Within These Arms Forever Swim
by John Andrew Fredrick
From the get I just seemed to know things about her, things I couldn’t possibly have twigged without having had, one might say, some inexplicable connection with her, to her—whichever preposition or idiom one prefers to employ. For one thing, though she didn’t wear a wedding ring, just a dark purple bauble with a thin gold band on the pink pinky of her right hand, I sort of divined that she had a husband, and that she was a mom, a devoted and loving one, though she didn’t at all look old enough to have had a ten-year-old son. It sounds odd to frame it like this, but neither did she look big enough to have had a child. Though of course size has got absolutely nothing to do with it, motherhood and all of that: doubtlessly, there are innumerable lady-munchkins and wee, waify, petite things the great, wide, wicky-wacky world over giving birth right now, this minute, going into labor and sweating it out in boiling thatched huts or in perfectly temperature-controlled top hospitals, or doing “the home birth thing” in special soft white and blue inflatable bathtubs, with midwives and husbands and boyfriends and doulas dancing anxious attendance upon them.
Now I don’t want you to go thinking I fancy myself super psychic or anything, some trippy clairvoyant or fortune-telling crystal-gazer—even though I kind of am. But not to the extent that I could sit you, say, down and go: “You’re in Advertising, of course, though you got your start in Sales. In your spare time you’re, hmm, I would say… an amateur watercolors painter—of landscapes? Or, no—seascapes! I see seascapes. That’s it. You’ve got two kids, you like dogs all right but love cats, love to read, oh, mysteries maybe and classics of course and all manner of thrillers and a bit of historical fiction, aaaaand… you’re, um, happily divorced and—let’s see—you’re a Virgo or a Capricorn who doesn’t really like to drink all that much, but you wouldn’t say no to a flute of quite dry champagne, a nice pint or two of good craft pale ale, and the occasional glass of sherry or indifferent red wine.”
I’m not that “The Shiningish,” is what I’m saying. It’s just that with certain people I can (could?) just tell. And possess something of a sixthish sense in relation to. And furthermore, if I could show you a picture of her, of Kristine, a faded snap or yellowed Polaroid, or send one to you on your iPhone or iPad or whatever they’re called, you’d probably take one quick look and go: “Yeah, you took a wild, wild guess that a bird like her would’ve been scooped up already, professor—‘taken,’ and all of that. How’d you suss that one out without special paranormal magic powers and all? Some sort of wizard or warlock you must be! And that stuff about you guessing she was a mom, to boot? Wow. You ‘knew’ that too? A ridiculously pretty and genuinely nice forty-year-old American woman with a kid? Get out!”
Yeah, well, you know: she didn’t look forty. Not by a long chalk. And she was, by anybody’s standards, undeniably beautiful—with big wide light blue and, as I was to learn later, sometimes grey or even sea-green eyes that had that rare sparkle or lightsome twinkle. Just crazy pretty eyes. Very rare. At once unsettling and rivetingly, yet strangely reassuring. And because she was indeed undeniably ridiculously pretty—almost impossibly so, I daresay; one-in-a-several-hundred-thousand attractive—her age didn’t hardly factor into it, the admiring or the taking in of her, Kristine. Even in glamorous Los Angeles where practically everyone’s obsessed with looking young, seeming youthful, happy and fit and tan and “great.”
And Kristine was gorgeous, fetching, etc. in a way that made the beachy-salted, flower-faced blondes and not-blondes who floated and drifted in and out of my Creative Writing classes in diaphanous cantaloupe or canary sun dresses or bright white terrycloth tennis shorts or, latterly, those horrors the ghastly throwback high-waisted blue jean bell bottoms from the throwback 70’s—she made those types seem like so many chimeras, bad dreams one hadn’t dreamt yet. Kristine revealed them for what they were: superficial and unjustifiably supercilious little girls. Even if they were model-tall and on their whip-smart way to B.U. or Berkeley. Up to my desk they’d flounce or bounce, those girls—to flirt or chum their lissome, winsome way into turning in late their assignments, their stories and poems, wangling extensions, making excuses, waggling well-turned ankles, throwing knowing looks just so. Pressing an index to a plump or pert lip, they’d cry roommate problems or chronic panic attacks neither they nor their meds could cope with; a, like, serious midterm coming up and just, like, couldn’t find the time. Or their first case ever of writer’s block. Overselling it, they’d sedulously explain how they’d encountered utterly unexpected family problems: dead gran, sick pet cat at the vet, younger cousin away at Yale or NYU almost did a half-gainer off the Chem building over the weekend and was now on Special Extra Double-Secret Vigilant Suicide Watch, etc. They’d tell me they broke their left big toe over the weekend doing a keg stand at a raging full-on major kegger; had to entertain a long-lost relative in from, you know, out of town, i.e., the usual feeble or dubious pretexts and so-called mitigating circumstances.
And as they stood there fidgeting Lolitaishly, biting said lips lubriciously, playing the faux-naif,averting their impercipient gazes (only to glance back my way in order to check whether or not what they were selling was “working”), sipping smoking non-fat lattes from pale paper cups or chocolate Frappuccinos from see-through plastic-domed tumblers, I’d smile all wan and “understanding” and just go “Yeah, okay. That’s all right, Molly [or Megan or Miley or Michele with one “L”]: I understand. You can turn it in on Tuesday, Wednesday, Maundy Thursday—I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. And sorry about your cat, your tootsie, your granny, your roommate, your psyche, your messed-up cousin, your neurotic bid for special consideration/treatment on account of your special snowflake-status/certified vogue neurosis/diagnosis. I get it. I do. I sympathize. It’s all right. It is. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Oh yeah for sure. No, really. Just try and have it ready by the time you graduate or apply for Social Security, if you would be so very very very kind. Cheers, yeah. Whatever. Oh, don’t mention it, I understand. Okay.”
Little cakes on little plates, all these girls were. All save Kristine.
And because of her, her luminous (there really isn’t another word) presence, her je ne sais Quoi, those mesmerizing cornflower blue eyes and riveting and unmissable tornure comme une princesse–it was like I wouldn’t even see them anymore, those other, paler creatures, all the vacuous-pretty pretties on perpetual parade. Paler metaphorically I mean of course. (N.B. Not that the guys–the blokes, the lads, the fresh young fellows—didn’t try to engineer extensions out of me as well: they were just, you know, not so Juicy Fruit-smacking dramatic about it.)
It was as though I’d look right past or through them, if you will, the supplicatory ones—look to near the very back, audience left (or stage right), where she unfailingly sat, in a calico dress with combat boots; in a black, pleated tennis skirt with cowboy boots, in jeans with Converse All-Stars. With those huge blues (or greys, sea-greens—how they changeably changed!) intensely trained my way, flashing her long eyelashes when she’d catch me gazing at her lips, her unstoppable cheekbones, that milky neck and pair of fine proud shoulders and perfectly Julie Christie-reminiscent bob of dark red hair and “funny” nose.
A “witchy” nose, you might even say.
Though its singularity, its oddity, somehow only added further to her prettiness. “I have a funny nose, I know,” Kristine’d opine sometimes and smile irresistibly, with the shy and—all right—coy confidence of those who know, whether they show it or not, that they’re terribly attractive, that their so-called flaws render them even more lovely, somehow.
Something I just thought of that might help you picture her: if you really want to know what she looked like you might have a peek at George Romney’s famous portrait of Lady Hamilton—as Circe. Then, picture old Emma there with, you know, a “funnier” nose. And that’s her, that’s Kristine all over. The spitting image of. Or pretty close, I think. Were you here I could just show you the picture in the tatty copy of English Painting (Oxford University Press) I’ve checked out so many times from our antiseptic little community’s little library. It’s quite a nice one, our library. Rather lovely. Well, not really it isn’t. I only wish it were. It’s cozy and bright, at least. And often quite quiet, considering. But the collection/selection’s not up to much. It doesn’t half raise a tisk and a sigh from me every time I drop in, it don’t. No matter, really: I often bring along something from my own humble stash of classic paperbacks.
So strange, now, to write her name. Kristine. Kristine. Kristine.
Kristine’s class having taken place during the condensed and truncated Winter Session, our meetings were four times per week for two hours in the sleepy-dreamy crepuscular afternoons, when the quickly-dipping January sun would glance through the tatterdemalion slats of the blinds on the crepe-colored classroom’s old yellowed windows and light up that exquisitely-cut red head of hair of hers for a moment, a momentary flash, and it’d look like she was nimbused with crimson-golden fire. To the point where a smitten one like moi might have to stifle a gasp or something.
Kristine always sat in the as I’ve mentioned “stage right” row alongside the wall. Unfailingly. This one time a kid, a nice, constantly gum-chewing, big-ass curly-haired guy called Luther, was in “her” seat and Kristine just stood there for a moment, not saying anything but (as I glimpsed her in profile) smiling Giacondaishly, till he sort of went “Oh! Sorry!” and automatically got up and shifted in a rather ungainly way his khaki backpack and Pee Chee-full of short stories to a desk two desks away, snapping his bloody insouciant Double Bubble louder than ever.
Now for a word about my feckless efforts to teach something that I thought, that I knew, couldn’t be taught, shouldn’t be taught, perhaps.
I mean, you can’t teach someone to be an artist. You can’t teach someone to write, to be a writer–despite what all the pamphlets and adverts for Writing Programs and Retreats tell you in emphatic, multicultural color, those brochures for writerly success showing Beneficent Professor smiling approvingly above an Indian-sitting circle of would-be earnest Student Scribblers: future Didions, Austens, Amises, DeLillos. It’s not like tennis or crochet or contract bridge or French or manners or becoming a goddam sommelier, writing. It isn’t. The most you can do in a Creative Writing class is explicate a story or a novel or a poem or two, then give the students an exhaustive reading list and chain them to an armchair. Give her a messy pen and a sheet of paper and a quiet room; kit out him with a crisp laptop, command him to stare at it till it yielded something more well-contrived than quote-unquote true. To wish them to have the iron will to write, and to write with almost-murderous purpose, meaning it, immersing themselves all the way.
So many people want to be writers—and so few want to do the reading that it takes to become one, to do what it takes to take up arms against the sea of troubles that patiently awaits them on the blank and terror-filled page. Writing: it’s not something you can just abracadabra! You have to give your life to it! It’s one of the very hardest and most demanding things you can do. I’m not romanticizing or rhapsodizing here. It’s just the way it is.
And yet, the dreary guy plastic-bagging your 9V batteries and your toothpaste and disposable blue safety razors at the Rite Aid or Walgreen’s—he’s working on a Futuristic Thriller, don’t you know. Your gardener or broker’s got a Throwback Romance, a “Bodice Ripper,” in mind and half the chaps waiting round for pickup work down the Home Depot and U-Haul lots have Screenplay or Sit-Com ideas. The girl with the screaming spots on her collegiate cheeks and the bright smile stuck on as she scoops your double-fudge with almond shavings and peppermint sprinkles and coconut toppings is well into Part Three of her unpublished Fantasy trilogy; two or three of the customers standing beside you craning their necks trying to decide between hot fudge sundaes and banana splits are halfway-or-so through their second Memoirs. My dear old university friend Emily who’s worked in sales for upscale hotels and posh resorts for twenty years told me she felt like she would be happy if she just got one short story published somewhere, anywhere. Just one. Online, even. Ems’d take it. She’d be chuffed. Thrilled to the marrow. A few years ago, round about Christmastime, we’d had cocktails and she said she hadn’t written a new story since university. She’d taken a couple of useless UCLA Extension Creative Writing classes “Just like the ones you teach, John,” she’d confessed, but she’d been dead set, once the holiday season simmered down and she had some down time and some “me time,” on polishing up a few of the false starts her (our) old prof gave her good feedback on when we were at Cal together as fellow foreign exchange students. She’d kept them in a manila folder, paling-fading now and on onion skin, no less, these many long years.
Tell you what: I doubt she’ll ever get a shirt on, as far as writing goes. I doubt she’ll ever do it. Good old Ems. I wonder what she’s up to now. Whatever happens to people? One wonders. I haven’t a clue.
In order to give the writers manqué under my tutelage something, some crumb from the cake of my writerly experience, I’d resort to imparting the usual tips and tactics and age-old, adamantine admonitions: I’d counsel them to read everything by and study the sentence structure of the writers they liked.
And, paradoxically and ambiguously, I would tell them that all the time they spent reading online, say, about How to Write or Routines Of Famous Writers Like Joyce Carol Fucking Oates and James Sodding Baldwin–how they whiled away their evenings, mornings, afternoons? Well, that was time spent not writing! Time wasted!
By and large I would keep my comments on their under-written stories and over-written poems positive—and to a minimum. And in class I wouldn’t let them use a phrase—the phrase–that had ruined for me the one useless university Creative Writing class I as an undergrad had taken: “This doesn’t really work .” If there was a namby-pamby phrase associated with poxy workshops and three-day seminars and amateurish writing groups it was that one. So nebulous it made me scream in pain. Such a substitute for thinking, such an effete and typical response, a cop-out. They could say anything—anything civil, at least—about one another’s work, but they couldn’t say that, that a piece of prose or poetry didn’t quote-unquote work.
And of course I’d tell them to hope for the best and, if they ever got to the brave stage where they (not some windbagging, avuncular instructor) felt like they were ready to “send things out,” to never stop trying, no matter how many dejecting rejection slips from magazines and agents and publishers wallpapered their bathroom walls, the loo being the traditional place to paste up the evidence that one was serious about it, the entire near-impossible and deadly serious enterprise of publishing original compositions.
Anyway—as all of that, the prof with a capital P life I lead, seems eons ago, let’s get back to she, the incomparable she, whom I was telling you about.
When I learned something about her that I hadn’t managed to intuit or sense, that Kristine fairly lived for the sand and the surf, couldn’t—despite her very fair skin–get enough of going to the beach, the ocean, the waves and warm sand, I was no less than pleasantly surprised, for I too adored the seacoast. (Sometimes, here where I am now, late, late at night I fancy I can faintly hear the comforting plash and swish of it, the sea—but it’s probably only wishful thinking. In fact I’m sure it is.) Many’s the time Kristine’d told me of happy hours spent plopped on some sweet stretch of beach or other, keenly reading one of her precious black or tan or orange Penguin paperbacks, the Eminent Victorians–Hardy and George Eliot, The Brontes and the later, darker Dickens, mostly, she’d told me she favored: the deep ones, the heavies, the big boys and girls. Told also of the hours she spent watching her darling little elf-faced son Trevin flounder or frolic in the deep green foam and splashy sea spray on a fin-shaped cobalt blue Boogie board—how they were some of her skyey-happiest. A mere mention of the beach brought just the fondest smile to Kristine’s already-radiant face. “Oh, I just love it,” she’d said a thousand times if she’d said it once, like she’d forgotten she’d told me. “I love the beach. So so much!”
Effortlessly I picture her under her white-and-pale yellow Fruit Stripe Gum-striped umbrella, in a floppy caramel sun hat, in her stark black or adorable white-and-blue striped bathing suit. She looked so good in anything blue, the way it brought out her lustrous eyes, complimented contrastingly her lovely mop of wild and ropey just-past-her-shoulders hair.
Another of her favored pleasures or obsessions: running barefoot or in trainers several miles along the booming or pacific shoreline, her little, pert, cute round bum bobbing in these tiny buff-colored crackling nylon butt-twitchers; slight bust stuffed into a simple black or marigold sports bra; a thin white or yellow headband in her flying, now black-seeming mane sun-tinged golden red in the golden-orange light at sherbety sundown.
Kristine. The Witch Kristine. I haven’t mentioned that yet, have I? That she was a witch. A real one, mind you. Not just—you know—some amateurish Stevie Nicks type or quote-unquote crazy girl with a fetish or two and a smattering of occult texts or novels under her belt. Though she never really labeled herself as such. Not her style—no way. It was just something, well, understood. And something I couldn’t possibly have “known”—no matter how much I “knew” about her when we first met.
You don’t really think of a witch, even a pretty one, as going in for beach-going, though, now do you? Not unless the beach in question’s some outland littoral, some dark, wintry stretch of lonesome, desolate sand in a fiefdom-by-the-sea. A northern, tenebrous place where treacherous witches might conceivably hail from–violent-looking, obligatorily craggy, e.g. sharp black rocks and contorted oaks and weird-twisted pines jutting out of them. See her there, fix your rapt gaze upon her as she surveys the darkling, seaweed-strewn milieu, the eerie pyramids of indigo twigs and weather-blanched branches smoking wetly in the cold and rolling biting air. Great grey clouds gloomily merrying. Swirls of dark white cumulus in the ominous stratosphere. Snowflakes coming down now in crazy whorls, eddying round like diminutive shuttlecocks, frosting the ice plant and the tufted clusters of long curving grass that dot the distant reaches. Bleak waves breaking in cinematic silence, far from the madding shore.
You think witch-at-the-beach, you envision her hopping round wild tide pools and ice-cold rock pools, a well-gnarled staff in her blue-cold, long-nailed hand. The drone of whipping wind; burbling estuaries chopped by the gusts that go throwing cloaking mists across the dunes. Murders of crows and rooks overhead, winging from weald to wold. An unkindness of ravens in raucously caw cawing pairs arrowing suddenly through the darkening, tumbling skies; fearsome cormorants yawning, diving from nests of fetched birch and driftwood, or simply perched in archetypal duos atop lofty crags or on fog-enshrouded parapets. A frightening carnival of seagulls, sandpipers, terns, loons. Odd, dark shapes materializing in the misty distance. The oncoming moon behind a distant dolmen, cairn, or great stone-carved black cross, the cross Gnostic or Celtic, stone atop a stony hilltop, dark rock on darker rock; frozen, stoic, spooky, forbidding; ringed by gorse. Somewhere, some mad place, that unhinges the most morbid and sordid and gruesome and mythopoeic part of one’s vaulting imagination: sends one a-picturing terrifying rituals, ineffable atrocities committed beneath the bitter, painted stars. And now come newer, blacker clouds marbling that grey sky; thunder growling; lightning breaking in sudden, jolting zigzags, veining the torn firmament as an hooded hoyden with a bent torch sidles towards her, our witch, as a clodhopping gang of sweat-caked fishermen spots her and sheers precipitately in the opposite direction, occasionally casting furtive, frightened glances over toil-sore shoulders.
Fairly airing of ale and bread and unwiped excrement, the hoyden drags herself up to our girl. The beldam’s ripe bulk strains against strong winds. Her rime-rimmed mouth is most dry, cracked, wind-chapped. She comes bearing interesting news or gossip, invitations or gifts from a nearby hamlet or castle: a portentous report of a hanging, and the birds who came to peck out the condemned one’s eyes (birds of prey always start with the eyes, they say); a behest to come have a proper nibble of a swan pie with fresh warm cream; a dire and prophetic message from her quite-cross-with-her elder sisters (“Come hither! You’re in for it now, thou thing! We must have a word and at once, wench!”); a strange, dead, carnivorous flower or a gilt-edged and illustrated book with dandelions or thistles pressed into it; an edict of death, the result perhaps of meticulous magic, etched on a dirty strip of rumpled parchment.
And black rain beginning to drum right down in fat splats as the full red daubed-on moon goes up and up, yon moon gauzed with a strange patch of square cloud. There she is—a witch!– in her deep dark blue cape, with its hefty thick wool hood of course.
You meet a witch, divine after a while that she is one (she half-tells you and you believe her; she turns your friend Wally into a toad or a famous screenwriter; she vanishes into thin air and comes back and stands right behind you and pokes your sore-from-tennis shoulder, scares the heck out of you, basically), you’re probably thinking about how to get the hell away from her, not how she’d look in some jodhpurs and shiny-sleek sado-masochistic-looking English riding boots or a candy apple red thong ensemble with a plunging-and-push-up lacey white bra, wearing a pair of sexy black glasses she eventually takes off in order to get a better gander at you.
Nor might one normally picture a witch sitting at an ochre desk in a boring, regular old community college classroom, listening for all the world so hard it seems her ears will begin to tremble, twitch, then burst. Listening intently, intensely, smiling almost incessantly—except on the days when I loped in and plumped down a fortnight’s-worth of stories and poems on the tremulous desk (it was missing the rounded base on one of its metal legs). For then Kristine’s great sweet doll’s face would cloud somehow, betraying how distrait she was, how “faraway” and possibly anxious, quivering to hear what her maybe-favorite prof might have to say about her latest prose opus or batch of violently colorful poems.
The more I got to talking to her after class, the more I “knew” a lot of things about her (save the one key, occultish thing) without, of course, her telling me. The more skeptical of you lot might say I just made educated guesses. After all, I am a Doctor of Philosophy, and as an undergrad read both English and Psychology at university, thank you very much. Both of which help, of course, when it comes to sussing out character, getting a serious read on people, getting a sense of who they are, where they’ve come from. You out there who have a predilection for the let’s say supernatural might think she willed me to “know” these things, that she was already “inside my head” and in the process of settling in, as it were, changing the squalid bedclothes, throwing things out, swapping out the fading paper in the cupboards and the cheap kinds of confirmed bachelorish soaps and shampoos I used.
Here’s what I “knew” then, spelled out for your worships’ considered consideration: I “knew” that for a short time she’d been a stripper and then, for a shorter time, a high-end call girl; that in high school, I “knew” she’d joined a church cult; that she’d been raised Catholic (I can always tell that one—it’s a cinch, as sundry Californians have taught me to say); and that she’d left school early, taken the G.E.D or whatever it’s called, and had been going to Junior (I’m sorry—Community) college on and off (but mostly off) these twenty some-odd years, that she had both mommy and daddy issues, and had moved around a lot, farther and farther north, all the way (I later learned) to Canada– Victoria, to be precise, a notorious place for witchy-stuff, coven-stuff.
But I didn’t “know” that K. was a witch–not at first, I didn’t. Of course not! Which suggests that had I known what I was getting into I wouldn’t have gotten into it, you know. Which isn’t necessarily the case. Odds are I would have gone right ahead. A witch! Kristine—a real live honest-to-God one. Incredible! Ever known one? I hadn’t. Who had? I mean, I knew or guessed or intuited a lot of things about her, but I didn’t know that. Not till quite a bit later and after a bunch of weird stuff had happened did I reckon that one out. And even had someone (at a faculty party, at the campus caff or coffee kiosk) sidled up to me and gone: “You know that really good-looking student of yours—Kristine or something is her name? Chick with the remarkable eyes? You know she’s a sorceress, right? A right witchy witch? You do know that, right?” Well, I’d’ve probably just laughed and gone to fetch another drink or headed for the cashier with a “Yeah, right; sure she is” wink and a smirky fare-thee-well. Or said, all urbane and stuff: “Why, yes, of course she is–the sort of witch any red-blooded man’d easily be bewitched by, mate. She’s got the prettiest, and happiest, face you’ve ever seen. I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure. I mean, she never stops laughing, hardly. What you’re really trying to tell me is she’s gone and put a spell, a whaddyacallit hex–that’s right–on you.”
John Andrew Fredrick is the author of four novels and a work of nonfiction about the filmography of Wes Anderson. He has taught in the English departments at USC, UCSB, and Loyola Marymount. He is also the principal songwriter and frontman for a long-standing indie rock band called the black watch that has released nineteen albums to considerable underground acclaim in such outlets as Spin, Rolling Stone, Magnet, The Los Angeles Times, Time Out New York, and The Big Takeover.
Photo: Frank McKenna/Unsplash