Everywhere around me there is motion blurred, peripheral, complex. Swirls of color and unfocused shapes dodge and shift; they dart playfully, skirting in and out of my field of vision. This movement, though appearing at a casual glance to lack directional orientation, is not random and it is rich with a densely layered narrative quality.
In the sharp, resolute light of late August, a throng of young women, their bright voices like twittering birds, descends upon the campus and enacts this annual ritual, this unrehearsed drama of renewal and return. Year after year, I have witnessed this spectacle, and, though I have never set about to commit to memory the details of its portrayal, my mind's eye can conjure its sunlit associations faithfully without recourse to visual cues. The tableau differs hardly at all from one summer to the next. I have given it a name, The Canicular, during which an abiding and dedicated sense of purpose reigns.
My eye is caught by Olivia Cage, one of my more able students who has come back after spending her junior year in Paris. She appears subtly changed, not exactly older, but what? more worldly. This impression is shattered when she greets an old friend, the dipsomane, Veronica Breedlove, with a shrieking, breathless gasp of merriment. They plummet into a dynamic, convulsive embrace, each overwhelmed by a paroxysm of sudden, astonished jubilation.
A distant, transient glimpse, that of a willowy slip of a girl, distracts me. A redhead in a gossamer frock in violet ascends at full tilt the steps of stolid Vestal House, bounding up them two at a time, swinging her lithe arms in a lightning motion. She is curiously, almost disturbingly, familiar. Her movements, her very shape, arouse something in memory and imagination, but before I have a chance to recall anything, she has disappeared as swiftly as a spark. When last did I see that face?
A moment later, Olivia disengaged from the welcoming arms of Veronica more calmly acknowledges an acquaintance with a perfunctory, yet cheery, smile and a brief polite word of greeting.
These young women come back every year to restore the freshmen come to forge their sense of connection with this landscape that will be their home for the next nine months, this place where, free from the cloying oversight of their well-meaning parents, they will savor every extreme they can contrive for themselves. For them, the fullness of being is not in refinement, but in the discovery of the limits of experience, then the inflation of those limits to, and sometimes beyond, the point of bursting.
The enduring image of this pageantry its deeper meanings remain latent, unnoticed by the students' adolescent and heedless intelligence is very solid, very clear, fixed like a single point in time.
The luminous sky is everywhere, bloated with great low clouds. Languidly drifting northward, they are moisture-laden in a register of soft gray tones oyster, ash, pearl, and slate and washed whiter than white. They are soul-stirring and seem more physical than the enormous oaks that line the freshly trimmed, vivid green lawn of the oblong quadrangle crisscrossed by blinding concrete paths around which the dormitories are clustered. Though it is still morning, already a baking heat prevails, the staggering humidity relentless. The air is gummed with a faintly visible coat of sea-damp from the Gulf of Mexico.
The automobiles arrive early, inching onto the campus in a solemn cortθge, then staking positions as close to the dormitory entrances as possible. Polished domestic sedans, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Chryslers. Imported luxury cars with contrived Latinate names a supranational nomenclature that hopes to mask their East Asian provenance and to divorce them, in the perception of the buyer, from their parent corporations, the origins of which, after all, are firmly rooted in the production of puny, and far less profitable, economy cars. Hulking Teutonic driving machines with alphanumeric designations like figures in an algebraic equation, pretending to signify a supreme rationality, something of far greater importance than a mere name could ever hope to connote. From the gleaming motorcars the actors emerge and take their places.
The young women rush about importantly, with a purpose decisive, assured action implied by scattershot streaks of bright-toned flashes and fleeting, demure daubs of duskier pigment. Dark-haired Holly Danzer wears a skimpy halter and very short cut-off blue jeans. Languorous Echo Luster displays to great advantage her sleek golden body, the result of an indolent, poolside summer awash in sun and sex and crammed with illicit pleasures. Patricia Walraven's tight T-shirt chronicles the tour schedule of a rock band and limns the shapely contours of her kinetic, unfettered breasts. Gimlet-eyed and heartbreakingly beautiful, Gabriella Toth sports low-waisted, flared leg pants in distressed denim and a form-fitting cotton tricot shirt with bold horizontal stripes in noxious, rampant colors, fashions once popular when I too was young more than a generation ago.
The mothers are tanned and trim. They communicate silently with one another, casting studied looks on their children, their husbands, then exchanging wary knowing glances among themselves. With a smile they remember their own undergraduate careers the sunny concupiscence at the noon of the sexual revolution. Long, exploratory afternoons spent in the narrow beds of their shadowed dorm rooms with boys from their classes The American Novel, The Baroque and the Rococo, Existentialism whatever class they were cutting that day. They see themselves in their daughters, certain of what they are thinking.
The mothers move off to the side a bit, forming tight, unitary groups, chatting vigorously, yet attentive, superintending the unloading, leaving the heavy lifting to others. They talk about clothes and diets, their husbands and their children, and eye the energetic younger women with a wee hint of jealousy to which they would only grudgingly admit. They envy the girls not only for their age and their innocence, but the seemingly boundless opportunities available to them. Each bears a strong facial resemblance to her offspring indeed, Sandra Minor and her mother look very much like sisters though the mothers have lost the vestiges of baby fat that their daughters still sometimes possess. Human growth hormone therapy and botox and all the myriad wonders of cosmetic surgery ease the dismal transition toward middle age.
I recognize Melanie Brisk, a leucomelanous Adolescent Literature major who is said to have slept with all the male instructors from whom she has taken classes. Many times I have seen her at the luncheons held toward the beginning of each semester in the home of the Dean of Academic Affairs to honor those students who had a 4.0 the previous term. She is engaged in a breezy conversation with sloe-eyed Lola Sloan, a smoldering political science major about to begin her sixth year as an undergrad. Melanie watches without perceptivity as her father struggles with the overstuffed boxes of her possessions. From the tailgate of his wife's spotless and gargantuan utility vehicle the styling of which recalls nothing so much as a bulging athletic shoe or perhaps a power tool he carries them up three flights of steep stairs to her cramped dormitory room.
The fathers come across as muddled, clumsy, outside their usual element. They are removed from the abstract world they normally inhabit. They toil in mirror-glazed, low-rise office buildings in hastily designed suburban business parks, places with a graceless and impermanent feel about them and often called campuses. These have succeeded the proud and soaring Modernist towers in this post-mechanical era the romantic impulse to build tall is no longer meaningful, from either a technological or semiotic point of view that dominated America's downtown skylines in a bygone age; very much in the same way that the suburbs themselves have usurped the authority that the cities once claimed as their own.
Behind their varnished mahogany desktops, these men track the movement of cyber-capital on glowing flat-screen monitors; scry favorable interpretations for their clients from abstruse laws concerning depreciation, amortization and offshore banking; concoct computerized investment schemes that take instantaneous leveraged advantage of momentary discrepancies in foreign exchange rates.
I teach at a small college for women in Louisiana. I am a professor of French Literature. Females in the pink of their ephemeral and astounding beauty surround me. Physically, they suggest full-grown women, while at the same time evoking the early adolescent girl. Emotionally, these young women are inchoate, still in a pupal form of subjective growth. But then even more mature women, and men for that matter, do not always possess a fully developed affective sense. Often these enchanting creatures demonstrate a manipulative ability to slide chromatically up and down the scale from girl to woman, seeking to strike whatever note best responds to the needs of a particular moment.
I stride among them, unnoticed. I catch the sweep of Catherine Kasner's raven hair across her rounded, pale and perfect cheek; a sudden flash of eyes those of Amanda Harmer Siamese blue, penetrating yet inattentive; a glimpse of faintly gibbous flesh above the hip as a shirttail lifts when a dark-eyed brunette, Carla Delporto, bends to pick up a cardboard box.
They bring with them handheld organizers with wireless e-mail links; expensive DVD decks still in their virgin boxes; microscopic cellular phones with GPS and video cam capability. They unpack bantam stereos with tiny desktop speakers and portable MP3 players in violation of applicable copyright laws the students will download thousands of songs over the broadband internet hook-ups the school provides in every dorm room. Pricey cappuccino machines from Switzerland and undersized Swedish refrigerators. The ubiquitous laptops, computer peripherals assembled in Asian countries described as having emerging economies and governed by repressive, autocratic rulers. Tennis rackets and golf clubs. Scuba equipment and water skis. Life vests and foul-weather gear. Extravagantly expensive French skin care products, hair care products, cosmetics beyond description, birth control products and devices. Lubricants, jellies, salves, and unguents. Condoms; colored, ribbed, studded, and flavored. Purse-sized pepper spray canisters in leather holsters. Fluffy stuffed animals stitched by child laborers in the Malay Archipelago.
For years, at the end of each summer, I have looked forward, with both eager anticipation and a small amount of dread, to The Canicular. It marks a period of transition from my own far too often indolent summer itself sometimes filled with whatever fugitive sexual excesses I have been able to reap on the slender barrier island off the Atlantic coast where I own a beach house to the exigencies, the rigors, of the academic year. My real life is about to begin, to reassemble itself around this mass of thriving activity in classes to teach, meetings to attend, articles to write.
Thus, the agon begins. But am I merely an onlooker, studying from a discrete distance the comedy and tragedy of the life swarming all around me?
Indeed, I am not. This year will be different.
I spotted her again just a moment ago or was it a lifetime? bouncing in all her glorious vigor with quick, kicking steps down the flight of worn stone stairs that leads to the lobby of her dorm. Violet-clad still, she strides straight toward me, straight out of the past, everything about her the same, down to the vacuous gaze that stares off into the hazy distance with eyes that do not for a second see me. She takes one step sideways, then slips onto the back seat behind the closing door of a black Continental idling three paces away.
This girl's unanticipated arrival, her glowing cheeks, prominent knees and sharp-knuckled hands everything she does, whether it is brushing a stray lock of scarlet hair behind her flawless ear or raising one foot to remove a small stone lodged in the leather sole of her sandal all this evokes an overpowering sensation of remembrance.
From inside the car she turns my way. Her nose slightly sunburnt, her hair fiery red and cut slightly above the shoulder. Her ringing green eyes full of radiant charm dwell on mine for a fraction of an instant. Having noticed me, she turns insouciantly away, and speaks to the driver in a voice I can not hear. The summery freckled face disappears behind the dark-tinted uprolling glass and the purling car pulls away. For a brief moment, I experience a loss of equilibrium.
The strict dividing line that I imagine exists between the waking world and that of dreams has shattered. I am aware of the ramping throb of my pulse. At moments such as this, I am unable to speak what could I have said to her that would be undeserving of ridicule?
I shape the sounds of a name, sotto voce, a name from antiquity, one never forgotten. Kristen Lux. My brevis lux, my all too brief light, my wife for all of a year.
An earlobe tasting of salt, carmine lips, wide, deep and sensual. A soft warm shape once so familiar to my hand. These impressions and a hundred others, all resident in tortured memory, resurface and fuse. They correspond perfectly, note for note, with what I pretend now to have just seen.
But no, I did see her; not my customary daydreams, my usual visions echoes from another time, a time when the fire of life's joy and indulgence burned brighter than the light of ten thousand suns.
My past and present are mingled. I have the impression that two contemporaneous lives are struggling inside of me, vying for primacy.
Some women offer you merely temporary escapes momentary refuge, relief from the acedia of routine occurrences. Others promise more, something far harder to come by contentment, companionship, or even unimagined discoveries of love, carnal or chaste. Once in a very long while, one offers you something strange and wondrous, something inconceivable the discovery of yourself.
This is what I have to look forward to.
|Ryan Miller's work has appeared or is forthcoming in the following publications: Harpur Palate, The Raven Chronicles, Rainbow Curve, Steam Ticket, Small Spiral Notebook, Pindeldyboz, The Paumanok Review, Outsider Ink, Megaera, The Dana Online Journal, Carve Magazine, The Wilshire Review, The Pointed Circle, New Rag Rising, Indigenous Fiction, Shades of December, The Dallas Observer, Facets Magazine, Cyber Oasis, Pig Iron Malt, Word Riot, ken*again, The Starry Night Review, 3 AM Magazine, American Feed Magazine and others. "Alphabet Story" was chosen Best Story at Opium Magazine during its first twelve months of publication.|