Sara Majka


Reverón’s Dolls

1.

Maybe five or six years ago, when I was in the middle of a divorce from a man I still loved, I took the train into the city. We were both moving often during this time, as if it were the best solution to a shattered life: to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not our marriage and life with each other, then something in ourselves. He was teaching in the Hudson Valley, and I had moved back to Maine, but would go sometimes to see him, and we would take long walks saying little because much had already been said. We would walk through the estates along the river, and drive up to Hudson, where there was a café that we liked, with an outside patio made of concrete. The croissants were carefully made there, though they served everything on paper plates.

He would order while I waited at the table, and when he returned we often didn’t talk, or we would complain about the waste of paper. Even if it was summer it felt like fall, and I never had a sure sense of where we were. After a time I would get in my car and find my way back to Maine, though the roads were strange and I’d have to pull over in that old Ford—with the leather seats ripping and the filling coming through, and the smell of the car, all this was a comfort; I felt an intimacy, having been with him, that would disappear after several days. Pulling over next to the green thickets of that farm country, and calling him. The wood signs had road numbers that I didn’t know, and he didn’t know, but we would piece it together, and tell each other small jokes.

It might have been during one of these trips that I took the train into the city, perhaps leaving from Poughkeepsie, though I don’t remember for sure. Only that I wasn’t well in the way that I would be several years later, and that the wave of the power lines in the midday sun seemed alive to me. I watched them for the better part of two hours. They seemed to be telling me something—the way the lines threaded up and down, and passed through sun and shadows. It felt as if there was only me on the train and the distant spectacle keeping pace with me.

The train was dirty with few people on it. We passed empty lots and warehouses. When we pulled into Grand Central, I entered the station and stood against the wall, so that I could look at the ceiling without being noticed, as the tourists who wandered with their heads up would be noticed. Then I found my way to the museum, though all this I don’t remember well. It was maybe 2008, in the new MoMA, which seemed that day like a church built to disorient. A large white space, with escalators that brought you from floor to floor, and every floor looked like the one before it. I was going to MoMA to see an exhibit of an Argentinean artist named Armando Reverón. The Times had run an article with photographs of his life-sized dolls, and of his self-portraits with the dolls. The exhibit took up one gallery, with the paintings in front and the dolls in back. For a time I sat on a bench, then I left the gallery.

I don’t remember the train ride back. How I remember the train ride there I don’t know; it must have been the brightness of the journey, and the strangeness of those lines. I don’t recall much from this time, and I thought I wouldn’t see my ex-husband again, or return to the Hudson Valley, and for some time it seemed to vanish for me.

In the spring I saw him again, him in his light-weight coat, standing in the parking lot near his office at the college. He was dating someone by then, someone who lived in town. He looked at me—a small, un-seasonably dressed woman with a slight tremble—and what he saw I didn’t know, probably he felt sorry for me, but I also imagine it—my trembling, my discomposure—made him happy, him standing there, holding his coffee cup, dressed in an appropriate jacket, standing in front of the building that housed his office.

2.

During the breakup of our marriage—when I had first moved out of our apartment—I went to a cottage along the water that belonged to my family. My husband and I had gone there several times when we were together, always at odd times, during odd weather, when no one else wanted it. I was there all winter or until someone else came. My husband came one day. He didn’t tell me he was coming. There was a cafeteria-style restaurant that served cheap fish meals, and people ate together at long tables. He came in, but he didn’t see me and I didn’t motion for him. He got clam chowder and sat. He bent his head over the chowder so the steam went to his cheeks, which were pink from the cold.

I finished my meal, and then sat across from him. He looked at the people at the tables—they were fishermen, and women who cleaned hotel rooms during the season, and men who cooked during the season, and now it was out of season and no one had much to do—and said it hadn’t changed much. He finished the chowder, eating with the half-focused air of all the men who ate there. When he finished he put the wrappers in the bottom of the cup. He agreed to coffee. I got two cups and a square of cake. After we ate, he said, We might as well see what the town looks like, so we walked together. I felt like a caretaker showing a house that I loved but that had been more neglected than it ought to have been. We could go clamming, I said. He counted the days and said, You’re right, it’s Sunday, and he asked after the tide and I said, 3:00 p.m., and he said, That’s a good tide. I thought of my body underneath my coat, of what it would feel like to take my coat off in the kitchen while he was there.

Clamming happens in many villages along the East Coast. Clam beds are seeded—in that people aren’t looking for wild clams, but are searching for clams that have been put there much as fields are sown. The locals clam in the fall, once the tourists are gone. They walk the jetty, which remains passable through the winter, though in January the rocks have pools of ice. I once read a book about clams. I’ve forgotten much of what was said about the lives of clams, though I’m left with the idea of them as drifting, that the tide raises them and they skirt along until being brought down. The locals clam for hard-shelled clams. They get them by going while the tide is out, and raking with an instrument that looks like a garden rake. Unless clamming in an area with a lot of shells, you know you’ve hit a clam by the ping against the rake. Then you reach down and lift the clam, and toss it to the pile. If it’s so large the clam will be chewy, or so small it passes through the gauge, you put it in the sand and stomp on the ground. This keeps it from the seagulls that come in, once you leave, like ravens to a kill that’s been left behind. When the birds get clams, they fly to a flat roof and drop them to break them open. To the people under the rooves it sounds like solitary hail.

3.

Later on I was in New York, where I was staying in a married couple’s apartment while they were traveling. It was a corner apartment filled with light, overlooking a church. The husband was an artist and the walls were covered with his canvasses. I’m not sure if the husband had wanted them hung, but the wife had, so I would wake and have coffee with the light coming in and the brightness of the paintings. There were cats who slept with me, and there were stairs to the roof, though the old man who lived in the apartment below hated noise, so you had to creep up the stairs. If you went up just as it was getting dark, the last of the light receded behind the steeple and made it loom as if in a magical way, and that feeling of being nowhere, or in someone else’s life, or between lives, that I had become used to, I was often full of that feeling.

The old man who lived below the roof had a window on his landing that was coated in film, and he had placed four dying plants in front of it, leading me to believe the dead plants on the roof were also his. Those were entirely dead, and looked like buried branches, or like a Zen garden of sparseness. It was as if he had first tried a garden on the roof, but when those died he receded further, only daring to try outside his door, and as those were dying he enclosed himself even more, and I never saw him.

The couple whose apartment I was staying in were very much in love. When I visited we would smoke on the roof, and eat bean salads, and I would watch the light around the steeple and feel happy that I was there, feeling for a time that there was nothing but the roof, and them, and their happiness. Then we would creep back down. We weren’t supposed to talk on the landing because of the man, though often they’d forget and would tell each other jokes. It seemed the sort of carelessness that love can evoke, where things can be taken with great seriousness, but also without any at all because of the happiness that was between them. But I never forgot about the man, and felt him each time I passed his landing, with that dark mat and pile of shoes, and the plants crowding the sill, which rather than suggesting hope, seemed a fleeting and failed attempt at life.

One time when I was visiting, the couple told me that he suddenly had a woman living with him. She was much younger, didn’t speak good English, and barely went out. They didn’t know how he could have gotten her. She was young, not unpretty. On my last visit, though, the wife said, It’s just the man again. The woman is gone.

It’s hard to talk about love. It’s as if it closes when we’re not experiencing it, so it’s impossible to remember what it was like. After my divorce, I briefly dated someone much younger. It was only for a short time, but I felt something I hadn’t felt in a while. It was summer. I had pinned the curtain at the corner, and the light was coming in. It was as if the moon was right there. I remember that he was leaving, moving to Berlin. I had gone to Berlin once, and remember trying to make out a subway map at night, when a man walked over to help. The man had been tall in the dark, as tall, it seemed, as the post the map was on. It’s strange what you remember, what will keep. Whole years can pass, can end up being unimportant, but this stranger in Berlin I remember, perhaps because it was a surprise to land in Berlin to find nothing in English. It must have been 1999; it was a different city then.

4.

For years after the divorce, I found I fell in love easily. Sometimes when this happened, I moved to another city, and for a while I was happy in the new city because small things were again enough to fill the day. There would be the matter of finding a mattress, and trips to the junk shop, with tubs of silverware to sort through, and row after row of shelves, each growing darker and more closed in, looking for stacks of old plates, sifting through, putting stacks on my lap so I could look at the ones underneath. I liked the grime of the places, and of the items, and what it left on my fingers. The cluster of old men at the door and holding my items and waiting to see which of the men, if any, would say the prices, and the bags tearing so the things would have to be taken out and carried.

When I was in Bushwick, I forget what the store was called, but in back were bins of clothes and I would take home jeans with holes and old belts and shoes collapsed in on themselves. At night I boiled eggs and sat in front of the fan drinking gin and tonics, eating the eggs along with olives from a jar. The grocery store smelled bad and there were often puddles, both in the store and in the street, because of the fire hydrants that were opened in the summer so that children could play and the adults could watch and occasionally be hit by mist.

There was a new bar in the neighborhood, and a lot of money had been put into it, as if for a party that hadn’t happened yet. Local artists did one of the walls in metal, and the front window was stained glass. It was nice to go during happy hour when the bartenders were just starting. Their outfits—hats and western shirts—looked silly at that hour, so I felt affection for them as they cut limes and poured drinks. I drank greyhounds because the juice was good, and juice was not the sort of thing I bought back then. The bartenders liked each other and spent time together outside of work, not at parties, but in small ways that were nice to hear about. Later in the night they grew quiet. I left before this time. Only once or twice I stayed after happy hour. Many people showed up. It seemed a foreign place like an airport.

The other nice thing was going out to smoke when the sun went down and the sky grew pink. Pigeons sat on a building across the street, and all at once they would lift and fly in circles. Afterwards, there were more hours left in the night than there should have been, and it wasn’t that beautiful anymore. It was a dark city of trash bags behind gates, and partially lit stores that seemed both open and closed. Puddles of dirty water mixed with something sweet you didn’t want to step in.

I loved New York back then. It was the sort of love that was uncomfortable, as the city didn’t return warmth, but only strange and astounding vistas. The sudden opening of the subway on to a bridge. Looking blankly out the window at the Statue of Liberty at sunset, at sunrise. All the bottles of cleaner at the bodega, each a different color, that I thought were sodas at first. I remember that I was frightened, that I was afraid of getting worse, as I had been getting better for some time. I was afraid that this life I was leading—though everything was beautiful and filled with sensation—might prove too brittle, might fall apart in ways that would surprise me.

5.

I was thinking of what happens when what makes life possible disappears. The Armando Reverón exhibit had made me think of this. He was mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, and had retreated to an inner life with dolls, making objects for them, and painting himself with them. In the paintings he stares out, isolated, surrounded by figures who don’t understand him.

I was reminded of Reverón during a movie I saw recently. I went to the theater alone one rainy afternoon. An ex-boyfriend worked at the theater, but he wasn’t there. The movie was a documentary about a man who had been severely beaten and had to have surgery after. He lost much of his memory, and afterwards was a different person. He had been an alcoholic before, but afterwards didn’t drink. He had also been in a relationship before, but not afterwards. Afterwards he developed infatuations for people. I was reminded of what the Times had said about this man, that to fall in love would be the greatest risk, and I thought this was true. Mostly the movie was about the worlds he created using dolls, and the photographs he took of them. When he had an infatuation, or a close friend, or someone he hated, he would make a doll version of them. They all lived in a town he made, and they went to a bar he created.

When I watched the movie, I thought if he did find someone he could be with, someone who accepted him, if they then left for one reason or another—as sometimes people have good reasons for leaving, even if they, too, are in love—then this man could lose whatever capacity he had for staying alive. That love is more than a risk for some, for some it’s impossible, and then what do we do in the face of that?

I didn’t make it through the movie. I would have missed the early bus, and so would have had to wait for the next bus. By then it would have been dark, and still raining, and the thought of sitting in the glass stop in the dark, and then sitting on the bus in the dark, seemed unbearable. So I darted out of the theater, exploding into the lobby that was filled with my ex’s coworkers. They didn’t know I was worried about the bus, and about sitting in the rain. Perhaps they thought I had come for him, and, when he wasn’t there, had been so overcome that I had run out of the theater. I went outside. It was still raining. I had an umbrella and raised it. By then I was walking slowly and cautiously to prove that I was collected, or still quickly to show that I was worried over time and busses. I forget which now, though it would have been one of them.