There was a chair in one corner of the Commons that was highly coveted. It had been designed by one of Nostbakken's former apprentices, and it was nearly the perfect chair for reading. That night I was just about to sit in it with my copy of Nostbakken's biography when Groovy came out of nowhere and hip-checked me. She sat down. She was reading Ovid.
"Chivalry's dead," I said, and sat in one of the lesser chairs across from her.
"On the contrary," she said, settling in. "I was helping you to be chivalrous."
"Well then, thank you."
She was sucking on a butterscotch candy that I could smell all the way from where I sat.
"How's that book?" she said.
"It's pretty interesting," I said. "Except the woman writing the book seems to have a real bone to pick with him. It's like the book's written by an ex-wife, or something."
"Does he have ex-wives?"
"Four of them," I said.
"He's hard to love, I bet."
"I expect so. The book says he loves unrequited love, and once love is requited he seeks to make it unrequited."
"I see that a lot," Groovy said.
"Yeah, everybody loves a train in the distance."
Which is when Sands appeared. "Choo-choo," I said. Groovy smiled.
"What's up?" Sands asked. She stood behind Groovy, touching her hair, absently braiding it.
"He's lecturing me on unrequited love," Groovy said.
"What's his position?" Sands smiled at me. "Pro or con?"
"Very con," I said.
"Pro," Groovy said. "Look at him. It's obviously pro. It's practically carved in his forehead."
Fialta did exist prior to Nostbakken. It was originally a large house atop a rolling hill, in which a poet of some significance lived in the late nineteenth century. Apparently Walt Whitman, both Emerson and Thoreau, Jones Very, and even Herman Melville had passed through these walls during the years that America became what it is, when the individual stepped out of the light of its community and every life became, as Philip Larkin later said, a brilliant breaking of the bank. Nostbakken's father had been a member of this circle of friends and had bought the house from the poet in the year 1947; Nostbakken had grown up here as an only child. His parents had cherished him so fastidiously that he had no choice but to grow up to be, as his biographer put it, the ragingly immature man that he was, his inner child grown wild as the thorny vines that clung to the spruce down near the river.
Nostbakken went to school on the East Coast, lived for a while in New York City in his twenties, and then returned to Fialta and built his workshop here, presiding over it in his brimming room, up about a hundred turning wooden stairs, where I joined him every Tuesday afternoon at five. We would speak privately up here about my sketches, most of which involved Sands, about our plans for the theater, and also just about architecture in general. If you read about Nostbakken these days you will learn that as a teacher he can be offhand, blunt, manipulative, domineering, and arrogant, and though this is all true, his faults stood out in relief against the very lovely light of his generosity, like trees along a dimming horizon. He would turn his moony, moody eye on a sketch and see things I had never imagined--sunlit pools, fragrant, winding gardens, gathering parties, cascading staircases. He would see people living out their lives. He would see life on earth. I would emerge from these sessions with him wanting desperately to run and run to catch up with his idea of what I might do, and in this way he created within me an ambition that would long outlast our association.
"What I was thinking," Sands was saying to me, while she leaned over our drafting table to turn on the bent-arm lamp, "was that we might bring the theater's balcony about two hundred and fifty degrees around. Wouldn't that be beautiful, and just a little strange?"
As she reached for the lamp, her body was crumpling up a map we had laid out of Chicago. "You're crumpling the map," I said.
"What?" She turned her face to me. It was riveting--dark and light in equal measure. Her skin had a kind of uneven quality to it that brought to mind childhood and all its imperfections, sun and dirt.
"Oh, nothing," I said. Would that the city be crumpled and destroyed by such a torso breaking over it--the Chicago River bursting its banks and running into the streets, the skyscrapers crashing down, the light extinguished suddenly by that gorgeous, obliterating darkness. We had until morning together to produce a plan that met a number of Nostbakken's and the client's specifications, which included these words--bold, rich, witty, and wise.
"It doesn't sound like a building," she said.
"I know, it sounds like my grandmother in the Bronx."
By the time we fell out, after finishing three reasonable drafts of interiors to show Nostbakken, it was nearly sunrise, and we went to Utopia, made ourselves cinammon toast and coffee. I picked up the slop bucket that I set out on the kitchen floor every night with a sign above it for donations. This morning there was warm milk in which carrot shavings and potato peels and cereal and a lone Pop-Tart and some strips of cheese singles floated.
Sands accompanied me down through the field to the barn, which sat at the foot of the campus. We stood in the doorway as the shafts of sun fell through the high windows. The four cows were in their various stages--lying and dreaming and chewing and standing.
Sands stood quietly, peering at the cows. The standing cow looked back balefully.
"This one is Anna," I said. And then I introduced the rest--Ellen, Lidian, Marie. "Groovy named them for Nostbakken's former wives. She's been reading Ovid, where women are frequently turned into heifers when the men can no longer live with them, or without them."
"And now they're trapped down here forever."
"Punished for their beauty."
The cows lived so languorously from one day to the next that their being banished women seemed entirely possible. I was moving aside some hay so that I could set down the little milking stool. I looked over to Sands, at her blackened form in the bright doorway. She moved then, and the sun unleashed itself fully into the barn. Daylight. For a moment Sands disappeared, but then coalesced again, this time sitting against the door frame.
There was some silence as I struggled to elicit milk from the cow, a project that is part Zen patience, part desperate persuasion, and finally I did it. "Yay," Sands said softly. Some doves fluttered from their eaves and out the door.
"Nostbakken told me that if I wanted to build well, I should study the cows," I told her.
"What did he mean?" she asked.
We both stared for a moment.
"They have those short legs," I said. "Under such huge torsos."
"But good heads," she said. "They've got good, well-balanced heads on their shoulders."
"Maybe he meant to make a building the way a cow would, if a cow could, not one that looks like a cow."
"So, like a barn then," I said. "Something nice."
"Maybe they're quite glamorous thinkers. Maybe something jeweled and spiritual, like a temple in India, or Turkey."
"Yes," I said. I shifted my chair to the next cow.
"Are cows monogamous?" she asked.
"Don't know, but I expect so."
"Look at them. They're so big and slow."
"Yes, and look at their eyes."
I patted the cow, and the cow responded by not caring. I looked over at Sands. The sun had risen high enough that it was no longer blinding me. She was slumped sleepily against the door frame, with her feet kicked up against the other side. Clasped in the V of her body was Fialta rising in the near distance, steam rising from it, brimming over with its internal contradiction.
Nostbakken had in his office an enormous telescope, one of those through which you can actually discern a little of the moon's surface, but instead it was pointed at the earth.
"May I?" I finally asked one October day.
"Please," he said, and I looked down through it at the river, at the waves breaking softly on the banks, which were made of autumn leaves.
"Your work has been getting better and better," he said, behind me.
"These beams are good. Where did they come from?" He was pointing at one of my drawings.
This was sometimes hard to do, to trace where elements came from in a sketch. It was not unlike pulling apart images from a dream.
"I guess from the barn," I said, which was true, though I hadn't realized it until now.
"Of course," he said. "I saw you walking down there today. How's that going, by the way? How are the cows?"
He must have seen me, trudging in my sleep through the dark field? It made me a little nervous, and anyway the question seemed doubly intimate, since I half believed the cows really were his banished wives. "They're doing well," I said.
"Let me show you something," he said. And from a long drawer he pulled out a series of drawings of Fialta. I had never seen any of his sketches before. It was almost impossible to read them, the lines were so thin and reedy, and they seemed all out of proportion to me, so that Fialta looked like it was blowing in the wind, or maybe going up in flames. He slid out the plan for the barn and laid it out in front of us. "Here she is," he said. "I built it in 1967."
"The summer of love, sir."
"Yes, it was."
One of the things Nostbakken had been struggling to teach us that fall was that a building ought to express two things simultaneously. The first was permanence, that is, security and well-being, a sense that the building will endure through all sorts of weather and calamity. But it also ought to express an understanding of its mortality, that is, a sense that it is an individual and, as such, vulnerable to its own passing away from this earth. Buildings that don't manage this second quality cannot properly be called architecture, he insisted. Even the simplest buildings, he said, ought to be productions of the imagination that attempt to describe and define life on earth, which of course is an overwhelming mix of stability and desire, fulfillment and longing, time and eternity.
The barn, even in this faint sketch, revealed this. It knew. "It's beautiful, sir," I said.
"Thank you," he said.
It seemed only right, I thought, as I spiraled down into the evening air alone, that the cows had such a place to live, since they themselves seemed hybrids of this earth and the next, animals and angels both.
The tradition, Reuben informed us, was that apprentices put on a show for Nostbakken at Thanksgiving. At first we were going to do a talent show, but nobody could drum up a talent. And then we were going to write skits, but they all ended up involving each of us doing bad impressions of him. And then we landed on the idea of putting on a play. He could be in it, too. We'd give him a part to read at the performance, which was to take place at Thanksgiving. We decided first to do King Lear, and then Measure for Measure, and then Beckett, and then Arcadia, and ruled all of these out as we started to cast them. Finally, Reuben suggested Angels in America.
"There's no women in it," Sands said, when Reuben suggested it.
"There's gay men," I said to her, "and one woman."
"Gay men are not the equivalent of women."
"Nostbakken likes women better than men," Groovy said.
"Everybody does," Sands said.
I frowned. "So rude," I said to her.
Still, we decided to do Angels, with women playing the parts of the gay men, and then, through some hysterical fair play, I ended up with the part of the woman. Indira would be the angel, hovering above gender, and sodu-sudu entirely.
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