22 December 2009

Frederick Barthelme

[from Frederick Barthelme's Waveland,Doubleday, 2009]

You get to a point and things that used to mean something don't mean what they used to mean. The game changes. You don't want what you used to want. You don't care about what you used to care about. You don't need what you used to need. The whole world becomes a backdrop, a kind of cartoonish painting at the rear of the stage to which you pay not much attention. You only half listen to what people say, you only half see what's out the window. Sometimes you see people in stores and restaurants and you can't understand how they got there, what they think they're doing, why they're got-up so, why they're trying so hard, what they're after, what they hope for, what they wish. It's impossible to figure these things out and you don't care anyway. You drift through the days. They come and go.

It's funny. You can still go through the motions; you can still do what you've always done — go to work, go to dinner, talk to people — but it rolls off you. If you're lucky you take up with somebody like Greta. She's charming and funny, and you're happy to have a companion whose view of things is not altogether different from your own. You live in her garage apartment for a couple of months, and you imagine things happening, and you manage to make friends with her to a sufficient degree so that you are invited to move into the house. You take up this new position with enthusiasm, but even that is a little manufactured. You don't know what she thinks or what she is planning or what she is looking for or why she's invited you in; but you go, nonetheless, and accept the room that is offered and arrange its parts elegantly, simply. You try not to detract. You try to listen, but sometimes you just slide away in your mind.

Sometimes, when you are putting your arms around this new woman it seems as if you are remembering your role, your lines, as if your ability to put your arms around someone is somehow reduced. Sometimes, when you touch the skin of her face, it only reminds you of having touched the cheek of a person you were once crazy about. You smell her hair. You shut your eyes, smelling her hair. You hold her close, her back to you, smelling her hair. Your eyes closed, your hands on her forearms, on the backs of her hands. You feel her weight against you, and you remember when you felt the weight of someone you were desperate about. In short, you mimic yourself and you wonder, Does she know? It doesn't destroy your connection to her, which is quiet, genuine, caring. Comforting, but lacking, perhaps, in intensity. The wind doesn't mean everything the way it once did. The rain is not shot through with the richest melancholy; it is just rain. This is a substantial loss.

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