Chapter One: More than Words
Sylvie’s father was a writer whose time had come and gone, but he was fine with that. He’d invested the windfall with prescience. He had a house in a decent neighborhood in a city that scored with consistent impressiveness on all the quality-of-life surveys worth checking, along with some property a two hours’ drive up north. The property up north featured a rustic cabin he was going to write his comeback in, a cabin near a well he wasn’t allowed to drink out of, overlooked by the aerie of an endangered species of hawk he could do up to ten years in prison for harassing or killing. The working title of the book was More Than Words. The rest of the book would come to him in the cabin. Usually he’d creep around the immaculately decorated house long after Sylvie had gone to bed, stewarding wineglasses and adjusting picture frames, soothed by the hum of the climate control, which made the house feel like an airship in flight over the continent. Sometimes he’d rescue a volume, or two, belonging to one of the sets of collected encyclopedias, open on its face on a settee in the media room, and shepherd it, humming, back up the three polished steps into the track-lighting lit library, pushing against a satisfying resistance the thing into its proper slot. Tonight he just stood by Sylvie’s bedroom door, frowning and listening.
Chapter Two: A Perfectly-Judged Death-while-Sailing
Sylvie’s mother had come from a large, self-consciously colorful family that only tolerated exogamy, apparently, because exogamy’s extreme opposite was frowned on by The State. There were the four charismatic brothers who had always looked like men; an eldest sister of chilling beauty, with her infallible eye for long scarves (with their tragic associations) and a father who would have to die before Sylvie’s future mother finally moved out of the house she was born in, a recently painted Georgian mansion with pillars on its porches and Amish hex signs carved in its gable shutters, mocked on all sides by encroaching slum. Sylvie’s mother was the baby of the family and had effectively fended off Sylvie’s claim on the title. Driving by that house, recently, Sylvie’s father felt oddly vindicated by the graffiti all over its pillars and even slowed down in an ill-advised attempt to read some of it, stepping on the accelerator when the first stones plunked at the trunk. Girls who hate their fathers are not, as Sylvie’s father had discovered, the worst. All three sisters, Sylvie’s future mother and the other two; the polyglot and the choreographer; had gotten pregnant within six months of the old man’s perfectly-judged death-while-sailing, and he wondered if there hadn’t been a subconscious race to produce a vessel for the old man’s anticipated return. Sylvie’s future father had first noticed Sylvie’s future mother not for her spectacular pre-Raphaelite hair but for her terminal t’s, which she tended to over-articulate in a way that called attention to her aggressively magazine teeth. Didn’t you want that with some fruit bits?- was the last sentence she’d spoken to him before he finally confessed, waving away the dry mangoes that always put him in mind of floor scraps from a bris, that he wanted her to move out. He hadn’t put it exactly that way. He’d offered to move out and she’d demurred as predicted. She’d joked about Arabs being able to divorce their wives by repeating a certain word three times but couldn’t remember the word and he’d said but we’re not really married and she’d stood suddenly and passionlessly swept their breakfast off the table, very much the prodigy losing a game against someone avowedly casual towards chess. While sweeping up the broken teeth of inherited bone China she remembered the word was talaq. He said talaq, talaq, talaq, waving a finger like a wand, both of them laughing. To be honest, she was relieved. She’d said, We’ll let Sylvie decide who she wants to live with; that’s the only civilized thing to do, and Sylvie had chosen him, as predicted. Sylvie’s father and Sylvie’s mother continued sleeping together for quite some time until the night Sylvie’s mother never came home, which soon became the week she never came home.
Chapter Three: Cancer Gets the Girl
He imagined her seeing the country on the back of a wasp-sleek Japanese motorcycle. He imagined her howling more unreservedly than she had ever howled in bed before. He imagined her howling in parks and fields and churchyards and cordoned-off areas in protected Federal Land. He imagined her liking things she’d always hated and being repulsed by the things she had famously liked for years. He reminisced on how they’d met. They’d met in a self-defense class. She was there, looking barefoot and good, in what she called her Chinese pyjamas, because of encroaching slum, while he was there to meet a girl. Or girls. The solidarity of self-declared prey, as his best friend, whose idea it had been to go, had put it. This friend had dozens of good ideas on how to meet girls and never met any. From as far back as Sylvie’s future father could remember knowing this friend, this friend had talked like a well-informed cancer patient, with an ease in jargon and the cadences down and really good at reeling off technical specifications, probabilities, outlooks on graded contingencies with this clipped, confident, guardedly optimistic voice. And then he got cancer, causing no break or modulation in the flow of the way he communicated. He found the personality tic of said friend’s preferred mode of expression astonishingly well-suited to the circumstance. It’s as though he hit the ground running as far as cancer was concerned, was how Sylvie’s future father had put it to Sylvie’s future mother over a milkshake (this was before the days of fashionable young people drinking recreational coffee) after class. Should he feel guilty? Was the irony a bear, or a bluebird? He’d used his friend’s cancer to get a girl.
Chapter Four: Dreadlock Combover
Before Sylvie’s future father and her future mother got serious about each another, Sylvie’s future father wavered in his intentions towards another, slightly older, woman. Older, but in no way inferior, except, perhaps, in age. The woman was cultured and fine and dressed well in a manner that showed off her jaw, an angular marvel reminiscent of the jaw on the actress Jodie Foster, who was then still young. Whether she wore a ruffled collar, a turtleneck or a collarless t-shirt borrowed from her son, the jaw stood out with its sharp origami folds. He was enamored of this woman and had slept with her several times with memorable results and poetry and expensive baseball-sized sourdough blueberry muffins from her bottomless pantry as rewards. The day before Thanksgiving they attended an avant garde opera in a ceremonial gesture towards the deepening cultural seriousness of both that region of the country and their relationship, standing by coincidence behind her ex-boyfriend in the white-wine-line during intermission. The ex was a balding soi-disant (pre-internet) tech-whiz with blond dreadlocks leftswept over his pink pate like fraying ropes on a castaway ham. Fairly or not, she became repulsive to Sylvie’s future father in her ex-boyfriend’s reflected aura, but there was still over an hour of grindingly self-serious and overlit opera to sit through. The weightless warm hand that sought its habitual place on his thigh when the opera commenced again found only tensed muscle to rest on. The hand knew before the rest of her body and retracted even as her eyes still smiled upon Sylvie’s future father in the dark. Sylvie’s future father reflected self-pityingly on an inner recitation of the oral history of his failed romances, his lips moving, while two local characters (descendants both of auto workers), in Bauhaus-ish costumes of vaguely animal abstraction, cavorted on a minimalist stage, realizing in a panic that the time he lost to the experience would never come refunded, and the woman he decided he loved was a running-distance away.
Chapter Five: Ich mag sie nicht in einem Haus / Ich mag sie nicht mit einer Maus
Sylvie’s future father hurried over to Sylvie’s future mother’s house right after the opera, unmindful of the fact that he was moving unarmed through encroaching slum. He found himself not only thinking of, but looking at, really looking at, more than one black-or-Afro-American-Negro-of-color at a time, for the first time in his life. He’d never admit this to anyone; not even to a friend with cancer; but the first thing that struck him was the variety. Not only in tint but in weight, gait, hair texture, posture, girth, aura, odor, manner of dress, scale of possible threat (from benign to sinister), range of facial features and sexual attractiveness. Some of the toughest boys were pretty as girls in their white t-shirts and tight jeans. Some of the prettiest women exerted the angry allure of the drama of birth itself, or the scent of distant bushfires and he imagined their pussies as blacksmiths’ shaping-tools and he locked eyes frankly with more than one, their coal-smooth bosoms and full-meal mouths, before being swept, further in his way down the road, each time, by narrowed eyes or a playfully dismissive smirk and hand-flickings. Sylvie’s future mother was on the front porch of the dirty white island of the mansion, drying her gaze-stuffing hair. Sylvie’s future father tried breathlessly to speak. He stuttered and gulped. He said Christ. He told Sylvie’s future mother half the truth, which was twice the lie: that he’d suddenly realized that he loved her in the middle of an opera. She asked which opera. She laughed, or, being from a family of high-culture insiders, tittered, and explained. To his initial bafflement, which matured to a rage which hardened into a manifesto within seconds, he learned that the libretto of the work he’d squirmed through po-faced for two hours was taken from Doctor Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. In German. That’s the problem with postmodern so-called Art, he sorrowed. The joke, it is always on us.
Chapter Six: He decided to write a Book that Everyone could Understand
He decided to write a book that everyone could understand.