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Authors: Joan Silber

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Lucky Us

BOOK: Lucky Us
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Lucky Us

A NOVEL BY

Joan Silber

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

For my friend Ann Jones

The point was driven home for me for the first time when I was traveling in Asia in 1978 on a trip to a forest monastery in northeastern Thailand. . . . We were ushered into an audience with Achaan Chaa. A severe-looking man with a kindly twinkle in his eyes, he sat patiently waiting for us to articulate the question that had brought us to him from such a distance. Finally, we made an attempt: “What are you really talking about? What do you mean by ‘eradicating craving'?” Achaan Chaa looked down and smiled faintly. He picked up the glass of drinking water to his left. Holding it up to us, he spoke in the chirpy Lao dialect that was his native tongue: “You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should rap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.' But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.” Achaan Chaa was not just talking about the glass, of course, nor was he speaking merely of the phenomenal world, the forest monastery, the body, or the inevitability of death. He was also speaking to each of us about the self. This self that you take to be so real, he was saying, is already broken.

—Mark Epstein,
Thoughts Without a Thinker

Contents

PART I
1 Elisa
|
2 Gabe
|
3 Elisa
|
4 Gabe
|
5 Elisa: A List

PART II
6 Elisa
|
7 Gabe
|
8 Elisa
|
9 Gabe
|
10 Gabe
|
11 Elisa
|
12 Gabe: A List
|
13 Elisa
|
14 Gabe
|
15 Elisa
|
16 Gabe
|
17 Elisa

PART III
18 Gabe and Elisa

Acknowledgments
Also by Joan Silber

PART I
1
Elisa

My boyfriend was in prison, twenty-odd years ago. He never hid this, but in our first years of living together, I heard him mention it only a few times. He was a direct person, for the most part, so if he was keeping his mouth shut on this one, that was it: he wasn't telling. Not everything has to be dug up all the time, in my opinion. He got busted for selling marijuana and he was lucky; it was before the laws got stricter and he did less than a year. I saw one snapshot of him from before, when he was a cute guy trying to look like James Dean, a squinting bad-boy. No other picture showed him like that, and he didn't look anything like that later. He worked in a camera store for a
long time before I knew him, and that was where we met. He could have been something different, if he had wanted, especially once he had me.

I hadn't been born yet when he was serving time. Sometimes in our early days he liked to introduce me, slyly, as his little friend here. Naturally I called him the old man. It was nice to be the great stroke of luck in somebody's life, although that interpretation was mostly mine, not his. Gabe was glad but not dazzled, as far as I could see.

He was easy to live with, which I wouldn't have expected in someone who'd nested by himself for most of his life. He was domestic—that is, he liked to do things at home—but he wasn't rigid in his routines. He would listen to almost any kind of music I tuned in or put on the stereo—he greeted it with amused attention, he nodded in spots he liked. He was a good cook and he updated his repertoire for my benefit, went from spaghetti with meatballs (not that I minded that) to risotto and Pad Thai.

He looked pretty good. A little chewed up around the edges, a little thick in the middle and grizzled in the chest and pubic hair. But he'd never gone bald and he wore his streaky hair in a ponytail, which made him look like an old boxing coach or an aging jazz musician, neither of which he was. He wasn't anything. He was a guy who
knew about cameras, and who read all the time. He read about four hours a day, and he read more than that before we lived together.

We met in the camera store. It was a big place, near Wall Street, and I got a job there part-time when I was studying painting at the School of Visual Arts. Unlike Gabe, I actually cared about photography, and I spent the first few days just drooling over all the equipment, set lusciously behind the glass counter. I was thrilled when anybody asked to see one of the really snazzy models, with all the bells and whistles. My listing of its virtues was so awed that I scared people away, which was unfortunate, since we were paid on commission.

I was told to watch Gabe, who knew how to be casual and quietly informative in a way that got people used to the idea that this camera was about to be theirs. Gabe himself was not comfortable with theories about his salesmanship, although he had worked in the place the longest of anyone. “Be yourself,” he said to me. “You'll be fine. Do it your way.”

He joked around with the other guys, but mostly he kept to himself. For his lunch break he usually went in the back and ate a sandwich while he read. He was reading Kafka's
The Castle
for the third time, and enjoying it more and more, he told me. In good weather he sat in
City Hall Park. I had just come out of a really messy relationship and I was tired of going to clubs where all these fucked-up people hung out, and his self-containment seemed glamorous to me. So I was the one who came on to him.

I did it pretty bluntly. I said something like, hey, want to have a drink after work? I was not shy with men generally, and Gabe's age made me particularly confident with him. “Now?” he said. “Tonight?” He was confused. We went to one of the darkest, smokiest bars I'd ever been to, and I talked a blue streak about anything I could think of, and I put my hand on his knee. I was quite smug, it seemed to me later.

We got along fine right away but neither of us believed it would last. It turned out to be, truly, like living in another season, being with someone like him. When I was with my friends before, we all talked about how depressed we were; we had fits of being hysterically miserable, we played at being done in and bottomed out. Our unhappiness was real, but we had no idea really. A brighter day tomorrow was a definite likelihood, if we could hold out till then. Gabe was in another stage. Most of what kept me going couldn't be said to him. A lot of his life was behind him already. He was chipper but hopeless; that's how I described him. He had almost no joy in thinking of how
things would turn out. A friend who was involved with Buddhism thought Gabe was very advanced in his thinking. Perhaps that was right, or half right. I couldn't tell exactly, from my corner on this.

I used to try to tell him everything about my past, such as it was. What I did in high school, how I lost my virginity, why I got mixed up with the lunatic I went out with before him. I wanted to be known, through these things. Gabe listened—he was interested—but he didn't come up with comparable incidents. He had lived in the same apartment for more than twenty years—two rooms in a former tenement on a nice Village block—and you would think he had spent every night all alone in it, from his conversation. This was not the case. There was a woman named Yvonne, whom he dated for years, and there was another person, Judy, who moved to San Francisco. And probably others, although I don't think he'd been driven by appetite since he was a young man.

When we first started sleeping together, I noticed how patient he was. He was ardent—I don't mean he wasn't—but he was always watchful and careful of me. I did what I could to take him out of himself, I tried my boldest and subtlest maneuvers on him. “Oh, my girl,” he would say. “Jesus, what's this?” He was happy, maybe even wildly happy, but he was never different from the
Gabe I knew.

We always kept a certain amount of our lives separate. I saw people without him, and I did my painting in a studio in Brooklyn, two subway lines away in Greenpoint. At home, he read in one room while I was in another, and I didn't interrupt him or make him talk about what he was reading. On weekends he liked to take walks all over the city by himself. He was something of an expert on its history.

Sometimes, of course, we were together for social occasions—parties that my friends gave, for instance. Gabe was quiet but people got used to him over time. He had small conversations with the other guys about politics or cars or whatever. And sometimes he even danced. This was a great thing and took a large quantity of beer to bring about. He danced in a fluid, gently wicked way, as if it were no trouble at all, although he looked a little surprised. People stopped asking why I was with him.

The only person who loved to raise that question was his aunt, whom we often visited in Queens. She was a candid creature, Aunt Angie. “So tell me the truth, Elisa,” she would say to me. “Any lead left in that pencil? He needs a crutch to hold it up or what?” Gabe always told her the fountain was not running dry, never fear, and there was a lot of cackling back and forth. Angie would wink at me, and I would nestle against Gabe to back up
his story, which was mostly true.

T
HE MAN
I was with before Gabe liked to have shouting fights in public. I got into it, I could shout as loud as he did. I was with him for a year and at the end he was threatening and hitting (mostly with an open palm, but a few times with his fist) and one night I thought I was going to shove him off the roof. I was standing behind him, thinking how easy it would be, and I got scared enough to think
this is ridiculous,
and I ran downstairs instead. We had a few more rounds left before it was done, but that was the beginning of my getting out.

I thought of that year as one long freak event I got stuck in, which was probably how Gabe thought about prison. Although Gabe once said, in his few words on the subject, that those months were bad but not that bad—it was a minimum security place, no picnic but not grisly. “Don't get an exaggerated idea,” Gabe said.

“What was it that you wanted to do before then?” I said.

“Make money,” he said.

Gabe always dressed carefully—he was careful about everything—but his tastes were pretty elemental, and nothing in his apartment would lead anyone to think he was materialistic. He had a stereo from about 1975, and he
had a couch that looked like a graduate student's castoff. “What were you going to do with this money?” I said.

“Walk around like a big shot,” he said.

“That's all?” I said.

“Travel,” he said. “Buy books.”

G
ABE WAS SURPRISED
our first night together when I made him use a condom. He didn't ask questions or object, but for a moment I caught him off guard; it took him a little while to get back on track. Later on, when we'd been together awhile, we stopped being perfectly cautious.

My friend Fiona used to walk around the streets in a Tshirt with a photo from a fifties movie of a woman screaming in horror—NO! the caption said, Not Without a Condom! When Fiona was talking about getting married, some of us dared her to wear that shirt to the wedding. Actually she wore a dress from the twenties, white crepe with bugle beads, a slinky column that looked beautiful on her. I helped her pick it out.

Fiona had known her husband for a shorter time than I'd known Gabe. This made several people ask if Gabe and I were thinking about getting married. Often they asked this when we were both present. Gabe was too gallant to say anything pointed, but he looked as if he
wanted to bolt out of the room. We murmured that we liked things the way they were. Once Gabe said that it was because he didn't have a church and there was no sanctifying body to legitimize our union. “And not the state either,” I said. We were in accord about this, irritated together.

A
ND WE DIDN'T
even like Fiona's wedding. We were itchy through the service, which was a church ceremony with some parts left out, and the reception was in a banquet hall in New Jersey, where the relatives danced to brassy show tunes and songs made famous by Neil Diamond. Gabe politely refused to do the miserlou or the hokeypokey and I didn't blame him. Some of the friends went out to the parking lot to smoke a joint, and Fiona and Ira, the groom, snuck out to join us. I think I was embarrassed for them, trapped in this gimcrack family takeover, but they didn't mind, they laughed about it happily enough. They got stoned and went back and cut their cake.

I was so glad to get home with Gabe afterward. We drank about a gallon of seltzer and we watched a spy movie on TV. It was bliss. “I'm sorry I made you go,” I said, during the station break.

“It wasn't torture,” Gabe said. “It was fine.”

BOOK: Lucky Us
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