by John Benditt
Version 1: Purple and Gold
I pick the gold hairs from my purple blanket, lifting, joining them into a strand, then dropping them in the braided wastebasket. Purple and gold. The royal colors. Gold threads on the purple cover of the Torah. We are People of the Book. The purple and gold of the University of Washington Huskies. From the sublime to the ridiculous. And every stop in between, all the way down the line to the beginning. It is as if I am erasing what we wrote on that bed, she and I, the night before. As if the bed were a tablet, a sheet of paper, and I am erasing to prepare the way for a second draft that might express better what we meant. Another approximation, waiting, in its turn, to be erased. Preparing the way. For what? It was our first time, together, that way. Even in the deepest erasures, traces of writing remain. She writes in an email. I’ve thought of you while noticing faint blue marks on the inside of my thighs. Secretly proud of them. A little preoccupied. I will give you marks, my naughty girl, my beautiful woman. My marks. Inside and out. To be secretly proud of, to be a little preoccupied with, the flame of a single candle burning in the darkness of an empty church. I like for you to disallow/allow me. I will disallow/allow you. I will write my traces on you, into you. And allow you to be written on me, into me. Purple and gold. Deeper and deeper. Allowing and submitting. King and queen. Permeated by the purple sense, overpowering, breathing, smelling and tasting, that all of this has already happened and is waiting to be erased so that it can happen again, delicious and deep, dark and secret. Yours and mine. The writing in each other of our time. Of each other. The first time and the last time. Every time. Written. Erased. Written again. World without end. Amen.
Version 2: Commitmentphobe Cab Company
Well here comes sunlight. Does anything ever go the way we planned it? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I had a week of dreams, intuitions, spirit visitations, sickness. I imagine her, standing naked in my living room, blindfolded, beautiful as a statue, blind. Searching for me, coming to me in the bedroom, finding me sitting on the coverlet, dark tablet of erasure, by touch. Kneeling between my legs. Stroking her hair, me dressed, she naked. Telling her what had come to me in my spirit dreams, visions, intuitions in my tent filled with censers and sickness. I imagine I will tell her that I know. What her hunger is for. To be owned. And that I want the same. To own her. Take her when I want. Leaving everything else open, a gate, an alley, daylight, escape routes for a commitmentphobe. Which she says she is. So elegant, my plans, so thoughtful, like clockwork, like beautiful machines. I love them like children. And then they grow up to be: nothing. It wasn’t like that at all. I look up from my umbrella in the rain under a green awning at 77th and Lex. And there she is, whitefaced, friendly, open. That moment. She is in me. He is in me. I imagine we meet at the Whitney, me standing, leaning against a wall, looking carefree, saying well here comes sunlight and everything unfolds as it did in my sick visions. No. We walk through Richard Tuttle, Ed Ruscha, hardly touching, friendly, pentup. Warm dinner. No wine. Then we’re at my place, plans evaporating, bleeding like steam out into the sky over the river. Never the same twice. River. Last night was dark blue, silent, warm for winter. I took her unblindfolded, in a way that had nothing to do with what I had imagined. And yet, somewhere, perhaps on the other plane where all this is happening, the same. She tells me just what the spirits said she would. It has already happened. We just live in it. Live through it. As it lives in us, through us. You really get to me. You really really get to me. And you to me, sunlight girl, though I don’t say everything. (Would that be wise? To a commitmentphobe?) But stand back, here comes sunlight. Every color of the grape, every color of the sun, from gold, almost white, all the way to deepest purple, almost black. I want to drink them all. Whether it happens as I foresee or not. In a continous loop at the Whitney, in the video I didn’t get a chance to watch with her, my man Richard Tuttle is saying: I want my work to have less and less to do with me. In the end it should have nothing to do with me. Agreed. I want my life to have less and less to do with me. Leave me out of it. This morning, I erase what we’ve written, smooth the bed where we were lying. Perhaps that is all I can do. Erase again to make way for her, for us. I love my plans like children. Now I pat their silky heads and ask them to leave. Me. Children must grow up and belong to the world, not to their parents. Somewhere there’s an erased de Kooning, traces of pencil deep in the grooves. I’m erasing here. Call the Commitmentphobe Cab Company. Dial 911 for danger. Their cars are midnight black-and-blue, unmarked, sliding through the night toward Brooklyn, leaving not a trace behind.
Version 3: The Sting
Stinging. She writes in an email. The keyhole through which we whisper when we’re apart. Ears to the keyhole. Eyes too? Seems she found a prose poem in her bag. Called, of all things: Erasure—Version 1. Go figure. Put there, apparently, while Erasure—Version 2 was being written. Being written on my bed, the dark tablet, before being written here in this little white box. I mean erased here in this white box, in the space between electrons. Stinging, she says it was. Sting of tears. How can the heart not to break? On the way to Union Square, food shopping, climbing up and out from underground, behind a man wearing a gray twill messenger’s uniform. His left arm flaps useless as a chicken wing, legs twisted, ankles collapsing on themselves. But walking purposefully up the steps, holding the rail, me behind, shadow in a sunless room. A little slow, maybe, in the body and the mind. But proud to have a job. This message is going to get where it’s going if I have to crawl on bloody stumps through every street in New York to get it there. I know my job. Is this the only job we, who have strong arms and solid ankles, can find for a one-armed man with feet that flop like fishes and loaves? Foot messenger. Jesus. How can the heart not to break? Everted into the world. Fourteenth Street in the rain, a girl sits begging, no more than a teenager, certainly no older than this stinging girl of my heart, soft face, piercings, under a wet hood, pleading gently for money. Her voice walked under by the shuffling crowd on the wet gray street. How can the heart not break? Then inside Whole Foods, a whole different crowd, shiny with money, indifference, envy. Is there a love big enough to take all this in? High and low. Envy and envied. Broken and whole. Is there a love that will not deny this barbaric, beautiful world but let it in even if it must batter its way into us. What would that look like, feel like? Would it sting the way I make you sting, writing on your body these words which are themselves erasures. Would it mingle pleasure and pain the way it does to find a prose poem in your handbag after a night of surrender? Picture me reading it avidly while standing by the door. And again on the subway. Still sort of drunk from our time together last night. I picture it, sunlight girl. And it stings my stubborn heart to love.
Version 4: A Sense of Great Power
You’re my secret. I’m yours. We do things to each other in secret. What we do is secret. Naughty, you call it. Sacred, I call it. OK, naughty. I won’t argue with you. How could we argue? I’m your secret. On the weekend the multisensory Technicolor Glory of the Coming of the Lord. In the week, dwindling to a slender trail of email. Whispery blue letters. The 21st century equivalent of envelopes in secret places. Stuck in the fork of a tree, secret slot. Sliding under the door, across the floor, with the scraping sound of loss and light. Between the pages of a book by an unknown poet. What is happening? I don’t know. I’ve lost the story. You don’t either. I know that much. Among your first e-words to me: maybe something on the casual end. OK. Why not? A lot of stuff was on the casual end. Then. That was then. Which end are we on now? Which end is up, which down? Her last email. Sacred, well, yes, I suppose I do feel that around us when we’re together. It feels like many different things. For one, space-time consciousness gets a little altered on my end. Not to sound too crazy. Does that sound casual? Alterations in space-time consciousness. Maybe not. You’re my secret. I’m yours. We’re in the secret stage. Secrets. Will. Out. A few people on my end know. The mentors, peering into my life with their magnifying lenses. The people I love. I suspect that’s happening on your end, too. But our lives haven’t crossed. No one’s met anyone yet. That would smack a little of commitment, wouldn’t it? Forget it. I mean, erase it. I’m trying, sweetheart, I’m trying. I look in the pages of a book I was going to give away to clear space on the bookshelf. Memento of one of my many enthusiasms. In this case: auras. Color picture of the auras of two people in love. Looks like they have little megaphones coming out of them. Maybe they’re announcing something, I don’t know. A rainbow connects them, they’re within it like a bower. Like a huppa. Gold enhances the higher mind, brings a sense of great power. Helps you connect to God and to the spiritual strength in you. Purple helps you integrate and move into spirituality, brings a sense of royalty. Purple and gold. Maybe I shouldn’t give this book to Housing Works after all. Relationships continue beyond the physical world. They are very much the same as they are in the physical. That is how it is with one’s relationship with God. I don’t know anything about God, spirit girl, name of Christ diminuendo. I insist I don’t. But I know your secrets. How I know them, I do not know. But I do. Here comes the latest: You’re falling in love. OK. Fair’s fair. Here’s mine: I already have.
Version 5: Everything You Do Is Art
She has a yellow rose tattooed inboard of her left hip, on that beautiful downward-sloping delta that tapers toward emptiness unfilled. Why do I keep thinking about removing it? I imagine the needle that would undo what the needle did. It can be done, though not perfectly: traces remain. Do I want to go back to the beginning? Before the beginning? Am I imagining what will be left when this slopes down toward nothing? When I start writing like this, writing and love affair often end, paradox weather, at the same moment. As if the love affair were an excuse for writing. Or vice versa. Not always. Sometimes. There was this girl I knew a while back. A young girl. Even younger than this one. And that’s sayin’ somethin’. Course I was younger then too. But not much. And this other girl, who had a way with words, described the beginning of a love affair as the time when you look over at your lover and think: Everything you do is art. Right here right now, sunlight girl, everything you do is art. Your lawyerliness. The way you dress, thirtysomething style but without a lot of effort. Your stripey socks. The layers over your breasts. Your idealism. Your energy. Your taste for novelty. Your affairs with women. Your struggles with your mother to be acknowledged, recognized, loved. The way you write, letting just a little feeling show, in a word here, there. Your passion for Myers-Briggs. You: ENFP, The Champion. Me: INFJ, Mystic Writer. What is that a recipe for? Chaos? A swirl of warm chaos in your eyes. Compelled. Your taste for red meat. Your thirst for red wine. Your terror of the silent treatment. Your fast running. How remarkably convenient for a commitmentphobe to be such a fast runner. Captain of the track team. Dream record holder. I could never keep up. Over a mile, anyway. Over a longer distance, well, that’s different. The way you say yeah at certain moments in a voice slightly rougher, slightly deeper, than your own. When you’re giving way. Your joining a chamber group to play Schumann. The way you zip your black down coat in the rain on a street outside the Whitney Museum of American Art after seeing certain things with me. Your mismatched bra and pants. The lines around your eyes, which, combined with your hair, the slant of your eyes, the shape of your mouth, remind me of an English sheepdog. Why? Who knows. That’s how it is with art. You know what but you never know why. The way your jeans fall along your hipbones, showing yellow rose between pants and top. The way you know you’re beautiful but try not to care too much about it. Your slightly knock-kneed, slightly pigeon-toed walk, elegant as a seabird. Your twisting and turning to avoid commitment. The way you fight so hard to avoid falling in love with me, which of course only makes things worse. For you. The freckles sprinkled over your hands and arms as if from a big saltshaker. The way you rise, hungrier than before, wide-eyed, breathing hard. It really is all art. I’m not making this up, people. This afternoon our art adventure is Egon Schiele. That should be twisty and rough enough for the likes of you and me. In this moment. When everything you do is art.
Version 6: Losing the Plot
Losing the plot. That’s me. Everywhere. Up on 32nd Street with the Ginger Man. I guess you’d call him my therapist. I’m losing the storyline here, Peter. That’s his “real” name, Peter. My rock. On whom my Church is founded. Good. Is what he says. He says that a lot when I feel like I’m falling apart. Great. That’s a big help. Thanks. Definitely worth two hundred bucks. Next. I’m not just losing the plot in my life. In my writing, too. I thought I was writing a novel. No more goddamn poems. Go commercial. Hollywood. Big bucks. Then along comes a cold gale of poetry, blowing me so far off course I’ll never get back. I suppose that’s a story: How I Lost the Plot of My Own Life. That’s what my man Adam Phillips would say. He loves turning things around like that. Maybe that’s why I need a story so badly. Because I don’t have one. Maybe people who really have a story don’t need to reach out for it, hold it tight, squeeze it ‘til the eagle grins. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve lost the storyline. This morning I didn’t just pick up golden hairs from my purple blanket where I had forced her to her knees and loved her. This time I had to turn the blanket over to hide the rivulets of plot encrusting its dark surface. Turn the page. Erase, erase, erase. That’s life. Mine, anyway. I entered her last night for the first time. That’s a plot turn, isn’t it? Coming across a great distance. The familiar and unfamiliar mingling like characters brought together by chance—or by authorial intention. As when we meet. Yesterday at the Neue Galerie in the company of Herr Egon Schiele, that top-drawer pervert, littlegirlnapper, with his twisted limbs, hot rage of sex rising redbodied, redfaced. Then, dinner at Savoy in SoHo. And the thing that’s been lurking at the back of the stage steps out like Orson Welles in The Third Man, spotlight finding him in a doorway of dark stones. Face pale as the full moon. Or the masks of comedy and tragedy melted in one. He’s been talked about but never seen since the movie started. A late entrance. OK, here it comes: the age difference. Could it be bigger? Maybe not. When I was a newspaper reporter you were being born. Well, we had different things to do that year, that’s all. But doesn’t 25 years make the last act of the screenplay inevitable? Looks that way. Why fight the story? The war is over and I must leave. Schiele’s last words, vanquished by the 1918 flu, disappearing between the lines in his sketchbooks. His wife having died just days before, pregnant with their first child. The war is over and I must leave. I suppose I should surrender, give up my fantasies of a story with this sunlight girl. A happy ending. That’s what they call it—when you have a story. But I don’t. I’ve lost the storyline. So I can’t give myself even the comfort of doom. I just pick myself up and roll with the gray waves rippling down the Hudson to the harbor, unwitting and unwilled, carrying their freight with them like history, waterlogs, boats of many colors, cold tide, ripples on the surface forming and unforming like a plot, one moment here, the next moment gone, us here, she and I, loving each other on this purple blanket, in spite of differences, in spite of samenesses, in spite of everything.
Version 7: The Underworld
Down to the Underworld. Orpheus and Eurydice. We go deeper into the Underworld, and then the Underworld goes deeper into us. How did we learn? I don’t know. I wasn’t ever much of a student. Spotty. Like the leopard. My totem. I’m a shaman. I have the power to take you to a place where we both change into something else. Change and change and change again. Where time is white hot. Space-time consciousness is altered. Not to sound too crazy. I don’t think you sound crazy, spirit girl, my soul, companion in the underworld. It feels like it could be anywhere. Yes, it could. Anywhere other than 20 River Terrace, Apartment 16H. An address that already doesn’t sound like New York. Another place. Rougher, deeper. Dirtier, you would say. Then, having broken each other, leveled each other’s cities from the air, leaving the smell of burning flesh and bricks piled, no two still joined together, we rise to find ourselves on the dark sheet where we began. And there you are: beautiful, pure, undefiled. The smile that levels my heart. Nothing left of incandescence but the words scrawled on you, fading slow as memory. A map, a text, a liturgy, an order of service, a secret doctrine. We can’t be this way all the time. Only one day a week for us. We sinners. We fallen away from grace. In between, we have the working week, words to ponder over and to pray. When mystics come back, red and raw, seared by having touched the burning face of God, this is all they bring: a few scratches, a few bruises on a piece of paper, a piece of bark, a piece of skin. How deep the disappointment, as if the world had been snatched away. And then you go down into darkness, nothing but a whispery page for guidance, swaying over it in your fur cap as you repeat the words from memory on the Number 7 train, leaving Manahatta for the edge of the known world, holy book on your knees. But if you can stay in darkness all the way to the end of the line, then the writing begins to wriggle into life in signs and portents. Mystic 7, blinking neon jazz by my man Stuart Davis. Sweetly framed. I must learn to read again. I forgot. Now learn I must. Thou art my sweet Book, my Mystery, my Grace. And by bending to submit Thou hast conquered. Me. I hold you spreadeagled on the purple blanket and push images deep into you. They gestate and are reborn during the week while we are apart. In your new office, high over Park Place. In the conference room. On the telephone. Between your cases. In your cases. Images like movie stills, burned on the retina, exposing you, exposing us twisted in attitudes of worship. During the working week I am penitent, itinerant, mendicant, bag and staff and sandals and little else, cast out from God, not knowing the road home, standing outside the Bank of America on Church Street, asking for directions from anyone who will stop. Trembling with fear like the last leaf on a tree, having seen all my comrades lean out into the wind and disappear, tumbling home, frail, veined, shivering. And the blue marks I’ve made on you seem, like our bodies, too frail to bear us home. Figures drawn in snow by children’s multicolored mittens, they last a little while only. Yet long enough to bring us back across the space between us, our separate kingdoms, bridge and river, Brooklyn and Manhattan, to each other, where it begins again the instant that we touch.
John Benditt is the author of the debut novel, The Boatmaker. As an editor at Scientific American he was responsible for conceiving and editing that magazine’s 1988 single-topic issue on AIDS, which was at the time the biggest seller in that magazine’s 150-year history. His journalism career culminated in five years as Editor-in-Chief of Technology Review, published by MIT. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College he studied with Adrienne Rich and was awarded the John Russell Hayes Poetry Prize by Robert Creeley. His fiction has appeared in Guernica. He grew up in Seattle and lives in Brooklyn.