Amour Tunisienne

Before my life’s second half, before the obvious Inferno-rift, which involved my sitting in a dusty armchair on the banks of Lake Champlain after squandering the first half my life, after causing as much suffering and committing, as Saint Paul would have it, enough sin to people a small South American village a couple of times over, before the second half of my life I was asleep. Only when I smelled the cheap dust in a badly upholstered armchair of three homosexual friends who took me under their wing for several months, who fed and housed me in Vermont out of charity and love for me for seven months, maybe it was eight; only then, when I read Dante—and this is the truth—did I wake up from having been an extremely talented waste.

Before inhaling the good filthy dust of an orange-thatched armchair on Lake Chaplain, and being left alone to think and be and masturbate and be, above all, listened to by three men, before I inhaled the filth of Vermont, I was asleep. Over awful pork dinners, over awful pot roasts, over bread-crumb soaked fat-dripping bacon-laid meatloaves that made me sick to have on the tip of my fork, and which, because these male friends were all gay and gallant and generous, who was I in the crapped up shoes I was wearing to have turned down the three gay g’s, even if the last of the triplet is soft? I was in no position to do anything but refuse or submit to their months of dusty love. I could never call them, they called themselves Peter, Paul, and Mary, which was a cute and apt gay joke we kept up for the entirety of my visit; I never called them by their real names, and won’t, out of my love for them. I won’t call them by their real names here in this reckoning. I loved all three and couldn’t criticize their dinner food that was dripping with fat, soaked in animal grease. I can’t even say what they called me. It wasn’t polite. But I won’t say. Some things, even in a perfect reckoning, must remain silent; some things must ever remain silent. That’s the way I am. That’s the way I have always been.

All I have left, for example, from my amour Tunisienne is a little brass plate, an ashtray really, and a single photograph, which, since I never take pictures, I have no pictures of my loves, is exceptional. For me it is taboo. I will say as little as possible about my amour Tunisienne, not out of shyness, not out of shame, not out of guilt, not out of pride. I will not name her. People I have loved I never name. The only external reminder I have of my amour Tunisienne is a small brass ashtray, a souvenir plate, with her name’s meaning, along with other arabesque designs, banged into the side, banged into the lip. Her name means star. I may point to every constellation I know of in the heavens; with my etymological wand I may point to her name itself; I may indicate it with the index of translation; but I will never say it. Somewhere in my lifelong heap of junk I have this plate with her name hammered into the side of it in English capital letters, in, I should say, a Roman alphabet, a small gift she passed to me sometime before our clandestine love affair was discovered by her older brother.

I have been mad about women all my life; for me, as others bend their knee to the Cross, I lower myself to women. As others seek spiritual salvation through Christ, my life has been a Golgotha of women. Everywhere on this hill of skulls, my loves are crucified. Everywhere on this bloody hill of women there is another lover. My journey to the divine heart has been through women, from my earliest teens, when I was a doubtful American thrown on the white coral beaches of Carthage, where along the promenade at vespers young girls walked their light-brown arms wrapped around each other’s waists, down and up the red-tiled promenade above the Mediterranean Sea, their unheard voices drowned out by the skulk and shuffle of matchstick-striking boys leering here and there, like me. All my life I have lit matches, and struck them before the faces of illuminated women. In Carthage and elsewhere, much of my life has been a discovery of the divine through an ongoing and endless crucifixion of feminines. It is the only way I seem to learn. Through loss I have learned and through loss gained everything.

Just last year I traveled to a local film screening and, seeing a seat free beside a young woman, asked her if she minded my sitting beside her. Shortly after welcoming me to the seat, she put out her hand and greeted me with her name. Establishing within the several minutes before the screening room darkened about us an intimacy of names and places, more than just her raw beauty itself, to which I am and always have been irrevocably attracted, the shaded salience of a cheekbone, the knobbed attenuated wrist bared at the cuff, the smell of beauty, that sweet unguent of salt and water and grease, it is a smell itself that draws me in like the word itself love uttered by another before me, more than just the similar social accents exchanged between us, I was lost to my now perpetual silence. While I later, the next day in fact, sent to this lovely young woman, whose surname and town in which she lived she had given to me, a copy of the extant text of the great poet-lover Sappho, marking the spot with a yellow autumn leaf where on the right-hand page the English reads the English, and on the left-hand page reads the Greek, I will never hear from her again, I will never in daylight see her.

That it was my desire to do so, though it was my desire to see her again, though in her beauty and youth was awakened in me the rapture of Carthage, though my heart could recall the scandaled bliss of placing my hand on my amour Tunisenne’s right knee seated on the filthy curb of an urban street, in Tunis itself, where we had conspired to create our lovers’ tryst, though next to my own smell of my own nose crammed into my own armpit, though besides my own the salted aromas of this movie girl’s body filling up my lips with blood puffed they were the best ever I smelled once in my life, though I felt the urges of a lifetime to compose a thousand poems and shred them to papered fragments to be mulched by the promiscuous woods and pulped by the greasy and slimy estuaries besides which we all live, I could guess even then, when I know nothing of propriety, when I go through the mere motions of manner and propriety, when the coattails of my upright social upbringing are grabbed onto; when, if, for example, to note an entering female I turn the entirety of my albeit squat, foreshortened torso about, rather than cranking around the hairy uncouth knob of my flustered head to view the entrant; when my true barbaric self behind a knoll lies half-hidden and I pretend that outwardly I am the handsome JFK, when this collision happens, when I am neither half the one nor half the other, when both exterminate the other, when I mentioned to this great young beauty whose oily breasts were a button away the poet-goddess Sappho just before the darkness of the movie theatre descended and she knew nothing of Sappho, the name itself was foreign, unheard of, even then I knew in my shivers that I should never meet her again. Throughout the dark screening, my left hand cupping the armrest, I felt her breath exhaled on my warmed fingers. Being placed on the face pointing downwards the nose is such a funny thing, I thought: made to send messages of love even the sender may not comprehend, understand, or even know of. Phoenician thrown from a cliff my love is fallen down to a nameless purple sea.

I will never say to the world the name of my amour Tunisienne or the name of the young movie girl. The one I knew in my teens, the other in my fifties. It is all the same to me, and I have never let a truth in my heart be corrupted by naming it. The particular province of men, to name, is one I have steered away from in my life. To have records of my life runs counter to everything I believe in. Only were I sure that a lover were to be a lover for life would I take her picture. That is why my amour Tunisienne is such an exception. Her picture, which I snapped at a careless moment, I don’t have the impulse to destroy, nor do I wish to keep it. I would never snap the picture of a woman unless I knew I were to spend my entire life with her. That has, except for this one exceptional picture, been my lifelong credo. I have, except for this one picture, been faithful to it. I have no pictures of any of my lovers, not one of them, except of course for the amour Tunisienne.

In the picture, it is actually a picture of her and me, we are standing next to each other, I with my arm hung atop her shoulder, and she with her arm held loose around my waist. Her older sister, Jemullah, which means beautiful, took it. We are smiling. I cannot bear to look at it. Even my memory of it makes me sad. When I look at that picture in my memory, I am saddened forever by how happy I am. I cannot bear to have dozens of pictures like this. So, I have none. Pictures of happiness would be impossible to live by. So, I have none. The idea of pictures of happiness reminds me of the life they represent as no longer being so. So, these pictures represent a life that is false. Pictures represent falsehood. So, I cannot bear any of them. This is especially true for the dozens of pictures of women I have loved. I cannot bear to see any of them. It would be suicidal for me to have kept pictures of my loves. They would have made me feel false, and, therefore, suicidal. So, except for the amour Tunisienne, whose existence has been a silent curse throughout my life, and which I never will destroy, I have not taken any pictures of women and therefore have not been faced again ever with keeping or not keeping some. I have made it perfidious to take and therefore keep any. I have made it sacrilege. I have paid homage to all the women I have loved by not taking and not keeping their pictures.

This, really, is my only religion, it is my only constant lifelong practise. In everything else, I have lived in violation, a sort of violation that at times has been steadfast and at others not. But, in any case, I have lived a life continuously filled with violations, and every violation is a violation of love. The one aspect of my life which I have not violated is the taking of pictures, except for my amour Tunisienne. Excepting her, I have all my life been steadfast and true to this one reigning principle: never to take the picture of a woman whom I did not doubt I would know forever. In this, except for the Tunisienne, a plague to me, I have been true. To me, naming women I have loved is identical to taking their pictures. Their names spoken are identical to the images taken. To me, it doesn’t matter if that name is one from decades and decades back, or if that name is one from the week prior. The divine must never be profaned. To me, naming and creating the image of the divine profanes it. It is taking what is divine and soiling it, chewing up what is real and meaningful to what is rendered mere amusement and sport. I have never named or created an image of any of my life’s loves, besides the one already detailed, and I never will.

(Novel excerpt, 2004—click here for other current works)

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