Clarence was older than Ai. Much older. The years between them were brittle like the dried-out twigs of a dead tree. Still, he let himself go, and she let herself go. They became reckless with loving each other, reckless with their words, reckless with throwing their bodies against each other. Sheets torn to shreds. Their bodies, weak and exhausted every morning, every night, were covered in the marks of their desire. They pushed language out of the way, elbowed words into the forgotten places, and let out their true breath from rivers, from mountains, from skies, from moons, and from trees. They made promises to each other, the kinds of mud promises brought out by spring rains that then dried up in summertime heat.
Ai pulled Clarence inside her, not just his body, but his life’s blood, his past, all of him. “I want to feel you breathing your breath out of me from inside of me,” she whispered. “I want to feel your breath inside my lungs.” And he did what she asked of him. And he asked her to ask for more, to ask for the moon, to ask for his name, to ask for what she was most afraid of asking for in all the world, to ask for what she wanted to ask for, not what she needed, not what she thought he wanted or needed, but what she herself wanted. He wanted Ai to want, and he was willing to somehow disappear from all those places where he had been scarred and battered, and to travel into the inside of her desires.
Clarence wanted to know everything he did not know, but he wanted it all to remain a mystery to him after he came to know it. He liked knots, and he liked being uncertain and lost with what he thought he knew. He felt such knowing held something truer in it than what could be said in words. He believed all that he needed to know, all that he had forgotten or forsaken or lost along those three rivers surrounding and coming to a point in the city, and all that he had come to know in the alleys on the North Side and off Liberty Avenue, was inside Ai.
She had strong blood. Stronger eyes. And she penetrated him as much as he penetrated her. She said his name so often it began scarring her throat, drying out her mouth. Her lips started bleeding from saying his sweet name. She feared she would wear away her tonsils. And she wanted Clarence. Not only did she want him, she loved wanting him. That act of wanting him drove her mad with desire. His breath doing all that it did to her skin. Love, like all she felt when Clarence touched her, that kind of love, was fragile like an egg, so he knew to touch her slow and patient, touch her carefully, the way rain touches skin, the way frost melts from tiny blades of grass, this baptism of touch. He touched her in this way with his roughened fingertips, worn down by working in the mills, callused from pulling out vegetables, blistered from tending to the earth, fingertips worn to the bone with years of living in a city of dust and heat. In this way, Clarence carried Ai off, the way she carried him off to some other place she had never known before; a place he, too, had never known before.
Clarence knew how to take her there with the ease of his touching. The night turned tender with its arrival when she looked into his eyes. All the blood and all the sorrows of all those yesterdays washed away when she looked into his deep old eyes. And she told him that. She told him straight what he did to her. How he woke up what needed to be awake in her. All of it. And she told him how she never wanted to go back to sleep. Not ever. That she was done with sleeping. She told him that she felt her name was safe inside his mouth. “The way you say it,” Ai said, “The way you release my name into the world. You keep my name warm. My name’s at home inside your mouth.” Then Ai asked Clarence to say it, to say her name.
One night of spring rain, she said: “I want your hand.” And she meant it. She wanted his hand. And she took his hand. That woman with those young eyes looking at his old flesh taught him more about touch in that single night than a lifetime of women and of working in the mills and of playing in mud had ever come close to teaching him. She touched him like there were no maps, no paths, and she turned him inside out that night. It was as if she made him a virgin again, made it seem to Clarence like he had never touched any other woman before in his life. She taught him that you have to dismantle a heart to truly see what a heart can know. “It’s like opening your eyes in the morning and wondering where the night went,” she said.
And Clarence came to learn that you should never touch any woman the same way twice and never touch one woman in the same way that you touched some other woman. Doing so is downright careless. “How can you expect to see a woman’s true smile, her smile that is only possible when she sees you, if you touch her like you touched some other woman? How can you hear a woman’s soul laughing, if you are asleep with your touch when you touch her?” Ai asked Clarence this. Then she took his hand and guided it to the most fragile place of her body.
He touched her as if he were an infant, a boy without language, a boy without a way for knowing what touch could do. Her lips quivered. And her moans that night would have broken the darkness inside any man. She taught him to use his hands, the tips of his fingers, to flirt with the impossible. She did this to him and as they slowed down, as their breathing became quiet and the rain fell against the window of Ai’s bedroom, she said, “Listen.”
And when she wasn’t busy saying she wanted him, Ai was busy saying other things to him, telling him all that she desired when she closed her eyes and stayed awake, more awake than she had ever been before in all her life. That kind of being awake that made the rust on her soul disappear. “Do that thing to my bone, there, that bone, do that thing that you do with your mouth, with your hands, with your teeth to that bone. There.” And, like he was finding a way to say a true prayer, he did. And she would say, “Yes.” Her mouth wild with laughter. Her throat soul-deep with the songs of ancient rivers. And then she would stop breathing for a while, not long enough to die, only long enough to come close to dying, long enough to see into some other life that no woman had ever given herself the right to see into before. A life that no man had ever given himself such a right to see into, either. She told Clarence to do this, to do that. And he did. And her breath would get stuck in her throat and stay there until she remembered how to breathe. A quiet longing that took her down and deep into the memory of the time before she had bones and flesh, a time when she was pure of words. And then Ai would say, again, she would say, again and again and again, your teeth. Just that. She would say just that. Your teeth. And Ai’s skin would wait, because her desire was so deep, and Clarence’s touch would wait, because their desire was so deep that waiting was as much like touching as touching was.
And Ai began speaking in the original language, the one that had been left behind after the Tower of Babel had fallen. Her voice, her body, her mouth discovered that language, those first words, and she opened herself to them, and she screamed those words out near Clarence’s body. She bit so hard into his collarbone she drew blood. Ai scratched into his back, dug her fingernails into his flesh. Left scars. Ruined him for any other woman. She infected Clarence with her past, with all that she had done, all that had been done to her, all that she had taken on. She gave him this fever of all she had ever known, all that had crossed her path, all that had torn into her skin. She pressed her mouth against his ear and mumbled insane words into his dreams. Words that he never did quite understand. Words that were like a breeze across a desert, lifting sand but making no sound, leaving behind no trace of a sound. Silent words that destroyed everything Clarence thought he knew about himself and changed him down in the very root of his knowing. Her words, her breath, took him all the way back to the meaning of who he was, showed that meaning to him, made him visible to himself in his own eyes.
But never in public. Ai never did any of this in public. Never in those places for others to see. Never for others to know. Never. She wanted to keep all this away from everyone. To keep all this desire silent. She called it their secret. Flesh and screams locked inside a narrow bedroom. “Do not let anyone see us.” She would lock the windows, lower the blinds, close the curtains, turn off the lights. She hid under blankets and covered her mouth with her hands when she was about to let out screams so raw that they frightened her soul. And then one night she pulled Clarence in close and she said it. Those words just came out of her mouth like they were true and natural, like it was all that was left to say, all that could ever be said. She said she was falling in love with Clarence. She sat on top of him with him inside her, with sweat falling from her forehead and said, “I fear I am falling in love with you.”
But Clarence worried she said it because she wanted it to stop. She wanted her loving like this to go away. He felt that maybe she had scared her heart with loving him. And he feared that Ai thought that by saying it aloud she could release it from her heart, could get it out of her body and into the world, and, once those words got out there in the world, they could not work their magic on her. They would just disappear. In her voice, in her body, he felt this fear Ai had of falling in love with him. He wished she would let it go. He wished she would not fall in love with him, and that he could protect his own heart from falling in love with her; he wished Ai would just stay, would realize that words were stories that connected nothing with nothing.
In public, Clarence kept his hands to himself. His lips. His words. His eyes. But his heart burned into his ribs like those purgatorial flames he had been warned about by his mother. He had not known such destruction before and began forgetting who he was. Ai said her parents would take her out back if they found out. Told him that her father would unlock the shed in the far back corner of the yard. He would take her out to this shed and wait with her there in the darkness until the neighbors had gone. Then he would beat sense into her. Her mother would wail, until the moon fell out of the sky and drowned in the river. Her father would mark her skin with failed poems, failed promises, failed prayers, failed love, failed promotions at work, and her father would mark her until she gave up the ghost of loving Clarence and came to her senses. She said he needed to understand this. She told him that she thought it would be easier to break up with him, to leave him exhausted with loving her in some dark forest surrounded by shadows, than to confess her love for him to her parents.
Clarence stood on the corner of Pride and Colwell Streets listening to Ai’s voice, looking into her dark eyes. He felt his hands wanting to do something. His feet longing to walk, to make a getaway. He felt something happening to his lungs. His eyes began changing and a scar formed in his eyes that would never heal. And a voice inside him urged him to clear his throat of his desire for Ai and find other stories, other women, other bodies. But Ai’s beauty paralyzed Clarence. The dark skin of her elbows and the even darker skin of her knees, the insane beauty of her thin feet, her toes, her hands. Clarence could not imagine ever seeing beauty comparable to the beauty resting in the palms of Ai’s hands. If he could have imagined such beauty anywhere else in the world, perhaps then he could have walked down Colwell Street, could have just walked and walked to that other place where there was such a beauty close to Ai’s beauty, maybe down Dinwiddie Street to Fifth Avenue to Red’s Ibo Landing Bar. But those delicate, strong lines in the skin of her palms, lines that cut deep into her memory, into her heart, into her desire, kept him standing there. He would never again, in his eyes, in his heart, see beauty near Ai’s beauty. Her beauty cut into Clarence. Her eyes were filled with so much light. And the shape of her eyes, of her mouth. The simple sound of her voice. The way her name felt in his mouth. All this paralyzed Clarence.
When he lay beside her, when he felt the girl weight of her body on his body, the pain of every heartbreak he had ever experienced in his life, the pain of every bone that had ever been broken in his life, the pain of losing his parents, the pain of nearly dying from starvation, lifted and disappeared into thin air, as if none of it, as if nothing bad, had ever happened to him. Ai gave Clarence this.
So Clarence stood before her and waited, unsure of what he was waiting for, of what there was left in the world for a man like him to see.
While loving Ai, Clarence’s world became pure light. He worked harder than he had ever worked before. Loving her, being loved by her, did this to him. He was inspired. More and more inspired with each breath. He swallowed all his fear, all his shame. His breathing changed. The way he walked the streets changed. He poured coffee in new ways. Magical ways. He astonished friends, neighbors, and strangers with the way he poured coffee from the kettle to the cup.
Clarence wanted only to taste Ai, to taste the way she lived her life. To taste not just her life, but to taste the very actions of her living her life, the way every moment of each day stayed on her skin, to taste this on her fingertips, on her lips, on her toes, on her neck, on her lower back. To place his mouth there and to wait. He could wait with his mouth there on her skin, tasting her scent, until the end of the world. He could wait that long. Longer if need be. With Ai, the memory of every other woman that Clarence had never known faded.
And she wanted him in the same way. Perhaps she wanted him even more deeply. She dreamed of him. Fantasized about him. Obsessed over him. Created worlds of joyful celebrations in her imagination, in which she and Clarence had children, beautiful children with high cheekbones and eyes that startled every passerby, children with long strong legs and nappy hair that astonished their ancestors. Children so poetic and so intelligent that they never learned to walk. They danced. They refused the mundane movements of walking. So they danced. And their way for understanding the world could only be spoken in dance. These children of Ai’s dreams cherished her and Clarence. In her dreams they lived beneath stars in a secret garden near a river. And she loved and loved and loved Clarence. And he loved and loved and loved her more deeply than the deepest deep of any river. They carved their initials into rocks, into the river, into the bark of trees, into each other’s skin, into their dreams, into the walls of abandoned buildings, into sidewalks.
Then Ai left.
She left Clarence. She woke one morning and did not call him. And did not return his call. Then, in the evening of the day she left Clarence, Ai called him and said: “I adore you. I want you. But I can’t be with you.” And there was silence. Every thing in the universe that could make a sound stopped. And Clarence could not breathe, let alone speak. When she said, “goodbye,” he felt the weight of every single day that he had ever lived in his whole entire life fall on him. He felt the years, the many years of his life, break every bone in his body. In the distance he swore he could feel someone dying on some highway in the night. He felt his own body turn cold, he felt his heart just quit; he felt his body covered by February snow in an alley on the North Side. A cold breeze cut through Clarence’s broken heart. His heart cracked, and he felt a winter fall on him like no other winter had ever fallen on him before. Then he felt an emptiness forming on the inside of him, like his heart had been lifted out of him.
And Clarence became cold. Colder than that February winter that had fallen on him. He stood at the edge of the Monongahela River and cursed his heart, his foolishness, his grandmother, his ancestors. For more than a year he wandered the streets of Pittsburgh unwilling to talk to anyone. He had given up on what words could do, on words carrying any meaning with them when you said them out loud and put them into the world. Words, for Clarence, only erased what was there and true. And every time rain fell, he still heard Ai’s voice saying, “listen.”
This is an excerpt from Here Lies Memory.
Photos courtesy of Doug Rice.
Final photo credit: Darin Coelho Spring.