by WILL MENLEN
Lia showed up in a long dress. Underneath were colored tights and her legs grew stalks, shuffled and grated against the crispness of the sheets. I thought of myself as a grateful person, but nothing was as unspoiled as this except for Montezuma.
That is what she called her dog. Her songbird also had an Aztec name, but he died very quickly after I bought him. She told me that was a bad sign, and she wasn’t wrong in that. When Montezuma met the first Western people in his experience, he thought their leader was a god, the spiritual being who created mankind from his resting place on the planet Venus. At about one hour before sunrise this week, it is possible to see that planet, along with Jupiter and Mars, in the morning sky.
I was living in a university town, and I would have been very lonely. I had the two best friends I would ever have, and that kept me fairly busy. The first of these friends was a professor at the university. He sometimes wrote poetry, but he preferred to comment on the work of others. At the end of class he would read something authored by himself if we begged him. I barely remember most of them – the vast majority I never saw written down. What I do remember is what he called the natural state of affairs. He termed it the long world.
My other friend was a cashier at Home Depot. I met her while I was exchanging a light fixture for my landlord, and her name was Helen. Helen and I had a lot of similar interests. She attended a community college that was associated with the university, so she could take a class here or there.
Helen and my professor never met, which is funny when I think about it. She knew a lot about him, and he never knew the slightest thing about her. She read his poetry, though, and mine as well. She didn’t like his very much — she said it sounded too drunk. Neither of them liked Lia in the end: they had that in common, too.
The professor was divorced. I had met his now ex-wife. She was an extremely forgiving woman, which I understand now is not always the most rewarding quality for an individual to have. The professor talked a lot to his ex-wife still. She was dating another professor in the university, a man in the political science department who was well known for a book about the problems with polling. My professor was hoping to get back together with his wife; but the only thing he did in that direction was to drink Jameson.
I would drink with him. I enjoyed spending the time, in a small bar that let him drink more than he should, and was glad to have me as a chaperone. His car was a total piece of shit, and he would let me drive it down the hill to where he lived in this cottage off a large house owned by the university that had its own entrance. When he was drunk he would recite his favorite poetry, which I did not mind at all, but I could see how it might get old if he was your husband, and smelled like a barrel of monkey spice.
Across the street was this house for French majors. Some of them lived there. Well, one night some of the grad students were protesting the French department. Don’t ask me why. The professor came in light on his feet, pushing his hair back and barking Robert Lowell at anyone who met his eyes. “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill,” he retorted.
When the professor almost fell, one of the students came over and grabbed his arm. We laid him across his own front stoop. I thanked her and asked what her sign said. She had put it down to come to our aid. She held it up for me to digest fully: “Les etudiants sont ici.” Her name is Lia.
I was about to write, her name was Lia. I checked up on her a couple weeks ago, a couple weeks before Venus becomes visible on the horizon in the early morning. She has cut most of her hair off, and in the photo I saw she wears a long, grey suit. Her cheek is sticking to the cheek of a guy with a bald head wearing a matching suit. She does not look particularly happy, but Helen estimated her current salary at a hedge fund. It is substantial.
From her Instagram I learned Montezuma died a few years ago. He was a Pomerian with a sinister face. He enjoyed soft pets and pressing his face up against the window for his mistress to return.
Lia would come out drinking with the professor. Afterwards, her boyfriend Mickael would come from the library and pick her up and they walked the dog together. (He was a much more conscientious student than I. His father owned several oil rigs in a very unspoiled region of the Arctic, and Mickael was very ashamed of this fact, a lot more than he ought to have been.)
When Lia did not come with us, we usually went to the grad student bar. It was dirt cheap to drink there, and there were plenty of women to make me forget about Lia and her boyfriend who resembled a grown up Peter Pan. At first the professor was encouraging, until one night he saw Lia and Mickael stroll off together. He said I should forget it, that there was no point in running up the hill. “These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.” I think that was when I started hating Robert Lowell.
The professor understood why I wanted Lia, and he heard about it plenty in class. My writing almost exclusively surrounded the idea of her, how we were to be inseparable in the long world. Helen was also sympathetic to my plight. We ran into Lia at a reading for a novelist who later gave up writing all together. She took to Helen immediately, and Helen to her. But later, when I talked it over with Helen, she wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. “You seemed to be getting along wonderfully,” I observed.
“It happens more often than you think,” she said, twisting the end of her long brown hair. “There is this type of person whose self-image is foundationally based on being able to make a new best friend in a single evening.”
I said I did not think that was possible. A friendship grew over time.
“I’m sure it is, for some people. But say you saw God every day. Would you still be overwhelmed with joy when you saw him? On some level, you would be thinking, why is he here?” I forgot to mention Helen was a Christian. She isn’t anymore. She did have this favorite passage from the Bible. It was about Moses. He was complaining to the heavens about what a monstrous burden was placed on his shoulder. So God told him to collect seventy of his village’s elders in a tent. Moses did it, and God enlightened them.
A few of the elders didn’t make it to the tent, and were prophesying in the camp. Moses’ personal assistant asked Moses to stop them, and he responded, “Are you jealous on my behalf?”
Helen and Lia continued hanging out anyway. I know I shouldn’t have asked Helen what Lia said about me, but Helen told me and never held it against me. Helen comes from a large family in Colorado — her mother had eight kids. That gives a person training in equanimity that money and time could not acquire.
The professor asked me to stay after class one day that spring. It had happened, he said excitedly. She’s taking me back. I pretended to be enthusiastic as I could, but the truth is that I was sad for myself and sad for him. I was sad for myself because I feared having to aggregate my loneliness, and sad for him because I knew his reunion with his wife would not, could not last. The bottle had him.
I did not see much of my professor after that, but I still sent him my poems, and he always marked them up and put them in my box in the department office. He was a sweet man. He killed himself a few years ago, and I was upset when I read it in a blast from the university. I knew I was powerless to help him while I was there, and afterwards. In fact it was surprising to me he lasted as long as he did.
Lia had gone for the semester abroad. I missed her but secretly hoped the time away from her boyfriend would end up profiting me. I was right in that, but the Lia who returned to campus that fall was sullen and endangered. She had missed her dog and me, she said, turning over her red lips in a way that was both unforgivable and completely forgivable.
Well I have thought a lot about forgiveness these past few years. Helen said something to me about it that I continue to think about now, today. She said I was always giving it when it had not been asked, and asking for it when it was not required. I think maybe this is just an awkward compliment, but it worries me.
Lia and I got together after that. She began to adopt her ex-boyfriend’s schedule, now that he was dating a columnist for the college newspaper whose father was an ambassador to some middling country. Mickael did his studying at the newspaper office, and Lia and I took over the library. Touching each other between the carrels is a most certain thrill. “Lights turned down, they lay together hull-to-hull.” She had the coldest breath, the most cavalier looks, a set of them. Her chest rising and falling before she woke. The dress fell nearly to her ankles. If others saw what was under it, she might not be mine.
Helen told me later how angry she was. I admit I have little compassion for that, because she never said how she felt. I think Lia knew Helen’s view of me, and perhaps everyone did. I look back at the photographs of myself from that time with a guarded, selfish thrill. I am done with metaphors, even though they are necessary in writing, even though they are writing. Lia was Venus aloft, but I was the horizon.
When we were out with the professor, the previous year, Lia spoke to him sometimes as if I weren’t there. I loved this way of showing off her powers, and it constitutes a source of excitement for me, because it is both a fantasy and fear we all have that we are not really there. Lia felt bad, she told me, but she did not only want to be there for me, because then she would not have been among friends in her heart.
Helen stopped speaking to me once she found about me and Lia. I did press the issue once, showing up at her place of work. I waited in the parking lot until she had a break. The expression on her face I remember so well, even now in the long world. It said everything, that cresting disappointment that someone else has not worked as hard as you have to become self-aware.
Will Menlen is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages.
Paintings by Ellen Priest.
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