A literary novel by Richard Jonathan



Only rarely now, Marietta, do the rat’s teeth of sorrow gnaw at my heart; only once in a while does the rodent of longing burrow into my soul. Now is such a time. I am sitting in a bar at the westernmost edge of Europe, watching the setting sun transfer its fire to the waters of the Atlantic. But where once that sun would sink my heart, now it inflames my soul: Against a crimson sky threaded with gold the gulls cry, and in their cry I hear no screech but the echoes of our goodbye: I love you, and I will always love you. Overcome with elation at the truth of those words, those words I uttered as we went our separate ways, I hail the serving boy (the proprietor’s son) and order another Madeira dry. Marietta, as I tell our story, what truth will be my touchstone? The boy pours my wine. He looks like me, when I was a child. Does he too dream, as I once did, of ocean voyages under the stars, of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama? There lies my touchstone: the truth of the child, the incorruptible core of the boy and girl we once were. Look! Darkness deepens, the lighthouse glows: The night will be long, my love, settle in; open your heart, let’s begin!

1984. Princeton. Dial Lodge. There’s a sparkle in your amber eyes, a boyish cut to your blonde hair. I invite myself to your patio table. We start talking.

̶  What do you do? I ask you.
̶  I’m a post-doctoral fellow. I’m doing research in high energy physics.
̶  Particle physics?
̶  Yes.
̶  And what do you study, in particular?
̶  Quarks, neutrinos, dark matter. The fundamental objects of the universe.
̶  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust?
̶  Yes. But in-between, I try to answer the big questions.
̶  By studying the smallest things?
̶  Exactly.
̶  Sounds exciting!
̶  It is. And you, what are you studying?

Multifaceted, your gaze is a challenge: At once indifferent and intensely interested.

̶  I’m not. I’m a grip. I’m working on a film. We’re here for the final days of shooting.
̶  So you were part of the film crew in Jadwin Hall this morning?
̶  Yes.
̶  What’s a grip?

Full of withholding yet brimming with promise, your eyes keep drawing me in.

̶  It’s a guy who fixes other people’s problems on a film set. Otherwise, we set up the dolly tracks, mount the cameras, rig up the lights. We’re the workhorses of the film crew.
̶  And what’s the film about?
̶  It’s about two brothers, identical twins. One’s a professor of anthropology, the other’s a colonel in the US Army. They’d drifted apart, then meet by chance in El Salvador, just after the El Mozote massacre.
̶  El Mozote? That rings a bell. What was it exactly?
̶  The worst atrocity in Latin American history! In modern times at least. The government militia rounded up everyone in the village, tortured the men, raped the women, then killed everybody, down to the last child.
̶  I remember now, hearing about that.
̶  Yes, it was just two years ago.

Finishing off your salade niçoise, you eat the last olive. There’s something of a Modigliani model in you: Your sensuality is as lush as it is austere. Picking up your bowl of yogurt and berries, you ask me:

̶  So what happens when they meet, the brothers?
̶  Well, it turns out that the anthropologist was in El Salvador on a humanitarian mission, while his brother was there as an advisor to the military government. The film opens with a kind of Jacob-and-Esau scene, the two brothers wrestling in the jungle, like they used to wrestle as children, then it goes back in time, tracing their respective stories.
̶  So it’s a political film?
̶  No, not really.

Your gaze collaborates with your voice to convey a sense that our words and what’s happening are out of phase.

̶  It’s more about ethics, about choice and chance. In fact, what’s interesting is that by the end of the story, you wonder if there really are two different people, if the twin brothers are not in fact one and the same person. It’s a philosophical fable, about fragility.
̶  Fragility?
̶  Yes.

I like the fineness of your fingers, I like the fullness of your lips; I like the way you submit a berry to your palate after crushing it.

̶  There’s a parallelism in the structure of the two brothers’ stories, so you see that just by little things—arriving at a place a minute earlier or later, for example, or saying hello to a stranger because the sun happened to come out while you were hesitating, giving you courage—by little things like that, one’s destiny can go in very different directions. That’s fragility. Are you French?
̶  Half French.
̶  And what’s the other half?
̶  Swiss. My father’s French, my mother’s Swiss.
̶  Suisse romande?
̶  Yes, but I live in Zürich.
̶  Ah! I was in Zürich last year. What a city! A lake, a mountain and two rivers are its treasures. Yssel that the Limmat?
̶  Pardon?
̶  Yssel that the Limmat?
̶  Ah! That’s a good one.
̶  It’s from Finnegans Wake. James Joyce. The greatest writer in the English language! After Shakespeare, of course. But he’s the greatest in any language.
̶  You like literature.
̶  I do.

I like the moonstone in your sternal notch, its opalescence against your skin; I like the innocence in your eyes that sets off the suggestion of sin.

̶  So you’re from Zürich?
̶  I live in Zürich, but I grew up in Neuchâtel. And you?
̶  I was born in a bottle and washed up on a beach, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian.
̶  I see. You’re from Cape Town.
̶  You’re good at geography.
̶  I like to travel.

Standing up, you extend your hand.

̶  I’m Marietta.

I stand and take it.

̶  I’m Sprague.

Your hand in mine is firm and frank; your gaze in my eyes is intense.

̶  Excuse me, Sprague, I’ve got to get back to work.
̶  Could I—
̶  What’s the name of your film? I’ll watch out for it when it comes out.
̶  Gemini Agonistes.
̶  Gemini Agonistes? That’s a good title.
̶  Would you like to come to the shoot tomorrow morning? We’re filming in Jadwin Hall again.
̶  Sorry, I can’t. I’m—
̶  You can be an extra! We’re going to shoot a scene in the Joseph Henry Room.
̶  Thank you, but I don’t have time. I’m presenting a paper tomorrow morning.
̶  How about in the afternoon, then?
̶  No.
̶  You’ll enjoy watching Bram Westbrook. He’s an amazing actor! What he can do in the space of—
̶  Sorry, I’ve got a seminar. But Wednesday for lunch would be okay.
̶  Wednesday? Great! Where shall I meet you?
̶  We can meet here. I’m free between twelve and three.
̶  At twelve then?
̶  Twelve fifteen.
̶  Okay, I’ll be here. Wednesday at twelve fifteen.
̶  Right. See you then, Sprague.

I watch you walk away, tall in your high-heel sandals and summery pant suit. You turn to look over your shoulder: Your gaze encounters mine, and in the flash of your smile something inside me dissolves.

̶  Good luck with your presentation!
̶  Thank you!

You disappear into the building. I linger, watching shadows play on the footpath as a breeze stirs the trees. Is it me that’s trembling, or only the newborn leaves?

‘Wednesday for lunch’: Wednesday at noon I was booked on a plane back to Toronto: The shoot was over. But I chose to stay. Why? Because right from our very first contact I was drawn to what I saw in your face: A mysterious transparency, a worldly innocence; your eyes sparkled as you spoke, as if you were creating a veil of light to conceal your vulnerability: I was touched, and instantly seduced. Three and a half years later, in Paris when we met again, I came to understand that paradox is your very signature, and subterfuge your calling card. And that’s when I fell in love with you.

But already, Marietta, in that very first encounter, I felt privileged to be in your presence. Not because I was a handyman executing orders on a film set (it could just as well have been a construction site) while you were a particle physicist adding your brick to the cathedral of theory; no, it was because in your whole demeanour there was not a trace of any superiority, not even a suspicion that we were anything but equals. I found that so refreshing that I felt an immediate kinship with you, and there and then I dared to believe that between us there would be no barriers. In a foreign country conventions change, habitual reflexes are abandoned: I knew that, yet in your obliqueness, your ambiguity—the way you engaged my regard—I saw not an accident of cultural displacement, but a fundamental disposition of your encounter with the world. I was not wrong, but I knew that something much more complicated, something dark and mysterious, underlay your air of seeming availability. But I’m getting ahead of myself: Let’s go back to that first idyllic day we spent together.

Over four days in that New Jersey spring we saw each other again three times: Our Wednesday lunch (cosy in the Common Room, with the rain pouring down outside), our Friday walk (a lovely stroll along Carnegie Lake, I as captivated by your gangling gait as by your commentary on Nineteen Eighty-Four), and our Saturday trip to the Jersey shore. What a day that was! I was almost as much a stranger as you in this iconic America (or so I thought at the time), and yet I wanted to be your guide: You were gracious enough to let me, while you played my European guest. Through the Pinelands in the Cabriolet we made a game of seeing who’d be first to spot the next gun club; in the cranberry bogs and blueberry thickets we made a stab at being Mother Nature’s daughter and son. When you puckered your lips as you crushed a cranberry in your mouth, when you crouched down and drew me a map of Switzerland in the sand, when you threw me a smile over your shoulder as you led me out of the forest I’d lost ourselves in, I knew that if I fell in love with you I’d be damned. I tried to put a veil between my eyes and your beauty, I tried not to succumb to your grace. And every time I ventured too close to that secret place inside you (the one you protect like a goose her goslings), I tried not to be touched by the depth of your pudeur (for thus I construed it at the time). Waiting in line at the drive-in restaurant, you sung your way through the menu; when the car-hop came to take our order, I could hardly restrain my laughter as you faked a French accent. Strolling along Jenkinson’s boardwalk, you studied the kitsch with an anthropologist’s eye: Still you fell under the spell of its brash appeal. Strolling along the beaches of Barnegat Peninsula, I tried not to be drawn to the figuration of your feet: Still I fell under the spell of their sleek allure (not to mention the descending fifths of your footfall, the arpeggios of your toes).

Half-way back to Princeton we had dinner in a chrome-and-neon diner. Sitting opposite you in the high-backed booth, I tried not to be moved by the negligent fall of your cropped blonde hair or the sensitivity emanating from your fingers; the vibrancy of being hovering in your eyes or the striking immediacy of your lips: I was determined not to let the shadow of an impossible future fall upon our present state of grace. ‘It took no computations to dance to a rock ‘n roll station’: You’d never heard of the Velvet Underground (or so you led me to believe), but before I pressed A5 you’d heard one note from an open car window and instantly identified Bach’s ‘Chaconne’: You’d played it at a violin competition, and now you play it alone in your room. And thus I learned you’d hesitated between a career in classical music and one in academia; I learned you were no stranger to first prizes, whether musical or academic: Your contempt for competition didn’t stop you from thriving on it. We talked about music. I told you my life was saved by rock ‘n roll, that rock ‘n roll had given me a feeling of identity and the right to be different. You said you understood me; you said that for you too, music, your violin, has been an instrument of liberation. To the Velvet’s defiant joy, however, you remained indifferent (or so you pretended).

̶  Tell me something of that piece by Bach.
̶  The ‘Chaconne’?
̶  Yes.
̶  It’s from Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. It’s a dance-form movement in D minor. What do you want to know?
̶  Why you like it so much.
̶  Oh, I couldn’t put it into words.
̶  Try.

Do you find freedom in relentless form? Is discipline your defence against the chaos of emotion?

̶  I like what Brahms said about it.
̶  What did he say?
̶  He said, ‘On one stave, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and feelings. If I imagined that I could ever have created the ‘Chaconne’, I am certain the excess of excitement would have driven me out of my mind’. He wrote that in a letter to Clara Schumann.

In the amber of your eye a firefly breaks free: How do I decipher its dance?

̶  Did you bring your violin with you to Princeton?
̶  Yes.
̶  Will you play me the ‘Chaconne’ when we get back, at least a few bars?
̶  It’s too late. The sound of the violin carries far.
̶  How about tomorrow then?

You lower your head and shake it to say no. Rejection: I have no memory of the murmuring house, no sonorous womb, no ocean, but in the acoustic mirror of your beating heart I have a body—Am I not to be reborn?

Were you afraid I wouldn’t receive the music with the proper reverence? Were you afraid you’d reveal too much of yourself to me? Or was it the idea of the darkness we might have shared, the darkness that would remain in the blackness of my hair when you awoke to find yourself beside me?

̶  First thing I’ll do when I get back to Toronto, I’ll buy a recording and listen to the piece.
̶  It goes through the entire range of human experience, in less than fifteen minutes.
̶  Really?
̶  Yes. It’s richness and depth are astounding.

I wondered just how much of that range you’d personally experienced in your twenty-seven years, and felt a pang of bitterness that perhaps I’d never find out. I consoled myself with what I did learn about you: that Paris was the scene of your academic and musical triumphs, the Vaucluse your garden of Eden, and Zürich the setting for your professional ascension. Little did I know then that from that Swiss base your footprint would soon cover the world: The world to whose origin I feared you were denying me access.

Back in the Cabriolet I felt thrown back upon myself, but once we slipped into French I felt one with you again. And yet the premonition lingered that refusing me Bach was refusing me your bed; I hadn’t given up hearing the cry of your goslings, yet I was crestfallen.

Up, up, up! Back on campus as I got out of the car, the night sky hauled me up by my spine. Look! Up here there is no airglow, no shining envelope of the earth; up here it is cold, cold, cold. So this is the place where the blackness is pure, where no light scatters in the dust between stars. Without vision the future vanishes, the past invades the present. Marietta, must I let you go? Oh give me the moon’s shining sphere, give distance back to the stars! White-feathered wings, rosy fingers, open the gates of heaven! With what remained in Pandora’s box, I will be content.

̶  It was a lovely day, Sprague. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

I smile into your amber eyes, softly speckled with starlight. You continue:

̶  What time’s your flight tomorrow?
̶  Eleven-thirty. I’ll drop off the car at Newark around ten-fifteen. Come, I’ll walk you to your residence.
̶  No. It’s not far.
̶  Why don’t we do it in the road?
̶  Pardon?
̶  The White Album. Side Two, Track Seven.

You laugh. I pull you to me and take you in my arms; you spin out of my embrace.

̶  No Sprague, I’m sorry.

You lean forward, presenting your cheek to be kissed: I pirouette away. The engine warmth that penetrates my body is no substitute for the heat I seek from yours; still, it is soothing as I lean against the side wing of the Cabriolet, trying to make you linger.

̶  What will you work on next week, Marietta?
̶  A paper on inverse problems. A Hölder-logarithmic stability estimate for two-dimensional inverse problems.
̶  What’s that?
̶  It has to do with the recovery of a real-valued potential in the two-dimensional Schrödinger equation at positive energy from the Dirichlet-to-Neumann map. Now does that knock your socks off?
̶  Yes! Explain the basic idea of it.
̶  Have you heard of Riemann-Hilbert problems?
̶  I have, yes.

All is fair in love: I lie to keep you longer. As you begin your explanation, as you warm to the game, I fall into a reverie inspired by your purse. Hanging from your shoulder by a guitar strap, the supple black leather can barely be seen below the flaps that progressively cover it. The first is of bronze suede, the second of blue snakeskin, and the last a zebra print. A tassel of each style hangs from a corner of the bag, dangling gently as you sway. Why am I so moved by feminine masquerade? The white jean jacket thrown over your shoulders, the seashell pendant in your sternal notch; your seersucker frock, vaguely floral with black ribbing below your breasts; your T-bar sandals that throw a veil of modesty over your scandalously beautiful feet—everything about you conspires to make me want to keep you by my side. Yet I know I cannot: You are out of my reach. But why? It is so. Must I not at least try? Haven’t I always dreamed of a woman like this? Indeed, nothing moves me more than this exhilarating combination of extraordinary intelligence and exquisite femininity, perfectly assumed and given an impish edge by the boyish cut of her blonde hair. As music breathes in the architecture of a building, so her feminine coquetry flourishes alongside the rigour of her science. Already you are in my blood, Marietta, and to get you out I must bleed.

̶  So I prove a new stability estimate, which is explicitly dependent on the regularity of the potentials and on the energy.
̶  That’s very interesting! Of course I can’t follow you completely, but I do have some idea.

Of course I couldn’t follow you at all, and I didn’t have any idea. You knew it—it was part of the game—yet you chose to indulge me, trembling my heart strings with the timbre of your voice. (I confess your science only served to make the twitch in my trousers stickier.)

̶  Are you happy here at Princeton? It’s a fantastic campus, isn’t it?
̶  Yes.
̶  How long are you staying again?
̶  Till the end of June. Six months in all.

Still you indulged me: In generous voice you spoke of your impressions, postponing for my sake the moment of our separation.

̶  I’ve taken an architectural tour…

Suede, snakeskin and zebra: What an incongruous combination! Suede: They say the robes of shamans are made from deerskin; they say the hind is the emblem of virginity: Does that have anything to do with the mystery disguised in your eyes? Snakeskin: A python pattern. From a crack in the slopes of Mount Parnassus, pneuma rise from the decomposing body of the Python, enabling the virginal Sibyl to fathom the divine: Marietta, if our parting is to be chaste, how will you impart to me your prophetic intuition, your particular feeling for the divine? Zebra: Stripes hide traces of predators’ claws: What savage paw has swiped you?

̶  It’s getting cold, Sprague. It’s time to say goodbye.
̶  I’ll keep you warm, Marietta.
̶  No. I’m sorry.
̶  This week dragged past me so slowly.
̶  But you said you enjoyed being with Gram in New York, didn’t you?
̶  Nevertheless, the days fell on their knees.
̶  Sprague, that’s from Station to Station!
̶  So you do know rock ‘n roll!
̶  I love Bowie.
̶  So why did you—? Never mind. ‘If I did casually mention tonight…’
̶  ‘That would be crazy tonight…’
̶  ‘Stay!’
̶  I can’t.
̶  Why not?
̶  It’s not because I don’t want—I do, but…
̶  But what?
̶  I can’t, that’s all.

I sense your discomfort, I sense you’re in the grip of something your coolness can’t overcome. Still, your ambivalence is beguiling.

̶  I’m coming with you.
̶  No, Sprague.
̶  Let’s go to my hotel then.
̶  No. I shouldn’t have… I’m sorry.

You put your hand on my shoulder and touch your cheek to mine, one then the other, while kissing the air. Sensing that if I’m to have any chance with you I must let you go, I reciprocate these curious kisses of seeming intimacy: I dare not yield to my longing for your lips, but I do throw my arms around you and press your body to mine.

̶  Goodbye Marietta.

Oh sweet, sweet mercy! Your hands on my waist slide around to the small of my back. My hard-on is heavy, as heavy as my heart: every man his cross, every dog his day.

̶  Goodbye.

I let you go.

̶  Good luck with your research.
̶  Thank you. Good luck with your film work.
̶  May I write to you?
̶  No. We had a lovely time together: Let’s leave it at that. Goodbye Sprague.

I blow you a kiss, even though you’re still standing in front of me. Did I detect a sadness in your eye, a longing in your laugh, as you received it?

̶  Goodbye Marietta.

Against the cold you hold your jean-jacket closed, and as you swing around your bestiary-purse swings around with you. I watch you walk away; my useless arms hang limp, my heart floats in limbo. And then over your shoulder there comes a glow, a radiance that stuns me: On the rack of your smile my heart stretches. As you gather the light back into your face the night gathers you unto itself; slowly the click-clack of your sandals on the tarmac fades away.

And on that hollow sound, Marietta, on that unforgettable gift of your gaze, ended the prelude to our deeper encounter.


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A literary novel by Richard Jonathan



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By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2022 | All rights reserved