fiction

"Across the beach, the man with one leg had been joined by his young girlfriend,

a pale, blond woman with the usual number of limbs. She was helping him down to the water. Their movement, jerky and storklike, drew attention to itself, but I was looking because of something else. It was how . . . sexual they were together. I don’t know how else to put it, or what that means, exactly, except that they were playful with each other, as adults rarely are. Theirs was a performance of a sort. They had established clarity on the point, and such clarity can be important. It is, for instance, important to me at times, when I find myself at dinner with my mother, to announce loudly to the waiter, “This is my mother,” or an equivalent expression that makes our relationship unambiguous.

Celeste was still on her phone, so I walked to the water by myself. My thoughts had turned to the couple’s sex life. What was under the man’s bathing suit, and how had the woman responded when she first saw him naked—with aversion, or arousal, or something more mixed and subtle, a curiosity and an arousal that were inseparable from or somehow part of the shock or fear that we feel in the presence of difference? It was, of course, possible that the absence of his leg did not enter into it, and that, as we are taught to believe and no one, I think, believes fully, the matter of love transcends all superficial considerations. But who is to say what is superficial and what isn’t? No, more likely, I thought, entering the water and feeling the warm salt liquid envelop me, cooling nothing but seeming to focus the sun’s rays more penetratingly on my skin and eyes and lips, more likely the woman enjoyed the idea of herself as someone who chooses an unusual partner; or—for that was only one possibility—she understood that we are all incomplete versions of an unafraid self trying to be born, and that our apparent wholeness only blinds us to this more substantial insufficiency. If Celeste had been there with me, I would have remarked that this couple had taken up arms in the fight against death—not because an incomplete body represents death, but because normalcy represents death. Because every decision that conforms to expectations, that raises no eyebrows, prompts no outrage or whispering or gossip, that merely reprises the ambered templates forged as prisons by those who have come before—every action taken under this regime of fear is the prefatory enactment of death.

And Celeste would have said, “I see we’re back on your favorite subject.”

And I would have said, “I want to talk about death. And other big things, like life and the soul and tax policy. I want to tromp around in boots in the china shop, where you’ve laid crystal figurines on the ground and dressed the halls in lace that someone went blind to stitch.”

“You’ve made your position clear.”

“My position isn’t clear to me! ” I’d shout. “My position isn’t clear, because my position depends on you.”

“Then talk to me. And don’t speak for me in imaginary dialogues in your head.”

“But you’re not here,” I said, and watched her tumble into the blackness of my mind, spinning like a falling figure in an old movie.

There I go, speaking for everyone when I’m alone, naming all the animals and plants as though my words could turn them into something else.”

- from Greg Jackson’s story, “Poetry,” from The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/29/poetry

"I had a friend who could not sleep,

and he knew a few other people who had the same trouble, and we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice and then go home in the early morning light, when the streets were clean and wet (had it rained in the night? we never knew) and the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of traffic signals. The White Rose bars opened very early in the morning; I recall waiting in one of them to watch an astronaut go into space, waiting so long that at the moment it actually happened I had my eyes not on the television screen but on a cockroach on the tile floor.”

- Joan Didion, from “Goodbye to All That”

Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Bizet, Rimsky-

Korsakov, Debussy, Bartok, Hindemith, Schonberg, Szymanowski, hundreds of composers throughout all of Europe. Over all of Europe the wind of alterity blows, all these great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self, to bastardize it, for genius wants bastardy, the use of external procedures to undermine the dictatorship of the church chant and harmony, why am I getting worked up all alone on my pillow now, probably because I'm a poor unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about. Today no one is interested anymore in Felicien David who became extraordinarily famous on December 8, 1844 after the premiere of Le Desert at the Paris Conservatoire, an ode-symphony in three parts for narrator, solo tenor, male chorus, and orchestra, based on the composer's memories of his journey to the Orient, between Cairo and Beirut...The Desert invades Paris--"by unanimous opinion, it was the most beautiful storm music had every produced, no maestro had ever gone so far," Theophile Gautier writes in La Presse, describing the storm assailing the caravan in the desert; it's also the premier of the "Danse des almees," the Dance of the Almahs, an erotic motif whose subsequent fortune we know, and surprise of surprises, the first "Chant du muezzin," the first Muslim call to prayer that ever sounded in Paris." 

- Mathias Enard, from Compass

Many years later, when everything was business,

when he worked harder than anyone in a country whose values are structured on hard work, he believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music. True life was kept safe in the lines of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin while you went out into the world and met the obligations required of you. Certainly he knew (though did not completely understand) that opera wasn't for everyone, but for everyone he hoped there was something. The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters, or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished altogether. 

- Ann  Patchett, from bel canto