Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
Kathrine L. Wright
Kathrine L. Wright has a B.A. in English from the University of Utah. Her work has appeared in Weber Studies (Vol. 13.2), Salt Lake Magazine, What There Is: The Crossroads Anthology, AS/400 Magazine and Paper Salad. In 1994, she received an Honorable Mention in the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Contest. She is a Utah native who moved to South Florida in 1998 and currently works as a Technical Writer and Web Developer.
I've been here in Europe since the first part of August. The fifth or the eighth, I think. The height of tourism. The natives are too glad to take American dollars by selling anything resembling artifacts. A robust Austrian sold me a copper miniature of the Mannekin Pis, and winked at me as he handed me the statue, penis first. Funny, the dollar is weak too. And this their national holiday. I drank wine that flowed like blood from the actual statue, in the heart of Brussels, there in the town whose most famous artifact was built in honor of a child found relieving himself in public. I remind myself that Europeans regard functions of the body as entirely more acceptable than Americans do and toss the statue replica in my bag.
My grandmother is being taken over by her mortality. She can predict the weather by it. Sapphire, she says, there's rain tomorrow. Can you come collect the mail, you know how this weather brings old Arthur in, she says. She nicknames her ailments as if they were kin. Bursa. Collii. She hasn't found a name yet for diverticulitis. I send her a postcard: Gramma, having great time. Le pain Francais est tres bon. Wish you and Diva were here. I don't mention the Mannekin Pis. De PeePee boy, the tour guide giggled, sometimes pronouncing it piss-piss.
I can travel all over countries where they speak in words that attach themselves thick on the tongue, the way homogenized milk does, or yogurt. But my grandmother, she can knit for days and never cross the same path twice. Like some trick birthday candle, gramma will bounce back as long as she has her equivalent of a wick, as long as she has a full spectrum of yarn colors and enough grandchildren to keep making quilts for.
I travel light, have replaced my cornucopia wardrobe with seven shades of red. A lot of it I wear simultaneously, on the days I hit the Eurail, or on days like today, raining. I'm three days in Paris. I find myself in McDonald's on Les Champs Elyseés and pay three American dollars, fifteen franks, for a cup of coffee. This is a place in the world I could walk forever, or at least until my clothes wear out.
I am last on my grandmother's afghan list. She let me choose my yarn about eight years ago. I knew enough about interior design to chose a shade and pattern that lent itself to changing decor. Ivory, warm ivory, piano key ivory. I know my grandmother is composing my afghan. Raison d'etre, this final afghan. Sonata allegro, the quilting begins. This is no story about music. This is about the inertia in our lives that disallows us from being other selves, making other choices. It is about what keeps us true to our own dancing.
This weeks' postcard reads like a diary. The rain will probably smear it beyond recognition. Better that it does, I am using French she would not recognize. It is the American I met in Assissi, who wears his baseball cap in the Louvre, who is distracting me from my language scrutiny.
"Sappha," he says, "it took me five thousand miles to find a woman who lives eight hundred miles from me. We should consider this."
"I plan to stay here until I can't walk anymore," I say, "until grandmother's friend Arthur bumps against my knees and pushes me into a dusty little apartment, returning randomly like a cat who knows who he owns. A body in motion needs to stay in motion, you know."
"Cats are fools," he says. "Sappha, you are too used to large loaves of multi- grain bread. Cars with speedometers topping out at 85. Beer from a can."
We are near le Tour Eiffel, smoking Amsterdam marijuana, eating pasta. He doesn't know what I like and don't. He doesn't know.
"My grandmother is knitting me an afghan," I say. That night I sleep easily, knowing I will snore as I lie on my back, and talk in my sleep if I'm lucky. He leaves 14.000 lira on the night stand, takes his baseball cap, and probably thinks I am insulted.
In all my language study, I perfect the vernacular of pushing the weak ones away quickly. It is nothing more than the thought of being guided by a John Deere cap through those vast Louvre halls to face the wild-eyed Van Gogh. That and the way most of them stare at you when they think you are sleeping. Once they do that, I know what time it is. I know Van Gogh would not approve of them. It is the reverence for difficulty, the idea that an all-consuming passion drives us. This is what I love about the strong ones. Van Gogh is Atlas, the world on his shoulder, his hair on fire, his paint on fire, his mind on fire. He must have been a Pragmatist to the core, like Marvin, "beautiful sea," Marvin. The strong one I flame for at home, working to create purity in water. Water purification. Van Gogh, too, would let me tell him I will not change my last name, and probably love that I wouldn't.
I would use the word love loosely. The connotations, of course, are awful, and I know that sometimes the phrase `See ya' can be restated as love. My grandmother knits while I travel. She calls her relatives, the five sisters, and they compare illnesses and talk about each other. The rows on the ivory afghan merge adagio non troppo, fall back upon themselves like soldiers in battle, multiply like the weeds I am not home to remove.
Rheuma, Arthur and Diva acquire a new relative. Gramma will not name this one. She will knit, and keep knitting, and make the afghan large, too large for her to lift. It will curl around her feet as she knits, mauve needles clicking together like magpies.
I take the 14.000 lira and Eurail to Germany. The wall is coming down, the papers say. It is a miracle. The trees are shedding their leaves, turning themselves young. The thought of returning home wraps itself around me. That night I dream of numbers, ones that multiply against themselves; they look like leaves strung together in a blanket. Sometimes the only number bumping back against itself is one. One times one times one times one. Trying to change itself and always running into a wall.
I am in Berlin, and the wall is being obliterated. The family next to me, a mother and her daughter, offer me a choice of tools. I take a hammer and smack the wall once, twice. I know my grandmother has pulled rows and rows of knitting apart, unstrung that lovely ivory when she locates a dropped pearl stitch. There is euphoria around me. It is the initial change they love and the old women cry.
"This wall is an archetype for how quickly work can be done," I tell the braided girl. I press my hands to the wall, rub my hands over a peacock with a speech bubble full of paix, juste, et fraternite "All of the art will disappear," I say. `Someone will acquire a large debt refinancing the Eastern agricultural communities. They will have to buy computers and import American cars. They'll eat Burger King."
The child whispers to her mother in German, a language I have not acquired. They walk quickly to another spot where there is wall being taken apart, leaving me with their hammer. I give it to an old woman who is breathing with the aid of a portable oxygen tank. She is from the East. Brooklyn maybe.
My grandmother gave me her wedding ring before I left. As I walk through the crowds of tourists, natives, and razing equipment, the band slides up and down my finger, joggles around like disturbed sediment. Calm spreads over me the way turmoil has spread over these people. Two countries, really always the same country, are remarrying. They have been too long apart. They are like Dirac's antiparticles now, electrons that will annihilate one another when they connect. All that will be left is some mystical energy that we cannot explain without the help of mathematical terminology. All that will be left is light.
I leave quickly, return to Italy. Do not stop in Brussels. The railway lines pulse out like veins. From the window I see all the places these tired lines touch: oxygen bubbling as it runs through the system. Bodies in motion need to stay in motion.
My grandmother's name is Stella. Her feet are a song of scratchy shuffles. Her brother was named Jewel. I never met him, but when I picture him, I make him long, and lean, and slightly hardened. In a hotel outside of Firenze called the Avia, I rest beside the pool and scribe postcards with pictures of St. Peter's on the front. There are other tourists here. Mostly groups of them who are herded about like cattle to the different sites by guides. They all tend to dress the same and they identify themselves as foreigners by doing so.
I notice one man who swims powerfully. Maybe it is the way he shakes his hair as he levers himself up from the pool, but at that instant he is Jewel, as he must have been when he worked the dairy in Telluride. Lean, slightly hardened, eyes ebony and nefarious. He looks like he belongs here and he looks like he belongs in my hometown. I want to be alone with this man, here at the pool. I want to watch him swim, parting the water with his hands, leaving a full wake behind him. I always picture Jewel young but forget to subtract the fifty or so years that would make him a different man. Jewel was raised by his sisters after his mother was put into an asylum in Oklahoma for rheumatic fever. During the Depression. I think he would have been much like this man, and am sure that I am wrong. This man with perilous eyes is probably a tax attorney in a city with a name like Olympia. He probably reads Ray Bradbury in his free time.
A gust of wind comes up to scatter my postcards. As I scurry around the pool trying to catch the little replicas of that famous cathedral I have not yet visited, the guy with the great eyes saunters over and sits down in my chair.
"Got a cigarette?" he asks when I return. There is no hint of foreign accent.
"Global warming is why we're basically screwed as a planet and you want to contribute?"
"All of the women in Europe, and I sit next to a Midwestern environmentalist with aggressive feminist philosophy," he says.
"I don't remember inviting you. I didn't ask for a tax attorney from someplace like Salem to come and remind me our planet is fucked. We each make our choices."
"My name is Vincent. I'm not Italian and you're not French. What do you want to do about it?" Andante. Grandmother is finishing my afghan. Her sister has come to stay and she tells me not to worry, she'll be alright, and did I know that Elise in Alabama is having an affair and won't be able to keep her house if Paul finds out?
Worry is not one of my psychological intricacies, I mumble, knowing sister three has poor hearing to accompany her weight problem.
Apotheosis. Vincent has a name and an ideology. Apotheosis. My grandmother is dying.
The needles click together all day, widening their distance from the place they began fusing the ivory.
The first time I invite Sapphire to my hotel room, she talks about dyeing her hair blue. Not the silver gray blue that old women cherish, but some god-awful outlandish shade of dark blue almost purple. She'd do this but she won't eat fried fish. It's a poor choice in chemical usage, if you ask me.
"There's someone at home," she says. We are in an elevator with five other tourists. You can tell they're tourists. They all wear striped knee socks. They stare at Sapphire. That's what people do when they see her. She has a plain beauty, not a delicate one. Her short hair and green grey eyes startle people, that's all. Maybe it's in her cheekbones, I don't know. She's just like a whirlwind, collects little pieces of everything she blows through or by, redistributes them haphazardly. Her postcards are soggy. I smell like chlorine.
Later she tells me the people she meets are all aqueducts. Channels of water that connect her to different languages, different existences.
"Ever listen to voices in the water as you swim?" she asks. "Ever watch an artist paint with watercolors?"
I learn to dismiss these theories. She likes to change topics when she feels uncomfortable and I am already confused.
We eat dinner together that night. "You remind me of my last girlfriend," I tell her, "of every woman. Something going on I just don't know about. I heard that in a movie once."
"Ever heard of Archimedes?" she asks me between sips of what she calls an "aqua vite" and what the waitress calls a Blue Hawaiian. "It's the instrument he created, actually, that's of interest. It's a screw sort of device that, when placed in water and turned, raises the water. The idea is that through merging rudimentary things, simplifying work, a person allows herself access to things she might never have imagined otherwise," she says.
I'm sure there's something she's trying to tell me. "Want to swim?" I ask. I take Sapphire to Rome. She doesn't care much about the methods of transportation she uses, as long as there's a fair price involved and relative speed. We drive a German car, the speed in kilometers. We talk too easily as we drive, the warm air sedating our inhibition. We talk as though we already have survived our first fight or flat tire together.
Basically this means we do not confess bad relationships and we develop a quick string of intimate jokes. Things can happen in a car in a place you do not call your own.
"Put out your cigarettes," she says.
"I'm smoking two at a time particularly to pay you back for guessing what it is I do."
"I almost called you a plumber," she says, and pulls a cigarette from my lips.
"Hey baby let me fix your pipes."
This means I am too comfortable with her. So I spin, magnet like, with the ability to repel and attract in the same sentence. I know this is how to beat Sapphire at her own game. Use her own strategies, and let her do herself in; this is how I work in private practice and in racquetball.
"By the way, Sapphire, she who lies about wanting blue hair, I'm in criminal, not tax law."
Sometimes everyone forgets that attraction is a game in which both parties involved collectively win or lose. I know that every time I get close to someone, I leave right before those infamous three words. I know this is why I'm a sharp criminal lawyer; I don't have to go home and confess anything. There's no one to go home to.
Besides, I always find the women who avoid questions, and this bothers me, the way chaos bothers me. Women and chaos are similar—we create our own definition of them, exploit them and then don't know what the hell to do with them when they take on meaning of their own. The same way things accumulate in a closet and multiply and then come racing at you when you decide that it's time to find your missing clarinet. The one you haven't played since you gave up things that don't increase the annual income.
Being with Sapphire is too familiar. She tells me things I already know about myself and she tells me things I'd rather not know about myself, like how my father can still make me think I'm from a part of the world that only knows time as a method of standing still or drowning in.
She won't say what she's running from, but I suspect it's what we all run from. Every now and then she mentions a relative and that she needs to get a plane ticket and find her afghan. And when I ask her why, she tells me there's someone at home waiting for her. With her I've learned to tell when something affects her; it is when she gets most cryptic and believes herself to be speaking in her own language. It happens like this:
On the Spanish steps in Rome, Sapphire, her hand extended palm up, in the hands of a teller: she sees things: three careers; one marriage, twenty-five years; no children; and water, she sees lots of water.
At St. Peter's: Sapphire, gripping my hand, trying to blend into the Pieta born of Michelangelo. Sapphire saying, "I am not the kind of person to mother a child. I would confuse him. I would sing to him in a different language every night and he would grow up not believing that stars are constant, and that we will burn ourselves right out of a place to live, using fuel the way we do."
At the Coliseum: The cats lounging, licking their paws as if they have just devoured a good Christian meal, Sapphire: "My grandmother talks of David, how he beat the lions, how he killed giants. I want my afghan to be soft and lyrical as her hands."
Trevi Fountain, Sapphire: "I've been here before. I wished for a different time scale. A different way to measure breath. I wished that there were capricious man-like gods who could manipulate a clock; that if we had to have a god, she would be young, she would like jazz musicians, complex carbohydrates, and the theories that we make about astronomical phenomenon. Still, no water," she says, "still no water. This is a dry fountain. Probably has endometriosis."
At the Fountain of the Four Rivers, me: "Sapphire, your work, what do you do?"
I listen to the water flowing through the Nile, Euphrates, Ganges, Tibre.
"Translations. Rerouting words, acquiring words to match other words, collecting, muting, provoking words. Like the writers of religious text, the New Testament, the Hebrew bible, you know."
"I don't like organized religion, Sapphire. I believe in light and friction and sometimes astrology when I know my client is lying and I have to use the law to his advantage."
"You know some morning I'm going to wake up and be convinced I have to leave you. You know that."
You see, the thing about Sapphire is she knows the way words can change things, like a river can change things. She knows the fluidity of motion, she never stops moving. She is good and she is eloquent, and would make more money as a scheister, like me. Not that she wouldn't be equitable, but she knows about the futility of the system. She knows this is what terrifies her. She knows as she gets up from bed in the middle of the night to switch the light on, sending light gushing onto my face. Allegro. Fortissimo. Rondo.