By Philip Levine
When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, "Would you like to eat?"
she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
"wooden Jew" and "lucky meat." He's been up
late, she thinks, he's tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but when he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to the see if "their booth" is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one liner, "We keep you clean
Muscatine," on the woman emptying
his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote
with someone present, except for this woman
in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
went unnoticed even on those December evenings
she worked late while the snow fell silently
on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights
blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say.
Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered
only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon
with the other, but what became of the two
when this poem ended, whose arms held whom,
who first said "I love you" and truly meant it,
and who misunderstood the words, so longed
for, and yet still so unexpected, and began
suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress
asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed
years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned
to the ground in '67, two years before my oldest son
fled to Sweden to escape the American dream.
"And the lovers?" you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
Why the two are more real than either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confessions?
That poem makes me think obscurely of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which in turn makes me think of Kirsten Dunst, so it is in fact appropriate to this post, in a roundabout way. I have just had what began as an unenthralling chore-infested day -- met my husband at lunchtime with a real estate bank guy to sign refinancing papers, then ran out to get birthday presents for two eight-year-olds whose parties my younger son will be attending this weekend (one bowling, the other at a park and we are all hoping Hurricane Ivan cooperates, aren't we, vertigo66?). This evening the area was under alternating tornado and thunderstorm watches, and we have seen a good deal of lightning, but the hurricanes seem thus far to have confined themselves to Virginia -- hope everyone there and further south is okay.
Anyway, after a fairly successful present-buying trip (I found the Fairie Queene Barbie on the shelf at Toys R Us *ahem*) and a very successful run to the bookstore to get older son more Redwall books to take to Outdoor Education next week (where Simon Baker's book on retracing the Endeavour voyage jumped off the bargain table at me), my parents announced that contrary to previous rumor they would not babysit for us tomorrow night so we could go see Wimbledon, at which point we announced that we were then bailing on Rosh Hashanah leftovers with them tonight as they could clearly feed our children and watch them tonight since they had expected all of us for dinner anyway. We then had a near-perfect evening, for our local theater has a deal with California Tortilla: a burrito, a drink and a movie ticket for $11.99 ($10.99 on weekdays). This means that I had a lime chicken burrito for less than I would have spent on junk at the movies. And since we got there nice and early, we were forced to kill time by going to Ben and Jerrys for dessert.
Wimbledon was an utter delight. It is not a spoiler to say that you can predict every single thing that happens in the movie twenty minutes before it happens, even if you know absolutely nothing about tennis -- if you have ever seen a romantic comedy or a sports movie, you know the formula. However, this in no way interferes with the pleasures of the film and in fact provides a certain comfort zone, since you never have to worry that these two charming people will come to any grief. They're beautiful, they're rich, they're famous, they're witty, they should be far more despicable than they are, but in fact I feel about Peter and Lizzie much as I feel about Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, namely that if people are going to be beautiful and rich and famous and witty, they may as well be likeable and friendly and schlep their own gear. I used to watch Wimbledon religiously with my father, and though in the years since I have had children I have lapsed in this as all my sports enthusiasms, I found the tennis reasonably believable and the supporting cast quite wonderful (Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron, whoooo!) It's also a lot of fun that McEnroe, Evert and Carillo all play themselves, covering the tournament for NBC.
I must agree with Paul that this is the best romantic comedy about tennis ever made. Also, I must know more about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who played his practice partner of ambiguous sexual orientation...goddamn, he's in Black Hawk Down. There is a conspiracy to make me watch that movie, I swear -- every time I see a guy and think ooh, he's cute, it turns out that he was in that film. I tried to watch it and it was just too violent -- I couldn't stand it. But, I mean, Josh and Ewan and Jason and Eric and Hugh and Orlando and Ioan and it just goes on and on...and hey! Nikolaj is in Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando too, and Liam and Jeremy and David and Sid. So many men, so...few roles worth shit for women. Hmm, that isn't what I meant to say, surely.
Since I have neglected to have a Gratuitous Patrick O'Brian Squee Post in awhile, I thought I should mention that if Jack and Stephen were so married before The Wine-Dark Sea, this book tells the story of their second honeymoon. O'Brian takes pains to point out that although Stephen has his own quarters and a standing invitation to dinner in the gunroom, he prefers to spend every waking moment in the great cabin with Jack and to sleep there too, even though Jack's snoring frequently keeps him awake. Jack gets injured in a battle with an authentic pirate ship that flies the Jolly Roger (and Jack has to explain the verb "to roger" to Stephen, heh). Stephen, who is supposed to go on a Secret Mission, starts talking about calling it off to stay by Jack's side, even though Jack promises that he will do anything Stephen tells Killick to make him do even taking his terrible horrible medicine, and we all know Jack is more afraid of Killick than anyone alive. So when Jack says go already before Napoleon takes over the world, Stephen gets on the Surprise with Tom while Jack stays on the Franklin, an American ship which they had taken as a prize, and Stephen stands on deck staring at Jack until he can't see his face any more, and gets all choked up and pretends it's from the sunset until Sarah or Emily I forget which gets all sniffly and says she won't stop praying until they are all together safely again. (Sarah and Emily are like Jack and Stephen's love children, despite being adopted, having Stephen's religion and Jack's affection for life at sea from the earliest age, and Sam is TOTALLY Jack and Stephen's love child too -- he gets his looks from Jack and his Catholicism and his illegitimacy from Stephen.)
In general this book has made me howl in so many places I have undoubtedly forgotten to mark them all. In one case Jack is talking about all these religious minorities on the ship who unfortunately may prefer loathsome Democracy to having a King, but he says that he has always done tolerably well getting along with people: "'For my own part,' said Captain Aubrey, 'I have no notion of disliking a man for his beliefs, above all if he was born with them. I find I can get along very well with Jews or even...' The P of Papists was already formed, and the word was obliged to come out as Pindoos." So then they are discussing slavery, and they have on board Dutourd, who wanted to found a utopia where all men were equal, though his ship was acting like a pirate and capturing British ships to get the money for this endeavour, and he is moderately unhappy at being captured and having his money taken away but one night he hears Jack and Stephen playing and then the only thing he wants is to play second fiddle, literally, but Jack essentially says, "That FRENCH DEMOCRAT? No!" And Jack goes on at length about a Spanish incursion of 1789, and asks Stephen what he was doing in 1789, and Stephen hedges his answer because of course it's "Oh, I was in Paris running around with revolutionaries," and Jack realizes he has upset Stephen and is so contrite that he plays mediocre fiddle just to make Stephen feel better, and Stephen concedes that the only thing he and this French guy really have in common is a hatred of slavery.
Then Jack (a man with a black son who's more learned than he is) makes some idiotic comment about how maybe the blacks don't mind it so much - because NELSON approved of slavery and how could NELSON be wrong about anything - and Stephen ignores this entirely; then they are talking about a man they met who owns a plantation in the Caribbean, Bosville, and Stephen says, "'I think I feel more strongly about slavery than anything else, even that vile Buonaparte who is in any case one aspect of it...Bosville...the sanctimonious hypocrite...the silly blackguard with his 'gates of mercy', his soul to the Devil - a mercy that includes chains and whips and branding with a hot iron. Satisfaction. I should have given it him with the utmost good will: two ounces of lead or a span of sharp steel; though common ratsbane would have been more appropriate.' 'Why, Stephen, you are in quite a passion.' 'So I am. It is a retrospective passion, sure, but I feel it still. Thinking of that ill-looking flabby ornamented conceited self-complacent ignorant shallow mean-spirited cowardly young shite with absolute power over fifteen hundred blacks makes me fairly tremble even now - it moves me to grossness. I should have kicked him if ladies had not been present.'"
And then there's the scene where Jack is telling a story about a guy whose name he can't remember and says to Stephen, "You know who I mean, that adulterous cove," and Stephen says with a straight face, "I know no adulterers, Jack." And when they're becalmed and Jack is frustrated because the ship isn't moving, Stephen sits and birdwatches: "'I have rarely known such delightful weather in what we must, I suppose, call the torrid zone,' said Stephen, dining as usual in the cabin. 'Balmy zephyrs, a placid ocean, two certain Hahnemann's petrels, and perhaps a third.' 'It would be all very capital for a picnic with ladies on a lake, particularly if they shared your passion for singular birds.'" Between this and Jack's resistance to having three-ways (or quartets or anything else involving Martin's viola and Dutourd's violin), The Wine-Dark Sea just confirms the Love That Dare Not Speak Except On String Instruments. And sooner or later I shall post excerpts from the past six books, I promise.