Escaping from the academic conference I'm meant to be attending -- the exciting and the dull, the good work and the frivolous, the friends and the bores -- I've moved by plane and rented car to the gypsum white dunes of White Sands, New Mexico. I am, I learn, as close as civilians can get to the point where the first atom bomb was detonated. The significance of the spot is not what led me to visit the region. Not a ghastly pilgrimage, but rather a visit to a landscape unlike any found in Japan. What, this landscape makes one wonder, does the plenitude of water we know in Japan do to a people. No deserts. Heat that is never dry. Some argue that it was the desert that made Jews, Christians, Moslems what they are. Is it an overabundance of moss, of mildew, of moisture that makes us what we are?
A day spent walking in the dunes, seeing the sand turn pink at sunset. A meal superb in its simple excess, its elegant crudity, at a diner in a town called Truth or Consequences: pork chops, peas and mashed potatoes with brown gravy all thrown together on a large gray plate. Was the proprietor joking when he told me that the town had been named for a TV show?
A cup of coffee to close the meal that tastes like a cup of mugi cha.
Stop at a motel called the Rainbow Inn -- "American Owned. Family Run," or so the sign over the desk asserts. Should this make the motel more or less appealing to me?
Upgraded to business class for the flight home. I suppose it was fortunate that I chose to put on the dowdy suit I had worn to the conference rather than the equally dirty -- what sort of dullard would, when traveling, waste a moment on laundry? -- grey sweat pants and sweater I had used for clambering about the dunes. They say that clothes contribute to the decisions made about who gets upgraded and who must wedge themselves into steerage.
Meant to catch up on my journal, but instead was absorbed in Donald's new book from take-off to landing -- except for a couple hours in an alcohol induced doze after one of the flight attendants forced a double gin upon me. Why, one wonders, cannot more critics do what Donald does: simply -- but apparently it's not so simple -- look, really look, at that which is supposed to be the object of their attention. Is it that too much theory blinds them? Donald has no theory of Japanese film or, thank god, Japanese people. He has instead passion and sense and can write.
"No Ideas but in Things."
But one doesn't want to sound like one of those grumps who write letters to the TLS. Theory, let's remember, can be fun and illuminating and is also part of the phenomenal world and thus a worthy object of contemplation.
Foucault. Samuel R. Delany.
Sky gray, trees bare, a restful bleakness out my window. Crows. The rhythmic beat of hammer on nail, occasional screams of jigsaw slicing wood: a soundtrack entirely appropriate. It completes the picture rather than, like the music that accompanies most movies, telling us what we're supposed to feel about it.
Winter arrived at my hill while I was slushing through the dunes.
I had planned to retreat to the hill anyway, shortly after my return, but Nell's note, more than usually frantic, forced me to make the move more precipitately than I had planned. Nial, paint thinner, police. Nial's father having found out about the incident, screaming about what he calls Nell's irresponsibility. She is, he means to say, an artist -- large canvases, people made ugly in a way that is beautiful: a new Lucien Freud? -- and as such, by definition he believes, irresponsible. She is also poor and attractive and "even at her age" will not dress to hide it. She enjoys sex too much to want to do that. Of course Nell is a foreigner, too, and that -- though in a fit of youthful exuberance he married her -- also distresses Nial's father as he becomes more conservative, more -- he likes to think -- Japanese by the year. Nell tells me he's taken up kyudo. (Why do those rediscovering Japanese tradition, their Japanese "roots," always seem to latch onto kyudo?) Papa has not mentioned custody yet, and it seems unlikely to me that he would ever truly want to go to the trouble of raising the boy -- it's never occurred to him, I'm sure, that Nial's company could be a pleasure. If it had they might be together now. There was a time when Nell would have allowed it, but that time is long gone. Nial, she says, is her best friend. Thus she worries that his father will suddenly get paternal. Thus she asked me to take the boy away for a while until things calm down.
And the paint thinner is distressing.
I've chosen not to mention it. Rather, I suggest he help me get my living room into shape. The boards for the bookcases I need so badly, the tools to work them with, have sat for months in a pile in the corner. He took the hint, and, having grown up poor and with a mother who stretches her own easels, builds her own frames, he is not unhandy. I leave him to figure out what needs to be done. I see him measuring my larger books, Miro, Goldscheider's Art Without Epic. I watch him, from my desk, spend twenty minutes examining the images in the Goldscheider.
He's worked enough for today. I'll propose that for lunch we eat up the baguette before it gets any harder with some of the good French cheese his mother sent with him. We'll follow it with strawberries and coffee on the deck.
Gray sky. Sleet. Maybe snow later?
A good day for being inside, for work, for reading. The pieces of the Davenport essay are coming together. Indeed, the more I read and reread Tatlin!, and the other stories, the essays, the more clear it becomes to me that the only way in which one can write about a stylist such as Davenport is to find the appropriate style. Davenport, a modernist -- our last modernist? -- eschews the all too common first-this-happened-then-that-happened model in favor of a mode of setting down crystal clear slices of the reality he is working to depict. It is for the reader to put the pieces together. And within the stories, too, Davenport's characters are often working to assemble pieces of the reality they find themselves among into a coherent picture. Thus I am like the characters in one of Davenport's tales except that the story I am telling is about those tales, putting together pieces, trying them out in different arrangements. Like Davenport, like the modernists he -- and I -- admire, I will leave my reader with a selection of fragments, but also, as Davenport does, I will provide sufficient pointers toward plausible means of organizing them.
In spite of the cold, because of the sun, Nial removed his shirt yesterday as we had our coffee and berries on the deck. As far into winter as it is his skin still retains some summer tan. The youthful body, to be sure, can absorb a plethora of insults without apparent harm. Still, it's a relief to see the glowing skin, the muscles moving under it. He appears not to have damaged himself with the solvents he was, apparently, inhaling. More important perhaps -- but body and mind cannot be wrenched apart -- he is mentally sharp. Whatever youthful combination of imagined omnipotence, futility and boredom lead him to inhale that brain destroying junk has fortunately -- we must, I suppose, thank the police -- been hindered and will, his mother hopes, I hope, be terminated altogether by the threat of jail -- it seems that charges will not be filed -- and by the good influence I am meant to provide for him during the time he spends with me here on my hill, safely away from the temptations that snared him as he wandered around Ueno Park, an urban glade too conveniently close to his mother's apartment and studio.
Water that is almost ice. Ice that is nearly water.
The sleet has turned to snow, heavy for Oiso. It contributes to our sense of isolation as we sit after dinner with the gas heater pulled close to the feet we extend from the two old chairs which are, along with the tattered Persian rug, and the half built bookcases, the stereo and speakers on the floor, the only furniture in the room. Nial wears a pair of faded jeans, the rough denim now as soft as silk. They hang from his narrow hips. The sweater he wears without a shirt is too small for the boy. He is, it appears, still growing. He gets up from time to time, walks to the window, walks back to his chair, picks up a book from one of the stacks piled here and there, opens it to the middle, reads a page, puts it down, back to the window, back to the chair. It is difficult for him -- for what sixteen year old is it not? -- to be still. Below the left back-pocket of his jeans the material is worn to a skein of white threads. He is aware, I think, that I am writing about him.
"How long," he asked me last night, "do I have to stay here?" There was, in his voice, an undercurrent of the resentment and frustration he was acting out in the incessant pacing back and forth, his obvious boredom in the small space of my house on the hill.
I took a chance and answered that he didn't have to stay, could leave when he would.
It was too late that night to get a train back into Tokyo. I asked him if he planned to leave in the morning. He responded with a shrug and a grunt. This was odd, because he is not inarticulate. Offered his freedom he was, it seemed, uncertain what to do with it.
"Stay," I suggested. "Finish my bookcases at least, and in the morning we'll go for a run." Exercise, I thought, might be a way for him to burn off some of the excess energy that winds him like a coil, and I too had allowed the cold, my work, to make me more sedentary than I like.
"I don't have running shoes."
"We'll run on the beach. The sand is soft."
"Don't you ever get bored, sitting up here by yourself?"
"Less so," I explained, "than when among people."
I realize now how smug that answer must have sounded to him, how at sixteen other people are essential. I remembered the friends -- that's what I believed them to be -- with whom I spent every free moment, the boys I hoped would notice me (though I pretended, budding scholar that I was, to be interested only in the books I was never without, the discussions I had which I imagined to be intellectual).
There was a girl involved in the thinner incident, a waif, I've been told, who he had met hanging around Ueno Park. Nell, stunned by what she called the girl's beauty, mentioned the possibility of painting her. They had made an appointment for the girl to sit. The girl hadn't appeared. Nial said he'd run into her in the park, that she'd forgotten. When Nell called the girl a thoughtless little bitch there had been words more heated than normal between Nial and his mother. Was Nial's half-hearted attempt at self-destruction connected with the argument, with Nell's remark about the girl? Can these two pieces be slid into a pattern which illuminates?
A few days later the call came from the police. In addition to a couple of other youngsters -- not, Nell says, his regular companions -- the girl was there. It was not, apparently, her first encounter with the police. Though Nial, a good student and one without a record, will likely get off with a warning, a talking-to, the girl will be sent to some sort of institution. That, together with the effects of the solvents on her brain, will, I imagine, be the end of her.
But the question Nial asked me was "Don't you ever get bored, sitting up here by yourself?" and I gave him a smug answer, a true answer, but not the whole truth.
I am never bored, always lonely.
He, I expect, is both bored and lonely. In the wake of his arrest Nell confiscated his portable telephone. He hasn't mentioned this; Nell told me she had done so. He is entirely cut off, isolated, alone with me, here on the hill.
Finally Nial emerges from his room. We will walk down the hill to the beach, then run along the edge of the ocean through drifts of snow, cold blue air.
After our jog along the strand Nial struggled to hide his shortness of breath: he at sixteen has less wind than I do in middle-age, but -- his body is young and healthy -- if he continues to run he will soon surpass my far from impressive level of fitness. Over our breakfast of coffee, jam on crackers, and apple slices -- must go to the market today -- we watch a sky that had begun clear fill again with gray cloud. He doesn't ask again about leaving. He did ask again whether I ever get lonely, but he asked it in a different way, a way which, I suppose, was calculated to be daring: "Don't you have a lover?" I was standing, when he said it, by the stereo; my finger was about to press the play-button. The vigorous introduction to Schubert's First Symphony drowned out any answer I might have given, but did not stop me from hearing in his question his mother.
"Don't you have a lover?" she had asked me, all those years ago.
I knew I would go on to graduate school, knew I would have to lift my English above the "Me Tarzan, You Jane" level at which it had fossilized if I was ever to be any sort of scholar at all. Thus I took the plunge and advertised for an English speaking room-mate to practice on and thus Nell entered my life. Nell and her various boyfriends; her "lovers," as Nial would call them.
She asked me whether it would be alright with me if "friends" spent the night from time to time. I stuttered, stammered.
"Don't you have a lover?" she had asked. "Doesn't he stay over?"
I didn't, so he didn't and thus the roles we would assume were delineated: she the exuberant artist fully engaged with life, I the plodding Casaubon closeted with my books.
Nial got up and began moving boards around, assembling his tools. Soon I knew the screeching and banging would begin so I shut off Schubert and retreated to my desk, to see what order I could bring to the scattered pieces of my Davenport essay.
Last night idly flipping through a book which had risen to the top of one of the stacks Nial has been shifting around the room the quotation I will use to introduce the Davenport essay emerged:
It is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially unfolding in time. And this is because we are too aware of what is continually traversing the story line laterally. That is to say, instead of being aware of a point as an infinitely small part of a straight line, we are aware of it as an infinitely small part of an infinite number of lines, as the centre of a star of lines. Such awareness is the result of our constantly having to take into account the simultaneity and extension of events and possibilities.
-- John Berger, "The Changing View of Man in the Portrait"
Nial is restless. He works a bit, wanders out on the deck, back in, picks up books, puts them down, turns on the stereo, turns it off. He does not mention leaving. He has worn the same jeans, tight at the crotch, torn in the back, since he arrived at the cabin. Must tell him that he's free to use the washing machine.
The skies have shed their gray for a blue punctuated here and there with fluffs of white: we have had a stunning -- if freezing -- day. Nial worked away at the bookcases and I at my desk thinking, watching him, writing to Professor Nishiyama about the progress I am making -- a sentence added today, two struck out -- on the essay which will, I hope, be the centerpiece of the book on style in American prose, the book they've allowed me a sabbatical to write. I imagine and enjoy the mild irritation my old fashioned paper-and-pen letter will cause Nishiyama to feel. He is one of the many who can't understand my aversion to email, can't quite believe -- though I am certain it is true -- that I would get even less work done with that distraction, a distraction that would live right there in my computer, the machine on which I'm meant to do my work.
Nial, in the same hip-hugging jeans and -- it was clear -- no underwear interrupted me an hour before Sunset.
"Well, I guess I'm done."
He had even shelved my books.
"You'll probably want to rearrange them, but I figured I'd get them off the floor."
"Great. Thank you. I'll make you a good dinner tonight," I said, imagining the rack of lamb I had found the day before, running through the wine I had in the miso-cellar in the floor of the kitchen.
"So, I guess, in the morning, I'll go," he said. Was it my imagination or did I hear hesitation?
"Let's talk about it," I said, "over dinner."
"So," she had said, "I guess, in the morning, I'll go."
It had started with a knock -- the bell didn't work and we'd never even thought of fixing it. A young fellow -- I see him as young in retrospect; he was my age -- stood there holding a bedraggled and ugly potted plant.
"Hi," he had said. "Nell around?"
He affected the blunt inarticulateness that many of Nell's artist cronies and their hangers-on employed. She wasn't, and I told him so but he stood, shuffled, looked down.
"We were supposed to meet. Could I wait."
His eyes fixed on my chest. It was summer, hot, sticky, humid. I had been working, expected no one, was not wearing a bra. I let him in. He plopped down on the tatami. I stepped into the next room, slid shoji closed and pulled a bra out of the drawer. I should have returned to my work. I didn't.
"You want something?" I asked. I believed even then that hospitality is important, though I've had little call in my life to put that belief into practice.
I offered beer and wine. It was Nell's; I seldom drank in those days.
"Wine," he said, and I moved the big bottle of Suntory plonk -- Nell called them torpedoes -- to the low table, got a couple of beer glasses and poured us each a drink.
I seldom drank, as I have already written, and the temptation remains to use that as an excuse. But I wasn't drunk, not really. And why -- it's Nell, inside my head, who asks me -- is an excuse necessary anyway?
I had put the bra back in the drawer before sliding open the shoji and rejoining him. We drank and talked a bit about painting since Nell was our common link, but we soon shifted to literature: he talked about Japanese writers I scarcely knew having always focused my attention on Europe, European modernists and the Americans they had influenced. His interest in these Japanese writers seemed sincere, and always searching for that mirror image, a person whose passion for books and reading matched my own -- Nell seldom opened a book -- I was elated, light-headed. One kind of passion became another. We spent the afternoon in bed. Nell, who he had come to see, did not arrive home until the following morning hours after my lover -- I had a lover; that's what I believed -- had left.
There were other afternoons where I listened to him talk about Kawabata, about Tanizaki, did not speak, myself, about James Joyce, whose Ulysses had, for the previous few weeks, been my world.
Mishima was not, as I remember, one of the authors he revered.
Then we had a party. It was, of course, Nell's idea -- parties were really not in my line -- and he arrived among gangs and groups of her friends. It was, I realized, the first time I had seen them together. Nell began to introduce us. He stopped her, saying that we'd met, and they moved off together into the party, and though he didn't touch her it was clear immediately that, as diverted as he may have been by our afternoons, our literary chit-chat, it was the passionate painter, my roommate, who held his interest.
There was no scene. When Nell had realized what had passed between her new lover and me she tried to apologize. She acted as though she thought I was crushed. Heartbroken. Would hate her.
"So, she had said, "I guess, in the morning, I'll go."
She didn't go. I told her it didn't matter, and in truth I couldn't have borne her leaving: she was my only friend.
There were mornings I left the apartment at dawn afraid I would meet him emerging from her room.
And then Nell was pregnant. And then they were married.
The disarray my books are now in, the odd manner in which Nial has organized them, causes volumes of which I haven't thought for years to surface. How, when, did I acquire this English translation of Der Tod in Venedig? I pull it off the shelf -- it's between Calvino and Exupéry; I'll have to ask Nial what the logic was. It's on my bedside table.
I realized that I had not heard Nial for some time, and in his youthful restlessness one did usually hear him, even when he just lay on the couch that served him for a bed, a big art-book propped on his knees. He would rustle and roll on the sloppy sheets he never folded. He would get up and take a turn around the room, out onto the deck, back in. He would snuffle and clear his throat of, I imagine, the phlegm induced by the Tokyo pollution he had yet to purge from his body. But now there was silence. Was he asleep?
But it wasn't silent. There was a rhythmic creak.
I stepped out of my room and saw his bare feet extending beyond the end of the too short couch, saw his knees bent down, the soles of his feet resting on the floor. I took another step and saw him lying full-length. I watched until he opened his eyes and saw me. He didn’t stop. Met my gaze. I looked away, mumbled an apology, turned, walked into my room, then out of my room, out the door. A long walk up to the top of the hill. The view of the ocean from that height drew me next back down the winding alleys, all the way to the waves, the deserted wrack of the wintertime beach. As I walked there the gray sky opened. There was no way to avoid a drenching, and I did not try. I walked home at my normal pace, entered the house cold and wet.
Nial, warm in a thick sweater I had not seen before, looked at me, the water dripping from my sopping clothes, shivering and cold. My lips, he later told me, were blue. The top two buttons of his jeans were undone. He left and returned with a bath towel and handed it to me. I stood with the towel dangling from my hand as the water continued to pool at my feet.
He was, after all, a sixteen-year-old boy with all the hormonal urges and surges that his time in life entailed.
He took the towel and began at the top of my body, drying my hair, my face.
"You need to change your clothes," he said.
I didn't move, he later told me, just stood and stared.
He took me to my room, undressed me and put me to bed. I drew him, he says, under the covers with me.
I was cold, then I was warm. The gas heater dried the room, the air.
Surprising weather for this time of year, the sun bright, but not weak as would be typical. The sky is whitish with moisture that the storm left behind, but that will, in time, burn off. We sit on the deck, Nial and I, and enjoy it. He sketches in a notebook I gave him, and I work at my journal.
As if to accompany the meteorological surprises, a car with all its racket drew up to the house and from it emerged Nell. Nial leant over the railing of the deck and called to her. I watched his shirtless back, the muscles ripple under skin that seems too thin to contain them.
"The door's open," he called, as though the house were his. I was happy that he felt so at home here that he had not, for days, mentioned returning home. Nor the girl.
I had asked him about her, whispering it as our heads dented the same pillow. He rolled away, rolled back.
"I'd like to see her again," he said, and then a sort of shrug. He has yet to develop the sort of middle-aged sentimentality that would compel him to carry on about such a separation.
People enter one's life and they leave it.
Nell came through the door as Nial had invited her to do, walked up the stairs and out onto the deck. She laughed to see that I too, shirtless, was enjoying the sun. This, I imagined, she had not expected from the scholarly drone she had known so long. Always casual about her own body, though, she was not shocked. She couldn't, I suppose, imagine that exposure might be more significant for others than for her, who had worked so often over the years as an artist's model.
Still, for the first time since Nial had encouraged me to enjoy the sun on my skin I felt self-conscious, felt even more self-conscious as I reached for my bra, hooked it with fingers turned clumsy, pulled the gray sweat-shirt over it. Nell watched. Nial watched. No comment was made, and Nell placed on the table a bag from which she produced a cheese from Normandy, a wine from Bordeaux, crackers and olives. We moved away from my embarrassment and -- glasses, corkscrew, cheese-knife fetched from inside -- set to.
And Nial's eyes never left his mother as she told us about her life over the weeks they had spent apart, the unexpected sale of one of her paintings to a Nobel Prize winning author -- a writer who had once been a great favorite of Nial's father -- for more money than she'd made in all of any previous year (thus the expensive Bordeaux), the quick trip she'd made to Thailand at the invitation of a friend who had a house on an island there, knew gallery-owners in Bangkok.
She'd been in a nightclub of some sort in that city when it was raided by police for reasons that had never been clear to her. She sat in the back of a police car where the police had put her upon seeing her passport while they dealt with local arrestees. The door to the police car was unlocked so she had, after waiting some time, simply opened it and walked away.
"It was really," she explained, "just that I had to pee."
She laughed about this adventure, told it as a tale on herself, the silly scrapes she gets into, gets out of. As always her account was endearing, her life a jewelbox of wonders.
I watched Nial. He watched her.
"Don't you have a lover?" I wanted Nell to ask. Instead she questioned Nial:
"And how about you, dummy, you through polluting yourself with that crap you were snorting in the park?"
"This is a little nicer," Nial had answered, swirling the wine in his glass. He smiled, looked down. Nell had, I knew, shared her wine with him for years, torpedoes when she had no money, good Bordeaux when she was flush. They bantered over their wine like a couple, a couple who liked each other, had been apart, had missed each other.
"Your little friend," Nell said, "turned up, believe it or not. Apparently the cops let her walk."
I had, I saw, been wrong about what they would do to her. Even the penal system, it appeared, hadn't cared enough to do anything at all. The girl had appeared at Nell's (only a few weeks late) expecting, still, to be painted. Nell forgave her, set to work.
The girl was, I knew, only hunting Nial.
We talked, mostly Nell talked, until dusk and then, taking advantage of the car Nell had borrowed we descended into town, the Italian place, formed a triangle around local fish, good pasta, salad. Mother–son, son–?. It had seemed simple before Nell had arrived. I had another glass of wine, and another, and on top of what we'd had before leaving the house. I was, I suppose, drunk, though at the time I was merely delighted to be out with friends as glamorous as Nial and Nell. I felt one with them in a way I never had when, as a student, I would accompany Nell and her friends on this or that outing, to this or that dinner or event.
And then the wind blowing through the little car as we climbed through dark back to the house. They took me inside, sat me on the couch. Nial threw a blanket over me and as he did so I bent and kissed his arm. Nell laughed. Nial turned. Embarrassed?
"I guess," she said, "we'll go."
"Stay," I had urged. (I blush at a memory, hope it is false: did I wink at Nial?) With only one bed and one couch it was, Nell said, impossible.
"Anyway," she added, "we've got to get back. Nial has likely forgotten, but we have to do something about getting him back into a school of some sort -- if, that is, we can find one that will have him."
He is, yes, a schoolboy.
He gathered his things into a black backpack as I watched from the couch. He no longer wore the ragged dirty jeans but now sported a pair of clean white pants. Had he had them on during dinner?
The night was quiet. If I was drunk they, more accustomed to wine than I, were at least tipsy. I listened to them laughing, speaking in shouts and giggles, stomping down the stairs.
The sound of the car descending.
I've neglected my work for far too long. I return to Davenport, to the pieces that I hope I can arrange into a collage coherent enough to be thought scholarly by the likes of Nishiyama. A letter from him today detailing the departmental infighting I'm missing, asking about my work, suggesting he visit. The letter bores, pesters, and threatens, but I console myself with the knowledge that I have forced Nishiyama to print it out and mail it in the old-fashioned way.
Nothing from Nell, but then she never was a letter-writer. Nial, who knows? Maybe I should give in and get, if not email, then a phone?
The sand on the beach here is nothing like the fine powder that blows off the gypsum white dunes of the great Sonoran desert. The sand here is wet; it is granular and gray.
Should this make it more or less appealing to me?
People enter one's life and they leave it.