REBECCA HART OLANDER
& ELIZABETH PAUL
A Bed, Two Chairs, and a Side Table
I went to Mount Auburn once, alone. Just back from Europe, trying to play tourist in my own country, I drove two hours, took a train, then a bus, walked several blocks unsure of where I was, yet still arrived too easily to feel not at home. On a train to Aix-en-Provence, I’d felt a twist in my stomach at the thought of arrival, wanted to stay in my window seat and state of suspension like the luminous halo strung out between sundogs, wanted to watch the fields pass and notice how the train moved the earth and stilled the sky and think of Van Gogh’s easel and how he must have twisted its legs into the dirt. Have you heard about his bedroom in Chicago? You can walk right into it, the one with the red blanket. Did you see the photos in Bazaar of the dancer striking poses by Degas? It’s about time we taught ourselves the reality of ourselves. History used to be a story. Now it’s an embarrassing prelude to the present or maybe the future, that place where good things finally and never happen. I used to think about the future each night lying in bed, fell asleep anticipating tomorrows. I just can’t do it anymore. The tomorrows don’t entreat but simply arrive as todays. There’s a magic gone, the feeling that everything is ahead, rolled up tight like a Chinese yo-yo made to unfurl, to throw itself forward by coming undone, a tight striped potential like a cloud full of water pretending to be so much less than it is. A bed, two chairs, and a side table, but the bed is a double because you can book the room on Airbnb. Is it melodramatic or merely obvious to say that the bed changes everything? A twin bed with a red blanket in a yellow house. I never did red until I was married. What does it mean to do red all alone? The two chairs have always reminded me of him and his brother, the side table of his tenuous tie to the earth. The bed has always looked like a boat, and the room as on a rocking sea, reeling a bit into itself, feeling the buoyant weight of itself. Loneliness is the name of the room’s beating heart. Loneliness or devotion.
Van Gogh’s Bedroom
I think it’s possible to be a tourist anywhere. It’s a matter of perspective, of knowing what you’ve seen isn’t all there is to see. There’s something about traveling that makes us more likely to get on a bus, which in itself is a way of feeling the earth as you ride above it, or at least the asphalt under the tires. Is it true that, painting en plein air, artists root their easels to the ground, twisting the tripod legs so that only the strokes are fallible? They are trapeze-y things, easels, ready to topple over in a gust. There’s seriousness in grounding them, a hash mark against mortality, or at least transience. Before I knew what a sundog was, I saw a leaping canine shadow, twisting under a bright sky, spangled with sunbeams, barking at that biggest star. I had to look it up—a new word is a gift, don’t you think—and now that I know, I can see more clearly your face pressed against thick train glass, how the moments lengthened beyond themselves, like the tracks running both behind and ahead of the engine, felt yourself inside an experience you were wary of rupturing. Like birth, really, that thing we have to keep doing, entering into new spaces by decimating the old ones. Never able to crawl back inside, or see the sun filtering through in the same tones. I still believe in narrative, though, even if history makes us blush, and we are only nimbus clouds dissipating. Even if we recreate what was already beautiful, just so we can look at it in a new way. Maybe even because of this, which takes me back to perspective. Is the way we unfurl like flags into our tomorrows always an undoing? Or, if so, can we embrace that forward catapult into disarray? I prefer the unraveling to the impulse to save and pin fast every rare thing of the past. And, no, it’s not melodramatic; the replica anachronistically offers Wi-Fi, and surely the single bed makes all the difference. Without such loneliness, such austerity, in the picture, how would we have felt the piercing beauty of the scene, so clearly not meant to be shared in life. The second chair is probably just for his coat, though it’s nice to imagine Theo and Vincent both seated in that room, their brotherhood tight as a ship, the room itself a creaking sea they ride on in the safety of siblings, talking of love, of Paris, of the way the roiling stars crash upon the shore of night in deep summer, of how it is to paint outside, when the elements are against you, and you want it to feel as calm as a room, so you can get it right.
How the Letters Invent Us
I’m certain the chairs are the brothers, themselves. I’m sure you know this kind of certainty. I used to think it meant I was right, and people liked to see a young woman confident in herself. But now I know it’s not a sign of some truth but is itself a true thing come to play. On a related note, I’ve stumbled into something new: drawing conclusions without evidence. You must try it. It’s exhilarating—the heart eclipsing the eyes, the voice without a body. What happened was some words showed up at the doorstep of thought and, put on the spot, I invited them in. I could hardly interrogate a guest, so there was no need to prove them, to put them to a test. Seeing them so cozy on the couch, I wondered that any words had ever entered before, that they hadn’t been turned off by so many questions, a reception of suspicion. This week Tseday told us about Ethiopia, how it was the only country in Africa that wasn’t colonized, how Menelik The Second, with just an army of soldiers, defeated the Italians with their airplanes and canons, told us about Lucy, unearthed by Americans and named after a Beatles’ song. And Catherine deemed this pure imperialism, and I love the Beatles, but I couldn’t disagree. And Silvio said, teacher, I need help with weird. So I reminded him, English doesn’t sound how it looks, and we all said, weerd, weerd, weerd, trying to get it right, which is always the goal and yet somehow never really the goal because the whole time we were actually singing a love song about how four strangers from four continents became friends by agreeing to pay attention to words together. Like you and me. Have you noticed how we couldn’t stay out of it? Have you noticed the momentum, how the letters are inventing us? What do you think of the name Lucy? To me it sounds kind of dim, but it also reminds me of a ribbon off its spool. And there was the time we heard Jean Valentine read, so now I also hear her voice and think of her Lucy—sister, miracle. I asked Tseday how Ethiopians feel about the name. We call her Dinkinesh, she said, shrugging. It means you are marvelous.
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower / Of being here.
Philip Larkin, “The Old Fools”
I like the idea of words showing up as uninvited guests and curling up on your couch. Of course you’d offer them tea and pie. Of course you know from all your world travels how personal words are, yet how malleable. I rather like Lucy, but I think of loving Lucy, the kooky comedienne, or of Narnia, and the headstrong girl who went lurching through the fur coats searching for her faun. The girl who saw strangers as friends and wasn’t afraid. This during WWII, blitzkrieg over London, children sent to the countryside in droves. The bombings didn’t make Lucy bitter, nor did being separated from her parents. She went looking for magic and friendship, which are one and the same. But I hear Jean Valentine, too, and I love the fossils her words make, found fragments of a whole. And I can’t deny the subjugation of naming, English words in place of African, as if there could be something more fitting. Why do we try to change things to understand them? In Rome, a gypsy from Senegal pressed red figurines into our palms, and I hated how my fingers closed more tightly around my backpack strap. The guidebook said, “Pickpocket capital of the world.” The guidebook said, “Keep your money inside your clothes.” He said he just wanted us to love Africa, to love my country, and also, look, here are bracelets made by my mother, and I’m not ashamed to say I bought one for too many euros, silver, with a little dangling fish. The tiny red turtle, that was a gift, he said. Speaking of words, before we left for Rome, I heard a story on NPR about an 8-yr-old Italian boy coining the term petaloso, meaning full of petals. His teacher corrected him, marking it a beautiful mistake. Writing to the keepers of the dictionary, Matteo learned that once a word is used in common speech, it can be considered for inclusion. Twitter bloomed with references. On the highway tonight in Massachusetts, a digital sign straddled the median. See something it flashed. Then: Say something. Before my brain registered what it probably referred to, harnessing domestic terrorism perhaps, I thought: I see trees, I say paintbrushes; I see sky, I say a hole in the tent out of which I can fly; I see lights ringing a city park, I say out loud how much I miss going to ballgames with my father, the way a summer night can get so cold, the way the lights come on at dusk, blotting out everything beyond Fenway Park, becoming a radiant moat.