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Night Talk

ISSUE:  Winter 1993
The dream of reason breeds monsters

We’ve been, you and I, through too many of these two-in-the-morning scenes of mutual humiliation and disgust to think they can change our lives. We keep on, a ritual, to squeeze some last poison out, like adolescent pimples, I mean the way a teenager hates his skin sometimes, squeezes the flesh between his knuckles to clean out the pus, and it doesn’t work. It builds up more fluid, leaves the face blotched, ravaged, and you think it’s hopeless, now there’s nothing to lose, and you go at it almost pressed up against the mirror.

At two A. M. we’re each other’s mirror, picking away, squeezing the last drop, that never is the last drop, of rancor. As if hoping finally to clean it out, leaving our faces in their original purity, infant cheeks.

Two-in-the-morning you become a lawyer, “you” meaning me as well, arguing a case before the judge of marital righteousness, laying out your arguments absolutely rationally with a child’s insistence on logical alternatives. Now, there are three possibilities. You tell me. Either X. . .or Y. . .or else Z. You count on your fingers. Or else Z, you say, and it’s on Z the ante gets raised. Madly rational at two-in-the-morning, I put you on the witness stand. Tell me, really, when you said Q, you must have meant one of two things. Which was it? And when you ran your fingers over my shoulders and down my back, what was I supposed to imagine? And you: Do we have to get into this now? And me: All right, are you saying you’d like to talk about this tomorrow? When, exactly? When Tina’s home from school? Or when? And you: Why did you think, when I touched you, that it meant R? Well, didn’t it mean R? Not necessarily, you say, and why do you always do this? You always leave me ragged in the morning on just the wrong days. Always? When was the last time? You remind me: Last Tuesday. No, I say, that was totally different, totally, that was about the children. Are you telling me I shouldn’t talk about the children before we sleep? Before we don’t sleep, you say—I was ragged in the morning. I slept fine, I say.

You cross-examine. Or you claim your privilege to postpone cross-examination for a later time; you fold away your brief with your glasses into the drawer of the bedside table. I’m dying to pick, to end this right, to end it in lovemaking, but I don’t dare start anything or the recriminations will begin, So you think you can say things like that and then make love. . . . Or you try to end it in a joke, to see us as characters in a sitcom, and I pin the joke to the wall over our bed. Let’s look at your joke. Oh, - please, you say. Please, I echo ironically.


And all this time we’re actually dreaming, all these logical steps are dance steps in a dream we’re sharing, two-in-the-morning dream made up of logic, logic blocks stacked up like Jonah’s wooden ones into structures far more intricate than his, architecture of pain, a dungeon to live in, you see what our lives are? You see what marriage is? And some time in the middle of the night we must have fallen asleep, tumbled out of the waking dream into sleep, because all of a sudden Jonah’s morning call or Tina’s getting-ready for school wakes us out of a deep, deep place.

It’s morning and I sit up and feel tenderness for you, sleeping, mussed, tension gone from your face, face of a child now, and I let you sleep. Or I wake to find the bed empty and you downstairs with black coffee and Jonah crawling across the floor and you too dazed to take your eyes from him to read the paper, and I say Hi, brisk, frightened, and you say Hi, but don’t look at me. To me, now, it all seems unimportant, all the litigation, the picking. I take a section of the paper from you. Polite, I ask which section you don’t want. I kiss your cheek. You’re not ready to let it go. You want me to know that the night talk doesn’t stop costing in the day. Then I’m not dropping it either. It wasn’t my fault this time. Is it my fault for picking on what’s really there? I’m your mirror. You close your eyes. You’re heavy into denial.

Tonight in Orvieto, you put in ear plugs and sleep, and I give up and lie in bed listening to street sounds and then no street sounds, and I go to the French windows and I can see a corner of the cathedral, moonlight, all white marble, the colored marble of the facade bleached out by the moon, and I think, This should be making us incredibly happy, we should have made love a couple of times already and be holding hands at this window looking out at the old stone houses and the shining cathedral, but there you are, in bed, sad about something, I wonder what, thick with the clear white wine of the region to dull the sadness. I think your sadness is a cover to keep from encountering me in bed. Now your sleep walls me out. I cough, groan, stretch, nothing can get through to wake you up.

I’m cooped up, no other room to go read in, afraid to walk the streets of a strange town, two-in-the-morning, and where’s to go? So I pull a chair to the window and think about how tired I’ll be in the morning, when we’re supposed to drive to Assisi over the rough mountain roads and be capable of opening ourselves to the frescos of Giotto and the Lorenzettis. I want to express to you your unfairness, I want you to accept my listing of your failures as a wife so I can ask pardon for my failures as a husband and then we can both breathe again, because now—all day since we left Rome, we take breath as if air were hard to come by. . .or habit-forming, suspect. We are afraid to breathe lest (how long has it been since I’ve used “lest”!) it feed our fires and the fires consume us.

Finally I pull the standing lamp over to this chair and turn on the light, shutting out Orvieto, draping a towel over the shade to make it seem legitimately, even to myself, as if I want not to wake you up, but of course, that’s what I do want—need—to wake you, to pick and pick. And you, you keep sleeping.

And while I read, I don’t actually read but float above us to the high plaster ceiling to look down with amusement at this middle-aged American couple, he with head buzzing, asleepawake, playing with dangerous words—final words—like someone toying with a gun. I try to coax him to join me on the ceiling; he refuses. Humorlessly, he insists: my life is stuck forever in this nowhere room. And she, the wife, sleeps shut off from his vision of their lives, a vision that grows, every quarter of an hour, darker, more absolute, congealing until he can’t imagine her ever waking, can’t imagine them eating breakfast or driving off to Assisi from this room. Forever he will be sitting awake, and she will be walled off with earplugs, her back curled from him. I want him to see the comedy, marriage comedy, look, it’s part of this genre called marriage, it’s nothing personal; but he refuses. And unable to hang on anymore to nothing, I fall off the ceiling and become him; finally the only place I am is here in this wooden chair with a book in my hands.

And then you wake up, notice the lamp, avoid my eyes, go off to the bathroom, and when you return, lie down with a pillow over your head. I say, “I know you can hear me. I want to know what that pillow over your head means.” I see you stiffen, only a husband could possibly see that, you’re not breathing, you’re listening through the earplugs and the pillow but not admitting it. “Now,” I say, “there are two possibilities I can see

You sit bolt upright. “All right, now I can’t sleep, you want to talk, listen to this. You want to know why I shut out that voice of yours? There are times I can’t stand your voice. Just for instance, do you know how phony you sound when you talk your elegant Italian?” I don’t answer, so you go on to tell me how my moustache makes you cringe. “It’s so false, like your voice, oh, you can be such a poseur,” you say. “You stroke it when you talk to a woman—any woman—do you know that? And I can’t stand it against my skin, especially down here, it makes me feel dirty, as if you cleaned your boots on me.”

“No woman ever minded before,” I tell her, stroking my moustache clean.

“And what woman are we perhaps hinting at? Oh, don’t you love to see yourself the macho lover! You want to talk?—all right, frankly it makes me sick, you squeeze a nipple and you push and grunt and that’s love. Why bother with other women? I could be anyone.”

“Not anyone.”


“Not anyone. Anyone else would move more than a stone. That’s your unique contribution to the Kama Sutra.”

“If I don’t move, it’s because I’m not moved. How can I be moved by someone who sees me as just a body, any body?”

“Because you deaden yourself as a body, I need to deaden you as a person.”

We get down and dirty. It’s two-in-the-moming talk, what do you expect? But there are things we don’t say. You don’t ask how I expect you to make love with someone who’s let himself go the way I have. You don’t remind me of the deposits of fat along my hips. I don’t speak of your fallen breasts and the slackening skin under your eyes. And all this not-speaking is a subtle expression of generosity, not to do real damage, not to go too far, not to press upon the other the facts of getting old. Those facts. We are, after all, sitting in a bare room in a foreign town, we’re all the other has. Not-to-speak about these things is prudence but it’s also compassion, even tenderness. We both know it.

Then, as you attack me for the cultural ignorance, the insult, of ordering red wine in Orvieto, so that you were forced to drink a whole bottle of the white yourself, and as I accuse you of getting drunk to evade me, you don’t speak about my failure as a businessman, and I don’t speak about the career as a research biologist that you’ve never gotten off the ground (performing instead grunt work for a pharmaceutical firm). We don’t blame one another that Tina can’t make friends at school or that at three Jonah still isn’t toilet trained.

At three-in-the-morning as I cross the room to sit next to you on the bed, I attack you for your lack of enthusiasm yesterday at the Vatican museums. And as you laugh at me for refusing to trek this morning to an Etruscan grave site, you touch my arm. At once a little flame rises in my arm, in my groin and thighs. This makes me angry at you, for you’ve deadened yourself to me. I want to touch you but I don’t want to reveal it. Or, rather, I want to reveal it, want you to know that I need to touch you—but without incriminating myself.

And your touch on my arm, is it shy desire and a hint of renewal? The possibility that you’re feeling sorry for me instead twists inside me and I lock my jaw and turn away, and my shoulders droop under the weight of “marriage.” Now a motor scooter growls in the street; it passes, and the tone rises to a disappearing whine, and a dog barks and stops and I pat your hand, as if I’m the one doing the comforting—against the night, the dark at the bottom of the dark.

You crumple against me, and now I’m able to turn this into a story of reconciliation, cramming into a pocket of my mind the embarrassing knowledge that it’s a story I’m writing, so that I don’t have to know it as I take you into my arms and undo the buttons down the front of your nightgown and pull the silk down off your shoulders and press myself to the warmth of your breasts and lie beside you. Did I tell you, have I ever told you, that making love with you I know I’ve never known lovemaking sensually so rich. I want to go nowhere, it’s the touch, that’s where the music swells. Ambient Being becomes dense, like warm rain forest as I breathe you in, and the wounds flow and heal, and nothing mars or has ever marred our original selves.

In the middle of this, in the middle of you, it comes over me all the work that it took to bring us here. I feel as if I’d struggled to lay stone on stone, and I wonder do you feel all the work and feel it was worth it, you must feel it was worth the loss of sleep and the loss of breath and the humiliation. Now you understand, don’t you, and for the moment we stand above the ugliness, the agony.

And you, you come with me, you come again and again, it’s a celebration in Orvieto, middle-of-the-night, making the whole trip a victory, and you hold me and slacking, breathe easy and lie beside me, and I’m sinking towards sleep. And then you say to me, “Now can I sleep, please?”

And at first I don’t get it. Then I do. “Are you saying you made love just to get some sleep?”

“Please, we’ve got to drive all morning. I’m so tired of this,” you say. “I can’t take much more.”

“Are you saying—”

“Please, for godsakes, no more ‘saying’—do you mind? I’ll listen tomorrow in the car, all right?”

And out of that pocket in my mind I pull my story and look at it and tear it up. You weren’t even consoling me, you were appeasing, as if I’m a kind of madman needing to be calmed. We’ve been through, you and I, too many of these two-in-the-morning scenes of mutual humiliation and disgust to think they can change our lives. We keep on, a ritual. Sleep, we sleep.


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