Onward with the sixteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).
You have all the previous installments HERE.
And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.
Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!
#16: “And what exactly do you love now?”
Upon retreating from the world in the one-bedroom apartment she rented with George, Ela languished, mostly, for a good number of months. Her reviews passed muster but she didn’t imbue them with personal epiphanies and the light of life lived, and she often skim-read the books, treating them as a chore she couldn’t pass on to George. But then she started to respond differently to music. She developed a passion for the fado, that Portuguese expression of loss, longing, and dashed hopes. She listened repeatedly to Amália Rodrigues sing about hard solitude and a tender heart, and she discovered another fado singer she liked, Mariza. She delved into Leonard Cohen’s songs and poetry. And then she wrote her assuredly modulated free-verse stanzas.
They were all inspiring things, and yet emotionally she still felt quasi-depleted, with little to offer. For better or worse, she thought the only thing she could do more or less right for the time being was her confessional poetry, a creative pursuit she’d used as a playground since her teenage years and which now maintained her self-confidence. Her poems, she told George, were the only thing about herself that didn’t feel old and tired.
Between August 2001, when she found Pamfil and Henriette together, and the spring of 2003, she spent her time away from both friends and family. Weeks blended together into months, and months into seasons, until she forgot what it was to rejoice at the first snow of winter or the snowdrops of spring.
Henriette and Alice, knowing they weren’t wanted in person, didn’t visit, but they called on the phone every weekend and sent her emails. In the beginning Ela didn’t check her personal emails for weeks at a time, losing track of time and her social circle. Then, slowly, she reentered her friends’ lives, and as she did so she scribbled some of her last poems about Pamfil. She remembered him barreling through people’s lives, forever young, a raffish combatant. More importantly, she wrote about herself, the woman who, she told herself, trying to encapsulate feelings she wanted contained, had the heft to spurn and forget, until she set off flying in a hot-air balloon away from Pamfil and her friends, traveling to a place of emptiness where the present was blown away, like a dandelion with a head of snow—a place where nothing happened but memories, whirling between all the highs that came to pass and everything that turned to dust.
As the past faded away as a subject and she focused on the present, she began to draw heavily on the spiritually inflected style of Leonard Cohen, the poet and man who moved her to no end. She wrote about herself threadbare here and there, sere of skin where the ghost of him touched her shield, stuck a stencil for him to sear through his mark.
“It’s gone. Done. There were only so many arrows in my quiver,” Ela told Alice in April 2003, four months short of two years since Pamfil disappeared from her life. “But it left behind a lot of good stuff.”
Alice smiled. “I can see that.”
“Oh. I meant my outlook on life, not the poems,” Ela said, her face lighting up. She gave Alice a mug of piña colada black tea and poured some more cold water in hers to cool off the brew. A stack of sheets with Ela’s recently completed volume of poetry, Multiple Presents, waited on the table. “Will you give them to him?” Ela asked.
It was the first time since August 2001 that they were talking in person.
“I will if that’s what you want,” Alice said. She got a brownie from a large serving platter in the middle of the kitchen table.
Ela helped herself to a brownie as well. “I want him to know that he has meant so much to me. And that I’m better. That I’ve worked through my feelings and moved on.”
“He’s asked about you, you know,” Alice said, biting into her fudge cake.
Ela sipped her tea. “I know. You told me.” She put her mug down. “I’d like to see him after he reads my poems,” she said, gazing intently at her friend.
“Why? You may be disappointed. He may see nothing of your transformation, or of his role in it,” Alice said. She brushed the crumbs off her hands.
Ela took another bite of her brownie. “Do you think so little of him?”
Alice opened her lips to say something but then changed her mind. She stared into her friend’s hopeful eyes for a few moments.
Ela locked her gaze onto her friend’s. “It’s Ettie, isn’t it?”
“Ettie, you . . . strong women, and yet you were so affected by him. He had such power over you,” Alice responded, her eyes downcast.
“He did! And that was for the best, Lis,” Ela said, putting down the last bit of her brownie. “He made me feel passion, with all its beauty and dangers. I want him to see me now as a lover.”
“As a lover,” Alice repeated incredulously.
“Christians can be lovers,” Ela said earnestly as she cradled her mug. “They well should be. On many levels.”
“That’s true. But why do you care what Phil thinks?”
“He helped awaken me, in a sense. Helped me see what it means to have a passion for life. I want to be a lover from now on, a lover who has been vanquished and then rises up to love with even more passion.” Ela reached for another brownie. “Do you like these?” she asked her friend. “It’s a new recipe for me.”
“Yes, they’re good. I like that you made them moist and chewy this time.”
“It’s Ettie’s recipe. Poor girl still feels she was the reason I ‘broke up with Phil,’ as she keeps saying. As if we’d been together,” Ela said, bemused.
“So, then, why is Phil so important to you?” Alice asked, searching Ela’s eyes for an answer. “I still don’t understand.” She put her mug down. “Especially as he hurt you so much.”
“He crushed me, all right, but then he made me discover passion, and through passion I have come to feel more love,” Ela said.
“But you barely knew him,” Alice said, staring at Ela in disbelief.
“We met at exhibitions, we met in the city . . .” Ela said placatingly.
“But passion is blinding, Ela,” Alice stated bluntly. “You didn’t notice he had something going with Ettie. You didn’t really know him.” She laid her hands around her plate.
“That may be true, but he made me feel passion nonetheless. And then, in time, came the love.”
“For him as well?” Alice asked.
“For him as well,” Ela responded.
“It’s the first time you’re saying this, that it was more than a powerful attraction,” Alice said.
“It took me a while to accept it,” Ela said. “In fact, I was mad at him for a long time without knowing why,” she added. “More tea?” she asked Alice.
Alice nodded yes, and Ela topped up her mug. Then she poured herself more tea as well.
“Mad because he led you on while he was dating Ettie?” Alice put in, feeling the answer was obvious.
“Yes, at first I thought that was it, but in reality I was in shock,” Ela said, taking a gulp from her mug. “He turned my whole world upside down, and I was asking myself all these questions: what it means to live life with a passion, or with love, or with a mixture of the two, what it means to feel both passion and love for the same person, what it means to love someone and life and God, what kind of passion and love you need for that . . .” She picked up another brownie and bit into it. “These brownies are really different from how I usually make them. They’re very good, aren’t they? And the recipe was very similar to mine. Same ingredients, just different quantities.” She drank some more of her tea. “I don’t think he was in love with Ettie,” she said, her gaze meeting Alice’s.
Alice shook her head in disbelief. “And you think he was in love with you?” she asked.
“No, I don’t,” Ela responded with a small smile.
“I think he’d never learned to love,” Ela said. “Love with a passion and tenderly and on a higher level. Just like me. I mean I hadn’t either. I only began to love this way after I met him. Only after he shook my whole way of looking at things.”
“That doesn’t make much sense, his teaching you a kind of love he hasn’t grasped himself,” Alice said.
“And what exactly do you love now?” Alice asked.
“Beauty,” Ela said. “Isn’t Eros the faithful companion of Aphrodite?”
“Now you sound like Plato,” Alice said with a smirk.
Ela chuckled, amused. “In what way?” she asked, putting her mug down.
“In a famous passage in the Symposium, known as the Ladder of Love,” Alice began, “Plato has Socrates tell of his dialogues with a woman named Diotima. According to her, the pursuit of Beauty starts with being attracted to the beauty in a body, then in all bodies, then in a soul and in all souls, till finally you glimpse the beauty of laws, institutions, sciences, and philosophy. Then you contemplate the Idea of Beauty and come to give birth to virtue and wisdom, creating beauty yourself.”
“What about the arts? You mentioned only the sciences.”
“He leaves them out on purpose. Plato understood artists to operate in the world of appearances, producing imitations of copies of Ideas, and as such twice removed from the latter. Ideas such as Beauty, Justice, the Good, and others. But that’s just a dry way to explain quickly how the arts fit into his Theory of Ideas, and he didn’t reject all works of art either. In fact, the explanation is longer and has to do with the difference between opinions and knowledge, with writers and visual artists who are only aiming at Ideas rather than able to apperceive them (when he talks of poets’ inspiration, he argues that it doesn’t give them access to truths), with the fact that representations of tragic plays stir the passions, and so on. You have to understand that Plato’s love of beauty is rational rather than emotional—he talks through the character of Diotima of a love of the body and one of the soul, one for begetting children and another for begetting virtue and wisdom. Which, incidentally, doesn’t mean that this so-called Platonic love, while aiming at a love of the soul, couldn’t involve sex too.”
“I know,” Ela said with a smile as she got up to make more tea. “Peppermint tea okay?”
“Yes, fine,” Alice responded.
“I’m growing peppermint on my balcony,” Ela said.
“Nice! I can’t wait to taste the tea.”
Ela set an ibrik with water on the stove. The late-afternoon sun sent orange light into her kitchen. They stood silent for a moment, looking out the window.
“I’m thinking of writing a novel,” Ela said, drinking the last of her piña colada tea.
“About beauty in sadness and sadness in beauty. My two favorite ideas these days.”
“But that’s life—more or less,” Alice said, flashing her friend a big smile.
“Yes, but my novel will be mostly about artist lovers,” Ela said, getting up to add some dried peppermint leaves to the water in her ibrik.
“Still too vague,” Alice said with a chuckle.
“I’ll think some more about it,” Ela said, a little unnerved.
“Have you written any of it?” Alice asked.
“No, but I have quite a few poems I want to intersperse in the narrative,” Ela said.
“Will it be inspirational?” Alice asked pointedly.
Ela found herself laughing. “Are you asking me if it’ll be depressing?”
Alice’s smile broadened. “A little.”
Ela chuckled. “No, it won’t,” she said, and proceeded to explain how she planned to make it beautiful. “It starts with wandering around like Alice—not you,” she said with a smile as she read from a piece of paper with put-on panache, “living a life of superimposed uncertainties—you know, uncertain about my purposes in life but no underlying tectonic plate motion to make me really seek a higher love—until they’re suddenly flung out . . . finding myself chained to barren solitude, and then slowly taking revolving steps to grind away my memories, feeling my way around them devoid of meaning, bereft of a soul, till, slowly, a zephyr drifts in, and I hear its call to make it beautiful, to make emptiness sing as I push it out, to wind through words as if it matters.” She took a deep breath. “And then I start the story. That was just the prologue.”
“Will your poems be verse, or part of the narrative?” Alice asked.
“I’ll probably write them as prose, after all.”
“Yes, better. That way you may just get away with it,” Alice said wryly. “Confessional poetry of this kind is not much in vogue these days, but strangely it makes quite an appearance in some novels.”
They joked about it for a while, Ela reciting lines of poetry from her readings and Alice jotting down a few of them, as she, too, had written verse once and now liked to use bits of her favorite public-domain poems in her travel pieces and her short stories. Then they returned to the idea of a novel, and Alice shared that she’d always wanted to write one about her teenage years but couldn’t make it come together.
Finally, they commiserated over having gained weight. It had affected Alice gradually and Ela within the last year and a half, after first having lost eight kilos, and now they were both trying to find the determination to do something about it. Ela decided to start taking long walks with George again, but as the weather got warmer, she felt more and more uncomfortable showing her body to the world.
“So much of life is presentation,” she said one day in May as she and George were strolling in Titan Park. “When I was slim, I didn’t give it much thought, because it was easy to feel presentable,” she added as her gaze glided over the many acacia trees around them, their pendulous racemes of white blossoms radiating a powerful sweet scent.
“Now you understand women who have always had trouble keeping down their weight,” George said. “Maybe some of them never got to be self-confident because they were plagued with excess kilos since their childhood or teenage days.” He stopped to smell an acacia inflorescence.
“True. I thought about it,” Ela said, meeting his harsh thinking on weight matters without a wince. “And it seems that in this respect age is a leveling factor. For one reason or another, most women over thirty-five are prone to gain weight.”
“Well, you’re not there yet. But yeah, slower metabolism,” George put in.
“Also stress,” Ela pointed out. “Stress, more responsibilities, less time to make better dietary choices, less inclination.” She took in a few deep breaths of the scented air.
“That and lack of exercise,” George added.
To be continued . . .