Hung over on St. Augustine’s Concerning the Teacher, I note her name on the icicled mailbox, as I drive by: Julie W Stack, Artist. I imagine an icicle inside that box impaling a postcard from a warmer clime, a postcard from me when I get to know her better: Thou hast vouchsafed to dwell in my memory, since I learnt thee. I park down by the lake. Not the smartest of ideas as now I have to slip and slide my way across the road (we go backward and forward, and there is no place), and then up a steep incline in order to reach her house.
Before I can ring the bell, the front door opens. She’s wearing a white bobble hat, a lambswool pullover, and cream-coloured cotton jeans. A sweatered aesthete if ever there was one. She regards me down the length of her nose. I had something smart to say but can’t get it out. I stand there with my mouth open.
“You better come in, so we can close the door,” she says.
I follow her down the bare corridor into what must once have been a kitchen. A wall has been removed making a large kitchen-cum-dining-room-cum-work-space. There is a drawing board, complete with what looks like a bar stool; a black leather and chrome settee of Scandinavian origin covered with dog-eared art magazines and old broken-backed books; an X-ray machine; an oak work-bench full of vials, glass slides, assorted bell jars and an outsize microscope. Bookcases, unpainted, are over-indulged with large, thick tomes. The sink is stained with coloured blurs and on the draining board lives a combi-oven and a hot plate, both rusted. There is nothing that is learned by means of signs.
“What do you drink?” she asks.
“Hard stuff, eighty per cent proof.”
She looks at me and smiles. Can you also say that, individually, we each have a sun, a moon, a lightbearing planet …
She crosses to the sink, opens the cupboard beneath it and roots about down there, amongst the detergent bottles. I begin to think maybe she will extract a fifth of bleach but no, she turns back to me with a reasonably full fifth of Hudson’s Bay.
“The best procurable,” she says, “Furnished in flat bottles for easy storage. I used to hide the booze from my ex.”
“I commend your …”
“It’s not that I’ve got anything against booze per se,” she cuts in, “Only against men who cannot take it, yet nevertheless insist.”
I pull of my coat and drape it over the back of a red Fibreglas chair. I duck under a chain of mobiles inspired by Goya. Even though they are fragile in white, I recognize the dog (my very self), the one that looks up at the sun; I also recognize Saturn consuming his own offspring.
“Do you like it?” she asks.
“Did you make it?”
“Come now, do you like it?”
“I like Goya,” I say.
“Do you like it?”
“Damn it, no! I don’t like to see Goya turned into some arty-farty interior decoration, but if you made it, then I’m prepared to love it. There now, the cat is out of the bag. I’m all washed up, finished.”
And it is only my second meeting with her, only the opening minutes of a second meeting. She nods at my response. She passes me a shot of whisky. I swig it off. She refills the glass.
“Chaser?” she asks.
I notice an old Hi-Fi in the room. There is a record on the player, turning silence. I walk over and put the needle on the record. Flute music, Baroque.
“Cute,” I say, fishing out a cigarette, hanging it in my jaw and lighting it.
When it’s going, she walks over to me, extracts it from my foolish lips, puts it between hers (cherry red lipstick), takes a long pull, then exhales at the mobile. The white mobile tinkles as it is hit by the darker, heavier smoke: a storm cloud stirring up the fleecy cumuli.
“Was that water or soda?” she asks.
She opens the fridge, a fifties job, yanks the ice panel open.
“Damn it! Gerry didn’t refill the ice tray.”
“My boyfriend, I mean, ex.”
Things past and to come are not.
She goes over to the sink with two glasses, lets the water run cold, then fills them. I move out of the room, down the corridor and open the front door; all the while I hear her quick footsteps behind me, worried steps (I hope), and the clinking of the two glasses. I walk – coatless – down the garden path to the mailbox, break off two stalactites, then march back up to the house, trying hard to batten down the shiver. I pop the ice into the cold water, and we go back through to her studio and stand by a radiator.
“You’re an atheist,” I say, recalling our first date, she hot in debate with a mutual acquaintance.
“Would it trouble you, I mean, if you had a boyfriend, lover, husband, goddamnit dog, who was a heretical Christian?”
The music ends and the moment is tense and curiously fragile. I put my drink on the floor and reach out towards her. Time is nothing else than protraction. But protraction of what? The mind itself? Her head suddenly relaxes on my shoulder, her eyes close and we begin to dance. She lifts her arms – or rather, her arms lift – and her fingers interlace behind my neck. I feel the shiver begin deep within me and, as I take hold of her, I feel a corresponding shiver within her. I half-think about putting the record on again but this music, that is to say, this music which is not really music, not manufactured at any rate, cannot really be …
A key rattles in the lock, the front door creaks open. A man steps over the threshold. He moves towards us. We are unable to part; the shiver has got us in its grip; we are two stalactites in the process of being fused. He is tall and lean, dressed in a black, fisherman’s sweater and white, paint-stained chinos. He comes into our room. Circles us. Takes a white wooden chair from the kitchen table. Stands upon it. For a long moment I have this absurd thought that he is going to hang himself. But no, he suddenly puts his hands up into the air and removes the mobile, ramming it down into a small knapsack. He glares down at Julie.
“You bitch!” he snarls.
Julie’s eyelids flicker but do not open. Perhaps this scene is not unfolding before me but is some projection of hers. He jumps unsteadily down and lurches in my direction, halting two feet away. He looks me up and down.
“The new lover!” he sneers.
Then he looks over at Julie. Julie’s lips tremble but not with anger, it is our feeling, this shiver that is uniting us, melding our two hearts together – or at least getting them in sync.
“He has nothing to do with us, Gerry. In consideration of past favours, please don’t make a scene.”
He turns on his heel and heads towards the wide-open front door. The mobiles clink in his knapsack. Then they are no longer clinking, and I know he has gone. I breathe in deeply, there is a pleasant breeze coming in off the lake.