I take the plane to London then the train to Thanet because I think that I need obsoletion to finish my first novel. But when I open the door to the sea captain’s cottage, which I’ve rented for a month, I find you, the “captain,” still eating and drinking inside. Voracious as any of Penelope’s suitors, you ask me where I’m “from” and what I “do.” I say “New York” and “writer,” and you say, “no, from,” and “but what pays your bills.” I relent and confess: “I’m a hapa: half-white, half-Asian; I studied Homer; and I am currently getting paid to read what other people write.”
The spring sun hangs low on the chalk cliffs, so I pull on my cranberry cashmere to walk my little dog who looks like an arctic fox. We wander along the concrete quay, to the red-hatted Victorian lighthouse and back, hoping that you will leave while we are gone. I stare at the boats in the old harbor while my fox sniffs out the dried guts of last summer’s salted skate. The paint peels away on countless hulls, stripping away the ships’ names like titles fading on the spines of old, unread books. The wind from the North Sea licks my cheeks until they turn the color of my pullover. Across the Channel, France winks at me. I think of Laertes’ burial shroud and how girls like me aren’t supposed to read Greek and Latin (let alone write mythologies of our own), and how, if you don’t leave for London soon, as arranged, I’ll have to go Venice to avoid weaving my story backwards. There, at least, my Zia has a room and a loom where my novel, my fox, and I can weave on our own.
When I come back to your house, supper is waiting, and the radio from France is on. Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien. I slide into thick wool socks, but the old oak floors still creak as I pad around your house. After a fine artichoke salad, I reiterate that I’ve come to Kent to write, like Dickens, and ask about the whereabouts of Bleak House. You light candles, murmur something about TheTale of Genji, pour two bowls of Sancerre, then announce that you, too, are a writer. You tell me: “I’m working on a screenplay, but I’m blind in one eye, so maybe, love, since you’re a whizz of an editor (and a few years my junior), you can help me. You know, like one of Milton’s daughters?”
When I do not say “yes” right away, you say, “It’s called ‘Me,’ but really, it’s about how ‘Me’ becomes ‘We.’”
The night you are supposed to come to Venice, clouds the color of cardinals’ caps close the throat of the canals. Once, twice, three times, lightning strikes the lagoon. Pzzzat! Cannaregio’s middle-aged matrons thrust their soppressata arms out the windows to snatch away plants potted in porcelain from treacherous ledges. Then, they bolt their green and black shutters.
An old painter shuffles around the piazzetta around the corner from the salmon-pink marble slabs known as Miracoli, dawdling on his way home from the university. Even though he knows that the door to his studio is slit open, he pokes in multiple shops along the Strada Nuova, gathering mushrooms and zucchini for his wife’s minestrone. Renoir made great art with boils on his knuckles, but io sono Italiano, and I am pretty sure that Caravaggio contracted brucellosis from unpasteurized milk and died near Grosseto. As he waddles on, the painter winks at the widows in the windows. If he had been a young man, he’d have made love to them all then challenged their husbands to castrate him: “Come, storm, come.” He circumambulates the bar called Calypso, refusing to stop for his regular Campari. The little well, the last one unsealed on this side of Rialto, is already brimming with rainwater. There, he hooks left into a narrow vein of houses clogging the canals with their little gardens all walled up. As he balances on the bridge that separates his studio from his home from his university from the bar, he sees: The eyes of every single one of his neighbors’ homes are closed. Except one.
In Calle Vecelli, number 2401, the Zia’s window is still uncovered and wide. He knows that she is a poetess because he once attended an unveiling of a restored Tiziano at Accademia where she read a poem that she’d been commissioned to write about the painting. Something about San Marco healing a slave. This Zia has a young woman staying with her from New York, whom the old painter and his wife have seen in the piazzetta coaxing her small, fiberglass fox to pee on the only tree in the neighborhood. The girl looks a bit Moorish but claims to read Latin and write fiction, so he often wonders if he should paint her before she goes home across the sea.
Obviously, “She” is “Me.”
From LaCasa della Zia, I can see that the old painter’s studio door is ajar. I wonder if I should go downstairs and let his wife know so that his works won’t be ruined. But my Zia needs me; she is writing, and I am copyediting. For three weeks now, we’ve shared her studio, we’ve shared her cigarettes, we’ve shared her soul. So when the rain comes in earnest, that’s where I stay, standing with my ribcage pressed to the window peering down at the drizzle on the canal below. The wind picks up and bites the ribbon-trimmed hat of the unfortunate gondolier who rolled dice with the sky and is now paying for it by hauling his half-terrified, half-enraged tourist cargo back to their hotel around the little Charybdis that has opened up beneath the bridge. After the gondola slides safely away, the old painter appears on top of the stone rainbow clutching a bag of mushrooms. He’s forgotten the zucchini and resembles a tiny cyclops staring at me with one eye. I wave, and the old painter flees. The wind moans. I wrap my arms around the skinny olive tree in a blackamoor pot tottering on my Zia’s ledge. Rain streaks across my forearms like jellyfish tentacles.
“Cara, should I take in the plant? Should I close the window?”
Zia is squatting behind her desk, typing and smoking, now and again cursing in English under her breath: “sheeeet.” She wears a kaftan and her lumbar is pushed up by a faded, pink pillow the color of Miracoli’s innermost walls, where they keep the consecrated hosts. There comes a point in a thinking woman’s life when pushing up her spine takes priority over pushing up her breasts. Zia reached it long ago. Every now and again, she touches her cigarette to the lip of her ashtray, which is round and copper and looks like the Civil War bullet molds that my father’s father once plowed up as a young boy outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
“No, amore, that would be displeasing to the witches. This is their time when they like to come and touch the things of the people. If you take the plants in, they will come into the house and touch something else. Then, you will not like what they touch. But tell me, what do you think of this poem?”
I light my cigarette off hers and squat at her feet while she reads me several verses from her forthcoming book of poems entitled Even the Fish Are Drunk, which is being translated into English by one of the last living Beats. Zia spoons Irish whisky into my tea, licks her lips, then recites a poem about turnstiles. I half-listen and half-think again about the old painter. Has he padded all the way home? Hung up his smock? His wife? Her mushrooms? My captain?
A frenzied meteorologist in Mestre announces on the radio: L’aeroporto Marco Polo è ora chiuso. They will rout you to Verona, to Juliet’s fake balcony under which stands a statue of a fourteen-year-old girl whose bronze boob smirking tourists rub for good luck. You will go to her tonight then come to me by bus in the morning. But bus is not the way to enter Venice. Even the train is a kind of abomination.
“Eh, ragazza!” cries Zia. “Are you listening to me?”
“Sorry,” I murmur. Despite Zia’s warning, I rescue the olive tree in the blackamoor pot. I cannot bear to let the witches touch it, so I sit, as if I am a good witch, or the little olive tree’s mother, with its thin roots planted in between my thighs. The shutters bang, but I do not fasten them. In a nearby palazzo, someone (a woman, presumably), is baking bread. The smell of yeast rising intoxicates. Soon, the whisky is gone.
“Please, Zia, read it again. That last line was great. The one about ships in the desk drawer…”
The lightning grins—Pzzzat! Zia, the poetess, clears her throat.
In October, my fox and I sail back through cognac-colored skies to New York City. After the Kentish captain’s quarters and Zia’s palazzo, my living room feels too small. There are too many books on my shelves. Too many have been written by my friends, which makes me never want to write one of my own. The world is full of words. I sit down to write, which means I meditate on the blank page like Bodhidharma coming from the West. Its whiteness, like death, is an oasis. The state of my novel resembles Laertes’ burial shroud in Book 21. From outside, there comes a clanging that wasn’t there six months before. While I was away, Bill de Blasio approved the blowing up of the old brownstone behind my brownstone, straight through to the shale. The luxurious condominiums depicted on the poster glued to the metal fencing that separate the hole from a law suit promise a wonder 27-stories tall. Night and day, they pound, screw, drill, grind, and grate. Now, my desk (which came quietly north from the green sprawl of my great-grandfather’s Tennessee estate a generation after slavery finished) is positioned to overlook that infernal, industrious concrete hole.
I drag the desk away from the window. The old oak planks groans slowly, like a boat being hauled ashore. Several chairs, a teak tree stump coffee table, and my mother’s mother’s tonsu have to get pushed noisily around to make room for it. Their tracks on the hardwood make a map of little bone-white canals. The desk squares the wall, not unlike the way my heart squares my mind, so I sit again, but none of it comes. Not the painter, not the poetess, not the panne, not you, so I go to the closet pull on your blue and white bateau shirt, the one I traded you my cerise cashmere for, before I left you, after you followed me around Italy when we left Venice and sailed back towards your white cliffs byway of Bonaparte’s France. “Boo-loin,” your Englishness called that medieval hamlet on the crags. How long did we stand there, on the wrong side of the Channel watching Albion slide around on the horizon? It used to smell of you. The shirt, not England, although most Englishmen that I’ve smelled also smell like you. Stale beer and Shakespeare. But I’ve washed your shirt at least once. Now, it reeks of American Tide. And of me. My dog sniffs you still, though, I think, because she cocks her fox face at me and snorts.
Contemplating what it means to be an atheist in a world where self is religion? The little turnip nose seems to tease. “No!” I shout. “It’s not that!” But the dog’s bored already. Excuses, she sniffs, then scrapes the tufts of carpet and coils between my socked feet with her tail between her toes.
Soon, she is snoring and kicking her little paws around, and the sound sounds like canals licking the mostly-underwater steps of the Miracoli when a speed-boat with its engine off putters by. The super, who lives downstairs, sparks up a spliff. The green smell sneaks into my studio through the cracks in the walls. I give up and put the kettle on. I climb up on my desk while I wait for the water to boil and stamp around as if conquering my great-grandfather’s wood will conquer Ithaca, Troy, The Story. “Mon bateau! Mon bateau!” I cry to the North. “Ahoy!” No one calls back. My little fox snores on. Through this ceiling cemented over by countless other ceilings, I cannot count any stars. The kettle whines for my attention like a baby. I slide off the deck of the desk and, unlike you, do as I am told. You are probably waking up around now, over there, walking around your crackling house on the wrong side of the ocean, but I do not go to you through my phone. There is a faded blue pillow plugging up the space between the back of my chair and my lumbar. I’m thirty now, and still, no novel. Without Zia’s light to light my light off, I quit smoking. I am bored. I am tired. I am lonely. Then, I open my desk drawer, and a seagull the size of a staple flies out and screams at me.
Inside my desk drawer, there is a mighty harbor. Its shape is a kind of gourd-like, a squarish half-moon in a container of sheered oak.
This sea in my desk drawer is not the Adriatic, hyperventilating with meduse, like the ones that whipped Zia’s forearms when we went for an imprudent moonlight dip during the first night of our holiday in Jesolo. Nor is it rough, like La Manche, beckoning to then swallowing migrants desperate enough to attempt the crossing from Calais. No British or French coast guard is fighting about which waters are where and when it is whose duty to race out in a dingy to rescue whom. Here, there is only the light of my desk lamp shining down like the lighthouse at Alexandria on the magnificent fleet anchoring in my eternity. These ships bobbing in my desk drawer go by many names: Medea’s Argo, fastened from spells wound around epic’s first felled pines; Iphigenia’s bronze beaks, double-parked in Aulis; Ariadne’s sails, silhouetted black on Dionysus’ faraway horizon; Charon’s ferry (one-way tickets only); the Santa Maria ridden with gold and cholera; the Titanic shaved on its starboard side; St. Peter’s rocky rowboat; Ancient Egyptian solar canoes; the empty boat of Chuang Tzu; the HMS’ Northumberland and Myrmidon still wet with St. James’ Bay; and that old floating nursemaid, the U.S.S. Constitution. Since I don’t know how to sail, I number the sails instead, like Homer’s catalog of ships (the part of the poem that no one reads, pages more numerous than Helen’s duped admirers). I am just about to calculate the coda when I hear a tiny voice, no louder than the sound of ink leaking from a fountain pen on to a thirsty page, “Ahoy!”
A woman the size of the Worry Dolls I gave you for Christmas in the hopes of silencing your never-ending anxieties about your non-existent screenplay climbs out from the shady side of the drawer onto the dock (which is really the rim of the drawer). She is dressed in a tiny bateau layered beneath a tiny pea-coat, and her tiny pants are the color of the deepest parts of open water. Her hair is tucked beneath a black knitted cap, but wisps of it—white and dark like the storm—froth a bit around the edges. Her eyes are no bigger than atoms but they gleam even brighter than the sixteen buttons buffed and sewn to her coat.
“Um, ahoy to you too?”
“Which way are ye sailing, lass?”
Her breath smells of brine, and her voice is unstamped by any accent. It is not unlike the voice that haunts the hollows of my skull: mine, but not mine. I wonder if the super’s weed has slipped into my neurons, or if there’s been a horrible accident, and I’m in the hospital, doped up on opiates, and sundowning.
“You, lass. Aye! I’m talking to ye.” The speck-sized she-captain plucks a corncob pipe from her jacket pocket and stokes it with the pretentious airs of a miniature papist. She chews her lip. “Would ye care for a tickle-toke?”
I shake my head. “Um, no thanks. I quit smoking.”
“Aye. The singularity of repentance.” She smokes as she paces the dock; the lip of my desk drawer is long; for the tiny she-captain, it is the length of the dry world. “Tell me, ye coarse, smokeless giantess, what be ‘yer nom de plume?”
I don’t have one, so I give her my no de guerre: “No One.”
“Aye, Odd-ess-see-ah it shall be, then, lass.”
“Better than Pen-ell-oh-pee-ah, at any rate,” I joke.
At that, the tiny one chuckles. “Ye may call me Captain Cairns,” she says.
I think of those smooth stones hikers like to stack on the side of trails. I like to knock them down, but I don’t tell her that. Instead, I say, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain Cairns. Which of these fine vessels is yours, then…?”
She does not answer. In the distance, she’s spotted something. In her excitement, her tiny pipe falls into the water. To my infinite surprise, I even hear a little splash. “Did ye see that, Mistress Oddy?” She is breathless, wispy. “Aye, t’was a richmondena cardinalis it was, native to North America, I reckon.”
“Well, we are in New York. But I don’t think that was a bird. I think it was a bit of red flint…” I want to keep the banter going, to make a joke about Flint, Michigan, blood, water, stones, and probably Jesus. But it does not come. She wouldn’t understand me, anyway; her world is not mine. Instead, I pluck out the red molecule and roll it between my thumb and forefinger. Cerise cashmere.
“So, ye be a Dutch giantess? Or are ye some Daughter of Poseidon?”
“American. Daughter of dead men. And you must be some sort of colonial sprite?”
A hearty laugh. “Alas, no lass. Like ye, I lost me land, long ago.”
“How do you know I’ve ‘lost me land?’”
“Because, Mistress Oddy, I’ve sailed the globular firmament from this end to that. I’ve seen East and West and right now I see both in ye, which means, ye think ye be lost because ye see neither in ye’self.”
“I’m sorry, but what is it exactly you said it is you do in your boat?”
A twinkle in the tiny atom eyes. “Aye, I didn’t.” She whips off her cap and bows low, in the Japanese style. Her hair is unruly, like mine. “Let’s just say I’m a simple geolinguist-sailor on a wee round-the-universe lexicalization tour, milady.”
“That makes no sense.”
“That’s why one must lexicalize, lass!”
“But why are you here?”
“Because ye made me think about ye.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, ye did.”
Captain Cairns saunters along the dock towards a tiny schooner the size of a paperclip. Its sails are the color of the desert blanched by sun. Its hull curves like the chest of a woman formed by tragedy and triumph. The decks have been polished until they gleam. Like any eighteenth-century craft, it has a prow-piece so finely whittled that Daedalus himself could have fashioned it: a young woman of ambiguous ethnic descent with her legs wrapped around the face of a blackamoor from whose crown sprouts an olive sapling. Sheeeet. Cairn salutes me, then the back of my desk drawer (which is her horizon), then bows to all four corners like an electron-sized Zen master—North, South, East, and West. Finally, she steps on board and extends her hand to me.
“Ye better come aboard before the storms hits, Oddy my girl. Once the rains come, there’ll be no getting out of this harbor.”
“I can’t, Captain.”
“Is it because I’ve given ye a nom de plume that’s a woman’s version of a man’s, and a very-slippery-one-to-boot?”
“No. That doesn’t bother me much. And it’s a nom de guerre. I don’t write, I fight.”
“Categorical lie. But go on. What’s got yer goat in a git, then?”
“The world today is too crowded to set sail. Everybody writes. Everybody has a story. Everybody’s voice matters. A world drowning in words cries out for silence. I can’t do it anymore. Every letter perverts. A blank page is the best page I’ll ever write.”
Cairns’ teeny-tiny fish-bone lips are chapped and tightly drawn. “While myopia may be a marketable fetishism in yer world, lassy, old Cairnsy don’t buy it. Where I be going be dark, and ye will have to leave all this sterility and lightbulbs behind; I don’t blame thee fer being afraid. But let me ask ye this: how can ye cross the autumn mountain alone? Will thy husband be longing for ye in the dark? Me they call a captain, will this people say of thee too? Or does only the dead person who abandoned ye get to be reincarnated?”
For the first time, I notice that Cairns is barefoot. There are blue veins combing the ridges of her feet. Her toes claw the deck like stones churned up by curious hands. This way, the tiny stack of bones seems to whisper, this way. There are wrinkles on her brow I’ve not noticed before. If only the old man learns paint himself before he dies. Suddenly, Cairns reminds me of he who reminds himself of Caravaggio on his deathbed; they are all wearing that same expression of a sad child who has hung out a piece of cloth the way I wear your bateau.
“I’m sorry, Captain, but I have things to do. My boyfriend needs me to—at work, there’s this deadline—”
Just then, the rain taps; it’s real rain leaking in from the real world. A crane cranks to life. The world beyond my desk drawer is waking. Groggily, at first, then shaper and sharper. The morning brings the swell of a storm that should have been snow but is stuck as sleet because it’s too warm to snow in late autumn anymore.
“Now or never, lass,” Cairns calls to me from her deck. She is swinging from rope to rope, making ready to sail, and I can almost feel the bite of her loosening freedom on my own palms. “It’s melting now, the sea, Oddy my girl. Don’t ye hear me? It’s happening now, lass, and once it’s melted away, I won’t ever be able to sail into yer harbor again.”
Pzzzat! In the other world, lightning strikes. Even the fish are drunk. So, go and sober them up! Zia is not here. You are not here, either. You are there, talking about “Me” becoming “We,” which is all you ever do: talk and not write, while I edit “Me” for you. Rain falls through my ceiling like plum blossoms. I smell them. Taste them. I close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, I see the stars and know, finally, which way they are pointing. When I open my eyes, Cairns’ blackamoor prow-piece is gone. In its place, the olive tree soars all on its own. A bit thicker, a bit fleshier then it was, with green orbs fingering the shaggy breezes. A curtain of rains parts at the back of my desk drawer, opening to the newborn lake in the hole on E. 77th Street.
Cairns is ready to sail. No one mans her vessel but her. It’s gliding towards me, away from me. I hesitate, ready to change my mind the way I change my clients’ prose. But then, I peek through a porthole on the starboard side. Cairns’ captain’s quarters are stuffed with pages, countless tomes salvaged from lost worlds with words that weren’t worth shouting or silencing, so they stack there, leading the way to nothing anyone cares about anymore. There are no maps, no compasses, only broken pieces of the world—Civil War pellets, an old Grecian-style loom, wooden boxes of Romeo & Juliets, baskets of baguettes, vats of Spanish brandy, goblets of Austrian crystal, a taxidermy arctic fox, an ash-wood bow and arrow. The dead fox stirs; it is neither dead, nor a fox. My very own dog, miniaturized, has climbed on board Cairns’ ship and is now yawning at me, already ready to be bored of our next adventure.
By the time you come to New York wrapped in my cerise cashmere, it is almost spring and you have not heard from me for some time. You are concerned, but not so concerned that you would come when it did not suit your busy screenwriter’s schedule. The building on E. 77th is much further along now. It’s even wearing its concrete skin and its units are listed for sale. You stand downstairs clutching a bouquet of wildflowers and buzz the buzzer. No one answers.
A little time passes. Enough time for me to come back from the grocery store or from yoga. But I do not come back. A neighbor does, though, and you tell her who you are, what you do, and why you’ve come. She trusts your accent immediately, so she tells you that she does not know what happened to 2B, to me, but that she’s been dying to know, so she invites you up to see what you two might be able to know together. She thinks you’d look nicer on her mantle than on mine and grins at you, that big Texan grin, and you, movie man of Kent, adjust your neckerchief and return the gesture with characteristic British spry.
She leads you upstairs, but to no avail: 2B is locked. You are diverted into her bedroom, stepping on her pillows to get a view of me through her window. Then, from Juliet’s balcony, you boldly climb onto mine.
“Careful!” she cries, wringing her porcelain hands. A lock of blonde falls in her eyes. She pushes it away. Such adventure is unbearable. The adrenaline. The agony.
Afterwards, when you are nestled on her couch, shaken, she brings you a cup of lavender oolong. Her dog, a silky shitzhu that looks nothing like a fox, sniffs between your toes.
“It makes you lose weight,” she says, but then realizes that this is the wrong thing to say, so tries again, “and it’s super comforting.”
You sip, but do not look at her. After a moment, she cannot bear it. The distance after the intimacy.
“So? What did you find out?”
You shake your head. “It’s like she’s in there, somewhere I can’t see. The desk—it was her great-grandfather’s, and she once told me that, at that desk, staring out the window, is the only way she can write—well, it’s shoved in a corner facing the wall. There are stacks of papers piled all around it like cairns. I thought maybe she was behind them, but when I called out, ‘is anyone there?’ I swear, the tiniest voice you ever heard replied, ‘Yes, No one.’”