Even in Paradise, a woman can break a young man's heart.
Sam Shames grew up in Brooklyn. His father, a grocer, worked nights and weekends in the store, an invisible man, so far as Sam was concerned. His mother dressed Sam too warmly and packed him off to school each day with warnings to be careful crossing the street. Neglected and overprotected at the same time, Sam dreamt of love and freedom.
His parents sent him to the public school, to learn facts, formulas and standing in line, and also to the synagogue school, the House of Boredom, where the pupils threw spitballs while the Chosen People were persecuted for centuries. At least the public school had the Declaration of Independence.
Through high school Sam marched and on to college, full of private longings, and when the image of the life he wanted at last made School seem slavery, Sam dropped out. The image was not fully articulated-more a feeling, like a place he would recognize when he got there-but its power over him was great. After a few years of jobs, girlfriends and apartments, when Manhattan came to seem cramped quarters too (too many girls he had loved in others' arms entwined, as well as ordinary depressions of the Lower East Side), Sam stored his stuff in his parents' garage in Brooklyn, made a party for his friends, and headed west.
San Francisco was closer, almost the country after Second Avenue-an outdoor job, a house on a hillside far from City Center, a smooth-limbed California girl. He loved her but she loved a college boy in Connecticut and went away. He found another but-; and the job ended with the school year, and there were cockroaches here, too. If it isn't perfect it's no good, whispered the image. He had some money saved again. He had a letter from Helene, an old high-school friend who now lived on a commune in southern Oregon. One morning he stuck his thumb out on Lombard Street. His plan was not to hurry north, visit a commune or two, see what turned up-Portland? Seattle? Canada? A camper stopped and carried Sam across the Golden Gate.
It was a crisp and fragrant day in June, in the year 1970. In front of him, the blue Pacific, arched like the sky, slapped at its cliffs, the green California hills rose up behind, and Sam felt free, weightless to be merely out there on the road.
That night, at the end of the first day of his wandering, Sam stood under a starry sky in a small meadow outside the town of Elk, California, a dot on the coast route between San Francisco and the Oregon border, deciding where to pitch his sleeping bag. Inside his brain a marijuana brightness was expanding like the universe, a gift of the hippie couple who late in the afternoon had squeezed themselves together to fit him in the cab of their pickup, invited him home, fed him, gotten him stoned and given him their meadow to sleep in-good people, asking nothing in return.
Except for them, now sleeping in the dark cabin behind him, no one in the world knew where Sam was tonight, and he felt elated-heady-to be so alone, so far from home, independent and half wild, a small human figure on a plateau above the sea, pared down now to essentials-his pack and sleeping bag, his eyes and mind. The chill of the night air felt sharp and sweet on his bare arms, like a thousand points of contact with the crickets and the stars.
Across the clearing a tall willow tree bent down to him in the darkness. That's where I'll sleep, Sam decided. Approaching it, he noticed an unusual illumination in the Y where the thick trunk separated into limbs; he stopped again to stare. Though the night air was bright with moon and stars, the illumination seemed sourceless. He took another few steps; stopped.
It stayed. Sam watched it not go away, a radiance suggesting a figure, its body and face a golden light, with a corona around its edges implying wings and golden hair. Sam darted glances elsewhere to clear his eyes. The image is in my mind, he told himself; the figure stayed in the tree. I don't believe you, Sam hissed; no change. The laboratory in Sam's brain demanded further data for analysis. As Sam tuned his vision fully to the figure at the joining of the Y, he heard in his ears a huge hum of radiation in the inflated silence where he stood. For that moment, he stopped disbelieving: he saw the angel, he heard the hum, he felt himself falling, falling into the golden face. He felt a weightless gift of light transfer itself and settle in his chest.
Stars flew through his head. Locked in a bubble of interstellar space, Sam felt himself caressed by a knowing hand-caressed in time: it was his life passing in review; 24 years, all his adventures and high hopes till now were touched and stroked, put back in place. Tears came to his eyes that he should be so cared for, while in his mind rose pictures of his future life: hard work, a woman's love, a family, good friends. He bowed his head. Some time went by.
When he felt the withdrawal of the tide of feeling, he looked up. The air was luminous now only with the glow of moonlight behind the willow tree, and when he walked, as he could now, directly there, he touched only the natural concurrence of the limbs, saw only the moon-glow moist on the foliage.
It was a hallucination, of course, Sam said to himself.
Whatever that means, he said back, for although he had neither evidence nor message to report, he felt that he had indeed been touched, corroborated, promised good-that something loved him well, looked out for him, formed all his random dawdlings into a path that would lead him where he wanted to go. Breathing the air, he laid his sleeping bag beneath the tree. There was no point in arguing: it was an angel or it was not. And even if it was only being lonely, stoned, or happy on a crisp spring night-well, fine, okay.
That night Sam Shames, a Jewish grocer's son from Brooklyn, slept for the first time on the real earth and woke several times under an inky sky to see the stars had moved; snuggled his hip back into the dark rump of the earth, finding comfort in it. Later, the sky turned back to blue and the tree to green-pure blue and green, like pictures in a storybook. Sam saw it with a baby's wide surprise, remembering heaven, and when he rose at last he felt cleansed. The hippie couple fed him again and bid godspeed, and Sam-cleanshaven, dressed neatly for the public in bluejeans and a cotton shirt, his dark hair tousled by the wind-shouldered his pack and stuck his thumb out, heading north once more, into the future.
Jack and Joan
Jack and Joan have reached the Big A-Frame. While Jack goes inside, Joan squats outside to urinate. As Jack puts a match to the kerosene lamp, a golden light slides past her and flattens itself on the shrubbery. Joan goes into the cabin and sits on their bed, letting the unlatched top of her overalls flop into her lap. Sunk into herself with fatigue, she hunches over her knees, staring at the floor.
Jack, his long leg hitched onto a chair, is pulling loose the laces of his boot. The unkept long hair of his head and beard cover him with a shadow, and the lamplight shines dully on his back.
This man and this woman love each other. In the five years they have been together they have, like facing mirrors, disclosed to one another everything inside themselves and everything they see. After five years, they are sometimes a little bored, and under this fraying patch of boredom we may see the littlest tip of their divorce show through.
The impending crisis is not completely mutual. Jack may suspect but Joan knows. What is for him vague dissatisfaction has in her blossomed into a specific ambition, and as she sits on the bed she is aware of a dim disappointment that Larry has moved his bed from the A-Frame loft into the meadow. Through the winter and spring, she has been excited, as if in a separate foreplay, to imagine him up there when Jack put his hands on her in the bed below. In the proper season she will have Larry too. With a sweetness like sleep she misses him lying naked and alone above her.
However, sexual unfaithfulness does not reveal the seed or explain the flower of the crisis between Jack and Joan. As they say themselves, "Monogamy is not one of our hang-ups."
Not that Joan enjoys it when Jack goes after teenyboppers, summer hitchhikers, traveling ladies of the commune circuit, friends, friends of friends, and the chicks down at River Rats. Behind her smile, she hates it when he moves in on each new female visitor, offering her a tour of the Farm and nailing her to a bed in one of the cabins. But she does not feel here the wild panic of their years in the city, when she would go off to her secretarial job in the morning and leave Jack, the law student, at home with a visiting friend of hers from New York. Then, all day, knowing the score, she would feel the steady panic as she typed. Once she threw up after lunch from the sick fear of it and then came home to reassure her friend that it was okay.
Because it was okay. She believed in it: it was the Revolution, the only way to overthrow the demonic jealousy machine, to smash the claw of possessiveness, to heal the wound of terrible needfulness. She would kill that fear in herself. She would be free.
It was true Revolution, she told her neo-Stalinist friends, shocked that they were shocked, because it led to love that excluded no one, to freedom without dependence or loneliness, making no man oppose another for possession, pitting no woman against her sister.
Because she was looking for love, she planned her adventures more carefully than Jack, who ran a kind of fast-food franchise of the flesh, offering a quick taco in the loins to the college girls and shopgirls, blondes and browns, youngs and lovelies who swarmed to him. She was more careful than that, needing a softer atmosphere, a veil of caring, frights and languors, the mysteries and explorations of the body, words of reassurance.
When she had her affairs, he seemed unhurt. She envied him, who was so good at either side, and wanted to be him, thinking it was some notion of manliness that made him require of himself this indifference to pain. But she was only partly correct. He did not worry about her men because he did not care for his women. But she was looking for love.
And sex too. Joan loved sex. There was nothing better than it, nothing she wouldn't put aside for it. Her tastes were simple-the ordinary apparatus of mouth, hand, and genitals in all their combinations. She loved these things and being filled up with them. In bed, she could approach an understanding of what was otherwise inaccessible: like Larry, who wasn't smart and didn't talk much, who was unimaginative and stolid, an American peasant type-she would know him; knowledge and love would grow the way a penis grows in the hand. Erectile tissue does not lie; so Joan believed.
In the golden lamplight, Jack tears at the fourth and fifth intersection of boot laces, switches feet on the chair, and begins to work on his other boot. He knows that something is wrong. He is used to her shifting moods, her sudden fears, the insistent scrabblings of the starved rat of her insecurity-and he is used to her strength. He is not looking at her, but he thinks she may say something; he is waiting for her. She is the only person in the world he will wait for this way, the only person in the world for whom he will step aside. She holds the keys to something he can no longer do without-her mere presence. He knows her, knows her moves, what to expect, can distance himself and continue his life. But he is beginning to be aware, though they have always agreed he is the strong one, that she controls him.
So they are poised at the brink-but not tonight. Tonight they will sleep. Another night she will face him, her dark eyes fierce, and say, "You want to move me but I won't do what you want."
"Babe," he will answer softly, eye and finger flicking toward her. "Babe, what do you want?"
"I don't want you to have any power over me," she will say. But he will not understand and will ask again, "But what do you want?"-not believing that what she wants is nothing, wants nothing more than anything. It will not be because of boredom or because of sexual adventuring: it will be for no reason except the cold logic of her whim end because she has learned from him not to bend. Like facing mirrors-but there will be nothing between them and no image will reflect in the glass.
But that, is far away. Tonight they are both very tired. Jack hops on one foot to pull off the other boot. He slips out of his overalls and tee-shirt while Joan scrambles out of her clothing and under the thin yellow blanket. Jack winds their little traveler alarm clock. In the morning, he will wake her, as he woke her this morning, and hurry ahead of her down to the house to get a fire going, allowing her an extra five minutes to snooze in bed, and then have the oatmeal ready and drive her to Dietrich's and be back at work when the sun climbs up behind Mt. Hope to spread a late dawn across the valley.