Countless Tiny Windows
“You took my cello,” I went on. And before I could finish the sentence, I saw the recognition in the skin around his eyes—little creases that deepened when he smiled. “And I remember you lifted it up like a violin. Even made for a child, it had to be three times as big. You pressed the endpin into your neck.” For years I had thought back about the impression that it made in his skin and how painful it looked.
When I got there the place had been full of people, but by the time I went up to him the crowd was starting to thin out. He was friendly and apologetic for not recognizing me, but I couldn't blame him. By now my own wrinkles had begun to set in around the eyes, the skin around my neck was a little looser, but I had still kept my figure for the most part. He took me to an office at the end of a well-lit hallway, and we chatted like old friends. At one point he asked about my parents and I told him they passed away in a car accident. It wasn't true. I couldn't tell you why I said it. He reacted with a stern nod of sympathy that might have been enough given the context. They weren't close. They didn't keep in touch. If it weren't for a chance encounter I'd had with him, I doubt he would have remembered them at all. He asked if I still played the cello, and I said that I didn't.
I'd read in the paper that he was in the city for an exhibition, a small gallery in the Mission. The photographs were mostly landscapes, hills and remote villages that I didn't recognize, the occasional farm worker. I had to walk around for a while before I worked up the nerve to approach him. He was with a young woman who couldn't have been more than twenty-five.
The first time I met Edward was when I was a little girl. My parents would often play host to visiting Romanian artists—a succession of painters, sculptors, writers, and other musicians. He was there for two days, but he stood out to me because of how quiet he was. My father was given to making wild declarations that I, at around nine years old, couldn't really argue with—and really I had no reason to argue. He would say things that I didn't understand about the revolution. He would make emphatic claims about Ceausescu that could have been supporting or condemning him for all I knew. The things I remembered were the swings of emotion when he talked—the loose, expressive movements meant, perhaps, to counteract the years of constraint. Edward, though, had these tempered mannerisms. He would nod his head or set his napkin down and nothing else. It wasn't a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, but a kind of removal that, in thinking back, I imagine was cultivated by a desire to see things from a different perspective. It was a bit like a puzzle when I would think about him over the years—each fragmented memory with its own ebb and flow of connection.
They were both musicians, my parents. They moved to San Francisco just before the December revolt, and as I grew up that fact always felt poignant to me. This idea of a turning point, a crescendo—where the cacophony of existence can hang for a moment, suspended, and we never see what could have gone another way. My father had been a pianist for a small orchestra, and my mother was a sweet and mild woman who gave cello lessons out of our apartment, including my own lessons. Both my parents would shower me with affection whenever I so much as showed an interest in music. It wasn't until age twelve or thirteen that I began to consider how uncomfortable it all made me. This exposure to the arts from such a young age, and regardless of how little attention I payed, how many times I skipped practicing to go and hang out with friends, they always told me how beautifully I played, how proud they were of me. But it was all too much, and I think I started to recognize that fairly early—this notion that I was special, that I could be special, was something I only ever wanted to push away.
It was just the three of us in a small two bedroom apartment in Bayview. When the men came to visit they would stay for a night or two nights. I would build a fort in the living room using chairs and blankets, while some strange man would sleep in the small bed in my room. The men and my parents would talk and drink; I remember losing interest in the conversations, my mind wandering off. I'd get lost in some piece of clothing—the intricate weave of a jacket or tie. Then a word would be spoken, one that I recognized, one that might have been animated, and my attention would snap back. Firing squad, internment, Timișoara—I began to feel as though I was perpetually entering into the middle of conversations.
Edward had been a stout young man, and he looked much the same the second time I met him. I was away at college. It was a small liberal arts school in Oregon, and he was giving a talk about photography at the auditorium. I was studying history, but I went because I was seeing this girl who was getting her degree in media arts. Before her I had only dated boys, but I liked how she was a little standoffish. She didn't get jealous if I kissed someone at a party, didn't complain if we went a few days without seeing each other.
At the talk, I recognized him instantly. I don't know how to explain it other than to say I have a thing for faces. He hadn't changed much, though. He had the same broad face and black hair, and he spoke with the same measured cadence that seemed to rise up a little at the end of each sentence as if to create a hint of uncertainty. After it was over I went up to him and told him who I was. He didn't recognize me, but I hadn't expected him to.
That night, the three of us went out for drinks. The college put him up at a little motel just off campus, but we invited him back to my dorm room to spend the night. We'd all had a lot to drink, and I remember he sat on the bed when we got there and watched us start to fuck on the floor. The gag and the spit dripping off lipstick. Wrists held together and the brittle rope. The riding crop she used to use on me. At some point the blindfold went on, and then it was all quiet and nerves and anticipation. In the morning the three of us had breakfast together, and we talked about Hedda Sterne and Tristan Tzara.
After that night I didn't see him—it had been, maybe 20 years. We'd exchanged phone numbers, but back then I would have never thought to call him. I traveled a lot after college, working different jobs. I lived for a time in Paris and Istanbul and Krakow, but had moved back to San Francisco a few years ago. I thought about him often, though. I had the impression that for Edward the time we spent together had passed in hours or days, while for me I had lived a number of lifetimes.
By the time we walked back into the main gallery space, all the spectators had gone. Empty, the room felt somehow smaller. Without a crowd of people moving and buzzing around one turned to the darkened photographs—all the landscapes, all his memories, like countless tiny windows. We passed a partition and saw the girl sitting, but she didn't hear us. I held my hand out in front of Edward's stomach to stop him, and I felt my knuckles brush against what could have been the fabric of his shirt or his soft stomach underneath it.
We stood in silence watching her for what felt like a long time. Her back was turned to us, and we could see her gaze shift periodically as people passed by on the sidewalk outside. She was sitting on a bench made from the same oak as the wood floors—her slow movements a play of shadows that seemed to give off their own light. She was holding her heels by the straps on two outstretched fingers, her palm up the way an aging movie star might hold a cigarette. At some point one of us breathing must have become audible because she seemed to stiffen a bit, and the heels began to sway back and forth. She didn't turn around, but I got the sense that she knew we were there. It was the type of subtle shift one only picks up on when there aren't any other distractions around.
After a moment of this, she changed her position to lie down flat on the bench, her legs crossed at the ankles just barely hanging over the edge. How long have you... Not long. We were only just... of course. You could have... I know. But he watched her a little longer, the change in posture not enough for us to concede our presence. Maybe a minute passed.
“Did a man come to see you?” he asked, to which she didn't respond, but hung her neck off the side of the bench so that she was looking at us upside down.
“He would have had indistinct features. Likely nothing you'd be able to pick out. He might have been difficult to understand—his voice muffled sounding.” She still didn't answer, though—her only movement was to lace her fingers together over her ribs. Her hair, now in a pony tail, rested on the floor in the shape of a long S, and she continued to look at him.
“He wouldn't have been upset. Floating there in his barrel. Buoyant, buoyancy, bouncing. He wouldn't have been angry that you used your heel to rip a hole in the netted blanket. How else were you going to escape, after all?” It was at that point that I realized this was some kind of game they were playing. I felt as if I were trespassing, but in a way that wasn't entirely unwelcome. I was there, but I wasn't—this stranger, a little like a mirror, to take in their performance and feed it back to them through the subtlety of my working through it. Another conversation of which I'd come into the middle.
“Did he come to see you?” Edward asked, again. “Stinking of coconut and cinnamon?”
“No,” she answered. Sitting up and turning to face us—to face him. “He smelled like a fruity kind of gum. Rubbery and chewed up.” She was smiling a bit at that point, but it was with a certain amount of hesitance. I noticed the way that when she gave in, it seemed like a calculated choice that had little to do, I thought, with what he was saying, or the game they were playing. I wondered what my role was in it all.
“We were only just talking,” I said. It was a statement that didn't need to be said. She could have taken it as defensive or possessive, though neither were my intention. It did come out a bit awkward, though. And so, on instinct, I took a step toward her, the strangeness of which caused her to fix her gaze on me with a determined skepticism. Here was this seemingly sweet girl who probably knew very little about who I was or what my relationship with Edward had been. Through the prospect of ignorance she took on a childlike quality.
“Can I touch her?” I asked. Even before I said it I knew that it would come off strange, but I thought maybe she would detect the gentleness in my tone, my offer to show her that even though we didn't know each other, our lives had overlapped across a number of years. The thought that this was all just some romantic notion I'd concocted didn't seem to matter. I think a part of me was just trying it out—testing whether walking this interaction into a corner would produce something strange and new, or if it would be met with the brisk dismissal we've all been trained to recognize as authentic. I'd become accustomed to the latter, but I hoped that we might leave it all open just a little, not wanting the ritual of intention to be subsumed by any perceived idea of formality.
Edward nodded. He seemed more comfortable than I was. He seemed like he had expected this even. The girl didn't move, though. She remained frozen in a state of reluctance, which having lingered too long began to take on the sharp edges of anticipation. I had the feeling that there was something I could communicate to her. Something that might normally take years of slowly chipping away at an exterior hardened by... by what? Any number of things to be filled in or not.
When I got close to her she blinked. First impressions are an interesting phenomenon because one must invariably ask from which point a first impression is to be gauged. The argument could be made that it's the first time you notice the color of someone's eyes because surely that's no more arbitrary than any other moment we might choose.
By my own actions I had set up a scenario where I was the one on display. This girl, paralyzed by circumstance, appeared to me as no more than another audience member waiting for the inevitable anticlimax—a collection of movements on the street mimicking their various coughs and twitches. Of course, none of this was real, but the myriad complexity of possible imaginings seemed to play out like slow music. And so I ran one finger from just above her knee up the slit in her dress nearly to her waist, playing my part, as it were.
When I raised my hand to her cheek she might have blushed. I was close because I wanted to smell something on her—cinnamon or coconut, something to flesh out the dreamlike quality she and Edward had prompted me to consider. Her eyes were green or brown or blue, but it was too dark in the room to know with any certainty. She still hadn't moved; I'd begun to think of her as a statue. One that I could admire, taking deliberate steps around—the grace of which an economy of movement. But I didn't. I brushed her hair from her cheek, the stone I was expecting replaced by the reality of each relaxed lock, my own hand, nervous, giving way to something of a compromise in the shaky pluck of strings. With her hair brushed back I could see the little dimple where an earring used to be—the spike of a heel pressed into a thigh or a stomach. Just as easily a freckle. I could smooth her out because I could. Squint to make her glassy and still, and watch her eyes glaze over, slowly—the way a picked scab fills up with blood. That is what stood out to me.
Eric Longfellow is currently pursuing a PhD in English Studies. He holds degrees from New York University and Illinois State University and has worked in the publishing industry doing book design for the independent press FC2. While his main focus throughout doctoral study has been fiction writing, his research interests include queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and kink studies. He is currently at work on a novel that takes place in New York City and is set to the backdrop of the global uprisings of 2011.