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Speaking of Escher
by Sidney Durham © 2004



Do souls come in pairs? Are they shared? Can parted souls find each other and be reunited? We are strangers in flesh, yet passion surges in us, transported by inhuman devices: keyboards, video screens, electrons.  We compare ourselves to Victorian lovers who wrote to each other impassioned letters, yet ours are surely more impassioned.  Ours detail thoughts and dreams of sex as well as our love.  We engage in a virtual mating dance, a ballet of ambivalence, rushing forward, pulling back, hiding, exposing, anxious, compelled.

We are writers.  We write with passion.  We want people who read our words to know what was in our hearts when we wrote them.  But for the two of us there is more.  When each of us reads the words of the other it is like telepathy because we know, in an unknown way, precisely what was in the heart and mind that struggled to get the words out.  We believe our shared passion grows out of our concord and a shared soul.  We believe we know one another as no other person could.  We believe there is risk and danger in sharing a soul.  But we welcome it.

I had not heard his voice and he had not heard mine.  Our eyes had never met, our hands and lips and bodies had never touched.  We had only our words, those words from which our love grew, to know one another.  Our ability to communicate faltered.  Even though we knew the inner meanings—passion, agony, joy—that rode atop the words we wrote, we couldn't know the grimaces, the gestures, the pauses, the sighs that should have accompanied them.  We couldn't touch each other.  We couldn't hold each other.  We couldn't fuck.

It was time to meet.  It was time to share the things we were afraid to share.

Uncanny things began to happen when he stepped out of the elevator.  I had never seen him, but I knew him.  Even from a distance of twenty feet, and among a crowd of people, I knew him.  And I responded viscerally to his image, the way I had to his words.  My body awakened suddenly and I crossed my legs as if to trap my feelings, remembering the times his words on my screen had flushed my body with heat.

It might have been the flash of my calf in the subdued lighting that drew his eyes to me, but I don't know.  He simply turned his head as if he had expected me to be sitting where I was, and began walking to me.  I stood, as if lifted by unseen hands: silly, un-ladylike, compulsive.

He stopped before me and smiled.  It was a small smile, as if in satisfaction.  I don't know if time was suspended or not, but today my memory is that all movement in the quietly busy elegance of the hotel lobby paused as this man studied my face.  The room seemed to darken; the bright colors softened.

He took my hand, turning it palm up, and held it in his own large palm like a leaf.  Gently with his other hand, he pressed the tip of his forefinger into the soft place where my first two fingers join.  This unexplained intimacy gave me a quick chill.

By then he had cradled my face in his large gentle hands and kissed me on the forehead, between my eyebrows. "I'm James," he said, unnecessarily. "Let's have that drink." He tucked my hand into his arm.  His voice seemed to rumble. "The Redwood Room is one of my favorite bars in the entire world."

We had to pause as a party rushed across the lobby to the elevators from a side entrance, escorting an elderly woman in a wheelchair.  She looked familiar.  I glanced up at him.

"Helen Hayes," he said. "She's performing at one of the theaters up the street.  The Clift is at the end of the theater district and a lot of performers stay here."

"But she's—"

He pressed my hand tightly into the crook of his arm. "Do you like your dress?"

I looked down in surprise.  It was red, skimming my body to the floor, vaporous and sultry.  As he led me forward I caught a glimpse of red satin pumps on my feet.  From the luxurious feel of the fabric on my body I was certain it was all I was wearing.

"I hope you don't mind," he said. "After all, I'm writing this.  I like slinky red dresses and I thought Ms Hayes would be a nice touch.  She was staying at the Clift when I was living here."

"When was that?"

"It was 1976.  The hotel was remodeled in 2001, you know, and it isn't the same as it was before.  Look behind you."

The lobby had changed, it had an older look.  The artwork on the walls was darker, more somber, and the furniture was heavy, large, made for sitting instead of appearing.

"Better, isn't it?" he said, turning me toward the bar again. "This hotel was built in 1906, after the big earthquake.  Between then and the remodeling, not much was changed.  It was just polished and otherwise left untouched.  Now.  We'll sit here in the bar for a few minutes."

The bartender, wearing a white shirt and a black bow tie, had come from behind the bar to greet us personally, standing beside the table, turning it out from the banquette.  He smiled at me. "Welcome, Madam," he said. "Mr.  Wells, it's very nice to see you again.  It's been a while." On the table behind him was a tray with two drinks on it.  He placed them before us.

As the bartender moved silently away I looked around the room.  There were small clusters of people in scattered places.  Many of them had no face, but it didn't seem to matter much. "Are some of these people, the ones with faces, like my dress? Are they here because you wanted them to be here?"

"Think of it like 'Drawing Hands', by Escher.  Do you remember it? Even the title is ambiguous.  In those days I traveled three hundred days a year, alone.  My friends and acquaintances were transitory, shifting faces.  I lived here for several months in 1976, and these people were my family, the people I spent most of my time with."

"Tell me about them."

It was as if I could see through his eyes.  A pale girl in a pale dress in the center of the room, beside the vacant piano and the large column, was playing a graceful white harp.  Her skin seemed almost translucent in the subdued lighting, as if she were glowing from inside. "She's pretty," I said.

"She was replaced by a piano player while I was living here," James said. "A piano player, not a pianist.  He was horrible, playing clichés, needlessly slurring chords.  There was no overripe riff he didn't know and use endlessly, and he played too loudly for civilized conversation.  I brought her back and I killed him.  His body is under the piano."

It was, a slumped, crumpled, empty bloodstained tuxedo.  And the piano was only a prop.  It had no strings.  It was scratched and the finish was peeling.  As I thought about the ways even a pianist can be self-destructive the harp music seemed to rise, taking on a haunting, heavenly sound.  I looked back and the pale girl in the pale dress and her harp were floating, swaying slightly about a foot above the floor.  James whispered: "She seems to like that, don't you think? She's playing better."

I looked toward the bar. "Tell me about Joe," I said.

"The bartender? His name is Charles, but you're right.  I did call him Joe a lot.  He seemed to like that kind of teasing.  He's been behind the bar here over thirty years, since the end of the second world war.  There's another bartender named Andrew, down the street at Lefty O'Doul's.  They both started the same year.  Charles and Andrew remember a lot of stories about actors and actresses and sycophants and hangers-on, and could be very entertaining when they weren't busy.  They were good company for me."

"So you spent a lot of time in bars in those days?"

He turned his eyes away. "It was a way to get through the evenings."

I looked along the bar. "That older woman at the end.  Who is she? She's very elegant."

"Charles called her 'Rosie'.  Listen.  We can hear them talk."

Across the room Rosie sipped from her glass and put it down. "Spanky, darling," she said, "you've made my serviette wet again.  Shame on you." Her smile was prim but full of meaning and subtlety.

"Spanky" wiped the bar in front of her with his towel, taking his time. "What should I do, Rosie? Do you want me to replace it?"

Rosie smiled and patted his hand. "It's a pleasant experience, actually.  Perhaps I'll let you take care of it later, darling."

I laughed with them. "They're lovers? Did you actually hear them say that?"

James nodded.  He had a nice smile on his face. "I think she used to be a prostitute, later a madam.  They've known each other for many years.  She lives in Sacramento now, and comes down every two weeks or so, to spend the weekend."

The music from harp seemed to grow softer and more heavenly and I glanced back.  The girl and her instrument were about six feet up in the tall-ceilinged room, swinging like a long slow pendulum.  Beneath her the tuxedo was dancing, a slow-swaying, awkward dance with jerky vertical movements, as if it were a marionette on elastic strings.  A red bloodstain streaked down the white pleated shirt, from where the piano player's heart would have been.

"What about the man with the papers in his hand?" I asked, nodding toward a dark-looking man with a long knitted scarf around his neck and oily-looking black hair.  He was waving a small sheaf of papers, speaking to a faceless person.

"Tract man.  That's what I called him.  Sometimes he called himself Juan, sometimes Raul.  Every spring he returns to Ecuador and passes out religious tracts to his people.  I used to argue religion with him."

"Religion?"

"If I say to a man, 'I love you, you motherfucking son of a bitch,' am I doing a brotherly thing in the Christian sense or am I just being a vulgar sinner? It was the kind of debate a drunken man would get into." James smiled, seemingly comfortable laughing at his own foolishness.

There was a darkened area at the bar, and in it sat a man almost hidden.  He was smoking, drinking alone.  I waited, thinking about Escher's drawing.  James began speaking.

"He is lonely.  He will drink too much tonight.  Charles will call the bellman and the coat room girl to help him to his room.  It happens every night.  He's here alone."

He paused, as if gathering himself. "He travels all the time, and has been working on a project here in San Francisco for several months.  He chose the Clift because it's near the theater district and because it is old, built nearly forty years before he was born.  He likes the idea of solid things and history around him."

This time the pause was longer.  I moved closer, leaning only, so that my shoulder touched his.  I didn't know this man's voice well enough to know if there was pain in it—yet I loved him and we shared a soul, we thought.  I was sure I could feel his pain in my own soul.

"He goes home to Ohio every second or third weekend.  His wife doesn't care where he is, as long as she gets his paycheck and knows how to reach him.  She allows him to use her body when he's at home, but thinks the act is messy and unnecessary.  In the beginning of his travels he was resolutely faithful to her but now but he is not, and hates himself for it.  She believes he is a womanizer.  He hates her for that, for her lack of faith—even though she is justified.

"Things will change for him.  In a few years his father, a man whose shadow eclipsed his entire family, will fall dead.  This man-son will be disconsolate, and his wife will be of no comfort to him, stuck in her own dramatized grief."

I reached and put my hand on his thigh and rubbed gently.  I could feel power in his thick leg, and there was tension.  I waited.

"In the same year he will be diagnosed with a possible brain tumor and will discover his wife's true indifference.  The diagnosis will turn out to be a cruel mistake, and almost in retribution he will leave the country, a figurative divorce, and while he's gone he will have an epiphany.  He will decide to seek a divorce and go find a woman he had met and marry her.  He will decide to reconstruct himself.  And he does."

The harpist had begun to play joyfully, and the dead piano player was dancing happily beneath her as she floated even higher, tipping slightly onto her back so that she almost resembled a woman having sex, the harp between her legs as her partner.  Her hands flowed over the strings the way she might have caressed a man's flanks.  James was silent, seeming to watch. "So he'll be happy?" I asked.

"She will be beautiful, his new wife.  She will be bright, witty, sensual, loving, and a true partner.  When his business fails she will make sacrifices, and struggle for him.  Yes, he will be happy."

Something was wrong.  I pressed his leg and leaned against him a little more. "And..."

"He is going to succeed, in time.  It won't be a storybook success, but it will be enough." James waved his hand and Charles brought two more drinks immediately, as he if had known the order would come at any moment.

I hadn't touched my first drink, but the ice had melted.  I raised my glass. "To his success," I said.

James touched his glass to mine, but his eyes were flat and distant. "He will worry about his mortality," he said softly. "He will be filled with regret that he hadn't followed his heart and tried harder to become a writer.  He will begin to write, and find intensity he didn't know he had, and at last an unexpected liberation.  As he does this his pretty wife will fade.  She will spend her days watching television.  She will reject and complain about his writing because it is intense, sexual, and not to her liking.  And one day he will notice that she has gotten fat, that her tinkling laugh has become a harsh bark—and he will notice that the glitter has fallen off his marriage and he has become restless again.  But he will compromise himself.  He will surrender to his destiny.  He will tell himself he's too old for another change.  His wife will tell him he's too old for sex."

I wanted to pull this man down to the floor and fuck him.  I wanted to compose poetry for him with my pussy.  I wanted to float to the ceiling and fuck him beside the pale girl in the pale dress, who was fucking her harp up there, above the now- collapsed, twitching body of the piano player.  I wanted to glide with him around the corners of the big room, out into the lobby, out into the street and north, north over the bay, out to the bridge with its spires hidden in the mist, and then west, under the soaring arches, out over the strong swells and infinite span of the Pacific Ocean.

But it was his pen, his drawing.  I turned to him instead and took his face in my hands and kissed his lips softly. "A woman will be sent to him," I said.

James nodded. "In the twilight of his years.  Another woman will find him and amidst a fog of confused emotion she will open his mind and heart and teach him to see in a kaleidoscope of passion instead of simple colors; and in him there will be a fear of knowing her, a worry that to know her will displace his passion, once again close the doors he has opened.  He will long to give himself to her, to take her, but he will be afraid."

He turned, taking me by the shoulders.  I felt a chill in my spine.

We are naked in darkness, surrounded by nothing.  I face him, waiting as he studies my body.  I share it with him proudly, imperfections and glories alike.  He throws a spray of stars across the sky and their pale light illuminates the top curve of my breasts.  He decorates my hair and breasts with garlands of flowers, playful fairy flowers with fur and cat's whiskers and paws and curly antennae like cartoon snails.  And around my feet he throws fall leaves in a rainbow of colors: red, yellow, orange, purple, violet.  They swirl up around my ankles as if blown in the wind.  They are shaped like flowers, hearts, and tiny birds: they flutter around me in standing waves, like the ocean.  He covers the swath of my groin with small yellow butterflies, which raise and lower their wings slowly, in a pattern, gentle yellow waves that ripple across my pubic hair.

It is behind me, but I know it is there: the mountain he gave me.  Rampant, he pushes me back until my feet struggle for purchase among the foothills and my hair is buried in avalanches of still-pure snow.  He leans me against the slope of the mountain.  Hard rocks grind against my back, cutting, hurting.  As I sink into the mountainside and become part of it a cold stream trickles across my body, water on its way to a river, to the ocean.  He plunges into me with shattering force, filling me to bursting, and as his seed is launched I hear his roar of passion, echoing into the valleys and returning as a sigh of surrender.  I settle back and the mountain becomes a soft bed of pine needles, and as I accept his collapsing weight his tears fall on my breasts.  Above us, lost among the stars, the harp is playing rolling crescendos, up and down in octaves, and the pale girl in the pale dress is gasping with a high, feathery voice.

James touched my hand. "Let's go into the dining room," he said. "The sommelier was a tall, graceful man.  His name was Edward."

In the wide doorway to the dining room I tugged his arm gently, turning him to face the Redwood Room again.  Seated beside the lonely man in the darkened area at the bar was a young woman.  She was wearing a long colorful alpaca scarf, a buffalo hair vest, jeans and boots.  Her hair was long and dark, and as she turned her head to smile at something he said we could see her dusky Latin beauty.  As we watched, she leaned against him and rubbed her hand across his shoulders.  We could hear her whisper: "Te quiero."

James looked at me and back to the woman at the bar, a slow smile coming to his face.

"You left your pen on the table," I said, handing it back to him.

_______
© 2004 Sidney Durham. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Bio: Sidney Durham is the author of three books, all published by Renaissance E Books. His work can also be found in several places on the web, including Opheila's Muse and Clean Sheets; and his work has appeared in print in a number of places. Find out more at his web site: sidneydurham.com


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