Mom stayed home for me when I was boy. Home was Taiwan once Dad made captain at the Taipei Air Station. Then Sister Mother, who some called Sister Esther and some called Superior General, became my teacher at Dominican School. If I was the only one to call her Sister Mother, it wasn’t a put-down but a natural association between abstract nouns for family members. I learned much later that her real name was Marian Caldwell (1915-2000) and referred to her simply as Marian in my daydreams of the conversations we might have had if she’d known me as a grownup.
I don’t remember what Marian looked like except that the frame made by her coif and veil made her face seem bunched-up in a way she’d grown used to. I suspect I was also warping her appearance in the countless drawings I did in my spiral-bound notebook of cartoon nuns in different shapes and sizes. She’s un-seeable now. I can’t even find a photograph of her in the yearbooks of our time. She’s buried in the vast cemetery along Chongde Street in the mountains on the outskirts of Taipei. I remember riding my Schwinn Typhoon down the lanes there long before she died. I remember drawing myself speeding along on my bike, cherry red amid grayest tombs and the likenesses of nuns and my gravestone rubbings taped into my nonextant notebook. I used to ask myself if the ghost fear of Taiwanese boys was real. If so, were my rubbings more like goading the very guys I wanted to be friends with?
I would give anything to see the drawing that made Marian my enemy. I almost certainly began with a few light marks, and with an expanding sense of purpose patterned blue bikini bottoms with stars for a pelvic region. After that, I must have given her go-go boots galore, a lasso of truth, an eagle for a breastplate, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and a tiara doubling as a boomerang when weapons needed knocking out of the hands of perpetrators—say Cheetah’s. Say Ares. Say Genocide. Behold: The Circle.
Mother Sister found no Great Defender in a leggy triangle whose legs were different sizes but asked of boy illustrators dumb to how girls should be considered what their place was in Earth’s meadows. Able-bodied and swift with her hands, she whacked my knuckles hard with a rattan cane for drawing a pornographic picture. Drawing blood on her third hit she caught hold of herself.
I don’t think she would have hit me had I not named my patron. From her greater perspective, I was lying. After all, who would put anyone up to such an odious drawing? Mary Chang, who was littler than I, I called Nettles after a stinging nettle stung her on our way up the Junjian Yan Trail to Dog’s Head Mountain one sunny morning. It was Nettles who paid forward a cup of ramen for the likeness of the superhero she must call Supergirl for her trouble pronouncing W’s.
Marian, you would be surprised to know how often I think of you. I imagine you sometimes in the bustle of crowded squares, among commuters filling the avenues at dusk, your hunch drifting away toward its vanishing point. I sense your presence now in a picture at an exhibition at the Harvard Bookstore on Massachusetts Avenue. Known for such books as The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Epiplectic Bicycle, and The Beastly Baby, writer and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) includes more than a few cutthroats and pied pipers in his drawings. His style is disarming at first, and then it alarms. We must look hard and, doubting ourselves, look again to see if he really is featuring a pedophile in what appears to be a cartoon for children. Our fear of what it may be, Marian, we sense in this untitled drawing— and fly beyond the bejeweled fingertips of the fat man striding along a kind of Edwardian Fifth Avenue in his fur coat and golden fedora. If he longs languishing to tap that or snatch that or whatever such beings do, my own imagination, Marian, has always been more puritanical than sexualized. Never mind that the illustration is a canard of human predation provoking us to reflect on the jurisdiction of fear and reasoning. Never mind that Gorey probably got smacked for being accidentally or naturally flagrant or flamboyant in his younger days. Never mind how one pays for being who one is in a conservative epoch. But I’m no cultural critic. I’m not even sure what I want to say to you, so I’ll keep it simple: I wish you were here with me at the exhibition. We could go to dinner afterwards. The first thing I’d tell you, even before we shared our opinions about the art, is that I’ve tried many times to write a memoir about my childhood. In it, I report that you hit me three times and that on the third time you drew blood. This is my flourish. Though you did hit me three times, and though it hurt, I did not bleed. I wanted the word blood to connote the fear I felt, and my confusion. I’ve called the piece, my so-called memoir, “Wonder Woman Alights on Dominican School.” It is my “Supergirl” essay, too. I was talked out of doing much with it because this superhero means so much to so many women as to feel proprietary. Your heaven is like that, too. Proprietary. I’ve never believed in it as a place to go, but if it is a place, I look forward to meeting you there and walking with you over mythical hills into valleys and meadows where fear is a funny remnant and boys, taken at their word, are patiently redirected.
‘I talk but idly, and you laugh at me.’ —Shakespeare’s Richard II (III.iii.171)
In the morning, a scene as common as dreaming yourself naked in a public square, only less anxious-making and, like nudity for some, about liberation. If only I’d slept longer. I’m teaching my students the medieval politics of the The King’s Two Bodies. Richard the Second to serve as our model. One of his bodies is natural, which is to say ‘corporeal’ and ‘mortal.’ The other, the body politic, is pristine, mystical, positively eternal, when a phone rings an antiquated ring and, passing amid not a few ardent essayists and at least two furtive chess players waging war on their devices, I start for the back of the room to pick up. Only it’s sixty boys now, writing out my rote description of the body politic as the same body passing from king to king—an animating spirit making kingships Christic—thus rendering the body natural impervious to any defect of age or illness that could mess things up for him. The voice on the phone belongs to my old friend Tim Kane. “Ivo,” it says, “You gotta come down here and get your dad. He’s making everyone uncomfortable.” Of my late father I say for the first time ever, “I’m not going anywhere, Tim,” and I mean it. “Do you hear what I’m saying?” When he doesn’t answer, I say it again: “Tell him what I told you. I’m not coming for him until I’m done here, and maybe not then either.” Silence. “Tell me you understand,” I say. “Say it back to me, Tim. I need to hear you say it. Tim?”
I’m not blaming Nancy. It’s tempting, but I won’t. To blame her would be to poison the air. It would be not so much to poison the air as to blow my cover. May no one’s cover be blown tonight. May the air we breathe remain fresh and ample.
I’m not dancing with Nancy. It’s tempting, if for no other reason than to mirror someone good at letting go. I’ve always wanted to be better at letting go, but to dance with Nancy would blow my cover and lead people to think I was mocking her. This is not the night for imitating a wild nature. I must never mock Nancy for her wildness. One may or may not fall in love with Nancy, but one mustn’t be seen to mock her.
I am not playing the blame game or doing a blame dance with Nancy. I will dance near her. Everyone dances near everyone in intimate clubs. This club falls somewhere between intimate and dispersed, as it is less a club and more a dance hall lit like a club. It is dispersed enough for me to spin self-consciously in Nancy’s general vicinity without her taking me for anyone other than a relative stranger. I will incorporate a number of generic spin-moves into a dance style some dub dull and others dub idiosyncratic. Making Nancy but one of say thirty people I spot with each rotation, my gaze will sweep the dance floor like a searchlight with no incentive to shine a light on any one person. This is of course nonchalance deconstructed. I could spare myself such details if they didn’t help me piece together a sad story about where on the spectrum of knowing someone I land with Nancy.
I will not rest with Nancy after hours of vigorous dancing, but I will rest when she rests and close my eyes for a moment to thank God I am able-bodied. I will rest on my own and once rested I will rise. In the time span of a breath, I will look at Nancy one last time and take a mental snapshot of her as I turn and walk away. I will greet the temptation to look back at her with the picture in my mind. Because it is realistic and unromantic, and because it captures her looking happy, she might not mind my having it.
On my way home, I will not contemplate Nancy in any other way than one contemplates the unknowable life of a person just being. ‘I saw her,’ I will tell her brother Mel, and I will collect my fifty dollars. ‘She’s dancing the night away as we speak. In my informed opinion, she will return home tired and without blame, and she will appear, I suspect, well rested.’