MUSIC BY GOODMAN CARTER
Her parents were the kind of people who never really wanted a child, but–victims of a conspiratorial Fate that they were–ended up with one anyway. They were glad enough about it, after a while; they began to see the benefits, the hidden plusses of the whole thing. But their life was a compromise, and they knew it, and they made sure that she knew it, too. And that was how it was.
They were great collectors of antique furniture, and the living room was like a time capsule, a museum. They had a wide Oriental rug, all beige and purple and gold, its fibers of that ideal consistency somewhere between solid and liquid, and it would ooze up around the bare toes that walked across it like ten tiny, formal hugs. They had a glass-topped table with carved swans and berries on its curved wooden legs, and a bookcase lined neatly with leather-bound editions of classics both French and English, and a grandfather clock that ticked in the corner like a sonorously snoring uncle, the mesmerist\'s watch that was its brass pendulum lulling observers into a peaceful sleep. Bowls of wooden peaches and pinecones wafted hints of cinnamon into the heavy air at all hours of the day or night, familiar Ariels that tended to the olfactory comforts of the inhabitants even when they lay dreaming in their plush crimson beds. And there were two wing-backed chairs, covered in soft velvet and piles of pillows, and inviting little footstool just ankle length from the cushion of the larger chair where it sat in state by the crackling stone fireplace.
Her parents had worked for a very long time to acquire each of these treasures, and many hours of thought had gone into the selection and placement of each piece. They worried, however, about how this perfectly arranged life would be affected by their child, who had just worked out how to crawl on the day the movers installed the heavy clock in its place of honor along the east wall. Baby gates worked for a while, provided they were set far enough back in the hallway to prevent the whole ambience of the room from being spoiled, but this was only a temporary solution, and eventually they knew that the beautiful antiques they had acquired would be imperiled by the thousand and one spills, scratches, dents and cracks that the wide-eyed, shambling little animal they had produced would, through no fault of her own, cause.
It was not that they were cruel or heartless parents. In many ways, they considered themselves very good parents: slow to anger, firm but fair, encouraging and available to help their daughter with all of the trials and skills she would have to surmount or obtain in order to make a success of herself in this world. And they were aware that having a child meant compromise on their part, that the perfect life they had imagined for themselves as fresh-faced newlyweds would have to lose one or two of their favorite details, in deference to the third small soul they had allowed into their lives. But they wouldn\'t be slaves to their fate, either. Compromise was one thing, but their beautiful room was another. Yet they were confident that they could all work out a set of rules and policies that the whole family could respect and enjoy, allowing them to have it both ways: all the joys of parenting, but all of their own very important joys, too. And someday the child would grow up, having learned the importance of respecting the property of others, along with an appreciation for the subtler, finer things life had to offer, and the three of them could sit together on the wing-back chairs (they would buy a third for her, once she came of age; who cared if it disrupted the balance of the room a little?) and they would inhale the cinnamon potpourri together in silence, and they would be very happy, all three.
So they made sure to let their daughter know, early on, what was Allowed and Not Allowed in the room. She was not to put her legs up on the table, for fear that the acids on her skin would slowly etch away the wood\'s luster, and she was not to touch the expensive books in neat rows on the shelf. If she wanted to make herself a cup of juice (which she often did, since both of her parents were frequently out of the house, and she got thirsty and lonely), she was to drink it in the kitchen, away from the easily stained rugs–it was better for her inevitable spills to happen on the chilly white tiles where her feet curled and stuck. The clock was off-limits altogether, although she would have loved to open it up and watch the winding, clicking brass gears perform their inscrutable functions. A general air of silence and reverence was encouraged, and eventually expected.
All of these policies she could tolerate–she hadn\'t known any other way of living, after all. What was much harder to tolerate were the rules about the chairs. They were so soft, so warm and inviting, and she liked nothing better than to curl up in them with her Roald Dahl books–she had started reading at three, a fact which her parents were always sure to mention to envious, childless friends–and she would hold her blue blanket in the crook of her elbow, suck her raw, red thumb, and wait for her mother to come back from her errands. Her mother, upon returning to find this incarnate threat to the chair\'s well-being (she would flatten the cushions! She would bend the arms!), always admonished her, firmly but fairly, to get down that instant. She asked where she was supposed to sit, then. Her mother, keen to compromise, dragged one of the wooden kitchen chairs into a corner of the room by the fire, just for her, but this was no good at all: her legs wouldn\'t reach the floor, and whenever a scene in her book became engrossing, she would lean forward so far that her tiny bottom would slide across the slick wood, nearly tumbling her to the floor, and anyway it was hard and cold and the unfinished spots on the underside of the seat would catch and fray her blanket when she tried to walk away.
But those were the rules, and she always wanted to obey the rules. Still, she often forgot, or proved unequal to the test of will required, and kept curling up in the wingback, whose footstool was just the right height for her to sit in comfort. So her parents took more drastic measures. They were not violent or angry people, and they never hit her or punished her, but they never failed to remind her of the rules the moment their infraction was noticed, and one day she woke up to find a heavy sheet of plastic, sterile and weblike, stretched across the fabric. Her father told her it was for the best; they would have the furniture in their home far longer than they would have her, they said, and it was important to take care of nice furniture. So she sat in the wooden chair instead and watched the plastic flicker in the firelight, like the silver surface of a reflecting pool: inviting, but off limits to one who hadn\'t yet mastered the art of backstroking gracefully through the eddies and currents of the social world, deaf to all its caveats and codicils. It was all for her own good. She accepted this.
Eventually she became used to sitting on the floor. This was fully acceptable to both her parents: she could snuggle in her blue blanket and read to her heart\'s content on the Oriental rug, and there was no danger of her wrecking anything–a happy medium! She spent a great deal of time on that rug by herself: she sometimes met other girls at school, who she felt she could be friends with, but whenever she was eventually invited to their houses she became overwhelmed by the foreign laws of foreign living rooms, and when other parents would ask her to take a seat on their nice, new furniture and to get comfortable, she suspected that they were just trying to trap her into a violation, and one time with one insistent mother she burst into tears under the woman\'s constant assaults of hospitality, and the mother asked her to go home, and in the end she was just too strange to keep any of her friends for long. Her parents silently approved of this as well: it meant fewer distractions from her all-important studies, and fewer young barbarians coming over expecting reciprocal courtesy, stampeding over bookcases, trampling end tables, taking mock forbidden bites from fat, artificial potpourri apples. And she became used to being alone, as well.
She grew up and went to university, all according to plan. But she still preferred to sit on the floor when she could, a quirk that always amused the people she met in her classes who invited her over for drugs and cigarettes and to discuss books. Why the hell do you sit on the floor like that, asked one young man to whose apartment she had gone with her roommate and a few others to smoke and talk. Aren\'t you uncomfortable? On the contrary, she said, this was the best way to be comfortable. She could sit any way she wanted: cross-legged, hunched over, her knees folded into her chest, lying on her back, or rolling around the floor like a stretching cat, a feat which she demonstrated for the amusement of everyone, her long body like a tumbleweed across the dirty floor, picking up fallen ashes and forgotten grit on the tangled fibers of her pullover. And it kept her humble, she added, once the laughter had died down and she had righted herself again. She had to look up at everyone, and see the undersides of tables and chairs that most people overlooked, dust-etched and gummy and fascinating, and she could never rely on any one perspective for long enough to really believe that she knew everything. It kept her honest, too.
She didn\'t think very much about this speech at the time, but a few days later she ran into the young man whose apartment it had been between classes on the campus quad, and he put his hands in the pockets of his peacoat and told her that he had been mulling over what she had said that time, that he just couldn\'t get it out of his mind, and he invited her out to a movie. He was good-looking enough in that collegiate way, long curly hair above a wispy string of a beard and blue eyes like Bob Dylan, so she accepted. The movie was all right, she guessed, something about artists and Paris, and they sat very close together in the red reclining seats of the theater–this was okay, she reasoned; it was a public space designed for occupation by people who didn\'t value taking care of things; she could do no damage here. He walked her home after the movie and kissed her on the cheek in the laundry-smelling hallway outside her dorm room, impetuously, like a darting mongoose. Afterward she touched the hot place where his outsider\'s lips had been while she looked at herself in the mirror, and she wondered at how suddenly that square inch of her body had been taken over, how flagrantly he had colonized it, overturned its old codes. She found it charming, in a mildly disapproving, indulgent manner.
He kept calling her and she kept seeing him; they were somehow involved, she guessed. He was a good enough conversationalist, though he preferred just listening to her tell stories about her crazy parents and their inviolate living room set, and a few times she went to his apartment and spent several afternoon hours in his stranger\'s bed, rolling in bra and slacks through the old sheets, feeling their unfamiliar warmth, weight and protocols against her skin and feeling the thrilling criminality of it all. But there were problems, too. He was too needy, too sappy; he called her up too often just to say he loved her or some other endearment, so much that she wondered if he had any spine at all, whether, if she stopped seeing him, he would continue to exist at all, or whether he would just blur out, like a silver photo in the rain. And he seemed to think that she could do no wrong, which irritated her: didn\'t he know her? Didn\'t he hold her to any standards, any boundaries? Did he just think of her as some untrustworthy child to be indulged? It disgusted her and she tried not to think about it.
Still, on the whole she was fine with the arrangement, and it stayed that way for months. He was becoming less fine with it, though. She was always so cold, he told her, so distant, and he never knew what she was thinking. He became even more passive, conversationally, paying attention to her every word with such sober nods and frowns, so intent on understanding her, prying her apart, that she grew too self-conscious to say anything, and that just made him fume and complain even more. She knew he wanted something from her, but she was baffled as to what: it was like he had given her a codex in cuneiform, which she struggled to decipher as best she could, but on some other level she had serious doubts about whether it was even worth the effort of following rules to arcane for her to respect. She began to make excuses not to go to his apartment, began to screen out a good third of his calls. She began to think about how much more time she would have to herself if she were alone, how much time she could spend reading on the floor, and how much nicer that might be.
One night he called her in the evening and said that he was feeling anxious and depressed and that he needed to see her right away. She groaned, but agreed to meet him on the quadrangle in an hour. Just as she hung up, her roommate came in and asked her if she wanted to go over to a friend\'s house, one who had been away for a while, to smoke some pot and to catch up on things. She almost said no, but then thought for a moment and said yes. Whatever was bothering him probably wasn\'t serious, in the end, and anyway she was starting to think it was good to put some distance between then, to breathe (she felt the faint scent of cinnamon come into her nostrils for a moment.) So she went with her roommate, and they smoked and chatted and had a nice time. Afterward, she was relaxed enough and the night was nice enough that she didn\'t feel like going home just yet. She thought about calling him, but decided that tomorrow would be soon enough, and instead she went to the all-night library, where she found a good, thick book, leaned up against the end of the shelf, stretched out her legs, and began to read, content.
Some time later, she heard footsteps coming down the stacks. It was him. His hair was wet and hung around his eyes, which had become hollow, wild.
Uh, fancy meeting you here, she said. Sorry about earlier. He didn\'t say anything. Is it raining out or something? she asked. Yes, he said. I\'ve been walking for hours, looking for you. I went to all the coffeehouses and bars before coming here. Then I walked up and down every shelf until I found you. He stared down at her, at her splayed legs on the carpet. She had no idea what to think about this. She had no idea what to think about anything, suddenly.
Come with me, he said, and she felt she had no choice.
She followed him for the dozen blocks from the library to his apartment, through the chilly curtains of rain. Every so often the absurdity of what she was doing struck her, and she tried to make idle conversation so that she could stay on an even emotional keel, but he kept silent and so she kept following. As soon as the front door to the apartment closed behind her he fell on her, assaulting the hollows of her neck and shoulder with his mouth. She was startled, and felt like clawing at him, running away, but it seemed impertinent, apocalyptically against the rules, and after a minute this excited her so much that she no longer felt like running away. She fell asleep holding him tightly to her naked chest, and when she woke up to the sunlight between the blinds he was gone, leaving her imprisoned beneath the tight-fitting coverlet in a body that was no longer fully her own.
It took a long shower in the dorm bathroom before she felt her thoughts come together again. They were supposed to go to a party later that night, and she wondered whether he would show up. She arrived a few minutes early to a smiling hostess and a living room filled with Klimt prints and empty chairs, vinyl and white. It would be strange, she knew, to sit on the floor when no one else was there, and so she perched on the smallest chair, picking at her nails. Soon the guests began to arrive, liquor was distributed, and the conversation got lively. Then he walked in the door. His Bob Dylan eyes found her immediately.
What are you doing, he said.
Um, I don\'t know, she replied. Talking? Drinking? Sitting?
Right, he said, lips tight. Sitting. Get down right now.
–What? she said. Whoa there, said the hostess.
Get down on the floor right now, he said.
The other guests laughed nervously and watched the spectacle. She was caught in the crosscurrent between them and him and had no idea what she was supposed to do. He stared at her for a few moments more, brow flushed, and then in four quick steps he was behind her, hands on the blades of her back. What the hell? she shouted, and then she was tumbling forward, and her knee struck the carpet, bruising and aching, and there she was on the floor, crumpled up like a beached fish, the spilled remains of her vodka pooling around her hip. Everyone got quiet. He circled the chair and sat down in the place where she had been, crossed his legs, and faced the rest of the guests, expression blank.
I–don\'t get it, man, said one of the guests.
She\'s not allowed to sit in the chairs, he explained.
She looked up at him. He looked down at her. And suddenly it made so much sense. She sat up and leaned against his leg, wanting to feel its warmth against her back. My mistake, she said. The immediate crisis was over, everyone guessed, and the conversation started gradually again. But she wanted them all to be gone. She wanted to be alone here with him, on the floor with him in the chair, wanted to feel this forever: this simplicity, this purity, this sense of home and place, here on the carpet with the vodka and ice soaking her skirt, here with him.
And how strange, that it had to be that way. How wonderful, somehow, that it could be this way.