I went to England long ago. Henry James, damn him, knew in his day that to be finished you had to go there, to Europe, anyway, to be finished off. To be polished to a fine sheen.
The light at those latitudes is blue. Bluer than anything in the USA where I am from. And the summer lasts forever.
Punting, in more sense than one.
“Push off!” shouted Elizabeth, giggling, and I did.
Time moved slowly and there was nowhere but a boat, nowhere anywhere but one boat, and the two of us.
I rowed and kept quiet. Clouds of insects, one of the first species on this Earth to develop wings, have their use for only their final day, to mate upon the water. In that light they were small yellow fires, like Liz’s eyes.
“Are you really going back to America?” she asked me.
“Yes. Next month.”
“But you’ll come back?”
“Yes, I hope so. I’d need a visa.”
She looked away out over the water and unbuttoned her blouse, exposing her bra and pale skin to the English sunlight. She closed her eyes and leaned back, sighing, breathing in the air.
I rowed south, down the Isis, the Oxford branch of the Thames, passing some black horses standing on the bank. The horses there are wild, not like American horses. And yet, not wild. They know humans well but they are not ridden, they are part of the commons, some tradition my ancestors murdered on the new continent.
In England, like James knew, you go to remember: this is how it was. This is the Middle Ages we are still leaving.
Under the Magdalen bells, the rite of coming summer, the women wear flowers in their hair for it is May. It is no longer as cruel as May once was (May, named for Vulcan’s second wife), but it is still a lingering swath of quiet pain: an unlucky month for marriages but a good one for sex. Elizabeth’s friend Alejandra, her blonde hair short unlike Liz’s long and black, stood to listen to the bells, jostling gently in the crowd of students, yellow petals on her ear.
What did it mean? Only that we are forever slaves of Nature is so many ways that we will be counting them forever? Alejandra, Alex, her eyes were not her own, you see, they were the bells’.
I held her down and fucked her in her dorm, only doors down from Liz’s. She came louder than I’d ever heard, and I was unable to stop, still moved by the magics of the bells.
And then, shouting at her recriminations and bellowing the Ox that haunts that city of dreaming spires, I fucked Liz too, after.
The next day I went swimming in the river, sluicing its coldness over my skin and shivering. My American friend, Gareth, joined me. I wanted to cry. Youth is a weapon, you see, one tamed by forces much larger than any city or historied culture.
“You remember that redhead we saw last week Gareth?” I asked him.
“On St. Giles?”
“She threw her hair just for us.”
“When you have everything, you can see the cruelty of others’ smiles, you can see they want what you have.”
“We don’t have everything.”
“We have a lot.”
“Yeah. We do. You know, in Louisiana, we know how to forget, you see, we know we have to forget. But I don’t want to forget this.”
“Why do we have to forget?”
“It’s safer. Safer to forget how we were betrayed at the Battle of New Orleans. We couldn’t be forgiven for being French. Because we would have ruled.”
I said nothing, but stared out at the water.
“Don’t you think that’s true?” Gareth said.
“I don’t know.”
“I know more than you do.”
“You probably do.” I admired him, of course, he was a huge man, heroically tall, with a large man’s gentleness.
“I cheated on Elizabeth,” I said.
Gareth laughed. “Alex. She wants all of us, you know. If I weren’t with Rachel I might have fucked her too. She just wants to try all of us, that’s all. She hates Americans.”
“You’re probably right.”
“I am right.”
“What do I do?”
“Do what you can. What you want to do. We’re gone soon anyway. I’m ready to go. Let’s swim, huh?”
We dove into the water.
What were we listening for from those bells? It was not an erotic sound and yet its effect was erotic. Only power, I suppose, in the end. Submitting to the orgy of time, to the diminution of your identity by English tradition.
I slept on the floor by Liz’s bed.
“I love you,” I whispered. “I love you. I love you.” And, half a minute later, “I love you.”
“Do you say it every time you feel it?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
In the morning, we looked out her window. There was a tree there. The thousand gods of that place peopled our faces; they were dripping from the drops liquid on the tree. We held hands and stared out at it, amazed by love.
Although it was during my trip to Europe that I went mad, it was love too. And it finished me, all right. More than a finishing touch, or sufficient for it, if the touch is Midas’.
Like James’ horrific golden bowl, Oxford was ripening for me, pulling me like a small weight into its kaleidoscopic, spiraling waters.
I stood next to a young woman, amazed by love, amazed at my senses, watching her look at postcards, listening to her body next to mine. I spoke and words came out of my mouth and she responded, her eyes greedy. But I didn’t know what to say, I suppose I was only a tease.
Once, at our favorite pub, out with friends, the wind blew the doors open onto the back garden, right as the barmaid called out first my name, Ryan, and then Elizabeth’s name, though our food was already delivered. Everyone was startled; spooked.
Madmen hunt for patterns where there are none to be found, of course, but then, it’s always a matter of degree. Everyone at the table felt the haunting of that love. Of our love, and the ghosts who knew of it. A stupid American and an innocent English girl from Devonshire.
I went back to New York. I’d call, she’d call. We developed interest in each other’s problems. I visited, once. Then she visited. I’d talked of marrying her, you see, once. I’d said, sitting on a tree stump:
“What if I buy you a ring?” Her eyes wide.
And I never did.
To finish can mean to kill, of course. And there were several moments, perhaps quotidian but still deadly: Elizabeth in the white and black examination blouse and skirt with its bowstring tie and fleshy legs, red-faced with desire, the man who’d invited me into an alleyway and I being innocent enough to follow him, being interested only in alleyways, the madman who recited memorized lists of assassinations in an angry voice on St. Giles, the portal that is the dream of that city, to perform its pagan obeisances and let its young be finished, let them sacrifice some blood, and let them go down from the altar, after, changed and strong and blind and ready to suffer an eternity of English silence.
I think it was the river had it right. It is the people’s river, you see, the river of the town, in the end. Isis, whose name means throne, was the friend in Egyptian culture of artisans, of slaves, of sinners. By the river, the insects could mate and die, just as Oxford’s children could. The bells only came later.
Sometimes I still dream of Elizabeth, wearing her throne headdress and black tie, standing in the Isis river with blood on her cheeks, giving birth. The strain on her face is incredible, the muscles of her neck and cheeks stand out like continents.
Her son will be English. He will know Devon and the weirs and wastes of its moors, like Lear did. The purple of Dartmoor, for instance, does not exist in North America. It is its own, and to Elizabeth’s son it will be as natural as breathing.
Perhaps I will send him an ankh.
Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in The Town of the Queen of the Angels, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, in Echo Park. He is 33 years old.