In "The Dove's Neck Ring," written early in the 11th century by our reckoning, the philosopher-poet Ibn Hazm tells of many kinds of love in thirty chapters. In one, he writes of the poet Al-Ramadi, who one day beneath the Gate of the Perfumers in Cordova saw a slave girl and she took possession of his heart. He followed her across a bridge and into a cemetery called Al-Rabad. Then she noticed him, who had left the crowd, and she turned and asked him, "Why are you walking behind me?"
He told her of his sudden desperate passion. She told him lose it, cast it away, there is no hope of your fulfillment. He asked her name, and she told him: Halwa, that is, "Solitude." And when he asked where he would see her again, she said she would return to the Gate of the Perfumers, which was a gathering-place for women, at the same hour on Friday. Then they parted.
"By God," Al-Ramadi wrote, "I went assiduously to the Perfumers' Gate and Al-Rabad from that time on, but never heard another thing about her. And I do not know whether the heavens consumed her or the earth swallowed her up, but truly there is in my heart, because of her, a burning fiercer than a glowing ember." And she was the Halwa to whom he addressed his love poems.
And those poems crossed the Pyrenees into Aquitaine, and there taught the troubadours to sing of amor de lonh -- "love in separation, far-away love, love-longing." Else we'd all still sing of Beowulf. Northern Europe had sung but raven-verse and spear songs, the grim love of death-comrades. Now we have, via Yeats and Eliot and Billie Holliday, via Browning, via Swift, via Chaucer, Dante, Bernart de Ventadorn, Al-Ramadi, from Arab slave girl Halwa by the Perfumers' Gate.
(Listening for the first time to "Agætis Byrjun," by Sigur Ros)
I remember there is a land I always forget. If someone asks me to list the 46, or however many, nations that comprise Europe, I can breeze to 40, struggle my way to 45, then I pause forever.
Which is odd because when I can finally recall it, I remember I've lived there, in that other one. I worked there a year, when I was young and my career at home stalled and there was an opportunity, or what seemed one.
Now the place returns all in a rush: the smell of the airport; the way the heat hissed in the drab apartment on the hillside in the new quarter of the capital; how to work the clunky phone system. Independence day in September, with fireworks over the crown prince's palace, and then the leaden sky of long winter in pools on a road that never dried.
That language. I understood the shape of it -- I had a job there, after all -- but I never felt the webs and shadows in the words, only felt how thickly they energized that light tongue. Other voices talked. I communicated, like a machine.
And the girl. She was older. Like the job, convenient and temporary, and she seemed to know that, too. Her lace tangling my ankle as I slept. But when I left she took it so hard. Her mouth open in a horrible shape as she sobbed.
It disturbs me to have forgotten something entire. Welcome to middle age. You open the book of your life one day and find a chapter in it you swear you've never read, but it's there. Nothing seemed certain anymore. My God! Who was I?
And when the final track fell silent, I realize that this was after all a dream. I'd awoken from it that morning, then gone back to sleep and forgotten it.
I went to the atlas to be sure. None of it is there. The fat blue republic runs out to the gulf, and nothing wedges between them, not even a river island. The city, the girl, the fireworks, none of it.
But the anguish and longing in the broken heart of that girl who never was, formed in a language no one ever spoke or heard; it is in this world now, pushed through the tide-wall of fact and floating small in the air like remembered music.
When I was breaking up with Kat, I had a sign, a clear sign. I asked for one from the Gods, and I got it. Like the girl from the circle said to me later, "I hate it when They give you something so unmistakable, which is so not what you want."
I had been churning it in my mind, how for a year I had watched Kat get farther from me, emotionally and physically. How our dreams seemed dead, how it seemed she only delayed her stay in Europe because she didn't want to come home and deal with a future that maybe she didn't want anymore, but would never admit that. I saw my own future, sitting in front of this damned machine till I was white-haired and infirm.
I used to pray every night to be strong enough and wise enough to love her well. But lately I took to asking, "give me a sign, show me my path. Give me something." There was a night approaching when I was off work and wouldn't have my son: a rare free weekend night. I had been debating whether to go out on that night, and it became clear to me, the day before, that if I did so, something would happen. I knew I would come back knowing more about my path. The certainty seemed to form inside me but come from outside me.
So I went out. I drove down to my old haunts: a blue-collar district outside Philadelphia, with bars and clubs where I used to spot the kind of women who deserved me, and sometimes got me. I wanted to see that again. It was a long drive from here -- I live much further from it than I once did. When I got there, for the first time in years, I found it all changed; the bad end of the ghetto, which had been hemmed in at the city line, had spilled over. The realtors must have broken it open (I remembered reading something in the "Inquirer" about Klan rallies there a few years back), and now all the clubs and shops were gone. Only the convenience stores still flourished. And there was nothing there for me.
So I drove back, pondering the meaning of this. The night was still early, and I drove up Queen Street to a jazz club I had long wanted to see. I parked, went upstairs, had a couple of Johnny Walker Blacks and listened to some tunes. A couple of girls sat at the bar and I thought of approaching them. But I felt like I'd hardly know what to say. All my mind was full of Kat. I felt like my voice would be a rusty and creaking thing. I had no words for a woman except ones that had been crafted for her. I'd probably have started signing to them rather than talking.
I left and walked back to my car. It was about midnight. And up Queen Street comes a very pretty young blonde in a short summer dress, and she's openly soliciting every car, ever man, who passes her. Leering, flaunting her body, all the most blatant whore tricks. It stunned me. There are streetwalkers, but not in this part of town. And not so blatant as that. And not white and young and pretty.
I drove up the block. By the time I passed her, her boyfriend had caught up to her. There was another club down the street, The Village, big with the college crowd, and I figured they had come from there. They must have had some sort of disagreement and she took off to express her frustration, to try to hurt him, who knows. He had caught up with her now. He was anguished. "I love you, I loved you, I would have done anything for you," was all he could say. She was destroying him and she couldn't stop herself. Because she felt him vulnerable. Whatever she was trying to tell him, all that was getting through to him was the torture. That poor boy didn't have a clue.
I went to an all-night grocery and picked up a few things I needed. I kept thinking about that scene. I circled back past there, thinking there might be trouble and I might be able to help in some way, or maybe find more. I didn't know what to expect, but something told me to go back.
The boy was gone. The girl was sitting on the steps of the club I had just left. Calmer now, but still distraught; wild, but stable. A couple of her friends had caught up with her. I had already seen the cops circle past twice. The cops in this town are moody and can be sadistic. I told her her friends made sense and she ought to go with them. They looked at me, curious. I told them I had seen the whole scene. I told her, "you sure know how to hurt a guy." She looked at me a second and purred, "fuck you." It was what Kat would have done. I smiled. I know what it means to love a little wild one, and I felt for that boy, wherever he was now, probably back in his dorm or apartment, tearing out what was left of his heart.
And believe it or not, dense as I was, it wasn't till I got home and was putting the groceries away that I understood all that scene as what I was supposed to see. Not the girl, but the boy. He does love her, but in the wrong way, and it destroys him, she drives him mad. That would be me, with Kat. Not the specifics, but the outcome. The Gods gave it to me plainly: "You are not strong enough." There is a kind of woman who you love with all your power and all your desire -- that and nothing more. Because that is most of what she comprehends of a man.
I wasn't to follow the threads of this, only to see and feel the impact and the connection, right then and there. It was there and it was clear. I've never felt the Gods were really on my side in this. Neutral, mostly, watching and waiting for things to run their courses.
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