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Sitting on A Wall Outside Harvard Law School

ISSUE:  Spring 1997

for James Assatly

November. The moon hangs from her neck like lead. A teenager
writes down the words. He sees fishes swim through branches and
brush windowpanes. He looks at paintings by Kandinsky and Klee; he
stares at the reflection of a traffic light on water, garbage cans in an
alley, a gray staircase. March turns to July. He thought his family had
money in the bank. Let me tell you about some—let me explain;
follow me out across the grassy edge of the water, where the moon
made a path for us to be young, aggressive, and safe. Rainy January.
When I looked down at my foot I saw my future. Ok—back me
through the eye of the needle—back into the strong time when I
thought I believed what I was saying. When I believed what I felt.
Jane tells me she is “staying out every night till six in the morn-
ing”—in a city on fire—or in a city numbed by plague’s endless
wrong. There is no time to be anything but human: names return to
her mouth like wine or smoke or song. She tries to tell me about
meeting someone—finding someone—a Guatemalan painter—
they’re doing a book together. At midsummer, think of the winter
solstice: it happens again tonight—you feel music in the branches.
Early December is a marriage—late June is a different marriage.
Enter Cressida with beggars: ‘twas never merry world—the horses
turn to paper. Winter light in a courtyard. Learn myth from an
apartment building. And if anyone says, It’s all connected—our way
of life, our industrial base, what we can talk about and what we can’t
talk about, why we’re funding AIDS research so meagerly—we feel
just a bit tired, we look slightly away, past the speaker, who clearly
doesn’t understand that we all know this already, and we say, I
know. . . . We wish it were different. What is a story?—birch trees in
the rain are not a story, or, birches in the rain are a story. When I
entered the first meditation, the world looked like a world. Different
or the same, loved or ignored. No one speaks about the plague—or,
as often as they can avoid it. Ritual, interrupted. They would rather
look at a picture of an angel who is obviously a healthy girl with wings
strapped firmly on her shoulders. In a golden, momentary blur—as
when you remember—just for a second—the smile of a drama
teacher reciting a rhyme about a dragon. Today you couldn’t look at
squalor if you tried—too much dogwood, too much forsythia—so you
try again to imagine you’re homeless—and . . . the cousin—your
father just told you about him—who is homeless. And then you try to
feel the fear inside ordinary summer wind: even that is better than
feeling nothing. Ordinary fat, ordinary broken knees, ordinary law
school, ordinary loan payments, ordinary divorce. Suddenly, you want
to imagine someone strong enough to keep studying, strong enough
not to yearn—for anything, ever. She made that promise when she
was riding her bicycle over gravel in moonlight, when she was
brushing her teeth and joking with him before she left for work. . . .
But don’t feel free to imagine . . .don’t try to speak for another
person, or even about another person . . . that’s not your right . . . but
you must. . . but actions involve consequences. You are here. A
family walks by and you think, It would cost so much money to clothe
those children. You try to imagine what lovemaking felt like to a
15th-century German peasant.


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