We're brushing our teeth in the pool of light cast by the kerosene lamp above her sink, both of us scrubbing away with the ease, the lack of self-consciousness, that often comes with years of living together.
The strange thing is, we've never gone on vacation together, discussed the right place for the new sofa or what to get for dinner. We hardly know each other. This is my first visit to the cabin she built in the meadows along the north side of the river, the place where she's raised her kids and gotten divorced. It faces south. Those summer nights when the huge ache in her heart leaves no room for sleep to squeeze into her, the darkness must pour through the windows and creep across the rug towards the upright piano.
We hardly know each other, but we do know how we can give our most bodacious valentines to the wrong people. I'm not surprised when she says we should become good friends first before we become lovers. She rinses off her toothbrush, sticks it in a glass on the sink and suggests I sleep in the bed in the guest room.
We kiss each other goodnight. A few kisses and hours laterone thing, one kiss, does, after all, have a way of leading to anotherwe're lying side by side, her legs holding mine in a loose scissors-lock, her cheek warm against my chest. We're nestled into each other, as people frequently are after making love.
After making love is a curious way of putting it. The sexual act is clear enough in its outlines. The physiology of it has been charted with painstaking care. Books on the subject include maps to show us the slopes of the arousal phase, the peaks of the excitement phase, the plateaus, the foothills of the refractory period. But the maps are incomplete. They don't indicate those tallgrass prairies you must stumble through before you reach the first slopes of arousal and your pulse quickens as you climb upwards, and your breath ... as you approach the rarefied atmosphere of the orgasmic peaks, each breath becomes shorter, more intense, a painful gasp almost, like the gasps which escape a woman's body during childbirth.
No, where lovemaking really begins is before any candles are lit or any clothes are removed, perhaps before you've even met each other. This isn't on sex researchers' maps. If lovers were pioneers relying on these charts, they would be hopelessly lost before the sunlit peaks of the excitement phase ever hove into view.
Same with after. If our pioneers did by some odd chance manage to make it to the mountains and over the pass, they would be equally lost on the other side, where the heartbeat slowly returns to normal, in the salt flats beyond the refractory period.
We're nestled into each other. Our breathing is more regular now. If I were to put us on a map, it would be on a beach. We've crossed a continent. The sand is warm between our toes. In front of us is the rhythmic blue heave of the sea. A breaker uncurls, spends its last strength in an effort to reach the dunes. It foams around us. The water soothes the soles of our feet. But if we walk in up to our ankles, our knees, our waists, deeperwhat riptides or razor-sharp reefs of coral the sea might containthis isn't on any map.
She stirs. She mumbles something I don't quite catch about music, about angels and yonis. Intrigued, I'm about to ask what she's said. Angels are supposed to be sexless, aren't they? Winged, haloed, curly haired, harped, rosebud lipped. Yonis? I'm about to ask. But, much as I hate to leave the warm bed, I have to pee.
It's chilly out here. Little stars of frost crunch underfoot as I step across the porch and aim over the edge. I wish I'd had the foresight to wrap myself in a blanket. The meadows of this lover I was supposed to be good friends with first are filled with moonlight tonight. Moonlight slants down through the windows into the cabin she built with the same strong hands that were running through my hair and over my body a short while ago. The white keys of her piano glow.
I always wanted to play the piano. Not so much because of the timbre of the instrument, the sound of the individual notes, but because you can strike several different ones simultaneously, hear how they fit together. Or might fit together, if you find the note between them or beyond them that's missing. I thought it would help me understand harmony, I guess is what I'm trying to say. I figured if I had a piano, chords and sevenths and half-diminished and such would begin to make sense. But I never had the money.
And then, when I was living in New York, in a burned-out neighborhood on the edge of Spanish Harlem, I was offered a piano. All I had to do was haul it out of the apartment. The owners were tired of looking at it, bumping into it.
I called a friend of mine in the junk business, and we drove over in his truck to pick it up. Just the two of us. According to him, a fellow with dollies who knows what he's doing can move anything.
It was a glorious day. My friend was in a good mood, not a bit daunted by the prospect of lugging several hundred pounds of piano up five flights of stairs. When we pulled up in front of my building, however, he shook his head.
He knew the clearances in these old tenement walk-ups. No way, short of a miracle, were we going to turn that clunker around the corners in the narrow stairwell. It would be easier to squeeze a rich man into heaven.
We unloaded the piano onto the sidewalk. What else were we going to do with it? Then my friend climbed back into the cab of the truck and waved good-bye.
I sat on the swiveling stool and started picking out the notes of a song. I figured I might as well get in one good afternoon of practice. I knew the piano wouldn't last the night in my neighborhood. Cars didn't last the night. There were vehicles parked around the corner on Second Avenue, totally stripped, with ninety minutes left on a two-hour meter.
I launched into a blues, a simple blues about ain't nothing I can do or say to make you change your mind and stay. A couple kids who'd been cooling off in the spray from a hydrant gathered round to listen, then a young mother headed home with groceries. Dana, who lived on the third floor of the building, happened by. We didn't really know each other, but we nodded when we met at the mailboxes. In her twenties, a looker in a dark, brooding sort of way, I'd never seen her flash a smile before. She was very quiet, almost morose, and more slender than she should've been. I didn't know it at the time, but Dana was a junkie.
I can't tell you how much it shocked me to learn she was sticking needles into her arms. She was very bright. One afternoon, while we were sitting together on the front stoop of the tenement, listening to the crank from the laundry up the street play the piano, she told me all about Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais, the nobleman who was, perhaps, the legendary Bluebeard. She told me about his castle in France, about the Hundred Years' War and his love affair with the maid from Orleans.
It was, in fact, a small miracle that Dana and I could sit on the stoop letting the music wash over our conversation about Bluebeard, that the instrument was still there after two weeks, undamaged. The neighborhood thugs had adopted my piano, the ice men, hit men, down-and-outers and low riders, pimps and snitches and bag men, shifty three-card monte players, muggers and pushers. There was an invisible sign on it that read "mess with me, and you're history."
And so all through the summer impromptu concerts were held on the gutted block at the edge of Spanish Harlem. Musicians came to beat out boogie-woogie in the wee hours after the night clubs closed. The grocer on the corner played ragtime during his lunch break. Tarantellas got played on the piano, reggae and salsa, rhumbas and soul music. This elderly Portuguese lady with three chins and a mustache would plop herself down on the stool and tickle out fado music, her birdlike nasal voice wailing tunes so melancholy you'd find your eyes willy-nilly going all hot and wet. People passing by would stop to plunk out riffs from Monk and Trane, to play rhythm and blues, funky hillbilly music, gypsy czardas, gospel, even long-hair music. Turned out Dana knew most of Chopin's waltzes by heart, and couples with their arms wrapped round each other's waists would dance in the street when she played, gliding through the trash and broken glass. They'd be shuffling on the bottle caps smashed into the asphalt, melting into each other, stopping traffic. And if any driver was impatient or unwise enough to honk his horn to get the dancers off the street, some bad-news dude with a stocking cap and a fist like a ham would be sure to bang warnings on the motorist's hood.
All summer long the miracle of the piano happened. Even after the rain started to peel the ivory off the keys, and the strings went out of tune, people still sat down and filled the block with music. The scales might sound warped, but the rhythm would be there, the heartbeat, the heart.
I think it was the way the two of us shared my piano right from the first afternoon which brought Dana to my apartment one night. She said she had an important letter to write and needed to borrow a pencil.
She'd never knocked on my door before, and it was obvious there was something more than borrowing a writing implement on her mind. It was in her eyes. I could see the bars in her eyes, see Dana locked away in a castle more impregnable than any Bluebeard had ever built. I asked if she'd like a cup of tea.
And then laterone thing, one word, one kiss, really does lead to anothershe was tugging her sweatshirt over her head. My hands reached for the swaying apples of her breasts, and in the light from the lamp on the night table beside my bed I caught sight of the tracks on her arms. They resembled the dark notes of the lovely waltzes she used to play, those gorgeous flowers with their gnarled fingers rooted in her pain.
I wanted to cradle the pain in my arms, rock it to sleep. If only I could help her recover whatever she'd lost, lose whatever she wished to be rid ofangels, demons, memories, a harsh word that bored a hole clean through her soul. I listened with all my senses for the lilts, the lifts and falls, the wrinkles, in each note of every song her body chose to sing. If only I could find the tenderness, the patience. Her jeans slipped over her hips and inched down her legs to her ankles. She kicked them off and sighed me into her.
The sexual act itself fit, more or less, the curves of the charts in books on the subject. We came. Both of us nearly at the same moment, which doesn't happen the first time all that much, outside novels or the movies. But there was something hollow about it, as if in that moment we were connected at the genitals and no place else. We came, but each from a different direction. And it felt empty, as if we'd been obliged to travel so far before we reached the crossroads of orgasm, we were too exhausted from the journey to appreciate the climax, to meet each other there. Maybe we were scared to be so far from whatever place each of us had started from, and were already worried about finding our way back.
We drifted off to sleep, front to back, skin to skin, bone to bone. Her head rested on my arm. My other arm was over her belly, my hand cupping the silky flower between her legs where we'd just been connected. I pressed a final kiss on the back of her neck and sank into her warmth.
A few hours later I woke. It was still dark, probably three or four in the morning. Dana was at the foot of the bed, slithering into her jeans. I coughed, cleared my throat. She turned quickly and looked at me, startled. A fragile smile passed over her lips.
"Thanks, sweetie." And then, as she disappeared out the bedroom door, "Sorry, but I better get back to my own place."
It was the last time I saw her. I slept in late the next day because of the short night. Around noon I headed downstairs to check my mailbox. A crowd was gathered on the third floor landing. I gathered from its mutterings that medics had removed Dana only a few minutes ago.
I stood absolutely still. I needed every ounce of energy just to stand up, to keep myself from being knocked over by the words bouncing off the walls.
CRYING SHAME ... overdose. STIFF AS A BOARD. Much. Ambulance. CRYING ... too ... SHAME ... late. OVERDOSE. This morning. Stretcher. HEARD. Probably nodded ... PIANO ... CRYING SHAME ... out. NODDED. Nodded out ... BAD SMACK. Fire hydrant. Overdose ... TOO LATE.
I went back upstairs and crawled into bed till the light was gone.
The block was full of talk the next few days. The skinny on the street was that the overdose had been intentional. A smackhead like Dana, she knew what she was cooking up. It wasn't as though it was her first taste and she'd made a mistake. Accidental death, the coroner was saying. Not likely. Not a hip chick in this neighborhood. The needle was lying on a blank piece of paper on the floor. The spoon, a book of matches. Accidental?
From across the meadows comes the murmur of the river making its way over rocks and fallen trees. I go back inside the cabin and climb into bed beside the woman I've become lovers with this night. She wraps her arms around me and puts her cheek back on my chest.
"You're cold as ice. Freezing. Let me warm you up."
I'm so quiet, so still, she wonders if there's anything the matter, or if I'm simply tired.
Tired, yes. And there is something, darling, somethingremember what you were saying about yonis and angels and music? Don't forget it. Not tonight, but sometime, when we're good friends, I'll tell you about where it took me, where I've been, just been. About distant lightstarlight, moonlighthow it sparkles in the frost on your porch, on the keys of a piano, on the wings of the angel of death, the angel of love.