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Authors: Lydia Davis

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BOOK: Break It Down
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Her lover lies next to her and since she has brought it up he asks her when it ended. She tells him it ended about a year ago and then she can't say any more. He waits and then asks how it ended, and she tells him it ended stormily. He says carefully that he wants to know about it, and everything about her life, but that he doesn't want her to talk about it if she doesn't want to. She turns her face a little away from him so that the lamplight is shining on her closed eyes. She thought she wanted to tell him, but now she can't and she feels tears under her eyelids. She is surprised because this is the second time today that she has cried and she hasn't cried for weeks.
She can't say to herself that it is really over, even though anyone else would say it was over, since he has moved to another city, hasn't been in touch with her in
more than a year, and is married to another woman. Now and then she has heard news. Someone gets a letter from him, and the news is that he is nearly out of his financial troubles and is thinking of starting a magazine. Before that, someone else has news that he lives downtown with this woman he later marries. They have no telephone, because they owe the telephone company so much money. The telephone company, in those days, calls her from time to time and asks her politely where he is. A friend tells her he works nights at the docks packing sea urchins and comes home at four in the morning. Then this same friend tells her how he has offered something to a lonely woman in exchange for a large amount of money that makes the woman feel very insulted and unhappy.
Before that, when he still worked nearby, she would drive over to see him and argue with him at the gas station, where he read Faulkner in the office under the fluorescent lights, and he would look up with his eyes full of wariness when he saw her come in. They would argue between customers, and when he was filling a car she would think what she could say next. Later, after she stopped going there, she would walk through the town looking for his car. Once, in the rain, a van turned a corner suddenly at her and she stumbled over her boots into a ditch and then she saw herself clearly: a woman in early middle age wearing rubber boots walking in the dark looking for a white car and now falling into a ditch,
prepared to go on walking and to be satisfied with the sight of the man's car in a parking lot even if the man was somewhere else and with another woman. That night she walked around and around the town for a long time, checking the same places over and over again, thinking that during the fifteen minutes it had taken her to walk from one end of the town to the other he might have driven up to the spot she had left fifteen minutes before, but she did not find the car.
The car is an old white Volvo; it has a beautiful soft shape. She sees other old Volvos nearly every day, and some are tan or cream-colored—close to the color of his—and some are his color, white, but undented and unrusted. The license plates never have a K in them, and the drivers, always in silhouette, are either women or men with glasses or men with heads that are smaller than his.
That spring she was translating a book because it was the only thing she could do. Every time she stopped typing and picked up the dictionary his face floated up between her and the page and the pain settled into her again, and every time she put the dictionary down and went on typing his face and the pain went away. She did a lot of hard work on the translation just to keep the pain away.
Before that, in late March, in a crowded bar, he told her what she was expecting to hear and what she dreaded hearing. Right away she lost her appetite, but he ate
very well and ate her dinner too. He did not have the money to pay for the dinner and so she paid. After dinner he said, Maybe in ten years. She said, Maybe in five, but he didn't answer that.
 
She stops by the post office to pick up a check. She is already late for where she is going, but she needs the money. She sees his handwriting on an envelope in her mailbox. Though it is very familiar to her, or because it is so familiar to her, she doesn't know right away whose handwriting it is. When she realizes whose it is, she swears aloud over and over again walking back to the car. While she is swearing she is also thinking, and she decides that this envelope will have a check in it for some of the money he owes her. He owes her over $300. If he has been embarrassed about the debt, this would explain the year of silence, and if he now has some money to send her, this would explain the fact that now he is breaking the silence. She gets into the car, puts the key in the ignition, and opens the envelope. There is no check in it, and it is not a letter but a poem in French, carefully copied out in his handwriting. The poem ends
compagnon de silence
. Then his name. She doesn't read all of it because she is late meeting some people she doesn't know very well.
She goes on swearing at him until she gets to the highway. She is angry because he has sent her a letter, and because the letter has immediately made her happy,
and then her happiness has brought back the pain. And she is angry because nothing can ever make up for the pain. Though of course it is hard to call it a letter, since it is nothing but a poem, the poem is in French, and the poem was composed by someone else. She is also angry because of the kind of poem it is. And she is also angry because even though later she will try to think of ways to answer this, she has seen right away that there is no possible answer to it. She begins to feel dizzy and sick. She drives slowly in the right-hand lane and pinches the skin of her neck hard until the faintness goes away.
All that day she is with other people and she can't look at the letter again. In the evening, when she is alone, she works on a translation, a difficult prose poem. Her lover calls and she tells him how difficult the translation is but not about the letter. After she is finished working, she cleans the house very carefully. Then she takes the letter out of her purse and goes to bed to see what she can make of it now.
She examines first the postmark. The date and the time of day and the city name are very clear. Then she examines her name above the address. He might have hesitated writing her last name, because there is a small ink blot in a curve of one letter. He has addressed it a little wrong and this is not her zip code. She looks at his name, or rather his first initial, the G. very well formed, and his last name next to it. Then his address, and she wonders why he put a return address on the
letter. Does he want an answer to this? It is more likely that he is not sure she is still here and if she is not still here he wants his letter to come back to him so that he will know. His zip code is different from the zip code of the postmark. He must have mailed this somewhere out of his neighborhood. Did he also write it away from home? Where?
She opens the envelope and unfolds the paper, which is clean and fresh. Now she notices more exactly what is on this page. The date, May 10, is in the upper-right-hand corner in a smaller, thicker, more cramped hand than the other writing on the page, as though he wrote it at a different time, either before or after the rest. He writes it first, then stops and thinks, his lips tight shut, or looks for the book he will take the poem from—though that is less likely, because he would have it ready in front of him when he sat down to write. Or he thinks after he is done that he will date it. He reads it over, then dates it. Now she notices that he has put her name at the top, with a comma after it, in line with his name below the poem. The date, her name, comma, then the poem, then his name, period. So the poem is the letter.
Having seen all this, she reads the poem more carefully, several times. There is a word she can't decipher. It comes at the end of a line so she looks at the rhyme scheme and the word it should rhyme with is
pures
, pure (pure thoughts), so that the word she can't read is probably
obscures
, dark (dark flowers). Then she can't read
another two words at the beginning of the last line of the octet. She looks at the way he has formed other capital letters and sees that this capital must be L, and the words must be
La lune
, the moon, the moon that is generous or kind
aux insensés
—to crazed people.
What she had seen first and the only words she could remember as she drove north on the highway were
compagnon de silence
, companion of silence, and some line about holding hands, another about green meadows, prairies in French, the moon, and dying on the moss. She hadn't seen what she sees this time, that although they have died, or these two in the poem have died, they then meet again,
nous nous retrouvions,
we found each other again, up above, in something
immense
, somewhere, which must be heaven. They have found each other crying. And so the poem ends, more or less, we found each other crying, dear companion of silence. She examines the word
retrouvions
slowly, to make sure of the handwriting, that the letters really spell out finding each other again. She hangs on these letters with such concentration that for a moment she can feel everything in her, everything in the room too, and in her life up to now, gather behind her eyes as though it all depends on a line of ink slanted the right way and another line as rounded as she hopes it is. If there can be no doubt about
retrouvions
, and there seems to be no doubt, then she can believe that he is still thinking, eight hundred miles from here, that it will be possible ten years from
now, or five years, or, since a year has already passed, nine years or four years from now.
But she worries about the dying part of it: it could mean he does not really expect to see her again, since they are dead, after all; or that the time will be so long it will be a lifetime. Or it could be that this poem was the closest thing he could find to a poem that said something about what he was thinking about companions, silence, crying, and the end of things, and is not exactly what he was thinking; or he happened on the poem as he was reading through a book of French poems, was reminded of her for a moment, was moved to send it, and sent it quickly with no clear intention.
She folds up the letter and puts it back in the envelope, lays it on her chest with her hand on top of it, closes her eyes, and after a while, with the light still on, begins to fall asleep. Half dreaming, she thinks that something of his smell may still be in the paper and she wakes up. She takes the paper out of the envelope and unfolds it and breathes deeply the wide white margin at the bottom of the page. Nothing. Then the poem, and she thinks she can smell something there, though she is probably smelling only the ink.
 
 
I was brought up in the violin factory, and when I had a fight with my brothers and sisters we even used to hit one another with violins.
Plenty of people often think, “I'd like to do this, or that.”
As a child I was taught to recite the haiku of the Japanese poet Issa, and I have never forgotten them.
Ah, my old home town,
Dumplings that they used to make,
Snow in springtime, too.
I cannot live without children. But I love grownups too, because I feel a great sympathy for them—“After all, these people too must die.”
One day, as usual, I set off for my father's violin factory, where a thousand people were employed. I entered the office, discovered an English typewriter, and started punching the keys.
Just then the chief of the export department came in. “Master Shinichi!”
I lied and said I had merely been touching the keys.
“I see,” he replied simply.
Coward, I thought. Why did I dissemble?
I went to a bookstore, filled with severe anger against myself. Fate led me to a copy of Tolstoy's
Diary
. I opened it at random. “To deceive oneself is worse than to deceive others.” These harsh words pierced me to the core.
Several years later when, at twenty-three, I went to Germany to study, the book went with me in my pocket.
Here follows a little episode of self-praise.
I was then under the strong influence of Tolstoy.
It was in 1919. I received an unexpected letter in early spring inviting me to join an expedition for biological research. The expedition party on board numbered thirty.
At that time I was inseparable from my violin. It had become a part of me.
Our ship circled the islands. While we walked side by side on the beach, we discovered a most unusual patch of moss of reddish-cobalt color growing high up a sheer cliff.
“I very badly wish to have some of that moss,” said Professor Emoto, looking up anxiously.
“I will get it for you from here,” I boasted, and borrowed a small scoop from a research member.
It turned out to be situated much higher than expected. Heavens! I thought.
I threw the scoop, under the scrutiny of the whole party.
“Oh, wonderful marvelous!” they cried.
As I listened to their applause, I vowed in my heart never again to do such a foolish thing.
Art is not in some far-off place.
I took lodgings in the house of a gray-haired widow and her elderly maid. Both the landlady and the maid were hard of hearing so they did not complain no matter how loudly I practiced the violin.
“I shall no longer be able to look after you,” said Dr. M., a professor of medicine, “and so I have asked a friend of mine to keep an eye on you.” The friend turned out to be Dr. Albert Einstein, who later developed the theory of relativity.
Einstein's specialties, such as the Bach
Chaconne
, were magnificent. In comparison with his playing, mine, though I tried to play effortlessly and with ease, seemed to me a constant struggle.
At a dinner party, an old woman wondered how it was that a Japanese could play the violin in such a way as to convey what was German about Bruch.
After a brief interval, Dr. Einstein said quietly, “People are all the same, Madame.”
I was tremendously moved.
The whole program that evening was Mozart. And during the Clarinet Quintet, something happened to me that had never happened before: I lost the use of my arms. After the performance I tried to clap. My blood burned within me.
That night I couldn't sleep at all. Mozart had shown me immortal light, and I now felt as though I were under direct orders from Mozart. He expressed his sadness not only with the minor scale but with the major scale as well. Life and death: the inescapable business of nature. Filled with the joy of love, I gave up sadness.
I was doing what I wanted to do.
Holding his chopsticks in midair, my father looked at me with a sparkle in his eye. “Well done, Shinichi!”
BOOK: Break It Down
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