Today I’ve been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It’s not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable—compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn’t real milk. The color’s off, to start with. There’s almost something of the past about it, like old ivory. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, “Do you take cream and sugar?” Pet milk was the cream.
There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she’d miss it by half a notch and get to the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn’t seem to notice, as long as she wasn’t hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street.
And I remember, much later, seeing the same swirling sky in tiny liqueur glasses containing a drink called a King Alphonse; the crème de cacao rising like smoke in repeated explosions, blooming in kaleidoscopic clouds through the layer of heavy cream. This was in the Pilsen, a little Czech restaurant where my girlfriend, Kate, and I would go sometimes in the evening. It was the first year out of college for both of us, and we had astonished ourselves by finding real jobs—no more waitressing or pumping gas, the way we’d done in school. I was investigating credit references at a bank, and she was doing something slightly above the rank of typist for Hornblower & Weeks, the investment firm. My bank showed training films that emphasized the importance of suitable dress, good grooming, and personal neatness, even for employees like me, who worked at the switchboard in the basement. Her firm issued directives on appropriate attire—skirts, for instance, should cover the knees. She had lovely knees.
Kate and I would sometimes meet after work at the Pilsen, dressed in our appropriate business clothes and still feeling both a little self-conscious and glamorous, as if we were impostors wearing disguises. The place had small, round oak tables, and we’d sit in a corner under a painting called “The Street Musicians of Prague” and trade future plans as if they were escape routes. She talked of going to grad school in Europe; I wanted to apply to the Peace Corps. Our plans for the future made us laugh and feel close, but those same plans somehow made anything more than temporary between us seem impossible. It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with.
The waiters in the Pilsen wore short black jackets over long white aprons. They were old men from the old country. We went there often enough to have our own special waiter, Rudi, a name he pronounced with a rolled R. Rudi boned our trout and seasoned our salads, and at the end of the meal he’d bring the bottle of crème de cacao from the bar, along with two little glasses and a small pitcher of heavy cream, and make us each a King Alphonse right at our table. We’d watch as he’d fill the glasses halfway with the syrupy brown liqueur, then carefully attempt to float a layer of cream on top. If he failed to float the cream, we’d get that one free.
“Who was King Alphonse anyway, Rudi?” I sometimes asked, trying to break his concentration, and if that didn’t work I nudged the table with my foot so the glass would jiggle imperceptibly just as he was floating the cream. We’d usually get one on the house. Rudi knew what I was doing. In fact, serving the King Alphonses had been his idea, and he had also suggested the trick of jarring the table. I think it pleased him, though he seemed concerned about the way I’d stare into the liqueur glass, watching the patterns.
“It’s not a microscope,” he’d say. “Drink.”
He liked us, and we tipped extra. It felt good to be there and to be able to pay for a meal.
Kate and I met at the Pilsen for supper on my twenty-second birthday. It was May, and unseasonably hot. I’d opened my tie. Even before looking at the dinner menu, we ordered a bottle of Mumm’s and a dozen oysters apiece. Rudy made a sly remark when he brought the oysters on platters of ice. They were freshly opened and smelled of the sea. I’d heard people joke about oysters being an aphrodisiac but never considered it anything but a myth—the kind of idea they still had in the old country.
We squeezed on lemon, added dabs of horseradish, slid the oysters into our mouths, and then rinsed the shells with champagne and drank the salty, cold juice. There was a beefy-looking couple eating schnitzel at the next table, and they stared at us with the repugnance that public oyster-eaters in the Midwest often encounter. We laughed and grandly sipped it all down. I was already half tipsy from drinking too fast, and starting to feel filled with a euphoric, aching energy, Kate raised a brimming oyster shell to me in a toast: “To the Peace Corps!”
“To Europe!” I replied, and we clunked shells.
She touched her wineglass to mine and whispered, “Happy birthday,” and then suddenly leaned across the table and kissed me.
When she sat down again, she was flushed. I caught the reflection of her face in the glass-covered “The Street Musicians of Prague” above our table. I always loved seeing her in mirrors and windows. The reflections of her beauty startled me. I had told her that once, and she seemed to fend off the compliment, saying, “That’s because you’ve learned what to look for,” as if it were a secret I’d stumbled upon. But, this time, seeing her reflection hovering ghost-like upon an imaginary Prague was like seeing a future from which she had vanished. I knew I’d never meet anyone more beautiful to me.
We killed the champagne and sat twining fingers across the table. I was sweating. I could feel the warmth of her through her skirt under the table and I touched her leg. We still hadn’t ordered dinner. I left money on the table and we steered each other out a little unsteadily.
“Rudi will understand,” I said,
The street was blindingly bright. A reddish sun angled just above the rims of the tallest buildings. I took my suit coat off and flipped it over my shoulder. We stopped in the doorway of a shoe store to kiss.
“Let’s go somewhere,” she said.
My roommate would already be home at my place, which was closer. Kate lived up north, in Evanston. It seemed a long way away.
We cut down a side street, past a fire station, to a small park, but its gate was locked. I pressed close to her against the tall iron fence. We could smell the lilacs from a bush just inside the fence, and when I jumped for an over-hanging branch my shirt sleeve hooked on a fence spike and tore, and petals rained down on us as the spring sprang from my hand.
We walked to the subway. The evening rush was winding down; we must have caught the last express heading toward Evanston. Once the train climbed from the tunnel to the elevated tracks, it wouldn’t stop until the end of the line, on Howard. There weren’t any seats together, so we stood swaying at the front of the car, beside the empty conductor’s compartment. We wedged inside, and I clicked the door shut.
The train rocked and jounced, clattering north. We were kissing, trying to catch the rhythm of the ride with our bodies. The sun bronzed the windows on our side of the train. I lifted her skirt over her knees, hiked it higher so the sun shone off her thighs, and bunched it around her waist. She wouldn’t stop kissing. She was moving her hips to pin us to each jolt of the train.
We were speeding past scorched brick walls, gray windows, back porches outlined in sun, roofs, and treetops—the landscape of the El I’d memorized from subway windows over a lifetime of rides: the podiatrist’s foot sign past Fullerton; the bright pennants of Wrigley Field, at Addison; ancient hotels with TRANSIENTS WELCOME signs on their flaking back walls; peeling and graffiti-smudged billboards; the old cemetery just before Wilson Avenue. Even without looking, I knew almost exactly where we were. Within the compartment, the sound of our quick breathing was louder than the clatter of tracks. I was trying to slow down, to make it all last, and when she covered my mouth with her hand I turned my face to the window and looked out.
The train was braking a little from express speed, as it did each time it passed a local station. I could see blurred faces on the long wooden platform watching us pass—businessmen glancing up from folded newspapers, women clutching purses and shopping bags. I could see the expression on each face, momentarily arrested, as we flashed by. A high school kid in shirt sleeves, maybe sixteen, with books tucked under one arm and a cigarette in his mouth, caught sight of us, and in the instant before he disappeared he grinned and started to wave. Then he was gone, and I turned from the window, back to Kate, forgetting everything—the passing stations, the glowing late sky, even the sense of missing her—but that arrested wave stayed with me. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.
I was cleaning my room at my parents’ house and stumbled upon an old box of mine and this was on top. Every year I fill a box with letters, cards, notes, ticket stubs, etc. This was an assignment from last fall written by a boy whose words consumed him. Most of it is incomprehensible to even those who knew him, even more so to those who don’t, but I do like the pieces about the eyes and mouth. Those are the places desire manifests itself. This is an homage to the writer. I’ve begun staring at other mouths, other eyes, other hands. Darling, I don’t know what you meant, but hopefully you dig your way out of the river you created for yourself.
It’s a little scary to admit something into the doorways of your ears. You don’t realize what a little traveled path it is, as so often it’s filled with footsteps down the hall and whispers of last night and a little muffled, through the vent, what bright things outlasted today enough to be for tomorrow. There’s detritus in the air.
When the earplug swells up in your ear it expunges everything else. It happens gradually—if you like to count seconds slowly. First the hum of airconditioning and electricity goes. Then, people’s voices fade, as if they all walked away very quickly. When your ears are stopped, you can only hear the sharpest things in normal life: keys clacking, staples shooting through paper, conversation still, but unthreatening now, like a beehive outside the window.
Sometimes a cough will cut through.
Silence. When I hear that word I always hear it in my head, being relished like a honeyed tongue. An old man would say it, he would say it to the young b oy after they pushed through the pine trees to the sunlight and the lighted air to view the river far below. WE treat it like the other “touchstones” of our lives: diversity, organic, healthy living, soul, creativity. Hmm…dissatisfying. Silence is these earplugs. These earplugs are forgetting for me all the things that will appear as silence in my memory after two only hours. The joke behind me this Saturday night, and what they drank, the aimless conversation floating around. Did that sound bitter? Maybe it just has an aftertaste of irony considering I make a point of being one of the loudest people in this library. If I weren’t sitting down right now concentrating on silence, I’d be up telling a joke that it took me a cocoon weekend of inebriation to spin. There are sex stories to tell, and that girl over there, with the big spangles hanging from her bracelets, I almost kissed her when I was reeling drunk. I’m glad I didn’t. Who did you fuck? How? Where did you learn that from? The girl behind me, I want her. I want to use my words to bring her over and stare at my mouth and eyes. Sex on the bathroom floor, sex in the hostel, sex in the mountains—but with a different person this time. These chepa little pearls I run my finger across, feeling them slip through my palm like beaded oil, these are the things that silence forgets. I felt my body shatter like glass in the cold water of the shower, I screamed as my bones were ground to dust. I could feel her whole body shudder from the impact of my hand. I could feel her crying in the hollow of my chest, emptied by all the words I told her.
If my mind were a river, all these things would be the flotsam from a flood. Dirt, sticks, leaves and tree limbs, a galaxy of playboys all darkening and sinking down to the bottom. A sodden teddy bear with one eye manages to stay afloat and even though I’ve told you about him, I’ll never tell you his name. TV’s doggedly scrape along the bottom of my brain. I’ll spend hours sifting through that while the river floats on, while underneath—oh what I’ve missed seeing. I know when I run away from silence like a coward to fend myself off with a joke, or a story. I know what I’m doing when I spill whiskey all over the surface to make it colorful. What do all these little chirrupings do for on a planet that spins alone in the dark? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, I should have been a pair of ragged claws… and all for words. I’ve broken a vow of silence.
But—now there’s a word—I object. I’ve spend a long time in silence growing gills so I’d never have to surface again. I can tell you that for four months of silence I never caught a single fox that I chased through those oranges mists; and in the somber dark of the early monring, when I lay next to her with my words poised in my throat, sick with anxiety, feeling my head cave in like a diving bell from the enormity of the weight of all the words I never produced, I never once felt better for having let the moment pass in silence. The bottom is lonely and words leave you trapped in bubbles. Personally, for me, I chose the moon for my silence. But beautiful as it is, you can’t share words up there, which is why each of us keep one of our own in rotation, circling our heads like lightning bugs. Some can look up and know its there, but I’m like a moth who follows his mistress. Moths are meek animals. They die by a deceitful and loud light on your front porch.
When you want someone you watch their eyes and their mouth—check. Check your memory for that person and remember their eyes and mouth. These are the windows and doors to souls, and while you wait at the bottom for their bold words, you watch that the lights are on upstairs, so you know, one day, if they invite you in, you’ll be warm and well lit in the company of friends. We’re all on a dark river and every day we put our hands to those sunless, unvoiced waters, but there are other people there too. We each have lights hidden by bone bushels, and we open our mouths to show them. Once we do, we father and for a little while, we can forget the dark, fluid miles beneath our feet.
I’m waxing eloquent and waning sense: my five minutes have passed a long time ago. Out these plugs go. The world is returning. It’s like this: when you open the door of an abandoned house, and the wind fills it, you can hear the eaves creaking.
-MS Fall 2010
Spanish Sahara. Foals.
I’m a writer. I have writer friends. A lot of them ask me to read their stuff and visa versa. Tell them what I think. Tell me what they think. One particular friend told me he had modeled a character in his novel after me. I put off reading it since it came into existence. I don’t really know why. I guess it was probably because I was nervous to see myself through his eyes. I have a tendency of being a bit silly sometimes. I was living with him at the time he wrote this (and terribly in love with his roommate) and I didn’t want to see how stupid I was looking back on my days of being completely oblivious to everything in the world but three bodies sharing a haunted apartment on the furthest outskirts of campus. I was afraid of being some minor hyperbolic foil character.
As I was flying in from New Mexico, I thought, “Gah, I should probably read that story. I’ve been putting it off for over a year.” I was (for some reason) surprised at what I read. The first chapter easily pushed most of my past reading material down a rung and currently clings tight the literature ladder, only to be topped by Virginia Woolf and Vonnegut. I fell in love with the central character, a supercomputer named Roxy. This is her theme song, and inherently mine as well. I have never been so flattered in my life, dear friend.