I picked eleven dresses from the racks that followed the whole, long storefront. Some of them it was difficult to see in the full harsh sun, the black ones were reverse ghosts, what were their necklines, their patterns? My arm hurt with their weight by the time I carried them to the dressing room. Latch them on a bar, the young man counts ad gives me a circle of plastic that says “10.”
Dresses black, pink, gold, whorled, blobby, black and loose in the bust, heavy damask, one won’t go over my hips, one gapes around my waist.
This shop, in Greenpoint, I knew because Greenpoint is where I used to work, when I had the worst job in the world. I took a roundabout course from the subway to the shop, just to not see someone, I’m not sure who, or something, I don’t know what, just not the course I took from subway to work.
I pulled my own grey dress over my head, zipped it easily, old friend, and handed back all 10 dresses that were never mine. They were recounted, like prisoners are.
What I need is the dress which balances my sadness at having half my life gone, with being still tender to taps on the shoulder or the heart, a person living more and more all the time. This is difficult but not impossible to find in a dress.
I took the train way up to the cathedral the next day. I ought to be preparing for a job interview for a job I didn’t want. To be fair, I did not want any job.
I walked the long body of the church, and at the front I saw a giraffe of a crane extended all the way to the top of that arch in this biggest cathedral (in the world, by some measures). Two men, tiny to my eyes, were in the cherry picker up there, examining the stones.
When I walked into the chapel, the gospel was being read, it was the gospel of Herod wanting to find and kill Jesus.
A friend had asked me, of my last job, “Did you think it was you?”
I said, “Oh, of course not,” realizing as I said it that I meant, “Every day.” Every day I knew it was me, I knew I could have made everything right, if I were smart enough, insistent enough, I could have saved us all including myself.
After the service I went back to the cathedral garden. The entrance is narrow, appropriately, it is around a corner. A white pointy-topped pergola lets you in, and two others anchor the other corners. I took one. Grape vines with used stems like finished spiders, dried, the places where grapes had been, grape vines like the vines my friend grows in Kansas, like my vines my friends who had to stop drinking no longer touch, grapes like I had drunk an hour before from the chalice.
I sat, protected by the back, the lattice, with the view of the ship-sized cathedral and one flying buttress. I learned those doing some report in school, I colored a photocopied photo of Notre Dame, I colored the buttresses yellow to highlight them.
I sat and did nothing. Though I have no paying job, no 8-to-5, I still crave rest, and rest is still, somehow, elusive.
I got up and headed back to the street, and I saw a peacock. Three peacocks live on the cathedral grounds. This one was rounding a corner, and I followed him. He did not have his full tail, nothing dragged. He had the glittering neck, of turquoise and beryl, of Egyptian lapis lazuli, of Indian silk, and the peacock hat, four feather tiny mohawk, and his back had both a slush of brown and white feathers that seemed cut short, or perhaps were molting, and a small patch of regulation peacock feathers, with the all-knowing emerald eyes. I leaned over a black chain-link fence and watched him snip bugs from the ground, from the faces and underfaces of leaves. Such a stunning body, engaged in such underworld work, well, aren’t we all.
I went downtown to buy a copy of Swann’s Way. I had an impulse to buy it last week, but decided embarking on a big book was dumb.
I went into the Strand, looked at the shelf where they had all the volumes of Proust, except for the first one. I cursed, I walked away, and I accidentally stood next to the information desk for a second (I would never, voluntarily, ask for help finding anything) and the man at Information said, “Can I help you?” and I said he could, explaining that I was afraid if I didn’t buy the Proust today, I was going to lose my nerve.
“I had a customer in Melbourne, the last place I worked at, and he loved Proust so much, he had read all the different translations.”
“Well,” I said. “It’s ambitious. That’s why I haven’t done it yet.”
He showed me to the “Bucket List Books” table. Stupid. “That guy said Proust is the kind of thing you can’t get until you are older, you can’t really understand it until you are maybe 40. He also said he couldn’t appreciate Beethoven until he was 40.”
“Well,” I said, “That sounds perfect.” He looked about 40 himself, and I was only slightly disappointed he was Australian instead of British, he had a job at the Strand, he was an English major without a proper job, also, well, I don’t have one, either, hooray.
I lined up to pay for the Proust, tapping on it, worrying it was not going to work out between us, it would just be a slog. I’ve read War and Peace. That was both a slog and a great, buckle your seatbelt and settle in Russian novel. It wasn’t just a stunt.
I went further downtown for one more errand, and Proust stayed in my bag.
Before I went home, I walked past Trinity Church, the same spire Herman Melville saw, the clock he looked at to see the time, I was it was 9:30, the spire that was the tallest point in New York until 1890, and it’s not very tall, the place where people ran into when the tallest spires in New York fell and lost their whole selves to a wind blowing up Manhattan.
I descended to the subway, sat, opened Swann’s Way, and felt quickly that I had a face, lips, fingers, and I knew many things were gone, that I would never see or touch again, my grandparents’ house, my bed there with cocoa-colored sheets with mathy thin red stripes, particularly, I wouldn’t be able to find it. I could ask someone what the address was, I could rent a car, I could drive there, and that house would be there only in a way that made no difference, with a porch we never sat on, but strangers, now, might, woods that were enormous to me might now be lots, into houses, the clock that chimed had not been on the walls for more than twenty years, and I would lie there, not able to sleep, not wanting to kiss my mother, or have her kiss me, but wanting to sleep and not able to, trying counting down, and counting up, and hearing the clock chime.
That precious and fragile kiss that Mama usually entrusted to me in my bed when I was going to sleep I would have to convey from the dining room to my bedroom and protect during the whole time I undressed, so that its sweetness would not shatter, so that its volatile essence would not disperse and evaporate, and on precisely those evenings when I needed to receive it with more care, I had to take it, I had to snatch it brusquely, publicly, without even having the time and freedom of mind necessary to bring to what I was doing the attention of those individuals controlled by some mania, who do their utmost not to think of anything else while they are shutting a door, so as to be able, when the morbid uncertainty returns to them, to confront it vicariously with the memory of the moment when they did shut the door.
There was no kiss I had, and no kiss which was the kiss I could imagine, or find, and no dress, either, so when I was home I undressed and lay with Proust just at my ribs, he went on, the breeze was then, from the window, just what made me feel what breezes are, and that I had a skin, and having toes and ankles and calves and knees and thighs was also precious, in a night.
Proust excerpt from Lydia Davis’ translation.
Image: detail from Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Poetry and Devotion in Indian Painting” show.