This morning the exterminator caught me loafing over a box of old love letters from Sophia, the last thing left to unpack. I liked him so much I had half a mind to share them with him.
He marched in smiling and whistling, hoisting his shiny brass gear over his shoulder, a compact and chipper Dominican guy–aerodynamic crewcut, clipped moustache, crisp navy jumpsuit. The gold stitching above his chest pocket said Armondo. I pointed toward the kitchen, but Armondo just waved his hand. He knew the place. They’d sure done some job on it, he told me. Sanded and waxed the parquet floors, re-plastered the water-stained walls, put in that skylight.
“Doubled the rent,” I said.
“Yep. The neighborhood’s changing.” He sprayed the dark corner moldings, got behind the shiny refrigerator and stove. “It’s a good thing, too. The last tenant here was a pain in the ass.”
“I had to use my head with him, trick him to get in. I’d say I was with the city, fire department, police. He was a crazy old bastard, had trash everywhere, newspapers stacked up to here. But I’m good at what I do.”
“Must be,” I said. “I haven’t seen any roaches here.”
Armondo nodded. “I was happy when that old black guy died. I’m not ashamed to admit it.” He laughed a little, looked at me over his shoulder. “The neighbors started complaining, said it smelled like Chinese food gone bad. The super had a hell of a time getting in, what with all the chain locks and dead-bolts the old guy had rigged up. What a mess he left behind. It doesn’t pay to live too long, does it?” He finished spraying and tucked the brass-nozzled hose into its clip. “Doesn’t look like you’ll be trouble, though. You put the place in order.”
I won’t be trouble. I toss the trash down the chute every night, recycle the newspapers, bottles and cans every morning. I’ve got bug-proof Rubbermaid containers, space-savers that stack one inside the other for easy storage, left over from my marriage. And I’m not worried about living too long. I still smoke, work my liver, suffer from insomnia. I always figured I’d change if I reached thirty or got a straight job, but I’ve done both now and inertia has proven to be too much for me.
Before he left, Armondo gave me a list of roach-prevention measures and said he’d see me next month. “You know, I hope I didn’t spook you, telling you that.”
“That somebody died here? I can live with it.”
“I might be a little spooked. But he was old.” He gave me the thumbs up. “We’re all better off.”
So, I’ve been sleeping with ghosts again.
What’s happened to me? Should I say a prayer for the dead tenant? Go to the cathedral and light a candle? I’ve tried, but I feel foolish.
If I hadn’t been thinking about Sophia already, I would have then: all day she’s been like a grumpy angel over my shoulder. After the exterminator left I took a walk down Broadway to get broccoli chicken at Ollie’s and a brandy at the West End. The day was fine, the sky an unbroken September blue. Everything smelled of pretzels and honey-roasted peanuts and bus exhaust, and then the soap and dewberry of the Barnard women dressed in self-conscious city black, fall mustards and greens. Sophia all over. I stopped at the unblinking eye of Saint John the Divine but didn’t go in; instead it was back up to my building at the bottom of Morningside Heights’ northeastern hill, where the Heights fade out into Harlem.
Living here just doesn’t bother me, although it would have once. Hell, once I would have talked to my neighbors, tried to help organize a tenants’ association, fought the process that’s pushing them into the projects further north and east. Now I am that process. I understand their curt hellos and frosty nods. I’m an admissions officer over at Columbia; I wear Donegal tweeds and Cole Haan shoes, on warm days a linen suit from Charivari. There are rent hikes in my blue eyes.
I hope Sophia has aged better than I have.
All afternoon I’ve been paging through her old love letters. They make a crude map for the hearse-chasing our romance led me to. Take this one she wrote after I moved into the dorm room Calvin Johnson died in:
I’m in Calculus class and I’m wondering why this must be so boring.
Limits are beautiful if you think about it. Always approaching, but
never reaching. It’s like Rilke’s definition of love–two solitudes
greeting, bordering, and protecting each other. So cheer up. I’m
approaching you–we’re in this together. By the way, would it have
made any difference to Chuck’s mother if I was older? I should have
kept my mouth shut, shouldn’t I?
Yes. She didn’t have to tell everyone she was only fifteen. She knew how that got in the way. The first time I saw her, we were at a recruitment meeting for the Princeton chapter of the El Sol work brigades. This was only a few years after the Sandinista revolution, and volunteering in Nicaragua was hip. As I was leaving the meeting, a fistful of leftist literature in my hand and a vague activist notion in my head, I passed Sophia. She stood pounding her palm and arguing with one of the organizers. She wanted to know if General Ortega would have required a young Sandino soldier to get permission from his mother before enlisting.
A few days later I saw her at a party at Terrace, one of the college eating clubs, a run-down Tudor mansion. A punk band from San Francisco called Flipper was playing while a dozen or so members moshed. I approached Sophia with my cup of beer before me and asked if she was going to Nicaragua.
“I’m not old enough,” she said. She was still in high school. And she was still pissed off. She had wide hips and small shoulders, short, muscular legs, a lot of messy dark hair twisted high on top of her head; from her slender neck hung a large silver cross. I told her she looked closer to the age on her fake ID than I did to the age on mine.
She rolled her eyes. “What about you? Are you going?”
“I just started school. I want to study for a while first.”
“What can you be studying that’s so important?”
I had recently discovered William Blake and Dame Julian of Norwich, and on my walks in the woods off-campus I felt the stirrings of a nascent mysticism. I was pleased with myself. I’d come a long way from the refineries and chemical plants of Elizabeth, New Jersey. “Religion,” I said.
Sophia laughed. “You want to know God? Know affliction. Go to Nicaragua.”
What could she know about affliction, growing up in Princeton? Spots on the silver? Moth-holes in the cashmere coats? Had the dry-cleaners misplaced a blouse? Just look at her clothes: Shapeless chic by Agnes B. My roommate Chuck, an alumni child who’d arrived on campus with the self-professed savvy of a tour guide, had warned me about coming to this club: drugs, ambiguous sexuality, political self-righteousness. I thought about leaving. Flipper was playing “Sex Bomb,” their hit.
“Hey, Sophia,” I said. “Want to dance?”
In New Jersey they wag a finger and say fifteen’ll get you twenty, but how can that apply to a girl like Sophia? Of course I liked her for her compact gymnast’s body and what she could do with it, but her mind wasn’t bad either. Sophia was as well-read as any of my classmates, especially in politics and religion. She had a vision of Christ inspired by Simone Weil and the liberation theologists: the Savior was no mere table-turner mincing about the temple in a pair of sandals–he wore combat boots and hung from his cross clutching an AK47.
Sophia envied my Catholic upbringing. Her great-grandfather left his Russian Orthodoxy in St. Petersburg when he emigrated in l917, and Sophia had been raised with New Age vagaries and no church. The absence of ritual from her childhood, she believed, put her at a spiritual disadvantage. She was intrigued by the rites I’d been raised with, transubstantiation in particular, and asked me to elaborate. But I found little mystery in the sonorous rasp of Father Frank’s Lucky Strike voice and an unchewable cardboard wafer. I was more concerned with my recent sighting of Jesus and his crown of thorns in a cloudy sunrise, a vision no doubt inspired by insomnia and a heavy dose of Dame Julian. This sheep, I told Sophia, was still searching for his fold.
Best of all, though, Sophia had parents who didn’t bother us. Mrs. Maktuyev was busy with her pottery shop on Nassau Street and her encounter groups out in the hills near New Hope, and Mr. Maktuyev was a financial advisor down in Key Biscayne. He was little more than an alimony check. Their combined forays into the wilderness of parental guidance had yielded only one rule: Sophia had to conduct her sex life outside of the house, away from her ten-year-old sister. It wasn’t a lot to ask.
Unless you were asking my roommate Chuck. The third student assigned to our three-room suite had graciously declined to matriculate that fall, leaving us with our own small bedrooms and a living room to share. Sure, Sophia and I would have liked to clear away Chuck’s empty bourbon bottles and do it on the window seat, maybe stoke the fire and roll around on the rug, but we kept to my room in deference to Chuck’s omnipresence, his frustrating chastity.
Chuck was a bummer. Princeton was a trick that had been played on him. His father, a first-generation American who’d gone to Princeton on scholarship, was either an out-and-out liar or a very good editor. He’d recast his college memories and shot them through a filter of sultry green ivy and sweet purple wisteria, and the images filling Chuck’s head were all steeped in sentimental camaraderie: football games in the shadowy cavern of Palmer Stadium, whisky flasks under dark overcoats, an arm tossed over a blonde buddy’s shoulder while singing beneath Blair Hall’s vaulted arch.
Chuck was a seeker led by that vision. But he didn’t come with the cool grace and controlled charm that those essential Princetonians required:
He’d gone to public school. His hands shook. He waddled when he walked. He spoke with a blue-collar Baltimore accent but affected a fake British diction after a few drinks. He sunk a shell in Lake Carnegie and got cut from crew. He was brought before the disciplinary board for goosing some woman’s bottom in the cloakroom of Tiger Inn, and he vomited in the fireplace at that most regal of clubs, Ivy. All of this made it impossible to overlook the fact that he was a stout little Greek, swarthy and olive-skinned, his forehead low, his eyebrow uninterrupted. No quantity of Brooks Brothers shirts or Bean bloochers would help.
I was also a disappointment to him. With my new-immigrant ancestry, a real map-of-the-world-mix from a half-dozen islands and three different continents, and my industrial New Jersey upbringing, I was too much like him. The fact that I had found a girlfriend, even if she was just a fifteen-year-old townie, infuriated him.
Sophia did her best, but it didn’t stop her from getting off on the wrong foot. Because Chuck was Greek, she assumed he was Orthodox. “Chuck,” she asked during her first visit to our suite, “what’s the difference between Russian and Greek Orthodoxy?”
“What is this, a riddle?” Chuck got himself a beer, snapped the tab in Sophia’s face. “I’m Episcopalian.” He stalked over to the stereo, put on a Dvorak tape loud enough to preclude conversation, and retreated to his room.
“What’s wrong with him?” Sophia asked.
Still, she tried to include him in our activities. But Chuck wouldn’t go to the bars and clubs we frequented: he said there was something effeminate about the bands we liked to see. Sophia was persistent. Against my advice she invited Chuck to a rally to protest Reagan’s aid embargo on the Sandinistas. Afterward the Third World Center was having a big reception with free chimichangas and a salsa band.
But the prospect of free food and music didn’t move Chuck. He hated chimichangas, salsa, and Sandinistas. As far as he was concerned, Jimmy Carter should have stomped the Nicaraguan rebels when he had the chance.
Sophia couldn’t let it go. “You know, Chuck,” she said, “the only thing more revolting than an old conservative is a young one.”
“Oh, yeah?” Chuck replied, his first beer of the afternoon in his hand, a navy blazer slung over his square shoulders, “I can think of a few things more revolting. Tops though, would have to be a fifteen-year-old slut whose obviously been screwed out of her senses.”
I surprised all three of us by lifting Chuck by the throat and slamming him against a bookcase. His beer and blazer fell in a wet heap at his feet. Before the blood had a chance to drain from Chuck’s face, I had Sophia by the wrist and pulled her out the door.
“Hey,” I said. “Don’t forget I have to live with the guy.”
The next day I apologized and took Chuck for drinks at the Annex Bar, a popular spot for the underaged. After a few beers his collegiate bonhomie was restored. He threw his arm over my shoulder and tried to engage me in a round of “Old Nassau,” the college song, the words and accompanying gestures to which I never quite learned. I cleared my throat, waved an imaginary hat when he did, and gave it my best.
“Matt, old boy,” Chuck said, “I’m sorry too.”
A few drinks later Chuck outlined for me the program by which we’d become life-long buddies. He’d teach me to row, take me to his barber for a proper haircut, and the following winter we’d bicker for membership at the snobby and slightly southern Cottage Club. Maybe next week the two us could make a road-trip to Smith and Mount Holyoke. “You can get rid of that pretentious little jailbait and find yourself a real woman,” Chuck offered.
I drew the line there. I’m keeping my jailbait, I told him. “She is a real woman,” I said. “You just don’t know her the way I do.”
“No, but she’s loud enough to make me feel like I do,” Chuck said, retracting his arm from my shoulder. “You want to keep seeing her, suit yourself. But I don’t want her in my rooms anymore.”
“Sorry, Chuck,” I said, “but they’re my ‘rooms’ too. You’d better get used to her.”
He never did.
That winter Chuck couldn’t get enough of the cello and violin. The minute Sophia and I entered the suite he’d go right for the volume control and assault us with Stravinsky, Bartok, Dvorak, or Mahler; on especially bad days he resorted to the soundtrack from The Shining. He was cunning, I’ll give him that much. It was hard to hear that music and maintain a libidinal impulse. Still, Sophia and I would fake it, pretend we enjoyed it. We’d come into the living room still steaming, half-dressed. “Chuck,” I’d shout, “how about some Janacek?”
We might have finished out the year that way, our ears deaf to our own love cries, Chuck’s stereo speakers a bit stretched, if a small god hadn’t lurched into the machine to upset everything. It was a frozen moment, that Saturday morning, when Chuck’s parents stopped off on their way to an architect’s convention in New York and showed up at Lockhart Hall unannounced. I remember the look on Mr. Santos’ face, the way his eyebrows swooped below his glasses and burrowed into the bridge of his nose, how his elbow slipped off the mantel he’d been leaning on, how he kicked over the soot-caked fireplace screen when Sophia and I came out of my bedroom carrying toothbrushes and towels, our cheeks in the full post-coital flush. But it was Mrs. Santos who was really living in the last century, and it was she who was dangerous.
“And the worst part is,” I heard Chuck say as I closed the hall door, “she’s only fifteen.”
Sophia had reached the age of consent in November, but there was no reasoning with Mrs. Santos. She had left the suite by the time I came back from the bathroom. She was too upset to see me again, Chuck said. But she called from New York to make a few threats. She would write letters. She would write to the housing office, to my folks in Elizabeth, to Sophia’s mother, to that Puritanical, right-wing reactionary Dinesh D’Souza, the editor of the Concerned Alumni magazine. So what? I said. Write and raise hell. I wasn’t worried.
But Mrs. Santos called our resident advisor a few days later, and he paid me a visit. He didn’t want any trouble, he said. I had two options: can it with Sophia or move out of the suite.
I moved out.
There was one catch. The only open room in Lockhart Hall was one that a student had died in two weeks earlier.
I knew little of Calvin Johnson, the young man who died of a brain hemorrhage in my–his–dorm room. I had met him once, though. Back in September he and a fellow missionary had stopped by the suite to talk about their organization, the Campus Crusade for Christ. I listened to their spiel politely, agreed that yes, I had better be careful to love Jesus with my heart and not just my lips, but Chuck puffed himself up with beer-induced belligerence and High-Church haughtiness and dismissed them from our living room.
When Sophia and I moved my belongings into my new place, I recalled that meeting for her. What had Calvin said, exactly? I couldn’t remember. His room triggered no memories, either. It spooked me that all traces of him had been scrubbed away so thoroughly, so quickly. There was something slightly incongruous about the old place, with it’s scarred wooden floors and dark oak moldings, arched fireplace and lead windows, and the stiff new mattress, the antiseptic, piney scent. There was nothing of Calvin there but his absence.
“You know,” I told Sophia, “it’s weird how quickly they’ve gotten rid of the guy. I wonder what he was like? I wish I’d at least told Chuck to let him have his say when he came by that time.”
Sophia sympathized with me.
“We’re going to have to do something to make living here as peaceful as possible for you,” she said. “We need a ceremony. We’ve got to bless this room.”
Maybe it was because Calvin and I were so close in age and I was experiencing both the usual projections (that could have been me) and relief (thank God it wasn’t me) that such deaths seem to inspire, or maybe it was a vestigial fear of ghosts, some taboo passed on through genetic memory, but I was willing to try whatever Sophia suggested. We had missed the funeral, of course–it had been held in Texas several weeks earlier–so we set about devising our own rituals to purify the room and help speed Calvin’s soul on its flight into obscurity.
First, we burned some incense to get rid of the Pine-Sol smell, then we lit up some sage to drive off any negative “spirits” that might have gotten a foot in the door.
I thought a solid second step would be to compose some kind of elegy for Calvin–I could post it over the doorway or above the mantel so he was never forgotten. In order to do that, though, I’d need to learn a bit about him. The neighbors were no help. They were all sophomores, none of whom I knew, and they made it clear they didn’t approve of my moving in. None of them spoke to me–except for one, the girl who lived directly across the entry-way. When she saw me carrying in the first of my boxes, she got up from her desk and said, “You’re going to live there?”
I nodded. She went back to her room and slammed the door. I never saw her study with it open again.
I consulted several back issues of the Daily Princetonian for news about Calvin, but I learned no more than I already knew: that he had won a scholarship from some African-American college fund, studied chemical engineering, was a member of the Campus Crusade for Christ, and had come up from Dallas. Sophia suggested attending a Crusade dinner-table discussion. Maybe his cohorts in Christ could be of help.
We got there a little late, so we only caught the end of the Jeremiad delivered by the Crusade leader, a rather good-looking blond guy with exceptionally white eyebrows and lashes. We got the idea, though: the new plague threatening the gay community was God’s way of saying “no” to homosexuals.
I tried to warn Sophia to behave herself, but I couldn’t stop her from countering that AIDS was no such sign. “Why,” she wanted to know, “are lesbians among the lowest risk groups?”
“Hey,” I said a little too loud, waving at the group leader, “your friend Calvin. Who died. I’m living in his room.”
The din of the dining hall seemed to diminish. Chuck came waddling through the kitchen doorway holding his meal tray. His paisley tie was askew and yellow shirt-tails untucked. He was smiling at me. “Hey, Matt,” he called, making his way down the aisle made by the two rows of long wooden tables. “You’d better ask them about their policy on pre-marital sex. They might have a problem with that.”
Jeremiah slid out of his high-backed chair and circled around behind Sophia and me. He draped his arms over the backs of our chairs and knelt down. “Brother. Sister. There’s nothing our prayers can do now–Calvin’s gone. Hopefully he’s joined his maker. But you two–you’re right here.”
“Save it,” Sophia said.
Jeremiah smiled at me. “Would you like the long version or the short version?”
“Neither,” Sophia said.
I shushed her, but Jeremiah just kept smiling and talking. “I’ll keep it short: the path is narrow and the flesh is weak.”
Sophia shook his hand off her shoulder, told him to go to hell, and swung her hips out of the dining hall. I left my untouched dinner on the table and hoofed it after her. As I passed him, Chuck toasted me with a can of beer. “Saved you from the pseudo-saviors. You can thank me later.”
My last resource for information on Calvin was his class directory, which I bought at the University Store the next morning. All that yielded was Calvin’s mailing address, the name of his high school, and a blurred photo of a dark-skinned, dark-eyed young man in a tux. The photo was probably from his prom, and in it he wasn’t smiling. When Sophia came over that night, I told her I had an idea.
“I’m going to call his family,” I said.
Sophia removed her black suede jacket, revealing a wide band of supple skin between her black Levis and some kind of dark bustier. She wore her pants low on her hips, and her exposed navel had been pierced and ornamented with a loop of silver with a turquoise clasp. I forgot about Calvin for a second, dropped to my knees, and began kissing her belly. When I recovered she held me at arm’s length and nodded. “Do it.”
Calvin’s home address helped me and the operator sort through the hundreds of Johnson households in Dallas, and soon I had a snappy-sounding woman on the line. I asked if this was the residence of the late Calvin Johnson. The woman became suspicious immediately.
“If you’re calling from that credit card company you can just hang up now. I’ve told you already–he’s paid all the debts he’s going to pay.”
“Yes, m’am, I know,” I said. “I’m calling from Princeton. I was…one of his friends. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral.”
“Gordon!” she called, dropping the phone, “it’s another one of those Crusaders.”
Calvin’s father came on the line then. “I wish you people would just leave us alone,” he said. “You knew Calvin–he was too nice for his own good. I’m not so nice. I’m not interested in what you’re selling. And I’m losing my patience.”
Before he hung up I managed to deny any affiliation with the Crusade, apologize, and suggest that I had only called to tell them that “Calvin was much loved here.” Then I got the dial tone.
Sophia could see that things had gone poorly and she kissed me on the forehead. She began to console me with a little bit of love-making. That was the reason we were in that sanitized tomb, after all. “Hold on a minute,” I said. I cut Calvin’s picture out of his class directory and placed it in an empty desk drawer. “I’m going to leave that there,” I told her, “and when I move out in June I’ll bury it outside near the windowsill.”
“Wait,” Sophia said, before I shut the drawer. She gave me a wilted yellow crocus she’d plucked from someone’s lawn on the way over. “Put that in with it too.” Then she pulled my shirt over my head and began to kiss my neck and shoulders, occasionally giving my skin a good tug with her teeth.
Sophia and I were terrible in our earnestness. We were utterly lacking any sense of irony. We couldn’t even see the humor in so close a connection between sex and death.
On a bright Saturday in March we were walking behind the chapel, cups of take-out coffee in hand, when I had a brain storm. “Let’s steal a votive candle and burn it in my room,” I suggested.
Sophia was all for it. “We can smuggle it out in my purse.”
The Princeton chapel, like many of the campus buildings, is an exaggerated and imposing neo-Gothic affair, built to look much older than it is. Of course that’s an observation I make now; in those days I was as impressed with its arched entrance and heavy doors, its modified buttresses, apparently infinite ceilings, and vast, hallucinogenic-blue, stained-glass windows as the architect had intended me to be. I nearly lost my nerve. Could I really steal something here? But Sophia’s presence gave me courage.
Parked out front was a long white Lincoln limousine, signifying that a wedding was taking place inside. “Maybe we’d better come back later,” I said, but Sophia heaved the door open and led me to a pew close to the altar.
“I love weddings,” she whispered. “A wedding is necessary.”
That came as some surprise to me. What happened next didn’t. The ceremony was a typical white-gowned, carnation and tea-rose affair: a teary-eyed father lifted the bride’s veil and pecked her cheek before giving her away, a jovial best-man beat his breast pockets in mock concern before producing the rings, and lots of old ladybirds cooed and sighed at how moving the whole thing was.
I was prepared for the usual readings, especially that bit about love being patient and kind from Chapter 13 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But when the best-man began to read, Sophia started squirming. “Not Saint Paul,” she said.
She had told me on several occasions she objected to Paul: he was horribly sexist, and worse, although he made many protests of humility, he was a self-righteous, legalistic bastard. In short, the worst kind of hypocrite.
“‘Love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude,'” the best man read.
“Paul was talking about agape,” Sophia said, “not cupiditas.”
One of the old women turned around and started shushing us. “Sophia,” I whispered, “cut it out.”
The best man made a sweeping gesture with his hands: “‘Love never fails.’”
“What did Paul know about love?” Sophia asked, far too loudly. “His bottom line was ‘better to marry than to burn.'”
“Shh…,” all the ladybirds said in chorus.
“I’m getting out of here.” I got up and left, thinking she’d be right behind me, but she wasn’t.
When the doors burst open half an hour later, Sophia emerged into the sunshine and birdseed showers with a big grin on her face. She opened her bag to show me she’d nabbed one of the fat red votive candles. “When we get married,” she said, taking my wrist, “promise me we’ll leave Saint Paul out of it.”
We set up the chapel candle on the sill of the western window and lit it at sunset. We sat down in front of it and prayed for a while, but I wasn’t sure where to go with it. I watched Sophia doubtfully. She was mumbling some weird version of the Lord’s Prayer. “Should I get that picture of Calvin out?” I asked.
“That might help.”
Before I got to the desk, there was a knock at the door. It was Chuck.
He came in timidly enough, almost sober, hemming and hawing about what a lovely evening it was going to be. He even said a friendly hello to Sophia. He looked around at the candle, glanced suggestively at the unmade bed (a function of laziness, not libido), and asked if he was disturbing us.
“Well, yes,” Sophia said. “You are, as a matter of fact.”
Chuck rubbed his single long eyebrow as if he were fighting a headache. He turned his back on Sophia and squared his shoulders to me. “All right, I wasn’t planning on staying. I just wanted to, you know, say I’m sorry about the other night in the dining hall. I was out of order.” Chuck offered me his trembling hand.
“Sure,” I said. “I thought it was kind of funny, actually.”
Sophia made a little noise of exasperation and disgust.
Chuck’s grip on my hand tightened. He pulled me with him to the door. “What’s with the candle?” he whispered. “You two having a seance or something? She’s really demented, Matt. Be careful, will you?”
“Well, that really killed the mood,” Sophia said. She got up and blew out the candle. “Can’t that guy just leave us alone?”
“Come here,” I said. I pulled Sophia down on the unmade bed. “Lie here for a minute.”
We gave up on our mourning and made love instead.
My people would have said a rosary for Calvin and been done with him. But not me and Sophia. We wanted to send him on his way, and we wanted to do it right.
“Our problem,” Sophia wrote in another letter from that time, “is that we’ve come to a new place and are trying to devise ceremonies inspired by that place. We’ve got it all wrong–and this is true of our religious institutions–the ceremony should suggest the architecture of the place.”
“I don’t get it,” I told her later. “Are you saying that communion should be offered in a bakery?”
“No,” she said. “We need to re-discover the old rituals and re-invent the new place.”
In order to re-discover and re-invent, we made a trip to New York, to an herb and relic store down on East Fourth Street. We spent a small fortune of Mr. Maktuyev’s money on stuff that was supposed to help us help Calvin. When we got back, we set up my room like a medieval chapel. We’d bought enormous candles that had the power of invoking Saint Stephen, Saint Agnes, Saint Jude, and Saint Rose of Lima. We lit them and several smaller tapers for smaller saints. We read aloud all the versions of the resurrection from the Gospels. I read a few reassuring words from Dame Julian’s Showings, careful to pause over her promise that all shall be well. I left my Bible open to the first chapter of John: I’d always been partial to him because he makes no mention of hell. We swept out the small, inverted-heart-shaped fireplace and filled it with white lilies and carnations, then we strewed dried rose petals over the new mattress. In dishes on the windowsill–the same windowsill that bore two metal stars for the war-dead who had long ago inhabited that room–we burned frankincense with sage, a suggestion from the woman at the herb shop.
Once the room was sweet with the smoke and flower scents, we took off our clothes. Sophia had visited her father in Florida recently, and the skin above her tan-line was copper in the candlelight. I felt ghostly in comparison, as luminous as an airship in the sun. I didn’t protest. Sophia got on her knees and offered an incantation she’d devised. She asked her sexy, machine-gun-toting celestial supervisor to take Calvin and enlist him in that greatest of revolutions, and in my own words I seconded her solicitations.
We got into bed then, crushing the rose-petals beneath us. Sophia drew me on top of her and I kissed her face and her throat and her breasts, all according to the plan. Lovemaking was to be the pivotal part of this rite. I was just getting to a point where I was no longer conscious of the sweet smoke and burning candles when Sophia tugged at my hair. She told me to stop dilly-dallying below her waistline.
“Is your diaphragm in?”
“I’ve got some condoms in the night stand.”
“Don’t,” she said, pulling my arm back.
“And don’t pull out.”
Between her sharp breaths and my half-hearted objections she sprung on me her belief that there should be no barriers to life in this ritual. Whatever happens, happens. It’s the only response to death. “Just have some faith.”
I made an easy acolyte. Sophia pushed my shoulders over, swung her legs around, and knelt on top of me. She rolled her hips over me for ages, gathering speed and force in barely perciptible increments until we were both soaking wet. My orgasm was a technicolor seizure, powerful enough to fan candle flames and flutter book pages, blow a storm of flower petals around the room. Sophia didn’t stop. We popped a few springs on the metal bedframe, and that firm, still new-smelling mattress hit the floor with a whump that brought a few curious neighbors out into the hall. Sophia kept going, though, on and on, long after the murmuring stopped and the ash and rose petals settled.
My meditations were interrupted by a commotion on the street before. Two Hispanic men dressed in green Fila running gear came zipping out of Morningside Park and headed down 122nd Street past my building. Along behind them flashed a darker-skinned plain-clothes detective holding a gun in one hand, a cell-phone in the other. There were shouts, an errant shot fired, and the trio disappeared into the sunset behind Riverside Church. I’m wondering how Sophia would go about re-discovering rituals and re-inventing this place. When the Wild West and the technological age converge, is it appropriate to put on a cowboy hat and offer Hosannas by fax?
What, should I nip downtown to that herb shop in the East Village and come back with some frankincense and sage? Would burning cypress branches be better? Maybe I should have gathered up the dead former-tenant’s junk-mail, pieced together the clues: newsletters from the Dance Theater of Harlem, circulars from an oculist on Amsterdam Avenue, a bill from the law firm of Weiss Dawid that keeps bouncing back uptown. No, those things should continue on their way from the mailbox to the trash.
I became restless again and went outside, walked the streets–maybe unwisely, in the wake of that little bit of action. Several of my neighbors were on the stoop asking each other what had happened; none of them asked me. I strolled down Amsterdam Avenue to a smoky, tomb-sized Dominican bar I occasionally go to when I feel like drinking where no one knows me. Who can say, though, maybe I was entertaining some hope of finding Armondo, the cheerful exterminator, and buying him a beer.
I didn’t find Armondo, but I did run into Jenny Kisselgof, a prospective student I interviewed yesterday. Given my nostalgic mood and Jenny’s age and appearance–her compact build, light but vaguely Eastern eyes, broad, quarter-moon cheekbones–I wasn’t surprised to find myself seeing Sophia in Jenny. Although Jenny lacked Sophia’s religious preoccupations, she had taken up most of our interview with an explanation of her political activities. Her primary concern was protecting the right to legal abortions: she was an escort at a Planned Parenthood out on Long Island.
She recognized me, of course, and she sheepishly drew her barstool closer to mine. She’d abandoned her host, she said, in order to get a feel for the “real” people of the neighborhood. Jenny had had a few; she hoped I wouldn’t think less of her for that, especially since she was underaged. I waved my hand and told her that in my family we learned to drink as soon as we could read the label on the bottle. That relaxed her, and soon she returned to the subject of our conversation the day before.
She was deep into a diatribe against religious fanatics who wanted to put women seeking abortions back in the closet–where the “wire hangers aren’t just metaphors”–when she stopped and said, “God, I hope I’m not offending you. You’re not religious, are you?”
What could I say to that? “Not really,” I told her, and she carried on, but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking about what my younger self would say about the person I’ve become: You’re complacent, churchless, politically inert, ideologically unconcerned–a sort of sub-Buddhist. An Ivy-League admissions officer, for Christ’s sake.
Jenny put her hand on my arm. She wanted to know if I’d ever been “politically active.” I was laughing to myself, but to let her know she was among friends I puffed myself up and talked about my life in Germany. I spent my mid-twenties in Berlin working for a non-profit, agitating to internationalize the labor unions of the larger multinational corporations. My work was light, limited to translating and copy-editing letters and pamphlets, but I did it. I networked, I was diplomatic. And I was in Kreuzberg on that damp fall night in l989 when the Wall was torn down. I climbed over from the Western side. It was time to go soon after that. I was running out of steam; it was a good stopping place. But the version of this experience that I presented to Jenny was more heroic than the truth, and she was impressed.
Bullshit, bullshit, that youthful voice said. But I refuse to let the voice of my youth play on my conscience: I like my present life. And I like my job. I interview ambitious, confident, usually charming young men and women who want nothing more than to impress me, who want me to like them. I’m taken by their earnestness. And I’m not just a guardian at the gates of some institution for the rich; I remember where I came from. I perform small acts of justice.
Quiet down, younger self. I’ve learned the meaning of real generosity. I don’t judge you harshly.
I’m not sure how it happened, but Jenny began to cry while I was talking. She put her head on the bar, then on my shoulder. I put my arm around her awkwardly. Slowly I began to understand why she was so concerned with the right to abortion. “This always happens when I drink too much,” she apologized. I paid my tab and helped Jenny outside. I put her in a taxi and told her not to worry, that I was going to strongly recommend her for admission.
On the way home I thought about that last ceremony with Sophia–candles, incense, Dame Julian and Saint John, prayers, flowers, and unprotected sex. What had she wanted from that? Was she nursing some not-quite-conscious desire to get pregnant? God knows she’d have tried to raise the child. No abortion for her. For weeks afterward, I was acutely aware of that. It wasn’t Sophia that Jenny Kisselgof reminded me of, I realized.
Calvin Johnson–he came to pass. Maybe Sophia had been right, maybe that reckless ceremony was what I needed to live in that room without worrying about him. There were plenty of other things to worry about. Sophia’s period, for one, which played hide and seek with her right up until the end of the school-year.
After my last exam I did bury Calvin’s picture, and Sophia’s dried crocus, beneath the broad stone windowsill. I did this in full daylight, under brilliant, pollenated skies. The mood around me was wretchedly festive. The magnolias and wisteria were in full, wet bloom, dorm windows were thrown open, stereos blasted reggae, Toots and Peter Tosh, from every corner of the courtyard, footballs and frisbees whizzed overhead. No one noticed me out there, digging up the grass and ivy roots with my soup spoon stolen from the dining hall. I worked quickly, furtively, as if I were burying the paraphernalia of a bad habit, a toy I should have outgrown long ago.
Sophia’s brush with pregnancy shook me up. She and I had only been playing at politics and religion, I knew. Our desires were nebulous, diffuse, abstract, even pastoral, while the world was concrete, urban. Our longings didn’t grow wheat or fire rifles, nurse the sick or cure the afflicted. And if the game had to come to an end some day, I wanted it to end because I said so, not because it had spun out of my control.
Sophia arrived on her bright orange mountain-cruiser after I had already smoothed over the dirt. She wore patchouli oil, a scent I hated.
I held my breath when she kissed me. “You smell like a Dead concert,” I said.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?”
“Didn’t seem important.”
I shoved the dirty spoon in my back pocket and led her to my room. I’d packed already and the place was as empty and fresh-smelling as it had been after they cleared it of Calvin and his things. Sophia tried to make herself comfortable on the bare mattress, patted a spot for me to sit next to her, but I leaned against the windowsill. The mood was ominous and I did nothing to dispel it. Sophia was graduating early, and soon she’d be leaving Princeton–and me–and going not to Nicaragua but to Sarah Lawrence. There was still the summer, of course, which I’d be spending in the sulfurous haze of Elizabeth, and then there would be weekends and holiday breaks, and Bronxville wasn’t very far, after all.
“Good news,” Sophia said, “I can come and visit you next weekend. Dad’s got a boat race in Key West.”
“Don’t,” I said, surprising myself as much as Sophia.
“Why not? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just don’t.” Was I embarrased at the prospect of Sophia coming to visit? Would it unnerve me to see her duck the washing on the zig-zagging line and mount the three flights of rickety backstairs in her Manolo Blahnik boots? No. Sophia wouldn’t laugh at the illuminated Sacred Heart in the living room, the stuffed animals on the furniture, plastic fruit in chipped crystal bowls. She’d say we were “real.” And then on Sunday, my mother and I would make her a damned good leg of lamb.
“I don’t understand.” She got up and came to where I was, but I put her off.
“Neither do I,” I said, getting some kind of brain fever, “not exactly. But I’ve got this idea.” I stalked around the room, dug through a few bags until I found her old wooden matryoshka, the Russian nesting doll she had given me at Christmas. I brandished this thing in front of me. “See? This is it, Sophia. Right here.”
I told her she had to let go of me and learn to look to herself for strength in the future. See yourself in a new way, I said. Become the angel you’re waiting for.
I suggested that we imagine ourselves as human matryoshkas, with our present selves being the outer shells and containing all of the younger people we’d ever been inside. I told her I liked to picture the larger dolls still to come–myself as I’d be when I grew older, more experienced, stronger–and to think of how they’d contain me, minister to me, protect me some time in the future. She should do the same.
Sophia was brilliant. She didn’t cry. She was so stunned she barely even blinked. Those things–the crazy letters, late-night phonecalls–they came later. Then, her mouth just hung open for a while. “You stupid prick.” She got out of there fast, leaving me in a mist of patchouli.
Even now I’m impressed by the enormity of my optimism, the reaches of my vanity, the limits of my narcissism. And here I am, the minister and protector anticipated.
I think about Sophia’s reaction to the readings at that wedding we crashed and I wonder if maybe she wasn’t too hard on old Saint Paul. When I got home tonight I took out my Bible and re-read that passage from First Corinthians. Paul says that a man can have all of the gifts–tongues, prophecy, generosity, the healing arts–but without love, he is nothing. “For now,” Paul writes, “we see but a poor reflection, as through a glass darkly; then we shall see face to face.” Why, though? Why must I be so dim-sighted–so short of wit? Is it because, as even Paul knew, “It is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual”? And if that’s true, then agape, cupiditas–what’s the distance between them? Are they really so different, in the end?
I see myself kneeling before the birthing stool as my wife makes her final push, the crown of our son’s head cresting into the light for the first time. Or is it Father Matthew I should see, injecting polio vaccines into the slim arms of Nicaraguan babies?
Agape, cupiditas–in their absence, there is no difference at all. I can say that with confidence.
That boy that I was may not be as forgiving of me as I am of him, but so what? For what it’s worth, I’ll offer him my ministrations and protection. It’s easy to be so magnanimous. I want to be treated the same way in the future.