Gnossienne No. 1
As the Christmas holiday arrived, Martin Goren desperately needed to escape Boston. He had driven himself into a state of exhaustion. Even the few hours of sleep he could catch every night were little relief, because they were filled with disquieting dreams in which he constantly fell short of others’ expectations, in which he was caught having gone to class in his underwear, in which he was laughed at outside the B.U. Law School’s sole building. His work on the law review had eaten up fourteen hours a day, leaving little time for classes and studying. He hated everything and everyone around him. A therapist might have told him that he was on the verge of decompensating, but all he wanted to do was to get home.
As he crammed his suitcase with dirty clothes, he ruminated about Annette, a petite brown-haired junior at Simmons he’d met at a mixer. Since the beginning of the semester, she’d been the only pleasant part of his life. A week earlier he’d promised to drive her to Logan Airport to catch her flight back to Cincinnati and to help with her luggage, but then had reneged, making excuses. He felt that he could not afford the time nor the energy, when he had so much studying to do at home. She’d hung up on him without saying goodbye. Perhaps he’d been too selfish, he thought. He put his suitcase on the floor and sat on it to force it closed.
Minutes before he was to leave, the phone rang. It had to be Annette again, begging once more for help. What didn’t she understand? Yet, guilt overwhelmed him. All right, you win. I’ll drive you, he thought.
“Martin? It’s Ellie.”
He’d not heard Ellie’s voice for years and, in his shock, he could barely repeat her name. “Ellie.” Halfway between a question and a statement. He stared at the heavy casebooks ready to be packed into his briefcase: Constitutional Law and Corporations.
“You okay, Martin? You sound weird. Are you stoned or something?”
How did his ex-girlfriend have the nerve to complain about how he spoke when they’d been out of touch for so long? When she refused to love him, he’d been bitter, but he’d worked hard to put the bitterness away. He threw Constitutional Law at the wall. If Ellie heard the thump, she chose to say nothing. He took a deep breath.
“No, I’m fine. Why are you calling? Are you in Boston?”
His voice betrayed more than a touch of annoyance. She’d be justified in hanging up, he thought.
“I’m still at Princeton, finishing a long paper.”
“Yes. Didn’t I write to you that I was going to grad school here?”
“I don’t recall.”
“I have to stay over Christmas, but then thought you might want to drive down from Summit and visit. If you’re going to be in Summit over your school break, that is. And, to be honest, maybe you could drive me to Newark Airport after visiting so I can catch a flight. I’m leaving for a semester in Copenhagen, and my folks are away. But it would be great to visit with you again. So, can you?”
“Yeah, sure.” He knew he’d sounded sullen and uninterested, so he tried to sweeten his tone. “I mean, it would be very nice to see you.”
“Really? I wasn’t sure you’d want to, but great. I’ll have this damn paper done by the 27th and my flight leaves the 28th. Come down on the 27th and stay overnight.”
She delivered her plan as if his compliance was certain. How well she knew him, powerless to resist. It was as if she’d asked him to pick up hair shampoo for her at the drugstore on his way over to her house. It was as if she’d sent him to her locker to retrieve her calculus book. He’d always been at her beck and call and now found himself once again playing that familiar role. After they disconnected, he threw Corporations at the wall.
On his drive to New Jersey he imagined a conversation in which he told Ellie that he’d changed his mind, just as he’d abandoned his promise to help Annette. Something would have come up. His grandmother would be very sick, perhaps. Strangely enough, in his musing about how to get out of this new commitment, he never thought of telling her the truth about his need to study right through the holidays. He settled on a story about his grandmother. When he got home, he picked up the phone to cancel, but his hand shook so horribly that he replaced the receiver in its cradle. He had to see her. Sure, she was using him, but he wanted to be used, if only he could see her again.
He drove to Princeton on the 27th, a cold, blustery day. Making his way across campus, he remembered how devoted Ellie had been to the concept of the best possible education. He didn’t begrudge her that she’d attended Columbia while he went to the University of Massachusetts or that she now studied at another Ivy League school while he pursued his law degree at B.U. But hadn’t she looked down on him for not attending better schools? What if he had gone to graduate school at Princeton too? Would their relationship have blossomed again? What if he somehow had gone to Columbia too? Would they have ever broken up?
He parked outside her dorm, got out of his car, and heard Ellie call from the doorway. She ran to greet him. Her long straight brown hair, which looked exactly as it had in high school, swung in time with her cadence. She wore only a pair of jeans and an orange cotton t-shirt with the word “Princeton” in all capitals across her chest. He wasn’t sure what exactly to expect about their coming together, but they embraced warmly and smoothly, like the sweethearts they’d been, holding each other tightly as if they’d never been apart. Years melted away. He’d not expected the sweet taste of her mouth and tongue, but their kiss was exactly as he remembered, as if he’d kissed her only the day before. He tried with all his might to squeeze her into him, but she pulled away laughing after a few seconds.
“Martin! Great to see you! Come on, let’s get out the cold.”
“It’s been so long,” he replied, cringing as he heard himself babble. He had to push himself to keep up with her as she rushed back into the building. He’d seen no other people on campus. Sensible people had gone home for the holidays.
“Here’s my room.”
Ellie, too, felt awkward about seeing Martin again. She’d deliberated long and hard about whether to call him, even after she’d gotten his phone number from his mother. As she thought about the dual purposes of calling him – catching up with an old boyfriend and catching a ride to the airport – she wasn’t sure which purpose predominated. Had she really first thought about how she’d get to the airport and then remembered that Martin was within driving distance of both her and Newark? No, she told herself. She must have been thinking about Martin for some reason, then imagining that it would be nice to get together, then hitting up the idea of having him visit and, later, dropping her off to catch her flight. But why had she wanted to see him? She wasn’t sure. What it just the desire to check in with an old friend? Their relationship had been, in Ellie’s view, a long time in the past and had ended badly. It has been a loving relationship only from Martin’s point of view. She had not wanted to be serious in that way at such a young age. It had never been love for her.
She’d lately had her sights on William, a recently-met business student at Wharton. He’d promised to visit her in Copenhagen in January. But William was in Florida with his family over the holidays. Martin was with her now, she reflected, and she’d kissed him deeply and enjoyed it. The kiss reminded her why she’d liked Martin so much in high school.
They entered her room. A Rhapsody in Blue poster decorated one wall, and a desk held piles of paper, a typewriter, pens, pencils, and books. Clothes covered her desk chair, next to which lay a half-packed suitcase, and against one wall sat a turntable connected to two small speakers. With the exception of the suitcase, the room looked to Martin little different from her room in Summit, the room of a creative person at work.
“Well, take off that coat! Sit down!” Ellie pointed to her bed. “Would you like herb tea?”
She filled an electric pot at the fountain in the hall as he perched near the edge of her neatly-made bed and thought back to when they’d last been together in her bedroom in Summit, the door required to be left open by her father, the obnoxious odor of his cigar permeating her house. But then Ellen walked in with the tea, bringing him back to the present. She closed the door behind her and pulled him further back on the bed, next to her, so they could sit side by side with their backs against the wall. They drank tea and nibbled on crackers and cheese.
“Let’s listen to music,” she said, put a record on her turntable, and returned next to him. “Satie,” she announced. “This first piece is Gnossienne No. 1.”
That’s when he first heard that melody, the Oriental chromaticism, the iambic pulse, the uncertain chords. His left arm pulled her close as they sat, their heads leaning against each other. Was he dreaming? How quickly it seemed that five years had disappeared. He’d been captured by the fragrance of her hair, honeydew and orange slices and soft flowers, an aroma from the distant past that was very much alive again. They listened to the entire side of the album without speaking, letting the music talk to them both. Then, the turntable arm tracked toward the spindle, lifted, moved back to the record’s circumference, and set itself down again at Gnossienne No. 1. Ellie let it play as he pulled her as close to himself as he dared.
“What’s Gnossienne?” asked Martin softly during the third repetition.
“It comes from Greek, about knowledge. But in Satie it’s really about mystery.”
“According to the program notes.”
She turned to him and they kissed again deeply. It was the kiss that excited her, made her feel like she could melt, and she yearned for deeper contact but restrained herself from touching him or inviting him to touch her more intimately. She knew, as much as she enjoyed the contact with Martin, as much as it made her think back to a year when they were intimate, she could proceed no further. He was always too serious, and it would not do to make him think that their five years apart could be undone. Just a sweet kiss, for a few minutes longer, was all she needed.
Martin was stunned not only by their kiss but by her distinct shiver as they kissed, as if she had plunged herself into a pool of ice water, and when Ellie finally turned her head away, he could breathe with relief. The pangs of longing aroused by her kiss were too sharp, too threatening as they boiled through him. He could hardly think straight. He lost his bearing, not sure exactly where he was for a few seconds. The music gently pulled him back. Listening to the quiet piano sounds, holding her, longing for her, he remembered when he’d taken her hand at a school picnic to keep her from falling as they stumbled down a hill and how he’d not let go, determined to push his way into her life. How she’d let him keep holding her hand and how they’d spent the afternoon talking, reciting poetry, Allen Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas. He luxuriated in the memory until their next kiss obliterated memory and all other constructs of the mind.
It wasn’t until the fourth repetition of the record’s side that Ellie continued a conversation that had been on pause for a half-hour. “Imagine a cult where everyone worships the Unapproachable – capital U – like a god. They can’t say why, but they’re devoted, would lay down their lives, give up everything to be in their god’s presence. That kind of mystery. That’s Satie for you.”
“Giving up life for an unapproachable god? I don’t know anyone like that.”
But Ellie had unwittingly described him to a T. He still worshiped her. As if sensing his thoughts, she turned toward him for what was now their fourth or fifth kiss, a connection as pleasant as but less urgent than those that preceded it. It was almost as if they had settled into a routine. He thought about the early morning kisses they shared when he picked her up for the short ride to high school and their goodbye kisses every afternoon as he dropped her off. They were the kisses that were not a prelude to lovemaking, but the kisses that said that they were there for each other.
She pulled back again after a few seconds.
“It’s been a long time since we were together like this, Martin, hasn’t it?”
“How long since we saw even each other?”
“Years. Not sure how many.”
Yet he knew exactly. He’d visited her in Manhattan one summer four years back. Again, it had been Ellie who’d initiated contact and, again, he’d come running. Other friends of hers, people he did not know, had been with her. After an hour of inane conversation he’d headed back to the Port Authority bus terminal, crying, not understanding why she’d wanted to see him, the agony of their breakup flooding him once more. Now, at Princeton, the vinyl kept spinning, the needle returning to its starting point, an endless cycle that would continue as long as they allowed. As long as he allowed.
The afternoon swung rapidly toward darkness. Beginning to fall asleep, he closed his eyes, captured by the music and by the image of a future where Ellie and he could be together, one minor key sliding into another. He could feel her heartbeat, gentle and steady, and pondered the impossibility of the situation even as he prayed that they could stay like that forever. Satie’s harmonies floated about as he smelled her hair.
Of all the ways Ellie had thought they might spend the afternoon, the idea of simply sitting next to each other on her bed, occasionally kissing, always holding each other, had never crossed her mind. But yet, she thought, this was exactly what she must have wanted when she called Martin and invited him to visit. She had wanted to recapture for a moment that feeling of closeness that had bound them for a year. She had wanted the reassurance that she was still desirable to him, the first boy who had ever devoted himself to meeting her needs and making her happy. And she wanted to rekindle a friendship that she’d never wanted to end. She wanted to eradicate the bitterness. She’d never wanted to hurt him. He’d hurt himself by being too serious, by refusing to accept the limits of her emotions, refusing to understand that she could give him her body but not her heart.
“I wondered whether I should try reaching out to you one more time,” she said.
“I’m glad you did.”
“I hated it that you were so … that you didn’t want to be friends. We’d spent too much time together, we’d been so close, to let it end in such an angry way. You were so angry, Martin.”
“Being just friends was too hard.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be so hard now?”
He had no answer to that. He didn’t understand at all what was happening, why she’d invited him, why she’d wanted to kiss and hold him, what exactly she meant by “just friends.” He understood what she’d meant by his anger, however. It had been anger at himself mostly, at his weakness. He’d torn himself away from her to save himself from unending pain. The tearing had caused more pain for a while, as he’d known it would. Even when he pain subsided, its effects lingered. He’d been unable to reach out with a full heart to other girls in the aftermath of Ellie, regardless of how close he might approach them physically. Annette had been only the latest example. Some invisible barrier prevented him from treating her as the whole person she was, from caring her as she deserved. The machinery of caring had been stopped up for years, its gears missing, its joints rusted, its belts frayed.
The music continued to ease from one Gnossienne to the next, from one Gymnasium to the next, to the other short pieces. The years without Ellie vanished. Martin became once more the awkward sixteen-year-old boy staring across a classroom, imagining what it would be like to be with her.
“I haven’t changed very much, Ellie. Not about the way I feel. I don’t know about being just friends.”
Minutes passed and the phonograph arm swung yet again – he’d long before lost count of how many times they’d listened – and by now it was as if he knew every note that Satie had written. He kissed her on the head.
It was that kiss on the head that made Ellie take the next step in organizing their day. The kiss, she’d felt, had almost been too possessive and it also signaled that their time together on the bed, listening to Satie, had to end. The early winter night had fallen completely, and it was time to lay out the parameters she’d thought of days before.
“I’d ask you to sleep with me in bed tonight, Martin, but I have a boyfriend. So, you know, we can’t do that. Do you mind sleeping on the floor? You can have a blanket and a pillow.”
“The floor will be fine.”
They grabbed a quick dinner at a pizza place and returned to her room. She pulled a blanket and pillow from her closet, and he found himself staring at the Rhapsody in Blue poster as she readied herself for the night.
Of course he minded. He hated the idea of not lying with her, hated the realization that she cared more about someone else and that, for a while, he’d deceived himself into believing that they might be together again. But then he realized that she’d deceived him, perhaps unintentionally, and he had to pretend that he didn’t care, that she could have her bed all to her herself, that she could have her boyfriend, Columbia, Princeton, and Copenhagen, and that the floor was fine, really.
She spread the orange and black blanket on the floor, and he lay down, wrapping himself in the wool and facing away from her bed. In the dark, he could soon hear her even breathing and knew she slept. He lay thinking, replaying their words, reliving their kisses, and could still taste and smell her. He could still feel her tongue inside his mouth. He could still feel the texture of her hair against his cheek. He could still hear Gnossienne No. 1. Exhilarated and tormented by a day in which every second held meaning, he could not sleep. An hour before dawn, though, he did drift off to a light slumber and dreamt; he found himself trying to tread water in a lake, his legs growing heavy, the water pulling him down.
And then he woke and watched her. She must have been dreaming too, because she stretched out her legs, and he could see the firm muscles in her thighs twitch and relax. As the room grew lighter, he detected a half smile on her face, almost hidden by her long brown hair.
He could easily crawl in with her. She might let him stay. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. But all he did was watch. Soon enough, she opened her eyes and caught him staring.
“Martin, how long’ve you been looking at me?”
She yawned and did not seem upset to have been spied upon. For a second, he imagined she might make room for him next to her after all, but she swung her legs around and sat up, grabbing her robe.
“A little while. I thought about getting in with you. You looked so inviting.”
She’d known immediately, without him having to tell her, what he’d been thinking and wondered for a second whether she should against all probability invite him to lie with her. She’d dreamt about William and the dream had turned sexual. She was horny. Then she collected her thoughts and realized what a giant mistake it would be to invite Martin into her bed.
“Hardly. No, I’m glad you didn’t. Like I told you, I have a boyfriend and, well, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea.”
“Right. We’re friends, got it. You looked peaceful and happy there, smiling in your sleep.”
He detected a slight blush, but maybe it was a trick of the weak light.
“It’s a relief to have finished the paper. Say ... didn’t you get undressed last night?”
“No, as a matter of fact, I didn’t.”
Martin returned to Boston a week later, deeply in love with Ellie, as obsessed with her as ever. He fantasized that she’d return from Copenhagen for the summer and find an internship in Boston, where he planned to work for a law firm. They would start out as just friends, he would assure her of that, but friendships could turn into more. A summer could do it. Hadn’t they come so close to being lovers again in just that one afternoon?
He felt that a fog had lifted, that he could see colors more vividly. He could create himself anew. He felt his mind had been sharpened via the magic of love. He would perform well enough on his exams and tackle his law review article with renewed determination.
Annette returned to Boston, too, and Martin recalled with embarrassment how he’d disappointed her, not being the friend he should’ve been. He hated himself for having blown her off. Luckily, after he apologized, she still wanted to see him.
He bought Annette a dozen red roses apropos of nothing, laughed at her silly jokes, nibbled on her ear as they waited for the Green Line car. He took her to Antonio’s, a tiny restaurant on Joy Street, where the pleasant elderly waiter with a thick Italian accent joked and insisted they were lovers. Annette smiled at Martin as if she believed it, too. He wanted her to believe it, just for a little while, just for a few months. Just until the summer.
Piano music, too soft to be recognized, uncertain, iambic, in a minor key, played in the background.