A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
When I tell her I’ve fallen for What Is Unknown, my mother’s face brightens. “She’ll be a good girlfriend for you,” my mother says. “Not stuck up like that trashy Well Known. Not boring like that awful Perfectly Well Known. Bring her here for Spaghetti on Wednesday night. We’ll see what your father thinks about her.” Then she turns to me with a shy smile. “I wonder what your children will look like,” she says.
On our first date What Is Unknown and I drive up to Lexington to see the Civil War graveyard. Later we’ll go to the Southern Restaurant for dinner. In the car she doesn’t have much to say, but she smiles at me every time I glance over at her. I get a notion to reach over and take her hand. My thought makes me start imagining that’s exactly what she’d like–me to reach over there. I want to. I can almost feel her wanting me to. I raise my hand and will it over toward What Is Unknown. It doesn’t make it that far. It settles on the console between us. It taps its fingers.
In the library, What Is Unknown likes to stroll along the aisles between the shelves, sliding her fingers along the spines of the books as she walks. She hums while she sashays down the aisle, and it seems fine with her that I follow along behind. “Stop looking at my butt,” she instructs me one afternoon. Her voice is mildly hostile. “Actually, I’m savoring the elegant way your neck curves down to become your shoulders,” I say. “You’re lying,” she says. But now her tone is sociable. “Well, yes,” I say.
I really like reading aloud to What Is Unknown. She plops herself down on the sofa, then I stretch out with my head in her lap. I put a book on a pillow on my stomach–she lets me read any one I want. She sits so still and quiet that I might suspect her of napping except that now and then she strokes my forehead while I read. She knows I like the touch of her fingers even though I don’t stop reading. The back of my head has grown extremely fond of her upper thigh–the right one. I don’t think we’ve ever switched sides of the sofa. Over time the back of my head and What Is Unknown’s upper right thigh have become cozier than has been possible for other parts of our bodies. I’m okay with this. I don’t know what What Is Unknown thinks about it.
“You blather,” What Is Unknown announces to me one morning at breakfast. This is soon after we start living together. “I know,” I murmur. “I can’t help it when I’m around you. I feel like I have to keep talking, even though I don’t really have anything to say.” What Is Unknown has been girding herself for an argument, but now I’ve made her point for her. She smiles enigmatically just before she slurps the last of the milk straight from her cereal bowl. “I’ll probably get used to it,” she murmurs as she carries her bowl and spoon to the sink.” Leaving the kitchen, she lightly fist-bumps me on the shoulder. Like I’m her little brother.
“Please talk with me about death,” I ask her. It’s late afternoon. We’re in the graveyard. The stones make long shadows. This is where I always prefer to go with What Is Unknown when we take our walks. She seems to like it up here, too, except that she becomes just so darn reticent. “I really need some discussion of this topic,” I tell her. She steps close, places her hands on my shoulders and gives me one of her up-on-tiptoes lightest-of-kisses that gets me so worked up my face feels like it’s going to start sprouting zits any second. Then she pushes away and beams her smile into my face. “Let’s read some of these gravestones, okay?” she says. “I love these goofy old things,” she says.
What Is Unknown has become quite excited about the new fuck-me fashions. She has a way of strutting along the sidewalk in her tiny skirts and heels that makes me very proud to be walking beside her. Both men and women look at her with obvious desire, but I’m the one whose arm she’s holding. Truth is, if she weren’t using me to help keep her balance she’d fall on her face. But then the secret truth is that I might as well be cohabiting with a Mother Superior. “Please,” she tells me after we’ve gone to bed and I’m creeping my fingers along the hem of her nightgown. “I can’t do that,” she says. “Don’t be a dick,” she says.
What Is Unknown is nuts about the bunnies that appear at the edge of the meadow just at dusk. She paces very slowly toward them, singing softly as she takes her steps, Oh, little bunny, I can’t see you, yes, you’re invisible, just keep sitting still. But when the bunny breaks for cover she gives chase for a couple of strides, laughing raucously. “It’s their little cotton tails that I want,” she says. “Gonna catch one of them by its tail one of these evenings.” I indulge her in her antics because whenever she sees one or more of those bunnies it puts her in a grand mood. But I also wonder if What Is Unknown really is as simpleminded as she appears to be on these bunny occasions. I always check out the surrounding area to see who might be watching us.
Sometimes What Is Unknown recites to me stories and poems that have not yet been written. Sometimes songs, though she’s reluctant to sing them because she knows I consider the new music inferior to the old. “You’re the proverbial mud with a stick in it,” she tells me. I know she’s just teasing. “How about a whole novel?” I ask. “I could listen to you for days on end.” She gives me a funny look and starts to say something but changes her mind. “Okay,” she says. She stares up at the ceiling a moment, then clears her throat. “An awful man came to town and started burning down the churches,” she begins. “His dutiful wife assisted him.” She recites this novel for nineteen hours straight, and because of her lilting contralto voice I take in every word. Later, however, after I’ve finally gotten some sleep, I can’t remember anything about the novel. I only know what What Is Unknown’s voice sounded like while she was reciting. First taste of birthday cake. Cold water when you’re thirsty.
When I discover that What Is Unknown likes walking out into the field on slightly chilly and very clear nights, we suddenly have a sex life. Albeit one with a certain amount of discomfort. “I just like the stars,” she says, “and the moon does something to me.” We’re halfway through October, and she’s shivering. “I shouldn’t let you take advantage of me the way you do.” But her voice is low and sweet when she says it. Her smile makes it clear she’s very pleased that I’ve finally gotten past first base. I give her a look of my own. “A heh heh heh,” I say. “Oh, you!” she says, gives me a soft cheek-smack that turns into a caress. I know better than to suggest that we go indoors. When we’re in the house she’s somebody else.
“Do you mind if I call you What?” I ask. What Is Unknown’s eyes flash at me before she turns away. She presses her lips together. Who’d have thought such a plain question would hurt her feelings? “Okay, okay,” I say, “I was just wondering. I really actually like your whole name. All four syllables.” I tap her wrist, but she flings my hand away. “What you don’t understand,” she tells me in this raspy voice that is strange to my ears, “is that I was here before time or darkness or light. I was here before trees and clouds and birds. I come from a place that is beyond your capacity even to imagine. Watch this!” She snaps her fingers and a bolt of lightning blasts out a pit from the sidewalk directly beside me. When I jump, it feels like I’m going to be swallowed up by the great clap of thunder that billows out above us. “Okay, okay,” I say. “I’m sorry,” I say. She folds her arms. “What’s my name?” she asks.
“Why do you hang out with me?” I whisper across the table. We’re having dinner at the Trattoria, her favorite place. She’s all gussied up and looks killer-beautiful. Her eyes are especially luminous this evening. People all over the restaurant keep glancing over at us. Well, of course it’s What Is Unknown they’re eyeballing, but I know what they’re thinking–which is why I ask her the question. I smile at her to suggest that I’m just being sociable. She cocks her head and grins. “Good question,” she says and forks another bite of her saltimbocca. Maybe she’s really into her food or maybe she’s just not going to even try to give me an answer. “There are lots of men more interesting than I am,” I say. I really want to hear what she has to say on this point. “That’s true,” she says. She’s chewing when she says it. She looks at me with bemusement and affection. Maybe she’s so into me that the question seems silly to her. Or maybe she’s on the verge of informing me that she’s cutting me loose. “That’s very true,” she says.
When What Is Unknown and I have sex we try to describe for each other what it feels like. We like to have these conversations during the act itself. Sometimes I suspect us of having the sex just so we can have the conversation. I’m lava that’s been heating up and holding still for a thousand years. Now all of a sudden there’s movement, there’s a way out, we’re on our way! No hurry, mind you, but we’re going to get there. I’m an old turkey buzzard just now born again as a hummingbird–my beak is in the blossom! I’m a hundred acres of wheat. I’ve been needing some rain real bad, and now you are three days of soft steady rain. Oh, baby I used to be a ground hog, but now I’m right on the edge of becoming something else, and if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna have yourself one hell of a big white horse right in this bed beside you. These exchanges might not be your idea of erotic, but just try swapping this kind of thing back and forth when you’re actually in flagrante delicto. We’re talking major enhancement of what was already more than acceptable!
I wake to sobbing. What Is Unknown is sitting up on her side of the bed. She’s trying to stifle the noises she makes with her weeping, but now she knows I’m awake. “I’m sorry,” she says. She sniffles. I place my hand as gently as possible between her shoulder blades. “I hate it that everyone’s afraid of me,” she says. “Usually it doesn’t bother me, but I dreamed people were throwing stones at me. I was buried up to my neck, and they were throwing big stones. Sharp ones. They were yelling.” I stand up from my side of the bed, go around in front of her, kneel down, and take her hands in mine, put my dry cheek against her wet one. “It was just a bad dream,” I croon to her. I feel her head nodding. We’re quiet for a while. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” she asks in her faintest voice. I hold still so that she won’t think I’m pulling away. “You are,” she says. “I know you are.” I pull her closer. “Don’t lie to me!” she says.
This morning What Is Unknown is apologetic. It has come to her that she needs to change sex. She says she feels herself getting a little stale. “For me it’s easy,” she says. “I’ve done it more than a few times,” she says, nodding. “Not really all that big a deal–not like it is for you folks. I just have to go to this place I know and stay for a couple of weeks. It’s like a retreat. Very quiet and some wonderful people to talk with about what’s happening, what it feels like, what kind of new life is opening up. All new clothes, too. You probably don’t know this about me, but I’ve always had an eye for men’s fashions. Those yummy silk sports coats? And ties–God, I love ties. I can hardly wait,” she says, her voice sounds downright gleeful. Then she catches herself. “I’m really sorry,” she says, touching my hand. “It’s not you,” she says. “But it is me,” I say. I do my best to keep from sounding whiny. “Well, yes,” she says, “but it would be that way with anybody. So it’s not just you,” she says. “That makes me feel so much better,” I say on my way to my study. I slam the door.
We’re on the Interstate headed south to Galax to attend the Old Fiddler’s Convention. We’re both quiet–we know the end is coming. Miles pass. My eyes are on the road ahead; What Is Unknown stares out her side window. Then I become aware that she’s staring at me. When I turn, she gives me a mischievous grin. Then quick as a magic trick, she raises up in her seat, slides her hands up under her skirt, slips off her underpants, and places them on the console between us. I’m so startled I can’t help twitching the steering wheel, but after I get the car back under control, I glance over again. She’s still grinning, but it’s different this time–sentimental. I want to tell her that I know she did this just for Auld Lang Syne. But all I can manage to squeak out is, “Thank you.” “You’re welcome,” she says.
I’m bereft. The awful thing is I know she could be right here in town. She could live on this block. But I won’t recognize her in her man self. I can see myself one afternoon noticing a good looking fellow in great clothes having lunch at Blue Bistro–and the more I look at him the more certain I am that I’ve found her. I won’t be able to stop myself from going over to the table. “What Is Unknown?” I’ll ask in a soft voice. And the guy–the damnably buffed out and irresistibly gorgeous stud!–will cock his head at me in a way that will be tauntingly familiar. “Excuse me?” he will say.
A native of Ivanhoe, Virginia, David Huddle has lived in Vermont for over four decades. He is the author of two dozen novels, short story and essay collections and volumes of poetry.
Copyright 2015 David Huddle. This piece first appeared in Plume and was included in Dream Sender (LSU, 2015) by David Huddle.