Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Gold dangles from her ears; jeweled fish slither over her shoulders as she rises. "Thank you. I haff had a very nice time," she says, and shakes my hand. Cool, crisp, and businesslike. Slender deliberate fingers. The moon blinks slowly in her wide eyes. The room rocks slightly.

"Es freut mich sehr, dass du kommen konntest" I say, stubbornly clinging to German. It is, after all, my only distinction.

Suddenly all the talk of the party is a roar in my ears, and I can see the floor rippling in time to the music. It will all come to pieces when she leaves.

"Could we have lunch sometime?" I suddenly ask, abandoning German.

"Oh, you see," she says regretfully, "I am so busy these days."

"Of course. A very full time," I quickly agree.

She leaves. I pour myself a shot of vodka and drink it down. It burns with a lovely, sustaining heat. A cloud of it rises from my throat, and I breathe it gratefully. I attach myself to the clever comp lit students. David, ever voluble, who gave a talk this afternoon titled "How to Do Things with Sir Walter Scott," is holding his antic court. Ian, a Scot himself, is standing his ground though, insisting that Waverly is a tremendously important book, the beginning of Modernism, if I'm following him. I've read Waverly, but I can't for the life of me remember anything about it. My mind's eye follows Heike through the night. And I remember her birthday party, when Ed and Agnes gave her black stockings, and she put them then and there, sitting happily on the floor, her short skirt hiked up. Ow.

"What?" How has the conversation come round to me? Oh, of course, I'm the Old English and metrics wizard, and there's an exam in Old English scansion tomorrow. "Find the alliteration, and then work backwards through the half-line," I advise them. "the debris is all at the beginning of the half-lines, you'll just get confused if you try to work forwards." Jahan has a question about Chaucer scansion; I bask in knowing something. Where does the stress fall in "tragedie," in the Monk's Tale? He's been told the second syllable. Nonsense. "TRAH juh DEE uh," I say firmly. I feel very learned, but of course it's Jahan who's giving a paper on the Monk's Tale tomorrow, not me. Even though he's all wrong about the Monk's Tale, and doesn't know jack about Middle English. He's confident and handsome, with a powerful voice; he's sure to get a job, and then to get tenure. He's the sort that does.

Later that evening, or rather that morning, Donna and I dance to the Cars in the living room. She's wearing a transparent blouse and nothing beneath, which contrasts piquantly with her understated, buttoned-up Canadian manner. I forget all about Heike. We talk about Emily Dickinson. Everything she says is very sensible and shrewd. I wish I had things to say, but I don't.

At last the party breaks up. Last to go are Ian and his Turkish partner, Ayse. I'm drunk, and swearing freely. "Good night," I say to Ayse. "Fucking wonderful to have you here. Don't let that damned Scot keep you in purdah!" I smile winningly, as I think -- no doubt leering drunkenly -- and Ian and Ayse, tolerant and courtly always, say good night and thank us.

Quiet comes, like a sudden snowfall. The smell of the smoke and wine becomes old and sad. It would be the last good party we would give in New Haven. The social fabric -- a thing that always seems so solid at the time, but in retrospect looks always so fragile -- was already unraveling, disintegrating. We put on soft, melancholic music, wipe up a few spills, empty a few ashtrays. The lamplight picks up green and brown glints, glows through the rings of wine left in the bottles. I murmur lines from Beowulf. Scyld's body is drifting away on the burning funeral ship:

men ne cunnon,
secgan to sothe,
haeleth under heofonum,
hwa thaem hlaste onfeng.

Men do not know,
truth to tell --
councillors in the hall
or heroes under heaven --
who received that cargo.

No comments: