If you did want to know what Nostbakken believed about women, all you had to do was step into the women's wing at Fialta, with its great, circular common room. There were no walls at all. We were all sitting around the enormous wooden table at the room's center. We were drinking sugar gin, and from here it was as if the room seemed to believe that women were so in love with other women that they needed no walls at all. Probably when there were no men in the room they passed right through each other as well.
"What was that you read me from Vitruvius?" I asked Sands. "That the walls of his Utopia were made of respect and interest only?"
"So much for a room of her own," Sands said.
"My therapist would be appalled at this room," Groovy said.
"You have a therapist?" I asked. "Where is he, out in the woods?"
"He's a little gnome."
"You sit on his mushroom, talk about your boundary problems," I said.
"You think I have boundary problems?" she said.
I had been joking, but now that the question was put to me, I foolishly answered it. "Well, a little, I guess."
Sands looked at me, horrified.
"In a good way," I said. "It's charming."
"I think you have boundary problems," Groovy said. "There's such a thing as too-strict boundaries, you know. You're all cut off from everybody."
"I am?" I felt just the opposite. I felt like I bled all over everything, in an unseemly fashion, and my feelings for Sands were exacerbating this.
The conversation continued, with allegations and drunken accusations, all led by Groovy and me, the two most insecure parties in the group. Finally the phone rang for Indira, and she stepped into the kitchen to speak. None of us could understand the language, but her voice became louder and more upset as the conversation progressed.
Groovy brought out the cake she'd made for us, an Ovid cake. "It has in it all the foods mentioned in the Metamorphoses--cranberries, walnuts, cinammon, cloves," she said.
"There are marshmallows in Ovid?" I asked, after I took a bite.
"Oh, those," Groovy said. "Those are my signature."
"She puts marshmallows in everything," Sands said. And then Indira returned to the room, apologizing as she sat down. "I'm supposed to be getting married in two months."
"What?" we all said.
"Yes. But I don't want to."
Reuben looked stricken. "It's an arranged marriage?" he said.
"Well, sort of."
"Who arranged it?"
"I did, actually. But it was four years ago, before I went to Princeton and my fiancé to Penn. We planned to return to Bombay and get married, but I fell out of touch with him. Meanwhile, our fathers have joined businesses, and everybody awaits my arrival."
We talked about this for a while, and tried to strategize ways out. By the time midnight rolled around, Sands caught up to me in the kitchen and suggested we peel away, go to the river.
And what is a love affair if not a little boat, pushing off from shore, its tilting, untethered bob, its sensitivity to one's quietest gestures?
"I would love an arranged marriage," Sands said. I was pushing us away from the edge with my oar, breaking apart the thin skein of ice forming there.
"No you wouldn't."
"Yes. I'd like to have a family so involved that they were planning the wedding and I just had to show up, the treasured bride." And then she rose in the boat, and as she stood it was as if the world shifted off course and was just careening back and forth, drunkenly. The trees shook with interest. She stretched and yawned, lifting her arms. Her sweater lifted, so that a narrow strip of her stomach showed. It was like burnished wood, pierced with a ruby. She looked almost psychedelically pretty there, in the tunnel created by the trees over the river.
I would have kissed her then, struggled up through the ranks of myself to do this one true thing, except I made the mistake of glancing up first, through the ragged arms of trees. And there was Nostbakken's room alight. A cold wind reared suddenly, and I could feel minuscule shards of ice embedded in it. By the time the river froze, we would no longer be together, and I could feel in the air already the terrible possibility.
The next afternoon, how could I help but think he had seen us, through his telescope, since when I entered for my tutorial, the first thing he did was lift my sketches to the light and say, "I don't think you and Sands are working well together at all anymore."
"I used to see Sands all over the page, and now I don't see her here at all."
I didn't think this was fair, nor particularly true. "Maybe our work is starting to become similar."
"Oh." He looked at me sarcastically. "The two become one then, is that it?" He actually leaned up against the telescope then. If either of us had looked through it, probably we would have seen the river shrinking, crackling, crystallizing itself into ice.
We had one rehearsal, a run-through in the Commons. Reuben was the director. Nostbakken was going to be given the most expansive part in the play, the part of the dying Prior. And Indira was the angel, of course. Sands had made wings. If I hadn't loved Sands before the wings, I would have now, for they were made of the feathers and down of creatures that had to be imaginary--white and brown and long. Picture her in the dewy morning coming off the hill to wrestle down a figment, tear off its feathers, later affixing them with glue to bent clothes hangers and panty hose straps, and there you have Sands, and everything about her.
Sands and Groovy played the parts of Louie and Joe, respectively, two gay men. Their interpretations of men were hilarious--strangely deep throated and spliced through with their ideas of gayness, which were like streams of joy running through.
I played a luminous, heartbroken, and uptight woman whom Joe had abandoned. I took her husband's rejection of her quite seriously, tried to imagine exactly how it would feel as I swished in my housecoat along the floor of the Commons.
After the rehearsal, I was sitting in the sheepskin chair, minding my own business, when Sands and Groovy came along to deliver their verdict on my performance. "You don't really have being a woman quite right," Sands said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you need to feel it inside."
"I can feel it inside," I said.
"You looked kinda stiff."
"No, I didn't. That was my interpretation."
"You gotta loosen up." Sands reached down to shake my shoulders a little.
"You do," I said, and I reached for her, and I brought her to me. Her body was such a mysterious rolling landscape in those moments, it turned and turned and turned, and I could feel her falling into my lap. I don't know what I would have done then, some minor consummation of my feelings for her, but Nostbakken stepped into the room. It was very odd to see him in daylight. Sands stood up, not too quickly, but definitely a little shaken.
"Where is Indira?" he said. "Her father has called me."
"I'll find her," I said. I thought she might be back in the room with Reuben, and I knew he would be mortified if Nostbakken knew this.
And I did find them there, sitting across from each other at Reuben's folding table, two beautiful solitudes greeting each other across a little distance, playing cards.
I think it would have been possible to maintain this little world, always on the edge of fruition, if we hadn't spent Thanksgiving together, hours on hours together, if we hadn't consumed so much sugar gin, if we hadn't put on such a beautiful play. It was a snowy day. Dinner was planned for nightfall, which was 5 p.m. in these parts. Nostbakken would be arriving at four-thirty, at the dimming of the day. So we all met to cook in Utopia at one, after a morning of working alone on our sketches of the theater.
For the first hour we mostly drank. Sands enforced a game of Monopoly, and then we began to cook. Groovy made little pancake hors d'oeuvres, studded with cloves and cinammon. Reuben and I were in charge of the turkey and the ham and the smaller game hens. Indira was in and out, miraculously cooking gorgeous yams and some exotic bean dish at the same time she was dissolving a multimillion-dollar marriage deal in Bombay on her cell without even breaking a sweat. She just kept rearranging things with her long, bronze hands, which I guess is what cooking is.
Sands relaxed in the Commons, reading a book. She had been to town early in the morning to get the drinks and seemed to believe this exempted her from any further participation in the meal, except for leaning against the doorjamb every now and then to read us a passage from her novel, which today was Justine, by Lawrence Durrell: "Certainly she was bad in many ways, but they were all small ways. Nor can I say she harmed nobody. But those she harmed most she made fruitful. She expelled people from their old selves."
"That's you, all right," I said.
"It's me, too," Groovy said.
"It's totally you," Sands said, complimenting her.
I was trying to break open the plastic surrounding the turkey, surprised and humbled by all the blood that poured out as it opened. "How does anybody eat after they've cooked a meal?" I said.
"Welcome to being a woman," Sands said.
"Well," I said, "we have to kill them. That's hard work."
"Nobody killed that," she said. "It wasn't ever really alive."
"It was," I said, newly in touch with animals from my months in the barn. I held out the turkey a little. "It had its days in the sun."
Sands smiled at me for a few long moments in which I arranged our whole future. We would live out our long chain of days at Fialta, secretly but not so secretly in love, and then we would move together to Chicago, or New York City, and live in our own private warren of rooms together. And our life would be made up of the gentle separations and communion of marriage. A line from a book Indira had given to Reuben ran through my mind, a sad line, I realize now, but it didn't even occur to me then that it was. It was good to be alive when you were alive. My dream, as I stared at Sands, was crosshatched by our friends--Groovy, Indira, Reuben--moving back and forth between us, carrying on.
So, finally, the table was set, and the beloved guest had arrived, exuberant and windswept. He lifted his cup to us, and we drank, our bodies growing warmer as the day grew colder outside, whiter and whiter. The table was laid with the creatures, all burnished a coppery gold. And in the fireplace the log, like another little beast at work on itself, turned and turned as the air filled with the smell of fire. We lifted our cups back to Nostbakken. If you have ever felt that the table at which you sit contains everything and everybody that matters to you, like a little boat, then you know how I felt. It doesn't feel secure at all, but rather a little tipsy. It is unnerving to love a single place so much. There are no anchors to the world outside, the cities in the distance, the country around you. There is just this: the six of you afloat so happily in the temporary day.
After dinner, we cleared away the dishes and then set about the scene from the play. "Okay," Sands said to Nostbakken, "you have a part." She handed him a Xeroxed copy of the play. "This chair you're sitting in? It's your bed. You're dying." She touched his shoulder when she told him this. My eyes settled on her hand, on his shoulder. And his eyes settled on my eyes.
And then the play began. Reuben narrated to Nostbakken what came before: love, disappointment, the crude beautiful drama of sex, Sands and Groovy vamping at love, Sands carrying on like a girl making fun of a boy making fun of a girl, with a painted mustache. She was so ridiculous and beautiful, I thought I might die. Beyond the play, the day darkened. The backdrop was the icy arms of trees, the lift of starlings against the falling sun, the day dying. When Indira's part came, we had to shout for her. She was in Utopia, arguing on her cell. She hung up the phone and came in. She began to cry as she delivered her line, which gave her part a weird veracity: "Heaven is a city much like San Francisco--more beautiful because imperiled." We carried on for a few seconds, but then realized she actually was crying, standing there.
"What's the matter?" Sands asked.
"My father, he's sick. They just told me. I have to leave tomorrow."
"Oh no!" Groovy said. And we all murmured. I looked over at Reuben. What will you do now, Reuben? What display now? What will spill out of you now? He stood so still, as the heartbroken always do, and then he went to her. He touched her wing, the safest, least intrusive part.
"Let's continue," Indira said.
And so we did.
"Since you believe the world is perfectable you find it always unsatisfying." This was Sands, as Louis. And then she kissed Groovy, as Joe. They kissed, as men kiss. I staggered inwardly. And the play wound through its tragedies easily until Nostbakken's final, deathbed lines. "You are all fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More life." Behind his head thousands of birds took flight. He raised his arms, though dying. He loved the play, you could tell. The wind howled. And then he stood up to go hug Indira.
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