxies thereof."

I can never forget the person who introduced me to Pissarro. I don't think she loved virtually any of the same things about him, or the world, that I did, or even knew that I loved her, since I did not bother telling her. (She did not respect me enough to make me say it, either.) The reason I did not trouble myself by confessing was because of a particular piece of pablum I had read in a vacuous novel, that love was either simple or impossible. If you had to ask for it, that just meant it was impossible.

I now know that idea is a lie. Still, I have never had anyone change their mind about me. I have altered my own romantic view of others, and not simply over time, or because my friends disliked Sarah so openly and continuously. I admit I judged Sarah for the imperfections they showed in her, but I also judged my friends for what they said as well. Pretty much everyone was made worse by this relationship.

Changing one's mind should ideally be a sign of strength. At first I despaired that I could so easily go back on my word, or desire something I had sworn I never wanted or needed in my life. Now it is a part of myself I have grown to respect; as Jung put it, "He did not think, he perceived his mind functioning." I am so glad that I am changeable, that I can keep discovering things about the people that I love, or find new ways to care for them. It gives me faith that I still might change the way you see me.

You can ask someone to come closer. Even if Sarah did not do it the first time I asked, she was willing to say she might. I loved her for that concession, and to honor it, I have made a lot of compromises since for the sake of others, which of course are only for myself.

with Cezanne

When I first met Sarah she was with her boyfriend. I hated the way she touched him; it resembled how Goldilocks stroked the empty beds of the bears whose house she broke into.

There is a particular piece of my writing that my grandmother brought up to me every time I saw her. Sarah thought it was both difficult to understand and riddled with cliches as well, and I have to admit she was probably right. Since I wrote it when I was thirteen, she should have been a whole lot more forgiving, but I respect that she was not. Forgiveness is never a very attractive quality.

My grandmother said the essay, which concerned the seizure I had at the age of eleven, reminded her of her own childhood and showed to her that some of things she had seen and felt then were not shameful or strange at all, or perhaps that they were, but not unique.

I am attempting to replicate something of that feat here. I will know whether or not I have failed by the e-mails I receive in the days to come. If I see Sarah's name in the From: field, I will not read anything she says, I will just print out the message, stuff it in my pocket, and leave it on the doorstep of a fire station.

Sarah is married now, and I saw some photos of her and her husband on flickr, before I realized how sick it was making me. I can tell how much he loves her. I can tell how much she loves him by how he seems to resemble the man I was.

Dan Carville is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about an hour of sleep in the snow. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

Photographs by the author.

"Love Is Won" - Lia Ices (mp3)

"After Is Always Before" - Lia Ices (mp3)

photo by Kate Edwards

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