White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
ROBERT WEXELBLATT
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.

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Crazy About Her

Robert Wexelblatt

Only after appropriating a chair from the adjacent table and shoving it between two of theirs did I ask with an insouciant grin, “May I join you?”

Of course I chose to set the chair directly across from her. She looked wonderful after two years, especially if you subtracted the shock and horror from her face. There she was, all grown up with earrings and a Tribeca haircut. I suppose I was shocked too just from seeing her only four feet away. My hand trembled with the old magnetism, and there was the familiar weakness behind my knees. I coolly watched the horror leach below her features and tried to appraise my emotional state. I felt a number of things and one of them was intimidated. It wasn’t just the blouse and the black business-suit. Her beauty had always cowed me a little—now, it seemed, just a little more. I wanted to cry all over her but I sat on my feelings; I shored up my tottering self-possession. She was happy here among her crowd, I thought, but so far as I could see not intimately attached to any of them. I had looked hard before I leapt, searching for

signs while I crouched in the restaurant’s shadows, waiting to make my move, wondering if I’d really do it.

They all gaped at me, five swans interrupted by a warthog. “Oh,” I explained breezily, inching my chair forward, establishing at once my territory and bona fides, “Phil didn’t tell you I’d be joining you?”

She frowned down at her plate as if at a chessboard on which I’d just made a stupid move.

I turned my gaze on one after the other, spread my elbows, and screwed up my face as if just noticing something. “Where is Phil?”

Two of the men had sandy hair. “Oh, Phil,” piped up one of them, making a dismissive gesture with his left hand. He held a wine glass in the other. The beer and wine bottles on the table made a crowded little skyline.

“Phil?” he said.

“Yep. Phil. I mean he said he’d meet me here.”

“I thought Phil turned us down,” said the man sitting to her left. He had dark hair and a ridiculous


brown mustache that looked as if it had been grown expressly for the occasion. He rubbed at it.

“Phil?” he mumbled dully. “Lucky bastard.”

“Phil’s not here,” said the other woman. She had short hair, an extremely low neckline, and regarded me with suspicion. “Why would Phil be here when he said he wouldn’t? Why would he tell you to meet him here?”

“Oh, you know Phil,” I said airily. “Of course you do. He works—worked—with you. He said you’d all be celebrating. That the right word? Le mot juste?”

“We don’t all know Phil,” said the second sandy-haired plutocrat. I could picture him playing lacrosse a few years back. He was seated on my right, elbow-to-elbow. He looked down his nose at me and his nose was as short and straight as the barrel of a .38.

You know Phil,” I said to her, endeavoring not to sound menacing, more or less.

Nobody asked me to leave. The ghost of Phil hovered over the alcoholic cityscape, vouching for my presence. The mustache passed me a wine

bottle and an empty water glass. I looked around at the five of them, the yuppie unemployed. They didn’t appear to mind losing their jobs. They looked like they expected new and better ones.

Mammon takes care of his own.

• • •

I was locked up for eleven days during my senior year. During this time I thought about Phil once or twice. It made a change. Mostly, of course, my thoughts dwelt on her and what I so desperately needed to explain to her for which exclusive preoccupation, for a devotion everybody deemed to have made me dangerous, I was locked up. Eleven days isn’t all that long but at the time I had no way of knowing it wouldn’t be for the rest of my life. Release came with the proviso of a restraining order which I thought ludicrous and instantly plotted to violate. I was certain that if only I could explain everything would be fine, would in fact be glorious. But I didn’t violate the order. Why not? Because, after all, I wasn’t mad. Instead of committing a crime, I completed my senior thesis and even graduated with, so to speak, honors.


But, as I say, I did think about Phil a couple of times in the lockup. Phil knew us both. Phil was well disposed. It was Phil who had introduced us, a deliberate act which carries some responsibility.

Like most people at the end of their second decade on the planet I was accustomed to thinking of myself as normal. Abnormality could be defined by the degree to which ways of thinking, saying, doing, feeling, tastes and opinions departed from my own. I had the conviction of being the point of the compass, the Golden Mean. But this illusion, arrogant in its self-assertion yet humble in its avowal of mediocrity, was impossible to hold on to in a locked ward with deranged neighbors, bad food, suspicious doctors, and orderlies who looked like sanitized bouncers. So, Phil displaced me and became my new emblem of the normal, the stolid commonplace, for being what Flaubert called dans le vrai. Phil knew what he was after: a business degree, a remunerative job, a plasma TV, championships for the Mets, Islanders, and Jets. It was fine with him if the nation tried to be better than it was but he was sure that none was better even as it was. Social justice did not consume him. His thought went no deeper than required. His hair

was not too long or too short, his wardrobe and tastes in reading conventional. He made friends, not just contacts, laughed readily and in a way that made you think the world couldn’t really be going to hell. Though on the fringe of my own irregular circle, the coterie of a loner, Phil knew both me and her, yet he didn’t know much. Phil was a walking, talking via media, solid as oak. Phil was the kind of guy who would listen to you whine and then, if you asked, lend you twenty bucks.

I hadn’t thought about Phil for two years. I knew that after graduation he went to Wall Street. It was when I read about the spectacular overnight collapse of the firm that had taken her on right out of school that it occurred to me good old clubbable Phil worked there too. An old synapse, I suppose, undecayed. Google confirmed my hunch. Phil worked in a different division from her—the “good” one that was snapped up like Ishmael while the rest of the place sank like the Pequod with almost all hands.

I sent Phil an email. He replied to me at once. He was courteous, said he was glad to hear from me, hoped I was doing well; he managed to be distant


and friendly at once. I wrote back, pressed him about his place of employment, dropped her name, asked about her division and its fate. He knew all about it and it must have been irresistible to tell me. “They’re mostly taking the debacle pretty well,” he wrote. “In fact, some of them are having a sort of Last Supper party this weekend. I’m pretty sure your old squeeze is one of them. A friend of mine asked me to join but I turned him down, of course; under the circumstances it’d be pretty awkward.” He even gave me the time and the name of the restaurant, did dear old normal Phil.

• • •

The first poem I wrote for her was called “The Lover Triumphs Though the Poet Fails,” which title is a little poem in itself though it now reads like I was angling for a compliment. It never occurred to me that my ardent little tribute in verse might alarm her. On the contrary, I imagined she would admire it and warm to me. I was naïve; I was romantic; I was, above all, twenty. Now I’m three and twenty and know that poetry’s no proof of love’s reliability or a lover’s sincerity, rather of the poet’s vanity. And the better the poem the more

suspect it is. Probably she sees it that way but I don’t know for sure. You can’t be a romantic unless you find women mysterious.

Here’s the demi-sonnet I wrote to her two days after we met in the Food Court where Phil introduced us. She was wearing shorts and a tank-top and I presumed a good deal:

I miss you with my stomach and my nose.

Your body is no metaphor to me.

Your hair smells as it smells. I disdain those

vainglorious tropes that would betray your

rare torso, the uniqueness of your toes.

I miss you with my ears and with my nails.

The lover triumphs, though the poem fails.

The poem fails, the poet fails, and the lover failed worst of all. And it was his fault, his folly. Mine, that is.

• • •

“And what do you do?”

It was my impression that the short-haired woman cared for me even less than the Hitler Youths. Perhaps she knew exactly who I was;


maybe she’d been told the whole awful tale. They couldn’t have talked shop all the time; besides, I suspect women like to share biographies with each other, mostly, I think, their histories with men. “Here’s what they did to me. . .” I suppose exchanging confidences about the intermittent truces reminds them of their alliance in the perpetual war.

If she had told what would it have sounded like? A passing anecdote, a tale of gothic trauma? Well, probably not a diaphanous lyric of regret. Had I been reduced to a little glob of rue, like getting a C on a freshman paper?

And what do you do? That And was certainly hostile. What held at least half a pound of contempt while the double do made it sound as if whatever I did I might as well not have. I would have liked to reply to one ill-willed query with another: “Why are you so proud of your boobs?” But I had to be charming, had to beguile the blond, the stacked, the mustachioed. A soft answer turneth away wrath, I reminded myself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

And what do you do? W. H. Auden wrote that, after answering that question with “I’m a poet,” he resolved thereafter to say “medieval historian.”

I smiled. “I’m a medieval historian.”

Her eyebrows leapt up; her face shot forward; her hair remained short. Auden had pretty much guaranteed that “medieval historian” would put an end to any further discussion, said it had won him hours of undisturbed quiet in railway compartments. I wasn’t so lucky.

“Medieval historian, eh? Well, I think the Middle Ages were just a—well, just one big mistake? Don’t you?”

I chuckled, the agreeable lad, the clawless academic. “Excellent,” I burbled with effervescent donnish appreciation. “You’ve summed them up admirably.”

“What about the cathedrals?” chimed in the mustache, defending nine centuries. “And the fairy tales?”

“And what about the universities?” added the Aryan to my left.


Was there really going to be a debate? Would I have to participate or even mediate?

Through all this she said nothing. She stayed mute, tacit in ecclesia. Her face wasn’t defiant, wasn’t angry; it was as blank as fresh vellum in a scriptorium. I could write on it whatever I wanted.

“So, tell us something about the Middle Ages,” challenged the drunken, suspicious woman, the sidekick. Papieren, demanded the faces of the Aryans.

“Well, let’s see,” I said. “Do you know how the universities got started?”

“Everybody spoke Latin,” observed the mustache.

“No women allowed,” said short-hair.

“True, true. But here’s how it all began. For a blessed time in the twelfth century, in Toledo, in Moorish Spain, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars gathered for what came to be called ‘disputatios.’ These men exchanged ideas and manuscripts instead of blows and pogroms. Their excitement must have been boundless. Such delight

to find one another, to live the life of the mind, free from religion. Aristotle’s Politics and Organon. Plato and Homer, Pliny and Plutarch. Pure joy! Then the Fundamentalists rode into town and wagged their scimitars. So the infidels fled, bearing away all the books they could. They ran to Italy where they tried to continue the fun. In Bologna the foreign students organized a union to negotiate with their landladies. The word for union in those days was ‘universitas.’ And that was the first university, Bologna’s exotic boarders. The second one popped up down the road in Padua where the teachers organized to bargain with their students, who hired and fired them. They invented the degree so that they’d have the power to withhold it, I suppose. The licentia docenti, the license to teach. So these early universities, like the early Church, were gaggles of people, not bunches of buildings. As you say, they all spoke Latin so when they ran into trouble they could just move along and set up in another town—Paris, Oxford, Prague, Wittenberg. And the towns saw that it was good and welcomed them, good for business, good for prestige. And so the universities spread abroad like dandelions or cancer.”


“Really?” said the mustache deep in his cups.

Gaudeamus igitur,” I said, raising my cup, raising it to her.

• • •

What the doctor ought to have said:

“Obsession with her is obsession with yourself. What you call love for her is loving yourself. This city in which you think you live alongside her is a city of one, not even two, let alone thousands. Thoughtlessness and lack of imagination are antithetical to love, not its natural consequences, imbecile. Your tantrums are infantile; your threats are tyrannical, so much pounding on a podium. You look at the world through a prism that distorts everything; and, since it’s made of crystal, you think it isn’t there. You don’t believe me, do you? Privileged and pampered is what you are. Soiled and spoiled. Egotistical and conceited. You don’t want to learn anything; above all, you don’t want to be taught. You prefer a name to cling to, an exculpatory phrase, some get-out-of-jail word. You’re a medieval realist when by now reality should have taught you some hard-headed

nominalism. I mean that you make objects out of words, and call it poetry, worse yet. You’re sitting there now thinking about how all this will someday spice up your precious biography, as if madness were just a sexy handmaiden to the grand queen of your fame. Listen up: love’s the digging, kid, not the potato. It’s a verb you’ve turned into a noun. You think if you can just clutch this potato you’ll prove you know how to plant and sow and reap. You’re not just full of yourself; you’re full of shit which, like a two-year-old, you smear on the wall for people to admire. You think sickness made you do what you did whereas the truth is exactly the opposite. You say you need to explain yourself to her, that your words have the power to restore what your words exploded. I need. I need. Do you even hear yourself?”

What the doctor actually said:

Borderline personality disorder with suicidal ideation.

All right, I thought. John Berryman did some suicidal ideating while leaning over the Washington Avenue Bridge. Hart Crane indulged in it leaning


over the Gulf of Mexico. Delmore Schwartz must have practiced it often while squirreled away in the Hotel Marlon. And didn’t they all live on borderlines?

• • •

The men had ordered after-dinner drinks, brandies, and these they sipped. As I watched them all, my mind stepped outside the restaurant for a moment for a smoke. I imagined Manhattan lit as dimly as eternity; I thought of it marching on like a maimed man who has yet to notice his wound. Flattened markets, defunct firms, exploded scams, bled-dry accounts of desperate debtors, hopeless creditors—all the detritus of avarice discreetly covered by a warm nighttime rain streaming up from Uncle Remus’ Southland. In lofts and apartment blocks, penthouses and suburbs, the scared parents hunkered down with their fear, whiskey and pills, every one both a protagonist and a critic.

Wouldn’t she even acknowledge me? Didn’t the others notice her silence?

Madness is thinking too much on one thing, sweeping away everything else right to the horizon. It’s being lost in some process and oblivious of its consequences. Madness is a grossly mistaken exegesis of the world’s crabbed text. It’s inching a bit too far out on a limb or forgetting you’re in a cell called madness. Madness can seem relative to the sane and absolute to the mad, or vice versa. The poet’s madness is to believe that much madness is divinest sense.

Our four-month romance came to an end, I thought, when I ended it, I thought. I was jealous. I blew up at her. My words carried axes and assault rifles. My anger turned into a hurricane that sucked power from the humid ocean of my madness. I smashed a chair into a wall and called her terrible names, the very worst I could think of. Indignant, self-righteous, blind, I stomped out, sick at heart, certain that the original sin had been committed against me. It was late. The campus was suffused in an infernal infrared glow that only I could see. She had covered her face with her hands, like a boxer in the corner protecting herself, then she’d pulled her


knees up, clasping her legs with her arms, making herself as small a target as possible.

I only stuck it out that last month because I was afraid. I was afraid you’d hurt me or yourself. I didn’t know what to do. Leave me alone. Her last email.

One tortured night a week later I saw my colossal error. Bereft, but certain I could retrieve what I’d thrown away, I raced to her room. It was three a.m., which Fitzgerald says it always is in the dark night of the soul. The door was locked. “Go away,” said her frightened roommate.

I beat at the door, raved like a senile king on a heath, importuned, supplicated, abased myself heroically, shot words like battering rams from my almost-frothing mouth. I threatened.

“Go away or I’ll call the police,” yelled the terrified roommate, a nice Midwesterner majoring in physical therapy, a person who looked at you like an open-faced sandwich.

I persisted in shouting my incoherent epic, my philippic, my jeremiad none of which was intelligible, except for the rage.

Then the police came. Then the hospital, the doctors, the restraints, the therapeutic conversations, at last the restraining order.

I wanted to become a Buddhist overnight. I read Watts and Suzuki. I yearned for calm, satori. That too was vanity, of course. For me yang never would fit into yin and life could not go on without desire and suffering. For me, they were life. I knew my poems would never please anyone alive, only, perhaps, misfits yet to be born.

They let me out. I finished my dreary senior thesis, got my degree, didn’t see her, which was indescribably hard. Two hundred yards is very far, even if years of midnight reading haven’t made you myopic.

Then, filled with my defeat, I went home, moved into the basement, got used to the looks my parents exchanged. When I screamed in the night I imagined them shutting their eyes and putting their hands over their ears. Their only child was screaming with trills and flourishes and they didn’t know what to make of it or how to cope. I got a job at a hotel—front desk—and quit after two days. I got another in an insurance office and was fired after


three weeks which was better because I could collect unemployment. In the afternoons I played ferocious playground basketball. I read the wretched prose of The Self-Blocking Self fourteen times and for a while I even mouthed its muddy jargon. I, who worshipped Yeats. I watched the rich passing in their land yachts and honed a peasant’s resentment, conjuring up apocalyptic snapshots of collapse and slaughter. But every night I dreamed of her. I childishly nicknamed her Ms. Dow Jones.

I went back to writing poems, one after another. Even as I scribbled I knew this was the basest kind of self-expression, mere vomiting, Pollack poems, dripped all over the page. Fame is the spur. I bought stamps and envelopes and sent them out to journals. One poem was actually published. But I took no satisfaction in it because it was the only one I hadn’t written as myself. I composed it by pretending to be an old man who had negotiated his terms with life, so beaten down that he could put the contract into resigned meter and sentimental rhyme. It too was about her, of course; but just this once my device was to include her as an absence. I wanted it to appear to be about brushing teeth, the evening news, lunch. I wanted to shade in

everything that wasn’t her, by indirect communication filling in the doughnut around the hole. I called it, misleadingly, “One Consolation.”

As we grow older so the world grows

ever more complex, more forgetful too,

as if wisdom and ignorance joined hands,

pressed cheeks, and staggered through a

clumsy dance

to time’s quick jigs and long sarabandes.

Life’s banal days and undistinguished nights

must not be despised since they’re all we can

return to from our odysseys, our flights

through the remote latitudes of our dreams.

Though quotidian tunes weary my ears

with routine rhythms punctuating years,

such music may be sweeter than it seems.

I’d gotten down to just the single first-person pronoun. That’s one consolation.

• • •

“For God’s sake, he’s not a medieval historian,” she said suddenly, exasperated.

I went stiff and stared across at her, furious with


love. At last, at least she’d said something, albeit she hadn’t said it to me.

“Tell me,” I said softly, “I was the reason you switched your major from English to management, right?”

I’m not sure she heard me but she threw up one arm and looked away.

The others were making confused noises, the way people do when everything changes unexpectedly, when the train that seemed to be moving turns out to be still. Somebody knocked over a wine bottle.

“So what is he?”

She didn’t move. No doubt she was pondering many possible answers, none of which were likely to do me credit. Then she chose. “He’s a poet,” she said.

“A what? A poet?”

One of the blonds gave out with a trust-fund guffaw.

“Go away,” she mouthed at me, dry-eyed, not for the first time.

The others addressed her, not me. I’d become an object.

“Come on, what is this jerk really? A stalker?”

“We could take him out in the alley for you.”

“The alley, hell. We could beat the crap out of him right here.”

“A poet? Jesus Christ.”

The mustache looked over at me. “Give us a poem, then. Recite one of your poems or we’ll kick your ass right here.”

I half-stood. “I’m sorry,” I said to her, all my painstakingly studied eloquence gone. “I’m sorry.”

“Come on, a poem, a poem or else. There once was a man from Peru.”

I pushed the chair back and rose to my full height. I looked down on these oligarchs demanding their post-prandial hexameters. “You


want a poem? Fine. I’ll give you one for the planet I’m ashamed to share with you. I wrote it expressly for you, anyway.”

One of them clinked his wineglass with a knife. “Go on, then.”

She preferred looking at the table to looking at me.

“What the hell’s it called? What’s the title, Shakespeare?”

People were turning in their chairs. The maitre d’ took a few steps our way. My hands shook but my voice came out firm, too loud.

“It’s called ‘Post-Industrial Screed Number 1473.’”

General laughter.

“Wow,” said short-hair. “Number 1473!”

They scoffed, all the temporarily unberthed who had despoiled others of their jobs, houses, made bitter their old age.

My delivery began slowly then accelerated, gathering momentum like a fugue, a roller-coaster about to jump the tracks. What I didn’t remember I made up on the spot.

Out there in California the hour’s

earlier and so is the weather; or

rather, the sun moves west, the wind east;

that

is, the winds move, the earth moves, but the

sun

doesn’t budge at all; I mean, the sun does

move but not the way we used to think and

go on thinking because Copernicus

contradicted not just Aristotle,

Ptolemy, and His Holiness but common

sense

which is why he published posthumously

showing both prudence and humility. Not

very

many like Copernicus, are there; that is

to say, who go over easy on the ego

not sunny side up as on the West Coast

of the Disneyfied imagination


or in Greenwich made of greenbacks,

landscaping and ersatz aristocracy

where it’s me and you (admiring me) by

the pool, at the party, at the fund-raiser . . .

By now hands were grabbing at me; I could hear the grunts in my ear but not the words, being too intent on my own.

. . . padding off to bed with a lonely spouse,

an aromatic starlet, a nice firm hunk,

effervescent comedienne, threesomes and

foursomes and power lunches, paparazzi,

papaya bean curd salads, distanced from

the latest race riot, expiring addict,

raped runaway all these being the salt of

the bland yet fecund earth. Do you hear

America singing the body electric? The

same low down number on ten million

stereos, Nebraska, Alabama, Illinois,

Rhode Island, the last being our standard

of smallness except when some portentous

iceberg slides off Antarctica (same

song, different sun, variable winds). The

brains of the outfit puts his feet up

in his corner office hatching conspiracy

theories which is the conspiracy whilst

far below the put-up feet and busy brains

the parking garage fills with SUV and

Mercedes Benz, for you are not just what

you

gobble up but what you drive what you buy

no

less than what you sell, even if it’s your

own pate on the block, branded like beef on

the hoof, like those handfed Japanese steers

massaged thrice daily by virgin geishas

right down the road from the Lexus factory

to whom being slaughtered seems a fair

enough price. Furthermore, going further

and always wanting more, discreet Cape

Cods

steroided to MacMansions with four-car

garages

plus one truck, deep freezes like family

crypts,

Rhode Island-sized TVs, inert treadmills,

mammoth ranges, centrally air-conditioned

to a temperate turn where white microwaves

silently pulse and the dubiously processed

floodlit food rotates like the earth while the


sun stands still yet rushes to not even

Mikolaj Kopernik himself knows where.

I was dragged away long before I finished. Her hands covered her face. Her shoulders rose and fell.

The earth is the center only of itself. Same for me.

When they twisted me through the tables, the falling chairs, the trays, I was still reciting, at least in my head. “I’m sorry,” I screamed back from the heavy doors. And then there was a shove and my borderline personality tumbled onto the wet pavement of the broken city.

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Robert Wexelblatt. White Whale Review, issue 1.3

 


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