by Michael Berger
One lesson from high school was that I was popular enough not to get beat up, but not intrepid enough to have a life free of humiliation. Luckily, I went to a college in California’s north where life was done differently, and with weirder characters. I was attracted to the gothic fir covered mountains that walled in that deceptively quaint beach town, the switch-backing freeways that cut through boulder and forest and, of course by the frothing coastlines straight out of photography books. The place was both picturesque and abysmal and I was excited to lose myself in it.
Youthful flight feels all too mythical: the abandoning of the nest for uncharted lands and new kinships. But this place I landed in was a concentrated form of my childhood dreams. The slovenly beach-and-forest town only increased my instinct for reverie, languor and the paths of least resistance. My scholarly ambition was to prove that the reassurances I needed could be found in literature. So I enrolled in literature classes and spent my limited income buying books. Whatever we long for, we also need to be reassured by something. And when the reassurance is stripped away, we need to keep re-finding it. But I wasn’t good at school, except in short spurts; instead, I was better at wandering, and I found in those coastlines of tide pools, kelp, sandstone and seals an abiding sense of purpose, albeit one without any cash value.
So I settled into an uneventful life, found work at a yuppie supermarket and read and studied and wrote in the evenings. Surrounded by fog-veiled pines and wind-torn cypress, flowering dunes and grizzled surfers, crumbling mansions and antique bridges, my imagination was perpetually enflamed. I was close to the sea if I wanted to be sprayed or tranquilized by it. Between the redwoods, deer and mist moved, each ghosting the other. Ferns spilled out, freighted with rainwater, over lichen-blotched boulders. All the earth smelled beautifully and I loved how my body reacted to the moisture and the mulch, the salt gusts and the pine heights. From whatever perch I sat to ruminate, some part of the ocean winked: a slab of sun kissed aluminum. My town was a womb cut off from the rest of the state, if not the world. Given a modest income, one could pleasantly do a life’s worth of nothing in a shotgun bungalow beneath the rollercoaster. Above the town, in bunkers and small rooms we had our impassioned lessons. Below, we ambled along the alleys drinking coffee and dreaming aloud about nothing pressing.
Back then I don’t remember looking at much on the brand new Internet or in magazines, or even going to the movies. All I had for visual stimulation was the world around me: town and forest, ocean and horizon, and all their varied denizens and spirits. If I wanted to be “stimulated” in a more lurid way I glanced through old diaries filled with descriptions of people who once fascinated me. Very little of my life in my late teens and early 20’s involved intimacy with others. So I kept those diaries almost as charms to use if I was ever crushed by loneliness or self-loathing. Re-reading them for companionship could be discomfiting: I kept reading about people I had allegedly met around the lake by my childhood home. They were eccentrics and zealots and hobos and fishermen, some of whom I found attractive or beguiling. For instance, there was a woman, according to my diary, with broad shoulders and purple suspenders who was always accompanied by a retinue of ducks. I called her Annalise—but I if tried to recall her face, all I saw was the face of any young woman who enjoyed nature. So rereading about these people I was upset that I couldn’t decide whether they were real or fabricated.
But then, not long after I moved to my quiet, coastal town, I met Audrey. She began for me as a rumor in coffee shops. I loved my college town’s cafes, especially back then when people had real conversations in them. The brass paneling, the burnished wood, the Pegasus-engraved espresso machines, the pastel flannels and the lost looks: a concentrated ‘90s which seems now the last bastion of relaxed, sincere conversations. I sat in those cafes with pen and paper and books, doodling, or reading, my ears pricked for gossip. Sometimes someone would ask me what I was doing and I would reply: I’m waiting for an idea. And I would even talk to them in that way that felt so raw and real.
Almost everyone in those cafes, but especially in the one by the clock tower, seemed to know Audrey. Both women and men wanted to date her, or at least get close to her somehow. Yet she hovered above mere desire like some surreal small town celebrity who nobody had actually seen. She was described as aloof, unpredictable, unattainable, androgynous, confounding, intimidating, upsetting, off-putting, devastating and hysterical. I had no clue what those adjectives meant in relation to her actual being. Only later, I discovered she was a professional photographer and a riveting storyteller, too; that, in fact, she was famous for her “Slideshow Story Hour” which could happen at any place and at any time, and with very little warning.
When I found that out, it also occurred to me that “slideshows” had played a part in my own life. In my high school history class, I was always relieved when the teacher turned the lights off and put on a slideshow of sculptures and paintings, augmented with tales of her travels with the American Communist Party. By dimming the class lights, and letting the clicking slides commence, she extinguished vigilance and restored our peaceable nights. When history surrendered to art I was also reassured. One of the photo slides that riveted me the most, and which induced a sense of eerie, not-exactly de ja vu, showed a cave mouth in India, the very one that inspired E.M. Forester’s A Passage To India. “What’s important,” my teacher said, “is we’ll never know what happened inside that cave.” I became very relaxed when she said that, and the rest of the day I was gliding through cool mist, even though it was sweltering. So this peculiar memory from a European History class in high school surfaced when I found out that Audrey created “slideshows.” If I ever had the chance to talk to her, I told myself, I would have to sneak in, as naturally as possible, this slideshow memory.
Our downtown had a tiny pedestrian plaza, hemmed in by mural-covered walls and overgrown plateaus upon which once palatial Victorians stood. Each plateau was gouged with unusable concrete stairs overrun with garbage and foliage. I watched those staircases vanish into impenetrable brambles. What would it take, I wondered, to make them usable again? I sat there hearing about Audrey and thinking about lost staircases. Then suddenly I realized that Audrey was in my World War I literature class! And by rote, desire welled, even if I couldn’t summon Audrey’s actual appearance. Nor was this desire the kind I would have expected had I read this story and not lived it. What came when I felt “desire” was a sequence of encounters and quests in a remote, enchanted land. Feelings as effulgent as meadows or tides; almost architectural sensations arriving, like half-formed structures, pre-designed ruins, forlorn tableaux of stone, moss, nest and cinder. If only desire could always arrive with such cryptic subtlety! But I was also getting tired of basking in associations and not doing anything about them.
But it was Audrey that initiated things. When she found out I used to be an altar boy—and I’m not sure who told her that—she loped up to me with a big grin after class. I was on my favorite bench in the south meadow, facing the pines, reading a Polish novel called Cosmos.
“I want to know about you,” she asserted. “You interest me.”
I agreed, perhaps faster than I should have. No woman had ever been that interested in finding out about me. And when we tell somebody about ourselves, we have a few circuits to work with. I liked books and music, I might have said. But whatever it was I mumbled in reply, it solidified a compact. Thereafter, and quite elatedly we met on bridges, between classes, after classes; in fungal residential alleys and statute-filled courtyards; at our favorite cafes or the vague commercial spaces surrounding them; and talked incessantly, sometimes getting very close and then pulling away, laughing. In our library jaunts, we discovered newly beloved artists and writers: Apollinaire and Lee Miller and Gustvae Moreau and Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara. All we knew was English, but exquisite translations of their work were available that we saved our money for; or I did, at any rate, and loaned her the books after I had devoured and annotated them. Someday we would live in Provence, we concluded, with our bicycles (which we didn’t have), and gardens full of herbs that would provide us a livelihood. And then we would really know French. It was easy to make plans to learn French when there were gardens and bicycles involved.
But as smitten with her as I was, I was still terrified for a very real reason. For I was mostly a virgin and, I quickly found out, so was she—except for other women. I put off mentioning the former until she talked about the latter.
“I dated women exclusively in high school,” she explained. “But I’ve never been with a man. And…I don’t know. It still sounds weird!”
“There’s one thing with a woman that happened to me,” I said, “but I don’t think it really happened because…because it was that embarrassing.” And then I thought: wow, she’s only dated women?
“You’ve suppressed the memory then,” she said.
“Maybe I have. But…there are lots of things I remember that I can’t even decide were real, or not. My imagination plays tricks. Or something does.”
“That’s normal though,” she said, laughing. “Don’t beat yourself up over it!”
“Ok!” I said, relieved.
She invited me over to her house one night in early April. Unlike most of us, she lived off campus in a part of town that students didn’t live in.
“Key is under the mat,” she said. “Just come on in. If I’m not there, I’m either in the bathroom or at the neighbor’s petting her cats. We can play Monopoly and talk and eat, yes?” And then: “The moon will be filling my window with butter!” as a Surrealist parting shot.
When the night came, I crossed the bridge into the Old Quarter, more commonly called The Flats. I wore billowy black corduroy and a flouncy white shirt, almost buccaneer chic, had I been the one to coin the style. My sense of direction was also embarrassing. I was lost the moment I left my dormitory, following pavement that shifted as tortuously as a mountain brook. The weather was low and misty; the night felt heavy with curtains. It wasn’t just the mist gripping the wood and stone, but the way the streets curled and lapped over each other like ribbons of foam. Once I reached the heart of the neighborhood (rows of sinking bungalows squatting under the rollercoasters) I realized I was in a maze of one-way streets which all spilled out from an absent center. A complete flop of urban planning, or as she said in a fake New England accent, “a ghetto for Minotaurs.”
Luckily though, I was only walking so the streets went both ways for me.
When I found her address, I climbed stairs that rose in some kind of deceptive double helix to the sixth floor. Through unwashed slabs of green glass, topaz light poured on my arms and legs, revealing motes and mites and flies and pellets, all the miniscule relics, dead or alive, native to this elderly building. I felt like what had only moments before been the graffitied entrance to a squalid apartment complex was now the baroque interior of a Spanish monastery. The key was there and so I opened her door as she had instructed. I wondered vaguely if I was supposed to have knocked first. Was she home? Or would I be alone, waiting for her among her artifacts, both public and intimate? I felt the adrenaline of the rogue detective, or the death-defying cat burglar. Rarely had I spent any time in a world built for girls so I was anticipating enticing smells and alien textures. Stuff I’d like to sample, at least with my imagination.
But I just had time for glances: a kitchen with an old bone white stove and a pale blue linoleum floor and peeling salmon wallpaper and several broken cupboards, the crusty steel sink overflowing with dishes, her cave-like loft bedroom with stacks of discontinued board games (Scotland Yard, Mystery Mansions, Ghosts, Clue Museum Edition) that she used as a makeshift stepladder to reach her raised loft bed. That high bed looked onto a triangular ocean-facing window made of two interlocking panes of stained glass depicting a blue shepherd dozing under an orange almond tree. A purple light bulb hung from the ceiling and adjacent to that swung a strange astronomical mobile depicting a solar system that wasn’t ours.
Her room, just from the doorway alone, reeked of stubbed-out cloves and CK1 perfume. (I recall the annoying advertisement for CK1: “Two Bodies, Two Minds, And Two Souls Are Merged Into The Heat And Passion Of One. This Erotic Cologne Combines Man And Woman With One Provocative Scent. Clean, Refreshing Fragrance Has Notes Of Bergamot, Cardamom, Pineapple, Papaya, Amber, And Green Tea.”) A closed door on the right indicated an occupied bathroom. I heard water running and could smell it. The steamed porcelain aroma of a shower in progress: I imagined her tenderized muscles cutting a swath through peach mist. “Fragrance for a man or a woman”: but those Calvin Klein models looked like malnourished fascists. Audrey wasn’t skinny but slyly muscular, curvy yet secretly fit, athletic yet chubby, with a heartbreaking belly and a luminously long neck. She flaunted her hips and biceps and calves in tank tops and jean shorts. I imagined the strength in her thighs if they were ever to clasp my big, soft head. But the perfume made sense on her and its scent, which I’ve so seldom inhaled since, is now her only referent.
While I admired a weathered red chest of drawers, the bathroom door winched open, revealing: hexagonal chartreuse tiles, a white claw-foot tub, black shower curtains and bleach-stained yellow towels hung on a rusted shower rod. But no, I couldn’t have seen all this then, only Audrey in her robe, flushed, beaming, tamping herself dry, coming towards me. She hurtled her still wet, robed body upon my dry, shaking one. Her tongue crashed through my teeth and I instantly tasted sweet healthy saliva. Relief is more natural than joy, I thought. I wanted things to progress easily: no excitement mounting into an intolerable ordeal. So we kissed and then calmed down and then started dinner.
While we took turns cooking polenta and chanterelles in her cast-iron, I inspected her things more thoroughly. In her blue and purple polka dot bookcase, made by hand from stout Big Sur driftwood, she owned books by five authors: D.H. Lawrence, Sappho, Collette, Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak. Despite such paucity, and the fact that Sappho’s collected works were only a smattering of fragments, the collection felt complete, as if the addition of another author would tip the scales. Audrey had wrapped Christmas lights into a tangled hive and stuffed them into a fishbowl, which illumined various other antique shop treasures. After dinner she showed me her dice collection: aging, cracked cubes of amber, obsidian, garnet. In hysterics, we played a made-up version of craps with them and I lost. We burned opium incense and drank hot cognac the proper way, in bed. Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome—a piece of art I could spend my life admiring—hovered from within a domino-encrusted frame. Then we played actual dominoes the right way, which I had never played before and which I found calming, at least while watching her fingers.
That same night we went to her favorite meadow dressed only in pajamas. Actually I was wearing a pair of her pajamas, ones with ninja cats on them, the fabric thinning and much-loved. She wore a pair emblazoned with otters playing chess, holey in places that let her skin gleam through. That meadow was hard to reach from the road, requiring a blind crossing of the median strip, a trudge through dark woods, as well as a slow jog through a parking lot-cum-playground under construction. Finally, from a protruding balcony, we looked down to a rolling field of crab grass that toppled into the black sea, while bales of fog were hauled by phantom pitchforks into barns made of cypress. Supernatural in a superficial way, like The Hound of the Baskervilles or Rebecca, two of her favorite movies.
A steep staircase plummeted from the magisterial entrance of the concert hall down to an experimental farm. Swan-shaped gas lamps flared blue in the darkness. The boulders, furrows, trenches and ditches of the farm looked like so many obstructions on an obstacle course. At the base of the concert hall, Romanesque open corridors extended to either side, lit from within by electric torches; the fog had even wound its way down these terracotta halls as they veered off, making oblique angles in the night that we ran down, hollering like banshees. Bent double from running, we reclaimed our floating balcony, dismembered from the mainland by fog, our vantage point of an astronaut or a cosmologist; a cosmonaut or an astrologist; mashed lips, tasting kelp in each other’s teeth. We grasped at parts of our fog-dampened bodies. She looked unexpectedly at me, then lunged in again, but higher, more peripherally, where I wasn’t at all expecting.
It was then she took my entire left ear in her mouth—a cask of warm tingling wetness—her tongue working the pale pink archivolt, that fragile tympanum, while a cold fire raised masts on all my vessels. My mouth hollowed soundlessly as her mouth worked into that soft side of my head. And it was then, floored by these new nerves her tongue unlocked, that I felt she was also saying something to me. But not to me, no. She was saying something in me. Someone had said that the Virgin Mary was impregnated in the ear by the Holy Spirit. And, also the Pentecost was a literal confusion of tongues and fires. And Audrey’s tongue felt like a flaming knife in my head. But it was imparting knowledge too.
Her hand fell across my bouncing heart. I heard her groan, as her tongue turned frantic. She bit at my lobes, which crimsoned instantly. She must have known what was happening, and how her peculiar passion was dictating it. Was this how it had been with her girlfriends? But no: there was no parallel. Everyone, everything differs. Her looping tongue dropped hot syllables inside me. I kept straining to hear something that I was also feeling. Below, a howl was taking shape, struggling to be heard. Her tongue rounded and rounded its kindred maze. How could a tongue alone in an ear force this canonical instant? But it was, and it did, and it kept on. Spasms in the shape of leaves. Fire made legible. It was all written on her tongue. And I was trying to understand it.
“Did you just….?”
“Yeah…I think I did.”
“Whoa! Wait! How? Wait, you think?”
“I just…I just did. Yes!”
“No? Really? No!”
“I was trying to—”
“I was trying to whisper—”
“Something in your—”
“Never mind now!”
“Ok are you sure?”
We went back to her loft and laid down in the dark without doing anything else. I think we dated for a couple weeks but didn’t actually have “sex,” only a mélange of kisses, bites, tickles, pinches, licks, sucks, massages and rubs. But there was a feeling we invented in the meadow that night that is now irretrievable.
In desire, I like to think I chase the invisibles. So I’m not always, or need be, overly conscious. Rather, I try to cork the chatter, muffle the data, so I can hearken to subtler forces. My words, spoken or written make tracings over the unseen. Any syllable can dowse a world of yearning and metamorphosis. For letters flare, clauses vibrate, and sentences germinate space. Both lanterns and seeds in our collective night, the words can, as Audrey proved, become hot and alive.
In words and deeds, I’ve never stopped recreating Audrey’s bedroom in the places I sleep. I make sure there’s an agate bowl I heap trinkets in while burning sandalwood and listening to Satie’s Gymnopedies. During that short time spent in her high grotto bedroom, heady with so much curated sensuality, I never felt more like I was in some traveller’s tale of Europe. In my late twenties, Europe felt less like itself than those wisteria-scented cuddle sessions on her throw pillows, interrupted by giddy ambles through foggy fields.
And when I listen to anything today, I consider that I am also taking it inside me, to fertilize an invisible ground, to nourish an unfinished beloved.