Issue #2: Nonfiction
Peter D. Schaller
Rules of Temporary Marriage
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m cleaning out my bookshelves, something to do with the turning of the calendar. The first few days of each new year are always tugging annoyingly at my sleeves, urging for a year of cleanliness and order, though by February I usually get so used to it that the nagging becomes imperceptible. Although I gave away my entire library before moving to Nicaragua, in thirteen years I have again amassed another hulking collection of books. A year’s worth of dust caps most of them- the most veterans providing the perfect seclusion for intricate webs, guarded by small, brown spiders with crooked legs.
There are books that I’ve chosen for myself, others that I have borrowed out of curiosity (never lend books, they only travel on one-way tickets), and many that have been given as gifts over the years. This last group is the easiest to weed out. Choosing books is like choosing articles of clothing. Others may think they know your taste, but no one else can select the exact size, the texture of the cloth, and the precise shade of green.
Half way through the second shelf, the poem falls on the floor when I pick up Isabel Allende’s La Casa de los Espíritus. It is a small sheet of thick, white paper, folded in three, the poem typed in small print on the middle section. When I see it, I remember having selected the perfect compartment for its long slumber, this poem that I have saved and protected for fourteen years.
Julia sent me the poem when she got back east. It’s a wonder it actually got to me, since I had already changed addresses in Tucson by the time she got back to Connecticut. Tucson was still a new playground to me, and I hadn’t yet decided whether to play in the sandbox, the jungle gym or the tire swing. It chased me down, though I don’t doubt that Julia had enough power to send a thin envelope across the country by sheer will, providing the accompanying winds that would deposit the thin, white missive at my feet. I don’t remember now if she had included a letter, or just the poem, but I do remember the simple reverence that overcame me when I read Rules of Temporary Marriage her uncomplicated poem about the week we shared in Tucson.
We were probably both on the same train from New Haven, but I didn’t see her until we were boarding the Texas Eagle in Chicago. It was mid January, and I was headed to Tucson with an anxious body, a confused mind, and a tortured soul. Tucson was a spontaneous move, more of a flight from everything that reeked of painful familiarity. I had returned from volunteering in Nicaragua in November, meandering reluctantly up the coast until I got to Connecticut. I had tried to fit back in with my old gang in Virginia, but things were different, Nicaragua had crept under my skin with her proud suffering. Every night I saw the faces, smelled the streets of Managua with burning garbage and fried plantain, felt the pull back to that odd, triangular country. The war had ended but the country was a mess and I knew that at the very least, I could pick up a broom and help to sweep up the broken dreams. Back in Virginia or Connecticut, reverse culture shock had made me feel like an actor walking on to the wrong stage- I had the wrong costume, didn’t know my lines. The only thing that occurred to me was to run to some place warm and dusty, where I could listen to the rhythmic tones of my new language.
Julia’s hair flowed indiscernibly across her black coat, making it look like she wore a black shroud from head to ankles. She was slight and moved slowly, as if she relished the pleasure of each moment and movement. We boarded the same car, but I didn’t attempt to make conversation until we were several hours into the trip, somewhere in the middle Americana of Indiana or Oklahoma. Passing through my own limbo, and moving across the country on Amtrak, with a few lousy boxes tucked somewhere in the belly of the Texas Eagle, I wasn’t exactly seeking romance, but Julia was intriguing. She sat alone, two rows from me and spent her time reading and staring out the window at the passing landscape. On one of my wandering excursions to fetch coffee, I managed to catch a glimpse of her book and saw that she was reading, Emily Dickenson. That was enough of a spark to ignite the conversation.
“I heard a fly buzz when I died …” I said, casually. She looked up, not so surprised to see me standing at the edge of her seat. Her gaze was intense but inviting. We began the dance slowly, careful movements around poets and poetry, words, and the paranormal process of writing. We were both poets, living on words, consuming them for survival, constantly seeking new combinations that would explain what we saw and felt and heard and tasted and smelled and thought and feared and dreamed. The dance became more intense as more words were added and before long I have moved into the seat beside her, where for forty eight hours, we built a small world out of curiosity and confession.
We shared history and expectation, gazing out across the dry, brown Texas landscape, eventually giving in to caress and embrace under a thin wool blanket, compliments of Amtrak. In San Antonio, the train stopped for an hour, and we stepped out in the first light, a morning hidden by a thick fog. We walked away from the train station, holding hands and noticing the most intimate details of the morning, the way you do when you’re high on love, senses heightened to a point of unbearable clarity.
Julia was on a much different mission, visiting friends in New Mexico and later California, before returning to her home in Connecticut, where she taught creative writing to high school students. She spoke earnestly about her work, about watching young minds sprouting up through the soil, stretching tentatively and green towards the light. She had a place in the world. I was searching desperately for a home, unsure of what it would look like if I ever found it. I was moving to Arizona without a job, and the promise of a couch to sleep on for a few days while I settled in. I had packed my clothing, my drums and my bike, the bare essentials to start a new life, once again, in a place where I could wander in the forest of anonymity for a time.
Before Julia got off the train in Las Cruces, we agreed that she would stop over for a week in Tucson on her way to California. She would be passing through in two weeks, time enough for me to explore and at least find a place to live. She gave me the phone number of her friend’s house in New Mexico, and we parted reluctantly, regretfully halting the steady momentum of our connection, which had carried us across the country, paralleling the consistent movements of the Texas Eagle.
My friend Dale was waiting for me at the train station in Tucson, and helped me to lug the duct taped boxes with my bike and drums to his apartment. The first morning I awoke in Tucson, I hurried outside to watch the sun coming up over the mountains, and was mesmerized by the smells of the desert. The earthen scent of sage hung languidly in the air, cleansing the city, the brown, serrated mountains that could be seen in every direction. I hopped on my bicycle and road east down Speedway, until I was surrounded by legions of cartoon-like saguaros, arms raised, keeping silent watch over the desert.
A few days later Julia called to tell me that she was done in New Mexico and was heading west. Her voice was barely audible as it snuck across the wires between New Mexico and Arizona. I waited for her on the platform of the train station, wondering if the momentum would still carry us, after the train pulled out of the station. We shared a postcard embrace, heading down the street arm in arm to develop the rules of our week of temporary marriage.
Live on the corner of fourth and fourth.
By the time Julia arrived, I had rented a room downtown, exactly on the corner of Fourth Street and Fourth Avenue. We mused over the significance of living on the corner of fourth and fourth, finding it confusing in part, but at the same time, poetically clear. The room was in the first floor of a duplex, in an apartment that was rented by two students. I found a “roommate wanted” ad at the local food coop. The room was simple, unfurnished, though one of my new roommates lent me an unused futon to sleep on. I only ended up staying in the apartment for a month, but that room was home for Julia and me during that week of union.
Sit on the porch and watch the sky change.
No matter what we did during the daylight hours during that week, the day always concluded on the porch, exactly on the corner of fourth and fourth. It was a narrow, wooden porch, with wide steps, where we would stretch our legs, leaning against the handrail. Being downtown, we did not have a particularly panoramic view of the sky, but in Tucson, you don’t need much sky to appreciate the transition from day to night. When the sun would begin to duck behind the Tucson Mountains, the sky would turn pink, then orange, then burgundy, and finally a deep, eggplant purple before giving way to the pale lights that protected the city from the immense blackness beyond. When the lights came on, the first police helicopters would begin to make sweeping passes towards South Tucson, search lights poking menacingly into lives, seeking out the low-riders that cruised their turf with colored bandanas.
Walk in the desert.
We rented a car one day, one of those tiny compacts in which you could practically drive from the back seat. Our instincts carried us due West, towards Saguaro National Park, but rather than going into the park itself, full of buses and snapping tourists, we pulled off on the side of the highway and walked into the desert, up a small rise that afforded us an expansive view- each wandering separately, exploring rock, cactus and hidden desert life. Our paths crossed occasionally, during our improvised dance, two Easterners marveling at the teaming life in a place rumored to be insensible. Few words violated the implicit pact of silence, relying mostly on eye language to convey the most intimate of discoveries.
In the dusty courtyard, beat on a drum with your hands.
In the afternoons, I retreated with my drums to a small shed in the back yard of the house on fourth and fourth. There was not much of a yard, a few meters of parched dirt, and the small shed that had been converted into a makeshift studio, where my roommates practiced with some kind of band that I never actually heard or saw during the month I was there. Music was my way of praying, meditating and expressing my infinite gratitude to whomever or whatever had allowed me to continue playing out the plan that had been laid out for me in this curious theater. With eyes closed, and mind unbolted, I could lose myself if the looping rhythms that flowed from my fingertips for hours. One afternoon I sensed her there, and I opened my eyes to find Julia’s silhouette in the doorframe, listening in silence, a muse draped in a black shawl.
Eat together in silence.
We bought fruit, cheese, and bread, spreading our simple meal on the floor in my room; eating slowly, savoring the combination of uncomplicated tastes, appreciating the sacredness of whole, pure foods. There was no need for words, they would have been tacky souvenirs, trying futilely to capture the essence of place that could not be described with cowboy hats and turquoise pendants. Instead, we conveyed the intensity of a slice of mango, or the clean earth in of a slice of thick, dark bread with eyes closed, lips curling slightly with pleasure.
Without touching, share a bed neither high nor broad.
The Buddha admonished that seekers of truth, among other things, should sleep on beds neither high nor broad. Fortunately, the only option we had was the narrow futon that had been loaned, the only piece of furniture. Although we had moments of physical passion, my intimacy firewalls began to pop up, not surprisingly, at least in retrospect. We were still riding the momentum that began on the train, though once we hit stationary ground, my lousy self defense mechanisms kicked in, afraid that Julia might see too deep into my eyes, might discover the secret pain that I carried inside so heavy, so frightening. I’d been pulling the same routine for years, pull-push-pull-push, obstacle, barrier, wall, safety. But on the last night of our temporary marriage, I pulled her close, on our low, narrow bed…
Burn votive candles on the floor.
I bought votive candles in a five and dime store downtown, with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a host of saintly figures. Julia knew much more about the saints than I did, and told me about the sacrifices and suffering of Saint Sebastian, Saint Christopher and Saint Francis. The candles were placed in an arcing semicircle around the bed, and we lay back to gaze at the dancing shadows they cast on the ceiling. With the holy sentries on duty, I forgot about protection and safety, opening again to Julia as I had done during those first hours on the train. We held each other closely, relishing in the final moments of our bond.
Use the language of other countries.
Julia whispered soft phrases in Italian, her words and fingers running through my hair like warm wind in the desert evening. I traced each of her lines and curves, describing the sinuous landscape of her body in Spanish as she tilted her head to make a sleek, black fan on the pillow with her hair. Amor, amore, the rhythmic rumbling of a train, penetrating the blind night of the desert…
The next morning, I carried her suitcase across town, to the train station. She boarded without a word, no farewell, no plans, no promises. Her hand appeared in the window above my head as the train began to inch westward, a tiny, white bird against the tinted glass. I walked slowly back to fourth and fourth, savoring the distant scent of sage and the buoyant warmth of the morning sun on my shoulders.
Peter D. Schaller is a community development specialist who lives and works in Nicaragua. His free time is dedicated to writing and taking photographs. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Public Integrity, The Scavengers, Jelly Bucket, and Alligator Juniper.
The poem included in this essay, Rules of Temporary Marriage, was written by Julia Bolus.