We had tea in the late afternoon. Veronica had recently broken up with Dave, whose name wasn’t Dave, but I always forgot his name, and so I just called him Dave. She got mad at me. His name is not Dave, and you know it, she would say. But after a while, she began to laugh when I called him Dave. Once or twice, absent-mindedly, she would call him Dave as well. I smiled, but never commented.
Dave was dramatic. A grad student in political science, I think. Very theatrical in his righteous passions. He wore a South-American knitted beanie in his casual moods. Veronica lamented their breaking up. She thought Dave serious and dark. They had a club-look together, sexy, if never quite chic. But they fought like tomcats.
Dave had finally left her. He was living with someone else, and that seemed rather definitive. But with Dave, who could tell?
Veronica confessed that she had played up her emotional extremes with him in order to keep him interested. I was not surprised. Towards the end they had both turned mean and bitter. He said something cruel. I was being awful to him, she said. He had been a jerk, but I played it up. I got unreasonable. I lost myself in rage. I was just so frustrated. She paused and took a breath. So, I was in mid-tantrum, demanding things, being unfair. I knew it, but couldn’t stop. It had been a bad night. I was crying and angry, and I had slammed the door to the bathroom. He told me through the door, you know, Veronica, you’re just not beautiful enough to be such a bitch. You really aren’t.
Then he left.
You’re not beautiful enough to be such a bitch. What a thing to say!
I shook my head. Veronica’s eyes were bright, her face taut with her beauty. As I looked at her, I asked myself: Is she good-looking enough to act the bitch? She seems quite the beauty to me. What a thing to say, though—not beautiful enough! Does that mean, for old Dave, if she were beautiful enough, she could act anyway she wanted? Such a thought must come from studying political science.
Are you kidding, I said to her, I can’t believe that. I shook my head.
I would never have said that to anyone. It was a distinction that had simply never occurred to me. This amused me a little.
The distinction reminded me of my ex-girlfriend, Kymberly. People told me she was gorgeous, and I had seen pictures of her when she was young that shocked me with her purity of beauty. But I couldn’t quite make up my mind if she was so very beautiful any more. Sometimes, she was striking; beautiful in a distant, impersonal way. She had obsessions and energy, but her looks seemed on her, not of her. It had always troubled me, since I didn’t know what it signified. But it didn’t matter anymore. Veronica oriented my life now.
Dave’s assertion of an incongruity between Veronica’s looks and her behavior required serious deliberation: I had to think about it. Clearly, the question—Is she beautiful enough to act the bitch?—was some kind of technical question. I was unsure of how to adjudicate among the possible answers, and that made me want to smile. But I didn’t. Instead, I sighed in disbelief, looking in Veronica’s eyes with a passion that was becoming all-consuming.
Veronica was stunning as she continued to tell me this sad story of her and Dave. Her sweater clung to her breasts and her eyes were alive with the speed of swallows. And then she turned. The angle of light flattened her cheeks, her eyes grew larger, but her nose dulled her delicacy. She seemed plain, despite her hair and body and eyes. I felt a surge of love; I knew I could touch her cheek and the beauty would return. But I puzzled over why I loved these moments of transition from her striking sexualized beauty to this plainness.
Things happened as they do. We came together like birds on a cliff-side.
Oh, Peter, she wrote. I don’t know what happens sitting next to you, going from thought to flesh. You called it angelic, but it feels like being burnt alive. I can’t imagine the options around that, I mean I can. But then actually hearing it put into words today, things become real, possible and I am at once elated, amazed at what I’m feeling, dropping happily into it all because so instantly there. And steeling myself. Seeing you, suddenly, believing in us together, is like breaking a hole in my chest. Everything crashes and rushes in.
A few days later, we drove to the ocean. We sat wrapped together on the beach watching the waves, Veronica shivering sometimes against me, until we ran back to the car, laughing. I noticed her left ear peeking through her long hair, and her cheeks had a softness of feathered down. I reached for her hand, and she held mine. How can we live separate from each other? I don’t understand how, anymore. She brought my hand to her lips, closed her eyes, moved my hand across her face, held it to her cheeks; she kissed it again, and then clutched it to her breast.
I felt her right breast against the back of my hand. I thrilled with the feel of her, but kept driving. I had no choice. She settled my hand in her lap, and said simply, I need you, Peter, but I can’t quite believe in any of this. I am so afraid it will hollow out and sink away.
A week passed in a rising desperateness.
When I saw her, I gave her a little carved animal I had found in an antique shop.
She got back to her apartment and wrote me right away.
I am sitting with your gift in my lap, I’m thinking and quieted and confused. Like I ought to sort through the wrappings in order to make sure I hadn’t opened someone else’s gift. I suppose if there are days when we don’t feel like ourselves that means there are days when we do.
A month passed as if it were a year. We kept meeting and talking. She startled me with her beauty, and then, in a moment, that beauty would crash into a kind of homely parody of herself. Her beauty excited me, but I loved to watch the crash into parody.
Sometimes Veronica would spring away like a curlew surprised by a wave. It did not bother me much. I just watched her and wondered what we were doing. If I really wanted her I would chase her more, I sometimes thought. But that is not what I felt. I felt with desperation my wanting her. But I also liked it when she chased me.
Veronica sat down next to me at our café, leaned over and kissed me. I reached towards her hair; she grasped my hand, kissed that too, then held it to her closed eyes. I watched her. She rested my hand against her breasts. She stared out the window. My father is here, she said. I have to go meet him. She turned toward me, moving my hand down to her lap. Will you come with me? This was not a question.
The meeting seemed over before it began. I expected a long rambling discussion, with stories about Veronica the little girl, playing violin, reading books upside down, giving little gifts. I was looking forward to such a conversation as we drove to her Father’s hotel. We met him at the Hotel restaurant. Her father gave her a volume of poetry—The Complete Poems of Anna Akmatova. He told her he had placed an envelope inside the book. Her father began talking about Russian poetry and French painting. Veronica handed the book to me. I opened it up—finding the envelope. Half listening to the stories of sensitive artists with political hearts of gold, I turned the pages and found a poem that I began to read, simply by chance. I read it again, and then again.
This is the poem:
I brought disaster to my dear ones,
And one after another they died.
Oh, woe is me! These graves
Were foretold by my words.
Like circling crows smelling
Hot, fresh blood
Were those savage songs
Sent by my exultant love.
This poem means something, I thought. I looked up, thinking I would read it aloud to Veronica and her father. Veronica’s father had shifted from art to the joys of the Paris arcades, while Veronica twisted her napkin in her lap. I decided poetry would not be a song we would all sing together.
Well, Dad, Veronica said, suddenly, we have to go. Peter has an appointment (which I did not). Veronica sprang to her feet, a quick hug, and she shuttled me out the door and into my car.
I hate him, she said.
I can tell.
He swoops in from wherever, demands a little game of father and daughter, and then off he goes for another year or two years, play-acting his oh so comfortable life, while my sisters and I were stuck with our mother. She paused.
I hate him.
I gently touched her hand. She looked up at me, pulled me to her and kissed me, long and hard and desperate. I shifted towards her, and we kissed and touched and held each other. Suddenly she sat back in her seat. She grabbed the book from the dashboard, found the envelope. She tore it open, glanced at the card, while she extracted a check from inside it. She looked at the check briefly, then folded it in half. She lifted her hips, slid it into jeans, sitting back down in anger.
She gave me The Complete Poems of Ahkmatova. Take this, I don’t want it.
I stayed the night with Veronica. I had to leave early to get to school. Veronica slept, curled on her bed like a hosta folded in the shade, filigreed with dew in the almost dawn. She seemed plain when asleep, although her breasts were half-exposed and beautiful. I love you, Veronica, I told her plainness. Veronica lay asleep and quiet.
Over the next few days I read all of Ahkmatova’s poems. There are a lot of them.
The birds of death are at the zenith,
Who will rescue Leningrad?
Veronica and I kept meeting at our café and in a park we had found. We wanted to see movies together, but we always talked too much. Sometimes we stayed the night with each other.
And so on for three months.
Veronica and I never talked about the future. Our coming together seemed all, but never settled.
There is a sacred boundary between those who are close,
And it cannot be crossed by passion or love—
You look tired, she said to me, sitting down in a flurry as she always did, despite her sleek turns, her balleted hips and arms.
I feel full of woodchips, I said.
She laughed. Woodchips?
I am like the old dog who sleeps in the wood shed for warmth, my fur full of wood shavings, who thinks if only he were a wooden dog he could spend all his time nice and warm here in the woodshed.
She laughed again, but then looked away.
What’s wrong? I asked.
I don’t know. Some days, I just feel flighty and distracted.
Why? I held her hand.
I don’t know, she said. I just want to escape. My hand began to tingle as if it were asleep.
Escape? Escape from what? I asked her.
We have the fate of birds, Veronica says, her eyes tense and still.
The fate of birds? Why do you say that?
She shrugged. Little hearts racing, she said. So much energy and such beauty, and yet they are so fragile. I feel the fragility of things.
Fragile? My stomach tensed. I felt panic. I love her too much, I thought.
She didn’t answer at first. I could see her eyes tilt away.
I feel like I am eroding, thinning so that I will break, she finally said.
The fragility of birds is what allows them to fly, I said. Their fast little hearts, their hollow bones.
I have the fate of a bird, Peter.
Two days later Veronica started talking about living together, and I said I thought it would be a good idea. We kissed, and it seemed settled. We did not speak for a few days, however. When we saw each other again,Veronica talked of taking a summer trip to Thailand. I couldn’t go, she knew. But when she got back we would find a place. I drove her to the airport. She left—and we wrote a few times. Then she wrote me that she had flown to London and would be staying there for a while. She didn’t mention when she would be back, and I didn’t ask.
Brett Bourbon has published essays on philosophy, literature, and art, as well as Finding a Replacement for the Soul (Harvard UP, 2004). He was the featured poet in Reunion and has published in Art News and Artsy. His poetry has been used in the work of the Pakistani sculptor Simeen Farhat.