Harp & Altar
POETRY
Donald Breckenridge
from You Are Here

Oisín Curran

Heinrich Heine
translated by Peter Wortsman

Zachary Mason
from The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Derek White
from Marsupial

Leni Zumas

from You Are Here
Donald Breckenridge

An Older LoverAct 1


Three stage lights went up in a slow twenty count as the scattered conversations around me concluded. The man and woman seated on the beige folding metal chairs were facing each other. He was wearing a dark green suit, “I think we’d be able to tell the difference,” glasses with thin black frames and black leather shoes. She was wearing a sleeveless low-cut short black dress, “How so?” fishnets and black patent leather pumps with three-inch heels. A couple that happened to be seated in the audience were being portrayed onstage. They just had dinner in a dimly-lit
West Village restaurant that had recently been awarded two stars in the Times and praise for its romantic ambience, esoteric wine list and above average French food. “It’s in their body language,” he was halfway through his third glass of Crozes-Hermitage, “now don’t turn around.” The woman discreetly turned and studied the young fashionable couple tucked into an oversized booth across the dining room. “It isn’t that obvious.” Cindy had found most of the actor’s costume on the racks and in the bins of the Salvation Army on Flatbush Avenue last week. His short brown hair had been set with styling gel, “I didn’t say that it was obvious.” The rings on her left hand caught the stage lights as she accompanied her question with a gesture, “Are you sure that you’re not projecting your own insecurities?” “Please,” he furrowed his brow, “they’re trying too hard.” The actress who was portraying the wealthy, childless divorcee in her mid forties, “You really like watching people,” had purchased her dress online and wore it during almost every rehearsal. Her thick hair was cropped into a bob and had recently been dyed magenta. He’d been too distracted by their conversation, “they are like a Diane Arbus photograph,” to do more than half-heartedly pick at the herb encrusted roast chicken she suggested he order for his entrée. Her cheeks had been heavily powdered and the dark red lipstick carefully painted on and around her lips gave her face a corpse-like pallor. He then added, “Without chemistry.” She had been instructed to carry herself with warm outspoken urgency, “my husband was like that,” to compensate for their difference in age, “when we—” He nervously blurted, “Like what?” “Just like you silly,” she cleared her throat, “he really enjoys watching people.” He shifted in the metal chair, “I guess it’s not all that uncommon,” that creaked beneath him. The wine and the warmth of their repartee had almost invalidated the cloying embarrassment he felt whenever the tall gay waiter hovered over their table with his incessant questions about the food: if it was seasoned to their liking, how well the wine he recommended paired with their entrées and, most recently, while taking their plates away, if they had given any thought to dessert. “Do you know her work?” Tilting her head to the left, “Who?” He regarded her expression before saying, “Diane Arbus.” “Of course,” she has a quick wit and a half dozen credit cards nestled in her calfskin wallet, “I’d love to own one of her photographs.” He imagined the art on the walls of her apartment in a nearby prewar building. A black and white Warhol silkscreen hung above the couch in the living room where a longhaired chocolate colored cat just woke from her evening nap.  A framed poster from G. W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl hung on the wall above the Mackintosh table and chairs in the dining room. He commented on the framed, autographed poster from a Kiki Smith retrospective on the kitchen wall opposite the sink as she mixed their drinks. She handed him a scotch and water with a wink while asking if he’d like to see the etchings on the ceiling in her bedroom. Cindy was biting her lower lip in frustration while scribbling . . . Diane Arbus . . . where is your focus???? in her wire-bound notebook. The actress turned to observe the couple in the audience before claiming, “He is nothing more than the latest way for her to wear her hair.” Cindy wanted to know, and wanted the audience to be clearly aware of what her character’s emotional investments were. He smiled, “And for him?” Cindy repeatedly insisted that although they were portraying nameless caricatures they had to remain in the moment at all times. “And for him . . . ” after another careful look over her shoulder she stated, “she is nothing more than a new pair of shoes,” in a cool matter of fact tone. Over the coming weeks she will reach the conclusion that their relationship must have constituted an interesting life experience for him and will occasionally wonder how he will portray her in his fiction. “Are you sure that you’re not projecting your own insecurities?” She swallowed hard, “sweetheart,” while searching his face, “I didn’t mean anything by that.” He noticed how the crows-feet etched around her dark brown eyes were starting to show through her makeup. “Then why did you ask me that?” Knowing if she strays too far from the persona he began fashioning for her long before they actually met, “you’re being so sensitive,” that this date and any subsequent encounters will be total disasters. He shrugged, “Aren’t women into that?” “Oh it’s for my benefit,” she is incapable of being alone and afraid of being hurt in another relationship, “well that is very flattering.”

 

There were many days when she was unable to get out of bed and subsisted on whole-wheat crackers, warm mineral water, the fickle affection of her cat Esther and sleep as the afternoons dragged into late mornings while the shifting blue glow from her bedroom television covered her pale face and bare limbs like a warm muted blanket. He will later insist that this relationship was simply an exploration of the roles and preconceived notions of romantic love. The unlikely vow they took later that night, upon her faintly perfumed sheets, was to love one another with as few inhibitions as possible and without any emotional strings attached until the end of the year.

 

While placing her elbows on the table, “Don’t you want to know what she is thinking right now?” “Sure,” he shrugged, “why not?” “Well she is hoping that everyone here will notice how beautiful she looks in that new dress,” before glancing over her shoulder, “although she is a bit disappointed that there aren’t that many people here yet . . . which is odd especially considering that Times review,” then rested her chin in the narrow palm of her left hand, “but maybe if they linger over dessert she’ll get a larger audience.” “Oh really,” he squeezed his knees, “and how do you know that?” During their first date last Thursday afternoon in the rear of a dimly lit Tribeca café, he had carefully floated the idea of his experiment past her. “She is a real type.” It happened after the first awkward pause in their conversation, after they had exhausted an extensive list of writers that he admired. He stole another glance at the couple across the restaurant as the skepticism in his voice, “I guess,” betrayed him. It was just after she had finished her second cup of chamomile tea. She shifted in the metal chair, “I was once very close to a woman like that.” As the opening strains of Bruckner’s 6th were piped in through the café speakers, he politely asked her if he could talk about himself. “Do you think you still have anything in common with the woman sitting across from us?” She batted her eyelashes while confessing that she found him fascinating and assured him that nothing would be more interesting than learning more about him.

 

What followed was a carefully prepared and well-rehearsed twenty-minute monologue that began with a detailed description of his unhappy childhood and concluded with his proposal concerning romantic love. He was an only child of divorced parents, he had endured a stifling upper middle-class suburban upbringing and attended a private liberal arts college in the northeast that was well known for its creative writing program. She was informed that his professional prospects were quite good and that although he was so young a few of his stories had already been published in quarterly journals and monthly magazines and achieved, to a certain degree, critical acclaim. He had recently made the acquaintance of the assistant to a highly sought after agent and believed that it was only a matter of time before his first collection of short stories would be picked up by a major publishing house for a hefty sum. He then speculated that, even though the major houses weren’t publishing many short story collections from young writers, with the help of his soon to be agent and a handful of well placed and carefully tended relationships with powerful editors it could easily turn out to be a bestseller. With watery blue eyes widening behind fashionable frames, he wistfully described the power he would soon be wielding in the publishing industry. Claiming that he had everything he wanted, everything he hoped for in his young life had been attained and yet he had never experienced love. She stopped herself from remarking that so few of us, especially people like us, ever do experience love and simply nodded before gazing thoughtfully at the urine colored dregs in the bottom of her tea cup. He appraised her silent response before confidently adding that he was certain that with her—and only with her—a woman twice his age—could he truly come to understand just what it meant to be in love. This was because she had known love, as any woman as beautiful must have on countless occasions, and because, and here he paused long enough to prepare the delivery, she had thus far lived a full, and by her own acknowledgment, an interesting life. She was silently flattered by all of his false assumptions.

 

“It was just neglect that ended our relationship,” both hands were now cradling her chin, “and the less time we spent together,” as she sighed, “the more I realized how little we had in common.” He leaned back in the chair while asking, “And how long ago was this?” A slight smile creased her lips, “when everyone I knew had a ton of money and when you were just staring high school.” He wiped his palms on his knees before delivering the next question, “And how did you become friends in the first place?” She folded her pale hands on the table, “we were never really friends,” and tilted her head to the left, “we were lovers.” “I didn’t know that you were—” “I’m not really,” a blush dimmed her powdered cheeks, “it was just a phase.” “Like the way you wore your hair?”  “Exactly,” she smiled through his last line, then quickly added, “the skirts that spring were very short.” The following Wednesday afternoon she called him at the bookstore because she had somehow managed to get early dinner reservations at that new French restaurant in Chelsea on the same day it was reviewed in the Times. He swallowed hard before placing both feet on the stage, “What was it like?” And then he briefly described a two-act play being performed that night on the Lower East Side and asked if she wanted to do that after dinner. “I prefer men.” She said it sounded more interesting than that movie she’d been reading so much about before brightly suggesting that they should go back to her place for a nightcap afterwards. Clearing his throat, “Physically?” He clutched the telephone receiver with both hands while being told that she simply loved the short story he gave her last Thursday, then added that it was well written. “Physically I guess, but we can talk more about that later.”  He leaned forward, “How many women were you with?” She asked, “Encounters or relationships?” and before he could respond she confessed, “I was either very lonely or deeply cynical.” He placed his elbows on the table, “Why, can’t it be both?” They had met at the Strand three weeks ago. “I suppose it would depend on what day of the week you asked me.” They were standing on opposite ends of a display table when he caught her eye. “Isn’t that how you described your second marriage?” She had been thumbing through a remaindered copy of The Satyricon before acknowledging his attention with a discreet nod. “Now be very careful you . . . ” while waving a narrow index finger in front of his face, “young man.”