“I guess that I miss you. I guess I forgive you. I’m glad that you stood in my way.” - Leonard Cohen
By Corey Mesler
I pass her apartment building now, almost daily — it’s on the way to my daughter, Anderson’s school. That apartment building has taken on a significance it should not bear; it has become numinous. Once, when she lived there, and I was a smartassed youth with a certain swagger and charm, I visited her on numerous occasions, all attempts to beguile her into a relationship. She wouldn’t even kiss me. My enchantments were stillborn.
Now, when I see it, the very building, its European proportions, its courtyard, seems made of romance, possibility, desire. The fact that it was squelched desire, blocked advance, stifled romance, does not influence the way the building affects me. Can you understand this?
Anderson’s mother and I are divorced. I don’t even know where she — Anderson’s mother — lives. She left me for an actor who was headed to either Chicago or New York—the magnetic attraction between them was so great that Anderson became a cipher for her own progenitor. This is sad. Now, Anderson lives with my mother—this is another story, one of bad feelings, bad drugs and an earlier time when dissipation held a certain desideratum for me. I was broken by Anderson’s mother, broken to the point that I could not be a good father. Things are much better now — I drive my daughter to school almost every morning — we occasionally have dinner together. But her room — and this is of paramount importance to a seven-year-old — is at my mother’s.
Sometimes I feel that I can stop there now — the apartment, or Capitalized, The Apartment, as I’ve begun to see it in my imagination - here, a full decade and a half later — and find her there, still twenty-seven, still lithe and freckled and full of animal grace. Though the rational part of me knows that she is gone, married, living in Atlanta, with a husband and two children, there is another me, one that doesn’t let go, a dream-id, that can conjure, at least the feeling of that time, its frisson.
Let me attempt to build her here for you. Her name was Isabel Evening. She worked at the library, at one of those kiosks that seem ready to impart to a credulous public all the secrets of the universe. She was two years younger than me at the time we met, meaning I was about to head into my fourth decade on Planet Earth. I was looking for a book about basketball literature — it’s not as exoteric as one might imagine — there seemed to be only one such book in the library’s computer and it didn’t seem to be on the shelf. Hence, my appearance at the desk of Isabel Evening. She had a pixie nose that was sprayed with freckles, dark brown bangs, a chest that was swelling as we spoke - her breasts were memorable. And this was all I could see of her that first time.
“Hi,” I said. Already my throat was dry and I was thinking about the sparkle in the crystal blue eyes in front of me instead of Updike’s opening section of Rabbit, Run.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Did I detect the hint of a smile that went just slightly outside the bounds of professional demeanor?
“Basketball,” I said. “A book about.”
She looked at me for a second and then she laughed. That laugh was like dropping the silverware drawer.
“Sorry,” I further stumbled. “A book of literary writings about basketball. See, I’m doing this project...”
I was writing an article for the magazine I worked for, the city’s slick, which published such soft news as “Writers on Basketball.” Because this was Memphis and Memphis was a basketball town.
“It’s ok,” Isabel Evening said. “I’m not laughing at you.”
And then she laughed at me some more.
This would be all I have left of her had I not, in my youth, a healthy heterosexual drive, one that bordered on mania. I was daring, I was romantic, I was foolhardy. I was not averse to unearthing information about a woman who crossed my path — even in that pre-internet era it wasn’t that difficult to track down a woman’s full name, phone number and address. This I did. Valiant, Holmesian romantic. And I found myself, on purply, twilight drives, passing that apartment complex, the one that seemed so gothic, so quixotic, so sexy. Because she was in there somewhere.
I imagined her sprawled on an antique couch, her rounded body clad in gossamer, watching Ingmar Bergman movies, or The Marx Brothers. I credited her with everything from an amazing intellectual curiosity to a rich and improvident sense of humor. Isabel Evening — say it a few times. It clangs around in the old brain pan. Names are sometimes enough, sometimes a decent enough key. Sometimes the trigger to interest, lust, wonderment. This was who I was, perhaps, who I still am. Which is the question I’m asking now, all these years since.
One night — I don’t remember why it was this particular night, either I felt a desperation based on flesh - loneliness, or I felt a wantonness, a lightness of spirit that emboldened me—I just stood on her stoop, in that tropical courtyard, and rang her doorbell. The smile on my face was an imp’s. The imp of the perverse.
When she opened the door her face was inscrutable. I had told myself that I would be able to gauge her impression of my daring drop-in immediately — it would be interwoven in her lovely features, like a hidden message in a text. Well, hidden it was. She had a face a gambler would love. Her expression said nothing. Except perhaps, why?
I stumbled out of the gate.
“Hi, I don’t know if you remember—“
“The basketball guy.”
“Hey, yeah, you’re good,” I said. Some breeziness, but perhaps not enough.
“I have a good memory, yes. It helps in my work, you know, information...”
“Of course, of course,” I shot out, as if I had important business to get to.
She stood in the doorway as motionless as Ozymandias. I grinned, a ninnyhammer.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.” Sometimes I feel that saying the most obvious thing is how we humans get through sticky situations, how we keep the whole planet spinning. Someone has to say, Jesus, it’s hot, when it’s hot. Or, how about that rain, when we’ve had a flood’s worth.
“I am,” Isabel Evening said.
“Ok,” I said. I was flummoxed, but only momentarily. I tell you, when I was younger I was brave, like Ulysses. And as lost.
“I thought, back there,” I burbled like a stony brook, “In the library that time. I thought, just maybe, there was a spark. You know, a spark? Something that flashed between us that needed investigating, that needed further contact. Maybe I’m wrong.”
I assumed this was lobbing the ball into her court. What did it take to unlock this impenetrable woman? She looked at me like I was a lab experiment.
“Investigating?” she asked, picking on one word to express her bewilderment at the whole awkward situation.
“Um, yeah. I guess, what I should say is, that I, that is, when I saw you, or even now, I think you’re very, um, attractive. Enough to bring me to this maladroit, doorstep conversation.”
Now she grinned. Finally.
“Come in,” Isabel Evening said. Ah, magnificent invitation!
I went in that first time, that fateful night, and I swear, I could have drawn her living room beforehand. It was just as I had imagined it. There was the Impressionist poster. There was the bookshelf with paperbacks, old college texts and some interesting novels from mostly European writers. And glass dogs. A television and a VCR, with numerous homemade tapes and a few store bought ones — Out of Africa, Children of a Lesser God, Philadelphia Story, West Side Story and — ah hah! Duck Soup. A couch that looked great but was slightly uncomfortable — one of those you can’t sling your arm onto the back of. A few chairs, perhaps antiques, perhaps only flea market bargains — what did I know? And a cat named — wait for it — Annie Hall.
“Sit,” she said, placing herself on the couch, a centerpiece. I chose the firmer-looking of the two chairs. Moving a couple Cosmopolitans to sit.
“Caught,” she said.
“Pardon?” I asked. I don’t know if I’d ever said “pardon?’ before in my short life.
“I read Cosmo.”
“Ah,” I said. “That’s ok, I read Grit.”
She laughed. Oh, that laugh. What a turn-on it was, is, still, here in my middlescence. Here in memory-land. Isabel Evening, if nothing else, I define you by your laugh. It was, is, enchanting, a thing as remarkable as night and morning, stars and sun. Can one fall in love with a laugh, through a laugh alone? Of course. Did I fall in love with Isabel Evening? I don’t think I was given the chance. I never told her that I loved her—no, it never was appropriate. But, I thought about it.
That first evening went just about as well as all visits hence. She was a wall, a blockade that my intrepidness could not surmount. Things never moved toward the passionate — they stubbornly refused to do so. She appeared to enjoy my visits, even inviting me once, for an evening of Night at the Opera and Day at the Races, and she laughed often at my jokes, allowed me to sit next to her on that damn couch, close enough for ardor. We were heading somewhere—was I so mistaken that it was only my impression that romance was blooming? Was she oblivious? I entertained the idea that she was gay, or had a boyfriend, or was seeing a married man. I wanted some exotic reason for her stonewalling me.
It was on the, oh I don’t know, fifteenth maybe, visit, that, out of sheer frustration, out of sheer desire, I tried to kiss her. My mouth did touch hers, but it was one-sided. Of the two of us, only I was kissing, a sensation as asinine, as off-kilter, as having a sex dream about an animal. Her mouth was like the mouth on a cardboard cutout. Her face went blank. It was as if I had asked her to kill someone for me, or engage in some Penthouse-style sexual kinkiness. She could drop that mask quicker than a no-look pass.
“Sorry,” I said, half-swallowing my words.
And here was her chance to say, no, that’s ok, here’s what’s going on with me, I know you’re attracted to me, and I wish I could respond, but I can’t, I’m -. But she didn’t. Isabel, what was going on? Was I just deluded, God’s Own Fool, a Lotus-Eater? Were there really no feelings between us? Was it only friendship you wanted?
A wise friend of mine once told me that when someone says, I don’t want a relationship right now, that what he or she is really saying is, I don’t want a relationship with you. And, although Isabel never said those words, her actions did. It wasn’t that she didn’t want a boyfriend, it was — oh, painful veracity — that she found me unsuitable.
I stopped dropping by Isabel’s, stopped calling. I did see her a few times, once at the library — I admit I didn’t have to go there, even though I was looking for a certain work of literary criticism for an article I was writing — I admit I wanted to see her — and once at the grocery store. Both times, we stopped, spoke, smiled. I could have been a stranger. I was a stranger.
Time passed. I heard she was engaged, then married, then living in Atlanta. I think it was in that order. And I married and settled down — even in my profligate heart — and, when my daughter, Anderson, was born, I became that most noble thing, a parent. Then, a single parent. I became a grownup. Having children will do that for you if you let it. And, God knows, I needed growing up. I needed the sea-change. And, now Anderson is in first grade at Idlewild Elementary School. How did I get here? I often wonder. Show me my timeline, I say to my half-formed God. That’s life, isn’t it? A string of happenstance and folly and terror and charm and then—sproing!—adulthood. It just happens, like oxidation. Like photosynthesis. It’s natural, is what I’m saying.
So, here I am, it’s 16 years later, and I’m driving by that apartment complex — it’s called the Arcadia Arms (was it always? I don’t remember) — and the hairs on my arms and neck are standing up, as if electricity, sheet lightning, had wafted over me. I had to stop the car. I was feeling queer. I stopped at the curb, right in front of the building. Oh, mystifying edifice! Was it memory affecting me so? I really thought that I might faint — it was a disturbing feeling, an apartness that possessed me. I put my face in my hands and tried to gather my wits.
As soon as I felt better, as soon as the nausea had passed, I knew one thing: I had to cross that threshold again. I had to enter that apartment, regardless who occupied that space now, I had to see it again, relive its walls and corners and atmosphere.
Talk to me about thresholds.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy steps across one, from black and white Midwesterness, into Polychromatic Wonderland. And, speaking of Wonderland, what is the rabbit hole, but a threshold? (Be careful of that first step.)
In mythology, heroes must cross over a threshold between the waking world and a supernatural realm or leave their motherland for the dim, distant unknown. Many strange beings are encountered on the journey of adversity who either pose a threat to the hero, including various dragons, ogres, Cerberus, and Grendel, and Cyclops, to name just a few, or who intervene with a bit of magic or advice at just the right time (such as a Gandalf or a charmed princess) to see the hero through. In many heroes’ stories, there is a goal at the end of the quest that has great importance to the hero or to the hero’s community. This could be the fire of Prometheus, Jason’s Golden Fleece, or the Arthurian knight’s Holy Grail. The lucky thing, the benison, is emblematic of alliance with the forces of life and death that regenerate and sustain our workaday world. Enough, enough. What was my boon, what my goal?
I stood before her door — recognizing the threshold for what it was — and wondered, transfixed by a collision of rosewater time-space. Get it? And, friends, I felt a brush against my shin, like a wind from Valhalla. It was Annie Hall, the cat. I swear by all things holy, it was Annie Hall, as she was then, unaged, short in the tooth, unsullied like a cat in a dream. She was a cat in a dream.
As I dragged my concentration away from cat — like a taffy-pull — and onto door, my head swam. Something other entered in.
Reader, I raised my fist. Like a Black Panther, I raised my fist. I knocked.
What seemed interminable, what seemed like a long, swart stretch of death-time, was probably 60 seconds, perhaps 90. I heard footsteps, the knob rattled, the door swung inward. And, there before me, here in the present day — or so I thought — was Isabel Evening, as she was in the wayback days of my inelegant courtship. She was as pretty as a plane ticket and her face lit up like the dawn of the Fourth Day. The first dawn.
And my first thought was — I had aged and she had not. She must be horrified, frightened. But, no, that’s not the expression she wore — her lovely face said, welcome, all is well, what a nice surprise. And she spoke: come in.
I had not aged, friends. I was back there as I was. She was as she was. I had crossed a threshold that was enchanted and entered a place that I knew so well in ideation, in memory. And — as you can imagine - I did not want to leave; I did not want to awaken back into the jackleg world.
Except this one thing was different. Isabel Evening was glad I was there — more than glad, she was delighted. She looked at me with eyes full of — I can almost not say it — love. Love, my God, from Isabel Evening. And I knew I was dreaming, of course, it had to be dreamstuff, cuckooland. She had never loved me, had never appreciated my advances. Yet, here I was by her side, and she had put her soft, warm hand into mine, a gesture a small child might accomplish. And she led me to the couch, that same damn couch, except now it was a place of succor and light.
“I’m so glad you’ve come,” Isabel Evening said.
I looked at her mouth as it formed these words. Those lips, like a lily, that face as full of royalty as a deck of cards. If possible she was lovelier than I remembered.
“I want to kiss you,” I said.
And she answered, “Of course.”
And when our mouths met I knew a pleasure that is vouchsafed few men. I was deeply, immediately, irrevocably in love. She was everything I had ever wanted. I knew all this from her kiss — there were stories in that kiss which I am still unraveling. Isabel, who walks in weightlessness, and who kissed me with a tenderness I thought had disappeared from the world.
The details of the rest of that evening would bore you. Suffice it to say that I stayed, time rippling away like a rill, and we talked about everything under the sun, never, of course, touching on the fact that this was dreamland. Because I knew that in doing so I stood a chance of breaking the spell and I wanted to live there forever and ever amen. We sat close, we kissed often, we held each other. Everything was affection and balm.
I say it was like a dream yet it wasn’t. I knew this was as real as, say, the afternoon before, that I had spent in the library researching the use of the supernatural in cinema, an article I had suggested to my skeptical boss. Now, one may be tempted to draw a line from such an undertaking to the odd circumstance of the following evening, but I do not draw such a line. Looking through old tomes of mythology and necromancy and folklore and books on obscure Scandinavian films did not feel like being with Isabel. I don’t know how to make it clearer, to explain it better. It just didn’t feel connected.
As night began to give way to day we both smiled sheepishly, as if we were guilty of childish indiscretions, staying up all night, talking and cuddling like new lovers. Of course, that is what it seemed like to me — a new relationship. I don’t know what Isabel thought — her instant acceptance of my presence there, as if it were as natural as bird-notes, as sunlight on the sea, baffled me then and it baffles me still. Does life offer second chances? It does not. So, what was going on? I didn’t question it—not then.
We kissed one final time, a long, soul-stirring kiss that felt like falling into a chasm, and I put my palm on her cheek.
“Tomorrow?” I asked, looking into her eyes, which were phosphoric and as deep as a woodland.
“Of course, silly,” she said and threw her arms around me as if I were her most precious acquisition.
I left that night—morning — drunk with love, my head as light as cobwebs. How I steered my car home I don’t know. And once home, I fell into bed, slept the hardest hour I’ve ever slept and woke with the alarm at 7. I called my mother and asked her to take Anderson to school. Work seemed inappropriate and otherworldly, as if it were the apparition and Isabel the eternal rocks. I slept-walked through the day and my boss, more than once, expostulated some lame joke like, “We’re not disturbing your sleep, are we, J---?”
And when released from the prison of employment I did not want to think about dinner, I wanted only to run to the apartment and fall into Isabel’s arms, to sleep there like a pieta. I drove around for an hour or so — I didn’t want to show up at Isabel’s too early, interrupt her dinner, or even get there before she got off work. Where did she work? We didn’t establish that, or exchange phone numbers, or discuss any of a hundred other concrete details one might think we would have determined... We were lost in each other — you twig, you understand the discombobulation of love, the derangement of the senses of attraction.
Furthermore, I was a bit at sea. Where was I, timewise, universewise? I knew — how did I know? — that Isabel was no longer at the library, no longer a librarian. I knew she existed, though, here, wherever I was, here, in this timespace. My head swam if I stopped to think. I did not stop to think.
I stopped at a florist and bought a nosegay of preposterous abundance. I was a gone swain, a fool for Eros.
Reader, friend, you are ahead of me. But, I must tell it the way it needs telling. It’s my albatross, my mittelschmerz.
Even the corridor seemed changed. There was no Annie Hall, of course. But, the very walls seemed to breathe and sweat, a newness to them like the peel of an apple. I felt a softball of anxiety in my chest. And still I had to knock.
It took some moments before my banging brought concurrent sounds from within, the shuffling of feet, perhaps a bump against an endtable.
The woman who answered the door was as old as heartache, as the itch. She looked at me as if I were trouble, her suspicious nature hard-won, earned through a lifetime of disappointments and pang.
“What is it,” she said, her voice as whiskered as her chin.
“I’m— I’m looking for a woman, a young woman, who— I mean, she lives here. Isabel” I knew I wasn’t making sense. It didn’t matter — it stopped mattering when I saw my fate, when I saw the future open up like a maw.
“Go away,” she said, rightly. “Go away, or I’ll call the police.”
I handed her the flowers, which she took with the same scowl with which she condemned me.
I dragged myself home. I had an impulse to call my daughter, to talk to her like a father and try to plug myself back into my skin. I did not do this. I don’t know why. I had the feeling my mother didn’t want to hear from me. I felt guilty — for what? I felt inappropriate.
I called no one. I collapsed onto my couch and, somehow, fell asleep. When I awoke it was morning — Saturday morning. I had the day before me, a whole day to myself. I couldn’t imagine what I would do. I couldn’t remember what I had ever done before. Who was I?
Days passed. Weeks.
I fell back into my old routine. I picked up Anderson every morning. She kissed my cheek, with that grace that little girls wear as lightly as a cloak. She brought lightness to me, though I felt bereft, inhuman. She didn’t seem to notice.
Evenings I stayed in, watched TV, worked my way through a few mystery novels. The edges of my life — which bore a rime of ice — began to loosen a bit. I thought I was back in the world, though I still didn’t feel strong enough to go outside.
One Friday afternoon — it was months later, I’m not sure how long — my mother called me at work and said that Anderson wanted to have a sleepover, she wanted to have a sleepover at my house, with three of her friends and she wanted to have it that night. My first impulse was to say, damn, this is short notice, could we-
But, I didn’t. I said, great. I’ll pick up Anderson around 5 and we’ll order pizza.
Having four giggling, screeching girl-children running wild around you can be torture, or, in another way, it can secure you, as a parent, as a man. Anderson was as happy as a Queen — she must have run by me and stopped to hug my legs at least a half-dozen times. It was her way of thanking me for this party — such a simple thing, really, giving your child what she wants, what makes her happy.
During the part of the evening when I began to worry how we would ever all get to sleep — the pizza eaten, two videos spent — the girls retired to another part of the house, presumably to natter, away from adult ears. What seven-year old girls discuss in private is an arcanum that I will never be granted the elucidation of. This is as it should be.
But, the tranquility, in my living room, was a godsend, and I picked up another Peter Lovesey novel, feeling a peace in my chest I had not known for quite a while. It was then that the phone rang.
The voice on the other end was instantly recognizable. I did not have one split second when I was in doubt about who was calling. The voice — it was Isabel Evening’s — was like a split in the earth, a smile with lava behind it — open as the cracked door of morning.
“Isabel,” I tried to say. It came out a hispid whisper.
“Are you there?” she said, as bright as a ruby’s blaze.
“Yes,” I managed.
“It’s the damnedest thing,” she said. I listened, as if I were about to have my fortune told. And I was, dear friend, I was.
“It’s the damnedest thing. I’ve found myself thinking about you lately — I can’t get you out of my head. Now, don’t get frightened — don’t hang up.”
It was about this time that one of the girls — I don’t think it was my own — let out a piercing shriek.
“What was that?” Isabel Evening said, laughing.
“Sleepover,” I said.
“Your daughter. Right. Listen, I know you’re divorced — I mean, I admit, I did a bit of checking. I’m divorced, too — you know, it’s made me, well, what divorces make you. So, anyway, lemme cut to the chase, because I’m fumbling here, a bit embarrassed. Would you like to go for coffee or something? I mean, not tonight, obviously, but, sometime, I mean, would that be ok?”
Isabel Evening was fumbling, imagine. I held the receiver like a crucifix. My face broke into a beam. My heart fulminated, my life expanded.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, Isabel, yes.”QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005