It is not the form that dictates the color, but the color that brings out the form.
First: a heart, or three, drawn and cut from construction paper. Nearly twice the size of my hand, so that when I held them, waiting for my mother, they balanced weightless on my palm. My mother knelt with a handful of pins pursed between her lips. One by one, she adhered the hearts in a row down the front of my dress: above the bottom hem, at my waistline, at the center of my chest. A tissue-paper crown and glittery staff completed my coronation. Released into the hallowed night I yelled, “Off with their heads!” as I trailed the superhero cape of my older brother through the echoing hallways of our Bronx apartment building in search of tricks or treats. How easy it seemed to craft something lovely from paper and scissors—and a heart, no less, so perfectly trimmed, at once sharp-edged and smooth in triptych against my white cotton gown.
Or perhaps, even before the hearts, there was Matisse. I would sit before a small reproduction of Matisse’s The Red Studio that hung in my parents’ bedroom, which, when the futon was folded away, was also the living room. For the longest time, I thought Matisse’s studio must be a room in a dollhouse—somewhere the Queen herself might reside. Awash in Venetian red, the canvas depicts what the artist must have seen before him as he worked—a still life of propped paintings and sculptures. The artworks, rendered in detail and color, are indicated only by negative gaps in the red surface. Of his painting Matisse once remarked, “I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.” A grandfather clock stands in the center of the composition. Matisse eliminated its hands, as if, in the space of the artist’s studio, time is suspended. As if all attention were given to the process of seeing a retrospective housed in a single color.
“It might help you better relax,” my father told me as he tried to explain an exercise he learned in art school to focus the mind on a single color and every instance in which it occurs. “Try red,” he said. And because often my father’s ideas have a way of taking root in my mind as a steady preoccupation, I try his exercise. On my way to work I take inventory: traffic lights, stop signs, a fire engine. A tinsel holiday wreath tied and forgotten on a telephone pole. An array of lipsticks and nail polish, headscarves and jewelry. The laces of a young boy’s tennis shoes. The looped handle of a baby’s rattle. And just when it seems the world is alive in red, the cat that sleeps on floor of the neighborhood bodega slinks lazily from around a corner with a fresh bead of blood on its whiskers, as if to remind us coffee-and-cigarette “regulars” that something is always dying.
It isn’t long before my catalog of red inhabits the mind—integrating and then segregating memory through a siphon of red. I see the construction-paper hearts. I see the wheels of my roller skates, the bright handlebars of the new bicycle I first rode without training wheels along the Hudson, the deep chrome of the vintage Schwinn I found at a thrift store in Colorado—and between those two bicycles alone, there are twenty-some-odd years to color in.
Can I tell a story in a single color? The painters did it: Rothko and Hofmann. Yves Klein, too (but he may better serve an essay on blue). Can we fulfill our memories in monochrome? Bathe words in color as Matisse dared bathe his canvas?
Before I saw, I tasted. When I was eight years old playing catch with my brother, I ran for the ball and within an instant lay flat on the ground with a mouthful of concrete. My two front teeth (the new adult teeth of which I was so proud) lay somewhere in the salty mess that unfolded in my mouth. The bitter taste, like a penny splintered and molten along my tongue, churned against my raw gums. I hardly registered what happened—that I had tripped on the sidewalk’s uneven pavement. But I made the catch that day. I remember only because of how tightly I gripped the ball, refusing to let go. Even as my brother and the neighbors came running; even as my father took me inside, shielding my eyes from the bathroom mirror as he cleaned my wounds. My face and hands and knees throbbed for days. As I healed, my friends came to see the new front teeth my dentist fashioned from caps of enamel around the ruins of my incisors. My brother brought his friends by after school to show off, like a crime scene, the place where my face stained the sidewalk, which was little more than an inkblot or splattering of paint. And yet it recorded, like evidence, my first lesson in glory and pain, of how quickly we fall between the two, how humbled we become by our own missteps.
I was even younger, six or seven, when I learned of the birds. The hummingbirds were my favorite. The ruby-throated in particular, the one variety most likely to stray east of the Mississippi, so I waited for them to visit New York. When I discovered they were attracted to red, I became consumed, concocting nectar from sugar water and food coloring. I filled feeders and mason jars and placed them on the windowsills and fire escape.
Most bird-pollinated flowers are red and rich in nectar. But is this simply because the honeybees can’t decipher them? How odd that the color red, which at the end of the spectrum carries the longest wave of light, is inconspicuous to the bees, and therefore left for the birds. Imagine a male cardinal—so effortlessly designed to attract—appearing to a yellow jacket as little more than a notion against the bare winter trees and snow.
This, my first lesson in matters of the birds and bees: color holds the power to entice and allure. And since then, I have seen it countless times in the plucked look skin has when touched by frost or wind or sun, when flushed with sex or panic or desire. Like the scarf-flaunting matadors in Spain courting their bulls. Or the rose of the flamenco dancer, following the rhythmic clap of her castanets. Like the polish I’m never bold enough to wear on my fingernails, the lipstick I’ve never cared for, the blush I find laughable because my cheeks redden on their own, under even the slightest pretense.
Summer afternoons, I got in the habit of eating pomegranates with the boy next door. He was the son of our Greek landlady, a woman who spat over my head and told me I was beautiful. Raised in a world of secular bohemia, I found unending curiosity in Greek Orthodox traditions. We’d sit on the back porch, each with our orb, pulling at its tough rind, breaking into it as if into a crystal ball that held secrets we wanted nothing more than to devour. We brushed the juice from our fingers onto our bare knees. The color took to our skin like watercolor. The jeweled kernels, ruby arils, burst in my mouth, their flavor like the first boy I kissed. The first boy I swore on instinct to love, and failed to.
This was the same fruit the landlady had us smash against our doorstep before the first stride across the threshold on New Year’s morning. And like the red-dyed egg nestled in the bread we ate the night before, it was a mark of fortune and safety.
Now, in the town where I live, the locals raise Chinese lanterns along Main Street to mark the new year. But I’m still curious about pomegranates. I still raise one to my nose each year as I pass them in the grocery store. What children are sitting on back steps courting sweetness? How many stride over doorsteps where the same fruit juice has seeped into stone, dried, and grown sticky in the sun? The mark of another year, broken open, promising to be new.
A friend of mine, a florist in town, once gave me a lesson in roses. Deep reds signify burning passion, she told me, while lighter hues mean romance. Crimson is the color of sex (which, she takes time to explain, is different from romance) and not to be confused with burgundy, which connotes desire. The symbolism is accredited, she assures me. But I have my doubts. Didn’t the ancient Greeks believe roses came from the blood of Adonis and were as much symbolic of love and affinity as of growth and decay? What about red chrysanthemums—one of the four Noble Gentlemen who mark the seasons in the East? Or the poppies for remembrance that line the castles in Ireland? I find more enchantment in lilacs and wildflowers. We don’t order bouquets for wit or humor. Not enough people send flowers for valor and distinction.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that in 1949, the same year that Matisse’s painting of his studio subsumed in a field of cadmium went on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Mark Rothko began exploring abstraction by painting soft-edged blocks in diaphanous colors. Of Matisse’s canvas, Rothko said: “When you looked at that painting, you became that color, you became totally saturated with it.” And this seems more or less to explain Rothko’s own process for addressing his work, the way he seemed to will or breathe the paint onto his canvases in a slow spinning of reds and yellows, like gossamer, like screens. In a painting we expect such color to last, to be present, as long as we care to notice. But what—I want to say to Rothko as I try to saturate these pages—what happens when color fades?
For centuries, red was the treasure of the Incas and Aztecs, and then the wealth of red belonged to Spain. When it is fresh, carmine pigment, made from the bodies of cochineal beetles, is one of the purest dyes produced in the natural world. But it is also the most fleeting.
J. M. W. Turner painted with carmine even though he knew of its impermanence. And so his work, his bequest to the nation of England, was far more colorful than the signature gray stormscapes we see today. Imagine an artist trying to capture the moment of a setting sun unleashing a brilliant slash of light through the clouds. As he reached to dip his brush, how could he not choose the best pigment, the perfect red, even though he knew it wouldn’t last? What if words became illegible after they were written? Wouldn’t we write them all the same? Unconcerned with posterity, Turner cared little of a painting’s longevity but of the very moment it was created. Red, vanishing and evanescent, was his immediate—near fugitive—desire.
When I was eighteen and moved west to Colorado, I thought I would mourn the east coast foliage. My mother sent care packages filled with origami cranes and folded stars, nestled in a bed of pressed maple leaves. “Pieces of home,” she called them, as if titling a shadow box or still life. But “home” has always been a variable. And some years ago, when I finally left Colorado and returned to the Northeast, it was the red rock canyons I craved.
I prefer red in its organic incarnations—rust-red creek beds, sea oats, and sumac leaves, the blooms of algae that color the Red Sea. But the human hand that paints in red or the manufactured, commissioned varieties of red satisfy my belief in the duality of things. We have co-opted the natural shades of fruits and flowers and assigned them to passion, to seduction, and—be it forbidden or sanctioned—to love. Pigments and paints are poised to accentuate and allure. And yet we color stop signs and fire engines red. Emergency exits and security warnings all bear the color of fear and trepidation—of warning. Waves of taillights and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles color tragic nights.
No wonder then that the reason some stones appear red is the same reason our blood runs red: iron colors human and earthly temperament. Science teaches this. But what about the stories and myths we tell ourselves, the meaning we make, in order to endure? According to Iroquois legend, after three hunters killed the Great Bear, the animal’s blood fell from the sky to color the leaves. And because I learned this in elementary school, in the portable planetarium our science teacher erected in the gymnasium, and because the image still haunts me as beautiful, it is the story I will tell my children if ever they are born: that death and demise often lead to splendor. Red is the dying leaves, just as dying stars exhibit a Mars-like tint before they go—evidence of their passing, yet just as much evidence of their life.
Before death, there will forever be the injuries of love. The first: my father, who broke the bones in his hand against a table as my parents negotiated their divorce. The second: my first love, who caught a ricocheting shard from the glass he threw against the wall on the eve of our inevitable split. His ring finger, nearly severed, glistened scarlet to the bone. And though he was the patient in the hospital emergency room, my whole body ached as if I had fallen, pieces of me lost upon impact, calcified, dislodged. I would ache this way for years after, recoil at the thought of the raw vacancy, the bare tissue. And again, the markings, this time left shamefully on the carpet and on the pillowcase I used to wrap his hand. The color dried and deepened to rustic burgundy—wasn’t that my florist’s term for desire? Or was it the earthy red of van Gogh’s severed despair after Gauguin threatened to leave him? Far from the fleeting flush of a lover’s heaving chest, when we cut our bonds such injuries stain. Red is the color of love and lunacy, of infatuation and its failure, of how slowly, tolerantly—as if in a pact of silence—we drift between the two.
When I look up the word red, I find its origin in the Indo-European ruedh, and later the Greek erythros. In Sanskrit, rakta is the word used for red and for blood. In Comanche, the word ekapi is used for red and color and circle, too, which suggests something fundamental, something all-encompassing. Red is the color of beauty in Russia, of luck and good fortune in China. It is the color of Greek tragedies, epic battles of glory and salvation. Ancient Romans painted their gladiators and heroes in red; they washed the statues of gods and emperors with the same ruddy pigments that can be found in the murals of Pompeii. Here, we might gossip over red-carpet celebrities and in the same breath recall catching a red-handed thief. We might anticipate the pomp and circumstance of a red-letter day as much as we curse the red herring of deceit. We hang flags of patriotism and revolution, landmark districts of prostitution and lust.
We say red-eye and we mean flying overnight. But it is also what I call crying until morning. The kind of weeping—silent, full—that might be reserved for blue, except that it hoods our lids and circles the underside of the eye in red. The kind of weeping I learned from my mother, the kind you wake to the next morning and nurse like jetlag or a hangover, face puffed, swollen, a little older around the eyes. The red of rage and grief and euphoric sadness; the red-eye of weightlessness, of rebirth.
Or maybe it’s the dim tint of an evening bar, which used to lure me, like a moth toward light. Nights after all my friends retired into taxicabs and slinked away to their Brooklyn apartments, I wandered the city looking for clues into unexplained grief, and found the inevitable cliché cocktailed in the pouty stranger at the end of the bar who, once we had stumbled back to his apartment, showed me his paintings—all brooding drips and globs that, in the dark, hinted at kindness. He went on and on about the New York School until I threatened to leave. When I did slip away, the air a little bit pink as it turned heavily to day, the metal door to his walkup that shut forcefully behind me—a door that still floats like a buoy in the shadowy sea of the Bowery—was solid and padlocked and red.
While on the subject of doors, let this serve as an entryway into my memory of the red-doored church in the old neighborhood—landmark of my greatest curiosities, my greatest shame—that I used to circle as a girl, trying to learn something, waiting for its sober advice. In many cities, houses of faith and worship are marked by similar doors signifying safe haven. Once, Hebrew slaves were instructed to brush lamb’s blood on their doors to protect their firstborn. Catholic churches paint their front doors red, the blood of Christ and martyrs, to mark the borders of holy ground, the threshold where physical or spiritual harm could not penetrate, where pursuers could pursue no further. The red of sanctuary and protection.
If I were to return to—if I were to safeguard or time capsule—one image of red, it would be the paper hearts, royal insignia of my girlhood make-believe and the simplicity of young desire. My brother and I paraded as our heroes—he alternating between Superman and Captain America, me reluctantly assigned to Wonder Woman—a fantastical duo with hearts primed to save the world. Or a single queen ready to issue the brutal destiny of beheaded hope. And if those hearts seem too naive, perhaps, instead, a package of red doilies I bought in college at a thrift shop—the same shop with the stunning vintage Schwinn—that I strung into lacy curtains, still believing in paper-made pleasures. And they lasted, too, nearly as long as that first bout of love, before the wind took them. I think sometimes of their fate, wonder what bird may have swooped up their shreds to insulate its nest, what child discovered them littering the sidewalk during a game of catch, how the paper crimped and fell to the ground like fresh autumn leaves.
The next time I visit my father, I tell him I no longer see things the same. And to some extent, that’s true. Color seems more evident now, more laden with testimony, with consequence. “Try red,” my father had said. So simple. And now I notice it everywhere: in the cranberries and rhubarb stalks at the farmers’ market, the cider apples and bell peppers, and yes, the pomegranates, too. In the book bindings that wall the library, the neon sign kept on at the diner, or the historic brick buildings that accentuate downtown.
Of course the painters knew not only how color is revealed in form, but how form—a synthesis of light and reflection—is just as much revealed in color. In the city, sirens sound and lights flash through the streets delivering their cargo of pain and sadness: a nineteen-year-old who took one in the gut on Heath Avenue after holding the door for some thug’s sister, leaving behind the red pool that must have swelled beneath him—the stain of chivalry’s passing. But what if the sirens and lights signify a heart being rushed for transplant, or an expectant mother about to birth her only child? The fire engines rush too, and a family may have lost their house, but what if a child is rescued from a fearful height or a battered home? Stalled traffic lights on Broadway mean frustrated commuters, waiting. But they also mean more time to breathe—stillness in a frenzied city.
“Color has taken possession of me,” Paul Klee once said of his work. His canvases reveal color and shapes—stick figures and fish, houses and hearts—in a childlike, sophisticated meditation.
Here we begin and end again with the heart, because what greater possession exists? Not just in color, not simply through this red (by which I mean rose-colored) lens, but as it adheres and tears, as it is pinned and stripped bare. It may be an impossible idea, to tell the story of a color, but perhaps we might glimpse a chapter that contains a single human experience, a retrospective of memory, the folded edges of paper and pleasure and pain, tucked into a chamber, a studio, a cabinet of curiosity. When oxygenated, when exposed, it pulses in crimson and scarlet, carmine, red—at once the longest wavelength of visible light and the first color we lose sight of at twilight.
I used to collect things: rocks and minerals, artifacts and molds. That afternoon we ditched English lit and sociology to flee to the tracks where we hopped a train toward the southwestern plains, only to hop off again somewhere—anywhere—to spoon beans from a can, sip whiskey from a canteen, and suckle and knead each other’s flesh because we were sweethearts and the world was alive. That afternoon, we almost missed a set of antlers, dropped like driftwood—a discarded shield or scepter—a buck’s fallen crown, bone smooth and half-buried in the gravel.
A recollection: Although young, I knew what death was, could sense foul play in the dampness of the barnyard beneath the cover of fresh hay. Although I never saw the headlines—“9 Farm Pets Found Mutilated on a School Campus in the Bronx”—I knew the story was more than what we were told when the herd of us (six-and-a-halfs and almosttens) arrived at camp that day or what was later overheard: “suspect at large” after fleeing the scene of a crime termed “brutal but not ritualistic,” as if there were solace in that. I wonder if he thought, before he slaughtered the final lamb, “This is the final lamb.” Or if he noticed the names we had chosen, carved into wooden plaques and nailed above their stalls, before he escaped into the night with his cruelty and his stains, perhaps hopping a train headed south toward the city or north toward anywhere else.
An inquiry: Maybe this is where my obsession with captivity—or rather freedom and abandon—began. That summer at camp we learned to care for the animals, to save our lunch scraps for the pig bucket, to milk the goats, to cradle the rabbits until we felt their hearts slow in our arms. That summer I fell in love with Saint Francis, swore I might one day live in Assisi or somewhere where the sky wasn’t so confined, caught between the concrete and steel of the city, the trees and longing of the boroughs—neighborhoods of bad prospect and saturated urban soils.
A keepsake: In our nakedness by the fire, this lover and I take turns holding the antlers above our heads, dirt from the rugged bone leaving smudges on our foreheads. I remember as a girl posing for photographs between the animal ears at the Bronx Zoo, squatting, and then rising into the opening where the head of a jackrabbit or moose might belong, all of which may have taught me something about transience and the frailty of ideals, of how to pull myself up into the body of a boxcar, live for a moment in the hollow heart of a freight train, then bound back into the world unharmed.
That night in the pasture, deserted but for the junipers and the cooling embers of our bodies, I kept waking up wondering if the animals knew of our trespass, thinking my chest might be trampled beneath a cow’s hoof, my ribs crushed by the gaze of a mare. But we left the antlers by the tracks before making camp, kept the fire low and our lovemaking quiet. And more than my anxiety about the cows, what troubled me most was a nagging curiosity: What makes us different from animal or machine—the ability to forgive? Guilt? Sorrow? Meanness?
A relic: Because the crime went unsolved, it has weighed on me a strand of questions: How did he manage to jump the fence, break the barn door’s padlock, and stab and crush the animals, leaving the carcasses for the groundskeeper to find before the hundred of us children arrived, leaving the news for the adults to spin into story? Did he know I would never believe it? The absence lingered in the hosed-off ground like a footprint that the police might have missed and traced to a hiking boot, a pair he borrowed from his father, or that were a Christmas gift from his mom. Why do goats still break my heart? Why can I never look them fully in the eye?
A confession: I have harbored a hatred for this stranger since I was a girl. I would like to say that it comes from a noble commitment to justice, a rage against animal cruelty. But more, I resent him for the way he has made me wary of having children. Can I be so bold as to hang the cross of doubt and uncertainty on this nameless antagonist? If so, what else can I allege? What other charges can I shoulder onto his rap sheet? My drunkenness? My bad judgment? My obsession with youth? I empathize with the parts of us that make us do the things we do. It is the silent repercussions that I despise—the way each jab of his knife tore tiny wounds in our hearts, how each neck he bludgeoned and snapped made our wide eyes irrevocably squint toward the world. For that I have struggled to find ways of saying, “I forgive you.”
Or maybe I haven’t even tried. I still visit farms and leave the pen doors unlatched, just in case the animals need an escape, just in case he still hunts barnyards, posing as a father or an uncle at an unfenced playground. Would he do it all over again? Or might the air carry the chug of a boxcar so he’d run instead, see the gleam of the tracks, find the spokes of a wheel and time his jump?
A kind of mercy: In the morning I woke beneath the same junipers, the same sky, the same embers cooling as ash, and everywhere the fog had settled so it was hard to make out the congregation of cows that had gathered at dawn. I had feared they would trample us, brand our skin, leave us praying to our saints and repenting all our sins. But they stepped slowly around us, their edges blurring in the mist. One of them stood not more than a few inches away. My heart stilled. The cow chewed steadily on the dry grass, churning its cud, its tail whipping gently. And the boy next to me never knew they were there, still swears it must have been a dream: the way I reached out, touched my fingertips against the cow’s coarse flank and thigh, flattened my hand on its warm hide, felt its pulse against my palm, breathing the same air: air that had grown thinner, more temperate, in the rising fog.
In 2007, at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the artist Doris Salcedo installed a crack in the floor. In an exhibition space normally filled with architectural sculptures and towering constructions—once a model of the sun—no one was quite sure how the crack was made. The installation, titled Shibboleth, began as a hairline fracture in the concrete slab floor and gradually, and then all of a sudden, deepened into a three-foot crevasse (ten inches at its widest point) that meandered and branched out through the space.
I think often about that line, which had no apparent origin. I think, too, about all of the seams and perimeters we contain, like the line my brother marked down the center of our shared bedroom as kids, the way certain streets partition entire neighborhoods—the 125th Street divide between Harlem and the Upper East Side, peace lines segregating urban streets in Ireland between Catholic and Protestant—how a line painted on a city bus could fuel protests and arrests in Birmingham. On one side is the physical world where we meet our desires with propriety and control. On the other, an abandonment of intent, a surrendering to what lies beneath the surface. The roughness of sand can smooth the hardest marble. The texture of a nylon stocking gets caught on the smallest inconsistencies of skin, like the wrong direction velvet contains. At the Villa Borghese in Rome, circling the bare ass of Apollo, I can see the single moment that defines the young god’s pursuit of Daphne, two figures captured at the brink of their fate—he reaching her at the very point she turns forever into a tree, both rooting and leaving before him.
I imagine the last summer we lived together on San Juan Island as a slow splintering of edges we tried again and again to smooth. Those days I woke early, stepping outside our small trailer with its peeling blue finish, into the early dampness, stretching like an animal—sinewy, unkempt—my hair coiled and blonde, my skin the shade of late June, when the darkness of my tan made highlights of the faint scars along the inner bend of my wrist. Bedding down in the sunspots of the wooded clearing, I felt warm pine needles brush beneath my back. I had heard of a new fawn seen isolated in the woods while the doe mother foraged nearby. In a half sleep, I listened for them, imagining the fawn trying to blend into the world until it grew stronger and gained strength to stand.
Joe dragged a stack of shingles from the shed. I grabbed the tools. We were reshingling the side of an old garage barn for his mother in order to make extra money before we made our way back east. With most of the lower sections already complete, Joe and a neighbor had rigged scaffolding so we could reach the upper walls. Earlier that summer we had begun adding row upon row of cedar shingles, working from the bottom up, adorning the existing siding with a fresh wooden skirt.
“You have to consider the edges,” the man in the building shop outside Seattle had said when we asked about the difference between shingles and shakes. “Shakes are split, not sawn,” he said, loading a bundle into the back of the truck we had borrowed. I ran a finger along the edge. The tiny splinters caught against my skin.
That summer we talked about having our own place. “Build the whole thing up with our own two hands,” Joe said, measuring the exposure on each corner of the wall and then reaching for the chalk line to mark the level row. And I said, “Sure. Somewhere by the ocean,” and reached for a sack of nails. One at a time positioning the shingles against the wall, a half-inch seam between them, we secured each piece with two nails. Nearby an air compressor growled and groaned. When our hands tired we switched, our arms tangling as we exchanged nail gun or hammer, nails, the slick saltwater of the skin, wondering how to make it three thousand miles from San Juan Island to New York City before August.
It is difficult to reconstruct the experience of depression, where the flesh and body of a story fragment into its mere skeletal frame. But there are definitive landmarks, the femur and tibia of memory, which are easier to recall: visiting the doctor, all slow-voiced and gentle, when I was a girl; the fits of laughter blending into an abyss of hysteria; and later anxiety attacks, insomnia, the tiny cuts I made like chisel marks following the lifelines and creases of my skin, the dull purple ring below my palm after I banged my wrist against the wall, the pain washing over me like a drug. Bruising took to my body like a lover—all roughness and whispers. It is difficult to recount the way these things begin, how (gradually and then, yes, all of a sudden) I started noticing objects for their sharpness.
I have stood for hours before the work of Bernini, fallen in love with the baroque genius who built the city of Rome, smoothing one marble surface at a time. I have studied the bust of Costanza, the lover whose face the sculptor scarred out of rage. And, too, the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, being burned alive on a gridiron, writhing like an animal. Or the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, pierced by her visions of a heretic, captured in euphoric madness.
“Berserk,” my father used to say when laughter took hold of me as a girl and my small body appeared as a “jumping bean on a sugar high.” Those days my mother watched me closely—the way I binged on sweets and sadness, complained of an itch beneath my skin, grew hysterical with laughter—knowing something of the open pore that I was, and the mercurial border between my extreme seriousness and wild frenzy. Even my brother, inured to my vicious tantrums, my flailing body, learned how to make a cage of his arms as a boy, how to be a good brother, to pin me down so I wouldn’t hurt myself, to hold on tight.
At day’s end, Joe and I returned to the woods, to the outdoor shower behind the trailer. Joe traced a bar of soap over my back where the sun had left shadows on my shoulders. He washed my hair, tugging at it gently as I pulled him close. I could sense the play in his touch, somewhat restrained, as he handled me with care. In 1993 Janine Antoni created Lick and Lather, a series of fourteen life-size self-portrait busts, seven cast in chocolate and seven cast in soap that she resculpted using the very methods the title promises—her tongue lapping over the forms, her hands washing herself clean—resulting in an array of partially effaced portraits. I wonder how it would feel to hold myself that way, cradling my head in the bend of my arm, taking the pulse and temperature of a body that I want to devour like Godiva or bathe entirely away.
The deer has no sense of self, yet Artemis deemed all deer sacred, harnessed them to her chariot as she reigned deity of wilderness, childbirth, and virginity, protecting young girls, relieving women of disease. Daphne, loyal follower of Artemis, refused lovers and wished only to be alone. As she ran from Apollo’s pursuit, her feet turned to roots, her flesh to bark, hands and hair to the leaves of a laurel tree. I’ve read that Daphne’s leafy fingers were so delicately carved that Bernini’s marble swayed in the wind and chimed like crystal. Is art and mythology so different from reality—where simple substance carries divine subtext?
Most days we worked through morning. Holding each end, we steadied the chalk line before snapping the center. When the dust cleared, a faint line scarred the wall. We lined up the shingles, alternating large and small to overlap the seams of the previous row. I held them straight. Joe hammered at the nails. Every other row we switched position, the chalk disappearing beneath each layer, like all the drafts for architectural achievements, the burned sketches that informed baroque masterpieces, charcoal marks left on marble before it is cut, lines between insecurity and intent, all gone.
After a month on the island, we found an ad in one of the local harbor newspapers that read, “1988 Chevy Nova. Brown. Free,” and took it as a sign that it was time to move on, head back. And all I could think about was rust and burnt coffee, the metallic taste in my mouth before panic strikes, or the dull bellyache after a chocolate binge.
About that time, somewhere in New York my mother was writing poems about fragility and the fear of losing a daughter. Maybe that has something to do with why I stayed away so long. I hadn’t seen her in months, since she flew to Colorado, where I was living that year, to be “close by” because I was drinking too much and had grown wary of the kitchen drawers and the sharpness they held. We ate take out and watched old movies with men in overcoats and women with misty eyes. I slept curled in a queen-size bed in her room at the local bed and breakfast, surrounded by stale potpourri, wishing I could blend into the doily surfaces, staring at the uneven seams of wallpaper and trying to will the flowers in line.
With each row we moved higher up the wall. We were edging closer to the end, which was less about completing a summer job than about the precipice that seemed just out of reach. I felt stripped of my own edges, my siding refurbished into something new, a pattern I couldn’t fit in, couldn’t breathe in. I thought about how I used to singe my skin with a hot iron when I felt strange and lonely, which was most of the time—a mark on the timeline that I could never bring myself to reveal. Instead, I hid the scars beneath the covers of sex and oversized sweaters. Joe was somewhere by my side asking about where we would stay in New York, if there was work, how we would eventually get back to Colorado, finish college, maybe live for a while in Manitou Springs. We moved higher. The scaffold, little more than a tower of wroughtiron beams and a plane of driftwood, wobbled beneath us. The sun grew hot on my shoulders and simmered my skin . . .
Hammer. Nail. Hammer. Nail. The dust of cedar and chalk felt like sand in my eye, cutting along the cornea, beneath the lid. But it was my hand I was pinching instead, pinching and then raising. Raising and cocking to yield the interior of thin veins. Cocking and hammering against the wood plank of the scaffolding. I pummeled my wrist against the surface, the bone ignoring the line of skin, which grew pink and raw. I heard Joe shouting. I heard him stumble on the mess of tools, catch and tangle in the chalk line, trying to reach me as my arms hurled toward the wood plank, like hot steel against an anvil—glowing, burning. Joe braced himself behind me and pinned me down (he had learned along the way to do this, too), his voice pleading in my ear.
I once overheard a police officer asking a woman if her missing boy had any identifying birthmarks, any scars, and I wondered if he recognized the knife in his own hands, the razor blade that his tongue had become, carving into her skin. After my transgression with the iron—after the burning, that is—I was sent to a therapist whose surname was Dove. He had a Bob Ross way of speaking in a hum, which unhinged me from the start. So I holed up with my silence, fingering the bandage on my arm and thinking of soap commercials and white birds—how we market them as symbols for peace, as if some shackle or cross they must bear—the way once snow gets dirty there is little one can do except wait for it to snow again.
Twice I saw the doe that summer. When I looked up she stood motionless a few paces from the porch, the fawn grazing by her hind legs. She bent at the neck, craning toward the dry grass at her feet. Her coat was a pearly beige against the white of her tail and spotted haunches, the glass marble of her eyes. Her ears perked and she reset her stance. From a distance I heard Joe’s steps rattling the ladder and the angry clamor of a hammer—angry because I had done it again: lost control in that way he could never understand because I would never let him. A day would pass before he would look me in the eyes again. When I turned back, the deer were gone. Or rather, leaving. Had I wanted to catch them, they would have already reached the trees.
At night, while Joe slept, I slipped into the soft skin of one of his old shirts. Outside, the dry ground was cool against my feet. The air licked at my legs and stirred the hair on my arms and neck. On the island, darkness always made me think of the animals it held. Sometimes I think I could enter the woods and never return, give up everything—all human preoccupation—for the camouflage of hide and instinct.
The damp grass stuck beneath my thighs as I reached over my outstretched legs to grab my toes. And then I felt Joe behind me again, his torso bending along my back, his fingers threading along my ribs, kneading my hips. His breath warmed my ear as he whispered something about a junk car and a free ride.
The car was a beater, too. The rusty brown 1988 Chevrolet Nova, listed in the ad we had found, had two missing windows, a cracked windshield, and a broken taillight—and that, just the body of the beast. The engine had logged over 188,000 miles. “At this point it’s just clutter in the field,” the owner said. As he spoke, the old man, who lived in a cottage by the shore, pointed to the far end of the yard where you could, if you craned your neck a bit, make out the shape of a car beneath the overgrown weeds. Joe started unearthing the vehicle in a skilled excavation, firing off a strand of questions, noting the state of the tires “after all this time.” The man smelled like whiskey and chickens, and he kept muttering on about second chances. How “she” could use another stab at the open road.
I sat on the porch with a cup of coffee, watching Joe clear the car’s interior and wash the body. In another minute, the cold spray of water startled me. Wiping my eyes, I heard Joe laugh and I ran to him to wrestle the hose away. For the first of many times we kissed on the hood of the Chevy. Looking up at the garage, Joe said decidedly, “Let’s finish this today.”
He started on the shingling. I rinsed down the car before joining him. I circled the body of it, which even in its dull matte finish glistened in the morning light, the water beading like dew or the faint mist left on the skin after sex. Years later I would find a photograph of Joe from the end of that same summer, having made it not only to New York, but elsewhere on the east coast. Bare-chested in a pair of khaki shorts, he stood on a wooden dock threading a fishing line. The sky was overcast. His shoulders were wet with lake water or sweat. He bore the same smile laced with hope and anticipation that he often did—a smile that buoyed us, that, for a time, likely kept me alive. On the back side, I had inscribed the words “at Bumpy’s house in Maine” and, smaller in the top left corner, “I love this boy.” Standing before the Chevy, I wiped sweat from my neck and arms, blotting the skin on my wrist, which was stormy and sore. I leaned my forearm flush against the lip of the car door, the same way Joe and I used to compare skin tones, and noticed the crack in the car’s windshield, trailing through the glass from one side to the other, creating a crooked horizon.
And there, the second sighting: the doe, with fawn in tow, stood upright by the side of the car. Her smooth coat nearly matched the dusty brown of the dented car doors, where soapy spots had begun to dry into a gauzy web. The deer’s eyes were dark, forgiving. She stood just for a moment, and then turned and stepped—stepped and then bounded, her hooves pounding softly on ground, pounding and then fading away.
Nearly at the roof, Joe motioned to where a bare spot marked the crested point of the wall’s peak and said, “The last shingle.” He scanned a batch of half-size shakes. Weeding through the larger scraps, he felt the face and sides of each piece, as if they held their own cellular composition, like fingerprints or snowflakes, until he found the right one. His eyes were wide and clear as he chalked the wood scrap with the correct angle of the eaves to create a triangle and lined it up to cut. Sitting on the deck of scaffold, with the unearthed Chevy below, Joe slid the utility knife through the cedar with exact swiftness and perfection before the blade jostled free. Before adhering it with nails, we scrawled our initials on the back of the final shingle, where they would remain, another inscription that may have been my idea—so desperate was I to leave an impression on the world—secure in the unseen grains of cedar at the peak of a structure we hadn’t built, but had resurfaced.
In order to capture the expression of Saint Lawrence, Bernini reportedly thrust the flesh of his own thigh against fire. Studying his image in a mirror, he chiseled the details of a solitary figure in a visceral emotional state. Beyond the anatomical precision—the twist of the body stretched liked an animal—the life study led to years of scholarly inquiry into the immediacy of human expression, caught between physical agony and a perverse calm bordering on rapture. Perhaps Bernini’s gift was an intrinsic understanding of surface. In the same way, Salcedo capitalized on the properties of concrete to create a crack in the floor. When asked how deep the fissure went, Salcedo said, “It’s bottomless. As deep as humanity.” When I think of that crack, with its rough edges and unknown nature, when I think of Antoni consuming and cleansing her self-portrait busts, I think of the self, how we come to know the materials of the body and the brain: the substance of being alive.
This is not an endorsement. Nor is it a primer for pain studies. But perhaps a plea for a greater tolerance for rage, and the myriad ways our human impulses are unearthed and revealed: in a rusted tailpipe, in the smell of cedar or soap. Sometimes I still itch beneath my skin, drink too much and sleep too little, grow thin like a stray, think I hear things in the dark, but generally I’m okay. Sometimes I find myself writing the words doe-eyed to describe my first love. A particular shade of beige, a certain make and model’s tan interior can instill calm and chaos, ecstasy and madness, which makes me think that love must have something to do with bodywork—carburetors and gaskets, bucket seats, and radio knobs. In the junkyard of learning not to hurt myself, I found pliant flesh, the surface of skin, the scaffold of bones, even as the stubborn impulse to damage crept close, sidling up like a deer I knew one summer—or felt I knew, the way she seemed always to be there, tsk-ing at me to stop with all the pain and hurting—before she leapt toward the tree line and receded into the woods.
Every time I wander through a Greek and Roman sculpture court, a mezzanine of antiquities, I want to be disassembled: to have my arms up to my shoulders fall off as I’m taken from Florence to Pompeii, or maybe end up at the Metropolitan or the Louvre having lost my legs. To be stolen, looted by strangers, and feel the tip of my nose, the cap of my knee, chip and blow away. The phantom pain of dismemberment like the rise and fall of panic and desire, like a drug I once took—a mere dose of it laced with an addictive sadness. I feel this not just in the company of larger-than-life statues of gods and goddesses, the late Hellenistic and half-cloaked heroes, but also before the busts of Minerva and Dionysus, funerary stones, engraved papyrus, terra-cotta kraters, polished capitals and finials, sarcophagus tombs, and headless torsos. These sculptures reveal nearly all of the materials the ancients had on hand: marble, limestone, bronze, and clay. Above all they are artifacts, fragments, the embodiment of classical idealism cast from a mold that no longer exists; only the impression remains.
Years ago, driving south on I-25 from Denver to Albuquerque. When the light shifted through the windshield of the Ford rental, I noticed a set of fingerprints on the dusty dashboard. They reminded me. It was there, on the road, that Joe and I loved each other best. We traveled the mirage of freeway, carving the snake roads of south-central Colorado, where big sky meets horizon and plains shine like honey.
I could see Joe’s wide grin and dark eyes, his body—long-limbed and wiry—as if he still filled the passenger seat beside me. His free hand scrawled endearments against the dash, as he leaned into the car stereo to sing a line of the Rascals’ “Groovin’” (“You and me endless-ly”), which made it onto nearly every mixtape and CD we made in those days—his tan hands kneading the flesh of my thigh, like a cat pawing its way to a familiar comfort.
But the passenger seat was empty, except for a dog-eared road atlas, a pack of cigarettes, and a bag of licorice I’d picked up from the trading post in Manitou Springs, and over a year had passed since we drove this route together. Joe was somewhere in Los Angeles. I, having recently graduated, was preparing to move back to New York.
This was the same trip we had taken together every fall when we dodged professors, ignored our friends, and fled campus for Albuquerque: the Sandia Mountains and Old Town adobes; neon lights along Central Avenue’s motel row; hash browns and green chili at the Frontier Diner, where booths are wallpapered with busts of John Wayne.
Ahead, the road glittered, an impermeable oil spill in the distance.
Here, a Bronze statuette of Aphrodite of Knidos. Nearby, Aphrodite Anadyomene (rising) in marble, nude, with her weight on one leg as she covers herself with a fold of drapery. Aphrodite is shown undressing before (or is she dressing after?) a bath. It looks as if originally her arms reached forward to shield her sex in a gesture that both concealed and accentuated her form. She carries an air of modesty, but the smooth marble begs to be touched. I imagine its surface cooler than the bronze, more soft, lovelier only in the way that a breast is more welcoming than a shoulder, an inner thigh more inviting than a knee.
We met in college, six thousand feet above sea level, at the foot of Pikes Peak. Joe found poetry in hip-hop, freedom in skateboarding. I thought just about everything boiled down to literature and politics. We hailed from opposite coasts but similar bohemian upbringings and, ultimately, split families. I was nine when the once-cluttered walls of our family’s Bronx apartment hollowed into silence—into the separate apartments and alternate weekends of my parents’ divorce—which may have been the foundry for my restlessness and, in the same gesture, my admiration. My parents were artists, after all—and young. In turn, I carried a certain wariness of inheritance: I wanted the art; I feared the madness.
Each fall, we rode boxcars to Denver and back, hitched rides to the farmlands south of Pueblo or all the way to Albuquerque. Driving the same highway, merging around a jostling truck, I remembered the time nothing but big rigs picked us up, carrying us southbound. Just past the Colorado state border, we were held at a weigh station and questioned by the highway patrol. A toothpick-sucking officer who smelled of hunting season—firewood and jerky and hide—kept scolding, “This isn’t the sixties anymore. You ever heard of the bus?” which only strengthened our resolve. Back on the road, Joe cupped my face in his hands, thumbing the crease behind my ears, fingering the slope of my nose, the tautness of skin against cheekbone, like a sculptor claiming the contour of his form.
These were the stories that fueled us, as we collected anecdotes of adventure and philosophizing strangers, The Dharma Bums kind of stories, tales of wild hearts surveying open lands for new signs of life.
Here, a plaster model for Cupid and Psyche. The mortal Psyche is being rescued in the winged Cupid’s embrace after falling into a deadly sleep from which only his kiss would wake her. Cupid has just arrived; his wings rise high. Though it is just a model, you can see the points where the two figures merge, how even in replica, the unblemished plaster reveals the softness of Psyche’s mortal hair, the transparency of Cupid’s wing, the plush folds of drapery, the fullness of flesh.
I had planned to stay the night in Corrales but decided to stop at some hot springs before crossing into New Mexico. At the first exit past Walsenburg, I drove west toward the San Luis Valley, a stretch of 122 miles bordering the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan Mountains that harbor the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Along the road billboards boast of cultural eccentricity: the UFO Watchtower in Hooper; the Gator Farm just north of Alamosa, where owners sustain over a dozen Florida alligators with water pumped from the springs. This is perhaps my favorite leg of the lower forty-eight states: vast land of the bizarre and unusual.
How many times did Joe and I swear to stop as we passed the road sign for the Watchtower? How many times did we instead pull off the road near the old candy store and, with a clear view of the tower, snack on licorice and rolled cigarettes while nuzzling over a crossword puzzle or Scratch ’n Win ticket as the car’s engine purred? That was how it worked. Ecstasy lay in the splendid distraction of desire.
I may never know for sure, but I’ve come to suspect that my parents grew fatigued in a sense, that their reality trumped their ideals, that the love itself was left behind like an over-the-hill hitchhiker who forgot to hoist her skirt as the men drove past. But there were other misconducts, infidelities, too, which is why I’ve grown fearful of borders—fence posts on an open range—between faith and forsakenness, between betrothal and betrayal. These terms are merely words I’ve come to toy with, their letters circling my mouth like horses and buffalo caught in a corral. And perhaps Joe and I fell victim to the same miscalculation of ideals. As if the thought of stillness would break us, we kept moving, kept knowing each other until the frontiers of each of us became one muddled conquered land.
Here, a Marble torso of Eros. You can see the delicately modeled surface, the sinuous curve of the spine. The original bronze resembled a young Apollo holding an arrow and poised to slay a lizard on a tree. But here, Apollo has been transformed into Eros. Look long enough and you might see the remains of wings on his back.
Perhaps Apollo captured in bronze was no less supple than the same figure, now Eros, in marble, but its opaque surface is somehow more pure. And isn’t it odd to think that a marble surface comes from a chisel while bronze is cast from a mold? I admire the work of the committed carver. I imagine the act of chasing and sanding as a journey of erasure toward precision. The Greeks, and in turn the Romans, were masters—obsessively so—when it came to capturing the ideal, the kind of perfection now relegated to mythology. So what can be said of us mortals? Why do we so stubbornly aspire to such flawlessness?
At the San Juan National Forest, I pulled into a nearby campground. The access trail to the Rainbow hot springs snaked around shaded forest campsites, waterfalls, and streams and up a canyon rim to reach several inlaid pools. The smell of sulfur blended with the damp scent of spruce and fern.
Throughout the state, thermal wonders spring from small ponds. Early trappers and explorers learned of the springs from the Ute and Cheyenne. Then Kit Carson’s scouts herded the local tribes onto reservations, claimed the springs as their own, and built spa resorts. In 1887 the Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad brought the first visitors to Glenwood, where, history buffs claim, Buffalo Bill Cody and Doc Holliday were regulars at the poker table, where Roosevelt and Taft mixed mineral water into their cocktails. Ever since, the pools have offered old-time stimulation to baby boomers, hippies, New Agers, tight-muscled ski bums—to the weak and wobbly, the lost souls and lonely hearts.
Though months had passed since Joe and I had split up, our last year together had been a slow drain, like bathwater through a cracked tub—a crack that widened with every unintelligible sigh, every misplaced word.
Spain: where I fled for a semester to photograph fig trees and learn flamenco. India: where he spent months shooting a documentary film on the Tibetan youth in exile. Guatemala: where I traveled in the spring and got lost in the highlands of Tikal. Maine to California: the route he hitched one summer, channeling Steinbeck. To say nothing of the time we filled together: months in a trailer on the San Juan Islands, road trips pleading with an asthmatic old Chevy to make it from Seattle to New York. And again, Albuquerque.
“Go” we would say to one other. At those moments our kisses landed awkwardly on the junction between the mouth and cheek, the anatomical crossroad between commitment and solitude, between stillness and embrace. The place where bedsheets, once crumpled and warm beneath us, stayed cool. Where I retreated into myself, my anxieties surfacing as manic outbursts that would eventually destroy us. This, the place we most returned to—what Sexton called the “again and again and again” of anger and love. How many times can we cast the same pain from a single mold before it recedes into yet another landmark, like a statue in a night-fallen sculpture court?
After a two-hour hike I reached the first spring. At the far end of the pool, an old couple sat waist-deep and nude under the glass veil of the water’s surface. They were both slight of build. Their skin equally pale, simultaneously taut and too thin—stretched like crepe paper. A pile of linen sarongs lay by the pool’s edge.
“Room for one more,” the man said. The words fell from his mouth, a warm brogue.
I smiled, remembering the “good look” I had for months worn like a Girl Scout badge, or a heart stitched on the chest of a doll my mother made me as a girl. Or for that matter a nicotine patch, which I tried, like a Band-Aid, to pull off without a cringe.
The woman took in the sight of me. She wore a set of silver rings that glinted in the light as she stroked the water with her fingers. She cupped her hands and, bending at the elbows, let the water shower the inside of her forearms. Wide-eyed, the man watched her play.
As I peeled off a thin cardigan, an oversized oxford, I noticed that the elastic thread had begun to unravel along the shoulder strap of my swimsuit. In front of the couple I felt shy, too long, too bony, my skin untouched for months.
“You some kind of an artist?” the man asked, waving a dripping hand toward my cutoffs.
The worn denim of my shorts was speckled and smudged with paint. Wedgewood Gray. Prussian Blue. Perennial Red. I scraped at the dry dollops with a fingernail, remembering the summer Joe and I worked odd jobs on the island, where houses were coordinated to blend into the seaside: the gray and blue of the ocean; the rich cranberry bogs; the violet sundew. I could still see the brush doused with paint, could feel being chased into the woods, where we stripped and fell into the grass. He knelt, painting wide strokes—White Linen cool and wet along my ribs—and then raised and lowered himself, his chest flattening against mine, the paint smearing between us. We lay side by side, Joe singing that Rascals song or reciting some Tupac lyric in my ear, the eggshell coat drying on our skin, casting the last mold, the final bust and limb of us.
“Isn’t it divine?” the woman said, her voice sultry as I stepped into the pool. The water sheathed my legs and hips, rose to my shoulders as I sunk down to a ledge.
“You down from Denver?” the man asked through the scrim of rising steam.
“We’re up from Joshua Tree,” he said. “Been there for the past twenty years or so, isn’t that right, Junebug?” He straightened against the rock edge of the pool, slung his arm around the woman’s shoulders, and nestled her in close along his ribcage.
“Henry, let her be.” The woman combed her fingers through his spongy white beard as he dropped his face to the base of her neck and suckled at the dip of her collarbone, where a small pocket of water had collected. She blushed—or maybe it was me who blushed—as her eyes grew impossibly green against her pastel skin and long gray curls, which frizzed at her temples and brushed the water’s surface. The man turned to her. His hair feathered over the liver spots on his head. Beyond his back, the woman splayed her fingers in a wave, the silver rings flashing like beacons in the fog. The couple’s skin held the translucence of vellum. Their bodies swayed in a sinewy tangle. The water rippled around them.
I wanted to disappear, evaporate into the steam, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. In the pool’s oblique surface, my own skin looked thick and woven. In the next moment, the couple sank beneath the water, which, though shallow, flattened over them and regained its luster. I took this as my cue to raise myself up and out of the pool, mindful not to disturb their tryst. Finally small bubbles rose and broke at the surface and the couple emerged. Hand in hand, floating on their backs, they seemed weightless against their own sagging skin, like corpses resurrected.
Here, Cupid. Here, Psyche. Here, too, I’m reminded of a Polaroid of my parents, straight out of art school, arm in arm, walking through an open field, emanating confidence and conviction. Based on the height of my father’s Afro, the width of my mother’s trousers, I date the photograph: “circa 1978 BC,” by which I mean Before the Collapse (as opposed to After Divorce). Or here, Joe and I at the height of our own empirical reign, that day we lay painted, drying in the grass, still uninhibited, unburdened, belonging to another time.
I’m puzzled by how often we revere and repudiate the examples set before us. The Romans never hesitated to adapt their own forms from existing Greek works—Apollo, god of prophecy, of art and music, became Eros, god of love. Yet somehow I became beholden to the legacy of my parents’ marriage, upholding their free-spirited ideals even when I knew those ideals had failed them. Perhaps all Greek tragedy bears the nuance of allegorical wonder. It’s easy to lose ourselves in each other, to grow hot-blooded in both our fondness and our fury, until we become altered, amputated, war-torn and weathered, until we become—if I might circle back to my beginning—disassembled.
When I finally peeled myself from the sight of the couple floating, I found another pool the size of a basin, and soaked for hours. The water flushed out toxins like memories embedded in my pores, as if my skin had become a sieve of muslin or gossamer or, for that matter, a shroud of gauze.
On the night of what would become one of our last fights, we sat curtained off in a corner of a Colorado emergency room. I never saw the glass shards ricochet across the bedroom, after he threw whatever it was that he threw against the wall (because I had done whatever it was that I had done—again), but I heard the shatter and the peculiar awe in Joe’s voice, calling my name, as blood pooled in his palm. As a doctor sutured his near-severed finger, I remembered the evening just before my parents’ divorce, when my father slammed his fist against the kitchen table, fracturing the bones in his fingers. He wore a cast for weeks. I had forgotten the image of that plaster glove until I saw Joe’s bandaged hand, as if prepped by ancients for burial.
Here, a Marble capital and finial in the form of a sphinx. The winged sphinx, with a lion’s body and a woman’s head, is often placed on grave monuments. This one originally crowned the grave of a child. Two spiral scrolls adorn the capital, designed like a lyre and painted in luxurious motifs and Corinthian spools. Perhaps the Greeks were right. Why shouldn’t we have such ornament honoring the things we have loved? Why begrudge impermanence if we can preserve impression?
I return often to the image of the weathered couple floating at the hot spring. In a way, I believe I’ve preserved it: all flesh and bones and lucent skin. They are like Rilke’s angels of the Duino Elegies, like Robert Hass’s angels with their alabaster grace. Like the statues I return to, here. I can admit that I was lonely, and at the time I first encountered the couple, I was eager to uncover the divine, a portrait of Elysian contentment—a baptism of enduring tenderness and carnal affection. But who could know for sure? Theirs may well have been a love renewed, having gone, just like for the rest of us, again and again to anger and pain. But I’d rather not sully the image.
What I do know for sure: my parents would never grow old together, their bodies loving each other with age, and I would never know the curve and gnarl of Joe’s bones when we grew delicate and creased. I never meant to uphold such expectations. My parents were not liable for creating an impossible paradigm of lasting love (only, I would argue, for envisioning one), nor were we; we were merely adventurers—and young. But is there an idea more curious, more laced with lunacy, than to blindly believe in endlessness, so far before we need to?
That afternoon at the hot springs, I retraced the trail through the pine and aspen groves, through dewy fern and skunk cabbage, back to the road where the sun lingered along the western ridge. The highway hummed beneath the wheels of the Ford. I brushed the dashboard clean of its dust and, through the open window, released it there, somewhere, amid the vast dazzling San Luis Valley.
Here are Cupid and Psyche, Eros and Aphrodite, in all of their mythic glory and orphic joy. And here are smaller statuettes, too, of the goddess Fortuna, of Neptune, Athena, and Lar. I’m beginning to understand, I think, how Rilke learned to render emotion by turning to the sculptures of Rodin—The Kiss, The Caryatid, L’Éternelle Idole—how material textures enclose our living impulses. When I say here, I mean the museum galleries where I learned to reclaim myself. After years of incessant movement, I turn faithfully to the stone-solid silence of statuary, bow like a courtesan before its classical grace and refuse to feel alone.
Long ago, many of these forms were sculpted in wax before being encased in metal or clay and fired. This was the method used in ancient Greece and Egypt to capture their gods and heroes, the same method used in Africa to mold their figures and deities. This was the method used by Navajo silversmiths to craft belt buckles and brooches and encase turquoise and stone in silver. The heat draws the melted wax from the form and it becomes “lost,” drained from the mold, leaving a cavity for the molten bronze, so that the image before us, the smooth limbs and androgynous angles, is a replica of what once was.
Why, when I walk through room after room of Greek and Roman antiquities, do I think of the exquisite and the peculiar, of love? Because these sculptures are allegories preserved. A buxom statue of a woman bears no limbs. A chiseled torso is cracked and headless. Even Aphrodite is missing the arms that once shielded her heroic nudity, and beneath the curve of her hips, beneath her ripe symmetrical ass, it appears as if the flesh of her thigh has been gouged away. These classical forms, created to uphold perfection, have inherited the imperfection of life itself. Maybe I can breathe a little easier now, knowing that the weight of the deities does not sit so squarely on our shoulders—at least not wholly intact.