READING RILKE, by adam gallari
You bought a book of poems today, by Rilke. You’re not as well read as you want to be, but lately you’ve been trying to remedy that. You frequent the library. You peruse the aisles, hearing only the click of your feet against the cement floor. You pick authors with exotic names—Flaubert, Maupassant, Pushkin, Turgenev—and you read them when you can. You don’t hang around bookstores much, anymore. They remind you of days spent milling about and wasting time while you listened for the sound of her laugh, throaty and crisp and a touch too deep for her tiny frame, the laugh that informed you she’d stumbled upon another perfect sentence.
Today, you would have kept walking if the large, green sign announcing a discount hadn’t caught your eye. So you paused, stopped to take a look at what was in the bin outside the store. You only went inside because you had to. That’s where the cash register was. And you bought a book of Rilke’s poems today. You’d never read him before.
Here the bookstores don’t have selections like the ones in Manhattan. At least you presume that they don’t. Here they seem to carry only books with an “O” patch next to the title or reprinted editions bearing covers with Hollywood stars, their faces pensive and rapt. And you think of how she said she would never buy a novel with one of those covers—the ones on which stickers reading “Now a Major Motion Picture” blot out half the author’s name. How she combed aisles far from the display tables to find new volumes to add to the pile beside the bed: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Goethe, Camus, Proust.
Maybe that’s why you chose Rilke as he lay there in the bargain bin. He didn’t try to court you with anything more than his name and New Poems written in simple, white letters beneath it.
Reaching for the book, you wondered how you ended up here, not in the bookstore, but in California: drafted by the Dodgers out of high school, blew out your shoulder, got released and then, for no reason, stayed. You told yourself the warm weather was better for the joint. Heat wouldn’t constrict the rotator cuff; it would be loose all the time; you’d never have that crick that signaled the turning of the seasons because in Southern California the weather never changed. Plus, going back with nothing to show for your time here except an uneven tan never appealed much to you. True, you might have been able to tell some woman in a bar that you played pro-ball once, for a bit. Maybe she’d go home with you if it was that type of bar and she was that type of woman, but you haven’t been to that type of a bar in a long time. Not since you started working at the Pig and Whistle, the one Irish Pub in all of Riverside where every bit of wall space is covered by beer paraphernalia and where you say, matter-of-factly, to the people who ask you if you like working there, that it’s a job. But the truth is that you like it because it reminds you of a place you might find down on Delancey Street even if you won’t admit that to yourself. The irony is that she moved to New York City.
It’s actually Brooklyn—Williamsburg— but when you tried to explain the distinction between the five boroughs and New York City she never seemed to comprehend that New York City was Manhattan alone. You tried to draw a map on a bar napkin with a blunt pencil and when the napkin ripped you constructed the whole area—Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens and the rest of Long Island—with French fries you pilfered from the bucket in front of her. And when she asked where you were from you pointed to Nassau, a square just to the east of Queens boxed in by two fries with lopped off ends.
You smiled when you gave her each drink, even though you thought her the kind of woman who would be on guard against a smiling man full of saccharine promises that would eventually dissolve like sugar into coffee. But you’ve never made a habit of making promises, so when she waited for you after the bar closed, you walked out with her, and you didn’t mind when she lingered in front of the door to your studio, and you didn’t mind when she invited herself in. You didn’t mind when she kissed you, when, once inside, she took off your shirt, when she climbed on top of you. You told yourself that you could learn to love her, eventually, but you pushed those thoughts from your mind and told yourself instead that you should be happy with the elementary bliss birthed from the fact that a woman formerly unknown to you had graced you with this opportunity. Damn your sense of Romance. Besides, you told yourself, she wouldn’t be here in the morning.
But when you woke to the smell of eggs frying you realized that you had been wrong and that now, as you watched her slide from the stove to the sink then back to the stove again in your poor excuse for a kitchen, something seemed different. The way she moved through it effortlessly, with grace and familiarity, fooled you into believing, almost, that she belonged here, that the apartment was hers and that you were the one intruding. The room felt bigger with her in it. It felt like a place that could be lived in. So you didn’t object when she kept coming back.
The sex was good. You enjoyed seeing the strain of pleasure in her eyes, but you preferred lying next to her and feeling the heat emanating from the back of her thighs. Staring at the slope of her back, the slight dip in her hip, the two, distinct, dimples just above the rise of her behind, you liked to listen to her talk of how she graduated from USC, how she studied English and Drama, how she wrote and acted and how she wanted to move to New York because they did Shakespeare in the park there.
It was during those moments that you knew it couldn’t last— though you were never certain, then, that you wanted it to. You saw the eventuality of her leaving as something obvious and concrete because you knew who you were. She knew what she wanted to be. Because, secretly, you knew that your way of thinking was smaller than hers. You wondered if, secretly, she knew it, too.
Maybe that’s why you picked that fight in the car on the way home from Disneyland after you both had spent the day holding hands and wearing the hats with the mouse ears and carrying balloons, because she was singing along to “Penny Lane” by the Beatles and they weren’t blue superb skies they were blue suburban skies and so you told her you hated it when people sang songs they didn’t know the lyrics to and you pressed on and you didn’t drop it until she told you that you were being just like Ian.
It was the first time she mentioned him to you outright. She’d alluded to him before, even the evening she accompanied you home from the bar he’d hovered over the bed when she asked you to keep the lights on during sex because, upon leaving her, he’d spat that she meant nothing, because in the dark all women looked the same. His presence haunted you ever since, but you never told her that.
Yet as the car hurtled down the freeway you asked where he was now, where he lived. She answered Glendale too easily, too quickly, and it unnerved you because, then, you still thought in baseball terms. How, even though you might be the one starting at short and hitting .340 today, the moment your average dipped there would be someone ready to take your place, ready to do the job that you couldn’t do. Normally you wouldn’t have bothered to glance over your shoulder, but that night you turned your head completely around.
You didn’t apologize. You didn’t acquiesce. You kept at it; you told her she had a great track record of men, then. One she could be proud of. And you hoped it stung her as much as the image of her writhing under the weight of this Ian character stung you.
You wanted to see pictures of him. You thought that doing so might assuage the fantasies that accompanied the realization that the woman sharing your bed hadn’t fully divorced herself from the man whose job you took. You felt like you were replacing Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio. No matter what you did, you suffocated in the shadow of a god.
So your mind took its liberties with the lump of clay named Ian that had been handed to it and sculpted it so that it became tall and slender, slightly feminine, the type of man capable of donning Capri pants and a ponytail in an attractive, European kind of way.
You sculpted, waited, listened to John and Paul sing over the stale silence between both of you until you realized that something changed. That you enjoyed her company because you thought you were involved in something where the investment was quick and superficial, the kind of relationship where you both could say I never cared with ease and wholeheartedly believe that you weren’t lying to yourselves. Except, maybe, for her, it was true.
When she pulled up to your apartment she didn’t turn off the engine, didn’t undo her seatbelt, and you thought, if this was high school, if this was another time, another circumstance, the tension might be coming from her waiting for you to kiss her, waiting for you to bolster your nerve. But it wasn’t one of those times. You stared straight ahead and resigned yourself to ask, before you got out, about Ian. You wanted to know how you compared to him, so you asked, but it came out wrong: Why me? And she sighed— as though anyone could ever answer that question—Because you smiled at me when you gave me my drink that first night. It was so simple that you wanted to believe it was the real reason, so you didn’t push. You let it lie and you told yourself that you could just ask her tomorrow, even though you knew she wouldn’t be coming to the Pig and Whistle to sit with you. She was already gone and watching her pull away you sensed a twinge in your shoulder and your body experienced a sensation that it hadn’t felt since you moved out here: cold.
The book was thick, the Rilke, but not heavy. You barely felt it in your hand as you carried it with you today. It made you feel important, as though the eyes of those you passed turned from their own concerns, for a moment, and ever so slightly explored you, tried to discover what you had tucked in the curve of your palm, but it was your secret. You weren’t sure why it was so imperative no one know, but you made sure that your fingers hid Rilke’s name. You didn’t want to share him with their gazes. Maybe it was because you were afraid someone who’d actually read Rilke might notice, stop you, want to chat.
Inside were the poems, German originals and translations—the unfamiliar and the recognizable side-by-side—and you thought it strange how easy they were, the poems on the right, the ones in English too, as she’d have said, parse. “Over here,” they called, imploring your attention even though your interest and your glances returned, always, to the German—words with density, gravitas—a car crash of letters piled across the white of the page. Foreign and unreadable, yet engulfing. Their meaning laughing at you from behind their veil, laughing as though Rilke, dead in his grave, lay laughing too. His revenge for your hiding his name.
You’ve tried not to think about her. You’ve tried to think of everything and anything else, but even filling your head with thoughts of possible distractions leads your mind to realize that it’s doing so just to distract itself, so you wonder if, now, it would just be easier to think about her. For a while you’d been on a streak. You spent days, weeks, never months without thoughts of her, until you got a postcard bearing a photo of the New York skyline—the kind of postcard tourists buy ten-for-a-dollar from the rotating racks outside the stores that sell shirts and hats and anything else that can carry “I ♥ NY.” You were happy when it came; it proved to you that she wasn’t in Glendale. You’d like to think you helped her move on to better things.
She wrote that the winter was approaching and that she had yet to find a place that could offer both quiet and warmth, which is probably why, when you think of her now, she’s always in coffee shops. You know it’s cliché to think that in Manhattan coffee shops are the spots that young actors and writers and artists congregate, but, in your mind, they’re places of quiet and warmth. So you imagine her in those locales: daytime bars where soft music plays and plush, pastel couches invite her to relax and sit in a place where no one smiles when they hand her a drink and no one judges her if she drinks alone.
What if you were to meet her a year from now, maybe two, after a period of silence? Would you reminisce? Speak of the events of a communal past as though they belonged to other people, as though now you were merely watching them from seats in a movie theatre, enthralled and anxious and trying to anticipate what might come next even though you already know? Her asking Do you remember that time at Disney when we rode Peter Pan and how there was that handicapped boy in front of us and how they kept letting him ride? And your response—yes or no depending on her tone—chosen with care, tapered and measured and half-heartedly stoic, hoping it won’t betray how you’re wondering if her overture is meant to gauge whether your train has pulled from the station, if she’s been left, bags in hand, standing on the platform.
You think how such a question could be asked over dinner. A place on the Lower East Side or in the Village. A place of her choosing. The bottle of wine and the votive candle in the middle of the table acting as referees between you until the last dregs of Merlot are spilt into glasses and you raise the bottle into the air and gently jingle it in the hope of hearing the sloshing of liquid, exhausted, before offering, with a demure smile, We drank all the wine, as though the subtext would be negated by her saying that the candle still had a flame, wax ready to melt and a wick ready to burn.
You’ve been reading a lot, lately.
And, today, you bought a book. That was all. A book. Some poems. By Rilke. And it was foolish of you to think these things because you never saw Rilke in the pile by the bed. She never read Rilke. If she did, you never knew.
Adam Gallari is the author of We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now (Ampersand Books). He lives in New York and hates Jersey Shore.