These seventeen prose pieces focus on the condition of wakefulness and the virtue of being awake. While the tone is often intimate, even the most personal disclosures — letters and journal entries, conversations between husband and wife — are graciously nuanced and retrospective, allowing readers to summon their own moments of revelation into the reflective spaces that Donald Morrill creates, line by wondrous line.
I see Lisa among the crowds, lingering before a shop window half a block down, on the other side of the street. We don’t have a date for lunch. She just happens to be there and I here. I want to call out and rush to her, so that we can laugh about the coincidence, how we left the same bed this morning and did not suppose the momentum of our respective days might bring us to this place, now.
But I say nothing. I pause and watch her from this distance, jarred by the wonder that lately touches me with a cool, fearsome finger. I don’t really believe she’s meeting anyone else, certainly not a secret lover. I know her too well, I tell myself, to think so. She despises waiting of any sort (oh, the piques my lollygaging have induced in her!), and it’s clear now that she savors the racks of shoes before her. No, she has merely shed the office, foraging among the display windows, smiling up into the spring sunshine. And I’m thrust toward watching her, to fathom, perhaps, how she exists unaccompanied by me. She does exist this way, I’m certain of it. But how?
Who is this being who loves survival movies, Fauré, and showers with heavy drops; who swoons over square-shaped cars and crunchy Klondike bars, over the untanned parts of a bronzed body and vanilla-bourbon soap; who relishes small, neatly-packed overnight bags, sopapillas, farm shacks, and her feet propped on the dashboard? I’ve seen her detest the smell of balloons and the sound of them rubbed. I’ve heard her loathe floor fans and damn French comedies (“all bedroom farces, savagely sophisticated and so delightful. The rest of their films are about young boys, it seems.”) She can’t abide long anecdotes, or both of her margins justified. It takes her an hour to compose a note of thank you or condolence, all language sounding false to her, though she can write backwards easily and chatter in gibberish. Before she went vegetarian, she ate her steak from the center out, leaving the far edges. (Why can’t I do this?) She must wear clothes immediately after they are purchased (thus smelling, sometimes, of cardboard boxes and sizing); and this wardrobe—scattered, at the end of a workday, on the floor and multiple doorknobs—is dominated by the hues of mourning dove and thunderstorm.
I watch her now, amazed and proud that this knowledge of her wells in me, though it sounds more like a novelist’s list of his protagonist’s traits than a gush of understanding. Whose character does it reveal? She studies a boot from the sidewalk sale rack, and I remember that somewhere, in her early teens, she and her best friend Ceane began classifying the world, their terrible swift swords dividing what they loved from what they hated—a manner which still rules her private talk. Often, she asks me what my favorite is—whatever the subject—and then announces hers. I learn again I don’t have one. She descends, on her mother’s side, from a line of gaspers. When the vast intake knots up the moment, I’m frequently alarmed and then momentarily peeved, uncertain if she’s suffered an injury, witnessed a horror, or been struck down by ecstasy. Still, as imperious as she is in her amours and enmities, she can also play the restrained, judicious observer out of Henry James—better bred than I, absolutely more polite.
I think these things, perhaps to be proprietary, as protection against the simple fact of her turning now toward the ice cream seller, smiling—her gap visible on the left side between incisor and canine—and ordering. I’m unnecessary to this scene, of course, though I can note that when triumphant, she spins like a gawky dust devil, and I shadowbox; that she is the practical sleeper, dropping off right after sex, an old husband of eroticism. I can assert that we admire the roughness and delicacy in the other, though it is not always certain which words and actions qualify as which. I can say that for fun, she envisions personal embarrassment, little disaster epics: tripping, say, as she steps up to receive an award. The sadist in her giggles at me when I am flu-ish. Horny, she is irritatingly playful, hiding my glasses, or leaping from a dark corner; and she still pretends to drive off without noticing that I am at the passenger-side car door. That last joke is her standard corn, a sign that she is happy (just as when she hurls herself into me at the gym, “excuse me!”) though she often asserts, when it’s convenient, that she doesn’t believe in signs and subtle codes of gesture.
A few weeks ago, we stood before the long mirror in the hall, me behind her, with my arms around her. “You . . . me,” I said, slowly, solemnly, almost as a question. I was outside my standard compass of perception. “You . . . and I,” I said with deep feeling and astonishment. And she laughed at the sappy heft of my tone—until she recognized I was not the man I usually am and she not the usual woman, but that we were, and are, a remarkable accident, an extraordinary fiber of deliberation and happenstance, blind will, beauty, expedience, hope, and kooky myth-making: all that is marriage and love, with or without the license.
On my office desk is a picture taken just after we had exchanged I do in the living room of our house and the man from the city had presented us with a trash violation for stacking too many leaf bags in the alley. In the picture, she mouths an O of smoke from an elegant brown cigarette, the sleeves of my linen blazer drooping over her hands, and she gleams like the pearls she wears. I’ve tried to guess what my relationship to that image will be one day. Will it become my great icon of grief? Commensurate with my present happiness? To some extent, it already has—in the way the very young mourn the loss of their youth. She and I are still tumorless (as far as we know), though sometimes when she waves good-bye from a car, I’m teased by a morbid inner voice-over which announces omnisciently, “He didn’t know that was the last time he’d see her alive . . .” Absurd, this personal spell, yet the kind of love I’m falling into seems to demand it. Once, driving through a summer evening in the mountains, she turned to me and said, “Scatter my ashes under a lovely tree,” and she meant it. Her request made me that much more callow. As she chats with the vendor now, I recall a day I overheard her charm a travel agent on the phone—so simply and quickly, that glibness. Her business. Her life.
Most of a relationship can only be rendered like an allusion to a text no one else has read, a text unavailable even to a willing reader. I remember the wife of an acquaintance in graduate school, talking to someone at a party, her profile backlit by a lamp. I turned and noticed that the bridge of her nose was made faintly translucent by that light. Was she aware that her cosmetic surgery showed, if this is what it was? What desire did it reveal, beyond vanity? What secret history? I raked my glance away from it over and over, appalled and curious and arrogantly pitying. Not long afterward, she and her husband moved from town, and a few years later, he—one of the most successful of our group—shot himself in the head in front of her. We were told they had separated, so this is what he’d done. For a while, I was comforted somewhat by how this explanation gave us a way to see them as part of an acceptably frustrating mystery. Then I remembered that translucence, and I began to reconsider the look of the obvious.
One of Lisa’s fears is that someday the two of us will find ourselves not sharing even a glance, perhaps only chewing waffles in some chain cafe and, by this, grimly parodying the talk no longer between us. Yet we’ve already had this meal—after an eight-hour descant on trust or a night-long dispute of mutual, unacknowledged pride. So perhaps the display of mute abstraction articulates a deeper bond. I suspect it less than the show of couple, once, in a nearby booth: the woman smeared her mouth thickly with meringue and her partner licked it voluptuously clean.
Several years ago, my brother-in-law and his wife returned home from a camping trip and found the French doors had blown open and, in the moonlight, fourteen black hummingbirds roosted on their bed. They lifted each and put them out on the porch, without waking one. Neither is sure how they did this, since taking care, they asserted, was only the obvious part. This is a couple in their fifteenth year of marriage, his second, her first—middle-agers and parents, lovers over the top, each time the only time.
Their story asks: Isn’t there always the sleep of fourteen hummingbirds in the marriage bed? Isn’t that our dreaming, intimate life?
Lisa and I bicker too much for some; for others, it’s repartee. For me, it’s a dialogue of parts, like echoes of a poorly lateralized brain. My glum czarina, my Hollywood assassin in Ray-Bans, who once claimed she could feel on her sex the whorls of my fingertips—there she stands among the secrets, with an ice cream sandwich. As if she had never known me. As if we had never met. Have we met?
I may never get another chance to see her, or us, like this. I may never get another opportunity to turn from this place and steal away with some of the hummingbirds’ inexplicable sleep.
So I do.