When did I know Sonia?
Well I knew her in Chicago.
I must have lived there for a while. It felt long—extended. A sudden new apartment is the caesura of city-living, an interruption that continues the poem.
I knew Sonia when I did not even know Nina. Nina did not replace Sonia. These were not significant people, but I knew them.
Sonia attended the University of Chicago and there is the gothic stand of that strong campus. I would visit her, she’d meet me in the student union— plush, long, deep, and wooden. You know. She’d meet me on a second stair like a princess as I climbed into her territory from the worst coldness. I was not achieving a degree. I was nineteen. She led me with solemnity to the divinity students’ coffee lab, everyone had brownish hair. Beard, jeans, candle. There was a mossy pool table and she was a blonde.
Sonia was becoming Italian, by study. She was going to leave UChicago for Italy, to take off in a career in comparing literatures here and then Genoa. There was a certain old poet she was pursuing heavily. She was very certain. She took me about this freezing place (the university is her winter palace) and I’d had to throw so many buses and trains at it, transfer, transfer, to get to the student union at all after stepping on so much snow like lots of blonde, frozen fat.
I had followed her to Chicago from Santa Rosa. We’d been in high school together. But in Chicago, I saw her only a handful of times, a disappointment having followed somebody that far. I hadn’t even met Nina yet.
Sonia alerted me to the hard yellow paint in the interior of her dorm building. It was meant to push out thoughts of suicide in the pressurized freshman who lived there. Psychologists—with bonus degrees in color theory and business—must have recommended yellows of this hue. Very strong and thick. Marigold, or rich ripping saffron. My childhood bedroom had a marigold-painted ceiling, so I mused, upon hearing this stupid anecdote, if it was why I was alive.
I didn’t know what to do. Sonia said, “Sign your name here, in the ledger,” like Satan. This, to get past the guard up to her room—a single—on the eighth floor. The University of Chicago only needed my name and the time, if she was going to be there, standing beside me. They only needed to know of me what time I arrived and when I would get going. I was stunned.
She reminded me—”Susan.”
The time was late. She told me I could spend the night. But how I wanted it to be should, should, or would, would, that warble, would that you spent it. Tonight.
I stayed over any time I did visit, because it’s just too difficult to come to and ‘fro UChicago from any of the other neighborhoods. There is no good line, bus or train, it’s cold. I was the only person on the last bus (after two transfers) that I took out to her, the last time I was invited. The driver assured me, he wasn’t going to hurt me. “I won’t do anything to you,” he was vowing and swearing. “I would never hurt you. I won’t do that,” he called back to me, insisting on his ability not to do something to me, constantly. In the morning, Sonia went to class or the library and I masturbated in her bed. It was not because of her, not a letter to her. It was because of me. And then I made tea in a hot pot, and read an entire short novel by a woman, or if I couldn’t find any (typical in rooms of freshmen—women coming only after the introductions, usually alone), I’d pick something up by Richard Brautigan. At the time I always had his novel, The Abortion, with me.
I found myself on the phone with Sonia that March, when it was still freezing. Snow was still high and billowing if pilling with dirt. Old snow retaining its mass but becoming increasingly homeless. I was asking her to come and meet me somewhere. Maybe meet me this time. To a Greek diner or a Thai or Ethiopian restaurant? I wanted, regardless of nation, to suck on only lamb with Sonia, to see her in a different light. Really. What about Belmont? I did not want to go to her campus again. It was plush, long, warm. The last time I had mastur- bated in Sonia’s bed, I had got the sensation that none of this was mine or me, even Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar was getting ruined in this place, the University of Chicago. I do not even remember what I really wanted her to read. What did I bring over for her? Don’t quiz me. Don’t seize me.
Dark Spring. Unica Zürn. That was one of them.
I said, “Can we be friends during a Chicago winter or not, Sonia?” She didn’t want to go off her campus. It was too cold.
“I guess I don’t want this,” she said.
I had given her the short knife of a book, Dark Spring, and Duras’ The Lover, but this book, if you remember its plot, is simply about something that feels almost like it’s nothing, it’s not right. Certainly it’s not right. Simply a relation (a short romantic affair in Saigon) that establishes itself, and has a color or a little liquor that it pours, but everything has a color or a liquor. You’re saffronine, a little, from what you saw (a dorm wall, over several visits), for
a very, very long time in life, because nothing unusual enough, rhythmic, or happenish enough happens enough. So it stays with you for really no reason until death wrings out reasons. Death is the end. There really is a Sonia, as there was a Nina, as my forehead has marigold on the inside of it from looking up at the ceiling as a child.
“What about if we met halfway?” I checked.
I visited her—uninvited—at the closing of her freshman year. We hadn’t spoken since that phone call. It must have been finals week, the campus was so
a-hush. I was with Jerome. We were in her dorm building’s lobby, speaking candidly, with gusto and bravado as was Jerome’s style, with the guard. Jerome had a bright black Jaguar he’d park anywhere, throwing on the lights, and so I had thrown the buses and trains off of me, and also my work as a stationery cutter at the back of a store—this for a couple who painted their two pug children on thank you notes, on little mirrors and on lids. Where are all those popular pugs now of the early 2000’s? Are they old?
Now I polished my skin in Jerome’s bathtub, and I stayed over with him in a penthouse suite off the blue line, on the weekends his wife went to stay with her girlfriend, a boyfriend, or her parents in Wisconsin.
Fuck the red line—fuck it. Fuck the brown line, fuck the red line.
An elevator opened onto Jerome’s apartment. Can you believe it? You had to turn a key into a button, it would take you directly onto his foyer. It endured this service for all nine of the stacked up apartments, this front door that was so fucked, so passed around. Up and down. In my case (a guest) I entered the car and through a speaker asked for Jerome to call me up from the inside of his
place. A vast mahogany plane with pops of orange. He had bought many antique, rarified violins, painted them white (clogging them up) and hung them in clusters as chandeliers, no light, and quiet.
“Where are all the bows?” I asked, my first time there. “Wouldn’t you like to nose—” he rhymed at me, and gripped me.
The elevator system in this expensive building, while luxe, had a problem. If a neighbor, from his own foyer, called the car while it was occupied, it would deliver me, or anyone else on board, into a private sphere. The doors would open revealing a tableau, and this impertinent coincidence happened all of the time. Midcentury furniture everywhere—everything is low bamboo, mustard and pivotious—and too many magazines sprawled everywhere, sagging heavy on low jutty couches, the glossy flaps of so much studium, Vanity Fairs and Vogues, The New Yorker, Coke cans, groceries left out—a person or couple—no children—waiting on the elevator. An impatient wife. A leaving man. Someone with a tear, a tear, someone with someone naked just behind, sprawling with a magazine. Off to work. To the airport, a million bags are packed. I was often in the elevator, a surprise at their front door, in the corner of the elevator, reading, like an apparition, an orphan. I would have been reading The Abortion.
At Jerome’s, I pocketed erotic photos he’d taken of his girlfriends from the 70s, their stomachs blushing above the grainy pastures of pussy eider. He was too old for those women even then. They were college students named Fabine and Stella (cursive were their names on the back) and I collected them, collector’s cards, where I existed only digitally—video, camera, tied up, snap snap—on his computer, technology soaring and changing over sex and power, the indifferent, the copper owl.
I told Jerome everything about Sonia, my reason for traveling so far upon graduating Santa Rosa High. I said, “She’s a friend but a recluse—she really hates the weather.”
I told him, “In high school, I barely knew her.” But we had spent a night together in San Francisco, laughing at a street name—Blovis.
Jerome drove me right over to UChicago, because he liked to drive, to terrorize and race with the other drivers. We had the guard call up to her room.
“She’ll be right down,” the guard said, though it was strange who we were. Maybe Jerome was Sonia’s father? I was her younger sister? We were visiting her importunately during finals week? Not importunately. No, we were bringing her something important. I looked at the guard like I had something very important with me, something Sonia needed so badly to succeed that we had driven over through the thresholds of many neighborhoods. We had driven over them. But only a subordinate came down. A careful freshman (so swollen with her parents and brothers in her cheeks, I could see her brothers playing bold games in her swollen cheeks) who only tremulously said to us, “There was a misunderstanding in whom picked up the phone and what was said. It was never Sonia. It was me. I mistakenly said that I was her and that I would be down. Sonia has been over at the library studying for her finals. I’m sorry for the mistake.”
What a liar. What a person who still uses her own cheeks as marsupial sacks for ungrateful bros!
I pointed out to Jerome the wall color (hard yellow) and communicated to him the anecdote, about preventing suicide with design, with Josef Albers in your psychiatric smock pocket. Goethe. Van Gogh might even have been murdered. The theory is live, that a bunch of boys jumped him in the field. They took his gun. There is a chance he did not take his life.
“I have something very important for her, that she asked us to bring. Where is the library?”
We tromped out to the big gothic library, like Jane coming up on Thornfield Hall, or Belle at the beast’s, there it was teeming with the beasts of literature, all the brutes and whips and psychopaths of the form.
Dorothea coming up on Lowick, confusing it—old cock—for college.
Alright, let’s go find Sonia, though we knew where she was. She was up in her dorm, had lied. Had picked up the phone. But then had sent down this whom-ing lackey. Had Sonia even flipped to a single page of Dark Spring?
At the Harper Library we were not allowed in without our student ID cards. I didn’t have one. Jerome was incredibly old, now he’s dead.
We tried to find her over the turnstiles. I described her to him, “Sonia is really thin. She looks diseased and justified.”
When we got back to the penthouse, Jerome let me know he wanted to pay me for sex going forward. He said he wanted certain things that he didn’t want to have to ask about any longer. He wanted there to be an arrangement, a flat rate, that’s all.
He said, “I hope you realize that Sonia was in her dorm room, Susan, and she did answer her phone, but clearly doesn’t want to reconnect with you.”
“But you screamed her name in the library so earnestly,” I said but obviously had understood he had barked, a dog’s empty unloadings, trying to shake the building. He had made his own money. He owned several really large buildings. He bought up shuttered schools on the west and south sides, gnashed them to their bones (to eliminate mildew and asbestos) and remade them into condos. He had offered to situate me in one, a loft encompassing the principal’s office, in a schoolhouse as gothic as Sonia’s library, and her student union, but flush with new, oversized windows, and pops of orange on the roof and railings. In the lobby: modishly framed pieces of the old linoleum, so indelibly scuffed and one so blood- or paint-spattered that one wondered. Blood, or paint?
Jerome set me straight about the state of my friendship with Sonia, his bed hardscrabble with ecstasy powder—“Sonia is really done with you now. It happens to people in their first year of college. They make the connections that will last for them and concretize their lucrative futures. What do you really have to offer to her, Susan?”
But I had connections. Richard Brautigan’s daughter selected my writing—a letter I hadn’t edited at all, which I’d had to retrieve from the UChicago dorm hall’s recycling bin—for a tribute issue to the late, beloved father. “The last of the beat writers,” he is still called. Ianthe Brautigan wrote, saying her father would have liked it. He would have, she wrote, found me quite funny. I wrote her back, a long letter, taking care not to mention Brautigan. One should never talk to a woman as if her father were ever alive. Even in this special situation where her father was integral to our connection. Even Brautigan doesn’t matter if he had Ianthe. An organization sent me a check, that I ripped into the toilet at Jerome’s, because I wasn’t being funny. I didn’t yet have my accounts, holdings, and investments.
Jerome said, “You really do have to go, my friend.” He was hosting a dinner, with his wife and a few of their friends and other partners from the neighborhood and beyond. He called for it and I went into the elevator. I tripped. The ride lasted forever. It kept stopping, almost everyone was leaving the building at this time. It stopped on a floor—someone is leaving in a huff. I’d seen it before. This was the most slovenly of the apartments with the most rote arrangement of midcentury pieces. They had not managed to mismatch the look with ancient artifacts or a startling dark Goya print, framed with clear pink Lucite. They only had the midcentury starter kit, Eames over there. And boxes still unpacked, Cokes. Magazines all over the floor, the studium blue-ing them. He had with him his whole packed bag. He came in and kicked my bag full of books, I clutched my new key. I put it in my bag and let my hand matriculate in the dark air of their survival and indifference to him, and even to me. I didn’t want to take the bus ever again—to be promised to be preserved like that by a muttering, by a bus-driving pedophile. But I wanted to read. I would read The Abortion again while I walked to the south side. The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, by Ianthe’s dad Richard Brautigan, is about a librarian who lets everyone into the library, even in the middle of the night. Why not walk? I’d walk to the south side from the blue, I was sick of this bus. You can even walk and write, I told myself, the self, on some stolen stationery. You can take anything you want from your employer. You can write on the dog. Two dogs—you don’t walk while you write, but on each corner. A block is for thinking, your planning. A corner then is for writing, the letting. Let me love you, Sonia, I wrote, to Ianthe Brautigan. Those pug faces full of lines, wrinkles, directing all of this writing into two circles. The face is nothing but a wronged circle—if you see mine, I’m writing on my forehead.
I was sitting now with Erika in the Mojave desert in a little town, Nylon. She said, “That’s horrible, Susan. You know, I had a stalker. I still have him, most likely. We were in one college class together—one!—even now he pops up. He writes me postcards. Very brazen, writes to me still on this totally open platform. You can do anything you want to a woman. You could rape her on a platter, on a microphone. Even the post office could be doing something about this.”
“I wasn’t truly stalking Sonia, Erika, though it’s true my new condo looked onto her dorm room. It was horrible. I couldn’t get away from her. She lived there for a whole new year (her sophomore) and I could see her studying, having friends over, reading, growing larger.”
“Yes. We had both been very small. Thin, like sketches. But she started to become very real, very filled. Satisfied with something. Able to digest food properly, where I still cannot. There’s something I still reject, I don’t know exactly what.”
“Yes. You are like a sketch, Susan, very hollow and idea-like.”
“Yes, without the fruition. Sonia was becoming fruited, in her room. I saw her eating and dancing alone, with no rhythm at all, there was even some romantic intrigue, nothing great. I saw her reading, but I wasn’t close enough to make out titles. What was she reading? I had to get that telescope, Erika, only for this. I pointed it away for the sex acts, or if she cried I did not magnify her—I promise. A sophomore is boring, I promise, more boring than a freshman. Trust
me, I didn’t even look, even with my new photo lens. But I needed to know what she was reading. I saw a dark book, a Z or a V, a white letter on a dark cover, hatched and sprawled, I thought it could have likely been Dark Spring, or La Batarde by Violette Leduc really was with her, in her room, as in mine, but the zoom revealed these things, Beckett, then Hawthorne. Dante, Boccaccio, Calvi- no. Unforgivable, unforgivable things. Paulo Coelho, Erika.”
“Nobody can account for what they read when they were twenty,” Erika said, really exasperated now. “I’m sure you would not want to have been magnified—stalked.”
“I did not stalk her. Don’t say this. I stalked her mind, I wanted to know what a mind like mine might be doing—over there.” On Blovis we had been so similar. We laughed at that street name, Blovis, and a whole night spent out, in a park. We slept side by side on a hill, heavy-ing our feet with all of our blood. Blovis, the mutant fold in an extra vagina. Hash and our Ani DiFranco ticket stubs. Whatever. There are things that should, should last forever. Would that there were time.
“Well I forgive you,” spoke Erika. “It sounds like you were in a lot of adolescent pain.”
“I mean you needed—”
“Don’t say it, Erika. Just because Jerome was so much older. Do not, to me, not in our Nylon, mention the hell of childhood. A woman should not mention another woman’s father. It’s not fair. We didn’t come to Nylon to be like that.”
“I think what you needed—if you’ll let me speak, you idiot, you stalker— you needed a student ID to get into that damn library!” Erika shouted in our yurt. She was used to my accusations, and the violet fin that I sucked on, in my tongue.
I hadn’t needed Harper Library, she was so wrong. You are so wrong, Erika. I had a bookstore, and the picks of someone named “Lidia.” But there were only ever men working there. Where was Lidia? How did these get here, to this shelf? What alien is Lidia? Finally, one woman. I went right up to her. “Lidia?” No, she didn’t even work there.
That was Nina.
“Harper Library? Please, Erika. A student ID card to get in there? Oh Erika, that place was a death trap. The administrators and psychiatrists and the business office should not have been so concerned with painting the dorm walls—it was always off the library. Students got onto the spires, during finals weeks or at any time at all. After the grades had been submitted. Sure. Their bodies would appear like a bead of sweat on the exterior, like a roaming pimple all a-pop. It was so far away from me, like watching a flea or two spring off a beast or at least this beast’s, its gray stolid carcass, that gothic place. The lights
and sounds of suicide responders would matriculate and I would masturbate. Not for them. Not for anyone at all. I loved to masturbate, as you know.”
“To jump off of all those books and the microfiche,” Erika mused, “how definite, like you’d really read everything.”
“Yes, these students were truly so dumb,” I agreed. “They had clearly not read everything—though not all books are saffronelle. So many are written by pedophiles . . . ”
“Do you know where Sonia is now?” Erika wanted, in our annual yurt, to know.
“Yes. I have seen her profile on LinkedIn, Erika. She is in Italy. She works for the estate of Eugenio Montale, the fascist.”
“The poet? I didn’t know that he was one.”
“She works there and maintains a residence in New York, too. Anyone is a fascist if you look at them long enough.”
“Montale was in love with a Jewish woman. He was dismissed from his work at the Vieusseux research library for refusing to join the party, in 1938.”
Erika was on her phone now. She was looking up Montale—and Sonia. Her picture was on the website for his estate, in Genoa. Her blonde and gray hair. The work she had done to bring out the reality of his anti-fascism, which should not be forgotten. It says as much on LinkedIn.
“He was a poet, in fact, because he could not be a journalist, because he would not be a fascist. He turned to poetry, to metaphysics, to solitude—”
“Stop. Enough. Why hear of this? Only tell me of Irma Brandeis.”
Erika’s phone sputtered to look up the woman. I could hear it, across the yurt, cranking and hawing. At last, “Irma Brandeis had to get out of Italy, Susan. In 1939. She came back here, and she taught at Bard. She was a scholar of Dante at Bard, and she wouldn’t ever speak of her role in Montale’s poetry, or his life. That she was his ‘Clizia.’ She practically denied the entire relation, though she was once his translator.”
“Should we step out,” I asked, “and look at the desert night?”
“He wrote ‘Finisterre,’ a poem about the end of the world, in which he wrote, ‘ . . . The sounds of crystal in your nighttime nest surprise you—”
“Enough! No! I don’t want to hear the poetry of that fascist Eugenio Montale!”
“But he wrote more convincingly, I agree, of the end of his relationship with Irma. He said, ‘You know it: I must lose you again and I cannot—’”
“Let’s go outside. Let’s turn off the internet. It doesn’t mix with the desert does it?”
“He said, ‘I seek the lost sign—’”
“Let’s see some stars, they are almost as big as bruises, bullets, and patches out here.”
“You always do stars,” she chided me about this story, this mere fiction. “You always want them to do all the punctuation for you, Susan. You never want any of the other ways toward the ending. It’s getting so boring. No, as your friend, I’m depriving you. I won’t go out there. I’m staying inside.” This triangle. This etch of an inside. But she turned off her phone.
She knew that I would stay with her.