In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I read, in the newspaper, about a man who is dragged from his car, knifed repeatedly for the few dollars in his wallet, and left bleeding in the gutter. My mother says her friends don’t go out at night. It’s an old story, old as the city’s tired and dour expression, old as the dry and wrinkled hands of a man trying to remember better days and remembering nothing but bone.
I am staring, through an opening in the curtain drawn around his hospital bed, at my father’s swollen belly. The nurse is changing the bandage. I force myself to look: at her black hands on his white flesh, moving gently, expertly, uselessly; at his face, yellowed with jaundice and etched with new lines and suffering this new insult as he has suffered so much before: with a look compounded of dumb amazement and mild amusement, as if there were a joke appropriate to this, too, if only he could remember it.
Back at the house, in the room which my mother has turned into a clothing store, I spy a customer undressing. She is wonderful to look at, like those statues and tapestries I saw at the museum yesterday. Such economy and such extravagance of gesture. Common; classic; divine. The shape of woman. Flesh, amazed and amused at itself.
I marry his body to hers. My father and this stranger. Swift corruption and sweet allure.
At the neighborhood movie theatre where, as a child, I was nourished on the romantic and the improbable, nothing but X-rated films are now shown: explicit and crude and flavored with their own improbable romanticism — of sex as its own definition, its own expression, its own end, somehow apart from the rest of human experience. Like dying, which becomes, in this culture, the ultimate obscenity, at least to the living.
On the street, I’m invited to a feast at the Hare Krishna temple. “I’ll be there in spirit if not in flesh,” I assure her. She eyes me reprovingly. “Be there in the flesh,” she says. “You never know what your flesh will be the next time around. It could be the bark of a tree.” I tell her I like trees. She’s not amused.
A girl I dated in high school is on my mind. I call her mother, who tells me she’s married, with three children, and would love to hear from me; it would remind her of when she was a pretty young girl. Yes, so pretty I could look at her for hours; and what now? Fat and sunken like the rest of those suburban housewives? Her flesh a burden, rather than a pleasure and an endless entertainment? But how can I ask these questions, or call without knowing the answers? Without knowing if there is an amazement, or a tiredness, in her eye? Without knowing if she is married to life, or to death? Of course, I am being foolish. She is probably quite happy, quite in love, quite diligently counting her calories.
Jogging around the block in the morning, once again caught up in an enthusiasm for self renewal. Next year I’ll be as old as my father was when I was born: a reminder of my own mortality. We are wondrously more than flesh and bone, but flesh and bone still. And soon I will be the elder, still struggling with these bad habits, dragged across the years of my life like a rusty plow; still yearning for clearer sight and so a fuller heart; still, in other words, being me. My father’s son, some might say.
Remembered at the museum: a bronze Buddha in a glass case, small and perfect, the ultimate celebration of contemplative wisdom. The eyes impenetrable, the smile compassionate and ever-so-mocking. I stood and looked at it for a long time. But for the glass, I would have touched it.
© Mike Mathers