From where I stand, on the bridge overlooking the Chicago River, the city looks like a strange but natural landscape, as if it arises as surely and inevitably from the hands of life as does a field of harvest wheat or a stand of red firs. After all, the city was designed by country boys--Mies van der Rohe, Rook and Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan--all wild and dashing country boys, dreaming up the city in the soft thrum of the countryside.
But the buildings that most reflect nature, at least Midwestern nature, in all its dark and hidden fertility, are those by Franklin Nostbakken, the so-called architect of the prairies, that great and troubled mess of a man I once knew.
Three years ago, when I was a senior at Northwestern, I sent Nostbakken a packet of drawings and a statement of purpose. Every year Nostbakken chooses five apprentices to come live with him on the famous grounds of Fialta, his sprawling workshop, itself an architectural dream rising and falling over the gentle hills of southwestern Wisconsin. My sketches were of skyscrapers, set down with a pencil on pale blue drafting paper. They'd been drawn late in the night, and I knew hardly anything about how to draw a building, except that it ought not to look beautiful; it ought to be spare and slightly inaccessible, its beauty only suggested, so that a good plan looked like a secret to be passed on and on, its true nature hidden away.
Two months later I received back a letter of acceptance. At the bottom of the form letter there was a note from Nostbakken himself that read, In spite of your ambition, your hand seems humble and reasonable. I look forward to your arrival.
I had been reading, off and on, that year, a biography of Nostbakken, and this moment when I read his handwriting was one of the most liberating in my life--in fact, so much so it was almost haunting, as if a hand had leapt out of the world of art--of books and dreams--and pulled me in.
My first evening at Fialta was referred to as Orientation, but was really a recitation by one of the two second-year apprentices, named Reuben, of What Nostbakken Liked, which was, in no particular order, mornings, solitude, black coffee, Yeats, order, self-reliance, privacy, skits, musicals, filtered light, thresholds, lightning. "Piña coladas," the woman sitting beside me--Elizabeth--said quietly. "Getting caught in the rain."
"Fialta," Reuben continued, "is dedicated not to the fulfillment of desire but to the transformation of desire into art." We were sitting in the Commons, a beautiful, warm room that doubled as our dining room, our office, and our lounge. There was an enormous fireplace, windows streaming with slanted and dying light, and a big wooden table, whose legs were carved with the paws of beasts where they touched the floor. There was a golden shag carpet, and stone walls. It was high up, and the views were spectacular, but the room was intimate. So this statement regarding desire seemed almost heartbreakingly Freudian, since the room and all of Fialta, with its endless private corners and stunning walkways and fireplaces, seemed to ask you at every turn to fall in love, yet that was the one thing that was not permitted. Reuben went on to say, "Nostbakken does not tolerate well what he calls over-fraternization. He sees it as a corruption of the working community if people, well . . ." And there was a nervous moment. Reuben seemed to have lost his footing. Nobody knew what to say until a tall woman in the back, whose name would turn out to be Indira Katsabrahmanian, and whose beauty would turn out to be the particular rocks on which Reuben's heart would be dashed, spoke up: "Sodo-sudu." Reuben raised his eyebrows at her. "Fool around," she said, with a slightly British accent. "It means to not fool around."
So, no love affairs. As soon as this was declared, it was as if a light had turned on in the room. Until this point, everyone had been so focused on the great absent man himself and his every desire that nobody had really looked around that carefully. But at this mention that we could not fall in love, we all turned to see who else was there. Each person seemed suddenly so interesting, so vital, a beautiful portal through which one might pass, secretly. And this was when I saw Sands, who was, with Reuben, returning for her second year at Fialta. When I try to call forth my first impression of Sands, it is so interpreted by the light of loss that what I see is somebody already vanishing, but beautifully, into a kind of brightness. And as Nostbakken's beloved Yeats said of Helen, how can I blame her, being what she was and Fialta being what it is?
As we left that evening, I talked briefly to Reuben and to Elizabeth, whose nickname became Groovy in those few moments, owing to her look, which had a hundred implications--of Europe and Asia, of girls, of tough guys, of grannies. And I then fell in step beside Sands as she walked outside. It was slightly planned on my part, but not entirely, which allowed me to think that the world was a little bit behind me and my desire. It was mid-September, and in this part of the country there were already ribbons of wintry cold running through the otherwise mild evenings. We had a brief, formal conversation. We discussed Fialta, then Chicago. I had thought I was walking her home, but it seemed that we were actually, suddenly, winding up a pathway toward Nostbakken's living quarters.
"Oh," I said. "Where are we going?"
"I'm going up to check on him." She pointed way up to a sort of lighthouse circling above us.
"Yes." There was light pouring out the window.
"Oh sure, go ahead," I said.
She smiled at me and then walked off. And I turned to walk back to my room, slightly horrified at myself. Go ahead, I repeated to myself. Oh, hey, go ahead. This is the whole problem with words. There is so little surface area to reveal whom you might be underneath, how expansive and warm, how casual, how easygoing, how cool, and so it all comes out a little pathetic and awkward and choked.
As I walked home, I turned back and saw through the trees again that window, ringing with clarity and light above the dark grounds, the way the imagination shines above the dark world, as inaccessible as love, even as it casts its light all around.
That evening I lay in bed reading Christopher Alexander, the philosopher-king of architects: The fact is, that this seeming chaos which is in us is a rich, swelling, dying, lilting, singing, laughing, shouting, crying, sleeping order. I paused occasionally to stare out the large window beside my bed, which gave way to the rolling hills, toward Madison's strung lights, and, had I the eyes to see, my hometown of Chicago burning away in the distance. Reuben knocked on my door. We were roommates, sharing a large living room and kitchen. Reuben was the cup full to the brim, and maybe even a little above the brim but without spilling over, as Robert Frost put it. If one of the skills of being properly alive is the ability to contain gracefully one's desires, then Reuben was the perfect living being.
"I forgot to give you your work assignment," he said.
The literature on Fialta I received over the summer had mentioned grounds work, which I had assumed meant carpentry or landscaping, but now Reuben informed me that I would be in charge of the cows and the two little pigs.
"There are animals here?"
"Yes. Down in the barn."
"There's a barn?"
"Yes. At the end of the pasture."
"Of course," I said.
He was already bowing out of the door when I asked what I was to do with them.
"Milk the cows, feed the pigs," he said, and ducked out.
I should never have sent in those skyscrapers, I thought to myself as I fell asleep. Those are what got me the cow assignment. You can feel it as you sketch plans, the drag in the hand, the worry, the Tower of Babel anxiety as the building grows too high. There ought not to be too much hubris in a plan. But this is not a simple directive either, since a plan also needs to be soaring and eccentric and confident. But still humble. A perfect architect might be like a perfect person, the soul so correctly aligned that it can ascend with humility. Humble and dashing, those two things, always and forever.
You could say that Fialta was not quite in its prime. Its reputation was fading a little, and all its surfaces tarnishing, but so beautifully that Fialta was a more romantic place than it must have been even at the height of its influence, something that could be said of Nostbakken as well. Early success as an architect and a slide into some obscurity had given his reputation a kind of legendary, old-fashioned quality, even though he was only in his late fifties. At seven o'clock, at the dimming of the next day, he stepped into the Commons for our first session. He had the looks of a matinee idol in the early twilight of his career, and he seemed more substantially of the past than anybody I've ever met, so that even now, when I remember him, it is in black and white. He is wistful in my memory, staring off, imagining a building that might at last equal nature--generative and wild, but utterly organized at the heart.
That night, when we all met in the Commons at Fialta, Nostbakken entered and said only this: "We have a new project. It's what we were all hoping for. It's a theater, along a city block in Chicago, surrounded on two sides by a small park designed by Olmstead. I'd like the theater to think about the park."
Sands and Reuben nodded, so the rest of us did as well. "Yes, well," he said. "You might as well begin." He put his hands together, in a steeple, as he stared at us--Reuben, Sands, myself, Indira, and Groovy--taking each of us in briefly, and then he left.
Reuben immediately then took his position at the blackboard that was usually pushed against the wall. He and Sands began, and the rest of us very slowly joined in until Reuben had covered the blackboard with phrases, what they called patterns for the building--sloping roofs, alcoves, extended thresholds, hidden passageways, rays of light, soulful common areas, the weaving of light and dark, clustering rehearsal rooms, simple hearths, thick walls, a dance hall, radiant heat, filtered light, pools of light, arrows of darkness, secret doorways . . .
I was already developing a rule to never look at Sands, in order to not give myself away and make her nervous. But there was something in her--some combination of joy and intelligence and seriousness--that seemed unrepeatable to me. Her voice had a vaguely foreign sound to it, a rough inflection left over from someplace in the world that I couldn't quite locate. Her clothes were as plain as possible and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, all as if she were trying to overcome beauty, but this would be like lashing down sails in a high wind. You might get a hand on one stretch, but then the rest would fly away, billowing out.
At one point Reuben and Sands got into an argument. Reuben suggested that the building ought to be cloaked in some sense of the spiritual.
"Reuben," Sands said. "I'm so tired of all our plans having to be so holy. It's such a dull way to think of buildings. And especially a theater."
Reuben looked a little amused. "Maybe we're going to have to divide up again," he said.
"Divide?" said Indira, who up until now had stayed silent. When she spoke, her earrings made tiny, almost imperceptible bell sounds.
"Last year," Sands said to her, "we had to divide into those who believe in God and those who don't."
"Just like that?" I said. "You know, people spend their whole lives on this question."
"It's just for now," Sands said. "I don't think He'll hold you to it." She already knew I'd be coming with her. And I did, risking hell for her, complaining all the way. The two of us worked in a tiny glass balcony, a little limb off of the Commons. That first night Sands did most of the drawing, and I stood aside and made my suggestions, sometimes saying them more and more emphatically until she would finally draw them in. "Fine, fine," she'd say. We started over many times, a process that previously had seemed to me an indication of failure, but to Sands it was entirely normal, as if each building she called forth introduced her to other buildings it knew, and so working with her could be sort of an unwieldy process and you had to be willing to fight a little to get your way, but ultimately it was like walking into mysterious woods, everything related and fertile but constantly changing, and always there was the exhilarating feeling that one was continually losing and then finding the way.
More than anything, what I wanted was to enter into the rooms she drew, which would be like entering her imagination, that most private, far-flung place. By midnight we brought our draft to the others. It looked crazy, like big Russian circus tents connected by strings of light, like a big bohemian palace, but also very beautiful and somehow humble. I stood there while the others looked at it and felt as though I wanted to disown any participation in it whatsoever, and at the same time I was quite proud.
"It's so beautiful," Groovy said. Indira and Reuben nodded. And then they showed us theirs, which was austere and mysterious, rising out of the ground like it had just awoken and found itself the last thing on earth.
And we laid out the two buildings on the table and looked at them. They seemed so beautiful, as things can that are of the imagination and will never really be in the world. One had to love these figments, so exuberant in their postures and desires, trying to assert their way into the world.
"Yours is beautiful," Sands said, softly.
"Yours is," Groovy said. "God wouldn't even come to ours. He'd go to yours."
"Definitely He would go to yours," Sands said.
"If He existed," I said.
"Now He's really mad," Groovy said, and Sands laughed a little, putting her hand like a gentle claw on my elbow. I can feel to this day her hand where it gripped my elbow whenever she laughed. Each of her fingers sent a root system into my arm, that traveled and traveled, winding and stretching and luxuriating throughout my body, settling there permanently.
The next morning on our way to breakfast, Reuben and I saw Indira in the distance, making her way down the path to the river that wound about Fialta. There was already a rumor floating among us that Indira was a former Miss Bombay. I couldn't imagine this; she was so serious. She had a large poetry collection in her room, and an eye for incredibly ornate, stylized design. Nostbakken had set her to work immediately on the gates and doorways for the theater. Watching her now, slipping down through the fall leaves, one could see the sadness and solitude that truly beautiful women inherit, which bears them quietly along. "Hey!" Reuben surprised me by calling out, and he veered away from me without even a glance back.
A woman reading is a grave temptation. I stood in the doorway separating the Commons from our tiny kitchen, named Utopia for its sheer light and warmth, and hesitated for a long moment before I cleared my throat. Sands looked up. She was wearing glasses, her hair pulled back in a dark ponytail. She said hello.
"What're you reading?" I asked.
"Oh, this is Vitruvius--The Ten Books of Architecture. Nostbakken lent it to me."
"I suppose. He's asked me to think about the threshold."
"The threshold. That's romantic."
She stared at me. Probably men were always trying to find an angle with her. Her face was beautiful, dark and high-hearted. "What do you mean by romantic?" she said.
This was really the last thing I wanted to define at this moment. It seemed any wrong answer and all my hopes might spiral up and away behind her eyes. "Well, I guess I mean romantic in the large sense, you know. The threshold is the moment one steps inside, out of the cold, and feels oneself treasured on a human scale."
"That's pretty," she said. She was eating Cheerios and toast.
"You know, I never found out the other night where you are from," I said.
"From? I am from Montreal originally."
"You went to McGill?"
"Laval," she said.
I knew Laval from pictures in architecture books. In my books it had looked like a series of dark, wintry ice palaces. "And how did you get from there to here?" I asked.
"Nostbakken came and gave a lecture. I met him there."
My mind was at once full of the image of her and Nostbakken in her tiny, cold Canadian room, its small space heater whirring out warmth, the animal skins on the floor and the bed, the two of them eating chipped beef from a can or whatever people eat in the cold, her mirror ringed with pictures of her young boyfriends--servicemen from across the border, maybe--and then of them clasped together, his age so incredible as it fell into her youth.
"Is he in love with you?" I asked.
"Not in love, no," she said. Which of course made me think that his feelings for her were nothing so simple or banal as love. It was far richer and more tangled in their psyches than that--some father/daughter, teacher/student, famous/struggling artist extravaganza that I could never comprehend.
And then Groovy approached, jangling her keys. Her hair had all these little stitched-people barrettes in it. It was bright blonde, and the little primitive people all had panicked looks on their faces, as if they were escaping a great fire. "Nostbakken wants to see you," she said to Sands.
Sands started to collect her books and her tray, and Groovy turned to me. "I heard you're taking care of those cows," she said.
"Yes. And you?"
"Trash," Groovy said. "All the trash, every day, in every room."
"That's a big job. How about you?" I asked Sands.
"She's his favorite," Groovy said.
"So, no work then?" I asked.
"Oh, it's a lot of work, trust me," Groovy said, winking a little lewdly, and then Sands smiled at me a little, and then they both left me to my breakfast.
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.
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.
Since Sands hadn't cooked, it was her duty to clean up. I helped her clear away the dishes. We made an enormous pile of dirty dishes and plates and heaps of food on the silver table at the center of Utopia. There were also the three empty carriages of bones. "I can't believe that about Indira," Sands said.
"I know. It's hard to believe."
"And now she'll have to get married. That's a real primal fear, you know, for women. I can remember as a girl having dreams about having to get married."
"You're so unromantic, I can't even stand it."
"Me?" she said.
She was leaning against the silver table, looking down at the turkey drumstick that she was tearing apart in her hands, to eat, when I stepped up, finally, and against all better reason, kissed her. Tomorrow, Indira would be gone, and who could predict what would happen then, when one of us was gone? Time was ticking away, the snow was falling. Sands's mouth tasted like ten thousand things--berries and wine and pumpkin and something too human to define. I placed my hand on her spine as it arched back over the table, and then the door swung open. I turned to see Nostbakken, my arm lifting Sands so that we stood before him, my arm around her. He was smoking a cigar, and some of its smoke was spiraling up around his head. He stood still for a moment and then said, "Oh, is that right? Well, then. Okay. That's fine."
He walked toward us then. "First, let's clear away the bones," he said. "Let's make some room, then, for you two. Let us clear away the bones!" And with that, he swept his entire arm over the silver lake of the table, so that everything flew--all the bodies breaking up in the air, a flurry of bone and gristle, of life sailing apart.
Later that night I went looking for Sands. She had kissed me, told me to wait in Utopia, and ran after Nostbakken."I'll try to solve it," she said to me. But then she did not come back for over an hour. I went to the women's wing and found Groovy there, helping Indira to pack. And then Reuben came out of Indira's room as well, carrying an empty cardboard box. He wasn't saying anything, so I blurted, "Indira, why are you going? Please don't go. Please stay."
Indira looked at me sweetly, indulgently, as if I were a small child. She hugged me.
And then I went to Nostbakken's. The light was falling down out of the building, onto the snow, that's how bright it was. It was too high for me to see anything, but I stood out in the snow for a long time. I must have stood there for close to an hour. It was ridiculous, I knew, and pathetic, but that light was more warm and significant than any I'd ever known in my life, and I knew that when I turned to go there would be nothing, only the cold and the never-ending drifts of snow.
By the next morning, our dinner was dissolving in the slop bucket--the little pancakes, the heads of fish, the turkey breast, the potato shavings. I poured a cup of coffee, picked up the pail, and walked down through the snow and darkness. The beasts were still asleep, and one startled when I opened the door and the cold sun fell over her. Eventually the snow began to fall--enormous lotus flakes that I watched from inside the barn. I milked the one cow for a while and as the sun rose higher I was finally getting warm. The barn was waking up around me, the building itself shifting and ticking away as the light forced itself through the million tiny chinks. As I milked I tried to think of a way to stay in love with Sands and stay at Fialta. In the moment Nostbakken flung his hand across the table, I had known he would never be reconciled to this. I don't believe there was anything illicit particularly in his feelings; in fact, it was probably their very purity that made them so searing, so intolerant. He was her teacher, and she his student, and they met up there in a perfect illumination high above the regular world. Another cow shuddered awake beside me and looked up at me, half in sympathy, half in resignation to all my shortcomings, which is the very look cows always give, which is their whole take on the world.
And then the door opened. The cold, dim day rushed in, and, along with it, Sands. She was wearing a nightgown with a parka over the top, her hair in one long, sleepy braid. She looked like she was fulfilling and making fun of my dreams all at once. "You look like a farmer's wife," I said.
"And you the farmer."
"He wants to see you," she said. Some doves in the rafters fluttered and made a break for the open door, wheeling then around the corner. Fialta was burning away in the distance. From this distance, it looked already to be stirring--composed, as Auden said all living things were, of dust and Eros. It was clear what would happen. I would leave; Nostbakken would fall--the full, staggering weight of him!--in my arms and hug me as he told me I had to leave. But there was still the morning. Her hair and skin were the only moments of darkness in the brightening barn. I kissed her again. One of the cows made a lowing sound I'd not heard before, which sounded like a foghorn in the distance. They'd seen it all before, this whole drama; their large hearts inside them had broken a hundred times before today. The barn smelled exactly like the very passage of time. The cows took their own fertility so practically, as the pigs did joyfully, and the doves beautifully. I already knew then that I'd be forced to leave Fialta; I could practically have predicted my leaving to the hour, but my heart was caught up in the present, whirring away and still insisting that this was the beginning, not the end. And so that's how I felt hardly any grief at all, lying alongside Sands on the crackling, warm hay at the foot of that makeshift paradise, as the cows watched on, remembering human love.