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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue
Fiction

from Divorcing

She opens her eyes with enormous effort but it’s in another room; then she is hurrying down a busy street past fine shops, the window displays on Place Vendôme attract her, watches flat as coins; but she knows this is wrong, she knows she must open her eyes as she lies in bed in a room. Repeatedly she closes and opens her eyes, now she is in bed; she recognizes the room; the light on a high floor by the Hudson River. But she can’t keep her eyes open long enough; each time she blinks the room changes, the window is on a different side, or a dark mass blocks the view. Now she discerns a man’s shape, she recalls the pain that rent her, for which her body was not prepared—is it her lover?—he stands in his coat beside her bed, she wonders if she screamed like a savage, if he heard her wild ravings and blasphemies burst on vaulting blood. If he has heard he pretends he hasn’t, from kindness or indifference, because he prefers not to believe what he has heard or seen. Beautiful and dignified he wants to remember her.

She begins to speak, she is far away now, her own voice remote, surprisingly rapid and fluent. She is laughing. She has never laughed like this before. The man’s shape has blurred, a dark inert mass, it swings slightly, now she sees the white of his bare soles—he’s hanged himself!

Sophie Blind doesn’t believe this, of course, she knows just because something gives you a fright you don’t have to believe it; she has studied philosophy, epistemology, published papers on the problem of verification. Besides, now she doesn’t see a thing. Perhaps it was just a coat on a hanger swaying as the plane lurched. Or stroboscopic vision.

The pain has lifted, literally rising. First she did not see. What was that white caress? God was painting the world on her retina with the softest brush; stars, snow falling, blossoms, rows of wild chestnut trees in bloom, each leaf a green tickle. She had never laughed like this before. This was not to be believed either. Just because something puts you in a rapture it is not necessarily to be believed.

She is in a room in bed; to this familiar notion Sophie Blind held on while she was having the wildest dream.

But is she dreaming?

She is in a room writing. The only trouble is that all the pages of the small pad are already covered with words in some foreign language. She sits up in bed. The room is unfamiliar, high-ceilinged—a marble washstand with a pitcher, the armoire, provincial French—a room in an old-fashioned first-class hotel in a seaside resort in Normandy. Clearly a dream because now she remembers the industrialist from Milan, they were streaking along the Amalfi coast in his Alfa Romeo—that dates and places it; but what has become of him? She must make a note of all this—quick, before he comes—on the lace paper mat on the breakfast tray. The room has changed again but she is used to this. Sophie Blind is used to unfamiliar rooms. She has been traveling all her life.

This room with printed muslin curtains tacked on the window frame, the drapes an obscure color, bedding piled high, could be in her grandmother’s apartment in Budapest. Pictures of bearded men in silver frames cover the wall. There is the bustle of backroom deliveries; rugs clapped over the sill, brushes scrubbing stone; guests are ushered in and shown out; the door of the buffet creaks each time another wine glass must be fetched.

She is looking at a page of Dore’s illustrated Bible, a picture showing the deluge, whirling throngs of nude bodies at the bottom, the dead draped voluptuously over rocks, the great white Ark approaching from above; in another second someone turns the page to a pastoral scene. The shadowy figure poking around the room, pulling things from chests, could be a cousin or uncle. Odd, the gaudy paraphernalia—boots, petticoats, hats and fans from the nineties and the twenties. The quick, sure grace with which he handles things and moves suggests her lover, her lover teasing her, putting on her great grandfather’s fur kaftan, next her aunt’s stole of silver foxes; his impersonations go too far. Stop, she pleads, but he is already pulling her mother’s sequined dress over his head: a woman’s painted face appears, a perfect likeness, the blond curls, the black beauty patch just below the left corner of the mouth; she is sitting, in tight, low-cut dress, legs crossed like Marlene Dietrich—Someone shakes the room like a kaleidoscope; chandeliers blossom and drop in mirror-lined ballrooms, there is too much glare and reflection. Now Sophie Blind isn’t sure whether she is dreaming. There is another question on her mind. When you are under their devilish drug, can you remember taking it, even supposing they didn’t slip it in your tea, the dirty bastards, supposing no foul deal, you volunteered like a fool, can you remember when you’re actually under the drug? Sophie Blind doesn’t remember.

She is looking up at her lover, astonished by the phrase, “...that happiness, so improbable, we call it love...” He sits on the edge of her bed, smoking gravely. She wonders why he looks into the distance, his head thrown back; she wants to see his eyes. “...because you’re dead Sophie,” she hears, like a voice out of a letter she is reading, “Dead.”

“We’ve been through this before—” she wants to say. Instead her eyes leap for a last glimpse of his dear face. It’s gone. Where? Disappeared. Into the wallhanging? A medieval hunting scene, the background faded greenery; a castle floats sketched faintly in the upper left; in the foreground spotted Dalmatian hounds on their hind legs, painted full-face, are jumping outward—such virtuosity of foreshortening in the Middle Ages; it’s astounding! Modernity, Reformation, Renaissance are classroom jokes after all, as she always suspected—the world ended when it was supposed to in the year 1274, if only they had believed it. “...Why there had to be a twentieth century—?” She hears a familiar voice repeat a student’s question in a heavy German accent. That was in another dream. She can’t see anything now. Actually she sees too much and too fast. It’s the same whether she keeps her eyes open or shut. Her lover is in the room and he wants her to be calm. Who’s having a hunting party in her head? Birds shot in flight are plummeting darkly from all directions and new ones are thrown in as fast, their cries piercing shrill.

She knows it’s over. She can’t stop now. She must get used to her new voice.

Yes, I’m dead. I knew I was dead when I came but I didn’t want to be the first one to say it. Not just as I arrived. I wasn’t really sure, you see. Everything looked so new, the water tanks on the roofs, the wide avenues, and heavy glass doors; boys playing touch football on the sidewalk. As if I were in New York for the first time. My sense of things is sometimes distorted. But I never felt so intensely alive as now. That’s what’s confusing me. And your presence. Listening. Or just watching my face in sleep, always calm, you said. When I know you’re far away...Perhaps you are speaking to me the words to make everything clear. No need for words perhaps. Women want essentially only happiness, you said, happiness more than power or truth. But I care for truth. Now I am dead I care only for truth.

I died on a Tuesday afternoon, struck by a car as I was crossing Avenue George V. It was raining heavily. I had just come out from the hairdresser. The time, judging from the traffic, increasingly violent but not yet congested, was shortly before six. I sighted a free cab, waved to it. I stepped off the curb watching for a chance to cross. Just then I saw the doorman of the hotel on the opposite side head toward the taxi with an oversize umbrella, blowing his whistle shrilly. I made a dash for it. I was flung into the center of the road by a car and struck at once. The rest is blurred. Because of the rain only a handful of bystanders gathered. The police and an ambulance arrived within a few minutes. And in less than half an hour normal traffic was resumed.

It happened so suddenly, and besides my mind was on something else at the time. But it’s quite certain I am dead. It’s in the newspaper. The doctor’s statement lies on the desk of the police even though an official death certificate can’t be made out till tomorrow morning; “Femme décapitée en 18° arrondisement,” it said in France Soir, and the sensation of my head severed from my back is still vivid. My body growing enormous, its thousands of trillions of cells suddenly set free, spread, speeded, pressed jubilant, rushing to the seven gates of Paris, out Porte de Clichy, Porte de la Chapelle, Porte d’Orléans, Porte de Versailles; the fingers of my outstretched arms plunged into the woods of Boulogne and Vincennes.

Contributor

Susan Taubes

Susan Taubes (1928–1969), born Judit Zsuzsanna Feldmann in Budapest, was the daughter of a psychoanalyst and the granddaughter of a rabbi. She and her father emigrated to the United States in 1939, settling in Rochester, New York. She attended Bryn Mawr as an undergraduate, and in 1949 married the rabbinically trained scholar Jacob Taubes. Taubes studied philosophy and religion in Jerusalem, at the Sorbonne, and at Radcliffe, where she wrote her dissertation on Simone Weil. She and her husband had a son and a daughter, in 1953 and 1957, and in 1960 she began teaching at Columbia University, where she was curator of the Bush Collection of Religion and Culture. During the 1960s, Taubes was a member of the experimental Open Theater ensemble; edited volumes of Native American and African folktales; published a dozen short stories; and wrote two novels, Divorcing and the still-unpublished Lament for Julia. Her suicide came shortly after the publication of Divorcing, in November 1969. Two collections of Taubes’s extensive correspondence with Jacob while they lived apart in the early 1950s were published in Germany in 2014: the letters appear in their original English with German annotation.

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues