Previous Publications: Literal Latte
I had omitted Tangier. It is a serious and unthinkable and even grievous omission, they said, one after another coming to my tent at sunset and later when the moon rose, beaten into a bronze parenthesis. Its light sat warily in my spoon.
"You must add Tangier to the itinerary at once!" they threatened with raised voices, such was their need. And mine, too, because of the killing we had done and the years of deprivation. They shook their fists at me - the best of men -- each a Kipling. Each possessing courage and a stout heart.
I was powerless to resist them because of their goodness and because I was having a nervous breakdown. Africa had made me porous. Its limitless gardens, its perfumes, its plagues -- they penetrated me. In the absence of women, I had forgotten myself. In the absence of a dainty foot, I had grown solemn and coarse. Imagine the human heart, its plush appointments and dazzling valves become wooden -- a box to keep potatoes in. Or munitions catalogues.
No, we must have Tangier though the undertaking come to grief! Tangier and its evocations of fruit and bird, beaded curtains undulating in the Arab quarter, sweating sherbet cups, and jeweled navels.
I called Ali and Shemlani, my faithful tent-boys. I ordered them to strike the tents. I ran outside and shouted into the velvet ear of night:
"Strike the tents, men! We leave at once for Tangier!"
Stravinsky polished his wire-rims on the tablecloth. He was nervous. The strain, he said. It's too much for me. He looked bad. I took his temperature with my safari thermometer, counting one, two, three, four . . . He sat across the table, perspiration beading in his thin hair.
"You have a fever," I said, shaking down the thermometer. I wiped it clean with Bombay Gin and returned it to my medical kit.
"Things are falling apart," he said, putting his glasses back on.
He had fled Paris after the succès de scandale of his Rite of Spring. Grocers rioting at the Ballets Russes! he said irritably. Bank clerks complaining of shifting time signatures.
"Swine! They came only to see Tamara's legs!"
"You are too violent," I told him. "The world wants pretty things. Go back to Diaghilev, beg his forgiveness, and write another Petrushka. Or Firebird."
"Ah!" he said. "The Firebird. The most striking of all the tanagers is called the firebird. I think that is why I came to Tangier -- because of the mental association."
"We live our lives by accident," I said, stirring my couscous.
"Not our art!" he answered hotly.
That, too, will come, but I did not tell him so. He was on the edge, and I had no wish to nudge him over.
A silence ensued during which fat flies banged against the screen, the sticky blades of the fan turned in the heavy air, and, outside, beyond the road and stretch of beach, the Mediterranean swayed.
"War will be the death of many things," he said at last. "Fabergé eggs, the fluted columns of the classical age, ragtime."
He sighed profoundly and went to bed. A good man, out of place in the world's rough and tumble.
I went out into the street. The sudden sun stung my eyes. A black curtain dropped. I raised it and walked to the harbor to listen a while to the creaking machine.
"Igor," I prayed. "Thrive in your art. We have need of you. But beware the swamp of eccentricity. The noise of universal derailment is not music to our ears though it may be to yours."
I emptied my pockets into the harbor.
Red and white boats. The water blue, dashed with pink sunlight.
The world likes pretty things.
I turned my mind to women.
The women were arranged on pillows. They were pink; the pillows, damask. The women were comely. I drank absinthe and demitasse. The women parted their caftans with their knees. I smoked a Turkish cigarette. The women laughed arabesques. I looked through the lozenge-shaped windowpanes at ruby and green clouds. The women showed me a straw-colored monkey, an emerald cuckoo, a book of illustrations needing no explanation. I fingered tortoise combs with strands of copper and gold hair caught in the clips. The women lit incense and played a thin, shrill music on the gramophone in which I became lost. I followed the soft padding of bare feet on the marble, on the parquet, on the carpet. I watched the women undress the bed of its silk sheet. I watched the women undress.
I could have stayed with them forever, caught in a shaft of sunlight, splashed with moonlight, veiled in silk and smoke. I could have stayed happily outside nature and necessity. But the old nervousness returned, doubtless aggravated by absinthe and tobacco. A curious sexual vagueness followed. My head droned with "Christiné's Song" as I had heard Dranem sing it in 1905:
We were driving through fields of lotuses;
I left my navel there, you left your umbrella,
I lost my number there, you lost your humerus.
I was your pink pebble and you were my quail.
I strangled the pillows in an access of impotent rage. I shredded the sheet and plucked the cuckoo. The women ran into the street in their caftans. They watched through the ruby and green windowpanes as I caught the monkey by its tail.
There followed a stay behind white walls, savoring the wisteria, drinking aromatic teas, eating yogurt, fruit, parts of sheep. I enjoyed hydraulic treatments and wholesome stimulations. Quigley paid solicitous visits on Thursday afternoons. Carlson and Lane were denied entrance because of their outrageous behavior towards the nuns.
Recovered, I was returned to history and my self.
War. Mustard gas and the muddy trench. Ash.
Then jazz, bobbed hair, and the brothels nationalized. The world grew unrecognizable.
Stravinsky in Switzerland not answering my telegrams.
The Gaité-Rochechouart closed.
Ffft! Ffft! Ffft!
Stravinsky in Paris not returning my telephone calls.
My nervousness before women. My nervousness before art. My nervousness before Bolshevism. My nervousness before recently discovered particles. My nervousness before the ever-expanding table of elements. My nervousness before the pronouncements of Freud. My
nervousness before Relativity. My nervousness before the sun, which is apparently cooling.
It was then I asked myself the overwhelming question: How am I to live in the present age?
I could not answer.
And knowing there was no place else on earth I understood as well, I returned to Africa. To its heart. Where all questions become meaningless.
First Published in 1998, Literal Latte