In the Details
September 1, 2003
Come as you are; go as you will
by Heather Panico
art One: Germination
Do you know you have phenomenal eyes? You can read the fine print at the bottom of a Snellen chart from across the room and perceive the subtlest variations in color, texture and light. Truly, it's amazing; microscopic dust motes perform entire productions of Giselle for your personal entertainment. The way you see them, each tree in the woods is personified by its clarity of detail. Birch bark reads like Hemingway; individual pine needles stand out like flags in a parade. And the crab apples: each silken blossom a brilliant faerie world exploded! The trees are an endless fascination, the whole forest…
The forest in its entirety is far too much to take in, your eyes being as sensitive as they are. The enormity of it, its fusing and averaging of details could overload your optic nerves and leave you blind, or crazy. So you've learned to appreciate the very small things: the twigs, the leaves, the xylem and phloeman orchard at mostand have engineered your world from the particulars of your choosing. If left ignored, the forestthat fabled, greater wholecould soon become little but a vast and oppressive theory, present only in aerial photographs and philosophy classes. Unable to see it, you may even come to resent it.
Aquamarine and clear to an eerie effect, people have called your eyes both creepy and captivating. Widowers at grocery checkouts have been known to rasp, "Those eyes!" as though you were drooling up at them from a stroller. Waiters solicit tips with well-timed comments. ("Miss, what remarkable eyes you have.") So if someday the act of removing your sunglasses in a dim classroom were to cause the quiet guy across from you to spill his coffee on his shoes, you'd be flattered to some degree, though not altogether shocked. What would surprise you is if that same guy looked up your number in the campus directory that very night, calling into question all your beliefs about the forest, the crab apples, and the meaning of the details.
In fact, let's say he does.
Part Two: Pollination
That guylet's call him Joelhas picked up on a detail, your creepy eyes, and you appreciate that. Here is someone who notices the small things, you think. With him you will be free to dwell on the grass, the patch of sunlight, the bird shit on the windshield. You're lounging in your old flannel pajamas when he calls but you change fast, what the hell, and you let him take you out for pizza, where he apologizes for not having time for a real dinner because it's Monday and he has an early morning. Which makes an impression: stable, you think, if not a tad eager. Joel wears turtlenecks and commands impeccable grammar, which is also impressive given your dating history, comprised for the most part of aspiring bad boys and guitar-toting underachievers. You learn that he loves theater and books the way you do. He doesn't eat like a dog. He wants to know what your favorite color is, what you like to read, the reasons for your vegetarianism.
You haven't mentioned that you're a vegetarian. You make damn sure you get his phone number.
When Joel drops you off after dinner you sit and contemplate the blinking cursor on your screen, in the same place you left it when your phone rang not two hours before, wondering what just happened. Your ex boyfriendlet's call him Dick, the one with the diamond in his pocket and the freshman in his bedcalls to check up on you, because he still does that when he's drunk, and for once you tell him to fuck off, thereby shocking him into submission and gaining some peace and quiet. Bemused, you smoke a joint and look for patterns in the ceiling plaster.
Joel calls during the week, like he said he would, and despite not believing in signs you take this as a good one. The two of you make a date: you rent a movie; he brings you flowers. The flowers, wild and buttery yellow, leave a delicate ring of bright pollen on your bookshelf. He lets you read his poetry, which reminds you of Hallmark cards and Jewel songsbut nobody's perfect. He sings songs from The Music Man in his polished tenor and dances barefoot with you on your threadbare carpet. His arms are strong and wiry. So what if he uses more mousse than you do? He is lovely. You are smitten.
So you take The Cure's Wish album off repeat. You put Dick's picture in a drawer under the unmatched socks you can't bring yourself to throw away, and almost forget to yell at your housemates about the abhorrent state of the kitchen. Within days, you find yourself sneaking color into your shades-of-grey wardrobe and shaving your legs again. You remember what it's like to giggle, a gratifying new detail to savor. Your roommate begins to think you've suffered head trauma.
Part Three: Seed formation
The trees are radiant, their growth unhurried. You and Joel stick to movies, noncommittal hot beverages and drives to nowhere in his weathered, sky blue Mustang. He makes it clear that he is in no romantic rush and you are relieved, having acquired a bitter aftertaste for what it's like to rush things (e.g. Dick). There is no discussion of that hypothetical 'future', no contrived and obligatory terms of endearment. There are cozy readings, snowy walks, and long afternoons. If there were underbrush, there would be crickets chirping in it.
But life isn't all chirping crickets. Joel is seven years older than you, a born-again student who still lives at home, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and doesn't stay up past 1:00 A.M. unless it's a dire emergency. While this allows you certain freedomsyour favored drink-and-write method: up until sunrise with cigarette in hand, goes undisturbedhe doesn't want to hear about them. By the same token, you have no desire to know when he's working out to the insipid screeching of Mariah Carey or shagging balls at the driving range. There are parts of the orchard you share and parts you keep to yourselves, and you both accommodate this as gracefully as possible, the gates left conveniently ajar. You have discussed this. Come as you are; go as you will. This is the point of taking it slow. You will not attempt to prune the trees.
This casualness being understood, you're not sure what you're thinking when you send him that lacy black stocking via campus mail, daring him to come find the matching one. Perhaps you're thinking of the alluring way his irises melt, from outer cerulean to inner pine, or the way he says your name, curling the word around his lips and teeth like a wreath of intoxicating smoke. Oh sure, it seems like a good idea, this clever ploy, and he finds that wayward silk sheath with stunning alacrity, practically blowing your door down as you're finishing up the dinner dishesthe only time yet that he's stopped by without calling firstand proceeds to rock the delicate blossoms right off your crab apple tree.
Did you know that Joel has been engaged? You know this now, though he doesn't want to talk about it, saying simply that there isn't much to tell. He does tell you that she is the only other woman whom he's slept with. This education you receive while laying tangled in your ravaged bed, a sort of historical pillow talk. You are honored, if not fleetingly suspicious. He thinks your sheets are funny, the robins-egg blue ones spotted with cartoon-like cumulous clouds. When you ask him what's so amusing about them, he says they just aren't what he expected. You wonder what he did expect, but neglect to ask, tugging one elastic corner back into place where it snapped off during his manic quest for the matching stocking. He knows about your past already, what there is of it; he has seen the pictures and the scars and the ring. In fact, he asked to see them. You refrain from asking what color the fiancée's sheets were.
Joel suddenly doesn't like the way you take your coffee. (His coffee could be mistaken for pudding gone terribly wrong.) He says artificial sweetener is for geriatrics and fat-asses, of which you are neither. He sighs every time you light a cigarette. You ignore this to the best of your ability. He has also decided you should grow your sensible, wash-and-wear hair out into a strawberry blond festival of maintenance. (Tabitha, the ex-girlfriend, apparently had extraordinary hair.) More recently, he has taken to lunging for your face with wads of tissues in an effort to free you of your makeup, though he hadn't realized you wore any until he caught you camouflaging a zit one day and tried to confiscate your Cover Girl. He was not successful in this pursuit.
Even given Joel's newfound interest in your groomingand aside from the occasional hint that he might want to loosen up just a touchyou would never dream of altering Joel. Joel isn't yours to alter. He is but a single blossom in the wild and unknowable forest; bright and unique and in all likelihood temporary. You discussed this in the beginning. Would he have embraced the crab apples as he has, you wonder, if all along he'd wanted cherries?
You decide you are paranoid.
Part Four: Cultivation and the tactical art of weeding
On an unassuming Thursday, you meet him after classes at the campus gallery. It's raining hard, you've been working nonstop, and he steps in grinning from the deluge with today's Eagle Tribune over his head and two steaming paper cups on a cardboard tray. He's fixed your coffee the way you like it and you stand sipping it in the roomy foyer, admiring the way the downpour has adhered his tee shirt to his pectoral muscles.
After sharing a giggle at the expense of the Tai Chi class just breaking up inside the huge marble gallery, you go in to examine the new photo exhibit, a collection of cemetery shots by some eccentric alumna that focus on random artifacts left behind at gravestones. Joel endeavors to extract a message. With a wary eye, you absorb the crisp, grayscale lines and forms, the grainy etchings and plastic trash and the struggle to wrest poignancy from decay.
You're in the overheated gallery for about a hundred years, and the novelty began to wear thin after only fifty. Your legs are tired and you're too warm even after peeling off your long wool coat and heavy cardigan. The rain splashing on the early rhododendrons outside makes you sleepy and the pictures inside are beginning to look lurid and banal. You wonder why everyone doesn't just cremate the dead and save the space.
Joel has reached the final piece in the collection and become engrossed by it, and he motions you to come look. It isn't unlike the rest: a simple headstone close-up in black and white. A grimy, non-biodegradable cross of roses, airbrushed in powder pink, leans against the stone. The angle suggests reverence or desperation.
While you're grateful that Joel values your opinion, you are also growing irritable, a mood you exhibit by shrugging and saying something vaguely critical about the use of religious imagery to convey universal human truths. When he prompts you to elaborate, the provoked atheist in you begins to claw its way up your throat, tenses into position, and then lashes out with a glib one-liner that's so natural to you that you forget it (What was it again? "Photoshop for Jesus"?) as soon as it leaves your mouth.
Joel does not forget it. Rather, his frame stiffens as he turns to you, all sunlight gone from between his enchanting lips, and blurts, "You're not Catholic?"
"No," you almost laugh, not because of any special contempt for his faith but because of the expression on his face. He looks as though you've just informed him that the Easter Bunny is standing behind him, holding a chainsaw. "Were you under the impression that I was?"
"I assumed, yes," he mumbles, and goes quiet.
Outside, the rain batters the spring blossoms to the ground, petal by petal.
You are familiar with the art of the dramatic pause, but this one is way over the top. After what seems like a lifetime of watery silence spent inspecting his facial hair one thick follicle at a time, you inquire of Joel, who stands in statue-like desolation silhouetted against the great gallery windows, if something is wrong. Slowly, his blue-green eyes settle into focus, then pass through you. You are vapor.
"I wish you'd told me before," he says, mostly to himself.
Is that an actual tear?
He must be kidding, you think, taking the joke too far. Can the man who once bounded half a mile without touching the ground at the mere prospect of reuniting your intimate hosiery possibly be this distressed that you don't subscribe to his religious ideals? Apparently, yes: when you tell him it isn't funny, he agrees without hesitation.
"If you're not Catholic," he explains in monotone, "I can't marry you."
You do some quick, internal math: Joel and you have been together for exactly two months and one day. Evidently that's not the point. You tell him you'll call him later and start for the door, but he catches your arm as you reach the foyer, jerking you backward into the folds of his coat, insisting he'll drive you home (that whole treacherous half mile) lest you get wet, catch a cold, and die.
So you let him lead you to his car, where you stand getting soaked anyway as he searches for his keys.
Part Five: Compost to compost, mud to mud
The drive is silent.
Then, in his idling, leaky convertible in the rutted driveway behind your house in the throbbing rain, he begins to expose the bigger picture for you: Joel as altar boy, proud godfather, holiday churchgoer and confidant of clergy.
Your argument that other good Catholic boys have accepted you freely does little to help.
"Look what we did," he mourns, still gripping the steering wheel, the rest of his body pivoted at an awkward angle toward the passenger seat, eyeing you as though you may have tainted him permanently. "And now you tell me it's all for nothing. I've always envisioned it so clearly. The ceremony. Everything. I want my kids to grow up the way I was raised."
You find you can only liken the disheartened quality of his voice to your own tone when you discovered that Dickremember Dick?had been using his guitar prowess to pick up doe-eyed music students. Dick, however, had been safely halfway across the state at the time of that particular epiphany. You are here. And despite the nagging feeling that you have done nothing wrong, you no longer wish to be here.
You tell Joel you've always envisioned a Las Vegas wedding and a diaper-free life, mainly to stun him into silence.
Beyond the car windows, the bleary splotches of flattened chemical-green grass, the crumbling pavement and the endless white sky beckon you with sudden urgency. You fight the impulse to strip naked and roll in the frigid mud just to feel something other than defeat, fearing the gratuitous nudity might do irrevocable damage to Joel's psyche. Instead, you grit your teeth and ask the obvious question.
Yes, he has assumed the un-assumable: casual tree shaking is a prelude to happily-ever-after in the manicured crab apple grove.
No, you will not, under any circumstances, convert.
And sadly, you know he isn't joking when he asks this of you. You've just caught a sobering glimpse of the forest, and now you clutch the trees like a madwoman. There must have been some forewarning detail overlooked, some obscure etching on the bark you failed to recognize. You scrutinize the grain of the dashboard, the battered house siding, the uneven tracks left by his windshield wipers blurring in and out of focus, selecting and memorizing the details with which you will immortalize this lesson.
You tell him you've assumed the agreement had never changed. Come as you are; go as you will. What happened to not pruning the trees?
He says he'd thought you loved him.
He's right. Devout masochist to the core, you admit it. You love rain, too, and your potted fern, Herb, and your roommate, Carla, and Bono, Captain Morgan, and Don DeLillo, but you haven't the urge to commit your life to any of them, least of all at the expense of your own identity. And you now realize that you can't expect him to understand that.
The windows are fogging. You press your cheek against the glass until you can't stand the cold and pull it away pink and numb. You do not ask how Joel feels about you, or felt about you. It doesn't matter now, and you don't need him to tell you so.
"I'll call you," he says.
When you go inside you sit and ponder the blinking cursor on your screen, in the same place you must have left it this morning when you ran out the door into the rain. It occurs to you that Joel never bothered to ask what you do believe. And what if he had? You might have said, "Nothing." You might have said nothing at all.
When he calls, like he said he would, you let him leave a message. When your roommate comes home, you share a joint and look for patterns in the ceiling plaster.
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