Monday, August 28, 2006

the primitive streak

"Communication is fatal to a relationship," I say.
She squints.
"You got to admit, the truth can be really bad—sometimes."
Her jaw goes slack. Her tongue comes out. She mimes puking.
"Every so often. Occasionally."
Now she’s glaring.
"All right, all right. Almost never."
I know as I’m saying all this that she hates me—-first for saying it, second for backing down, third because I was right and we just proved it.
She purses her lips. Bloodless, that’s what she is. If I slit her throat, nothing would come out. That’s why we’re together. I’m sure she thinks the same about me.
I try again.
"What I meant to say was communication is fetal."
She warms to this.
"Primitive," she says.
We’re on the subway, whispering to each other in the sexiest voices we can muster. It’s a game we play.
"Do you know," she breathes hot on my ear, "that when the sperm fertilizes an egg, it forms a smear. And that smear—-biologists call it the primitive streak—-ultimately becomes everything. Nervous system, backbone, sensory body, brain, consciousness, you, me, us."
And I say: "Kind of like a bug caught in the windshield wipers."
Again the thing with her lips. Her eyes blaze.
"You," she hisses. "You’re always cutting everything down, cutting me down. Is nothing real?"
I love it when she hisses.
"You got it, babe. Make-believe is best."
She shows her teeth. "I could kill you," she whispers sweetly.
My turn to do the lip thing.
"Right now," she confesses. "I could, you know."
I smile.
"Thank you," I whisper.
"Fuck you," she snarls.
We ride in silence a bit. We’re going to the hospital, to see my father in the cancer ward. He’s fading. I can feel him leaving me-—this man who spent so much of his life trying to do right by me, except I never let him. The human condition in action.
"Ah, my little devil," I say, turning to her.
She pokes me in the ribs.
This is love, I suppose.
She pokes me again.
"Listen buster," she says. Her eyes are swirling agates.
I think of my father, every breath a pain. But his eyes are like rocks at the bottom of a lake. They seem so close, so defined. I think of what they will be like when he’s dead, insensitive to my poking.
"Play," she says.
"I don’t want to," I whisper.
My father can hardly keep food down. But he tries every day. He tries to eat, he tries to smile. I can see the effort in his eyes.
"What’s going on here," she purrs in my ear, "is a lack of communication."
I shrug.
"You think I’m kidding?"
"I think my father’s dying."
"That’s your excuse for everything."
"Here’s your excuse for everything," I whisper back. "You are an exciting woman."
Around us, people flow on and off the train. Maybe one of them knows I’m lying.
My father, I think. My father knows. He would look up at me and wink. A little complicity please. When you’re finally confronted by ultimate things, there’s not much else to say. If we’re to go on living, we don’t acknowledge them. But if we’re to die, then truth can be potent stuff. And yet, as soon as I think this, I know it’s a lie. None of us, none of us can stand the truth. No matter how bad off we are, we rely on patent medicines, nostrums, evasions, tones of voice, mumbo jumbo, lies.
She smiles. I can see the edges of her dog teeth. She hates the truth, too.
I take her hand and we leave the train to go and be with my father for a few moments before visiting hours come to a close.
I can feel her fingers tighten as we get closer to his room.
The oppressive air. The finality, the bottom-line truth in every twist of the corridor.
When we walk in, he manages both a smile and a wink.
"How’re the lovebirds," he says.
She squeezes my hand and I stand there exposed.
I sit on the edge of the bed and take his hand as well, feeling it surprisingly small in my palm, and we stay that way for a moment, all of us holding hands, as if we’re praying.
I could kill him. I could kill her. I could kill the whole world.
But, in the end, I never will.
I’m a collaborator. I belong with the living.