Trompe-l’oeil (Chapter One)
Late winter, 1992
Philosophy, he thought to himself, is a better friend to Schmutz than to light. He thought this not as he considered the discipline, but rather as he looked around at the windows, ceiling and floors of the classroom in which he now sat — waiting, as it were, both for the end of the hour and for a conclusion to the drone issuing from the lectern directly in front of him. Hegel was the matter at hand. Consequently, he framed his thought in German rather than in Yiddish. His more immediate hier und jetzt (“here and now”) was not the abstract metaphysical discipline, but rather the edifice that housed the weary weight of it.
The end came. The drone ceased. He stood up and walked out of Philosophy Hall and towards the subway entrance at 116th and Broadway. As he walked across the quad, he heaved heavy eyes towards a logic-free heaven, then let them drift back down to earth where he found nothing of Quine’s quiddities to help him as he spied her slipping out of Lewisohn. He carried a well-thumbed Schopenhauer — leisure reading. She, he saw, carried only herself and a sheaf of papers, though both exceedingly well.
He continued walking towards the subway — watching, then sensing, that her footsteps might now be nudging the continents towards some sublime, quixotic shift. As they emerged from under the arches, he saw a limo standing in a No Standing zone. Her driver also stood — beside an open back door. She ducked down to enter and caught her mink on the handle. A few papers went flying. He picked one up; recognized the comely shape of verse; read the header and the first two lines:
“They Know I Did It”
In turns, we’re heir to nightmares —
and so, debauched of dreams;
He paused as he considered what he might’ve just stumbled upon: another Sappho-in-the-making; a masked poetess.
Masked, in-the-making, and in mink — hence, a minx he thought as he gave the piece back with a single word of acknowledgment — “Provocative” — and accidentally touched her glove in the hand-off. She thanked him soundlessly with only a flicker of her lips, though eyes — and not just a little — aided and abetted.
The quad lay behind him; the MTA in front. A turnstile to any torch show in Manhattan or its four outlying boroughs was his for the pushing. Until, that is, he caught the scent of something like perfume; heard a sound on concrete no sneaker could make; glanced back and understood, in a second, how even heathens could hosanna when touched by an angel on a pair of heels piled four inches high.
He pretended to fumble with his transit card. Fumbling at his age was first blush, second nature. Pretending? He still lacked the catechism for it. She, meanwhile, stood at the kiosk attempting to purchase a subway token. An opportunity, he thought — as purchasing subway tokens was clearly no part of her paradigm. And then it suddenly fell upon him like spring rain: perhaps she was no better at pretending than he was. One thing was crystal clear, however: fumbling was not her forte.
“Fuck it!” he pretended to say as he turned away from the turnstile and started out towards the exit stairway on the opposite side of Broadway.
“Fandens også!” (“Fuck it!”) was the bouillabaisse of sounds he heard her whisper as he saw a hand slip back through mink and drop the two bills — though he would’ve known nothing of the syllables, much less of the sexy little accent. Lights on this scene in any case went to dark as he hit the exit.
When he came back up and turned the corner, it was to a set of sun’s rays retiring over Riverside. She came up after him. At street-level, she claimed her turf with a single stiletto heel while perusing the panorama — real lighthouse-like. Sending a beacon out in search of lost sailors, however, was not her shtick: she was more accustomed to being the Siren — or maybe even the shoal — on which they crashed. The clean-up? Somebody else’s problem.
She finally saw him walking down 116th in the direction of the park. She studied his walk — then mimicked it — shredding the space between them like the blades of a scissor as she walked. He leaned up against the wall of a building, attempted to light a cigarette. She leaned up against her own piece of wall, took out her own cigarette. As he flicked at something frantically, she slipped out a Dunhill 18-carat gold-enameled, pressed down gently on the lever and let the electrons do the heavy lifting.
She inhaled, then let the smoke flow back out. Charming as church bells chiming ‘Glory Borealis’ he thought as he caught her exhalation out of the corner of his eye. He, she noticed, was still flicking — and so, she advanced upon him and extended the Dunhill. He looked briefly into a pair of cool emerald greens, then back at the lighter; cupped his hands ‘round while letting one thumb rest an instant upon her glove; took the fire and inhaled.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Pas de quoi,” (“Don’t mention it”) she answered.
He stumbled — but only for an instant. “Vous êtes — ?” (“Are you — ?”)
“Just teasing,” she sniffed.
She put the cigarette between her lips and inhaled, let the smoke stream back out through flaring nostrils. Gentle as a riptide, he thought, his brain now just a commotion of mad molecules. Beautiful and Baudelairian — he barely managed, suddenly a bashful mass of feet and no mouth.
She, in the meantime, grew bored — and glanced down at his tome: The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Perhaps — she thought — I could throw him a starter kit.
“How many squares would a square root wreck if a square root wrecked for a reason?”
He looked up at her. Not only beautiful, he thought, but — .
They both exhaled simultaneously. Perfect timing, she thought. Much better than sufficient reason.
For the next minute, they exchanged only smoke and stares. He then dropped his cigarette and stamped it out. She dropped hers, kicked it in his direction. He looked down; got a fix on its location; looked back up as he squashed it. Lids dropped like final curtains on a pair of prominent cheekbones, Danish-cut. The time for dallying, he thought, is done.
“Wanna chuck wood?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. “Let’s chuck.”
He grabbed her hand and moved. The sun, still pampering the Palisades just across the Hudson, ceased to serve as escort.
At Riverside, he sought a shady spot. Moonbeams can be murder on a mink, he thought. He found a maple, looked for moths — spotted a pair and motioned for them to scram — then probed for rough before nudging her back against it. The curtsy of her coat against the maple suggested there was no rough; her own sigh confirmed it.
“Tell me — ” he said.
“Show me,” she countered. The stop, he thought, was drop-dead glottal.
He reached in under her coat as she rotated; let his hand rise slowly along the inside of her thigh; felt a tremor, paused, waited till it had subsided, then eased his hand on up until it met with an impasse of pure silk.
He was Marco Polo — but also Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo. He’d found the road to China, but was about to blow it off for a date with the Milky Way.
Like a pirate on a picnic, he pulled the silk aside, unzipped and slipped in with a simple prayer. It was already too late to recant. He’d surely fry — but had the rest of his life and then some to contemplate how hot the coals. He bowed his head to the nape of her neck, found tiny hairs with his lips, inhaled, flicked the salt of her skin with tip of his tongue.
The sight, smell, feel and taste of her sent his synapses into overdrive, while his cortex collapsed in a smooth smolder. She’d burned her way in — and the memory, he knew, would stick to him like a brand.
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