Did You Ask Me?
by DAN CARVILLE
I saw her at a stoplight, through the window of my car, long afterwards. Early morning. The first inches of dawn touched her shoulders. I had a passenger in my car, a friend of mine who I have not seen since he moved to Salinas. He sang along with what was on the radio. As we passed her, trailing a suitcase with a long handle, my friend stopped his singing. He said, "Can there be a single hour left in this night?"
I drove cars many times after that. But I did not enjoy it anymore. How could I, when the possibility remained of passing by another person I know better than myself, moving so fast momentum alone might take me miles beyond her?
I dislike rhetorical questions intensely, but I have to admit the world is filled with them.
I never understood the intimacy of others, or could see myself taking part in it, until I met her. Since she left, I lost whatever understanding she gave me. A key frame, redrawn on paper. One conversation I had with her keeps recurring in my mind.
Flashing her blue eyes, she said, "Dan, you have to stop." I asked what she meant.
"You know, of course, the story of the acolyte?"
I said I did not. She told the fable. It was about a student who invested nearly everything in his instructor, until he heard himself referred to by his teacher as a slave. The student was despondent and suicidal until the master explained that he had done it on purpose in order to shatter the student's imperfect view of him.
I did not ask the relevance of this tale, both because I dreaded the answer, and because there is no real way to make a woman tell you anything she does not want to. I explained this to her. Her face wrinkled, like she was about to spit something disgusting out of her mouth. She was silent for a few moments.
Then she shouted, "But did you ask me? But did you ask me? But did you ask me?" She forgave me in minutes.
She would not let me touch her for the first month. The anticipation was a monkish ritual to be enjoyed and loathed in equal part. I wondered aloud why she chose this. Did she not want to be with me the way I wanted to be with her?
She laughed and said, "What are you thinking now?" She repeated herself a lot, usually to be silly. I could not help loving that aspect of her, and when she was gone it was the first thing I mocked, quietly to myself. I was at the airport, flying back to New York. I watched a woman repair a wheelchair with one hand. Families and couples criss-crossed each other, alternately wiping off and enclosing their hands in soft, white, slightly damp paper. I said to myself, "What are you thinking now, Dan?" and I said it more than once, more than enough.
I first met her when she was dating a TA I knew from college named Mark. Even though I rarely kept up with my college friends, I would catch up with Mark from time to time. In those days he had a marvelous mind: vindictive, forceful and empathetic all at once. I remember us both walking out of some seminar on the Palestinian situation once we saw the syllabus.
Mark saw the world as an ancient husk. I will not say he hated it. He felt that the idea of improving it was completely in vain, and self-important besides. It was difficult but not impossible to reconcile this idea with the little goatee I never saw him without.
Mark had told me his girlfriend was a musician long before I met them for drinks, and even sent me a few of her songs. I never planned to listen to those mp3s, but I did find it very sweet and maybe a little childish that he wanted my approval. I am not sure what he saw in me, really. It only occurs to me now that he may simply not have had many friends in the husk.
I remember coming home from a Greenwich Village bar at the end of that night. I see myself then as a flame shaped like a man, so excited was I at being able to hear her music; somewhat upset that I had possessed this kind of treasure days prior without knowing it. (But it was not just that. It was also the idea that I might also have, within the walls of the apartment I shared with a computer science PhD named Amil, so many other secret delights waiting to be found.)
She took a job at Columbia and now lived uptown. Mark visited and wrote her from Ann Arbor. I knew I had to break them up somehow, but my options were limited. If she would willingly deceive Mark to be with me, I could not respect her; if something trivial could cleanse her feelings, then I could not really trust her.
After a few days, I just called her. I did not really care at that point, so many times had I given myself over to her voice, her fey discretion, the blush in her face. (I would have also been similarly thrilled by the girl in Willy Wonka who turned into a massive blueberry, had she only become a round, shy cherry instead.)
Dumbly I asked if she remembered me.
"Yes, Dan. I am glad you called," she said.
Despite myself, even though every part of me knew I should not say the word, because I am always frowning at good fortune and expecting bad, I asked why.
She said, "Do you know the story of the falcon, the angel and the death adder?" I said I did not. She e-mailed to me.
I read it quickly and asked, "Which one am I?" I already knew which she represented.
On the other end of the line, I heard her laugh again, chalky and solid like her lower half. "That is the right answer, Dan. I only want to know those who cannot immediately tell which they are." That in her delicious accent.
I met her in the park regularly after that. She would talk to me for hours, never flinching when what I wanted to discuss seemed flimsy even for me. (Once I asked her what she thought about the death penalty and she just rolled her eyes.) We would write when we did not meet, posing each other so many questions. Finally, in Sheep Meadow, I broached the subject that had been on my mind, although I would be lying if I said it was torturing me.
"Have you told Mark about us?" I said. Her first answer would be definitive, final - anything else would be merely apology or confession.
She said, "Dan, what did he tell you? That I am his girlfriend?" I nodded.
She said, "That night we met, do you know what he said to me before we went to you? I can see that you do not, and I am sorry. I thought you knew." Her hair shivered and she touched my body with some blunt instrument. It may have been her hand.
"It was just before we left. He said, 'If you don't like Dan, I will futilely try not to hold it against you.'"
I said that seemed like a nice compliment, but that that I did not fully understand. She watched a group of babies fight over a toy shaped like a fat orange cat and brushed strands of dark hair back from her face. She said, "It may seem like we stop..."
She said, "It may seem like I stopped loving him, but that's not true. I only stopped acknowledging his love."
I think about that almost every morning, since she is no longer here, since she will not say something more destructive to replace that original thought. At first I concluded that those who always gave so much of themselves were by their nature also the cruellest. I hope I am not like that, but I think what she was saying is that we all are.
But then, it seemed like she would never stop wanting me. Unlike anyone else, she never made demands on sex, attaching it to no other part of our lives. Amil moved in with his boyfriend in Prospect Heights and she took his room. Because I snore, we often slept in separate beds. The other reason was that she used her sleeping place also as a sort of office, although she would allow me in it if I asked.
(Do you know how hard it is for me to say or hear her name? I know I cannot put it down here, either. For her to recognize me in real life, putting her suitcase aside for one moment, dropping it fully to the ground, would be nothing. She cannot see me in my writing, she must only see herself.)
After I saw her at the stoplight that day, I again started every morning with thoughts of her. I replayed the most eventful of our past conversations constantly. Paranoia enveloped my brain; I tried and failed to distrust her in retrospect. I thought of e-mailing Mark and asking questions I had held close for so long, but if he felt the same way I did, then I would no longer be suffering alone. (Had he given her to me?) I dreaded the idea of not being original.
Here is the story of the falcon, the angel and the death adder:
The falcon always soared as high as she could, and descended as low. One day an angel appeared to her at the top of her flight. The angel told the falcon that she could soar even higher than the sun, but that she might not be able to return to Earth. The falcon asked how she would feed herself. The angel answered that he, the angel, would provide an appropriate source of sustenance. The falcon asked for a day to consider and the angel agreed.
The falcon flew as low as she could, until the sun dropped out of view. There, in the bowels of Earth, she met the death adder. The death adder told her that she could fly even lower, into the world beneath the world, where she could eat and laugh and love forever with others like her. The falcon asked what she would have to do in return. The death adder said nothing, except that she could never again go to the top of the world, but would have to be content with the space between, where other birds flew nearby.
The falcon asked for a day to consider things. The death adder stuck out his long tongue, but agreed.
The falcon dropped to an old man's porch while she considered these two fine offers. The old man came out to give her a few scraps and leftovers such as he had. He asked the falcon where she planned to fly next.
"I don't know," the falcon said, shaking her dark little head. She could not meet the old man's eyes, knowing that if she did, the man might sense an inclination in her twisted face. "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know..."
Dan Carville is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
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