from Hank Forest's Party
A LITTLE CHAPTER ABOUT TIME, MATTER AND EMPTINESS
Monica wonders if Hank Forest’s birthday party is really a party for Hank Forest. The sweet but dopey expression on little Hank Forest’s face: its sweetness made dopier and its dopiness made sweeter by the happiness of being celebrated by so many: intimate constellation of adults he loves and, orbiting around it in rings and clusters, bands of people he’s never seen before: a happy, noisy galaxy of known and unknown all swirling and mutating because of him. The face of the moment wears a smiling rubber mask of celebration, but does it have anything to do with Hank Forest’s birthday?
A flight of six cement steps leads up to an inviting facade: white entrance door flanked by an unfocused aquarium of leaves and light in two opaline sidelights and, to the left, out over the dark frame of the open garage where the band no longer practices, a bay window curves around a jungle of plant growth and the pearly glow of daylight crossing the interior from other windows.
The spacious upstairs apartment used to be Babette Coffin’s, sitting atop Grete and Andy Forest’s smaller downstairs apartment, compressed and darkened by the weight of all the light above. Double light above the ocean and the whole length of sky above the street from ocean to Coast Boulevard gathers upstairs and compresses light downstairs into brittle wafer and bitter chocolate. Every day a disheartening bite into it. All the shadow that inclines against the yellow brick apartment building screening off the ocean to the south pours through the downstairs windows.
The dark downstairs apartment that used to be Grete and Andy’s is now Babette’s and the bright upstairs apartment that used to be Babette’s is now Grete and Andy’s.
Monica knows this: Grete Forest was once Grete Coffin and then Grete Lima and moved back home with little daughter Tina Lima after the breakup of her first marriage to Tony Lima and she’s still there, deep into her marriage to Andy Forest, Grete’s beloved brother Greg’s best buddy and fellow band member.
Marriage to Andy Forest changed nothing. Very disappointing to Grete. Had assumed, without thinking much about it, that marriage to Andy would change the balance of life in this house, but it didn’t. Hadn’t calculated on the familiarity of Andy’s presence. Just another familiar face-about-the-house. Things that were in place or orbiting before were in place and orbiting now and for them to actually change something would have to make Babette stop and think about them differently and Andy’s familiar face-about-the-house seems to have kept that from happening.
Andy was content just to be living in his beloved buddy Greg’s old house, to be married to Greg’s sister Grete (even better-looking than Greg and almost as tall), to be living with Greg’s mom, like another son.
Babette for her part was happy with Grete’s choice because it changed everything while changing nothing, the choice that one generation in general favors for the next.
Monica’s notes say: Grete’s complaints are always the same: Babette’s “selfishness”: refusing to budge from the spacious apartment upstairs while the four of them are crowded into the compressed apartment downstairs.
Also: “A beautiful woman complaining like a child.” And: “The slackness of a prolonged childhood.”
At close range, smiling intimately with warm eyes, the beautiful lips of the wide mouth take on a subtle weakness while complaining. (Can see in the eyes of the complainer, as always, a weak complicity. While the soul’s discontent leaks out at the mouth the eyes expect no change in reality.)
Weakly smiling look of the mouth comes and goes quickly, girlish and awkward, so unstable it dissolves in the lasting impression of adult physical beauty.
Voice hears itself and wonders if, this time, it means what it’s saying and might really move out. Move out from under her mother, who’s not at all overbearing but still in some inevitable way has the upper hand.
“Yes, you’re right, Grete. I think this time you’re right,” her mother says sadly. “Why do I need it now? You have so much stuff, the four of you. You need it and I don’t. For once I have to admit you’re right, Grete.”
It happens so easily that Grete doesn’t feel elated. And later she feels an inexplicable dejection. All Andy says is that he wonders how long they’ve had the upper hand without knowing it.
A LITTLE CHAPTER ABOUT TIME AND THE BODY
Grete and Babette preoccupy Monica for days.
Monica throws away a lot of paper trying to figure them out. Writes, for example: “struggling with someone, as if nothing had changed, and then discovering that everything had changed. The thing you’re struggling for finally comes to pass, but you suspect that the result has nothing to do with your struggles.”
Thinks about it, crosses it out and a little later copies out the same exact words, adding only: “For Grete not to know that her mother had changed, she had to have observed nothing: dehydration of work, sex, love and friendship, subtle withering away from the world, vapor of sadness and premature aging of the second or third self that animates the first self and all its selves: all that had to be lost on Grete.”
Now Monica is bending over her notebook, crossing out paragraphs and scribbling new ones, as if still outside the situation and trying to burrow in.
Answer may be as simple as: everything blinds us to the instant, very little plugs us into the instant. Each one with his/her own little spindle and the endless boring reasons that endlessly wind around it. Universal or not: the spindle of bygone injuries and the negative narcissism of the injured party. Sensitive meter, always ticking, that registers injuries received not given and drowns out the humming background radiance of the instant.
Once-powerful mother reduced to powerless grandmother.
At the time of Tina Lima’s birth Babette was too young to feel like a grandmother. Grandmother in name only. Still a beautiful and youthful woman, a hub of activity, and certainly not eclipsed by her daughter’s beauty or her marriage to Tony Lima.
Possible to say: for certain daughters with strong mothers motherhood is pursued as an underground tunnel to power.
Or truer to say: time is always on the daughter’s side: squeezes itself with awful force through narrow human channels so that the worn and anguished face that only clawed through under extreme conditions is now the face the body is compelled to wear till death.
And it’s Grete’s victorious alliance with time, ushered in by Hank Forest’s birth, that’s being celebrated on the occasion of little Hank Forest’s party.
A LITTLE CHAPTER ABOUT VISION, MATTER AND MEMORY
The moment Monica arrives for Hank Forest’s party and enters Grete-and-Andy’s new upstairs apartment may be the moment she begins thinking about Grete and Babette, but she doesn’t know now when that moment was because it isn’t in her notes.
The overly-concentrated stare of deliberate remembering is also of course the look of someone who knows she’s going to forget.
The only memory that isn’t remembering-in-order-not-to-forget is the involuntary memory of the self’s self’s recurring dream-narrative of its life.
At the desk: memory tries to look again with the look of deliberate, purposeful remembering. And the basin that needs to be emptied gets filled up in order to be emptied.
From every point the eye is drawn toward the outward-curving front window (something no one could know from the outside looking in) and the foreshortened vista of ocean directly upright in it. Ocean leapfrogs over whatever lies between: so that the mind can fashion a livable abstraction. (Mind that tries to live in the real plenitude of the world drowns in it.)
Monica wonders, now (May 9, ‘77) or later (at her desk) or still later (“now”, after twenty-five years), about every dwelling’s frames and portals: saw through the everyday pile-up of matter like a bread knife through bread. Mirror, doorframe, window startle the first time they pare away the clutter from the image: the brilliant reduction: but what then? The knife that cuts the loaf in a startling way ends up as the repetitive gesture that makes sandwiches.
Carpeting is soft and the sofa is exceptionally soft both to the eye and to the body’s weight.
The other furnishings add up to the usual invisible unity. In order for the invisible unity to become visible — really visible, with a lowgrade infinity of detail — what would be required? Realism put to the test, pushed to its impossible limit. What a room is really composed of. What each thing in it really looks like, not only painstakingly rendered, but its composition thoroughly researched. Each thing in itself and then the relation of each to each in space. Accurate image of the whole; break down the image into its constituents; build it back up as another sort of whole. Could a lifetime of description be devoted to a house, an apartment or even one room?
The hidden inner structure and repetitions that support the details that support the invisible unity of a dwelling.
But what supports the inner structure and repetitions?
Make visible what in any case will subside back into invisibility.
Already invisible to those who live there.
The infinite realm of the invisible visible.
THE LANGUAGE OF OTHERS (TRUE OR FALSE)
People we don’t know are suddenly next to us talking. Listen with interest to the story that is absolutely defining the person we don’t know and at the same time we may be inwardly discarding unwanted language. What is “unwanted language”?, Monica wonders now or later, long after listening to and discarding unwanted language at Hank Forest’s party. How many times do we edit the language of others on the way to making it our own? Edit, in order to remember, while listening. Edit again later, when experience gets scoured as if it were a sticky counter-top. And then again later, and even later still, in the impossible “now” of twenty-five years later that nevertheless has come to pass.
With our habit of discarding we discard more than we know and, even more unsettling, can’t figure out what it is that’s left behind.
Forget in order to remember and then forget what we’ve remembered.
Sticks to paper, pen can’t scrape it off no matter how the shoulder leans into it. Or: something manages to pry it loose and then we’re surprised to find that the self has flown off elsewhere.
True or false: 1) the accumulation of events over time has a developmental order and that developmental order is what we think of as time. 2) Events accumulate horizontally. (The horizontal narration of the eye as a car drives down the street past one house then another, past one event then another.)
Human sense of time may have its eye on its wristwatch as if it were the playing field where the plot of its favorite game were always unfolding, but in the back of its mind it’s hearing the ticking meter of the deteriorating human body. All other ideas of time really ideas of space, as if we were always trying to find again some spot we’d hiked away from, leaving behind a folded jacket and the remains of a sandwich in a butter-stained paper bag.
Trying to remember again what we had to make an effort to remember in the first place is like having an ear pressed to a hotel room wall, hearing voices in the plaster.
Little spasm, almost nothing.
Never a complete sentence in the lot.
Voices travel a bit more distinctly from a distant restaurant table to ours.
The distance voices travel adds what? By taking away what?
When others talk to us directly and we can hear every word we miss what isn’t missing in their sentences.
While having an ordinary conversation we’re already not listening but translating. Trying to find in them (in it) our own language and rhythm. Little take-out container of conversation that often spills, leaving a messy pool of sticky liquid in the well under the armrest of the car.
Through voices sometimes a window opens into a street with its oddly quiet little cataract of traffic.
Monica is introduced to two people she doesn’t know and may never meet again. Unknown before, forgotten later, they make themselves exist by talking.
Dick says that he met Jane in the Peace Corps twelve years ago.
Jane says, “in Liberia”.
Married, had a baby, left the Peace Corps and returned to the States.
Returned to the States because of the baby, but it was a mistake. They weren’t home five minutes before Dick became restless and miserable.
Dick says he wouldn’t use the word “miserable.” And “restless” isn’t the right word either. He’s just someone who’s happier abroad. Happier in other cultures, the less like ours the better. Not because of their so-called exoticism. There are people who are drawn to the exotic and maybe those are the same people who are restless and miserable, but that’s not him. That isn’t it at all. Harder to define what it is than it is to say what it isn’t, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept the language other people use to describe us. The language other people use to describe us is always false and stupid. We never recognize ourselves. Why is that? The obvious answer is our own inability to accept the truth, no matter how fair and accurate. Even more so, of course, when the truth is ugly and accurate. The uglier the more accurate? The assumption is that we have no self-knowledge: each one knows the other but no one knows himself: we stumble along self-deluded waiting for someone else to give us a clue. Isn’t that what we all think about each other? Or it could also be that others without exception deliberately set out to define us in the stupidest way possible.
Jane says why make it complicated? Monica can see that Dick has a slight tendency to complicate everything. Why not just say: some people can settle down and some can’t.
Dick says “settle down” is another expression he hates. What we really mean is make our peace with death. The decision to “make a home” is the decision to invite death to move into the unused basement apartment. The “homemaker” is the mortician of life’s living mess. Life is a mess, therefore, home should be a mess also. When life isn’t the mess that comes from living out of a suitcase, he can’t breathe.
Jane says: as if the only place that death attaches itself to us is at home. As if travelling = some sort of endlessly retreating horizon line of mortality. What Dick can’t accept is that what feels like death-in-life to him might feel rich and infinite to someone else. And if ordinary day-to-day living is the same as dying then we’re doomed to spend our lives afraid to live. Afraid to live in the everyday because that means death, where is there to live? No choice but to go looking for some far-off hiding place from time.
Dick says that Jane makes the truth sound like a matter of taste, but it isn’t. We make truth a matter of taste to make ourselves comfortable with something small. It’s the smallness of life we’re always trying to give an appearance of transcendent richness instead of seeing it for the smallness that it is. We die of its smallness, but keep talking about its transcendent richness. . . .
Dick and Jane lose their thread while talking. Or Monica loses the thread while listening, remembering, writing or writing again twenty-five years later. Editing of forgetfulness begins at once and is the second author of everything.
Monica thinks Jane says that she grew up on the prairie, in Oklahoma, and that the space of her prairie childhood makes her see America differently from Dick. She makes the argument that the space of childhood determines the landscape we’re comfortable in for the rest of our lives and whether we like the space around us to be crowded or empty. For example: being surrounded by so-called Middle Americans doesn’t make her anxious. . . .
Dick says that Jane knows very well that he gave normal life a try. He tried graduate school and other things, but nothing worked. Jane saw how unhappy he was — how “restless and miserable” — and they took the baby and went to Chile. He took a boring government job (a job he knew in advance would be boring) on the assumption that the adventure of being in Chile and not the boring government job would become the foreground of life. We sustain ourselves with the delusion that the background is the real foreground. That the life we’re actually living is not the foreground. That the insipid foreground we actually live in is really the insipid background. Others (who in any case may have helped propel us into our insipid foreground) sustain us in our delusions because they’re living in exactly the same foreground they don’t want to know is a foreground. For us the foreground we’re actually living in is unlivable, so we pretend that we’re living another, mental life in the background. And then imagine that our mental life is the life we’re really living and therefore stronger than any other. But it never works that way. The real foreground (what we’re actually living) injects itself into the mental life we like to think is primary. Real foreground of life eventually forces us to swallow the thick goo of our mental life and we’re poisoned by it. Chile, for example, was no longer Chile. Could not be — could never be — Chile for him. A government worker in a boring job, or the wife of a government worker in a boring job, taking care of a baby and only living there because of her husband’s boring job, cannot at the same time be a curious traveller having an adventure in Chile.
They returned to the States.
Jane had some friends who needed someone to look after a sixty acre farm near Lexington, New York, and since that seemed like heaven to her and he didn’t care anymore where he lived they went up there to house-sit and they’ve been there ever since.
Dick says sometimes we get what we want and it doesn’t work out and that cures us of something or spoils us for something forever. Or, conversely, we do something we never wanted and it’s oddly satisfying. Life can have its own other life and that second, unchosen life can be a strangely good one. One foot follows the other and one day you find yourself living in Lexington, New York, instead of in Accra or Cuzco. . . .
Now it’s Jane’s turn again and she’s talking, but Dick is drifting away and so is Monica.
Jane says she’s teaching retarded children and Dick is giving guitar lessons to Spanish and Portuguese children (a surprising number of them in upstate New York) and they’re putting down roots and beginning to have a satisfying life.
“We work all day and see no one at night, but we seem to be enjoying that sort of life right now.”
Luisa, the band’s beautiful singer from Puerto Rico, passes through the room and Dick breaks off and wanders in her direction.
Monica’s mind drifts off while listening and thinking. The wash of possibilities is too great: unstable and multiplying toward an impossible, infinite iteration: its infinity impossible only because the mind always seems to need to stop its buzzing and settle down on something.
Ascher/Straus are collaborative writers living in Rockaway Park, New York. Among their many works are The Other Planet, Red Moon/Red Lake, The Menaced Assassin, and ABC Street (published by Green Integer). Hank Forest's Party will be published by Green Integer in 2009.
Copyright ©2009 by Ascher/Straus.