A Friday Desdemona
Othello is holding a dime-store mirror up over their heads, so she can see herself as he plunges. —Look, dear. Sweeting. Look.
It is full-length. He holds it up with one arm, the other under and around her white body.
He’d like to touch the skin in the mirror.
He has a virgin again. He will play the Moor far better tonight.
The darkness turns inside out, flame-sideways-upside. This is heart medicine. My love, are we dying?
—Would you like to wear this? He holds a white woven robe, fit for a death scene.
I’m not a star-fucker. I’m a girl who makes him pay attention. I’m white and large-thighed. I’m new passion. I’m cougar-eyed just like him. I’m desperate for peace. I’m a lover, not a warrior. I’m courageous. I’m rain. I’m a liberal. I’m not my mother.
—Look at yourself, Sweeting.
Later he says —Would you be my Friday date? Every Friday, come here. He strokes her like a rabbit.
But she wants more.
Later he says —Don’t ask for the impossible. Later he says —Hit me if you want to.
The stairs smell of cat piss. Homeless piss. He’s on the third floor. The door is the color of rust. It has a heavy iron bolt, which he opens.
Uptown is my mother. I think she wants him. It enrages me. But I believe in peace.
I keep The Times’s theatre section, with his pictures. She’s always looking at them.
Downtown, there’s a man crouching against a car, leaning with his cardboard sign that says: I am hungry. I am hungry. I am hungry. Until he runs out of space. I want to save him. And I’m afraid of him.
Further downtown, up the fetid stairs and behind the bolted door, Othello lays me down. I’m his sheet; for his brown marble skin. I’m spilled white.
And if I love thee not, chaos is come again.
Until we run out of time.
He has to go.
Now he doesn’t need a mirror. Now he can teach her.
But the silly girl wants love.
He’s playing a warrior. A killing machine. Othello. A soldier. He keeps that in mind. He can never stop thinking. But he can’t stop thinking about her, either. Her fire, her rain, her pale peach lace. He is jealous of that. Only that.
The distinction between war and loss will be blurred to the vanishing point. She wants to hold him back. His will to kill. His murder of what is not her. There are no definable battlefields or fronts. Just a large bed behind a bolted door and his collected Shakespeare, his scripts stacked up for a headboard. And her. A child who holds the warrior’s huge hand by the fingertips. This man has a shield and she wants to break it. Pierce it. He closes his eyes.
A pungent Lower East Side fume attacks, where she walks back out into the furnace of a July afternoon. She sees herself in every window, a girl who’s just been had by a great man. She whispers —I cannot understand the darkness of you. But a street can’t answer.
She tries on Saint Joan’s armor. A dress. A Friday date. It does not fit. She’s only a student. Light your fire, do you think I dread it as much as the life of a rat in a hole? You promised me my life but you lied!
—Why won’t you let it work? I’m your lover. I’m not a warrior. I’m real, she’s shouting.
—Hit me if you want to. He says it again.
When he first saw her, she was white flesh and too young, but he loved what he saw. The ghost-eyed courage. She was playing Saint Joan. Light your fire, her legs planted, sixteen summers urgent, theatre pounding down between her thighs.
A great actor plays his Othello again and again, in different seasons of his life. He waited. An artist can wait for his inspirations. Everything in its time.
And then, a few weeks of coupling, and that was enough. He would remember her when he needed to, when the actress in his arms was too pale. When he was alone, and she had no name. That, he liked.
He’s an enormous man in the director’s row; he holds me pinioned with an ice-cougar gaze like claws on my nipples. He wants to touch where I am not revealed.
He waits until I am of age. Then we lie as though it were a fact. No mention of love allowed, in his Bowery room, three flights up from the bridge, to hold his shoulders which are museum marble. Which are smooth. To hold his beard as if I could tear it out.
—You are war. A man who does not even sweat. He holds a mirror up over our parallel bodies like Atlas holding the globe with one arm.
A Friday date.
Inevitably, she loves. Inevitably, he won’t. Peace and war and loss.
—Honey, don’t count on me. Don’t wait for a promise. It won’t come.
War. I’m Desdemona in a shroud. I cling to the black marble of the actor’s arms. The Moor’s arms. How quiet the quiet is, in a city of loss. I have a useless heart. I’m ready for just about anything. Sex. Hostility. God. He is a killing machine. He refuses to lie.
New York City devours me like the last frontier buffalo’s entrails. A sacrifice. I shout as I march until blisters swell and ooze into my boot leather. I’m hating how we had a very quiet war and never loved. I kept a calendar of how many times he had me. Put my skin in his earth. In his teeth. Finer than Olivier, more surprising than Wells. Love’s deus ex machina, and vengeance, its inexorable script. Scripts askew behind the mattress, stacked with all his reviews, stapled. Pills for being too human. Raves for being the Classics’ modern mister. I’m your solitary fantasy, right here in your bed. Look at me! Curtain up and curtain down. I loved how you killed me, with your socks still on. It all only lasted what? A couple of weeks. A pebble in a machine, a war that kept on killing. Its wheel, huge.
I always thought it was my mother. How she flounced, when he called. I thought she read my calendar, my tiny white diaries on hot summer mornings in my closed blue-papered bedroom, and that she called him up and said —You stay away. Understand, Othello, our girl has a future. My armchair-liberal mother wanted a safe white daughter, that summer when dark James Chaney was strung from his Mississippi oak.
Under a canopy of gauze, you bring out the hip-grinding jazz. The Robeson recordings, a singing riverine bass note, even deeper than yours. Bring out a caftan for a queen. Blackberry wine, after the mirror, and before you send me back to my mother. My mother’s copy of John Brown’s Body high on her bookshelf, her prized portrait of a drumming African, crooked on our foyer wall. —Like that?
There’s a candlelight march all through those summer nights, I wheel around and around the courthouse, that July, my black man who is not mine, who is the warrior of ancient Venice and is not mine, is not there. He does not defend. He does not raise his sword or word. He does not argue, does not fight for me with Black Power fists. He listens to my mother’s warning and puts out the light. Just like that.
I’m a white rain; lost, paraffin sizzling my fingernails, melting the night.
He says —Hit me if you want to. And he goes to sleep.
I’m not a warrior. I’m tired. I’m a buffalo. I’m the sacrifice. No, of course that’s not it. I light a new candle under my dead mother’s photograph. The paper catches fire and I have to douse it. In the crimson light I’m stabbing at forgiving her, like a slimed fish, but its eyes are open, seeing me.
I read his book.
In the window next to an ice cream store and passing by a vat of the fudge marblebrickle, I see his famous face. You, on a publisher’s cover. Brightened. Blurred. If I get in touch what will he do? He’ll send me a daisy. A caftan. I pass ten broken telephones. He’ll go . . . Sweeting, see how beautiful you are? Thank you for wearing silk. And thank you for removing it. A hunter’s orange grin. A warrior’s red basso. My mother definitely wanted him.
There’s one reunion, in his bed, after my divorce. I whisper —Help? Please? Couldn’t you help me to shine, too?
—You know we’re family, honey. The first is always family, he says, cello-voiced. Renowned. The best Othello since . . .
A collection of bottled and capped sentinels lines up on his kitchen counter in a wooded upstate canyon. He is huge. More huge than before. He pops something yellow and small and dizzying under my nose in the sweet darkness, and surrounds me. More giant than before.
The darkness turns inside out, drugged shadows, burning, flame sideways-upside, once again. But this is heart medicine. Are we dying?
—Would you like to wear this? He holds a white woven robe fit for a death scene. —Can you only love a Desdemona? I finally punch at the black marble that can’t break. Nothing in him breaks. A star. Who does not mind guns. I punch. He doesn’t shatter at all. My tight white knuckles hit. Go on, hit. Hate. Be a warrior, woman. Lovers do not last.
The girl makes him feel too old. He sends her off with a white caftan tucked into her purse for a present. The best he can give.
I have no eyes. I have no body. It is the quality of having power to be loved. It is something that men need from women and that they do not get. It is the cause, Othello: So put out the lights.
I’m wearing peach lace pants. At the fountain near the Plaza Hotel. I like how the air slips between my loose high-polished legs. Men notice my leather skirt. With snaps. From Rome. It flaps as I walk. My knees show, silken. I speed-walk to hard and crazy tubas. Loud. I zoom like a blowfly. I dig deep in my pocket for a snippet of string to tie around a rusted rod of a tall iron fence to proclaim that I was here. Because of that slide, there, I skinned my knee and needed iodine. See? I lived at number eight with the red canopy. Right over there. My mother wanted my black Othello. My skinned right knee hurts. I am a grey stone, in the middle of Fifth Avenue, all the telephones are broken.
I knock on your new uptown door. I’m a detective. I found you. And you peer out at me through Venetian blinds, holding a hammer.
—Nothing, I say. Just hello. And I hold our gaze through the slats. You remember too, but not exactly my name. I have no name for you. Damn. I can tell.
—I was just walking, and I needed you.
—Of course you did. Basso fame, old Shakespearean chuckling. Unlatching the chain, grudgingly. An old man’s gamble.
You really cannot think what to call me.
—Do you want to come in?
—I’m okay, Luke. You’re startled by the use of your first name; no one ever uses it. Hey, cougar. I’m prowling. I’m out checking my fence posts. I extend my hand. Press his flesh.
A sound like an old warship moving metal through ice. You’re going to like me, soldier.
But I turn on one runner’s toe and bound away, Olympian, through the open window. A blowfly. A gadfly.
Brava. This was courage.
You don’t applaud or call after me. But I feel your innuendo lifting my hair. I turn back and wave once, without commitment, like a baby to a rich relation.
I begin counting men with puma eyes. Wars.
I want to sign my name on black marble like a veteran.
I declare war on peace and happiness. Its chronic blur. On peace.
Margo Berdeshevsky has published a poetry collection, But a Passage in Wilderness (Sheep Meadow Press, 2007), and two books are forthcoming: a novel, Vagrant (Red Hen Press), and a volume of illustrated short tales, Beautiful Soon Enough (Fiction Collective Two). The latter, which will include “A Friday Desdemona,” won the FC2 Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Chelsea Award, and Kalliope’s Sue Saniel Elkind Award. A Tsunami Notebook of her documentary photographs and poems—made after work at a survivors’ clinic in Aceh, Sumatra, in spring 2005—is available online. Berdeshevsky currently lives in Paris. (10/2008)