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An Aside (Afflatus, Part 1)
IDEA that I reported at the end of the preceding chapter came to me not
on that sunny afternoon in Babbington but on a nasty night in Newark, Delaware,
a night when rain was falling in sheets and a blustery wind made umbrellas
useless. In a back corner of a bookstore there, I had, earlier, read
some passages from my “modified memoirs” and was now delivering a response
to a question on the subject of inspiration.
“What we call inspiration is really just chance,”
I was saying, trotting along on one of my favorite hobby-horses, “the chance
conjunction of events and the random association of memories and ideas,”
but I could see that their minds were wandering, worries about the weather
leading them anxiously into the night, to their cars, and out along their
several wet ways home.
I glanced at Albertine, who was sitting in the audience,
and gave her the wink that we know means, “On the whole, I’d rather be
There, in Montparnasse on a windy, rain-soaked afternoon
at the midpoint of a week-long symposium on the very large contribution
that even the smallest details, tous les petits, make to the texture
of reconstructed time, I sat listening to the participants in a panel discussion
called “De Doo-Wop à Hip-Hop: la musique qu’on apprends dans
l’ascenseur de la mémoire,” but I was elsewhere. I was
in the auditorium of Babbington High School, cupping Patti Fiorenza’s tight
little buttocks in my trembling hands.
A moment earlier I had been standing outside the
auditorium, looking through the oval window set into one of the doors.
After a period of indecision, I pushed the door open, quickly, so that
no one would notice, trotted down the aisle, and sidled up to Patti, who
was waiting while dapper Mr. Cantrell examined a note excusing her tardiness.
(The note was a forgery; Patti had been in the girls’ room, smoking, gossiping,
and fussing with her hair. Mr. Cantrell was not fooled.)
In an aisle seat to my right, my younger self sat,
sighing, and in front of him sat Nicky and Greasy, sniggering.
I stretched my hand out toward Patti and touched
the tips of my fingers to her bottom, the smooth satin of her skirt, ooh-ooooh,
baby, baby. I held my breath and waited to see whether she could
feel my touch across the years. She looked around the room, idly,
spotted my younger self sitting there, and winked at him. She didn’t
see me at all. I could palpate the past, and the past could not feel
I ran my hand around her hip and over her belly
and up across her breasts, and chills ran up and down my spine, uh-woh-oh,
ohhh, yeah. I slipped the tips of my fingers down into her pink
angora sweater, to the edge of her bra, and down along the curve of her
small perfect breast, and I told myself that if I could just touch the
nipple of this breast I would be satisfied, ah-eye would be satisfahh-eyed,
that was what I did, but I wasn’t satisfied, and in another moment I was
on my knees, running my hands up Patti’s legs, reaching up the inside of
her little thigh, smooth, silky, and so very, very fine, wohhh-ohhhh,
so fine, and then Mr. Cantrell cleared his throat and I jumped as if
I’d been discovered, stood up and straightened my clothes, and took a couple
of steps backward. “You and I know what this is,” he said, barely
audibly, holding the note like a used handkerchief, “but we’ll pretend
that we don’t.” Patti pouted, and Cantrell said, “Just take a seat
and get to work.”
I walked up the aisle toward the door. Before
I left, I turned and looked back. Patti was heading toward the row where
my younger self sat. She was going to sit beside him, and he was
going to spend the rest of study hall trying to find a way to tell her
that he wanted to go to bed with her without having her laugh, poke him
in the ribs, and say, “Oh, Peter, you’re such a kidder,” but it was Albertine
who poked me in the ribs, and although I was in the audience at the symposium
in Paris I jumped as I had when Mr. Cantrell cleared his throat.
“What?” I said.
“Clap your hands,” she said, and I did.
The panelists called for questions, and Albertine
gave me a wink that we know means “I’d rather be in bed.”
We gathered our things, slipped out of the hall,
put our raincoats on, and pushed our way out the door and into the evening,
where the bluster nearly blew us back inside.
“Talk about wind!” she said, putting her arm through
mine. It was not yet dark; the wind was strong, but the temperature
was mild and the rain was light.
We were walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg
when we noticed that people were hurrying past us, as if they were fleeing
“I guess there must have been a call for volunteers
to sit through the next panel,” Albertine said, but when we turned to see
what was propelling the crowd, we saw a whirlwind, a miniature tornado,
moving through the park along the path that we had taken, as if it were
“In here,” said Albertine, and she pulled me into
a little cabin, like a phone booth but without a phone. In another
moment, the whirlwind began shaking the chestnut trees around us, and nuts
thundered onto the roof. Albertine laughed at the oddness of it and
hugged herself against me, and I wanted to make love to her right then,
right there, to open her raincoat, lift her skirt, and have her while the
crowd rushed past, but I didn’t tell her what I wanted, because most of
the people rushing past paused long enough to look into the cabin to see
if they might find shelter there, and because I have never been good at
asking for what I want and because I knew that part of my desire for Albertine
was desire for Patti.
When the twister had gone by, we put our heads out
of the little cabin and looked around, and when we were sure the coast
was clear we started on our way back to the Hotel du Quai Voltaire, chattering
like nervous kids on a date.
About halfway there, I suddenly stopped and confessed.
“I wanted to make love to you back there, in the little cabin, like strangers
thrown together by chance and chestnuts.”
“Peter!” she said, giving me a little swat, “you’ve
got to ask for what you want! Do you want to go back?”
“No,” I said. “I guess not. We’d have
to get all the rest of the people back and we’d have to get Aeolus to replay
the attack of the tornado or find someone to throw nuts on the roof and—”
I meant to tell her about Patti, honest, but she
didn’t give me a chance. She all but dragged me the rest of the way
to the hotel. In the little lift she threw herself at me, jumped
up and wrapped her legs around me, and when we got to our room she pushed
me to the bed and onto my back and straddled me, and at that moment, through
some chance conjunction of events and random association of memories, the
idea came to me.
Sign posted in a little cabin
in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
Sign posted in a little cabin
in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris (detail)