'Weave' by Emmanuela Copal de León
Weave, Emmanuela Copal de León, 1999.

 

 

"The Jacket"
Patricia Ammann

 

Lydia sidles into Second Hand News with no particular purchase in mind. The leather jacket is the first piece she sees. It hangs framed by the white wall like a painting of New York night: the glints in the creases are lights seen from the distance, from across the river or a plane. Something buzzes in Lydia's belly like a mystery, like gilded cities only she can access; she is a lone voyager from another world. She extinguishes her cigarette in the spittoon. The luxury of smoking is proof of her youth; Lydia wants to languish without expiration, she refuses to give it up. Lydia is suddenly and pungently reminded of the first time, without telling her mother, that she went to a friend's house after school. It was a New Jersey Indian summer, and Lydia was maybe ten and walking to Francesca's house entranced by the eruption of sparkling green that threatened to overtake the houses and streets. Even then Lydia intuited that she must always harbor this dim longing for the jungle amongst the grid of brick and concrete; even as the jungle is all about her, ever present and omniscient, biting gently at her back. She walked, happily stunned by the somber and insistent cadence of the cicada's drone. The rise and fall of their whirring were as loud and ancient as any ceremony of light after seven years exiled to the heavy ebony of the earth. The cases left by those insects that had already shed them and flown littered the dark pavement like glittering blue-green baubles from a dime store by the sea. Lydia delighted in knowing that no one but Francesca knew where she was at that moment, she marveled at the implication that no one knew who she was; she wanted to string the shells together in celebration and tie the cicada necklace to her throat, she wanted to drop to her knees and crawl through the humming undergrowth.

The jacket costs $145 but this is not a consideration; Lydia has so much money it isn't even visible; Lydia has money out the wazoo. Lydia knows if she buys the jacket it is a confirmation of her itinerary, an affirmation of her traveling plans. In this jacket Lydia will fly from man to man as if they were exotic countries, as if she was a virus skipping hosts. Yet it is Lydia who desires disease. Her heart is as breezy as sax notes blown through trashy alleys; she longs for a heart of mercury, heavy memory, sand.

Lydia is about to leave her husband, Chris, perhaps this very day. It is a decision long in the making; almost without her knowing, the plans have been carefully laid. Lydia has abandoned attempts to get centered, see things from Chris's perspective, or meditate. When she sits in front of her carefully contrived altar there is no answer; God is a lover who's taken the phone off the hook.

It is time to pull out the stops, to stop the marriage chant, to catch ecstasy, terminally. Chris and Lydia have been dwelling in the doldrums for over a year, ever since Chris went to Hawaii on business and almost never made it back. Two weeks, he'd said, and those two weeks became five moons of brass tacks, of Lydia slouching through work, of Lydia hearing dogs barking to her across darkened and rustling canyons, of the tinny taste of an ache like silver rising beneath her skin. Just one more week, Sweetheart, and this damn project should be done, he'd said, again and again, as the weeks flew out of his mouth like swallows and she began to inhabit libraries and coffee houses, the oily scent of the coffee infiltrating her hair and the fronds of smoke causing her eyes to pale as the first layer of an unraveling lie. Lydia began to move slowly, as through molasses. She began to drink gin and tonics in cheaply built taverns and to pretend she carried a small chameleon in a Ziploc bag. By the time Chris returned she was polite, the floors were waxed and shadows hunched in the corners of the rooms like old German men.

Sometimes Lydia remembers. Sometimes something quiets within her and she remembers her first vision of Chris.

 

Lydia is twenty-four and still capable of amazing, if intermittent, bouts of insight. She's just graduated summa cum laude from Brown and is out for a celebratory dinner with her parents at Le Cafe des Artistes. Outside dusk is rising like clean water in the streets. Inside the conversation is at an impasse.

Sarah, her mother, has just asked Lydia about her plans. Sarah sees Lydia applying her degree in Art History to becoming an appraiser for Christie's or Sotheby's in New York. She sees Lydia walking in her high heels across marble floors to her office, she sees her sitting behind a gilt-edged teak desk. They'd meet uptown for lunch once a week.

"So, what's next, dear?" she says.

Lydia quietly cuts a piece of her grilled swordfish and brings it to her mouth. She is thinking that for years we forget ourselves, for internal millennia we no longer check in, we do not call to say we are late. We know ourselves by our financial statements and appointment books. We realize our savvy via our discounts and the quantity of syllables uttered by others and directed towards us, imprinted on tape.

"Dear," Sarah says, "Are you getting tipsy? I'm asking you a question." Light falls muted and gold on the silence clustered at their table. Lydia's father Josef puts down his silverware and gives his daughter a look.

One small ceremony after another slips by, hollow and unrecorded, Lydia senses. Rites of passage present themselves and go unnoticed. Lydia raises her glass of Pouilly Fuisse and takes a sip. She moves through the air and picks things up, turns, and puts them down again without once thinking to arrest herself, to open her third eye and gaze upon the lacustrine horizons that exist within. She is thoroughly scheduled and pleasantly in control. Despite those mornings when she's caught off guard just before she wakes, when she is ajar with an oceanic tug that seems, momentarily, to always be there, residing deep within.

She comes from a tensile belief in endless options, she feels, from an almost genetic and yet carefully reasoned clarity as to when losses should be cut. She places her goblet back on the linen and stares at a fixed point just to the left of her mother's hair. She is subtly exhausted by choices, worn out from scudding from boarding school to top-notch university, from Steuben to Saks. She needs walls she can break against. She requires conditions that will demand she get beyond herself.

Lydia's lips are slightly parted, her mouth is going slowly slack. Josef and Sarah look on her in a kind of fascination one usually reserves for the observation of praying mantises or walking sticks.

 

My stasis is almost impenetrable, Lydia sees, yet sometimes, despite myself, I am graced. For a moment I stop what I am doing, a shutter releases and suddenly I am etched in a sharply planed light. Here I can gaze upon myself, on the moments that have led to this moment, on the moments that are yet to unfold. I can see them in their continuum, and I know with exacting clarity what it is I am to do. Sometimes, Lydia understands, I open my mouth to say one thing and then I say another; I am inexplicably drawn to my next move.

Lydia pulls at a crease in the tablecloth and motions to articulate this last thought. Instead she looks at Josef and Sarah and says, "I'm going to Denver. I'm getting out of here."

 

One August evening Lydia feels the pull almost overwhelmingly. She is excited as though on the brink of a discovery. She has to go out; she decides she'll shoot some pool. She puts on a pair of Levi's, a Mediterranean blue cotton tank top, and some old tennis shoes. She feels she is appropriately camouflaged; she thinks she is a spy, a soldier on recon, a mission into the bracken and thicket of herself.

Lydia enters the saloon, orders herself a Henry Weinhard and settles in to observe the scene. She looks over Chris where he is standing at the circumference of the light that falls from an inverted trash can lid hanging above his table and she does not yet comprehend who he is. Not until later, until after she's asked him for a game while he is still the guy on the other side of the table, his legs slightly spread and planted, holding onto his cue lightly as if it were a staff or a very slim tree. Not until after he watches her break and she looks up at him when it is his turn and she notices something about his eyes that is of a blackness like the earth freshly turned. The heat begins to bloom beneath her belly then.

She goes back to her apartment and falls asleep picturing the breadth of his chest and the generosity of the heart she imagines is housed there. That night and for two nights after she's woken up into the tender alacrity of the fragrant air by a strumming at her solar plexus, this delicate point in the meridians rinsing through her body that she has never even noticed before. She lies there as still as she can, as if she were leaning against a birch watching an approaching mink, and tries to register the exact frequency of this heated oscillation just beneath her heart. She senses Chris all around her like intimations of the Aurora Borealis or the electricity of a coming storm. Is this the start of nirvana, she wonders, is this the slow onslaught of enlightenment, the seduction of unconditional love? An urgency much like that of being late to your own party beats like a tiny hammer at her temples; she longs to rush into the streets and sniff him out like a bell hound. She wants to trace his lips with pollen, to anoint him with sandalwood oil behind his knees, with amber at the juncture of his collarbone and throat. In short, she clamors to evince the matrix of their luminescent fates immediately. She wants to open and flare his crown, to touch her pursed and aching lips to the roaring mouth of God.

Chris calls her within a week and they plan on a drink at the Lazy Cafe. They never get there. He's forgotten his wallet, he says when he comes to fetch her, and they'll have to go back to his house to get it. On their way back in his little pick-up, Lydia eyes the taut curve of his hamstrings beneath his jeans, the assuredness with which he shifts the gears. She leans back against the seat and smiles to herself as they rush down the avenues beneath the trees.

When they pull up in front of his house Chris asks her to come in. They walk over the sloping floorboards in the porch and step into the hallway. They stand there for a minute as long as a stretch of the imagination before he gently herds her like a doe up the stairs. All of this suddenly seems new to Lydia; the paint peeling at the sills, the pale green light announcing the rain. She wonders at herself as she is suspended in this moment and how it all comes down to this, to Chris, to the wrinkled red and gold wallpaper in his bedroom, to the approaching rain and then the drops themselves heavy against the open window and sticking to the crosshatch of the screen beneath it while he is opening her. For the first time she thinks that she might have it, all of it; whatever this really is that she wants, he is giving it to her as he parts her like silt. All of it, the silvery fields sluicing in every direction, the leaves of the trees bending to the rain, the dark roads moving out to the lip of the earth where it falls silently from her sight comes, somehow, with him, with Chris, and she thinks that this is a gift endless in its giving.


Something in Lydia broke when Chris was in Hawaii. Something just gave out.

She'd understood that the project was important, that they absolutely had to have these measurements before the conference in Rio, that Chris didn't have any control over its duration. She'd asked him to come back nevertheless, even if only for a week. She carefully described how her skin hurt so much at night -- as if it was being stretched --that for hours she couldn't sleep. He replied that he understood, that he felt the same way, that they would have to stick it out together and that she would just have to put her trust in him anyway. This struck Lydia as suspicious; she felt as though she was being offered some element of his heart to examine which she had somehow suspected of existing all along. She felt as though some seedy secret was being slowly revealed. Of course he could come back to her for just a little while in the five months he was residing on Maona Lea's rim. She was certain that the American Center for Atmospheric Research would pay for it. She'd had a good impression of the Center: they coddled their scientists. Surely they would perceive the necessity of nurturing Chris's marriage; after all he was no longer just a post-doc. At age thirty he was already Level One.

Chris simply didn't want to come home, Lydia decided; for some reason it wasn't important enough to him.

When he actually did return, picking her up and swinging her around in Terminal C, she was not capable of a response. She asked him all the questions about his flight. She'd even tried to joke about it; whether the stewardess was that Daphne, whether she'd touched his shoulder before placing the bottle of beer on his tray or slipping him a note. But her body was brittle and Chris finally turned his attention to retrieving his duffel bag from the carousel and helping her locate the car in the lot.

That night they undressed delicately in front of one another, averting their eyes and entering the bed from separate sides. Their eyes were dark, Lydia thought — matte, grainy dusk between pine needles in the woods. The small folds of their bodies held vast silences, they moved gingerly, the swell of knowledge that used to heave between them held at bay behind their skins. Each of them was aware of the skin of the other as an encasement, a pliant yet definite barrier. Their bodies felt as though full of acrid smoke and heavy ash. Each of them perceived the other as a reduction of the former self, a fraction, a disembodied voice. Regret stirred like a small animal with very clean incisors in the backs of their minds. They listened to the rain falling on the other side of the air and it was louder than their own breathing; it brought them to sleep without speaking.

In the morning Chris rose first. Lydia followed an hour later and walked into the kitchen to find breakfast already laid out on the table. Chris had made her a cereal from scratch. She noticed that he had cut a slice of banana into a small heart, punctuated its center with a dot of raspberry jam and delicately placed it on top of the fruits and nuts. She looked over at Chris where he stood at the sink, silently washing the dishes. She sat down to eat.

Later that day and for several days after, Lydia found one small gift after another tucked away in odd corners of the house. There was the set of pearl earrings behind her vitamins in the medicine cabinet, the jade bracelet in the sugar bowl. She discovered small wooden statuettes depicting Hawaiian goddesses set in her flower pots and a bouquet of large blue and purple feathers in a porcelain vase next to their bed. Heart-shaped shells from the Philippines were scattered amongst her underwear in her dresser and a necklace of peridot beads fell out of the glove compartment in her Saab. Lydia realized that it must have taken Chris weeks to collect these things and she tried to be moved but she was not; after the first few finds, she ceased even to offer her thanks.

The nights and the weeks begin to collect in this manner, a harvesting and stacking of brilliant layers of light, cold and undeniable, as that which pours from the open moon. Lydia and Chris move carefully through it as it fills the rooms. They are exposed as though on stage. They feel they must carefully arrange the tiny muscles in their faces; they glance at each other as obliquely as gamblers, their conversations become as methodical as a leaky faucet ticking against a sink.

Before long they are no longer dining together and they are going to bed separately. Lydia waits for several hours before following Chris; nevertheless she finds she must brace herself for Chris is inevitably still awake, lying there on his back, his hands folded over his belly, as quiet as the night. Beneath this passive surface Lydia feels a subtle yet insistent undertow pulling at her, urging her to move towards him. She resists it with a steely ferocity. To sleep, she pretends he is not there.

 

The jacket, Lydia knows, is her passport. The jacket is her cart blanche. She will buy it and she will wear it everywhere, whenever she goes alone. To supermarkets and convenience stores, to gas stations and galleries, to parties and cafes. She will walk straight-backed in this jacket. She will accept everything she gets and give only words in return. She will not think about herself as she is doing this, she will have no compunctions, no qualms.

She will allow herself to make eye contact with men in front of frozen food coolers and kiosks, will signal to them across rooms and in grocery lines. They will take their cue and approach her, engage her in banter and hand over their numbers like dues to be paid. Later she will walk to them beneath the moving trees, calling out the names of the passing streets; in this manner she will map out the intricacies of herself. On her way she will pause in front of windows that hang in the darkness like crystals lit from within. She will gaze through the panes and make out the details if she can. She will speculate about the inhabitants, she will wonder how they live. Her body will encase an incredible lightness; at any minute she will be capable of flying off the earth.

When she arrives at his house she will exchange her name as though for another currency at the door. He will step aside for her and let his hand graze her waist as she passes him in the hall. Lydia wants to sit at his kitchen table into the early hours. She wants to know which drawer holds the incense sticks, which has the cigarettes, that she can feel free to get her own cup, that she knows where to fetch the wine. She would like for him to reveal himself: the job he chose and why, the problems he has with his lover, how he thinks about things. She will meet his friends, she will tell them any story she pleases about herself. She will note his taste in furniture and how it is arranged, she will see in the mirrors how she looks in her jacket amongst the paintings and plants. She will become acutely sensitive and she will carefully feel how her body shapes the air in its juxtaposition to other objects in the room. She will orchestrate minute shifts of posture and pay detailed attention to how the air adheres to this. She will become negative space noticing itself.

In all of this there will be a bed, a kind of beacon to be glimpsed in the next room. But the bed should always remain open, a question mark.

 

 

 

Text © 1995, 1999 by Patricia Ammann
"The Gift" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume 1, Number 2. The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image "Weave" © 1999 by Emmanuela Copal de León


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