Quinta carta de Sophia (Cartas de Insurgentes)
- Dear Yarostan,
Your letter was beautiful. I wish I had joined you at the time of the Magarna uprising instead of having Lem take you my silly letters.
I have a little bit more in common with you now than I did when I last wrote you. I've just come out of jail!
A few days after the so-called “general strike” which I attended with Daman, a loud noise woke me at seven in the morning. At first I thought it was thunder; a storm was raging outside. Then I heard it again: a loud, insistent knocking. I ran to the door in a stupor and opened it. Two huge uniformed policemen stood in front of me, both grasping the handles of the guns in their holsters!
“Mrs. Nachalo?” one of them asked.
“Miss Nachalo. Which one? There are three of us here.” My first thought was that something horrible had happened to Tina, who is no longer with us.
“Miss Sophia Nachalo.”
“That's me,” I said.
“You're under arrest.”
“That's for the court to determine; anything you say now may be used as evidence against you. Come with us.”
“Can't I get dressed?” I asked.
“Don't take all day.”
“Would you mind waiting for me outside?” I asked.
“Not this time, Miss. We'll wait right here. Step on it!”
“Could you at least keep your voice down? You'll wake everyone up,” I whispered.
“Just make it snappy, Miss, or you'll have to come in the clothes you're wearing.”
I took my time dressing and tiptoed out of my room so as not to wake Sabina. They were sitting when I came out. They both rushed out of the house after me. “O.K. Let's go.”
I started to Turn back in, asking, “Can I at least leave a note for my sister?”
“You've taken enough of our time, Miss. You can call her from the station.”
A third policeman was sitting in their car listening to the radio while waiting for his colleagues to escort me out of the ram. I'd forgotten my umbrella but I didn't ask for another favor. I got drenched.
“You've been charged with assault and battery,” I was told in a cold, matter-of-fact manner; it didn't seem to occur to any of them that the charge was ridiculous for a person of my stature. What had they thought when they saw me open the door in my pajamas and barefooted — that I might slug two enormous protectors of law and order? They'd kept their hands on their guns just in case. Maybe they thought I was “wiry.”
“Is my victim dying of the injuries I inflicted?” I asked, trying to imitate their cold matter-of-fact tone.
All of them including the driver turned to look at me. One of them mumbled something more about the court determining the extent of the injuries and about the possibility that my words might turn up as my accusers. They and I were silent for the rest of the trip.
I asked for the phone as soon as I got to the station. Everyone I asked was very cordial; I was told I could use the phone “right away,” as soon as I was interviewed and searched. But after I was interviewed once, I was interviewed again. And after I was searched one time, I was searched a second time and then a third. I won't bore you with the details; you must be familiar with them; police stations all over the world must have more in common with each other than with the neighborhoods in which they're located.
It must have been noon before I got to use a phone. I rang and rang but there was no answer. Of all days to decide to go out before lunch Sabina had chosen this one! I was escorted to a room full of women sitting on benches. I was furious at myself. How stupid I had been not to wake Sabina! In my early morning stupor I had thought my arrest was so trivial compared to the event that had taken place two days earlier — Tina's departure — that I had even whispered and tiptoed so as not to disturb Sabina's sleep with my silly “tragedy.” I could at least have written her a note during the time I was alone in my room dressing. How dumb! I felt so frustrated I bit my lip until it bled.
My anger gradually shifted to the sneaky psychology professor who was responsible for my arrest. I have to give him credit for one thing: he certainly is a psyche-manipulator. He had grinned when I'd slapped him in response to his intimidating insults. I had interpreted his grin as a sign of masochistic enjoyment. But I'm not a psychologist. His grin was the grimace of the victor! His insult-strategy had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: he had provoked the criminal to enact the crime! He's no masochist. He's a sadist, an ordinary bastard, an agent provocateur for the police. I didn't regret slapping him. In fact, I wished I had done something which deserved the description “assault and battery”; I wished I had given that morning's policemen some reason to keep their hands on their guns; I wished they had in fact told me that my victim was in a critical condition because of the wounds I had inflicted. Various colorful and ingenious forms of “assault and battery” drifted through my mind, none of which would ever be within my reach, none of which I'd ever be able to carry through. And while I pondered my total inability to torture my torturer the cracks on the blank wall across from me formed themselves into a smug face with a stupid grin whispering at me through its teeth; “Everyone can see that nothing is going to stop you, Miss Nachalo; you're a dangerous person; you should be undergoing treatment in a hospital, Miss Nachalo.”
Toward evening we were moved from the room with the benches to a similar room with cots but no blankets. I had been there, or in an identical room, once before. When trays of food were brought in I realized I hadn't been given any lunch but I didn't feel the urge to complain. After supper I asked to use the phone but the guard told me I could phone in the morning; she turned off the lights and shut the door; I thought we were locked in for the night. I was wrong. Sometime during the dead of night, blinding lights were turned on and I was one of several women herded out of the building into a van. Barely awake, I asked the woman next to me what was happening. “Nothing much, dearie; we're being transferred,” she said. Maybe such middle of the night transfers are “normal,” but for all I knew we were being taken to the river to be drowned. I was too sleepy to care.
I've never familiarized myself with the city's prison system and wouldn't have known where I was if I'd stayed awake in the van. The building to which the van transported us was the “classical” jail, the castle-like fortified monstrosity which is an architectural (and no doubt also social) monument to the first cities, the building with the thick stone walls, iron gates and endless corridors of cells with metal bars. When I was arrested several years ago I had only been shown the accommodations available in the courthouse building. This was my first visit to the “correctional institution” properly speaking. My first impression was favorable: the cot had a neatly folded blanket on it. But I didn't sleep well: the clanging gates, the footsteps on metal floors and a woman's shriek all conspired to destroy any comfort the blanket might have given me.
By the time breakfast was brought to my cell I was hysterical. I dropped the tray to the floor and shouted my demand to use the telephone. Eventually two guards escorted me out of my cell into a waiting room — where I was subjected to a medical examination. When that was over they escorted me back to my cell. I screamed about my rights and threatened to sue the prison authorities. In this I was somewhat hypocritical: I knew I had a right to use the telephone, but during all my years as a! “troublemaker” I had never familiarized myself with any of the , other “rights” I might have. I'm not apologizing for my ignorance. I know that “prisoners' rights” are little more than documents shifted to and fro by legislators and reformers. The physical set-up alone precludes a prisoner's having any rights, or as you put it so aptly, the prisoner's rights reside in the humanity of the jailer.
Shortly after my “examination” one of the guards returned and explained that I couldn't telephone just then because I would soon be up for trial. She seemed convinced that her explanation was perfectly logical. But it failed to pacify me; I continued to shout about my “rights.” She returned again, intensely annoyed, and at last accompanied me to a telephone.
I cursed Sabina for not being home to answer my call. I cursed Tina for having walked out on us just before my arrest. I cursed Daman; he never leaves his house before noon, but that morning he was out. Maybe he and Sabina were out together! (The very idea was absurd. Yet I later found out that they were in fact out together — looking for me.) Out of sheer desperation I tried Luis a although I knew she was at work. The guard triumphantly escorted me back to my cell; she had succeeded in pacifying me.
It turned out that I was “up for trial” all day long and by supper time I was wondering how many days or months I would continue to be “up for trial.” Some of my wondering can undoubtedly be traced to paranoia but as you well know the paranoia is itself grounded in terrible reality. How many have spent their last days waiting for the promised trial!
I only had to wait until the following morning. I was roused before sunrise and “transferred” back to the courthouse, not in the back of a van this time but in a car's comfortable back seat, which I shared with two other sleepy women.
As soon as we reached the courthouse I started demanding my “rights” again. An officious clerk with a clipboard enumerated the exact number of telephone calls I had already been “allowed.” Trying to grab his clipboard I asked if it showed how many times I had reached anyone. He backed away and returned shortly to tell me I could call my lawyer.
I finally reached Sabina. She sounded groggy; I hoped she wouldn't think she had dreamed my phone call. “Sophia, where are you?” she asked sleepily; “we thought you'd been kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped? I was! Two burly policemen kidnapped me and had me locked up. I'm in the courthouse now.”
“Ill call Daman; if I can't reach him I'll come by cab,” she said.
I felt lighter. I was even somewhat flattered: they had missed me.
The clerk asked, “Did you reach your lawyer?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said; “she'll come for me after the trial.”
He shrugged his shoulders with an “Another one of those nuts” expression and ordered me to follow him out of the waiting room. I followed him into another world, the world of the courtroom. A black-robed judge was already installed in almighty god's seat, passing judgment on lowly humans; on both sides of him divine clerks recorded his every word and gesture, divine messengers waited to fulfill his every wish and command.
Totally unlike my previous courtroom experience, I didn't have to wait all day only to return to court a week later. It was my turn as soon as I entered. My court-appointed lawyer made his way toward me to ask for my name and “occupation.”
The only familiar face in the entire courtroom was the face of my accuser, my “colleague,” the professor of behavioral psychology. He gave a brief but pungent account of the misfortune that had befallen him. He had come across Miss Nachalo in the hallway of their shared workplace and they had exchanged a few words; this much was all perfectly “normal,” and neither my court-appointed “defender” nor I pointed out that he had never before come across nor exchanged words with Miss Nachalo in their “shared workplace.” Everything was “normal” — when suddenly a snake reared its head in paradise. Totally unprovoked by any concrete physical deed on his or anyone else's part, Miss Nachalo “started to inflict physical blows” on his innocent person.
My presentation didn't match his either in eloquence or in penetrating behavioral insight. I said he had insulted me and I had slapped his face as hard as I could; my slapping his face couldn't be described as assault and battery; therefore I was innocent of the charge. I repeated my statement three times, once for my defense, once for my prosecution and again for the judge. In the judge's view, it was not within my competence to define the nature of my deed, but within his. Since I confessed to a deed which he classified as “assault and battery,” he found me guilty, fined me, and my trial ended. I saw my accuser's face grimace with dissatisfaction when the judge announced the fine: it was a trivial sum.
I paid my fine and rushed out of the courtroom. I pranced up and down the hall clutching my purse in my left hand, my right hand ready to swing. I vaguely hoped to give my community college “colleague” a chance to “come across Miss Nachalo” in a different hallway. Concluding for the second time that he wasn't a masochist, I abandoned my hope and left the courthouse.
A familiar car was parked across the street, empty and locked. Daman and Sabina must have gone inside to find me — no easy task, since I hadn't told Sabina where I was going, to be tried.
I sat down on the hood and waited. The car reminded me of Tina. I hadn't seen Daman since our argument about you and your previous letter, the argument which ended with Tina standing in the street shouting at Daman's vanishing car. I thought of her comment “Some fancy friends you've got” as I sat on the hood of my fancy friend's car. A few days after that argument Tina had left Sabina and me and my fancy friends.
I was intensely upset by Tina's departure. Not because it was totally unexpected. Sudden departures are in my own best style. Nor because I had ever thought Tina would remain by my side until the end of my days. On the contrary: I've often thought Sabina and I cramped Tina's development in our own peculiarly insidious ways.
What upset me about Tina's departure originates in experiences that took place eleven years ago in that garage I described so briefly in my last letter.
Two days before my arrest, Tina failed to leave for work in the morning. I assumed she was taking sick leave and thought the better of her for it: she had been excessively conscientious about her job. But just before lunch she pulled what must have been all her things out of her room.
Sabina asked, “Are you moving into the living room?”
“I'm leaving,” Tina announced.
“You could have avoided all questions by leaving at night,” Sabina said.
“I don't have anything to hide,” Tina retorted.
“Are you leaving town or just this house?” Sabina asked.
“Just this house.”
“And your job?” I asked.
“In about a week they'll figure out that I'm not coming any more and they'll hire someone else,” Tina answered.
“Good for you,” Sabina said. “Do you mind my questions?”
“Yes I do, Sabina,” Tina said sadly, “because you'll mind my answers. I know that the only way you'd ever go to a university building would be with a stick of dynamite in your hand. Maybe I'll feel that way too, but if I do, I'd like it to be for my own reasons. You've been crutches, both of you, and thanks to you I haven't learned to walk on my own. At least not very well. Some kids occupied a university building and inside it they're forming something they call a commune. I'd like to figure out how I feel about that by being part of it.”
“But Tina,” I protested, “surely you're not taking all your things to a building occupied by its students; do you expect this commune to last?”
Tina didn't smile. “I'm taking my things to Ted's.”
I jumped. “To Ted Nasibu's house?”
“Yes, to Ted's,” she repeated; “he'll be here in five minutes.”
“Couldn't you leave them here?” I asked; “this is as much your house as anyone else's.”
“It's not a question of leaving my things, Sophia, and I mind your questions too. I don't know what you've always had against Ted and I no longer care. I'm not just leaving my things there. I'm moving. I'm going to live in the commune and I'll be staying at Ted's.”
“At Ted Nasibu's?” I asked again, stupidly. I was on the verge of tears.
“Yes, Sophia, at Ted's! Do you have wax in your ears? Look at the scene you're making! Do you really want me to tell you why I'm leaving? I loved you, both of you. But I've come to hate you. I feel like your prisoner. The university, Ted. What else is taboo? Oh, I know it's not taboo to you. You have your reasons. But your reasons aren't good enough for me. They don't grow out of my own life. I do things for Sabina's reasons and I do others for Sophia's but I never do anything for my own reasons. I don't even know what my own reasons are. And that's all I want right now. To discover my own reasons. To become me, Tina, a human entity, someone who's neither Sophia nor Sabina. I'll wait for Ted in the street. It's getting stuffy in here.”
Tears rushed to my eyes and I ran to my bedroom while Tina turned around to go outside. I heard Sabina help Tina carry her things out. heard their shouts of “goodbye.” Then the front door slammed shut and Sabina burst into my room shouting, “Shame on you, Sophia!”
I was ashamed only of my uncontrolled crying. “You're not bothered in the least, are you Sabina?” I asked, no longer crying.
“I was bothered by the fact that she spent so many years with us! It's about time she asserted her independence. And you of all people presume —”
“I don't presume anything,” I interrupted. “You know perfectly well that we've always agreed about that. One and only one thing bothers me.”
“Namely Ted Nasibu!” I shouted. I was angered by Sabina's mock innocence.
“Sophia! She's her own person!” Sabina responded indignantly. “You're using Ted to mask your possessiveness. Somewhere along the way you've acquired a mother complex.”
“That's ridiculous, Sabina!” I shouted. “You know perfectly well what I'm talking about, and I'm amazed that it still doesn't bother you!”
“Still?” Sabina asked, acting puzzled.
“Have you forgotten that I spent several months in that house behind the garage? I became familiar with everything that happened there!” I shouted.
Sabina's face hardened. She planted herself in my doorway and stared at me for several minutes. Then she said, “Really? You'll have to tell me about it sometime.” She marched straight to her desk, slamming her door shut.
Ghosts. I feel so strange in their presence. For all these years I prided myself for the open relations Sabina, Tina and I maintained with each other. Everything was always in the open. None of us ever had anything to hide. Suddenly a ghost walks out of the closet where we'd locked it for good and it mocks our hypocrisy with its hideous laughter.
The three of us shared an experience eleven years ago and each one of us was profoundly marked by it. Yet except for passing references to it we've never once discussed it nor its significance. Not once during all the eight years we've been together. Yet if it hadn't been for that trial and its aftermath I would have been thinking of nothing other than that experience since the day Tina left. I continued thinking about it as soon as the trial ended, sitting on the hood of Daman's car waiting for him and Sabina to emerge from the courthouse. I can't even force myself to go on telling you about my trial before telling you what I experienced behind the garage eleven years ago. I had suppressed every memory of those events for so many years. Yet for the past few days the suppressed memories have been coming up like vomit. I don't know anything about the supposed connection between remembering and eating but I do know that as soon as Tina mentioned Ted, as soon as one element of that repressed experience came up, all the other elements came up behind it.
I apologize for having flown so far away from the subject with which I started this letter. Tina's decision to live with Ted is far more important to me than that “fancy” job I had at the “community” college. My experience in the garage should in any case be more “interesting” to you, since you claim that you “recognize” yourself in the “garage world” while feeling a complete stranger in my corner of the “academic world.” I wonder if you'll still recognize yourself when I'm through.
The only similarity between your experiences during the Magarna uprising and my experiences in the garage is that they both began at the same time. But I'll let you be the judge of the similarities and the differences; you've scolded me enough for my comparisons and contrasts.
- * *
I learned about the prostitution during my first night at the garage. But that was only the beginning of my education.
I was a slow learner. During the middle of my first lesson I got scared and ran away. Jose and Ted both laughed — at the dunce, I thought. But then Ted congratulated me and I didn't know what to think. Was he a puritan about everything except stealing? Or did he have hopes that I would reserve my favors for him? I'm not mentioning any other alternatives because that very night I became convinced that the second alternative explained his congratulations. I went to Tina's room and slipped into the bed next to hers. Suddenly I heard a noise outside. I rushed to the door, which I had left ajar just as Tina had left it. I saw Ted tiptoeing away from it! I thought he had been there since I had entered the room, watching me undress.
I went back to bed and started to shake with the same fear I'd felt earlier that night, when I'd found myself in the back of the chauffeur-driven car next to the fat executive. No matter which way I turned, my heart pounded in my stomach. I couldn't sleep. (Part of the reason for that was that I'd spent the whole previous afternoon sleeping.)
My fear of being attacked during the night diminished the following day. Later it vanished completely, but only because it was replaced by another fear.
I got up early the next morning, scrupulously dressed in the most masculine clothes I had, and went to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of Tissie's coffee. Ted came in as soon as I'd sat down.
“Did you have a good night's sleep? You must have, since you're the first one up. I sure am glad you're joining us.” He looked like he wanted to embrace me.
Grabbing a fork on the table, my lips trembling, I asked, “Why did you do that? Why did you look at me? What do you want to do to me?”
“Oh that,” he said. “I always do that. But I can see how you'd worry, me being a stranger. Just checking things out, you know what I mean? Seeing if everything's all right.”
What a strange explanation, I thought. As if his peeping didn't even concern me. “You've got some nerve!” I snapped.
“It's you who've got nerve,” he said, responding to my words but totally missing their meaning; “that's what I tried telling you last night. Takes nerve to get scared and run. Wish me and some others here had nerve!”
“What the hell are you talking about? Are you trying to talk yourself out of —”
“That's what I'm talking about!” Ted said, pointing at Tissie, who was making her way toward the coffee pot.
Tissie sat down next to Ted, sipped her coffee, and suddenly looked up at me as if she were seeing me for the first time. “Hey, gorgeous, who dolled you up so early in the morning? How did you do last night?”
“Fine, Tissie, just fine,” I lied. “Thanks a lot for taking me.”
Ted got up from his chair as if he'd been stung. He glared down at me. “You're not telling her?” he asked.
“Tell her what, Ted?” I asked innocently, at last seeing a way to spite him. “I really enjoyed it, Tissie.”
I got the effect I wanted. Ted backed away seemingly horrified, his face expressing a combination of disappointment and disgust. If he already knew I hadn't gone through with the previous night's escapade, now he also knew it wasn't because I was saving myself for him. “Honestly, Tissie, it was wonderful; I hope you'll take me along again sometime,” I continued, watching Ted back out of the kitchen.
“Now get off it, sis!” Tissie grumbled as soon as Ted was gone. “No one thinks it wonderful and no one enjoys it. You're saying that to rile his ass ain't you?”
“No I'm not, Tissie,” I insisted, carried away by my performance. “I was afraid at first, but once the fear passed I got to like it.” I said this loudly, for Ted's benefit, in case he was still listening. But I was also performing my act for Tissie's benefit. I didn't want her to think me a snobbish puritan. I wanted very badly to be part of her world. Don't forget that I was still aching from the series of exclusions I had experienced in the university. I didn't want Tissie to turn against me on the second day of my new life.
But I was too ignorant of my new world, and of Tissie, to perform an act that simultaneously estranged me from Ted while it endeared me to Tissie.
“I used to think your sister was weird,” Tissie said slowly, sipping her last drop. “But you really take the cake, baby. Enjoyed it! God damn!” With that, she got up and returned to her room. She, like Ted, seemed disappointed and even disgusted.
I sat in the kitchen alone, taking stock of my partial victory. I had succeeded in pushing Ted away from me. But that wasn't my main project. That was a trivial goal born in the previous night's fears. I had failed in my main goal. I had failed to insert myself into my new community.
In your letter you described Mirna's dreams of moving to the city and becoming part of its life. Not the city of bureaucrats, traffic jams or cops but an altogether different city, a city that never existed, a city that contained something she had learned to want. And when she finally reached the real city she peered behind its curtains and its walls, convinced that her city was there, somewhere, never once giving up her search for whatever it was she had once learned to want.
I can easily appropriate your entire vocabulary and apply it to my own search. You've convinced me that my glorification of our activity in the carton plant was nothing more than an exercise in rhetoric; it was only a way of referring to a present gap, a lifelong gap, a way of describing my search for something I had lost although it had never existed, something I had learned to want although I had never experienced it.
As I sat in the kitchen behind the garage eleven years ago, I knew nothing of Mirna and I had failed in my foolhardy attempt to communicate with you. I thought of my past hopes, my dreams of finding a human community and becoming part of its life. Not the “communities” of politicians, academics and journalists. The only thing those “communities” shared with my dream was the absence of what I sought. When I entered the garage I had the impression that I was on the verge of finding a trace of what I had sought. This, I thought, is at least something different, something I had never experienced before. And that world did in fact contain elements of what I had sought so desperately elsewhere. That's why I held on despite a long train of shocks and disillusionments. That's why I wanted so badly to be accepted by Tissie and to be like her. I wanted to be a prostitute and a heroin addict for exactly the same reason that Mirna wanted to be a citizen, an urban worker. In your letter you say, “Your descent to Sabina's world is a descent to my world.” That was what I felt during those first days. That was why I felt ashamed for having run away from Sabina's and Tissie's nightly activity. That was why I tried so awkwardly to lie to Tissie, to convince her I wasn't an alien in her world. Yet instead of winning Tissie's sympathy and friendship I had only roused her suspicion.
I sat in the kitchen feeling miserable. That kitchen behind the garage was like a snack bar in a bus station. Busy people continually ran in and out while I sat waiting for a bus that never came. I recognized my next visitor as Vic Turam, the “mechanic” I had seen in the garage when I'd first arrived with Debbie Matthews. He ate his breakfast in silence, never once taking his eyes off me, never once saying a word. Tina came in next. She asked if I'd really known her “father,” and “What was he like?” I told her she didn't look the slightest bit like him and immediately regretted making that pointless observation; it certainly didn't encourage Tina to pursue the conversation further. She finished her breakfast in silence and left without a word. Tina was followed by a person I hadn't met yet. “You're the sister,” he said, ascertaining a fact. The way he said it shamed me further; he might as well have said, “You're the nun,” I asked who he was. “Seth,” he answered. I later learned he was a heroin dealer, but he always remained undefined for me. shadowy and hostile. I didn't like him any better than he seemed to like me. After Seth left there was a lull. It was noon before Sabina and Jose joined me in the kitchen. I assumed they had gotten up together and came from the same room; I soon learned I was mistaken.
Jose greeted me so jovially that he jarred me out of my pensive mood. “Is Ron's girl brooding? It's too early in the day for that!” Then he turned to Sabina and added, referring indirectly to my previous night's embarrassment, “We ought to spend some time showing the sister the sunny side of life, right Sabina? Letting her brood when she's just arrived — that's not right, Sabina; that's not showing proper respects to our founder.”
I thought I heard a note of hostility. My impression was confirmed as soon as Sabina spoke. “Take her on a tour, Jose,” she said. “You're the sun of the underworld. Light everything up for her. I won't cloud her vision; I'm leaving.”
I reached across the table for Sabina's hand and pleaded, “I have to talk to you, Sabina — a long talk.”
Sabina pulled her hand away as if mine were diseased. I was amazed and hurt. She finished sipping her coffee and said curtly, “Sure, Sophia, but I've got to run now. I have a free hour between three and four this afternoon.” She got up and left like a businessman with important appointments.
“Your sister is a very busy woman,” Jose said, explaining the obvious. Then he added, with the same hostility I had noticed before, “She don't have time to brood.” Suddenly he reached for my hand, held it in his and said, laughing, “But we're not all like that. Come on, I'll show you around.”
Jose gave me a complete tour of the accommodations behind the garage. I was struck by how clean and well arranged everything was. And how expensive! When I'd first seen the building from the outside it had looked run down; the garage through which I'd entered had seemed dirtier and messier than most garages I'd seen. But when Jose escorted me through the hall from one room to the next, I realized for the first time that the garage was literally a “front,” a facade. I'd been impressed by the night club to which Tissie had taken me but I'd been too preoccupied by my fears to look around the house. The walls and ceilings were all paneled and at frequent intervals paintings were set into the wall panels, as were most of the cupboards. The floors were all covered by heavy rugs. The basement contained a laundry room, a marvelously equipped and very clean workshop and a “recreation room” which, Jose said, hadn't ever been completed because no one used it. He told me the second floor consisted of lofts and an “experiment room,” and that if I wanted to see them I'd have to go up with their users, Ted, Sabina and Tina. My head was swimming; I wasn't able to take it all in.
What struck me almost as much as the luxury was the fact that each person slept in a separate room, although there were twin beds or a double bed in every bedroom. I asked Jose awkwardly, “Aren't there any couples?”
“Couples?” he asked, visibly annoyed. “Sure there are couples. Lots of them. There's hardly anything else.”
Without even trying to interpret his answer I asked, “You and Sabina?”
“Not on your life!” he said angrily. “You never got to know your sister, did you? This is her room; mine's over there; we were never a couple and never will be. Any more questions?”
“I'm sorry,” I said, not knowing just what I was sorry about.
Jose's anger vanished and he smiled. “Nothing to be sorry about. I'm the one that's sorry. I wanted to show you the work in the garage next.”
But I was too confused and too tired to continue the tour. “How about tomorrow?” I asked. “I had a terrible night last night.” I liked Jose. I wanted to go on and tell him about my fears, about Ted, but I held myself back.
“Sure,” he said; “I hope you don't have any more terrible nights.”
I fell on my bed in Tina's room as soon as I reached it. I woke up, like the previous night, at midnight. Tina was sound asleep. I had missed my afternoon “appointment” with Sabina. I had also missed all my meals. I crept to the kitchen and literally looted the refrigerator. When I was finally satisfied I sat down and waited for Tissie but realized that she must have gone to work on time. When I heard the heavy garage door closing I turned out the kitchen light, rushed back to Tina's room, left the door ajar and slipped back to bed with my clothes still on. I listened to Ted and Jose walk to their rooms. After a long silence I heard someone tiptoeing toward my room. I kept my eyes glued to the door — and saw Ted creep through the opening! For an instant he just stood there and stared; then he backed out of the room. I started shaking again. I hadn't only failed to communicate with Tissie; I had also failed to communicate anything to Ted.
I lay awake all night. When Tina got up in the morning I pretended to be asleep — and fell asleep until noon. When I reached the kitchen I found Sabina pouring Tissie a cup of coffee. Tissie didn't even notice me.
“Sabina —” I said.
“I know,” Sabina said. “Let's go to my room.”
As soon as we reached her room she said, “Wait for me just for a minute, would you? I have to make some phone calls.”
Just like a businessman! Anger and resentment filled my every pore as I paced back and forth like a caged animal. I was determined to have it all out with Sabina. I pounced as soon as she returned. “Sabina, why did you pull your hand away from me as if I were a leper? What am I to you?” I went on pacing.
Sabina closed her door and then just stood and stared at me. Suddenly she burst out laughing. “I've never seen you like this, Sophia. You're marvelous. Running around in a circle, filled with righteous fury, frustrated out of your wits — you look just like a circus clown!” Sabina threw her arms around me and pressed me, tightly.
I collapsed in her arms. My anger melted away. I forgot what I'd resented. I felt at home. “I love your house, Sabina,” I whispered.
Sabina said, “I'm glad you do.” Then she kissed me — on my lips. I was surprised — but also pleased because I knew then that I wasn't an intrusive stranger to Sabina. She asked, “Do you mind?”
“You're the only friend I wanted to turn to in the entire world,” I whispered.
Sabina stiffened as she let me go. “So much for the preliminaries,” she said, making herself comfortable on her bed. “Let's talk, about anything and everything. As long as you want. No time limits. No secrets.”
“Sabina, I'm frightened,” I whispered, sitting down next to her.
“You, a Nachalo, frightened?” she asked in a mocking tone. “Is someone after you?”
I knew she meant someone outside but I answered, “Yes, it's Ted!”
“Oh, get off it, Sophia!” she shouted, angrily hurling a pillow across the room. She seemed disappointed, even disgusted, as Tissie and Ted had seemed the previous morning when I'd announced I'd enjoyed my first experience as a prostitute. “Are you serious?” she continued. “We haven't been together for years. We've both lived whole lives since we've last talked to each other. And all you tell me is that Ted is after you! Are you sure you don't mean Seth?”
I was in a panic. I wanted to apologize. I didn't want Sabina to turn against me. I shook my head.
“I could understand your being afraid of Seth,” she said. “He might shoot you or stab you. Or even Vic. But not Ted! What happened to you. Sophia? What have you become?”
I was deathly afraid Sabina was going to add, “Coward! You're just like your mother!” I felt the tears rushing toward my eyes. But for once in my life I caught myself before breaking down crying. I bit my lip, stiffened up and looked right into Sabina's eyes. “Why did you pull your hand away yesterday?”
“I'm schizoid!” she said. “What are you?”
“I'm only joking,” I said, trying hard to smile. “I was just trying to devise an original way to start. I'll try again. Just to get started, let's turn to Ted. Who is Ted? What is he?”
“Holy, wise and fair is he; the heaven such grace did lend him, that he might admired be,” Sabina mocked, unconvinced by my act. but not determined to look under my veil. “You'd know who he was if you'd listened, and you'd know what he was if you'd heard and been moved.”
“Please don't be cryptic,” I begged.
“An unused memory is like a pair of eyes that have never been opened,” Sabina said.
“I've always wanted to have memory training from you, Sabina. Is this to be my first lesson?” I asked.
“There's the Sophia I remember!” Sabina retorted. “Sarkasmos. It means to cut or bite another's flesh. Ron was trying to tell you all about Ted. But you bit right through him with your: (imitating me) “Really?”
I remembered. Sabina and Ron had visited me five years earlier, when Ron was released from reform school. Ron had tried to tell me about all the people he'd met, but I'd shut him up with my stupid “Really?” That had been the last time I'd seen Ron. “Thanks for the memory lesson,” I said, confirming her characterization of me. “Ted is Ron's reform school philosopher.”
“Not philosopher,” Sabina corrected. “Scientist, engineer, artist, acrobat. One of the best minds of our time.”
“He can pick the lock of any brand new car and drive away with it in less than a minute,” I added. “If I'd remembered last night I would have known it wouldn't do me any good to lock my door. But to compensate for that, I could at least have consoled myself with the thought that he was Ron's friend and one of the best minds of our time. Is he at least nice?”
Sabina kicked me and laughed, saying, “But you haven't changed at all! You're —”
“Just like my mother!” I interrupted.
Sabina stopped laughing. “I wasn't going to say that again, Sophia; it's too mean. Besides, if you ever compare me to my so-called father, I'll kill you.”
“In the flesh or just with words, the way I bite?” I asked. “Don't worry, I don't know enough about either of you to hazard such a comparison. And I'd asked you about Ted.”
“Is he nice?” she repeated. “You'd probably know that now if you'd curbed your sarcasm five years ago. No, that's not true, since then you probably wouldn't have gotten along with Ron and consequently wouldn't have met Ted then either. Ron admired your sarcasm.”
“Did he like me for my sarcasm?” I asked.
“Not altogether,” Sabina answered. “He only liked your sarcasm when it was aimed at other people. How badly he wanted you along when they stole Tom Matthews' brand new car! Your sarcastic comments would have put the crowning touch on that event. Ron missed your comments; the event was incomplete without them. He never got over your absence; he had staged it all for you and you never saw it.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” I said.
“You do and you don't,” Sabina said cryptically. “It was your sarcasm that was missed, yet it was that very sarcasm that kept you away. Did Ron like you for your sarcasm? Do I? I do like you, Sophia. And you've always been sarcastic. Close enough? I'm only guessing; I never asked Ron precisely that question. Is Ted nice? You'd know if you'd watched Ted break into Matthews' car and if you'd finished Matthews off with your biting comment. Ron thought he was nice. Ted was the first person he looked up when we left you after your `Really?'”
“Is Ted really everything Ron thought he was?” I asked, immediately regretting the presence of that silly word, since Sabina caught it right away.
“Is he really?” she mocked with a sarcasm far superior to mine. “Believe me, Sophia, everything! Engineer; he'll slip into your room in a flash without a key. Scientist: before you can shout for help, he'll turn your flesh to liquid and carry you off in a vial. Artist: he'll pour you out in his loft as a marble statue, life size and a perfect likeness. Acrobat —”
“Sarkasmos my ass, Sabina!” I interrupted. “You love my sarcasm! Do you want to know why?”
“Don't you think I know? Did you think we were considered sisters because we looked alike?”
We both burst out laughing. Sabina and I became friends for the first time in our lives.
“If Ted is everything Ron thought he was. why don't you like him?” I asked.
“I don't remember your being that observant,” Sabina said. “In fact I don't like him, though this is the first time I've been aware of my dislike. It's not because of anything he is, did or said, but because I know he despises me. It's normal to dislike someone who despises you, isn't it? Ask him sometime when you're reconciled with him. Tell him you're afraid of me. He won't laugh at you or call you a coward. He'll drown you with friendship and shower you with a barrel-full of sympathy. He might even ask you to kill me.”
I was horrified. I reached instinctively for her hand and asked, “Sabina! Why?”
Sabina raised my hand to her throat and asked, “Would you do it?”
“Of course! Like this!” I said, pressing her neck lightly and kissing her cheek, Sabina smiled.
It was precisely at this moment that Tissie burst into the room. I'd thought such coincidences took place only in novels. There we were, sitting next to each other on Sabina's bed, “necking,” my lips on Sabina's cheek, a blissful smile across Sabina's face. Tissie stood in the doorway and stared at us, absolutely stupefied, while Sabina lowered my hand from her neck.
Tissie completed the scene by making it clear she had “understood” everything perfectly. “I'm awfully sorry,” she said, backing away with the same stupefied stare; “I thought you were alone, Sabina. I didn't know.”
“And that's that!” I shouted as soon as Tissie was gone. I jumped off the bed laughing. “I wouldn't even try explaining. She'd only think we were liars besides.” I stopped laughing when it occurred to me that Tissie already thought me a liar “besides.” It had done me no good at all to insist that I'd enjoyed having sex with a man for money. If Tissie also remembered how profusely I'd thanked her for taking me to the bar, she'd think me not only a lesbian and a liar but a hypocrite to boot. I had obviously lost Tissie. But I wasn't depressed. I had won Sabina. “Does it bother you?” I asked.
“Me?” Sabina asked. “Tissie can think whatever she wants.” Sabina didn't laugh. She looked sad.
I put the incident out of my mind. I didn't in fact understand its full meaning until much later. I sat back down and returned to the point we'd reached before we were interrupted. “Why in the world would Ted want to kill you? I think that's awful!”
Sabina stared blankly at the door for a few seconds and then answered in a monotone, as if my question bored her, “I didn't say he wanted to kill me. He's incapable of wanting that. He's one of the few people I've met who knew the difference between things and people and never confused the two. He can do anything that's ever been done with a tool, but he'll never touch a weapon, and he'll never confuse the two. He doesn't step on a worm if he sees it in time, and he looks sadly at a dead fly. You're afraid of him? Sophia, believe me, the world will end before Ted attacks you. I can't imagine his wanting to kill you or me.”
“Then why would he ask me to kill you?” I asked, totally bewildered, although I was also relieved to learn that my pursuer wouldn't hurt a worm.
“I said he might,” Sabina continued. “But I know he never would. It's what I'd do in his shoes. All I know for a fact is that he fears and despises me. He's odd. We're all odd, but each in a different way. Ted's oddity is that he's gone through life making his own decisions but he's convinced that everyone else is manipulated. If you want a more theoretical explanation: in his practice he's a perfect democrat while in his political philosophy he's an absolute elitist. But he's not a philosopher; he doesn't think; he just acts and feels. He acts as if I were the one responsible for everything that happens here and he despises me for it.”
“Responsible for what kinds of things?” I asked, becoming increasingly bewildered.
“Everything,” she repeated. “For Tissie. For Vic and Seth. For what Jose or Tina might do. For everything. It's a long story and I'm not a mind reader. I'm just guessing. He's of a piece all right: perfectly consistent. One hundred percent right. And he knows it. His contempt for me is completely justified.”
“Would you mind explaining?” I begged. “I'm confused.”
“I don't guarantee to clarify anything,” Sabina said. “The garage was Ted's and Ron's idea. They dreamed of buying it when they were in reform school. Ted had worked for the former owner —”
“Stealing cars and selling heroin?” I asked.
“Just the cars,” Sabina continued. “The heroin came later. The former owner became increasingly careless, spent half his time in jail, and let the place get all run down. Ted rented it as soon as he was released and we bought it soon after Ron was released. The original group was to include Ted and Tissie, you and Ron, and Jose.”
“Me? What about you?” I asked.
“I'll get to that. Tissie was to be included because she'd been Ted's girl friend since they were kids. He thinks I'm responsible for what she chose to do with herself but he's wrong; he didn't know Tissie when they were kids together. That's what makes him nice,' I suppose. I call it dense. Ted and Ron might as well have been twins in that respect. You were to be included because you were Ron's girl. Ron cried `Sophie!' every time there was a knock on the door. And of course Jose was included because he was Ron's best friend. But that didn't work out. Ron finally convinced himself that you weren't coming and went off to get himself killed. And Jose didn't like the idea of moving in on Ted and Tissie; he thought he and Ted would kill each other over Tissie. Tissie was terribly pretty but Jose didn't know her then. So Jose suggested a different arrangement. He recommended his and Ron's friend Seth for his money, and Ron's friend Sabina for her brains. Ted was absolutely opposed to that suggestion, but Tissie was carried away by it. I forgot to tell you another one of Ted's traits: he's a perpetual loser. This follows from his other traits. Seth moved in and brought Vic. I came with Jose and Ted's original project started to collapse. Seth started dealing heroin from the garage. Then Tissie got hooked on it. Ted raised a big fuss and succeeded in getting Seth to move out of the house. But things didn't improve for him. Jose and I and Seth went in on the bar together and soon Tissie and I were working there.”
“And he blames you for all that?” I asked. “Why did he want to exclude you from the original group, before any of those things happened?”
“I already gave you part of the answer,” she said obscurely. “Ted draws a perfectly clear line between people and things; `the heaven such grace did lend him, that he might admired be,' And I do admire him for it, whether his ability comes from grace, instinct or personal insight. `Holy, wise and fair is he,' applying his standard impartially to all situations. Depriving the rich of their objects and transforming those objects with a view to increasing the well-being of the underlying population is an unambiguously human and possibly revolutionary project. Selling one's body, ruining one's own or another's health cannot be means to reaching the same goal because our humanity would be maimed when we reached it, and our humanity is our goal. Ted's logic is impeccable. But of course he never formulates it as a logic, he never expresses his philosophy, he acts it out. And that's why the trouble started. He disliked me the very first time we met, soon after Ron tried to tell you about Ted and the garage. Ron told Ted about his half-brother Jose and then started talking about this rich friend of his, Seth. `A dope dealer?' Ted asked. Ron dropped the subject right away but I didn't. At that time Ron and I thought everything a person was jailed for was a revolutionary act. But I learned something from Ted that night. I drew answers from him like a dentist pulling his teeth out. I made sentences out of his single words and logical propositions out of his grimaces and groans. Before the night ended I hadn't only drawn his entire philosophy out of him but had become completely convinced by it Ron fell asleep. Ted's philosophy isn't all that difficult. It all hinges on Ted's distinction between people and things, and his corollary distinction between weapons and tools. Once you get hold of the axiom everything else follows. And he exhibits his axiom on his face and in every gesture: he grins when a tool is in question and groans when it's a weapon. But Ted didn't appreciate what I did for him. He squirmed every time I put his attitude into words. He became increasingly frightened of me, as if I were depriving him of something precious, as if I were undressing him stitch by stitch, as if I were reaching inside him and pulling his guts out for all to see. He hated me from that day on and he never forgave me. That's why he hoped you'd join Ron. Ted is everything but a philosopher. He fears philosophy, he's suspicious of logic, even of words. He expresses himself in metal, wood, marble, canvass — everything but words. To him philosophy isn't a tool but a weapon; its only purpose is to manipulate people. And he's convinced it's the weapon with which I've manipulated every person here except himself and Tina, and he's not sure about Tina.”
Sabina suddenly jumped off the bed like an energetic cat, pulled me up as well, and shouted, “Hey it's dark already! Why are we spending the day cooped up in here like prisoners? Let me take you on a tour!”
“Jose took me on a tour of the house yesterday,” I told her.
“Let's go to the bar, then,” she suggested.
“Tissie took me there on my first night here,” I admitted, remembering afterwards that Tissie had begged me never to tell Sabina.
“Tissie took you!” Sabina exclaimed. Clenching her fists she added, “Why the little hypocrite!”
“I asked her to take me,” I added, trying to protect Tissie, and surprised by Sabina's outburst.
Sensing my surprise she calmed down and said, as if by way of explanation, “I thought I was going to have that honor. What's left for a hostess if she can't show off?”
“I asked Tissie to take me because you'd told her you'd never take me there,” I said, still protecting Tissie.
“Not to work there, Sophia,” she said. “That's for you to choose or not choose. We haven't eaten all day, I'm starving and the food there is as tasty as the girls are beautiful.”
I laughed, thinking she was referring to herself and Tissie, and I started heading toward my room.
“'Hey, where are you going?” she shouted, grabbing my arm.
“To change my clothes,” I said, pointing to my bluejeans and workshirt.
“You look perfect as you are,” she said.
“But I wore these clothes all night!” I protested.
“You also smell perfect,” she insisted, pulling me out of the house.
We walked to the bar, continuing our conversation every step of the way. I told her I spotted a contradiction between her praise for Ted's “philosophy” and her activity in the bar. Sabina admitted the contradiction but we reached be bar before she had time to deal with it.
Sabina did something strange as soon as we entered. She put her arm through mine and escorted me along the stools of the bar right past Tissie. “Evening, Tissie,” she said nonchalantly, but with a mean grin on her face.
I said, “Hi, Tissie,” and tried to smile, but I felt intensely embarrassed. I knew I was right in the middle of something I couldn't understand. Sabina exchanged greetings with some of the other “girls” and I noticed that they were indeed pretty, and all very tastefully dressed. I was surprised. My notions of how prostitutes looked and dressed had come from newspapers and novels. When I saw them in the flesh I felt like a homely clod among them: Sabina's country sister, maybe even her aunt.
As we walked across the floor toward a table, a frighteningly large man grabbed Sabina's arm and said, “Hey, Sabina baby! Thought you weren't coming tonight.”
Sabina jerked herself out of his grasp so quickly that I thought she'd sent an electric shock through him, and she hissed at him through her teeth: “Don't lay your hands on me, Bozo. I'm busy tonight!”
“Gee, Sabina, how's a guy to know that?” the huge man asked, backing away from us.
As soon as we reached a table in a dark corner of the enormous room Sabina asked me, “Are you shocked?”
Before I could answer a waiter came, greeted Sabina and bowed to me.
“The works!” Sabina told him. “I've got a very special guest tonight.”
“Shocked?” I asked. I was confused, flattered, distressed, pleased. I felt dense, ignorant and lost. But I wasn't shocked. “Why should I be shocked? You've told me what you do. And I've seen this place already.”
“You're being evasive,” she said. “Do you disapprove?”
“Do you disapprove of my being sarcastic?” I asked.
The waiter brought us the best drink I'd ever tasted and I started sipping.
“Good answer!” she said, but then pushed on: “What were you saying about the contradiction between Ted's philosophy and my practice?”
She's really all brain, I thought. But I changed my mind immediately when I remembered several of the day's events that led to a very different conclusion. I tried to concentrate my thoughts, or rather to find out what they were. The band was playing a familiar tune and I listened and started to hum. I couldn't keep up with Sabina. Finally I admitted, “I'm completely lost. I don't understand you, Sabina. I don't understand Ted, although I'm less afraid of him now. And I don't see how I fit into it all!”
Sabina reached for my hand and said, looking straight into my eyes, “There's nothing to understand, Sophia, and nothing to fit into. It's your life to do with as you will. There's no structure. Nothing is banned. Everything is allowed. No holds are barred.”
“What's everything?” I asked hesitantly.
Letting go of my hand, she said, “My life, my desires, my capacities; those are my axioms.”
“And this?” I asked, my glance sweeping across the bar, the sex-crazed men, the prostitutes.
“A person freely creates her own life, but in circumstances not of her own choosing,” she answered.
“I've heard that before, but I don't see how it applies,” I said.
“All this, as you call it, is part of the circumstances not of my own choosing,” she answered.
Just then the waiter arrived with “the works.” I had never in my life eaten so much delicious food. The meal was indeed as tasty as the place was lush. We continued our conversation all through the meal, and I grew increasingly giddy from the wine.
“That sounds terribly cynical,” I said with my mouth full.
“It is!” Sabina admitted. “But I'm not being cynical. The cynicism is part of the world I was born into, the world I'm trying to get out of.”
“I'm not sure I understand,” I said, and then probed further: “The fullest development of my life, my projects, my capacities —”
“Desires,” she added.
“Yes, all of it,” I granted; “I think I understand that. But I —”
She interrupted again: “With which organ do you understand that?”
I was stunned. “Organ? What do you mean?”
“I know some people who understand that — but only in their sexual organ. We both know people who understand it only in their political organ, people who understand everything you'd want to know about life, capacities and desires, who accept themselves as slaves, who've never lived in their lives, who've stunted all their capacities, who've annihilated their desires.” Her anger grew as she spoke.
“And their collective name is Luisa Nachalo,” I ventured.
“I didn't name any names!” she shouted. “Anyway, she's not the only one. You must have met dozens if not hundreds of them during your years in the university. Life, desires, capacities — they've reduced them all to words, words which they carry around in their political organs. And they're the ones who impose life on everyone else. They don't know what life is because they've never lived and they're intent on generalizing their own condition — for the sake of the word, for the primacy of the political organ.”
“What about the means, Sabina, the tools?” I asked. I was getting dizzy from the wine and I had a hard time formulating my question. “Earlier you said you could get maimed by the tools you used — or was it weapons?”
“We come maimed!” Sabina exclaimed. “The question is whether or not we're able to heal. Not abstractly but here and now. Look around you. Look closely at the waiters, the band members, the prostitutes. None of them are people born with golden spoons in their mouths. They're down-and-outs, every last one of them. They `re the underclass. All of them came here off the streets or out of jail. They were already dope pushers, prostitutes, hustlers and pimps. That's part of the circumstances they didn't choose. They came maimed. And they're starting to heal!”
“In what way?” I asked.
“Did you look at that ape who grabbed me earlier?” she asked. “He's part of the apparatus that does the maiming. He's one of the biggest crooks in this city. He's an official in one of the international corporations. When he snaps his fingers, people all over the world respond like caged rats responding to an experimenter's stimulus. See the girl he's with at the bar? She used to be lower than the lowest rat in his cages. She was the slave of every two-bit pimp on her street and if she'd wound up in the garbage dump no one would have missed her. And look at her now! She's on her ninth or tenth drink and probably on her fifth dessert and he's ordering another round. The price of food and drinks here is over a hundred times the cost. And you know what? She'll go to the john after a while, slip out the back and go home. Eventually he'll turn to someone else and start all over again. He's Mister International. But here it's we who snap our fingers and he who jumps. One of us always goes in the end, but first we soak him to the limit. And everything we get out of him stays right here: it's all ours. This is anti-imperialism in practice, Sophia. This is class war. And we're winning. We all have expensive hobbies now, and some of us have more than hobbies. All the way from sex to crafts, painting and playing with the sciences. I'll show you sometime. We're all expanding, discovering ourselves. We're starting to live and we want to live more. If we're ever going to destroy what maims us it'll be because we've started to live. Those who love life will be the ones who'll push the fucker into the sea! Look toward the door. See that weasel who just came in? He's the local police chief. Look at him putting his hand on that girl's ass. Watch what happens now!”
I saw the girl turn around and sock the police chief, who went reeling backward until he tripped over a stool and fell.
“Outside he does that to the likes of us whenever he pleases!” Sabina said. “Watch him get up and go back to her. The funniest thing is that she'll probably go out with him; it's getting late. Is that demeaning?”
“I don't know,” I mumbled; my head was swimming and I was getting sick.
“Is that maiming? Maybe it is,” she continued. “I know it is. But we didn't create the means. We found them and we're learning to use them. The chiefs making up to her now. She'll decide to go with him.”
The room was moving up and down like a ship. I felt worse every minute. But Sabina didn't notice; she kept on talking. “She'll sell him sex for money. You notice a contradiction and you're right. Sex is also her hobby. Hobby is a lousy word. It's her life. You know what she does with her money? She had her apartment redone. Wall-to-wall mattresses, all down. In every room except the bathroom and kitchen. She fills her apartment with everyone she can find between the age of six and sixty. Every conceivable shape, size and age. And then she lives. She satisfies every desire, every whim; she engages in every conceivable and inconceivable perversion, if you like that word; I don't.”
I held on to the table to keep myself from falling. I heard her words but all I saw was a blur; my insides felt like bubbling lava.
“But she pays some of them,” Sabina continued. “That's a contradiction, a terrible contradiction. She still hasn't healed. She's still revenging herself for what she was forced to undergo. She still can't tell people from things nor distinguish her life from the means that make it possible. She hasn't learned to draw Ted's fine line. Ted won't ever be caught in such a contradiction. He'll never make that mistake. He works in the garage: that's the circumstances, the means. But he plays in the loft and in the basement workshop: that's his goal, his life. She confuses the two; she hasn't learned to make Ted's distinctions and maybe never will. We all come maimed. But don't think Ted doesn't. She's healthier than Ted in at least one respect. She knows people; he only knows things. She knows the boundlessness of desires; he only knows the possibilities of things. She knows love in every conceivable form and sex in every imaginable combination, position or pattern; he only knows love and sex in the forms practiced by the maimed, by those with stunted imaginations and dead desires. He can imagine things in all combinations, positions and patterns. He knows people aren't things. And he's profoundly right. He's wise, even holy. But he doesn't know people. He also came maimed.”
I must have passed out. The next thing I remember is being carried through the garage to Tina's room. Jose carried my feet — and Ted's arms were under my back. I must have fallen asleep right away.
I heard someone tiptoeing toward my door. I watched Ted slip through the opening and walk right up to my bed. He stood staring down at me. Suddenly he pulled the blanket off me. I saw that he held a wrench in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. I jumped out of bed terrified — and found myself lying on the floor next to my bed. It was a nightmare, but I couldn't stop my trembling. The sun was already up, but Tina was still sound asleep. I was panicky. I crept toward Sabina's room, shook her hysterically and whimpered, “Help me, Sabina.”
Sabina swung her arm and hit my side so powerfully that I fell to the floor. Looking right at me, seemingly wide awake, she hissed through her teeth, “Don't touch me!” She spoke to me in the same tone in which she'd spoken to the corporation executive who'd grabbed her arm.
“Sabina!” I cried with disbelief. “It's me, Sophia, your friend, your sister!”
“Get out of my room, Luisa!” she hissed viciously. “You're not my sister!”
I gathered myself up off the floor and backed away from her, horrified. Snatches of the previous night's conversation flashed through my mind, particularly her statements, “I'm schizoid, what are you?” and “He only knows love and sex in the forms practiced by the maimed.”
“You'd like nothing better than for Ted to rape me!” I cried hysterically. “You'd say he was healed!”
“For his sake and for yours!” she hissed.
I slammed her door and ran back to my bed. In a few minutes I stopped trembling. I was wide awake and felt dumber than a baboon. I realized that I had run to Sabina's room under the spell of my nightmare. That was the only time in my life that I acted out the remainder of a dream after waking. I felt ashamed of myself; I was afraid to face Sabina.
I lay in my bed feeling intensely embarrassed long after Tina got dressed and left the room. I had a splitting headache. I reached the kitchen around noon, a couple of minutes before Sabina.
She set me at ease immediately. “I had the strangest dream. Or did you actually come to my room last night and —” she started to ask.
“You dreamed it, Sabina,” I insisted. “I just got up.”
“That's a relief!” she said. “It was awful!”
“What was it about?” I asked, frowning.
“Do you really want to hear about it?” she asked.
“I'd rather not,” I said. “But I would like to ask you one question.”
“Want me to call off my day's projects?” she asked, smiling and friendly, sisterly again, but surely unconvinced that last night's visit had been a dream.
“No, please, not even one. It's only a bitty question,” I insisted, trying hard to smile. “What's my name?”
Of course she knew then that I'd lied. How sad she suddenly looked. But she's so crazy and such a ham that I couldn't possibly nurse my resentment against her. She walked around the table, kneeled to me and placed her contrite head in my lap. Lifting her head I begged, “Please look at me, Sabina, and tell me who I am. And please don't kneel!”
“Pray, do not mock me,” she quoted. “I am a very foolish fond young maid. A score and upward, not an hour more nor less; and, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you. You are a spirit, I know. Yet I feel this pinprick. Oh, do not laugh at me; for as I am a woman, I think this lady to be my sister Sophia. If you have poison for me, I will drink it. You have some cause.”
“No cause,” I whispered, smiling through my tears. “Now get up! You have a busy day!”
Ruthless and contrite, icy and warm, monarch, enemy and sister — I couldn't hold on to my resentment against any of the four, or ten or a hundred Sabinas. Nor could I make her activities the model for mine. Probably because I, too, came maimed. “You describe your trip to Sabina's garage as a descent to the underworld,” you said. And that's exactly what it was, and remained, no matter how “familiar” it might seem to you. I remained a disoriented tourist, a visitor from another world. It didn't even occur to me to ask Sabina to take me along on her day's “business rounds.” Did she go out to look for more “beautiful girls” for the bar? Was it her turn with the international executive? Or was she going to her friend's wall-to-wall down mattress to satisfy “every desire, every whim — every conceivable and inconceivable perversion”? I admit I was curious. But I wasn't curious enough to go along, or even to ask. And Sabina didn't make the slightest effort to influence my choice. She let me know that I could have her friendship if I wanted it, and whenever I wanted it. But that was all. I was my own person and she didn't impose herself. Ted wasn't the only person in that house who was perfectly consistent. Sabina wouldn't have interfered if I'd spent every day in bed, started taking heroin, or floated down the river. She'd have stopped me from setting fire to myself only if she'd thought the flame would burn the house. (I'm exaggerating.) It became perfectly clear to me she wouldn't raise a finger to keep Ted away from my bed until he actually injured me.
There was no structure, Sabina had told me. How true this was! Everything was allowed, no holds were barred. I could have joined anyone, or taken up with anyone, at anytime of day or night. Or I could have indulged some fancy of my own. If it had been expensive Sabina would have paid for it. If I'd wanted to pay for it myself she would have showed me how. There were no limits to what I could choose. But I couldn't choose. I realized that I had never made a real decision before. I'm sorry if the sequel disappoints you: I didn't make one then either, and I haven't made one since. I don't know how. I came maimed.
Unable to lean on Sabina, I tried to lean on Tissie, though, lot for long. She obviously wasn't as well disposed toward me is she had been the first day. She sat across from me, ate a meager lunch drowned by an enormous quantity of coffee, and made small talk.
When I asked if she'd ever take me to the bar again, she became indignant and announced, “You don't look like Sabina's sister!”
I guessed that Tissie wasn't only ascertaining the fact that Sabina and I didn't look alike (there being no reason why we should). Since she already knew me to be a liar, she was letting me know she'd had no trouble at all figuring out who and what I really was: I was obviously Sabina's “man” parading as her sister. I couldn't have explained anything; I had advised Sabina not even to try.
Tissie spoke to me again slightly later; she was suddenly a lot friendlier. “If you'd ever like to have a shot,” she said, “just let me know. Seth will be glad to give you as many as you need.”
“Need” was the word I latched on to. As many as I need! So much for leaning on Tissie, I thought. How helpful! She was certainly willing enough to help me with my choices. She certainly wasn't above imposing herself on another. I should really have thanked her. Instead I said, “No thank you,” trying very hard to reciprocate her earlier hostility. I apparently succeeded. She kept her distance for several weeks. But I hadn't gotten a step closer to making a decision, to choosing the shape of my self in the world.
I really should explain my hostile “No thank you,” since nowadays it might be attributed to prudishness. Radicals who are Tina's age today might think me “maimed” in that respect as well. That explanation would be false because my generation of radicals (there were pitifully few in that generation) explicitly ranged narcotics among the weapons of the oppressor. The anti-utopia I grew up with was a “brave new world” of nodding imbeciles kept in line by tranquilizers and kept happy and pacified by narcotics. I simply can't stomach those of Tina's peers who today consider the imbecilic nod of an addict the supreme revolutionary act. Not that Tina shares that idiocy; in this respect as in many others she might as well belong to Sabina's and my generation. My “No thank you” was an expression, not of prudishness, but of genuine hostility.
My hostility wasn't personal; it wasn't aimed against Tissie, but only against the offered drug. I made no effort to impose myself on Tissie, to convert her to my attitude. I did try to avoid Vic, and particularly Seth, but I didn't once confront them about the dope dealing. The heroin was largely responsible for my final departure from the garage, but it wasn't I who started the scene about it. I only stayed away from it, and responded with hostility to all offers.
By rejecting the heroin I antagonized Tissie and, by implication, Seth and Vic. Since I didn't know how to lean on myself, and didn't want to learn, I was left with the garage crew: Ted, Jose and Tina. And I wasn't about to lean on Ted.
I turned to Jose first. But that day really wasn't my lucky day. I went to the garage and paced, waiting for him to return from an errand. Ted and Tina were so busily at work they didn't even notice me. Vic just stood there, like a fixture. The day I'd arrived I'd thought Vic another mechanic. But he did nothing at all. He was like an aged cat that looks on but never moves; you might think he was the commissar assigned to watch the others work. I paid more attention to Vic's presence than I did to anything Tina or Ted were doing.
When Jose finally came back, i went up to him and put my foot straight into my mouth. “I'd like to accept your offer,” I said. I was of course referring to his offer to show me the work in the garage.
Jose grabbed my wrist and literally dragged me out into the street. “Let me get just one thing clear,” he shouted when we were outside of anyone's hearing. “Ron's best friend never made Ron's girl any kind of offer!”
Oh no, what have I done now? I thought. “But you said yesterday —” I started.
“You don't understand!” he shouted. “I never made you an offer!”
“I'm sorry!” I said, trying to look sorry but wanting to laugh. “I didn't mean that kind of offer. You said you'd show me —”
He cut me off again. “I've got to explain something to you,” he said insistently. “I used to dream about you long before I met you. I thought about that big guy wanting a broad badly enough to go and kill himself because of her; I thought that's not something you'll find every day; I thought I'd really like to meet up with her; I thought, Wow! That must really be some piece of ass! I'm sorry, I don't mean that. I mean some dame! He told me you were sensitive about the names we give to — er, broads, chicks, you know —”
“Try women,” I suggested.
“That's what it says on shithouses! Is that better?” he asked.
“You're a little bit like him,” I said. I liked him. A lot.
“I'd never kill myself over a br — a girl, a woman,” he said.
“Why do you keep repeating that?” I asked. I had no idea what any of it meant, but I didn't care. He did remind me of Ron.
“Because that's what made me think I wouldn't want to meet her. That's when I remembered she left him when he needed her most, she left him when he was just about ready to take off and do some big things on his own, with her and for her. And that's when I thought that a girl who'd done that to him wasn't for me. And then, almost four years later, she comes walking right into the garage as if nothing ever happened. And she lets me take her on a tour of the house. Something funny must have happened inside me. I must have gone back to my first thoughts. I must have thought, Wow! She really is some woman! And it must be when those thoughts were in my head that something I said might have sounded like an offer. But you've got to understand that whatever I said, I didn't mean it, because those first thoughts aren't the thoughts I have now. You'd better understand that I'm not about to make Ron's girl any kind of offer!”
“I understand,” I lied; I didn't understand anything. “What can I do to make up for what you blame me for?”
“Just stay out of my sight,” he answered. “Because you really are —”
“Some piece of ass!” I finished his sentence with the words he'd have preferred, and added coquetishly, “And you'd better understand that Ron's girl isn't going to accept any kind of offer.” I ran back through the garage to the now-empty kitchen. I wasn't hungry and ate from habit. I then took a long walk along streets where there were lots of people; I thought that with more of the same luck I might successfully antagonize a complete stranger. But I didn't meet anyone and turned in before Tina did. I had a long, marvelously restful sleep, without interruptions, fears or nightmares.
It was only on the following day that my active life in the garage began. Tina was already gone when I woke up. I reexamined my situation as I sipped my breakfast coffee. I had knocked down every one of my potential props except one: seven-year old Tina. And rather than face up to Sabina's challenge, I went to the garage looking for Tina.
I squatted next to her and silently watched her work. She seemed annoyed by my presence. “Would you mind showing me how you do things here?” I asked, begging.
“Ted'll show you; he's much better at it than I am; he showed everyone,” she said innocently.
“I don't want Ted to show me,” I insisted. “I want you to show me.”
Tina stopped what she was doing, turned to me and looked into my eyes as if she were searching for something. Suddenly she said, “You're my mother, aren't you?”
I almost fell over backwards. “Why in the world do you say that?”
“You were Ron's girl, weren't you?”
“Yes I was, for a time,” I admitted, “but I swear I'm not your mother!”
“Why did you leave us?” she asked.
Oh no! I thought. There goes my last prop! “Tina, I swear I never left you,” I whispered insistently and I hoped convincingly.
Tina went back to her work and I went on squatting next to her. Fortunately for me, Tina was more compassionate than her older but not wiser housemates. She worked in silence for a while. Suddenly she said, “Here, hold this!” And my apprenticeship began.
The seven-year old teacher and her twenty-three year old student became inseparable. I went to bed when she did and got up when she did. We ate our meals together and spent most I of the day working together. I became a crack auto mechanic, I an amateur carpenter and something less than an amateur I (namely a lousy) welder, wood turner and machinist. Tina I knew what to do with every tool in the garage and she could operate every machine in the downstairs workshop. Let no one tell me about the virtues of specialization, the lifelong training required by each trade, or the helplessness of children! Tina taught me infinitely more than the uses of the tools or the operations possible on each machine. She taught me what human beings might be if —
But there was one thing she didn't show me: the lofts. She assured me I could have a loft of my own if I decided to paint or sculpt and then I could visit the other painters and sculptors (namely Ted and Tina) to study their materials and techniques. I told Tina I preferred to express myself with a full pen and an empty piece of paper. Admission to the lofts, and to Sabina's lab, was restricted to the artists themselves. The finished works were brought down, and could be criticized or admired only then. I learned that some of the most beautiful objects in the house and in the tiny garden were Tina's. But no one except another painter or sculptor was allowed to see the work before it was finished since the outsider might influence the artist's decision or even distort the original intention. One had to decide and choose on one's own.
It all sounds so idyllic, doesn't it? Almost Utopian. I'm trying to describe those days as I experienced them, not only because they were the happiest days I spent there, but also because it's the only way I can clarify why I feel so sour about that experience today. It all turned sour gradually; everything turned out not to be what it had seemed. But I should tell you about three more trivialities I experienced before the souring began.
The first concerns Ted. He continued to tiptoe to our door and to look in on me every single night. I started to take his modest “perversion” for granted. If that was the extent to which he satisfied his sexual desires, then I had to agree with Sabina: he really didn't have very extensive desires. I started to feel sorry for him.
The second concerns Tina. She repeatedly talked about wanting to leave the garage, “just me and you and Ted.” I asked jokingly if we couldn't take Jose along and she explained, “Oh no. he'd want to bring Seth along and Seth would bring Vic,” and I understood that Seth and Vic would bring the heroin so I didn't pursue that. I asked why we couldn't bring Sabina along and Tina said, “She'd bring Tissie and Tissie can't live without Seth,” and we'd be right back where we started. I didn't take any of this very seriously and I didn't put all the pieces together until much later; I'm not sure I'm aware of all the pieces even now.
The third has to do with Jose. He and I had simultaneously avoided and courted each other since our bout in the street. I worked facing him as often as I could and whenever I faced him he turned his back to me. But I knew that whenever my back was turned to him he didn't take his eyes off me.
One day Seth rushed to Jose and I overheard him whisper something about “Sabina's kid and sister.”
Jose “corrected” Seth in a way that struck me as totally bizarre. He said, “Ron's kid and Ron's girl are staying right here in Ron's garage, so either say what you've got to say or get out of here!”
It did become perfectly clear to me why Tina had an identity crisis: she was a dead man's daughter in her living mother's house. Furthermore, if she was perpetually “Ron's kid” while I remained “Ron's girl” it was obvious that I was the girl's mother.
I decided to have it out with Jose. I was anxious to learn if he too thought I had walked out on Ron and Tina, if he too thought I was Tina's mother. I also wanted to put an end to our silence, to place our courtship on more solid ground. But I didn't have a chance. That's when everything began to sour.
That night, when Tina was ready to turn in, I told her I wanted to stay behind to finish the work on my own; she could inspect it in the morning and tell me how I had done all by myself.
Tina left. A few minutes later Ted said goodnight and left. Jose and I were alone. Suddenly a terrible thought flew through my mind. Ted never went to bed before me!
I rushed into the house, took my shoes off, and crept to an alcove in the hallway. I watched Ted come out of his room, tiptoe across the hall and slip into Tina's room. I was terrified. A few seconds later he came out. and returned to his own room. I ran to Tina's room. As soon as I reached my bed I started trembling again. I broke out in a cold sweat. I realized that Ted came to our room every night, not to look at me, but to look at Tina!
I stupidly thought I ought to tell Sabina. The following day I went to the kitchen at noon, when she usually got up. I waited for her impatiently. When she came in I told her, “I have something really urgent to tell you.”
As soon as Sabina looked at me I realized I hadn't chosen the best day to reveal my discovery to her. She looked at me but saw Luisa. “If it's about Ted again, save it; I'm busy,” she said.
“It's not about me and Ted. It's about Tina and Ted,” I said insistently.
“You'll have to tell me about it sometime,” she said, and yawned.
I was horrified. It was Sabina the prostitute talking to one of her buyers, coldly, indifferently, absently. “Sabina!” I shouted. “There's a funny relationship between them. I'm not imagining it.”
“It's only funny where you come from,” she said contemptuously. “To him she's a fully developed person. That must be very funny to you, because where you come from she'd be a thing, a pet, a child. What a funny relationship: a man and a pet! But why does it bother you? Aren't all relationships funny where you came from?”
I got mad. “I'm sorry to take up your valuable time; I'm sorry to bother you with my funny sensibilities,” I said sarcastically.
“Don't ever apologize for your sensibilities, Sophia! Develop them, refine them. They're all you've got.” And then, adding, “See you around,” she vanished.
I sat in the kitchen biting my lip with frustration. What in the world could I make out of any of that? You would have been a great help just then, Yarostan. Didn't you tell me that “Sabina's world” was completely familiar to you, that you felt perfectly at home there? I didn't know what to think. Was Sabina simply indifferent? Did she simply not care what happened to seven-year old Tina? Or did she know all about Ted and Tina, everything “conceivable and inconceivable,” and did her philosophy account for it all as normal, as part of the process of healing? And were my sensibilities right after all? Or was I one of those who “only know love and sex in the forms practiced by the maimed, by those with stunted imaginations and dead desires”? And even if my sensibilities were right, was I right to want to impose them on the other people in the house? Who was I, after all? In terms of experience and in almost every other way as well I was the youngest person in the house, the only real “child” there. I was Tina's apprentice. I wasn't her guardian but her charge. She was my teacher and my model. It was she who defined my day's activities, not I hers. It was I who turned to Tina to ask, “What should I do next?” That relationship was funny too, where I came from.
That afternoon I rejoined Tina in the workshop, as her apprentice. Outwardly everything remained the same. But inwardly I was transformed. I stopped my flirtation with Jose and forgot the urgent questions I'd wanted to ask him. I turned all my attention to Ted. I accompanied Tina when she went to tell Ted she was stuck with a problem and asked for his advice. They discussed the problem like two explorers setting out into uncharted territory. They were the adults. I was the child. They obviously knew what they were doing. I was completely lost.
I became obsessed with the desire to take a trip, if only a brief trip, out of “Sabina's world” and its “funny relationships.” I longed to see how it all looked from outside, from where I came from. I hadn't called Alec or any of my university friends since the day I'd been evicted from the co-op three weeks earlier. I had simply disappeared. I wondered if they too would present me with a child I had mothered and ask me why I had abandoned it. Surely not after only three weeks!
It was Saturday evening, Alec's habitual date-night. The school year had just ended. If Alec and I hadn't been expelled we'd both be college graduates. I wondered if he'd be dating someone that night, perhaps someone I didn't know. I couldn't imagine him without a woman. But he was home, and excited to the point of hysteria; he obviously wasn't dating anyone else.
“For Christ's sake Sophie where the hell have you been?” he shouted. “Everyone's looking all over for you. Even your mother —”
“My what?” I asked.
“Your mother, for Christ's sake!” he shouted. “Minnie and I found her through the phone book thinking she'd know where you were but even she hadn't heard from you. What the hell happened? When can I see you?”
“How about tomorrow morning, breakfast time?” I suggested.
“You'll come over?” he asked.
I almost consented — but a “brilliant” idea flashed through my mind. “Why don't you come here?” I asked. I gave him the address and insisted, “Don't tell anyone where I am and come alone, understand?” I thought my idea was “brilliant” because Alec's visit would bring the world I came from right into the midst of Sabina's world. That way I'd see how I looked from outside much more vividly than I ever could if I went outside.
On Sunday morning I got up before sunrise, panicky with anticipation. Alec didn't come until nine. I ran to the garage when I heard a knock, but Vic was there before me. Alec had gotten all dressed up in his Saturday night date suit. He looked as frightened as a rabbit that's ready to bolt away. Vic refused to let him in.
“Ain't no cop going to get inside here!” Vic grumbled.
“He's no cop! He's my best friend!” I shrieked. I threw my arms around the scared rabbit and kissed him. Then I led him past Vic, through the messy garage, through the plush hallway with its panels and inset pictures and sculptures, to the kitchen. Tissie was the next member of the welcoming committee.
“Cripes, what's that you're bringing in here?” Tissie asked, almost dropping her cup.
“Tissie, this is my friend Alec,” I said.
“Alec! That's short for Alexandra ain't it?” she asked.
“Tissie! Don't be mean,” I begged.
“Can't tell from looks these days,” she exclaimed vengefully. “Don't worry, sis, I'm through here; I won't spoil anything for you.” She left us alone.
Poor Alec still looked like he wanted to get away as quickly as possible. He paced back and forth and asked, “Couldn't we have breakfast out someplace?”
I finally succeeded in pushing him down into a chair and told him. “I wanted to see you right here.”
Looking suspiciously at me, then at the hallway. Alec asked with unambiguous hostility, “What the hell you got into, Sophie? A whorehouse?”
I couldn't keep myself from laughing. Alec's words were like gusts of air from the world I'd come from. Gusts of foul air. Farts. Alec and I had never talked about prostitutes but I'm sure he'd have set forth the standard “radical” views of them: guilt less victims of a predatory society, exploited by the bourgeoisie like the rest of the working class, basically proletarian — until the day when he finds his girl friend among “sluts in a whorehouse.” Alec disappointed me. I'd expected him to lean over backward with hypocritical understanding and sympathy, even encouragement. I would then have bombarded him with revelations about the “negative aspects” of the good life. But his instant hostility put me on the defensive immediately.
“A whorehouse?” I asked. “I thought you knew I was evicted from the whorehouse! Or didn't you know my colleagues at the co-op were all for sale — to anyone willing to buy them: the city, the state, any corporate bureaucracy, any academic bureaucracy, law firms, rich husbands, even cops?”
“I get the point, Sophie,” he said contritely. “I didn't mean to come on like that. But ever since you told me to be hush hush about where you were, and what with that guy stopping me at the door, I thought —”
“You thought I'd become a prostitute,” I cut in.
“I didn't say that,” he insisted.
“But you thought it,” I said.
“Get off it, Sophie,” he begged. “You can't read my mind and I can't read yours, so tell me what you've been doing and I'll stop trying. You told that guy I was your best friend, but you sure don't act like you believe that.”
“All right, comrade, you asked for it,” I announced, proceeding defensively every step of the way. “I've gone back to the working class, which is where I started, where I found my first love —”
“And where I've never been! Only I never expected you to throw that in my face!” he exclaimed.
“I'm answering your question,” I said calmly. “I'm an apprentice mechanic, carpenter and welder; in a few days I start out as apprentice machinist and later on as electrician, plumber —”
“Aw get off it, Sophie,” he said, annoyed. “I know you can't be all those things. What's the big secret you're keeping from me?”
I was annoyed too. For once I wasn't being sarcastic and as a result I sounded like a liar. I grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him downstairs to the workshop. “You don't believe me? I'll show you!” Like a magician performing a trick, I showed him a rectangular block, inserted it into the lathe and transformed it into a cylinder. I didn't know how to do anything else on the lathe but Alec had never even seen that done.
He was greatly impressed. “Jesus, Sophie, is this a school?” he asked, now all modesty and admiration.
I gleamed in his admiration, proudly absorbing credit for what I had neither conceived nor built nor helped maintain. “Something like a school,” I answered, “but so different from the schools we know that it shouldn't be called by the same name. The state doesn't pay for it and professional educators don't run it.”
“Who does, then?” he asked.
“Exactly who you thought ran it. It was founded by street people, lumpen, whatever you choose to call them: professional hustlers, prostitutes, dope dealers, pimps and thieves — the works! They pay for it by stealing and hustling and they run it themselves. They're the freest people I've known; they sell less of their time, their bodies and their talents than anyone I've ever been with. It's a school, but there's no curriculum and no structure. Everyone does exactly what he or she pleases.” As I talked, Ted and Tina walked into the workshop.
Alec exclaimed, “Jesus, this place is great! I didn't think such things were possible. Are there kids here too?”
Tina planted herself in front of Alec and asked, “Are you Sophia's professor friend?”
Suddenly Ted faced Alec and asked, “What's great here, mister? The heroin? The prostitution?”
“Heroin?” Alec asked, backing away from Ted. “Jesus, I don't know, buddie. She was just telling me —”
Pointing his finger at Tina, Ted asked, “Is it great for her, mister? I heard you say this place was great. Is it great for her? You hear my question?”
“Sure, I heard you, buddie,” Alec said; “I never said heroin was great.”
“It ain't great for her, mister! She ain't into it. And what she's into don't need this place. Her and me either. What her and me are into don't need to be built on heroin and prostitution. This place ain't great for her and me!”
I heard “her and me, her and me” over and over, louder and louder, like a sledge hammer pounding in my brain. I felt myself sinking. Alec must have caught me because I suddenly found all three of them carrying me upstairs. I asked to be placed in a kitchen chair. I sat and stared, oblivious to Alec and to the others gathering around me. I kept hearing Ted's voice repeating “her and me.” Suddenly everything had fallen into place and the place had fallen apart. Suddenly everything had meaning and became meaningless.
When Ted repeated “her and me” for the third time, everything flashed through my mind simultaneously; Tina talking about leaving, “just me and you and Ted”; Jose telling me, “Sure there are couples; lots of them; there's hardly anything else”, Ted's nightly visits to Tina's and my room. When I'd thought he looked in on me, I'd concluded that he found me attractive. It now dawned on me that the only time he really looked at me or spoke to me was when I squatted alongside Tina, when I looked her size and seemed her age. “Her and me.” “Just me and you and Ted.” “You're my mother, aren't you?” The mother of Ted's seven-year old bride. And where was the honeymoon to be? Not in Sabina's world, where “nothing is banned, everything is allowed, no holds are barred,” but in the world I came from, the world where “all relationships are funny.” But why me? Why not Sabina? Because “she'd bring Tissie” and Seth and the rest of the crew and the honeymoon wouldn't even be as private as the iofts by Sabina's laboratory. “He might even ask you to kill me,” Sabina had told me. I wouldn't bring anyone along. I'd be a far better front for Ted's “funny relationship” than Ted's garage ever was for Seth's heroin. It was no longer a question of not imposing my sensibilities; it was now a question of not being imposed on. I felt like vomiting. I couldn't keep my mind off the yet more private loft, just for “her and me,” with yet more rigid admissions requirements, with a steel door and a combination lock, with a wall-to-wall down mattress for “every conceivable and inconceivable perversion — in every conceivable shape, size and age —”
Those were the thoughts that flew through my mind as I sat in the kitchen eleven years ago, staring at the bewildered faces surrounding me.
- * *
Those are the thoughts that fly through my mind as I sit on the fender of Daman's car waiting for him and Sabina to come out of the courtroom, four days after Tina announced, “I'm leaving. I'll be staying at Ted's.”
Finally Daman emerges from the courthouse alone. He sees me, waves, runs across the street and the first thing he talks about is Tina. “I didn't expect to be seeing you again so soon, and certainly not under such unusual circumstances. That fireball you keep in your house with you —”
“Scared the hell out of you and you deserved it! She's no longer with us.” I look expectantly toward the courthouse entrance and ask him, “Where's the other fireball I keep in my house with me?”
“No longer with you? My fault I suppose?” he asks. He starts driving.
“Your fault?” I ask. “Why are you so paranoid? Where's Sabina?”
“I told her I'd pick her up after I found out where your trial was. Couldn't you tell her on the phone? It was over before I found anything out,” he says.
“When did you two get so chummy?” I ask.
“You can call it chummy,” he says with sarcasm. “That's not what I call it! She was waiting for me after my last class — with a switchblade knife!”
I can't keep myself from laughing. “Sabina? She was playing wasn't she? When was that?”
“Day before yesterday,” he says. “If she was playing, I didn't think her game very funny. She pressed that knife to my stomach and asked, `Where is she?' As if I'd locked you into my desk drawer! Don't laugh, Sophie! I don't see how you can live with that woman and still be alive. She pressed the knife until I felt it — I still have a wound — and demanded, `Where's Sophia? What did you do with her, professor?' All right, go ahead and laugh; it was hilarious! `How the hell should I know?' I said, and I was sure I'd had it. That was as chummy as we got. For some reason she spared me. She put the knife away and said, `She's been kidnapped.' `Kidnapped,' I shouted. `Why would I want to kidnap her?' Answer: `I don't know, professor; I can't read your mind'!”
“She was right!” I shout.
“Right?” he shouts.
Still laughing, I say, “She was right! You, a professor, were completely exposed in an argument; every mask you wear was pulled off; you were shown up as a cop for capital. But a professor, a powerful member of the establishment, doesn't have to let himself be exposed like that, certainly not by people who don't have the proper credentials. He picks up the phone and sends out a goon squad —”
“Sophie, god damn it, you're going to walk home!” he shouts.
“Only she had the wrong professor,” I continue. “But she was right! I exposed a professor in an argument and he sent out the goon squad!”
“Hm,” he says, bristling with frustration. “I just found out they had you in there for assault and battery.”
“I also slapped him,” I admit.
“Oh, you slapped him,” he says self-righteously.
“Yes, Oh, I slapped him!” I shout. “Just like I wanted to slap you when you said Yarostan's years in prison were equivalent to a university education. That would have justified calling the goon squad, wouldn't it?”
“Hm,” he says again, turning onto my street.
“What's hm?” I ask. “What happened after Sabina put her knife away?”
“I obviously became concerned, whatever you say about professors — the entire genus. I didn't think you ever made such sweeping generalizations,” he says, parking the car in front of my house.
“I usually don't, but Sabina does. So what happened next?” I ask impatiently.
“She had me drive her to your mother's. Then she had me drive all over town looking for someone else. At one point I suggested calling the police. She screamed, `If you call the police — ' `I know,' I said, `I'll get knifed.' But you have to admit I was right at least about that! It would sure have saved a lot of gas!”
“I'm grateful for all your trouble,” I tell him. “Would you like to come in?”
“No thank you,” he says emphatically. “My life is too precious to me.”
“Then tell me one more thing. What do you know about that commune some students got going?” I ask.
“Nothing much,” he says. “Some wild new `cultural radicals' have got it into their heads that they can make a revolution without the working class, inside a university building.”
“Thanks again, Daman,” I say, climbing out of his car.
“But none of my students are involved in that,” he adds, boasting.
“Because they're the working class,” I shout.
He shouts back, “That's right, they're the working class. Goodbye, Sophie. Give my regards to the knife thrower. And send my greetings to the fire eater!” He drives off.
I walk up to the door and knock lightly. No response. I pull out my key and let myself in. Still no Sabina. I walk to her room. She's sound asleep. It's not noon yet. I go up to her quietly and kiss her. She sits up abruptly and stares at me. I whisper, “If you were so worried about me that you went out looking for me with a knife, why did you go back to sleep?”
“What did you expect me to do?” she asks, hugging me. “March in front of the courtroom carrying a sign and shouting `Free Sophia!'?”
“You couldn't have looked funnier than when you poked Daman with a knife,” I say, starting to laugh again.
“Did he come in with you?” she asks.
“Oh no, if he ever sees you again he'll run as fast as he can!”
Both of us burst out laughing. Sabina gets up and starts dressing.
“What made you think I was kidnapped?” I ask.
“Look around the living room and tell me what you'd have thought,” she answers.
I run into the living room and look around for the first time since my arrest. The rug is decorated by enormous footprints of dry mud. Under the pillow on the couch there's a smashed record and in front of the couch there's a mess: a shattered lamp and a spilled ashtray next to the tipped coffee table. I try to explain the “evidence” to Sabina. “It was pouring out when they came for me — and they probably walked around the house before they came in. One of the oafs crushed the record because I'd left the pillow over it; the other one bumped into the coffee table on his way out.”
“It was sunny and dry when I got up — but never mind; you sure would write lousy detective stories,” Sabina shouts from her room. “It's perfectly obvious, isn't it? Two giants crawled in through your window in the middle of the night. I know there were two because I measured the footprints; there were two different sizes. They gagged you and started carrying you out through the front door. You put up a good fight in the living room, but they knocked you out cold, threw you into a sack and carried you away.”
“You mean you measured their footprints but you didn't go into my room?” I ask. “My pajamas were under my pillow and my bed was made up! Some detective you'd make!”
“I obviously didn't sit around here playing detective!” she shouts. “I went out to find you.”
“But why Daman?” I ask.
“Who else?” she asks.
“And why the knife?”
“Sophia, I — if I'd wanted a house all to myself, I would have looked for one several years ago,” she shouts.
“Aha!” I shout. “Are you the one who lectured to me about possessiveness? Is it possible that somewhere along the way you've acquired a mother complex?”
Sabina runs into the living room and puts both her hands on my throat — gently. “Say that again, smart-ass,” she hisses through her teeth, “and I'll have a home all to myself. I'll admit only one thing,” she says, removing her hands and turning away from me, as if ashamed; “I was sorry I lectured to you when you weren't here any more. You were wrong about Tina and I was furious. But I wasn't furious enough to want you beaten and carried away. That's why the knife. Losing both of you so suddenly didn't give me time to adopt a detached, speculative attitude. But what business did you have with the police? And why didn't you tell me about it beforehand? What about your job? Come on, let's have breakfast. There are two letters for you in there.”
We go to the kitchen; I'm glad to be home. I open your letter first and start reading it while eating, handing Sabina each page I finish. “A born troublemaker,” she comments. “Reckless and courageous. Like all of Nachalo's brood” (I being his daughter, Sabina his granddaughter and Tina his great-granddaughter). Suddenly she says, “Hey, troublemaker, it's a beautiful day; how about spending the afternoon in the park?”
It really is a beautiful spring day, one of the first cloudless and warm days this year. We catch a bus near our house and ride to a bridge that leads to an enormous island park. On the bus I tell Sabina why I was arrested, tried and fined. She laughs at every detail and obviously doesn't respond with “Oh, you slapped him!” On the contrary, she's sorry about the fact that my slaps could hardly be more than gentle pats on the professor's cheeks. I don't know how well you remember Sabina. She still looks like a gypsy whatever she wears, and she's still smaller than I am, but over the years she's learned every conceivable technique of self-defense, and she always was terribly strong; I suspect she could easily have committed “assault and battery” against both of the cops who arrested me — if they hadn't had guns. The behavioral psychologist would have smarted for a long time from Sabina's slaps and then he'd really have been disappointed by the smallness of the fine.
We get off the bus and she runs across the bridge; I walk across, and I'm exhausted by the time I reach the bench where she waits for me. We've gone mountain climbing several times — but I'll strike that out; I've digressed enough already, and this is my third day on this letter. We walk to an isolated spot by the river and lie down on the grass, sunning ourselves while reading your letter. We spend the rest of the afternoon watching the birds and the passing boats and discussing your letter. Before telling you about that discussion, I'd like to tell you about the second letter that was waiting for me, so that I can at least finish telling you what happened to my teaching job. I haven't forgotten that I've left you dangling right in the middle of my experience in the garage. I'm sorry. Ten things can happen in an instant and ten thoughts can fly simultaneously through your mind but you can only tell about one thing or one idea at a time and that fact alone falsifies what really happened and how I really felt.
The second letter that was waiting for me is from the administration of the community college. It's almost identical to notes Alec and I received years ago from the president of the university. The main difference is that this note came by mail instead of being delivered by special courier. It only contains one line: “Please report to the office of the Dean at 9 a.m. Friday.” How quickly that note came! The “assault and battery” trial and my interview with the dean must have been planned at the same time and by the same people. I show the note to Sabina and she responds by giving me advice. “Next time you want to slap someone, clench your fist — not like that! Fold your thumb on the outside, like this!” She shows me.
I arrive at the dean's office on Friday morning half an hour late. I usually get up at nine. Since I knew, more or less, what was going to happen, I thought I was making enough of a concession by setting my alarm for quarter to nine.
The “interview” with the dean isn't nearly as congenial as my earlier interview with the president. The first difference is that the dean is nervous and rude, not at all the smooth politician the president was. It's through this dean that I got the job. He makes public displays of his liberalism and is a great friend of Daman's whenever they're both visible to others. Daman had recommended me to him. The second difference is that there's a hostile presence in the room: the behaviorist. And lest I forget: no coffee is served, although the hour would warrant it.
“Sophia,” the dean starts out; “I must confess that I am at once surprised and disappointed.”
“So?” I ask, shrugging my shoulders.
“This proceeding is highly irregular,” he says, fidgeting with some papers on his desk.
“Please come to the point,” I say; “I really don't have all day.”
Lifting some of the papers, he says, “I have a report here —”
I grab the report out of his hands and the psychologist starts running toward me. “Am I not allowed to read a report about me?” I ask, clutching the papers.
The liberal dean shoves his arm in the psychologist's path and says, “Surely Sophia is entitled to read the report!”
“But it's the only copy!” the behaviorist shouts with amazing psychological insight.
The dean keeps his arm between the predator and his prey and assures me, “You may study the report if you wish.” Liberalism: authority granting its victims the right to live a minute longer.
Turning my back to the frustrated behaviorist, but listening attentively for every move he might make, I leaf through the report. It's a medical report, or rather a mental report, about the state of Sophia Nachalo's health. And it concludes that the subject is urgently in need of care: unbalanced, with strong symptoms of psychosis, disposed to acts of extreme violence, and not only unfit to teach but socially dangerous as well.
“In short, a witch!” I announce.
“Pardon me?” the dean asks.
“The accuser, the judge and the executioner are all one and the same person; how does that fit into your political philosophy?” I ask the liberal dean.
“Of course you are entitled —” he starts.
“Oh, am I?” I ask with mock enthusiasm. “In that case I'd like my own defense attorney, expenses to be paid by the institution; I'd like a trial by jury; and I'd like the right to examine my jury to make sure my accusers aren't sitting in judgment over me.”
The liberal dean is really nervous now and his free hand fidgets with everything on his desk. “You're entitled — yes, of course — a review board will have to be appointed — surely —”
While the dean fishes for words, I fish for the lighter in my purse. I'm grateful for the noise the dean makes, both with his mouth and his hands, and also for the numerous disappointments with which he threatens to frustrate the behaviorist. All four corners of the report are on fire before either of them smell what's happening to the only copy.
“The trial is over! She's a witch! Burn her!” I shout as I throw the report on the dean's paper-laden desk. Before leaving I start laughing. The laughter is the crowning touch: it must really sound demonic to them. Neither of them moves to put out the fire on the dean's desk before I leave the room.
That afternoon Daman calls. His friend the dean told him everything. “Gee, I just heard. I didn't think you'd lose your job, Sophie. That's terrible. I'll be right over.”
The hypocrite. He talks about working class revolutions from morning to night. But losing an academic job is terrible.
That's serious. The job is the only thing in life that really matters. He refused to come into the house after such a trivial event as my arrest. But now he rushes over.
Sabina had laughed until she'd ached when I'd told her I'd burned part of the dean's office as well as the only copy of the document that proved me to be a maniac. Daman doesn't laugh. He fidgets, like the dean. His hands mechanically leaf through the stack of paper on the coffee table; they're the pages of your letter. “Do you really think you helped your case by doing that, Sophie?”
“In every conceivable way,” I answer. “I've regained all the self-respect I lost when I accepted that job. I've regained my time. I didn't demean myself, and I was so proud of myself when I walked out of that room that I felt three feet taller.”
“This is a serious matter, Sophie, and I'm not joking,” he says.
“Neither am I! For you it's not a serious matter to kiss the dean's ass. It is for me!” I shout.
“You won't easily find another job like that,” he says, threatening never to recommend me again.
“I won't ever look for another job like that,” I assure him. “You can keep them all yourself!”
Still fidgeting with your letter but never once looking at ii, he asks, “Is this a novel you're working on?”
“No,” I tell him, “it's another letter from my friend Yarostan.”
He drops your letter as if it, too, had been burning. “Well, I guess I'd better be shoving along,” he announces.
“I'll read you parts of the letter,” I suggest. “I told Yarostan about you and he said some really interesting things about professors and journalists. You'll be fascinated.”
“I'd rather not,” he says. “The idea of the workers' backwardness pervades his whole argument. He doesn't understand that the working class is inherently —”
Sabina cuts Daman short. Until now she'd stayed out of the conversation in deference to me: with Tina gone, the circle of my friends is diminishing. But now she leaps in front of Daman and snaps her fingers in his face. “Are you alive, professor, or are you some type of robot?”
“I'd better be shoving along,” Daman repeats uneasily.
“You said that before too,” Sabina reminds him, blocking his path. “I've always wondered how you professors managed to say the same thing with the same tone year after year. Now I know. You've got a phonograph installed in your throat. Open your mouth and let me see, professor. I've never seen a phonograph that could fit into a man's throat. But what happens to you? How does it feel? Don't you feel frustrated when you hear someone ask you one thing and your throat answers something else? Sophia told you Yarostan had things to say about professors and journalists, not about backward workers. Does the academic phonograph kit include ear plugs? They must be absolutely perfect plugs. Let me see your ear. What about your eyes, professor? Can you see us standing here? Or is your vision plugged up too?”
Daman looks uneasily at the door, then at Sabina and me.
I suggest: “Here's the phone; you could call the police.”
Sabina steps out of his way. Daman glares at me and then bolts through the door.
You wrote that the political militant, the journalist and the academician couldn't help establish a human community because their very existence presupposed the absence of community. I don't disagree. Daman is all three in one, and he's all the proof I need. I also agree with what you say about the “context” Daman moves in: it's a desert and nothing human can grow there. But I'm not sure all this applies to the people I met on the university newspaper staff fifteen years ago. I'm not even sure it applies to Daman as he was then. You seem to assume that once people have chosen their “context,” they've chosen it once and for all, they can't get out of it, they can't change. You certainly make your argument convincing by citing the case of Vera Neis and of Adrian Povrshan. Once they chose their “starting point,” they seem to have gotten on an express train which didn't stop until it reached its final destination. The people with whom I spent over three years on the newspaper staff didn't exhibit such demonic consistency. If I had tried to guess then where all those people would end up, I would have missed every single time. The only genuinely “professorial type” among us was Hugh, the liberal editor, the one who claimed to have no views of his own because there were always two equal and opposite views of every problem. Yet he's the one who wound up with the “down and outs,” and the last time I saw him he expressed an anti-professorial attitude very similar to yours, and lived it. As for Daman: at that time I thought no one less likely to become a professor. He was so totally dependent on Minnie for everything he professed that I couldn't have imagined him addressing a classroom all by himself. Of course I can trace the “basic continuity “of his character today — but only through hindsight, only because the “basic starting point” would be what he is today, not what he was then. I could do that just as easily if he were a bank clerk today, or a street cleaner. With the end-point as the “basis” we can trace the origin of anything back to the beginning of time. Surely that's not all your argument boils down to.
I'm moved to tears when I read your description of the role of journalists in the Magarna uprising: “spreading their reportages between like and like, interpreting each to the other, portraying each to the other through a glass that didn't reflect the experience of the individual on the other side but only the reporter's.” That's horrifying, I agree. And that's what I was at that time: a reporter. That was my “context,” my “world.” But when I think about what you're telling me I can't help rebelling. It all makes so much sense when you refer to your past experience. But does it make any sense at all when you apply it to mine? Are you really sure I would have been a reporter if I'd been in your world at the time of that uprising? Are you really sure you'd have been miles away from the university newspaper if you'd been in mine? Those are senseless questions, but it's you who raise them. You tell me, “It's only when you descend among those who are nothing in this society that your search becomes meaningful as a struggle against this society.” Until then my search was “a search for a corpse.” I come alive only on the day when I move into the house behind the garage. And of course that's where you would have been all along. You say so. “The garage in which Sabina and her friends lived is an environment far more familiar to me than the world of the university or the newspaper. Your descent — is a descent to my world. Those are the activities I confronted — the people I've known. Yet you describe my world — as exotic.” Exotic: that's the exact word for it. That's exactly how I experienced it. Just like a tourist. I kept my distance. I didn't become involved until I was threatened personally, even physically. You're right about my detachment. You know perfectly well that my “social origins” weren't responsible for it. Was my experience in the carton plant responsible for that detachment? Or my three years in the university? Was I really so determined by my “starting point,” whenever I reached it, that I couldn't have made myself someone like Tissie? Was it really my “search for a corpse” that made the people in Sabina's world exotic to me? Are you really so sure the house behind the garage wouldn't have been “exotic” to you — every bit as exotic as it was to me and Alec?
I'm not asking rhetorical questions. I'm asking questions I couldn't answer for myself then and can't answer for you now. In many ways I did find in the garage something that was profoundly “meaningful as a struggle against this society.” If I hadn't found that there, I wouldn't have stayed as long as I did; I would have walked out with Alec the day I figured out what Ted was. I didn't only stay there. I didn't ever decide to leave. In the end I was carried out. I did find the experience meaningful — more meaningful than all the other experiences of my life lumped together. Yet once I left I suppressed every detail of that experience from my memory, and I went on suppressing them for ten years. I haven't given one thought to Ted, Tissie or Seth until only a few days ago, when Tina announced she was moving in with Ted. If all those events were so meaningful to me, why did I repress every trace of them so thoroughly? Was it really because I belonged to that other, alien and hostile and inhuman world, the world of academics and journalists? I don't think so, but I'll let you be the judge. Since Tissie's world is already familiar to you, I have no reason to spare you any of the details, do I? Since my experience was so meaningful, I have no reason to be ashamed of any of it, nor to continue repressing it. But I wonder if you'll be able to tell me just what is so familiar to you about my experience — and just what it all meant. That's the one detail I still can't provide.
- * *
I wanted very much to run out of that kitchen with Alec eleven years ago, to move in with him, to get away from that world where “nothing is banned, no holds are barred” for “her and me,” the world of wall-to-wall mattresses for “every conceivable shape, size and age.” But I sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by faces I failed to recognize, until Alec's voice roused me.
“What's the matter with Sophie?” he was asking Ted. “Is she on heroin? Is that what you're trying to tell me, buddie?”
Ted backed away from Alec and I jumped out of my chair at Ted, determined not to let him repeat “her and me” one more time. “Get out of this room,” I hissed; “Get out of my sight. You're disgusting!”
For an instant Ted froze where he stood and glared at me, his face expressing bewilderment more than anger. Then he turned around and slowly walked out of the room. As soon as Ted was gone, Tina ran up to me, bawling, and started to beat my chest and my stomach with her powerful fists until I cried out from pain. She asked, “What's the matter with you? Why do you hate Ted so much? What did he ever do to you?”
I could see the same question on Tissie's face and also on Jose's. I sank back into my chair, rested my head on the table, between my arms, and cried. Tina walked out of the room sobbing. Tissie stomped out. Jose stayed but said nothing. Alec stroked my hair as if to “comfort” me; I pushed his hand away.
“Jesus, Sophie, what was that all about?” Alec asked. “Are you on heroin?”
“No, god damn it!” I shouted. “I'm not on heroin. You're the only dopes in this room!” I was furious at both of them for being so blind, so dense, for thinking there was something wrong, not with Ted, but with me.
“I'm sorry Sophie,” Alec said awkwardly. “Maybe it wasn't such a good idea for me to come here.”
“What are you sorry about?” I bellowed at him.
“Jesus Christ, Sophie! Don't start shouting at me now! I'm sorry about everything. You, the heroin, this place. I don't know what to think. First you make this place sound great and you make me feel like a jerk. You tell me about street people raising themselves up with their own forces, running their own lives, showing others that it can be done and showing how. That's just great. That's something I'd like to be part of. Then this guy starts telling me about prostitution, about selling heroin and about taking it. And then you collapse like you're having a fit. I think that guy is right and I don't see why you chewed him out. I don't think prostitution is great and I don't think heroin is great, and if you're not having a heroin fit I'd like to know what the hell you're having and why you collapsed when he said it isn't great!”
“Maybe you're right, Alec,” I said weakly. “Maybe this wasn't a good day for us to meet. Maybe I should have gone to your place.” Jose jumped when I said this, but quickly turned his face away when he saw I'd noticed. Looking right at Jose, I added, “Maybe we should go to your place right now.”
But Alec let himself be carried away by his socio-political program now that he realized he had one. “Why don't you answer me, Sophie? If you're not on heroin what are you on? Do you think I'd take you home in the shape you're in? These people probably know how to take care of you if you have another fit. You know that I don't know shit about that. I don't even know any doctors.”
“Why don't you go home then?” I suggested.
“Why did you do it Sophie?” he continued. “Was it because they threw you out of that co-op? Why bother yourself about that? You yourself admit it was nothing but a whorehouse, an establishment whorehouse. Was it because they kept you off that Omissions rag? It wouldn't be the first time you did something like this. I remember that time you had some resentment against Rhea or Lem and you took it out on them by getting a date with that idiot Rakshas. That was some novel way to spite somebody — to go to a military dance with a playboy from the suburbs! And that time it worked. Lem and Rhea dropped their golden apple as if they'd bitten into a worm. But what are you doing now? Is this your way to spite that Omissions crew? Don't you know Omissions is all over and done with, that it's absolutely dead, part of the forgotten past? I called them when I couldn't find you — every one of them except Rakshas. They've all graduated and they're all into other stuff now. Not a one of them talked about starting up that paper again. You're not making any point, don't you see that? And that shit about street people raising themselves up — Jesus, Sophie, by becoming pimps? By selling morphine? That's not a way to raise themselves up! That way they just dig themselves further under!”
With his last comments Alec invited Jose into the conversation. “How did you pay for that suit, mister?” Jose asked. “Did your rich papa buy it for you?”
Alec got hysterical. “Who the hell is he? Your pimp?”
Jose would have knocked Alec across the room if I hadn't run between them and shouted at Alec, “Either be civil or get out this very minute! Jose is your host and if you don't apologize to him I'll —” I didn't finish. I was going to add: I'll let him beat you to a pulp, but I realized that only Jose could decide to do that.
Alec amazed me by reaching his hand out to Jose. “I'm sorry, Jose, I didn't mean that.” Jose refused to shake Alec's hand. Alec added, still holding out his hand, “You struck a sensitive spot. I hated my old man. I walked out on him and haven't seen him for at least six years.”
Jose suddenly shook Alec's hand and said, “No shit. I walked out on my old man eight years ago.” Turning to me, Jose said, “I mean Ron's old man.” I looked at him curiously but he didn't explain. He turned to Alec again and added, “That give us two things in common.”
“Two? What's the second?” Alec asked.
“Sophie,” Jose answered.
Sophie! I thought. So I was no longer Ron's girl! I blushed until my cheeks burned but said nothing.
Of course Alec took that up. “Christ, Sophie, you mean you and this Jose — you mean you two —”
I hurriedly cut him short. “He's my host and that's all. Alec. Understand?”
“No!” he insisted. “I don't understand. A little earlier you were asking me to be your host —”
Fortunately Sabina walked into the kitchen just then and I didn't have to deal simultaneously with Alec's outburst of jealousy and Jose's sudden confession. “What's this?” Sabina asked, studying Alec in his suit, “the circus?”
“He's my friend Alec. Alec, my sister Sabina,” I said.
“This is your sister? Are you serious? I mean, I never knew you had a sister,” Alec said, literally ravaging Sabina with his eyes.
“Sophia is your friend, is she?” Sabina asked him.
“Yes,” he answered, completely off guard. “She's my best friend.”
“How about Tissie? Is she your friend too?” Sabina asked.
“I don't understand what you mean.” Alec said.
“Anything in a skirt is your friend, isn't that so, Mr. Alec?” Sabina asked. Jose started to laugh but stopped as soon as Sabina turned to him and whispered, “Oh you're an altogether different type of fish, aren't you?”
Alec turned to me with a helpless expression; he'd already forgotten his recent jealousy. Grateful to him at least for that, I said to Sabina. “But he's all right in spite of that.”
Alec stuck his arm out to shake Sabina's hand, saying, “Sophie and her friends here have been telling me about your establishment, er, your house.”
Sabina turned her back to him and walked to the stove. Suddenly she faced him, coquetishly pulled her skirt above her knee, and said, “You obviously like them short, thin but not skinny, preferably with pitch black hair. They're the most expensive types. How much can you pay?”
Alec stared at her with disbelief (or was he weighing her proposition?). Suddenly he made up his mind, turned to me and started shouting, “Jesus, Sophie, what the hell were you telling me about being a carpenter and a mechanic! Your sister! Do you take me for a complete jerk? Jesus Christ, why did you have to go and get into this? Pimps, prostitutes and dope addicts! Why?”
Jose tensed up again, but Sabina was far ahead of him. “How do you spend your time, Reverend Alec?”
“I work in a factory like thousands of others!” Alec shouted proudly.
“Not thousands, Reverend; millions,” she corrected. “That's an ultra-respectable way to spend your time, since millions do that. We spend our time discussing our own projects and carrying them out. Why do you do that to your time, Reverend?”
“Aw get off it,” Alec pleaded. “To earn my living, that's why!”
“In other words, you sell yourself?” Sabina asked.
“What the hell do you do?” Alec asked.
“How often do you work in a factory, Reverend?” She pursued him relentlessly.
“Six days a week, like most everyone else,” he answered reluctantly.
“Day, or night?” she asked.
“I said six days!”
“Prostitute!” Sabina shouted.
“What are you calling me?” Alec asked, dumbfounded.
“Prostitute!” Sabina responded. “You sell yourself during six of your seven living days. Do you think any of us does that? I sell myself for half an hour, and at night! All I lose is a little of my sleep. I don't sell one second of my living day. Prostitute! You sell all there is to you, every living day, six days a week, during your living day. You sell yourself and you sleep. What did you call me, Reverend? I didn't hear you!”
Alec had started backing away from Sabina and before she finished he had bolted through the door. No one tried to stop him. I remained seated and thought I'd let that be my last encounter with Alec, but I remembered Ted's “her and me” and changed my mind. I caught up with him in the garage and we walked out together.
“I can't deal with it, Sophie,” he said as soon as we were in the street. “I thought I was radical and open-minded but I can't take any of this in. It doesn't seem right to me. although she makes it all sound right. And I can't tell you why it doesn't seem right. Maybe she's got me all figured out; she sure looked right through me —”
“You looked pretty hard yourself,” I reminded him.
“Aw come on,” he said, smiling a little. “She sure saw that right away! Is she really your sister? Sure sounds like it when she runs her mouth. But I can't take it in. Like she says, I talk about exploitation and revolution and when the time comes to do something every goddamn morning I baa like a sheep.” He paused, took my hand in his, and asked, “You're not really a heroin addict, are you Sophie?”
“Nor a prostitute. I'd like to see you again. Alec,” I told him, letting him kiss me.
“I'd like to believe it,” he whispered.
“Well I hope you're able to!” I shouted sarcastically, pulling myself away from him and starting to return to the garage.
“What should I tell your mother?” he asked.
“Tell her I'll call her! No! Tell her I'm a dope addict. Tell her I'm a slut in a whorehouse. Tell her to go to hell!” I shouted, running back to the garage.
“How much do I owe you?” he yelled back. He had the last word. I ran through the garage, past Ted and Tina, straight to my bed.
Alec's visit resolved absolutely nothing for me. I'd hoped his “outside perspective” would at least give me a clue as to how I might respond to Ted, to Sabina's “no holds are barred,” to Tina. But he'd come with nothing but hackneyed and insulting prejudices, petty jealousy, and his perennial “skirt chasing.”
I stayed away from Tina because I couldn't bear the thought of facing Ted, even in the workshops. For a week I got up every morning, right after Tina left the room, and went for all-day lonely walks. I avoided Sabina as much as I could because, like Alec, I wasn't able to “take it all in.” I also stayed away from Jose. The cryptic confession he'd made during his argument with Alec excited me immensely but it also frightened me; when I thought of him, the idea that “everything is allowed, no holds are barred” made my heart flutter wildly.
One day I even visited Debbie Matthews. She was drunk and our brief conversation wasn't very satisfactory. But it was then that I learned about poor Lem Icel's fate. The international conference he'd attended had ended six months earlier and he still hadn't returned. In the meantime, the Magarna uprising had been suppressed by the tanks you described. Of course I knew then that the letter I'd sent you probably hadn't reached its destination.
By the end of the week I was absolutely bored. I decided not to let Ted empty my life of its content. I had enjoyed my brief apprenticeship with Tina immensely; she was a marvelous teacher and I'd loved being able to do all those different things that had always seemed so impossible to me. I resolved to regain Tina's friendship. My first attempt led to a disaster.
It was exactly a week after Alec's visit. I'd gone to bed before Tina all week long. That night I stayed awake and waited for her. As soon as she turned out the light and slipped into bed, I said, “I'm sorry about what I did, Tina.” I heard her breathe faster but she didn't say anything. “Do you hate me?” I asked.
“Why do you hate Ted?” she asked.
I lay silently, not knowing what to say. Then I asked, “Doesn't he ever touch you, hurt you?”
“Who told you that?” she asked, seeming astonished. “Ted could never hurt anyone. Sure he touched me. He used to kiss me every night when ! went to bed — before you came.”
I fidgeted with my blanket. “I'm sorry I came,” I said. “I know I should leave. But I have nowhere to go.”
Silence. Suddenly Tina sat up in her bed and whispered, “Sophia? Are you asleep?”
“No, I'm not.”
“I don't hate you,” she announced.
I leaped out of my bed and sat down on hers. “Friends?” I asked, reaching for her hand.
Tina turned her face toward mine and asked sadly, “Sophia, would you kiss me the way Ted used to?”
“Where did he kiss you?” I asked nervously.
“Here,” she said, pointing to her lips.
I couldn't — but I didn't have to! I was blinded by the room lights. Ted stood by the door with his hand on the switch!
“You!” I shrieked hysterically. “Get out of here!”
Jose and Tissie came running into the room and both looked bewildered when they saw me sitting on Tina's bed, holding her hand.
Ted asked insinuatingly, “Is there something the matter with your bed, Sophie?”
“Get out of here!” I repeated, getting off Tina's bed and into mine. “I don't owe you any explanations!”
Then Tina said to Ted, “I'd have called you if she'd hurt me! She wasn't hurting me. I asked her to kiss me goodnight, like you used to.”
Jose and Tissie backed slowly out of the room. But Ted stayed, still trembling, glaring at me with terror and hatred in his eyes. Then he turned around and walked back to his room. Tina got up to turn the light out. On her way back to her bed she stopped by mine and kissed me, “the way Ted used to.” I had won her friendship. But I lost my desire to resume my apprenticeship.
I spent four more days avoiding the workshops as well as all my housemates. I rode busses to parks, taking my lunch and a novel. But I couldn't concentrate on what I read. My situation was too unresolved. I thought of leaving but I didn't want to be any where else. And I knew that something in my situation had to change, something had to come to a head. My relationship with Jose was suspended in midair. My conflict with Ted had to reach some kind of climax. My apprenticeship was bound to resume. Or else I might finally be pushed into trying out Tissie's and Sabina's “trade.” I say pushed because the one thing I wasn't going to do was the pushing. That's why I rode the busses, letting them take me wherever I went. I waited for something to happen to me, to make my decisions and choose my path for me. The perfect dilettante. And I felt perfectly self-satisfied at least about that. After all, Jose had told me on the first night that Ron's girl didn't have to do any of the work. Ron's girl didn't have to do anything at all. She only had to be present at the major ceremonies and entertain the founder's followers with her sarcastic comments.
After four more days of evasion, “something” did change, but for the worse. That hardly seemed possible. I was already estranged from everyone in the house. But impossibility is a term of logic and reality doesn't observe the limits of logic.
I said I wasn't going to spare you any of the details. I won't. I'm making no effort to separate meaningful details from meaningless ones. If I did make that effort I doubt that I'd succeed. After all, I must have had some good reason to repress my memory of those events for ten years. They simply don't fit into the rest of my life. Yet they , too, must have done their share in making me what I am. Besides, all these details should be rich with meaning for you. You said so. They're all part of “Sabina's world,” the world that's so terribly familiar to you. I'm dying to get your next letter so as to learn the meaning of those experiences. Am I being sarcastic? That's my main quality, Sabina told me. Ron loved me for it. Bitter? No more now than I was then. I still can't “take it all in” any better than Alec could, any better than if it had all happened last night.
I don't know what hour of the night it was. I felt someone shaking me by the arm. I woke up and saw it was Tissie. She was trembling. I sat up and asked her what had happened.
“Help me,” she pleaded pathetically. “I'm hearing things. I'm scared.”
I immediately thought Ted might be hovering around her room. Then I thought she might be hallucinating. I asked what I could do.
“Stay with me. Just for a while,” she pleaded.
I climbed out of bed and accompanied her to her room. I lay down on the bed next to hers. I didn't hear any sounds. I asked Tissie drowsily, “Do you feel better now?”
“Yeh, lot better,” she said. “But I'm still scared. I can't sleep.”
“What kind of sounds?” I asked. But I lost interest. I fell asleep.
I woke up in terror. Unimaginable terror. This was no nightmare: the moment for waking up in a cold sweat had long passed. There was no other waking; I was wide awake. If I hadn't been so blind during all the weeks I'd spent in that house, if I hadn't so completely missed so many clues, if I hadn't been so completely uninformed, I wouldn't have been so surprised, so terror-stricken, so inhumanly crude. I lay on my back stark naked. Tissie's naked body writhed over mine, her legs wrapped around me, her mouth sliding over me, licking and kissing whatever it could reach. My eyes were wide open but my body was paralyzed. I could neither move nor cry out. With an enormous effort I found the strength to whimper, “Don't! Please don't!” — as if she were murdering me! I kept repeating my plea mechanically as I tried to writhe away from her, moving toward the edge of the bed.
Tissie put her lips on my ear and pleaded, “Come on, honey, hold on just one more minute. Please hold on!”
But I didn't have the decency to let Tissie have her orgasm. My upbringing as a radical hadn't taught me anything about that. I reached the edge of the bed and regained control over my vocal cords. I became hysterical. “No! Get off me!”
Both of us fell to the floor. Tissie, still hugging me, cried, “Be like your sister, honey! Show some feeling! Don't leave me like this!”
Not Sabina! my insides cried out. A cold shiver ran down my back. I felt like vomiting, as if to expel that thought from my system. I started crawling toward the wall, trying frantically to keep Tissie off me, repeatedly whimpering, “Get away from me!” I couldn't believe what she was telling me about Sabina and I ignored it, I repressed it immediately, just as I had ignored and repressed everything I'd seen, heard and felt since the day I'd come to the garage. From the very first day I had been “Ron's girl,” and though I knew perfectly well Sabina had been “Ron's girl” I'd never asked, “Why not Sabina?” I'd never once asked myself why Tina thought I was her mother, why she didn't think Sabina could be. At the beginning of my first long conversation with Sabina she'd kissed me on my lips and asked pointedly, “Do you mind?” She'd recommended the bar to me on the grounds that the food was as tasty as the girls were beautiful — she, who'd called Alec a skirt-chaser. When I'd told her Tissie had already taken me to the bar, she'd clenched her fists and exclaimed, “Tissie took you! Why that little hypocrite!” The meaning of that outburst was unambiguous, but I'd repressed it immediately. I couldn't let it dawn on me that Sabina was jealous of Tissie because Tissie had made the first pass at me. I couldn't let myself imagine that Sabina was furious because Tissie had betrayed her. I couldn't, because I had suppressed all the clues that would have allowed me to imagine that. Just one day before Sabina's outburst Jose had exclaimed, “Sure there are couples, lots of them, there's hardly anything else.” Who were they? Not Ted and Tissie; they avoided each other like mortal foes. Ted and Tina? I didn't count that. Jose and Sabina? “Not on your life,” Jose had said. “You never got to know your sister, did you? We were never a couple and never will be.” Who, then? Sabina and Tissie! Until I came. They fought over me and Tissie won the first round. But Sabina wasn't someone to be outdone, ever. She'd immediately gotten even with “that little hypocrite.” Just before taking me to the bar she'd insisted I wear my blue jeans and workshirt, commenting, “You look perfect as you are; you even smell perfect.” And how proudly and spitefully she'd paraded me in front of Tissie, her arm locked in mine! That very night she'd told me about “love in every conceivable form and sex in every imaginable combination, position or pattern.” And that scene she'd made with Alec, baring all her teeth the moment she'd figured out what he was to me! She'd been jealous of him!
I'd repressed it, all of it, and I didn't hear what Tissie told me. I crawled frantically toward the wall. When I reached it, I pushed myself up, using all my strength to hold Tissie's body an arm's length away from me. My face contorted with fear, as if I were struggling with some terrible beast, I continued crying,”! can't! Get away from me!”
Tissie's whole body was trembling and she started crying uncontrollably. “You bitch!” she said between sobs, like a badly injured and frustrated child, “You filthy bitch. You do it with Sabina. You do it with Tina. What's wrong with me? I'm too low for you, is that it? I'm just a gutter slut, is that it? I'll show you how low I am!”
She started kicking me. As soon as I let her arms go she started hitting me, hard, hurting me. I ran toward the door. I cried hysterically, “Get away — you beast!” How inhuman. How terribly mean! If I'd heard, seen or felt anything since the day of my arrival, I would have known that she couldn't possibly have expected me to act the way I did, that she couldn't possibly have foreseen my scandalized surprise. She'd been so obviously disgusted the morning I'd told her I'd enjoyed sex with a man. She'd gotten her first clue as to who I must really be when she'd seen me on Sabina's bed, my lips on Sabina's cheek. “I didn't know,” she'd said. And now she knew. How had Tissie felt when Sabina had escorted me past her with a spiteful, victorious grin, and her vengeful, “Evening, Tissie”? It was Tissie who was betrayed by her lover and I was the instrument of that betrayal. She'd hated me for that. How indignantly she'd said, “You don't look like Sabina's sister!” I was obviously her lover, her old flame. And my more recent flame's nickname must obviously have been “short for Alexandra.” Betrayed and alone, what could she have felt when she saw me “doing it” with Tina? Why was I “doing it” with Sabina, with Alexandra, with Tina, but not with Tissie? Why was she being left out? What was wrong with her? How could I possibly have been so surprised? How could I have been such a monster as to cry, “Get away — you beast”?
I was altogether hysterical, on the verge of falling apart. I couldn't take any more. But more took place that night, infinitely more. I fell off a precipice into an abyss. I lost all control over myself and fell to pieces. Yet it was precisely when I reached the bottom of the abyss that I regained control over myself and held myself together, on my own, if only for an instant, for the first time since I'd come to the garage.
Hurting from Tissie's kicks and blows, I lunged at her, pushed her away from me and ran out of her room, leaving her writhing on the floor, bawling.
I ran straight to my room and was about to slip into my bed — when I froze. What I saw, what I felt — it was impossible. It simply couldn't be true. Ted was inside my bed in Tina's room. “Not you!” I shrieked. His eyes were wide open and looked terror-stricken, exactly as mine must have looked when I'd found Tissie on top of me. My hands flew at his eyes, pulling frantically to remove the arms with which he quickly protected them, scratching his face with my fingernails. “Out!” I shrieked. “Out!” I felt his blood on my hands and continued struggling to reach his face.
Tina sat up, paralyzed with terror. Suddenly she leaped on Ted's bed and tried to pull my hands away from Ted's face. “Don't, Sophia!” she pleaded. “Don't! You're killing him! Stop it!”
“Get away, Tina!” I shrieked. “Don't protect him!” I was absolutely wild. But Tina wouldn't let go; she clung to my wrists and kept pushing my arms away from him. I was like a trapped beast, lunging at my prey but tearing myself in my attempt to reach him. She hung on me like a dead weight, her face frozen in a grimace of unbelieving horror, her jaw moving soundlessly, incapable of articulating her plea.
I ran out of the room like an injured animal, dragging Tina with me. As soon as we reached the hall, she released my wrists and rushed back to Ted's bedside.
I flew across the hall to Jose's room. I was beside myself with rage and frustration. I switched on his light, flung myself on his bed and shook him with all my strength. Jose literally leaped out of my grasp across the room, shouting, “Holy shit!”
I was still stark naked but that fact didn't once cross my mind. I jumped after Jose and started tugging him out of his room. “He's raping her! Help me! He's raping her!” Jose looked totally bewildered as I pulled him by the arm across the hall to Tina's room.
The light was on. Ted lay on my bed, staring at me, the blood from the scratch on his cheek staining my pillow. Tina kneeled alongside the bed, bawling, wiping Ted's wound with a corner of my sheet. I went completely out of my mind. I started to push Jose toward the bed and screeched, “Kill him! Kill him! Get him out of here!”
Jose drew his own conclusions from the scene and once again exclaimed, “Holy shit!” Then he turned around, his face a grimace of disgust and contempt, and slapped my face so hard that I went reeling to the floor. He then grabbed my arm and dragged me out of Tina's room. His voice filled with revulsion, he hissed at me, “You pervert! What did you ever have to do with Ron? And all those years I spent thinking you must have been some piece of ass! You sure as hell are! If I catch you molesting that kid just one more time, I'll send your ass flying so far —”
“No!” I shrieked, prostrate on my chest, my teeth biting into the rug. “You're crazy! You're all crazy!” Jose left me lying there, exactly as I had left Tissie. “Help me!” I shrieked.
“Go sleep in Ted's room and shut your trap!” Jose shouted.
That was the bottom of the abyss. I lay naked in the hallway, clawing the rug with my fingernails, biting it with my teeth. I've never fallen so low. Yet it was precisely at that point, the lowest point, that I came to myself. For the first time in weeks I stopped worrying about Tina, and Ted vanished completely from my mind. I literally became indifferent to their relationship with each other, and I remained indifferent until the end of my stay in that house and for ten years after that. For the first time in weeks, maybe in my whole life, I started to concentrate exclusively on myself. I was the pervert. I was the rapist, the child-molester. Only four days earlier Jose had seen me on Tina's bed, holding her hand, while Tina had explained, “I'd have called you if she'd hurt me.” Jose had caught me in the act. I couldn't be Ron's girl nor any man's.
Suddenly I knew exactly what I had to do. I rose to my feet, spat the dirt and carpet wool out of my mouth, and held my head up proudly, defiantly. I was determined not to let myself be thrown naked into the garbage dump and pushed into the river with the city's trash. The pieces all came together. I had perfect control over myself. The nightmare was over. It was my second waking.
I walked straight to Jose's room and threw his door open. I felt as strong as an ox and as determined as a locomotive. No one and nothing was going to stop me from showing Jose once and for all that everything he'd thought about me for the past four days was as wrong as wrong could be.
In a single move I pulled off his blanket, tore off his underclothes and threw myself at him. He shouted, “What the hell?” and started to move away, but I wrapped myself around his body and hissed, “You're staying right where you are, mister. You're not going to call me those names and get away with it. I'll show you what a piece of ass Ron's girl was. I'll show you who it is you're calling a child-molester. I'll make you eat those words until you throw them up!” I clung to him with all my might until he stopped trying to move away. Then I started caressing him, crawling all over him, kissing and licking and biting him everywhere. When he came I didn't let him pause for a second but kept right on going. I didn't even let myself pause when I came. “There's only one person in this whole house that I ever wanted to molest,” I told him, “and that person has a prick and is not a little girl!” He came again, and still I didn't let up. “I wanted you since the day you took me on the tour,” I said, “and I wanted you badly, the way only a woman who loves men can want a man. You're terribly wrong about me, Jose. I never made love to Tina. I never dreamed of it. I know why you suspect me. I learned about Tissie and Sabina only tonight. But you're wrong about me! I want you, Jose, only you!” He came again. At last he begged me, “Please, Sophie, no more! I can't,” and fell asleep exhausted. Only then did I stop. I lay back proudly. I had won!
The sun was starting to come up. As I lay on the pillow I shared with Jose, I heard Sabina walk through the hall to her room. I realized why Tissie had chosen that night. Was Sabina returning from a job or from an all-night orgy at her friend's mattressed apartment? I no longer cared. I was proud of myself and felt completely relaxed. I fell asleep perfectly satisfied, even happy.
I woke up with Jose's lips on mine. He was sitting by me, all dressed. It must have been noon. “You really are some woman,” he whispered.
“Jose's woman?” I asked.
He asked. “What was all that about last night?”
I told him, without a trace of my former anger, everything I knew about Ted and Tina. The only comment he made was a defense of Ted. “If it wasn't for Ted, the kid would be on heroin right now and probably going out every night to —”
“You don't believe me!” I exclaimed.
“I believe everything you said. But you don't know Tissie, or Seth,” he said.
“What do they have to do with it?” I asked.
“How about just forgetting last night?” he suggested. I looked for nothing better. I forgot immediately and continued forgetting, year after year. “You going bus riding again?” he asked.
“If you stay in this room all day, I'll stay,” I told him. “If you leave, I'll follow you wherever you go. If you won't let me I'll cling to you.”
“So you really mean it?” he asked.
“Jose's girl,” he said.
“Woman.” I corrected. “Ron's girl, Jose's woman.”
“You're as crazy as Sabina,” he said.
“Of course. We're twins,” I exclaimed. “What else do you know about her?”
“She once gave me the same shock you did,” he said.
“With Tissie?” I asked.
“With Tissie,” he said. “Ron never told me anything about Sabina. She's stiff as a board, he once said, but I didn't believe him. She don't look like a board. You're twins for looks. When we started here, Sabina's looks drove me batty. I told her. Her room's always been right there, right across from mine. That night she left her door open. She and Tissie. I didn't believe it.”
“What else do you know?” I asked.
“She left her door open again the next night. And the night after that.”
“Anything else?” I asked, turning my face away from his.
Jose's tone changed. “She's terrific. There's no one like her. Without her this place would have collapsed a month after we started.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“She's the brains,” he said. “I'm just her flunkey. She's got all the ideas. She's the one who works them all out. And she's always the first to try it out and see if it works. Like I said, she's terrific.”
“So are you,” I said, kissing him.
“Let anyone say there's something wrong with Sabina and I'll send him to see the sky!” he continued. “She's no twin of yours, Sophie, but once you stop asking her to be that, you see that she's got no twins; she's in a class all her own; that Sabina is on the ball like no one I ever met. And she's no board. Ron wanted the one thing she couldn't give him.”
“And Tina?” I asked.
“You tell me,” he said.
“Breakfast?” I suggested.
Jose threw a robe over me and carried me to the kitchen. I was happier than I'd been since my first bicycle trip with Ron. “This is my world,” I thought. I agreed with you. I had completely forgotten everything that had happened the previous night.
I had found myself when I had risen from the rug, resolved to win Jose, but I lost myself as soon as I won him. I immersed myself in him, annihilated myself, became Jose's shadow. I got up when he got up, ate my meals with him, spent the morning with him in the garage, the afternoon in the workshop, the evening on a walk or ride. We washed together, laughed together, worked together, slept together. I ceased being Sophia even in my own eyes. I was Jose's woman. And I was happy, not only at the beginning but to the very end. I was accepted, I was loved, and I was an apprentice again. I stopped worrying about anyone else. I left Tina to Ted. I left Vic to Seth (I didn't tell you about that; you didn't miss much.). I left Sabina to Tissie, and I left both of them to their buyers. The house did indeed consist of nothing but couples. I was overjoyed to be one of them.
The destruction of my happiness began with a phone call from Alec.
“Hello, Sophie, I'm really sorry about the way I acted, what I said —”
“I don't ever want to see you again!” I shouted into the phone.
“Please. Sophie, don't hang up!” he pleaded. “Minnie and the others — they're dying to see you!”
“What for?” I asked. “To preach about heroin and prostitution? I don't want to hear about it.”
“I said I was sorry, Sophie. No, I told them about the school and all that. About street people running their own activities and about the things you learned to do. Hugh was really impressed. He said he's been thinking about getting involved with something like that. Minnie was impressed too. And you know Daman. But he wants to see you too. He and Minnie broke up, you know.”
“Really?” I asked. “How's he getting along by himself?”
“I don't know,” Alec answered. “I only talked to him on the phone. You know, I've been thinking a lot about all those things your sister said. About selling all my time by going to that job every morning. I think she's right and it really bothers me.”
“Quit!” I advised him.
“Easily said. That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Is it all right if we come over?” he asked.
“Quit first,” I said stupidly, thinking I was throwing him a challenge he couldn't meet.
“How about a week from Sunday?” he asked.
I hung up without answering. I was sure I'd heard the last of Alec. I quickly forgot that I'd talked to him. I rejoined Jose at the work he was doing. I fetched tools for him, oiled machines, cleaned parts, held bolts in place. I was Jose's woman. My newspaper staff friends were the last people in the world I wanted to see.
But all four of them showed up at the garage a week from Sunday. Vic let them in and Ted escorted them to the kitchen. When they entered, Alec was slapping Ted on the back, telling him, “I understand your point about the heroin. But I was saying —”
Minnie walked up to me and shook my hand coldly. “I suppose you never will forgive us for that Omissions —”
“Oh that!” I said. “What an appropriate name! I almost forgot it. You're right, I never will forgive you.”
Hugh made no reference to it. He only said, “Good to see you again, Sophie. Alec says you're doing some exciting things here.” He shook my hand politely.
Daman neither shook my hand nor said anything; he just sat down. I supposed that his break-up with Minnie meant that he lost both his will and his voice. I felt sorry for him.
Alec started to make introductions. “This is Ted. The girl is Tina. There's also Tissie and Sabina, but I guess they're not up yet. And over there — Ron, is it?”
I flew across the room toward Alec shouting, “Ron? What kind of a joke is that? Who the hell told you about Ron?”
“Your mother,” Alec answered contritely.
“Your mother?” Jose asked. “Sabina told me years ago she was dead!”
“I just talked to her a week ago!” Alec insisted. “She's still waiting for your phone call.”
“What else did you tell her?” I asked.
“Christ, I don't know — I mentioned your sister,” he admitted.
“My sister! You ran to her to tell her about —” I started.
“Jesus, Sophie, you didn't want me telling her what you told me to tell her?” he asked desperately.
Tina and Ted had been cluttering the table with bread, cheeses and beer, and at this point they invited all of us, hosts and guests, to join them at lunch.
I lost interest in Alec and sat down next to Jose. Everyone started eating. Minnie broke the silence. “I understand you run a school here.”
“A school!” Jose exclaimed. “We run a school?”
“I've never once been to school, ever.” Tina contributed.
“But that's what Alec told me!” Minnie insisted. “Was he misinformed?”
Alec looked helplessly at me but I ignored him so he ventured out on his own. “I said it was sort of a school, Minnie. But it's not called a school. People learn things here but it's not structured. What I mean is — at least that's how I understand it —”
Just then Sabina and Tissie came in together. Alec looked relieved — but only for a second.
“Well, well! The reverend!” Sabina said with mock enthusiasm. “Don't let me interrupt you, Reverend. Your sermon is fascinating!” Then, imitating Alec's inflection, “What I mean is — at least that's how I understand it — Simply fascinating. May I also suggest: you know, I was about to say, from my point of view, on the other hand, if you see what I mean? Please do go on, Reverend!”
Alec sulked. “I wasn't saying anything much. And I'm not a reverend any more. I handed in my resignation over a week ago, and yesterday was my last day at work.”
I smiled at Alec. He'd taken up my challenge after all.
“So you've left the millions of citizens behind and joined the criminals!” Sabina exclaimed.
Alec was visibly disappointed by the meager congratulations he received for his courageous act and he sulked in silence.
Minnie took the opportunity to resume her quest. She turned to Sabina and said, “Maybe you'd be so kind as to answer my questions.”
Sabina looked Minnie up and down, smiled, and asked, “Do you happen to be employed by the police department?”
Minnie glanced at me for help that I wasn't about to provide and she continued on her own, “I understand that you're all indigenous to the inner city, so-called street people —”
“And you being a broad from the suburbs would like to know how it feels to be screwed in the inner city,” Sabina butted in.
Minnie turned to Tissie next and demanded indignantly, “Is it possible to talk to any of you?”
“Who the hell are you?” Tissie fired back.
“What the fuck do you want to know so badly?” Jose asked.
Minnie whispered something to Hugh, and Hugh turned to Jose. “Alec gave us an interesting account of your establishment — your house. We found many of the features admirable. But we would like to clarify certain points —”
“What points?” Jose asked, the hostility mounting in his voice.
“We were puzzled by the question of the financing,” Hugh continued.
“You the judge?” Jose asked.
“Excuse me, the what?” Hugh asked.
“Are you the judge?” Jose asked again, emphasizing each word. “Are we on trial? When the hell were we arrested?”
At this point Daman spoke for the first time. “Well, I guess we'd better be shoving along.”
Hugh got up and shook my hand politely again, and again said, “It was good to see you, Sophie,”
Minnie got up and leered at Alec. “Gee, Alec, you said these people were friendly. I've seen friendlier people. They're convinced we're all cops. Even Sophie acts as if she'd never known us.”
“The way out is that way,” shouted Jose, pointing.
Ted and Tina accompanied them out — three of them. Alec remained seated at the kitchen table.
Tissie burped at “Alexandra” and went back to her room.
Alec turned to Sabina, pleading and contrite, his eyes focused on her hands, “I wanted to apologize for the way I looked at you last time. I know that can be insulting. I wanted to tell you I quit my job because of all those things you told me. You were right. I was a wage slave, a coward. What I wanted to ask was, is there anything I might be able to do around here?”
Sabina was stunned. “You? A professor?”
Jose nudged me to see if I was ready to return to the workshop. I was. As we walked out of the kitchen, I heard Alec saying, “You're perfectly right. I don't know how to do anything at all. I'm a complete ignoramus. But I really want to try to learn. If I could start as a mechanic —”
Jose and I finished a project we had started before lunch and we took the rest of the day off. We came back exhausted after a long car ride and walk in the country. The following morning I felt sick to my stomach when I entered the garage and saw Tina and Ted explaining the workings of a car engine to Alec.
The next time I saw Sabina I complained angrily to her, “How could you invite that — that idiot?”
“He invited himself,” she said calmly. “We've never turned anyone away when we had a spare room. And the first time we do it'll be the end.”
“You know perfectly well that's not a spare room,” I hissed. “It's Ted's room!”
Sabina turned and walked away from me. I didn't raise the question again. I stayed with Jose. But the atmosphere grew tense.
One afternoon Alec caught me alone in the garage. Ted and Tina were in their lofts and Jose had gone downstairs to look for a part. Alec edged toward me. “I hardly recognize you as the person I once knew, Sophie.”
“Then act as if you never knew me!” I said.
“There's all that talk about doing your own activities —” he started.
“Why did you stay here? What do you want?” I asked.
“I want to be close to you, if you really want to know,” he said.
“It looked to me like you were panting for Sabina with your tongue hanging out,” I said.
“Aw get off it, Sophie. Ted told me all about —” he started.
“So that leaves only me, doesn't it? We followed Rhea into the party and we followed Sophie out. We followed Sabina down to a sewer and who do we run into if not Sophie? But it's too late, Alec, it's way too late for anything like that.”
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“I'm Jose's woman,” I said proudly.
“Naw, Sophie, Jesus Christ, that's not you, that's not anyone I ever knew,” he said, and I heard him; I was stung. “You're not that guy's woman. You're his rug, his cigarette lighter, his messenger, his pet. Christ, Ted's been telling me about the dope and the whorehouse, and that's bad enough. But that's nothing compared to what's been happening to you. I don't know what happens to people on heroin but it can't be any worse than what you've got. You've lost your whole personality. You're that guy's dog.”
I ran from Alec and headed for the workshop, to be near Jose, He noticed my tears and asked if anything had happened.
“He told me he was only staying here because of me,” I said. “He's jealous of you!”
“I don't blame him,” Jose said.
“Jose,” I cried. “Please make him leave.”
“I can't do that, Sophie,” he said. “The guy says he's got no place to go, and we've got space. Can't just tell him to leave. If he wanted to start his own garage we could help him like we did last year with that one kid —”
“Jose,” I pleaded. “I was so happy until he came.”
“So was I, Sophie,” he said. “I mean, I still am happy. I don't see that he should ruin anything. He's not a bad guy, you know. If you're through with him, tell him. If you're not — well, you're your own person is what Sabina always says.”
“Jose,” I said, crying. “Remember when you said Sabina was terrific? That there was no one else like her? Well, there's no one else like you,” I bawled, “You're more terrific than she is!” I fell into Jose's powerful arms and he held me and pressed me — as if I were his rug, his cigarette lighter, his pet. And that's all I was. I couldn't stop bawling because I knew Alec was right.
I had one more encounter with Alec before everything caved in. It was on a Wednesday morning.
One morning each week, on a Wednesday, Jose had an errand on which I didn't accompany him. He asked me not to, and I didn't pry. I didn't learn a great deal about Jose during my stay with him, nor he about me. We never asked; there were too many things we didn't want to talk about. I didn't pry into his few secrets and he didn't once ask me what Alec had been to me during my university days.
On all previous Wednesday mornings I had stayed in our room, or gone for a walk, waiting for Jose to return from his secret errand. But that morning I went into the garage. I had decided to settle the question of Alec on my own. The three of them — Alec, Ted and Tina — were working by themselves, each on a different project. I walked right up to Alec. He stopped what he was doing and stared at me. His face looked sad, but I was determined. “Why don't you leave this place, mister!” I told him firmly. “You don't belong here. You're not like us.”
Tina and Ted both stopped working and looked at me, waiting.
“Jesus, what did I do now?” Alec asked, hanging his head.
“You're still here! That's what you did now!” I snapped.
Tina butted in with a barely audible, “Sophia, you've got no right —”
“Stay out of this and mind your own boyfriend, Tina!” I snapped. “You're the one who has no right!” Tina started to sob.
“Sophie, listen to me,” Alec said slowly. “It's you who've got to leave this place. You're the one that doesn't belong here. Don't you see what's happening? You're sick, don't you see that?”
“You just watch who you're calling sick, mister!” I snapped. “Have you ever looked at yourself? You're disgusting. We're here for life! Why are you here? For a broad! You don't know what life is, mister, because broads are all you've got on your brain. To spend week after week crawling on the floor and greasing up your arms just on the chance that she'll come to you — that's what I call sick, mister. Real sick!”
“I'm going to leave soon, Sophie,” he announced, his anger mounting. “But not before trying to make you see what you're turning yourself into! I know for a fact that you don't know shit about what happens here. I've watched you. Whenever anything comes up, you stick your head up your ass. You hide out inside that boyfriend of yours, or husband or father or whatever the hell he is to you. Well, I've picked up a few clues and you're going to hear them, like them or not. Ted can bear me out. Who do you think pays for the great school of yours and that great love affair? You don't think it's the piddling we do around here, do you? Allow me to straighten you out before I leave. It's your sister's and Tissie's whoring that pays for that expensive house and all the food and the three cars and all that expensive shit that's displayed in every room. And your boyfriend's pimping. That's right, that's the name for it! Pimping! But with all they take in they can't pay for all of it, what with Sabina having her own expensive hobbies and Tissie her heroin. And this piddling around with all the newest machinery doesn't even pay for its own costs. This garage stopped supporting itself before you ever came here. Ted stopped stealing when it dawned on him he was supporting a narcotics depot. For a while he just took the cars apart. But he didn't want other people working for him either, so he helped them set up their own garage. Nothing comes in here anymore except the junk they can't get rid of at the other garage. What do you think pays for all this shit? Just Seth's heroin. And Seth is figuring out that he doesn't want to carry all that ballast. Yea, ballast. Dead weight. All he wants is his boyfriend Vic. He needs Ted as a front and he needs your friend part-time, for the contacts. But he doesn't need you or me or the kid or ninety-nine out of every hundred machines here — and he's getting ready to dump all that. What'll you do when he starts dumping? You tell me, Sophie! Learn to steal cars? You can't even steal cigarettes from supermarkets! Get a job? A year at the highest paying job wouldn't pay for one of the machines that's here! What'll you do then, Sophie? Stick your head up your ass? You tell me!”
Swinging my whole arm, I whacked Alec on his cheek and ran to my room. I confronted Jose as soon as he returned. “Alec has to go, Jose. I can't stand being in the same house with him.”
Jose fidgeted. “I don't know what to say, Sophie. I thought that got worked out. I thought you two kept away from each other.”
“I can't stand it!” I repeated.
“How about a trip?” he asked, brightening. “A long trip all over this continent, just you and me.”
I smiled. “Just Jose and his woman.” Then I asked, “Who'd pay for it?”
“You know Sabina would help us out,” he said without hesitating.
“Jose,” I said, “I don't want to go on Sabina's money.”
“We don't have much of our own,” he said.
“I want to go on my own money. I can get at least as much as Sabina does, and maybe more. It'll be a better trip if we go on my money,” I insisted.
“That's up to you, Sophie,” he said sadly.
“I'm my own person,” I said.
“That's right. Sophie, you're your own person,” Jose said, walking out of the room.
I ran out after him and slipped my arm into his. I tried to smile. “It's just talk, Jose. You know that, don't you? It's all just talk. Jose's woman is a big talker, but she doesn't ever do the things she talks about. She doesn't care whose money it is and she doesn't want to take a trip. She's not going to start working and she really doesn't care who lives here. All Jose's woman wants is to be loved by her man.”
I can't tell you what happened during the days or weeks that followed. I don't even know if it was days or weeks or months. Jose and Sabina clashed with Alec and Ted once, perhaps several times; I think one of them hit the other, but I don't remember. I don't think this is an instance of repressed memory. I think I didn't register anything at the time; there was nothing to repress. All I remember is eating with Jose, working with him, sleeping with him, loving him and being loved by him.
The first event I remember took place on my last day in the garage. It must have been a Sunday morning. I was working. There was a terrible amount of noise. I was vaguely aware that Minnie. Hugh and Daman were in the garage. Everyone I knew was in the garage. All of them seemed to be talking at the same time. I didn't know how long they'd been there. Minnie was shouting about the desire for money and the desire for power over underlings; Sabina was shouting about moralizing high school teachers who dreamed of being dictators. I ignored them and turned the grinder on to sharpen my chisel.
Jose put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Your friends came to visit you too, Sophie, not just Alec.”
“They're not my friends, Jose,” I said calmly. “Make them leave. They're not your friends either.”
I heard Alec whisper to Minnie, “You see what I mean?”
I went on grinding until I was done.
Minnie continued her argument with Sabina. “My moralizing, as you call it, never had that effect on a human being. Look at her! It's awful! Did you know what she was like before she came here? She was the liveliest intellect in the university! Alec swears you don't keep her on drugs but I don't believe it. How else could you have gotten her into the state she's in? Shame on you! Your own sister! And what have you done to your own intellect? You've chained it, to serve your boundless lust! How can you justify your crimes? You say you're part of a process of change and it sounds so good because everyone wants that. But a change for the better, not for the worse! Why do you leave that question out? I know why! That world-changing process you claim to be part of is nothing but your own deranged ambition! You'd like to change the world all right — into an empire of lesbians!”
Sabina lunged at Minnie and pinned her back against the wall, but Minnie continued, “You're nothing but a depraved, ruthless businessman, a millionnaire aiming for billions, a lousy imperialist. You'll stampede over anything that stands in your way and destroy it. You'll turn your own sister into a mechanical doll, a grinning vegetable.”
Sabina whacked Minnie with her fist and Minnie slid slowly to the floor, holding her cheek in both hands, whimpering.
Sabina took hold of Minnie's shoulders, raised her up and held her pinned against the wall. “Now you listen to me, sister,” she said with contempt.
“I'm no sister of yours!” Minnie exclaimed, controlling her sobs.
“That's what I always thought,” Sabina said. “The first time I saw you I knew you were a cop. How decent of you to admit it! A plain, simple cop, ruining no one's life, just keeping people happy. I'll tell you what's wrong with Sophia. She spent too many years being policed — by cops, like you! Missionaries, professors, policemen! You're the ones who took care of that lively intellect! You're the ones who chained it — to your filthy uses. You might as well have pulled it out of her! You wound it so tightly around those so-called projects that aren't even your own that she lost all control over it!”
I stared at Sabina's back, spellbound, fascinated by every sound she made, horrified.
“By the time she came here,” Sabina continued, “she didn't know who or what she was, she had no mind of her own, she couldn't choose, she couldn't decide. Don't give us credit for that! You get all that credit. It's thanks to you that she trembled with fear when she came in contact with living people. It's thanks to you that she had nightmares when her imagination broke out of its prison. It's thanks to you that she broke down the moment she felt desire stirring inside her. She broke down because for the first time in her life she wasn't being policed. She broke down because she didn't know how to be her own person. When the police inside her were removed there was nothing inside her to hold her up. You'd seen to that, you and your apparatus, your establishment, your school. You'd removed whatever was her and you'd replaced it with police. Don't tell me about a grinning vegetable, you mechanical doll! For the first time in her life she's fighting not to be one, and she's going to win that fight!”
I felt like passing out but stopped myself when I thought of Alec's comment about my sticking my head up my ass “whenever anything comes up.” Everything inside me was coming up.
As if in a dream, I heard Hugh start talking, calmly, politely. “Why don't you let Minnie go now, Miss Nachalo? I'm sure she heard you. We all did. You're ail eloquent speaker. Very eloquent. And also very convincing. I don't think any of us, not even Minnie, would care to deny any part of your argument. We're all familiar to some extent with the destructive power of the institutions you describe. I think what's at issue here is the alternatives to those institutions. Two friends of ours. Alec and your sister, discovered such an alternative in this establishment, and I must admit that when Alec first told me about it I was immensely impressed — so impressed that I've abandoned my studies and thrown myself into what I at first understood to be similar work.”
Hugh looked beautiful to me — exactly as he'd looked when he'd walked at the head of the funeral procession, carrying the coffin of our dead newspaper, wearing his black suit and his funny black hat.
“I remained impressed after our first visit,” he continued. “Unlike Minnie, I wasn't antagonized by your hostility. On the contrary, I considered it a very healthy reaction against the intrusion of what you call missionaries, educators and policemen. As soon as we left I realized that was exactly what we were. You were perfectly right to eject judges who hold up the dominant institutions as the standard of human decency. I wanted to insert myself into a similar struggle, but unlike Alec I didn't think it appropriate to impose myself here. I hope I'm not boring you; I'm coming to the point as quickly as I can. I moved out of the university environment and into an area where the human consequences of our social order are less disguised, more visible; I don't live very far from here. Instead of frequenting university seminars I began to frequent street corners, bars and pool halls. I soon learned that you're right on yet another account. What you called a world-changing process is indeed taking place. And it is taking place precisely where you say it is: among those you call street people. I began to meet regularly with a group of those so-called street people —”
“So you went to the jungle and started to preach to the natives!” Sabina exclaimed sarcastically.
“Vampire!” Minnie hissed, making a move toward Sabina.
“Please let me finish, Minnie!” Hugh begged. “I'm just coming to the point. I learned that, at least in this neighbor-hood, your establishment has a certain reputation among the so-called street people. Your establishment is known. I became indignant. I thought that I had been lied to, and that Alec had been badly deceived. But I couldn't make myself believe what I saw and heard. That's why I responded with interest when Alec called —”
Jose bellowed, “He called you here? I thought you just dropped in to see your friends!”
“I'm sorry if I spoiled anything for you, Alec,” Hugh said, and then continued addressing Sabina. “What I've seen here confirms everything I've been told. Your establishment is as great an exploiter of this community as all the institutions you so eloquently condemn. And in many ways it's worse. Under the guise of being an integral part of the rising community, you are in fact leeches on that community, you push it back down, sucking its strength out of it. You are incapacitating that community precisely at the moment when it is trying to raise itself up with its own strength. That fellow over there” (he pointed to Seth) “is known to your neighbors as one of the biggest heroin dealers in the entire area. The one behind him has a somewhat more modest reputation for similar accomplishments. You and your friend — I forget her name — are known locally as the regional Cleopatras. This fellow here, Sophia's companion, is known —”
Sabina's fists were both clenched. She started to move toward Hugh but stopped when she saw Minnie lunging toward her. Sabina arched her back like a tigress; she would have sent Minnie tumbling to the ground if Alec hadn't jumped behind her and pinned her arms against her sides. Minnie's blow landed squarely in the middle of Sabina's face. Jose, who is considerably smaller than Alec, leaped at Alec and yanked him away from Sabina.
Alec screamed at Jose, “That's right, pimp, you protect her. That's what she's got you here for. Protection. You're her henchman, her time-server, her parasite. For protection and for fattening her pigs so she can sell them for a good price!”
Jose's blow sent Alec reeling across the room. “There's only been one parasite here, pretty boy,” Jose shouted to Alec, “and that's been you. You never learned to act without orders, you never learned what work is, you never learned that it's your motions and not the foreman's orders that make things move. Save your names for yourself!”
While Jose spoke, Daman was moving toward him, and Hugh took a step toward Alec, who lay on the ground near Seth. Both stopped abruptly. Seth stepped over Alec and pointed a gun at Hugh. Vic, behind Seth, pointed another at Daman.
I screamed. “Not Hugh,” I shouted, running across the room until my body touched the barrel of Seth's gun. “Shoot me! Not Hugh! He never did any harm to anyone!”
Seth pushed me to the floor. “You!” he ordered, aiming his gun at Hugh again and pointing his other hand at Alec, “Pick him up and get him out of here. Quick! One, two! All of you! Shoo! Scat! Clear out!”
With both guns waving in their faces, Hugh, Daman and Minnie all helped Alec to his feet and started moving toward the door.
“Hugh!” I cried weakly. “Take me with you!”
Hugh looked uncertainly at Seth and then at Jose, but didn't take a step toward me.
“Take me!” I pleaded. But Hugh continued to accompany Alec to the door.
Seth jumped toward Hugh and poked him with his gun. “You heard her, boss! Get her out too! Step on it! The whole fucking lot of you!”
Hugh walked toward me. Sabina, Ted, Tina, even Jose didn't make a move. They looked like statues. Hugh picked me up in his arms and carried me out of the garage. I didn't leave on my own two feet.
Hugh set me down on the ground as soon as we were outside. I noticed that Daman and Minnie were staring at me as if I were a circus freak. “What are you two looking at?” I asked. “Haven't you ever seen a nitwit before? Get away from me! Go home!” Daman walked reluctantly and slowly across the street, got into his car and drove away. Minnie continued staring, seemed about to say something, and then rushed away, on foot, in the opposite direction. I turned to Hugh and said, “Thanks a lot. I wouldn't have made it by myself. I'd like to see you again.”
Hugh scribbled his address on a piece of paper and walked away. I looked sadly at the garage and the shabby looking building behind it. Then I started to walk away from both. I became aware that Alec was following me. I turned and shouted, “Shoo! Scat!”
“Do you know where you're going?” he asked.
I screamed as loudly as I could: “It's none of your fucking business!”
I turned and walked on. He was still behind me, though not as close as before. I tried to get rid of him for the second time. “Leave me alone, stupid asshole. Do you think I've stopped being Jose's rug in order to become yours? I loved him the way I never loved you! Do you think I'm glad I left him? I know you forced me to do it and — listen to me, Alec — I'll hate you for that until the end of my life! Now get away from me!” I walked again and thought I had shaken him off. I turned a corner just to make sure. And there he was, turning the corner at the other end of the street. I saw a bottle in the gutter, grabbed it, and ran towards him with it. He just stood where he was and waited. I didn't look at his face to see if it was sad or bewildered or angry. I stopped a few feet from him and hurled the bottle at his chest with all my might. “You bastard!” I screamed. “You've got no right to take another person's life into your hands no matter how bad you think it is or how good you think you can make it! You're the only real beast I've known in my whole life!” I turned and ran from him. I ran until I convinced myself he was no longer following me. I sat down on a curb to rest before walking on. I walked all the way home. I mean “home.” To Luisa's.
I knocked. I hoped Luisa was home. Over all the years when I hadn't once visited, I had always carried my key in my purse. But just then my purse was far away, in Jose's room. I would have let myself in through a window if she hadn't been home. I had, after all, become a “criminal.”
Luisa opened the door and beamed. At least she seemed to find me recognizable enough! I embraced her with gratitude for that. “Well, what a surprise,” she shouted.
“Have room for me?” I asked.
“The whole house!” she exclaimed.
“I'll try to pay my way,” I said.
“Are you crazy?” she asked. “It's your house as much as mine. And I've got more than twice as much food and money as I need.”
“Yes, I am crazy,” I answered. “Do you mind?”
“I only mind your asking if I mind,” she answered.
“Same job?” I asked.
“Unfortunately,” she answered. “Disappointed?”
I didn't answer. “Boy friends?” I asked.
“Not this minute,” she said.
“Can I go up to my room now and talk to you later?” I asked.
“You can go wherever you please and you don't have to talk to me!” she answered. But before letting me go, she threw her arms around me and kissed me. She had never done that for as long as I could remember.
I ran up to my room, closed the door and sat down on my familiar bed. I stared at the walls. They hadn't changed; they needed to be repainted. I felt lost — exactly as I'd felt once before, ten years earlier, when we first arrived. I didn't know where I was or why and I didn't know what to do with myself in this big city. But one thing was different. I knew someone, besides Luisa. There was one person in the city I wanted to be with. And do you know why, Yarostan? You're going to ridicule me again. Because he reminded me of you! Didn't you recognize yourself at all when I described him? I'm talking about Hugh. I thought about what he'd said a while earlier and how beautifully he'd said it. “You're incapacitating the community precisely at the moment when it is trying to raise itself up with its own strength.” Compare that to this, from your newest letter: “If we don't destroy the old life, if we don't project and begin to create a new life, then we're only going to reenact our slavery on the graves of our fallen comrades.” Down to the correctness, and even the shyness. I had understood Hugh. What he stood for had been “familiar” to me: I had experienced it before. I looked forward to seeing him again, I remembered him as I'd known him on the newspaper staff. And I forgot everything that happened after I left the university until I saw him again. Forgot it, repressed it, stored it away. That wasn't familiar to me. And when I did that, did I really give up life and resurrect a “corpse,” as you put it?
I sat on my bed and stared at the walls because I wasn't sure I hadn't made a horrible mistake. Not that I ever thought what you said, namely that my descent to the “world of Tissie, Jose and Sabina” was a descent to your world. I loved you, Yarostan, as I've loved very few people in my life. But my love for Jose was far, far away from your world, or from mine, in a world all its own. That's why I sat and stared. I had been carried out of that underworld, I had left it behind. But I had left something down there — far more than my purse, my two started manuscripts and my junky dresses. What I killed in myself wasn't a sequence of unpleasant or painful memories, i had to kill the joy together with the pain. I had to suppress my happiness. If I had allowed that to come back to life and become a vivid memory, even for an instant, I'd have run back to the house behind the garage, crawling and begging to be let in. Don't ever tell me that world is your world, Yarostan, or that you recognize yourself in Jose. If I'd had any basis to even suspect that from any of your letters, you wouldn't have received a mere letter from me; I would have flown to you twice as fast as a letter and torn you from Mirna and Yara, from your friends, your work, your world.
If Mirna reads this letter, I hope she'll forgive me for expressing myself so crudely. I had to tell all of it or none of it. If I hadn't told you any of it, I couldn't have gone on corresponding with you. I couldn't bear your telling me how “familiar” that world of experience was to you precisely at the moment when Tina reminded me just how “familiar” it was to me. It was so “familiar” that when I emerged from it I was ready to start all over again from a point I had reached ten years earlier. Yes, I erased it so forcefully that all the ten years that preceded it temporarily went down with it. All that remained was Hugh, and Hugh was someone I had known before I ever came here — in a carton factory.
I hope none of you have your heads crammed with hackneyed notions about “mental illness.” There was no such thing in my life. I'm ill when an organ or a limb doesn't function. There was nothing at all wrong with my limbs or organs. Fortunately there were no “psychologists” or “mind doctors” anywhere near me trying to “heal” what no one in the world has a right meddling with: my own life. And in this respect Luisa was a perfect gem. On the evening of my first day “home,” she brought my supper up on a tray, exactly as she'd done for several days ten years earlier. She knocked lightly on the door, placed the tray on my desk, asked no questions, and left my room.
I set my alarm and the following morning — it was a Monday morning — I got up before Luisa left for work. I went downstairs, to the kitchen, embraced her and kissed her; I wanted to thank her for being such a gem.
During that first week after my “homecoming” Luisa and I were the best of friends, despite the fact that I told her nothing whatever about where I'd been or what I'd done. I didn't learn a whole lot about her either. But my conversations with her did help me sort out experiences I could safely remember from those I had to forget.
“I know you know where I've been,” I told her provocatively, curious about how much she actually knew.
“With Sabina and that boy Ron,” she said.
“You always thought Ron such a nice boy, didn't you Luisa?”
“Simply wonderful!” she said. “Every fascist household should have his picture on the wall.”
“He's quite respectable now, you know,” I said. “He joined the Mafia. Didn't Alec tell you that too?”
“Alec told me all about it,” she said. “He also told me to expect a phone call from you.”
“Oh, that's right,” I said. “I told him I'd call. But I only told him that for his benefit — to fit into his idea of a dutiful daughter. You didn't sit up waiting, did you?”
“I did think you'd call,” Luisa said sadly.
“Come off that, Luisa! When did you become so sentimental?” I asked. “Did you really expect to hear my voice say, Hello, mother? This is your daughter; I'm over at Ron's and Sabina's?”
“I'm sure Alec would have called his mother,” Luisa said.
“If she'd been alive he certainly would have!” I exclaimed. “But if his mother expected such things from him, do you think he'd ever have moved back to her house?”
“If she expected that, I'd have urged him to stay as far away from her as possible!” she exclaimed. Both of us laughed. But when Luisa stopped laughing, she looked sad.
“Were you worried about me?” I asked.
“They were worried. They wanted to call the police,” she said.
“I'm glad you stopped them,” I said. “Who were `they'?”
“Alec and his girlfriend,” she said.
“Alec and who?” I asked.
“I think her name is Minnie,” she said.
“Minnie isn't Alec's girl friend,” I said. “At least, I don't think she is.”
“Really?” she asked. “They came together the first time.”
“The first time?” I asked. “You mean they both came again?” After my experience with Ron, I had kept my “home” and my friends worlds apart and I was disappointed by my lack of success.
“Only Alec,” she answered. “He's a very nice person.”
“He's what I'd call a fascist!” I snapped.
“How can you praise Ron to the sky and yet say that Alec —” she started.
“I don't want to hear about Alec!” I snapped. “Tell me about your friends.”
“I used to visit an old revolutionary exile every week; a kind, well-read, generous man,” she said.
“What happened, you broke up?” I asked, too offhandedly.
“He died, a year ago,” she said sadly.
Poor Luisa, I thought; she's so completely alone, with nothing in her life but her job. I realized just how lonely she was toward the end of that week. I had decided to go visit Hugh. Luisa came home while I was eating supper. I think it was Friday night.
“I'm going out tonight,” I said.
“With Ron again?” she asked.
“Yes, with Ron,” I said.
Suddenly she started crying.
“What's wrong?” I asked. “Does Ron upset you that much?”
“No, it has nothing to do with you,” she said.
“Something at your job?” I asked.
“Nothing ever happens at my job!” she bawled. “Our lives get eaten up for no reason. I'm no good to anyone, Sophia. No one needs me.”
I vaguely remember telling you about this scene before. I'll try not to repeat myself, I tried to console her, but didn't really know what to say. I suggested she start dating one or several of the men she knew at work, whether or not they were married.
“They're all hateful!” she said. “Why don't you invite your friends over?”
“All right,” I said — and then added sarcastically, pointlessly, “I'll bring Ron home.”
She said, “It's your house, Sophia. And your life. But if you ever bring him in here again, be sure I don't know about it! I mean your nice friends, Minnie and Alec and the others they mentioned.”
“Invite them yourself!” I snapped. “Here are their phone numbers! It's your house and your life. But if you ever bring them in here, be sure I don't know about it.”
I left her sobbing. I resented her hostility toward my dead Ron, but I felt sorry for her at the same time. She was so starved for friendship, for affection, for love, and I had absolutely nothing to give her.
I took a bus to Hugh's neighborhood — my former neighborhood — and found his apartment. I rang, knocked, waited, but no one came. I walked around the streets. I had stupidly put on one of Luisa's dresses and I regretted that now. It was a rough neighborhood. I had never noticed just how rough. I returned to the apartment and still no one answered.
I went out again the following night, Saturday night, to look for Hugh. But as soon as I walked out of my house I noticed a familiar car across the street and a familiar face inside it: Alec's. He got out of the car as soon as he saw me and started to head toward me. I turned and ran back into the house. Luisa was in the kitchen, eating. I tiptoed through the house and slipped out by way of a back window.
I failed to find Hugh and I left him a note, begging him to call me. I waited the whole next week for his call. On the following Saturday I resolved to look for him again. That day I had another surprise.
During that week I became increasingly depressed as I waited for Hugh to call, whereas Luisa became increasingly exhilerated. Finally on Saturday morning I asked her whiat had changed so suddenly in her life.
“I have a date tonight,” she said. “And I invited him to come here. Do you mind?”
“Mind!” I shouted. “I think that's great!”
“Are you going anywhere tonight?” she asked apprehensively.
“Oh, don't worry about me,” I said flippantly. “I'll probably be out all night. Is he someone from work? Is he nice?”
“I'd rather not tell you,” she said.
I didn't ask. Luisa spent most of the day preparing a very special meal, and the rest of it dressing. I helped her clean the whole house. She put candles in the kitchen and candles in the living room. Before I left that evening I taunted her, “Why have you kept yourself in a closet all these years, Luisa?”
She blushed. “You hussy! Do I look all right?” she asked, twirling in front of me.
“You're beautiful!” I exclaimed. “You're ravishing! Why, if you and I walked the streets together, you could quit your job and we could —”
“Sophia!” she said indignantly.
“Shocked?” I asked.
“Coming from you, yes. Are you seeing Ron again?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I'm going to a movie. Alone.”
“And you're staying out all night?” she asked sadly. She was shocked. I'd forgotten what I had told her earlier.
“I'd rather not tell you,” I said, imitating her. “But don't mind me. Whenever I come in, I'll run straight upstairs without looking left or right.” I kissed her to apologize for my inconsistent lies and whispered, “Have a good time, hussy!” I walked out of the house in my jeans, denim shirt and Luisa's leather jacket. I looked back and saw her standing in the doorway. She smiled. She really did look ravishing, and so happy.
When I reached Hugh's apartment my heart missed a beat. The note I had left him was still under his door! I bit my lip for having spent the whole week waiting for the phone to ring. I could have come the day after I left the note and learned that he no longer lived there. I kicked myself for not having come for the first time until so many days after he'd given me his address. But then I started to wonder if he'd ever lived there, if for some mysterious reason he'd given me the wrong address.
I rushed away from Hugh's unoccupied apartment. I had an intense desire to return to my room, but remembered Luisa's date. I went to a movie, but the film was so awful I couldn't sit through it. I took a bus home. Less than two hours had passed since I'd left Luisa standing in the doorway. She and her date would just be finishing her special supper. Perhaps he'd take her out.
I stopped caring about Luisa's date; I wanted to reach my room. I opened the door quietly, and as soon as I closed it I sensed that the two lovers were locked in a tight embrace on the living room couch. I tiptoed to the staircase — and stopped. I heard a terribly familiar voice whispering, “Jesus Christ, Luisa, I thought she wouldn't be coming in!” I ran up the stairs.
Luisa ran to the staircase and pleaded, “I'm sorry, Sophia; I wasn't expecting you so soon.”
I heard Alec say weakly, “Hi, Sophie.”
“I told you don't mind me!” I shouted as I slammed my door.
I sat on my bed trembling, blinded by rage. So that was her date! That unspeakably unscrupulous bastard! To gorge himself with all those years of that love-starved woman's pent-up desire — solely out of spite against me! Only a week earlier she'd described herself as a useless old rag, squeezed drier every day. “I'm no good to anyone; no one needs me.” With what blind, what mindless hunger had she become a willing instrument of Alec's revenge? With what deluded longing had she given away so much love to requite his mere spite? Poor Luisa! She had wanted me to bring my “nice friends” home!
I knew I wouldn't be able to face Luisa again. I knew I'd kill her if I told her the truth, and if I said nothing she'd read it on my face. As soon as I heard the door of Luisa's bedroom close, I started to pack a small bag. I had so pitifully little to pack. I walked downtown and napped uncomfortably in the bus station. In the morning I found a cheap room and paid a week's rent with almost all the money Luisa had given me. The room had roaches as well as mice. I couldn't stand to stay in it during the day and went back to the bus station. Nor did I sleep well in my room that night. But I was definitively “on my own,” for the first time in my life. I could forge my own life, guided only by my own lights. And what did I make of myself “on my own”? Exactly what almost everyone else does. I got up early Monday morning, bought a newspaper and read the job advertisements. The only ones I circled were the ones that said “no experience required.” If I'd told anyone I was a “crack mechanic” or a welder, he would have laughed — and I couldn't have proved it. I walked until my feet were sore. I filled forms and answered ridiculous questions. By mid-afternoon I had found a job which I would start the following morning. Since I wouldn't get my first pay for two weeks, I asked for an advance, telling the “personnel man” that I was out of food money. He pulled a bill out of his wallet, saying, “Pay me back in two weeks, Miss.” I worked in a fiberglass factory. It was awful. If I've ever had a bad experience in my life, it was that job. I don't understand why people put up with that. I won't describe it to you now.
It was only then, after my first week of wage labor, that I was really a zombie, a vegetable. By the following Sunday I was so tired that I slept until mid-afternoon. My whole body ached when I dragged myself out of bed. I left my room, walked mechanically to the bus stop and rode to my former neighborhood. I approached the address Hugh had given me as sullenly as I'd walked toward the fiberglass factory every morning that week. I knocked and rang, from habit. I perked up with expectation when a woman opened the door. I asked about Hugh. She'd never heard of him.
I dragged myself along every street in the area — every street but one. I studied the names listed on every apartment house, the names on all mail boxes and on the doors of small houses. I walked into every open store and looked through the display window, mail slot or keyhole of every closed one. It had been dark for at least two hours when I reached a door that said “Project House” in roughly painted letters. I tried the door; it was open. The room was full of boys and men, my age or younger, all rough-looking, all “street people.” With my jeans, my hair in a cap and Luisa's leather jacket, I didn't attract any attention; I was merely another one of them — maybe younger and not quite rugged enough. I looked from one unfamiliar face to the next, and recognized Hugh's.
I realized that Hugh had seen me the minute I'd walked in but hadn't taken a step toward me. He just stared at me; his face expressed disbelief and profound disappointment. I walked up to him and asked, in a whisper, “You don't recognize me?”
“I'll meet you outside in five minutes,” he said, and turned his back to me.
I shuffled through the crowd and waited. He came out, grabbed my arm and marched me rapidly away from the project house. “How did you find me?” he asked.
“Hugh!” I exclaimed. “I've been looking for you since you carried me out of the garage!”
“I'm sorry I did that,” he said. “A gun was pointed at me.”
“You can't know how badly I've wanted to be with you,” I said, almost pleading.
“You're wrong,” he said. “I knew. I made a bad mistake when I gave you my address.”
“You mean you left that room because I might find you there?” I asked.
“Yes, Sophie, because you might find me there,” he said.
“Didn't you care at all what happened to me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I cared very much what happened to a person I had known — a person I had disliked, distrusted and feared, if you must know the truth.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Perhaps Alec could explain that to you,” he said. “I should add that I also admired you at times, with that grudging admiration we sometimes have for something we cannot understand, something we fear. I don't believe your `why,' Sophie. You cannot possibly be so naive, so blind. First Lem, then Thurston, then Alec kissed the ground you walked on. And you have the nerve to ask me why I feared you? Do you want my honest critique of that fine theatrical performance to which you subjected us, pretending to grovel and crawl in front of your Jose for the benefit of your entire train of admirers? I'm only glad that Thurston and Lem were unable to attend — for their sake. I cared, Sophie — at a distance, just as I admired you at a distance. It was you who drove me out of my wits when I was about to start graduate school — you and your `sister' and her world-changing project. I longed to be where you were — yet far removed from you. Finally I was driven to `join' you — but only in spirit. I couldn't do what Alec did to himself. The closest I wanted to get to you was to throw myself into your type of engagement, your project. I found it here, and as soon as I found it I learned that you and your establishment were indeed part of it, of its foulness. What I've found here is simple, unsophisticated people who are discovering what it is to be human. They're discovering it on their own, without seers —”
I interrupted to ask, “What are you doing here then?”
“I'm discovering it with them, Sophie. I'm discovering what it means to be in a society but not of it, what it means to be insulted, excluded, maltreated and injured. I'm discovering what it means to be a stray dog with human characteristics. And I'm discovering that everything I've learned is as useless to them as it is to me. These are people who are becoming themselves, Sophie, on their own. It's a process in which neither you nor I can help them, a process to which we cannot contribute, a process we can only harm. They can only help themselves and each other; they cannot be helped from outside. I'm not here in order to guide, to help, to contribute, or to interfere or meddle in any way. There's no room here for those who are able to give but not to receive. I'm only here to learn.”
“You don't know me, Hugh,” I said. “That's all I want.”
“You, Sophie,” he said, “you don't know who you are or what you want. I've known you to be sincere — once, perhaps twice. Always quick-witted, at times even brilliant. Brave, even heroic. A rare companion. But please believe me when I tell you I don't need you, Sophie. My new friends don't need you. What you carry inside you, what surrounds you, whether you intend it or not, is all the rot we've started to shed.”
I turned away from him and walked to the bus stop. I didn't shout, nor tremble, nor cry. But my heart was broken.
- * *
Yarostan, I hope you won't think I'm being flippant when I tell you I experienced that bus ride as a second ocean voyage away from you. I came ever so close to what I had always sought: human beings discovering themselves and each other, deriving from each other the will to found the world anew. I came ever so close to what I've learned to call a human community. And I was inexplicably hurled out of it, down to a limbo of interminable days in a fiberglass factory and comfortless nights in a rodent-infested room. What I came so close to, Yarostan, was not the bureaucratic world of Minister Vera, Secretary Adrian and Representative Marc. It was you, Yarostan. Your world. At least the world I've dreamed of building alongside you and alongside living humanity. That was what I recognized. what I found so “familiar” in Hugh's engagement, in his “project house.” But that dream had gotten buried so deep inside me — no, not a corpse, Yarostan, but a live desire, an urgent yearning — it had fallen so far below the surface that Hugh couldn't see it. He only saw the rot that had encrusted itself over it during the intervening ten years.
It's my sixth long day on this letter and I still haven't told you everything I wanted to. If I go on, it'll be forever before I hear from you again, and I don't want to wait that long to learn what else is happening where you are, and what else you experienced after the uprising in Magarna. I haven't told you about the conversation Sabina and I had as we read your letter in the park. I'll have to tell you next time.
Because I've “confessed” so much already, I can't keep myself from repeating one of my confessions. I love you, Yarostan. I'll never stop loving you. If I've loved Luisa less than she deserved, it's because I've never forgiven her for taking me with her on that ocean voyage to this desert.
But I'm not flying to you. I'm staying here. Not because I'm afraid I'd bring all my rot; I don't believe I carry only rot. But because I love you too, Mirna, for everything you've been to him.
And I love you, Yara, for being what you are, and you too, Jasna, for being exactly what you've been,
|Cartas de Insurgentes|
|Quinta carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)||Quinta carta de Sophia (Cartas de Insurgentes)||Sexta carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)|