"So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him and commanded him: ĎDo not marry a Canaanite woman. Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your motherís father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your motherís brother.í"
Rachel curls up in the black leather armchair by the radiator in the dormer window and fiddles with the hashish pipe. She knows I dislike her habit of having a pipe before bedtime so she pretends to be somewhere else. She would go to another room, she says, but in my cramped fourth floor studio the only other room is the bathroom. The window looks directly across the narrow street to a brightly lit window where three black men are dancing in an intensely choreographed rhythm to inaudible music. Might be disco. Might be funk. Down on the sidewalk someone has scrawled in purple paint the graffito "Become Catholic!", visibly garish in the night light of the street lamp. Over to the left is the black smudge of the Hudson, and the Palisades cliffs beyond.
Rachel has brought a new Dylan tape down from Boston, "Slow Train Coming", and I find it puzzling to listen as she taps her foot and puffs her hash, the gospel music juxtaposed against her Jewishness, and Dylanís. I wonder whatís going on -- is Dylanís latest conversion just a stylistic shift, like his conversion from folk to rock?
This is the first time sheís come back to New York since her move to Boston, although Iíve been up there once for a visit, while she was babysitting her bossís townhouse on Beacon Hill. We went down to the harbor and bought enormous scarlet lobsters, boiled them alive, dipped them in clarified butter, fressed them down, washed them down with white wine.
The tape player broadcasts "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" and although it has a nice rhythm, just a smack of reggae, the lyrics kill me. "Dylan is getting really stupid. Whatís going on here?" I toss the question at her from the bed across the room. She exhales slowly and sings "in the beginning, in the beginning."
Rachel is a fabric designer, trained at the Rhode Island School of Design. I sometimes watch her sit and sketch, making gross strokes that look sloppy to me, but transform themselves into elegant and charming patterns on pastel sheets or pillowcases. Our tastes are very dissimilar. "You just canít cope with change -- with the edge, " she observes.
Rachel is my former roommateís girlfriendís best friend and coworker, so when I returned from doing my research in Japan we were introduced and hit it off. Sort of. Actually the relationship took hold rather by default, since my former girlfriend had gone off to Malaysia to do her fieldwork, and Rachelís boyfriend had just split for the coast, leaving her his apartment and a lot of ambivalent vibrations. Rachelís first comment to me was that I looked very angry, and how did I deal with my anger? I just stared at her like the man in the moon.
When she lived in New York Rachel had her therapy group every Tuesday and Thursday evening. What went on there remains a mystery to me. She refuses to discuss it and it fascinates me like some secret Eleusinian rite. The only hint of it is the peculiar language she uses, a new language to me, an elaborate and intricate analysis of feelings, a symbolic code that expresses a dogma that strikes me as almost religious. She calls me an emotional illiterate.
She calls me lots of things. She observes things about me that go right over my head. Take my turtle collection. I have about fifty little turtles of wood, ceramic, metal, glass and plastic, harvested from flea markets and sent to me by friends. They come from Africa, India, Japan, France, Mexico and Russia. The turtle is to me obviously my totem animal, with deep mythic significance. Rachelís interpretation is that they represent my psychological defenses, the carapace Iíve grown to protect myself, and to prevent myself from expressing my anger.
We operate in two different emotional worlds. When I first met her I was fascinated by our comparison of our Mennonite and Jewish identities. We are both from ethnic religious minorities with strong internal cohesion, with a self-identity defined in contrast to the majority culture. Both have a strong emphasis on marrying within the group, a kind of incestuousness. Her grandmotherís Yiddish sounds like my grandmotherís Pennsylvania Dutch. But Mennonites have only a few centuries of history, and have spent most of that time down on the farm. I feel like a bumpkin with Rachel.
And she is so aggressive, particularly in our lovemaking. Sheís a few years older, and I am cowed by her sophistication and sexual technique. A few nights after we first met we ate at the Hungarian restaurant around the corner and then I walked her home. At the door she said "Arenít you coming up?" At the time I was working at a 9 to 5 job and writing my dissertation at night, and I kept an exceedingly rigid schedule. I told her I really should get back and finish my chapter.
"Youíre such a Puritan!" she exclaimed, grabbing my hand and leading me to the elevator. I woke up in the morning amazed. She likes to shock me by remarking "The only thing I havenít tried is making love to a woman -- make that two women and a rabbi."
Actually we donít talk that much. On Sundays we ride down the West Side to the piers along the Hudson, wheel our bicycles to the edge and sit, sharing a joint, contemplating the mystery of the river. "The stream of the river never ceases, and yet its water is never the same."
"Come here," I say. Rachel doesnít reply. A light rain begins, plinking the roof and tapping the window. The Dylan tape rolls on, revealing a theological side I would never have thought possible. "Do you have a dirty mind?" she asks finally.
This is an ongoing joke, or conceit, or routine which Iím starting to find tiresome. We once visited a gallery in SoHo displaying sacred Buddhist objects and found a miniature Japanese sculpture depicting a male deity seated cross-legged and a goddess sitting on his lap facing him. "Thatís the Yab Yum position," I began. "In esoteric Buddhism thereís a mantra, ĎHail to the Jewel in the Lotusí. In Tibetan, ĎOm mani padme humí. This is just a physical manifestation of the jewel in the lotus. The jewel represents the Diamond, or Vajra, Realm, and the lotus is the Womb."
Rachel stared at me for a minute and then said thoughtfully, "You have a dirty mind. You really have a filthy Puritan mind. You look at something which is obviously raw sex and you talk about religion."
Since then she has continually probed my psyche, as she puts it, to find the areas which are not pure and unsullied, forcing me to admit my fascination with things I deny interest in. We went to the Metropolitan to look at quilts, and she delivered a long harangue on the significance of the almost psychedelic vibrance of Amish designs. "Itís no accident that these horribly repressed people save their pent-up artistic intensity for designing bed wear."
She values confrontation and is enraged by my habitual passivity. She picks fights to get a rise out of me, "to see if thereís anything behind the mask". I irritate her with my dull Mennonite tolerance, my willingness to succor her ire, my attempts to soothe her ruffled feathers.
Last summer she took me out to Roslyn to visit her father. Her mother divorced him six years ago. Heís a prematurely retired violinist; a mild stroke has left him unable to play. He limps slightly and his upper lip curls at the corner, giving him a permanent snarl.
"So youíre a Columbia man," he snorted. "Have a drink." He pushed the liter of Bombay gin toward me without rising from his chair. "I went to Columbia back when it was an elite school. Just five years after they started letting Jews in." He drained his glass and stared at me. "Drink! To Columbia! Stand Columbia!"
"Thanks, Iím OK," I said. He glared at me. "Rachel, what kind of goyisch punk have you brought home?"
"Daddy!" admonished Rachel. "Calm down. I didnít bring a guest home for you to insult."
"Insult!" he retorted, and poured another drink. "Now," he said, regarding me thoughtfully, "whatís your sport? Field hockey? When I was there I made crew. Pretty damn good for a Jew. Rowed around Manhattan three times in one day. Right through Hellís Gate. Ever rowed through Hellís Gate?"
"No," I replied quietly.
"Speak!" he commanded. "Rachel, donít tell me youíve been sleeping with this putz!"
We didnít stay long. On the train back Rachel said only "Heís very bitter."
The Dylan tape comes to an end. Rachel stands to switch on the radio. Alison Steele, the Night Bird, playing Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven."
"Come over here," I say. Rachel sinks back into the chair.
"Thereís something I have to tell you," she says. "I met a man in Boston and Iíve been going out with him." "Going out" is one of Rachelís euphemisms. I feel myself tighten up; the beginnings of anxiety splay out across my ganglia.
"I canít believe this," I respond finally. "I canít believe this is happening." Rachel stares out the window. The dancers are slowing down. The rain is steadier.
"So why did you come here? Too cheap for a hotel?" She doesnít respond. "Answer me! You just thought you would drop by and tell me oh, by the way, itís over, and that would be that?"
"I can sleep on the couch ," says Rachel, looking away.
I feel my body trembling. My head feels like itís going to explode.
"The hell you can sleep on the couch!" I get up and walk over to the window and look out. The lights are off in the apartment across the street. A siren winds down Broadway.
She finally looks up at me. Her face is blank, but she seems vaguely curious. "You know Iím basically a one-man woman."
I almost choke. "A one-man slut! Why did you come here? Why didnít you send a fucking postcard? You think you can treat me like this?"
On the radio Bob Marley is droning "No Woman No Cry". The rain beats down. "Youíre crazy, you know that? I knew you were kinky but I never figured you for a sadist. Did you come here just to twist the knife in the wound? The hell you can sleep on the couch!"
I cross the room, turn off the light, undress and get into bed. Iím still shaking. I canít think straight. My head is throbbing like a bomb. I lie on my back and stare up at the ceiling, the room illuminated only by the yellowish haze of the street lamps. Alison Steele, the disk jockey, is crooning something comforting. She puts on "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."
Itís a long soothing song, and as it ends I yawn. Rachel is still crouched in the armchair. Finally she stands up and walks to the bathroom. The toilet flushes. Water splashes in the sink. Then she comes over to the side of the bed and puts her palm on my forehead. She sits on the edge of the bed. I canít move. The tremors have stopped but I feel paralyzed.
I lie on my back with my eyes closed. Rachel hovers over me, a struggling angel from another millennium, lost in her unfathomable world between consciousness and unconsciousness. I find myself floating free of my body. Iím angry. Iím not angry. Mingled with other sensations is a subtle delight in victory, a nasty rapture at having bent this angel to my will.
Beside me Rachel lies wrapped in her hashish dream. Alison Steele is murmuring. The radio plays tunes of my youth. My mood has shifted to grief and I am sobbing tears of rage. I wander back to the time I spent with Aihwa, and before that with Alice, and before that with Harinder, and before that . . .A phantom is hovering over the bed, the departing spirit of my relationship with Rachel. A ghostly bloody fetus stains the sheets.
So many intimacies and so little to show for it. So much striving for tenderness and comfort and simply not to be alone. So much despair gone down the flood.
The radio plays Blind Faith, a menís quartet -- Clapton, Winwood, Baker and Grech. "I have finally found a way to live, just like I never knew before . . ."
I am sobbing again, my grief wrapped like a chrysalis around me. I despise myself. My mouth tastes of dust and ashes.
-- Ross Bender